Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Are you diseased? Les fexams

Today's adventure in France was getting my residency stamp that finalizes my long-stay visa. This last hurdle to living this academic year in France included driving to Nantes and passing a medical exam.

I'm not a big fan of medical exams under any circumstances, but this one required me to be alone with a healthcare professional I would have trouble communicating with and who would be judging whether or not I was healthy enough to remain in the country. All the way to Nantes I kept telling myself that everything was going to be fine. I don't have any communicable diseases or life-threatening conditions. I figured they'd take some blood, have me pee in a cup, and send me on my way.

When we arrived at the OFII, the Office of French Immigration and Integration, I learned that there was not one exam, but three of them. In the first, a radiologist took x-rays of my lungs to make sure I didn't have TB. Okay, an x-ray isn't so bad, right? But the OFII does not provide hospital gowns or lead tunics to place between your naked flesh and the x-ray machine. The tech explained to me what would happen as I stood there naked from the waist up and trying to act as if I wasn't. I blanked on all the medical vocabulary I'd tried to memorize that morning and consequently didn't understand anythings she said. When she realized I was deaf, dumb, and mute, she demonstrated breathing in and out and then shoved me gently against the x-ray machine and placed my hands on the hold bars.

No one tells you in French class that you might have to have conversations with strangers while you are (unwillingly) half naked. This is not a practical scenario for acting out the classroom. Indeed, it felt like one of those nightmares in which you have an important meeting and show up without your clothes on.

I passed the x-ray exam and was ushered into a room with another medic. She rifled through my documents (there are always lots of documents involved with the French) and looked up sharply at me saying, "Are you diseased?"


She sighed as if I was the one who'd asked the mangled question. "What is your health?"

I still wasn't sure what she wanted from me. "C'est bon. Pas problem," I said, hoping that was an adequate answer. It's good. No problem.

Big sigh followed by some box ticking on my documents. Was this a good or bad sign?

She told me to get on the exam table and checked my lymph nodes and pressed on my belly. Then she told me to sit up. She pulled a tongue depresser from her pocket and instinctively I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue. Another sigh. She grabbed my jaw in her hand and lifted my chin up. "I need to see your teeth," she said.

My teeth?

Do they not let people with bad teeth into France? I had braces. Twice. My teeth are American straight if not American white.

The third exam was the least invasive, but the worst in my mind. Madame weighed me and measured my height, tsking the entire time. When we sat down at her desk she said to me, "This is your weight?"

"Um, yeah," I said, confused. She's the one who took the measurements. I didn't even look at the scale because she'd ordered me to stand still.

She didn't seem happy. Would they deny my visa because of my weight?

"You have a doctor to assist you with this?" she asked.

"No," I said shaking my head and feeling like a child being scolded. "I've lost weight since I've been in France."

"How you do this?"

"I walk a lot and eat French food."

She scowled and wrote something on my documents.

We reviewed the number of children I had and their ages. Big sigh from the doctor when I couldn't remember how to say 1998 and 1999 in French and had to write them down.

After that, she gave me an eye exam, tsking again when I said I needed to use my glasses to see the only line of the seven I was allowed to read. My optometrist lets me go down to the next line with the bigger letters when I can't read the little ones. Why was she being so mean?

After failing the eye exam, I began to lose hope. I wondered if my good teeth might balance out my near-sightedness.

The next question was about birth control. Did I use it? This would have been funny if I wasn't so nervous about how badly I was screwing up this interview. I haven't had a child in fourteen years. Got the birth control thing covered Dr. Dread.

I thought we were wrapping up when she suddenly said to me, "Why are you in France?"

It was like she was trying to figure out if I was a spy. She must have thought I had the perfect cover as a fat, middle-aged American with good teeth and bad eyesight.

I answered as best I could. "I'm in France with my husband. He's on sabbatical doing research." What else could I say? I wasn't in the mood to explain about my writing or teaching online. I said, "I walk a lot because I need to lose weight." I was tempted to add: I will never eat another croissant again. Ever. "Yes, I promise to leave the country when my visa expires in June."

In the end, I passed all three exams and my passport now bears an official OFII stamp. What I still cannot figure out is why all of that was necessary. The biggest concern of the OFII seemed to be TB. Not once did anyone ask me or test me for an STD, mental illness, or drug abuse. I was never required to prove which vaccinations I'd had. You'd think they'd want proof I didn't have smallpox or polio since they were so concerned about the TB. And yet they checked my teeth and my eyesight. What for?

After driving back from Nantes, we had a quick lunch at a restaurant called Flunch, which my kids are convinced stands for 'f*cking lunch' because it is located in a big shopping center and was filled with harried families doing back-to-school shopping. I imagine the restaurant was founded by a young couple after a family outing like this: Enough bickering! Jacques, stop hitting your sister and, you, Madeleine, stop whining. Jesus Christ, let's get some f*cking lunch before I kill you both!

The food at Flunch wasn't bad (I had a salad Dr. Dread!). As we ate, I decided from henceforth to call the OFII medical exams 'les fexams' and to never complain again about having to wear a hospital gown, giving blood, or peeing in a cup.


  1. Poor thing! I think the biggest issue was you not being able to speak French. It's kinda like you are in France...but don't speak French... uh ok?! but way more impolite. I imagine your French is better already. Be strong, make an effort, and be confident. All the gowns, cups, etc. cost extra and this is a socialized system. Costs are cut left and right with things we would throw into the garbage brand new in the USA. However, in my city, they let us keep our shirt on! NB always wear a simple fairly thin shirt to these things! We just had to remove our bra... but I am going to ask the doctor why we have to do this each time when France is united with (by the EU) countries that bring in more TB than the US. Of course since these countries are members of the EU they don't have to undergo such exams! It's really silly and not healthy for someone who changes visas (= multiple chest x-rays in just a few years...for someone completely healthy -> harm vs. benefit) Bonne chance ! and "Are you diseased?" made me laugh out loud... i had to try to explain in French to my cheri... why it was funny (it doesn't translate that well).. fortunately his visit to the USA helped him understand...when he was brutely questioned as well! It definitely goes both ways!

    1. P.S. Never be afraid to challenge people here with a little bit of logic and thorough explanation. This is where good French comes into play. If it is too difficult, have at least someone on your team who speaks French well (and is a reasonable person!) to advocate for you! I hope you and your family are well!