A warning: This is going to be a long one.
A promise: It’s worth it.
I’ve got a bloody weird story to tell you, and I simply couldn’t do it justice without the word count. I don’t mind if you want to go pop the kettle on and come back in five. Get a drink. Find a snack. Make yourself comfortable.
Ready? Good. Down the rabbit hole we go.
So despite making social security payments for a total of 1 year and 8 months now, I STILL do not have a permanent social security number in France. After I submitted approximately 4,287 substantiating documents last May, the CPAM sent me a temporary number, in a letter that assured me the permanent version would follow shortly. That was about a year ago. I’ve sent a few letters, each one
ruder more impatient than the last, but you can’t email them (unless you’re already registered on the system – don’t get me started on that) and the idea of calling french institutions fills me with anxious dread. Actually, the idea of having any telephone conversation in french does – I find it infinitely more difficult to follow what’s being said when I can’t see the speaker’s mouth moving. So I didn’t call, and they didn’t write back to me.
My company finally came to my aid, though, and someone from French HR made the call on my behalf. What they’d declined to mention in the letter containing my temporary number was that, in order to obtain the permanent version, I needed to send another copy of my birth certificate – they didn’t bother to explain why – and a completed form showing my registration with a doctor of my choice (normally, you register with an individual and not with a practice in France). I’d actually been holding off on registering until I got my permanent social security number, but I should have realised that I was being far too logical for the french bureaucratic system.
It turned out I had to make a full appointment in order to register with my doctor, which was a bit annoying, but I discovered a great website called Doctolib where you can get all the important information about doctors in your area and – most importantly – you can book your appointment online! Not one french word spoken over the phone. I was delighted.
The day of my appointment arrived and I made my way to the address I’d been emailed (by Doctolib), straight from work. It was right around the corner from my apartment – I actually knew the road – so I wasn’t anticipating any trouble finding the place. The email containing the address also featured some useful instructions: namely that I needed to take staircase D once inside the building, and that I would find the doctor’s office on the second floor, to my left. I was also advised to look for “Docteur —” (I won’t feature her name here, but it was in the email) on the interphone, although this seemed pretty obvious.
Armed with my comprehensive instructions, I strode along the street to the correct building, stopping in front of an entrance of thick, elaborately twisted wrought iron, overlaying large, glass double doors. There was no question as to whether I had the right address: a shiny plaque next to the doors confirmed that I would find my doctor here. Beneath the plaque, there was a digicode panel, exactly like the one outside the building I live in. Kind of strange, because the email had referred to an interphone… but this definitely didn’t look like you could call anyone on it. And as for the reference to selecting my doctor’s name – you know, the bit of information that had seemed so obvious as to be unnecessary? Well there wasn’t a screen, or any words anywhere on the panel at all for that matter. Just the numbers 1-9 and the letters A and B.
I checked the email again and as I’d thought, there was absolutely no code given. So I did the only sensible thing to do in such a situation, and started pressing buttons at random, pulling and pushing at these huge, ornate doors whilst I did so. Did I mention it was raining? Rather hard. None of the numbers (or letters) yielded any results, but eventually, I pressed desperately on what I had thought was a very small screw at the top of the panel and, you guessed it, it was actually a button. The doors clicked and this time, I succeeded in heaving one open.
Scurrying in from the rain, I found myself in a dark, circular entrée with a tiled mosaic floor. Either side of the entrance, there were what appeared to be long mirrors, split into smaller square panels by a dark wooden frame. Closer inspection showed a low handle set on each of the two ‘mirrors’; they were actually narrow doors. On the opposite side of the room were two more doors, the right-hand one marked “Loge” and the other bearing a small printed sign that simply read “Cabinet”. Presuming the “Cabinet” in question to be the doctor’s surgery, I took the door to the left… and passed into a small, dimly-lit corridor with rough, whitewashed stone walls.
I followed the gentle curve of the short corridor, only to find my path obstructed by yet another door – with another digicode panel, very similar to the first. This one had a sign next to it, explaining that you had to PULL the door, AFTER calling on the intercom. However, as with the external panel, there was no screen, or any other means of choosing a name to call on the intercom for that matter – just the numbers (and two letters) again, and a blank circular button at the bottom. I tried the circular button and had a go at the door just in case – but of course, nothing happened. There wasn’t even a magic button-masquerading-as-a-screw this time. Shaking my head at the ridiculousness of being thwarted not once, but twice by locked doors on my quest to get to the damned doctor’s surgery, I pressed a few buttons and yanked the door several more times. Nothing. I even tried punching in the doctor’s phone number, which I had in my confirmation email (you have to love technology), though without optimism. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work either.
Stumped, I started back the way I’d come, returning to the entrance hall, and had another look at the door marked “Loge”, and then at the two mirrored ones. No, I was fairly sure it wasn’t any of those. Back down the stone corridor I marched. There was another set of double doors set into the corridor wall on one side – I’d ignored them before because they had no door handles, or anything else, actually, to indicate they could be opened from the side on which I stood. I could hear muffled voices speaking softly on the other side and briefly considered knocking, but quickly decided against it. Goodness knows who was on the other side, but my
intense fear of awkward situations instincts insisted that it wasn’t the doctor.
Back to the locked door, then. Perplexed, I cast another look around the corridor – and noticed something scrawled in pencil on the wall next to the door, just above knee height. I bent down for a better look and almost shouted out in victory: a code! Five numbers and the letter B – just the right composition for a digicode. Triumphantly, I punched the combination into the code panel. And… nothing. I tried again, switching what I’d read as a 9 for a 4 (the handwriting wasn’t great). Still no luck.
Now, I explained to you a little earlier just how much I despise speaking in French on the phone. But desperate times call for desperate measures. So I got my mobile out and I dialled the doctor’s number – handily provided in the email that was starting to seem an awful lot less helpful than I’d initially taken it to be. The whole glorious advantage of Doctolib had now been wholly defeated, but time was ticking and I was not missing this appointment over a stupid digicode.
A woman answered my call, and I proceeded to explain my plight. She was very friendly (and mercifully easy to understand) but seemed a little confused; she wanted to know if I was in the right building because, she said, I shouldn’t need any code to get in to see the doctor. I confirmed that I definitely was in the right place, referencing the plaque next to the original entrance door. Clearly baffled, the woman asked me to wait whilst she spoke to the doctor and moments later, another female voice – much brusquer than the one on the phone – crackled through the intercom, informing me that she would now open the door for me. There was a quiet buzz and I was finally, finally in.
But not to the doctor’s office. Oh no. Rounding a corner past a set of letterboxes (none of which featured my doctor’s name), I now found myself on a sort of low balcony with white stone balustrades, overlooking a rather messy courtyard. There were three or four doors – entrances to different buildings – at various points around the perimeter of the courtyard, and an metal staircase to my right. I couldn’t see any indication that this was Staircase D, and it wasn’t at all what I’d had in mind (it looked more like service access than anything else), but none of the doors on offer seemed to be marked out as leading to a doctor’s surgery. And besides, I felt I’d much rather take my chances with the stairs before I started wrestling with obstinate doors again. So I started climbing, muttering under my breath about the ridiculousness of it all as I went. With every step, I felt more sure that this was absolutely not Staircase D, and by the time I’d ascended a flight and a half, I’d made up my mind to take my chances with the bloody doors. Back down I went, thanking my lucky stars I’d decided to leave a bit earlier than (I had thought) strictly necessary to make the appointment on time.
Back in the centre of the courtyard, I paused for a moment, trying to decide which completely nondescript door to try my luck with first. A (very) small, white rectangle of paper in the glass pane of one of them made the choice for me. It probably wasn’t a sign, or anything remotely helpful, but it was the only thing marking that entrance out from the others. Seemed as good a place as any to start.
For the first time in this whole debacle, luck was finally on my side. The piece of paper did not in fact indicate that this was the doctor’s office – but a tiny plaque next to it did. And, would you believe it, the door WASN’T LOCKED. Progress, finally.
Pushing open the door, I was first struck by the smell of the building. It was exactly like stepping into a National Trust property, the air thick with that sort of warm, somehow sweet, dusty smell that old stately homes and libraries (or libraries in old stately homes) have. It’s a smell I’m very fond of personally, and it immediately made me feel a little calmer. My surroundings matched their scent nicely, too. I was in a small entrée with a wooden floor and wood-panelled walls, a (wooden) staircase in front of me. The whole space was almost unnaturally quiet, but in a way that was peaceful rather than unnerving. My improved luck continuing, the staircase was clearly marked “Escalier D”. I started to climb.
Two stories of more beautiful wood panelling later, I arrived on a minuscule landing with a door at either end and a low bench in the middle. The email had told me I wanted the door on the left, but it needn’t have bothered: a large brass plaque was displayed prominently, bearing the doctor’s name and the instruction to ring the bell and enter. Despite the clear direction, I hesitated. What if the doctor’s room was just on the other side of the door? What if she had a patient? I didn’t want to go barging in rudely… maybe I’d misunderstood the sign. But there didn’t seem to be any other way to announce my arrival. So I rang the bell, jumped as a loud, old-fashioned trill broke the hushed silence, and then twisted a large brass disc (too flat to be described as a door knob) beneath the plaque, tentatively pushing the door to reveal whatever room lay behind.
A waiting room, thankfully. I’d been wondering if the bench in the hallway served that purpose, but apparently not. The softly-lit, square room was edged with more low benches, these ones scattered with plush cushions in various shades of cream and beige. It was a far cry from an NHS waiting room (actually, the whole experience couldn’t have been further-removed from a visit to a UK GP surgery), the seating, lighting and general ambiance more reminiscent of a massage parlour than anything else. The only thing missing was the soothing music. Panpipes would have seemed appropriate.
There was a closed door at the opposite end of the room, but this one didn’t feature any commands for entry, so I just stood hesitantly in the middle of the benches, wondering what to do next. I didn’t have to wait long, thankfully: the other door opened, and the doctor emerged, briskly instructing me to deposit my (dripping) umbrella in the stand to my left, by way of greeting. I did as I was told and followed her into the smallest, most cluttered “office” I’ve ever seen. Bright yellow walls lent the room a mildly claustrophobic sense – not to mention the fact that it was dominated by a vastly over-sized mahogany desk that looked like it probably weighed more than a small car. I closed the office door behind me, and sat across from the doctor, on a chair far too low for the desk that made me feel somewhat like a small child called into the headteacher’s office. The woman’s stern demeanour only compounded this impression. I clasped my hands nervously on my lap and waited to be addressed.
About ten minutes later, after answering a series of personal questions, (some of which seemed more relevant to my health and wellbeing than others) I had my registration form signed and stamped and I was good to go. I didn’t even have to pay, which, for my English readers, might sound like a bit of a no-brainer, but I had been resolutely assured by several French people that I most certainly would, and I’d sadly resigned myself to parting with the standard 25€ appointment fee. So when the doctor waved my purse back into my bag because she wouldn’t charge “just for that”, I was pretty pleased. It’s basically free money in my book, when you unexpectedly avoid a payment you’d already made in your head. Having actually found my way to the damn thing, this appointment had turned out to not be such a disaster after all. And now I was done. Success! I got up, thanked the doctor, and opened the door to leave.
I wasn’t looking into the rather “Zen” waiting room I’d entered through.
I was looking straight at another door. Right behind the one I’d just opened.
I blinked a couple of times, staring stupidly at the closed door immediately in front of me, still holding the one I’d just opened. It had been me who’d closed the door on my way in to the office.
THERE HAD ONLY BEEN ONE.
By this point I was starting to wonder if someone had spiked the espresso at work. Surely, this was either a very vivid trip, or I’d tumbled straight into the pages of Lewis Carroll’s finest work, morphing into Alice by the sheer force of my obsession with all things Wonderland. I kid you not, I was even wearing a calf-length, full-bodied, blue skirt. Its first outing, no less; maybe I’ll think twice before donning it a second time.
The doctor simply said “oh yes, there are two doors”, in French, like this was a perfectly normal state of affairs. I gave a short, forced (and probably borderline-hysterical) laugh – what an idiot I am, of course there were two – and hurriedly opened the second door. Thankfully, there was not a third.
That’s not even the end. Exiting back into the waiting area, I collected my umbrella and crossed the room to leave. Only, now I found myself confronted once again by a second door I didn’t remember seeing on my way in. This time, the two doors were side-by-side, both closed. I thought I had come in via the right-hand option, but it had several bolts on it and no obvious handle – the plain door (featuring a handle) on the left seemed a more likely option. Hoping once again that I wasn’t about to barge in on someone’s appointment, I pulled the left-hand door open just far enough to peek inside.
It seemed to be some kind of supply cupboard-meets-toilet, and was most definitely not the way I had come in. So I quickly closed it again, and turned my attention to the only alternative means of escape – the bolted door – sighing. Loudly. Here we go again.
I started by tugging a small metal box where the handle ought to have been; it looked like the sort of thing you’d expect to have a lock on it, only it didn’t. Unsurprisingly, brute force didn’t get me anywhere. Not to be deterred by failure, or common sense, I proceeded in the same fashion (and equally fruitlessly) with the two other, similar boxes on the door, then had a go at pushing, pulling and wiggling everything on the damn door that in any way stuck out from the unyielding wood. Nothing.
Stepping back, I stood with my hands on my hips and surveyed my obstacle. I was starting to get a little anxious at this point. I absolutely should have just gone and knocked on the doctor’s door for help, but there and then, the prospect seemed impossibly embarrassing. People must come to, and subsequently leave this place all the time. Why was it proving such a challenge for me?* And, in fact, not only could I not bring myself to go and admit my plight to my doctor – I actually felt as if I was operating under the pressure of some kind of strict time limit, whereby I had to escape before she left her office and discovered my total inability to operate any of the doors in this strange place. The promise of impending mortification is a powerful thing. I started to sweat.
With increasing desperation, I resumed my futile assail on the door’s various appendages. I was now swearing in both English and French, which is when you know it’s serious. How was ANYONE supposed to open this FU- oh. There it is.
Now, I know that hindsight often makes fools of us, but I am happy (in a bitter, twisted sort of way) to report that the way to opening this bloody door was in no way obvious or logical. There was a tiny catch (which I’m sure I must have had a go at several times already) to the side of one of those weird, metal, lockless boxes – this one planted squarely in the middle of the door – and if you pulled it just so, it tugged at a bizarre jointed latch mechanism which stretched across from that box to the one where the door handle ought to have been. And whatever the latch mechanism pulled on, opened the door.
I could not get out of there fast enough.
Down the stairs (practically taking them two at a time – to hell with the peaceful hush and the nice-smelling wood), out of the building and into the courtyard, up onto the balcony-thing with the balustrades, around the corner, along the white stone corridor, into the circular entrée, and out past the wrought iron doors. Onto the safely nondescript street beyond. I paused on the pavement, looking back at the innocuous-looking building I’d just emerged from, and shook my head. Bloody hell. I will be doing my damndest not to get sick any time in the vaguely foreseeable future, I can tell you that.
*That is a rhetorical question and I do not require a response. Thank you.