My Wife Develops a Nasty Cough

Click  here to see a slide show. The next day began in the same way, with a visit to the beach. Even though it was only our second day in Calvi, it now felt like every day began this way and always would.

The only notable events were an acquisition and a small crime. The acquisition was of a pair of flip-flops that, miraculously, fit me (I wear a size 15) and made me ridiculously happy. To go from a sneakered foot to a flip-flop feels like admittance into a club from which you have been long excluded, the breezy club of carefree beach world.

My crime came a few hours later and involved those same flip-flops. It was the end of another sojourn on the beach. We had walked a bit farther out from our normal spot (the place we went to the day before, which, as I said, now felt like we’d been going there forever), and landed in a set of chairs and a cafe that was a bit more pricey than the rest of the beach. We balked at the 25 euro price tag for a salade niçoise. Not long after, as we stood to leave, I grabbed my new flip-flops and clapped them together a few times.

At about the third clap, I became aware of a bloodshot eye, just opened, gazing at me. A heavy man with a thin mustache and a gold chain around his neck was lying face down on his chaise, asleep until a moment ago, and from the look of that eye, still working through a hangover. He gazed at me with a look of eternal contempt and fatigue.

I had done a terrible thing to this fellow traveler. He had dragged himself at great expense and effort to this quiet, exclusive patch of beach in Calvi in order to have his post-lunch nap in peace, only to have it interrupted by some gigantic infant American clapping his flip-flops together like they were new toys or musical instruments. The bloodshot eye closed, his head turned and descended to its pillow.

I slunk off down the beach thinking: “Well, that’s the beach! Some sand will always get in the sandwich sooner or later, and some infant will start making noise and ruin your nap.” But this didn’t make me feel much better as it put me in the role of the infant. I had just now become a husband. The categories are supposed to be different.

That afternoon, we took our first foray into the Balagne region of Corsica, of which Calvi is the capital. We drove up into the mountains in search of one of the tiny rustic towns that dot the mountains. We found one. By then, Elizabeth’s cough had gotten worse. I stopped at a pharmacy and waited behind a very lean French soldier as his prescription was filled. I returned to the car with some French cough medicine.

The next town was higher up and tiny. We arrived at that late afternoon hour when the townsmen are engaged in an animated game of boules, which I very much wanted to photograph. But this was a tiny town. I sensed the majority of the male population was present, and you can’t just roll into people’s lives and start taking pictures as if you were at the zoo.

We watched the spirited game. It ended in cheers and laughter, and then we made our way up the steep road to the town square. It featured a monument to fallen soldiers in World War I, and it had some pretty buildings and a church spire on which the sun fell in a nice way. It also had a view. Nice, but not too remarkable. The one remarkable feature of this town, in my opinion, was the phone booth that sat on the tiny promenade overlooking the view. If someone is compiling a list of phone booths with pretty views, this one should be included.

At this point, Elizabeth’s cough was persisting into the realm of a problem. Or, to be honest, it had been a problem for a while, but it now became one that I couldn’t ignore, and in realizing I could no longer ignore it, I had to come to terms with the fact that I had been ignoring it.

It was a Saturday evening, and the woman behind the desk at the Grand Hotel advised us that getting a doctor would be very difficult. We were better off going to a place that she described as, “Not a hospital, but like a hospital.”

It was a small building with mirror glass doors and a little driveway. A few sullen men stood or sat outside, waiting for news. Inside, the bright white lights identified the medical nature of the place. I performed a great deal of miming of coughing, sore throat, etc., to go along with our rudimentary French. We had restaurant French, bonjour French, bon voyage French, but the requirement here was for infirmary French, which we did not possess. They told us to come back in an hour.

We had a pleasant dinner by the marina, during which I heard one of the few words of English, and the only American accent, of the entire trip—a kid singing, over and over, “We all live in the brown submarine, the brown submarine, the brown submarine.”

He was very annoying. But his family vanished shortly after we arrived. I’m sure there were many annoying things said all around us on the beach and in restaurants and so forth, but, in our English cocoon, we were immune. I thought of a line Gertrude Stein said about living in Paris, “I like to be alone with my English.” But of course she meant that no one else around her spoke it, rather than her not understanding what anyone around her was saying.

Then we were back in the infirmary. No one else was there. We sat in the fluorescent lights, waiting. It wasn’t too bad, but there was one rather sad detail: a tiny chair with a little smiley face on it. Eventually, I fished a children’s picture book out of a bin, which we read to each other. It featured a porcupine named Odilon, whom none of the other animals wanted to play with, but then he found a turtle with whom he made friends, and they were happy.

We were admitted. Three women, two in white smocks and one in green scrubs head to toe, older, black-haired, and gruff. I had come to understand that this service, this white room with its examining table covered in sterile white paper, was courtesy of the city of Calvi. The famously egalitarian French health-care system was at our service. Was the doctor expressing ironic disapproval that the freedom-fry-eating American couple was making use of it at 10:30 in the evening?

The examination began. The doctor posed questions, which I did my best to answer, even though Elizabeth speaks better French. She lay there, and I worried for her pink toes as they took her temperature, blood pressure, and the doctor made her breathe deep as she pressed a stethoscope to Elizabeth’s chest and then back and listened to her lungs.

Questions were asked. It took a while to understand what was being asked, but finally I figured out that they were asking if we had been camping.

“No!” I cried. “Not camping. We’re staying at the Grand Hotel!” There was this weird mixture of pride and anxiety in my voice, and for the first time the mood lightened and the nurses laughed and even the doctor smiled at this defensive display of pride, which, perhaps, was a bit French in itself. The doctor diagnosed the cough as an allergy. A white pill was produced, and we were sent on our way. I took out my wallet and was waved off and given a piece of paper and told to come back Monday to pay a little something.

I tried to explain we would be gone by Monday, but it was no use, and we walked back to the hotel in a weirdly intimate mood, as though seeing her on an examining table with a stethoscope pressed to her back was a new experience, which in fact it was. Maybe the new thing was my expressing concern for her health in this way, instead of the slightly grudging sigh emitted when she asked that we come down from the mountain village because she wasn’t feeling well.

We walked back to the hotel in the cool night. Her cough had almost immediately disappeared.