There’s nothing like major abdominal surgery to bring home to you the truth behind the old joke, ‘it only hurts when I laugh’, as I discovered on my return from hospital recently.

Waiting for me was the latest newsletter from the Alliance Végétarien (the French Vegetarian Society), accompanied by a petition form which we were urged to get our friends and neighbours to sign. The subject? “Pour la Presence de Menus Vegetariens dans La Restauration Collective”; in other words a plea to include provision for vegetarians in the meals served in schools, hospitals and other public facilities. After having spent the previous ten days on the receiving end of what the French health profession considers meals “suitable for vegetarians”, it was either laugh or cry, and I’ve done far too much crying lately.

As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s not as difficult to be a vegetarian in France as I thought it was going to be – provided you are self-sufficient. The problems start when any part of the French system get its hands on you, and you become dependent on others to provide your nourishment. This happened to me shortly after I was diagnosed as having breast cancer. What had been going to be a short stay in hospital turned into a long one. A series of complications, including deep vein thrombosis and the need for a hysterectomy led to more hospital stays. And so I’ve become wearily familiar with the inside of the local Clinique – and its food.

Before tackling the subject of vegetarian food (or rather lack of it) I must first say that, despite the glowing press it has received in the UK, I found French hospital catering to be no different from the English version. That is, the food was deeply uninspiring, mostly out of a tin or a packet, and there was never quite enough of it. Somewhere, perhaps, lucky hospital patients are wolfing down those fabled three course gourmet meals with wine, but not in Burgundy.

So, how does the French hospital system deal with vegetarians? Answer – by ignoring them. Let’s take my most recent hospital stay as an example. The little booklet the Clinique gives patients on admission contains a pledge to accommodate special diets. As we had found on previous occasions that this pledge was more honoured by the breach than in the observance, we attempted to take the matter up with the Clinique’s administration service a week prior to my admission. Not something they dealt with, we were told, we should bring this up with the senior nurse on the ward I would be staying in.

We’d been down this route before. The problem with leaving things in the hands of the nursing staff is that they know next to nothing about what vegetarians eat, and have other priorities – like providing nursing care for the other 30-odd people on the ward. They did their best, but their best consisted of writing the word “vegetarienne” on the standard menu, and passing this down to the catering staff. What came out the other end was very much a matter of who was in charge of the kitchen that day, and it varied enormously.

The first few days weren’t a problem, as I didn’t exactly feel like eating. For the next couple I was confined to a light diet, which consisted of the same monotonous vegetable soup served up for every meal. By the time I was given the all clear to eat normally I never wanted to see a bowl of vegetable soup again. Then the fun really started. Some of the time I got the meal sans the meat main course – which meant that one lunch consisted solely of haricot vert – at other times I would get fish (which, I’m sorry to admit, I ate) or the ubiquitous omelette. Other times the kitchen staff either forgot, or ignored the indication that I was a veggie, and I was served meat, which I had to send back. The ward serving staff started looking sheepish, and were obviously drawing lots to determine who was going to serve me my dinner each evening.

It was as I wept over my fifth omelette of the stay that my husband finally lost it. He marched off to harangue the hospital receptionist, who suggested he make an appointment with Monsieur le Director to air his grievance. By this time we were willing to try anything, so he turned up early the next day prepared to beard the lion in his den.

Of course, he didn’t get to see the Director himself. Such officials are far too grand to concern themselves with what goes on in the kitchen. The Director’s secretary, who seemed to include dealing with stroppy customers in her remit, listened sympathetically, until my husband mentioned I was a vegetarian. Of course, that explained it. “It is difficult, Monsieur, for the kitchen staff to cook a special meal for just one person.” However, when my husband pointed out that the Clinique’s pledge implied that that was just what they would do, if necessary, she conceded that he did have legitimate grounds for complaint. When my husband explained that I was scheduled to return in the near future for a final operation, and wanted to be sure of getting a decent meal, she agreed that something would have to be done.

We are now in possession of this lady’s telephone number, with instructions to call her a few days before my next admission, which is scheduled for the end of next month. As with all things in France, it seems to revolve around knowing who to talk to. But will it work? Watch this space.

As for that petition, I’m going to make sure I bully as many people as possible in to signing it toute de suite …

Val Patchett

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