The long ride from Paris to Nice was marked by beautiful views of the French countryside and a vast trepidation in anticipation of the situation I had gotten myself into. I was just 24 hours away from my first venture into a Francophone workforce. It would be no leisurely vocation but rather a trial by fire in a dechôcage unit of Nice’s largest hospital. (Translated roughly as “de-shocking,” déchôcage units are reserved for patients experiencing the most severe trauma.) For the past two days I had been able to disguise myself in rosy Parisian anonymity, but France would become intensely personal the moment I emerged from my TGV rail car. I’d always feared the prospect of someone awaiting me at a station holding a placard with my name printed on it, as if in collecting me they took control of my destiny for the coming weeks.
Luckily, the person who awaited me was no ill-intentioned stranger but my host mother for the summer, Marie-Hélène. We walked from the station on side streets that had been worn by an optimistic sun, passing city-dwelling beachgoers who had long forgotten that 79 degrees was not Mother Nature’s sole setting. Upon reaching her apartment, a humble and bright home that overlooked the petite and gleaming port, we sat down for our lunch of delicious ratatouille niçoise and comté cheese. Our equally Epicurean conversation undid the knots in my stomach.
In a past life, Marie-Hélène was an editor for a prominent law journal in Paris. She had moved to Nice more than 20 years ago in search of something the French take very personally: la qualité de vie. She had two sons. The elder son, Marc, had become a molecular biologist in Glasgow, while the younger son, Olivier, had become a wine expert in Provence and would send us a fine bottle of bourgogne wine each week, to our mutual delight. On the windowsill next to her sun-worn dining table was a portrait of her family, sitting on a nearby beach and smiling in a quintessentially niçois manner: The sons’ blue eyes, inherited from their mother, shimmered with joy, and the salt of the ocean held their dark brown hair, inherited from their estranged father, in tight waves.
She showed me to my room for the summer, which was clay-walled and painted in a jovial blue that evoked the adolescence of her older son. The windows of the room looked upon a small courtyard painted in various shades of the early morning sun — pinks and oranges that seemed to blush the more you looked at them. That first day, I lay in my bed watching the sun slowly recede from the timeworn ceiling of my room, brimming with adoration for all that was around me but still infused with that same insidious trepidation.
It would seem that I had little reason to still feel it, but the truth is that little of it was derived from nervousness about being in a new country or anxiety over my tasks to come. It came instead from the events of the last few weeks preceding my journey to France: Two weeks before my flight into Charles de Gaulle, I laid on a bed in Yale Health, where, while feeling particularly numb in mind and soul, I was diagnosed with depression.
It came as no surprise. I recall a series of unpleasant days when I was unable to find the strength to rise from my bed in the morning, which led even my pigheaded self to wonder whether something was wrong. It sent me into my own state of mental déchôcage, where I found myself doubting the veracity of my actions, waking up in the morning and staring at the ceiling, asking myself whether my worth as a human had declined because I now wore the cruel brand of mental illness, asking myself whether life was worth living at all.
For the time, the sun’s chromatic crooning suggested yes, though I continued to question it. And so I began work in the real déchôcage. The hospital atmosphere was aggressively clinical, as one could imagine: Most rooms were without windows, and those that were not remained strikingly dim. There was a mechanical efficiency to the French hospitals that set them apart from American ones, as if all those within the hospitals’ walls knew that the sooner they were out, the sooner they could get back to sunbathing under the nicois palms.
On my first day I walked into the déchôcage receiving area at 8:00 a.m. and awaited my first observation with notebook in hand. I expected a fall, perhaps, or a broken leg — but soon a man in shock was wheeled in on a stretcher. He appeared at first glance healthy, though I soon noticed that he was missing his left hand.
Another day, a man arrived in the hospital with a urinary tract infection. Over the course of the day, however, he developed full-body sepsis. More striking than watching the handless man being rolled in was watching an elegantly jaded nurse feed a two-foot-long catheter into his urethra. I realized quickly that in déchôcage the work was sometimes horrifyingly mechanical: The body was but a device that needed fixing, and the pain of the patients was but a pathology, not an experience.
At other times, however, the emotional drain of the work was more severe than any operation: Deep emotional and physical pain spread to all those involved.
One day I held an 82-year-old woman with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease still in my arms as a resident lay sutures into the back of her head after a fall. She clenched my hand like a child in danger and cried into my lab coat, and the stains from her tears still have not disappeared. Could this have been considered life at all? And even if so, what was the use of such life, if this was all it would eventually yield — ultimate regression into a complete lack of autonomy?
I spent the majority of my time in Nice in a purgatorial state, caught between the sanguine realities of my days and the sweet sunsets and turquoise seabreeze of my evenings. In the afternoons, I attempted to celebrate la qualite de vie. Upon returning from the hospital each day, I traded my coat and scrubs for a pair of running shoes and ascended the hills encircling the city of Nice. On the cooler days the breeze would blow across the Mediterranean, revealing a shimmering, near-luminescent green underneath its typically introspective blue. After my run I would sit on the rocky beach near Marie-Hélène’s home in the company of the slowly retiring sun, which didn’t set entirely until after 10 in the evening.
Marie-Hélène and I dined together each day. Well past sundown, she discussed with me her travels to Iran and Kazakhstan and her experiences as a female lawyer in a conservative part of France.
These evenings soothed my angst over what I saw each day in the hospital: While it was hard to ever be prepared to see a patient in déchôcage, I was at least at peace with the knowledge that a scene of regression was, at least for the time being, not to come. Even if it sometimes felt like fate — and my own mind — were pushing me down that route.
As fate would have it, one day the suturing needle was in my hand. After taking 20 long minutes to swallow my untrained nerves, I entered my first bay. Within sat a 79-year-old woman — Candice — with the posture and bright eyes of a 25-year-old and a small wound on her forehead, which revealed the sun-dried elasticity of the flesh. I introduced myself, and she mentioned to me that she had fallen off a step stool while collecting cooking ingredients for the morning.
The wound was merely an abrasion, but it had bled enough that some dried droplets were visible in its proximity. I took a deep breath, injected anesthetic around the wound and began suturing. Midway through, the wound began to bleed more due to the pressure of the stitches: She felt it trickling down her forehead before I dabbed it away. She looked at me with eyes that suddenly showed their age and asked, “Am I going to die?” I replied, without hesitation, “No, you will live; you are strong.”
On the weekends Marie-Hélène often escaped Nice for the Alps, hiking upwards of 20 miles in two days when the weather was decent (always with a small wedge of comté in her bag) — from paradise to paradise. One weekend toward the end of my time in Nice, I joined her. Our route would lead us up the Col de Fenestre, a high mountain pass: We began at the town of Madone de Fenestre (Madonna of the Window), the epicenter of an anachronistic religious movement whose members seemed to treat their deity as a window to their own souls.
The mountains, at nearly 10,000 feet, had only begun to stretch their limbs from their ice blanket, shimmering like Marie-Hélène’s eyes. The atmosphere seemed to get only more spiritual as the altitude increased: Every few hundred feet we climbed, a new species of magical wildflower appeared, slightly smaller but more colorful than the last. Ibexes scaled the rock walls around us to vie for the most delicious of the wildflowers. They would reach precarious resting places on inch-wide ridges and then looking down at us quizzically, as if our route were the unrealistic one.
Despite that day’s near-perfect visibility, walking amongst the clouds made it such that as soon as we passed one peak, another one seemed to materialize out of the ether. Marie-Hélène and I frequently stopped to admire our surroundings, communicating without exchanging a single word — indeed, we had long left behind civilization and its necessities. I had always found liberation among the mountains. Here at the end of the long road of the summer, I found that I had left my trepidation with the Madonna as well.
By the time we reached the peak of our 8-mile route, we found ourselves in beautiful isolation — perched upon a ridge line between the rocky route, we ascended a treacherous 70-degree slope, caked with snow down the other side. The entire landscape seemed beautifully, brutally nonhuman.
Marie-Hélène broke the silence, however, to explain that this ridge was rich in human history. We stood on the border between France and Italy, and during World War II Italian parents would often send their children up the slopes to escape the battles that raged in their hometowns and reach the free zone in southern France: Here they climbed towards a liberated life.
There in my daydream of altitude, I imagined myself escaping down the slope of snow, into the cold and away from the expectations, the branding, the trepidation that the Madone de Fenestre would hand back to me once I descended from my precipice. I could reject that, I could fall toward my liberation. I could skip the possibility of regression altogether. I could cheat life. The lonely ridge wind blew me from side to side in a gentle sway and there looking upon the treacherous unknown I so dangerously craved, I wondered: Who was driving me into it?
Was there anyone chasing me, really — was there anyone other than myself?
I heard my name being yelled at me from behind. Marie-Hélène waved from what seemed like afar, among a small patch of wildflowers, her wedge of comté in hand.
“Come here. We’ll take our lunch now.”