Help, I've got fleas!

2012-10-02 19:55

I wake up scratching like a madwoman. Throwing back the duvet, I look down to see dozens of vicious red bite marks all over my body.

Oh my God, I think I’ve got fleas.

I have been ‘catsitting’ Moumou for my neighbours, Bernard and Françoise, for three weeks while they’ve been away taking la cure. La cure is an annual rite of passage for many French pensioners and people with bad backs, compliments of this country’s amazing free health care system.

Droves of retirees travel to attractive spa towns each autumn where they laze about in mineral baths, receiving thermal treatments all day.

La cure, depending on how long your GP signed the form for, can last for up to three weeks. We would call it a Wellness Experience, and it would be a luxury reserved for rich people, dirty weekenders and honeymooners. Here, it’s practically a human right.

So while Bernard and Françoise have been lying about wrapped in minerally-enhanced mud and getting free massages, I’ve been paying daily visits to their elderly cat, in case she gets lonely.

I now suspect that, far from being lonely, Moumou has been doing nightly shows, playing host to a Flea Circus that has decamped to a new Big Tent: me.

Scratching uncontrollably as I get in my car and drive to the village pharmacy, I swear I can feel the little bastards juggling on my stomach.

I am so maddened by the itching, I forget to look up the words to describe my condition in French before I leave. Now it is too late and I am standing in the tiny pharmacy without my dictionary, trying not to writhe.

Half the village – probably the half that didn’t crack a doctor’s note for la cure – have succumbed to early winter coughs and colds and are crowded inside. By the time it is my turn at the counter, I have remembered the French word for fleas – puces – thanks to all the time I spend at French flea markets.

“I’m listening, madame,” says the pharmacist, which is the rather brisk French way of saying “Can I help you?”

“I believe I am having the fleas,” I whisper.

“Excuse me?” she says, giving me a sharp look from behind her rhinestone reading glasses.

“Some fleas, they have jump up my body,” I say, a little louder.

By now everyone in the pharmacy has stopped coughing and sniffling and is staring at me.

The pharmacist sighs. “You’d better show me.”

Mewling with shame, I roll up my jeans. Though most of the bites are between my breasts and my thighs, there is one huge, pulsating bite behind my knee. What a luck. I am spared the further mortification of having to flash to the whole pharmacy.

As I bare my unwaxed knee, the queue goggles and it occurs to me that if the fleas happen to be rehearsing the flying trapeze, I could charge the pharmacy crowd a euro.

Instead, my embarrassment tips towards anger. “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you are enjoy the theatre?”

I feel eyes slide away from me and everyone, thankfully, takes up coughing again.

“Those aren’t fleas,” says the pharmacist, “they’re aoûtats. Have you been passing time in the long grass?”

Now it is my turn to be nonplussed. “I beg your pardon?”

There is no equivalent word in English for aoûtats. They are bugs, invisible to the naked eye, that plague the French countryside around August, or août. This year, either they are late, or I am.

Apparently everyone gets them. The pharmacist gives me an aerosol can of répulsif, which, according to its repulsive pictures and instructions, will soothe bites not only from aoûtats but also from lice and ticks. “Lovely,” I think, as I make as dignified an exit as possible while scratching my armpits.

Living in a foreign country, some things get easier with time. Like putting your own petrol in the car and remembering to address anyone you haven’t slept with with as vous, not the familiar tu. Other things don’t.

Learning to live with the extraordinarily diverse and prolific animal life in an agricultural corner of this vast country is one of them.

As I write this blog, there is a bee the size of a light aircraft buzzing around my barn conversion. A few weeks ago, I threw open my big glass doors and three birds flew in and crapped all over the couch.

I have found lizards in my bath and watched whole families of mice race past the TV in the middle of MasterChef. I have developed an excellent backhand from whacking spiders with my electric tennis racket.

I have had a bat in my bedroom. I have driven over a snake and, once, I almost trod on a massive toad, which squatted on my damp terrace for weeks. In French, a toad is a crapaud. I gather it is onomatopoeically named for the effect it produces on its victims.

Sometimes I feel as if I’ve died and gone to a David Attenborough documentary.

And when I asked my dearest neighbours how I could get rid of the toad, they said I couldn’t.

“You can’t touch them,” said Françoise, “they’re poisonous.”

“I don’t want to touch it,” I yelped. “I want to kill it.”

Françoise shrugged: “He’ll go when he’s ready. It’s nature.”

Still, I felt bad about thinking their cat had given me fleas.

When they came back from the health spa this week, glowing from their mud packs, I confessed my suspicions and told them about my aoûtats. There are no secrets between us, and I would rather they heard about my show-and-tell in the pharmacy from me than from the village gossips.

“Moumou doesn’t have fleas,” said Françoise. “We had her sprayed before we left.”

I made them promise to have me sprayed before they go on la cure next year.

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