What My Runny Nose Taught Me About France

Posted on February 4th, 2012 by

I learned something about France today that hadn’t hit me before.  I have been suffering from a cold for about three days, and my host parents asked me right away if I needed to go to the doctor, or the pharmacy.  I was more shocked than I let on.  Doctor?  I’m an American—in my country, we make sure we’re good and dead before we go to the doctor!

It’s a cold, I’ll get over it, I thought.  Drink more water, some orange juice, and get some extra sleep for a couple nights, and I’ll be just fine.  The best medicine in life is not having a doctor’s bill, right?  But I sneezed for most of the day, and tonight at supper, complained a bit of tiredness.  I also admitted that all I had wanted to do during my classes was curl up in my bed and read Harry Potter (in French, of course).

Concerned about my health, my host parents asked again about going to the doctor, or at least the pharmacy.  I still didn’t really consider it.  But then my host father told me that in France, they spend a lot of money on health, but it’s a question of staying healthy, and helping ensure others do to.  My host mother explained that at work today, her boss had been coughing, and kept telling her, ‘I hope I don’t give you my germs!’

And then I got it.  It wasn’t about the challenge of whether or not my body could handle the common cold, or rhume as it is called in French.  It was about respect.  I don’t mean to say that my host parents were subtly accusing me of getting them sick; my host mother explained that she just didn’t want me to stay ill, and have it get worse.  However, their advice also hinted at a tradition of duty.  I don’t think many Americans think of staying healthy as a responsibility to others, but in France, health is a social as well as a personal responsibility.

So, I changed my mind, ran over to the pharmacy a block away from our house, and picked up some cold medicine and nasal spray.  As I walked away from the green neon lights that mark French pharmacies, I felt that in some odd way, I was participating in French culture by choosing to take care of myself sooner than I usually would back home.

I’m not saying that it’s normal and polite to sneeze on people in the United States, and I actually have been to the doctor for something less dramatic than death.  But France views health differently than we do in the United States.  I’ve always known this, because I knew about their health care system.  In France, doctor visits are much cheaper than in the U.S.  One of their problems is that the system encourages people to go too often.  If it’s serious enough, and you’re a human being, you get in before any questions are asked.  Admittedly, this has lead to a fair amount of debt, and people are now encouraged to go to the pharmacy before the doctor (which has plenty of non-prescription solutions as well).

This system, free from many of the personal expenses and frustrations Americans experience, didn’t come from nowhere.  At the heart of sweeping policy differences like health care systems are the comments from a couple in Nantes, and the apologies of a Frenchman who is coughing.  Today, I learned that in France, health is a common good.  As much as I’ve studied the country and admired their health care from a distance, I didn’t realize that until my host parents asked me if I needed something for my cold.



  1. Anna Le Constant says:

    That’s very, very, very true Eric :)

  2. Eric Halvorson says:

    I’m glad you think so! Does this mean I finally understand our section on French healthcare during which you presented in our class? :-)