After Stewart Island, my favorite place in New Zealand was…
There is a particular French way of resigned sighing when a situation is terrible and awful and there’s nothing to be done about it. You pucker slightly, fill your cheeks with air and quickly “poof” out the air between the center of your lips, even better if you can widen your eyes and rock back a bit with your hands in your pockets. It seems to be used in France often for commiserating about anything related to politics, home repairs or any government issues. And, it’s an expression I got to know well in my role last week as “la madame américaine qui a été attaqué par deux chiens.”
The attack itself was a relatively simple affair. I was walking along a marked hiking trail in the suburbs of the Rhone Alpes, between Sergy and Crozet. It was a rainy day and I had borrowed a thick North Face rain coat from Josh (a British co-worker of Rob’s) and Agnieszka’s (his lovely Polish wife) closet. When I came to an intersection with a farm house on the corner, I took a left on the road. Two large dogs (long-haired mastiffs, I believe now) ran out from an open car park and came straight at me barking. Within a second, they were clamped on to my right arm and were pulling me to the ground. I screamed for help and the owners came out and called the dogs off me. The whole thing probably couldn’t have lasted more than 20 seconds. I didn’t have any time to think, really. It was obviously terrifying, but I remember feeling strangely calm. Serenity is maybe not the most helpful personality trait when being mauled by dogs?
With the dogs retreating, I immediately pulled off the coat and saw that my right arm was dripping blood from puncture wounds on both my forearm and upper arm. If I hadn’t had that coat on, the whole thing would have been so much worse – both physically and emotionally.
A woman with short blonde hair took me in the house and sat me in a chair in their large open kitchen – where they had apparently just finished lunch. A bottle of iodine and gauze came out along with a glass of water. I must have been a ghostly shade of blue grey at this point, on the verge of fainting thanks to my low blood pressure. She gave me a sugar cube. They didn’t speak any English and I don’t speak any French beyond how to order coffee. I got down to lay on the floor, stone tile covered in baguette crumbs, at this strange impasse. (I learned later that they should have called the local fire department.)
I managed to text Rob that I had been attacked by dogs – which apparently went up on his screen during his presentation at Cern – and asked him to have our host call me and try to speak French to the owners. Several calls where they didn’t understand each other, several dropped calls. A mild-mannered researcher was called in to help. He apparently gave the owners a vicious tongue lashing in French and ordered them to take me to Hospital La Tour immediately.
Into the woman’s rusty Mercedes SUV – past the dogs who were still not on leash in the garage – for a silent 15 minute drive across the French border into Switzerland. Each roundabout was one step closer to the hospital and Rob and my opportunity to stop being brave about the cramping pain in the muscles in my arm. We pulled up to the emergency entrance just as Rob and Josh were locking up their bikes. Transferred me over along with a slip with her address and phone number.
The Swiss hospital was efficient and clean – everyone spoke a good deal of English. A trio of prudent, motherly Swiss nurses in white scrubs completed my intake while a very young woman medical resident in a tank top prepared to give me stitches. They got my last name wrong on the paperwork, even with Rob’s passport. Several times, it was said “if only you had been bitten in Switzerland, it would have been so much better” – which I didn’t understand until the next day. They took our worries about rabies in stride despite it being eradicated in France and quickly dismissed any need for an x-ray. Lots of concern about tetanus and infections. The bites were cleaned and I received four loose stitches with no numbing (the wounds had to be kept open to not close in any bad germs). The infection specialist recommended I have an IV of powerful antibiotics before leaving with my arm cocooned in a sling, a laundry list of prescriptions to take to the village pharmacist, and instructions to come back the next day to see how I was doing.
Rob took the Cern bus back to Sergy with me and we had a quiet night with our hosts, eating homemade pizza and being marveled at for being upbeat in the situation, as only Americans possibly could. Josh and Agnieszka talked with their French neighbor about helping me the next day.
The next morning, with my arm inelegantly seeping through its bandages like a very fresh mummy, I went to the neighbor’s house to tackle the process of filing a French police report. Madame Elyse is the wife of a retired physicist at Cern, about 4′ 11″ with the thinnest ankles I’ve ever seen, a trim salt-and-pepper haircut and a perfect black linen sundress. A habitual speeder in her white Prius. She immediately reminded me of so many academic family friends from Davis and my Aunt Sally – I knew I was in good hands.
It took an hour at the rural gendarme station to wait for the one policeman to get to us. Lots of commiserating with others in line – there to file complaints about gardens and ex-wives, all hoping to get in before the police station closed for a 90-minute lunch. The first of many, many times I would hear Madame Elyse tell the story of “la madame américaine et les chiens” to conjure up those particular poofy French sighs. I also got to hear her life story, of growing up in Casablanca, living in Paris and Palo Alto, struggling with an ailing husband in a four-story farmhouse and taking her grandson skiing in the mountains.
We eventually sat down with the policeman and he took my report with a new set of sighs. Apparently the same dogs had bitten off someone’s finger last year but the owner never came in when summoned by the police. However, they could not even look at my Swiss hospital records. I would need to see a properly French doctor or they’re was no way to file the report. “If only you had been taken to a French hospital, it would have been so much better.”
After a bus ride to the Swiss hospital where I met Rob for my bandage changing appointment and verification that my arm was free of dangerous infection I went back to Sergy and Madame Elyse with a gift of a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine in tow. She spent an hour calling every doctor in the rural valley. I could almost understand every word of her story of “la madame américain attaqué par des chiens” now with “qui ne possède pas les papiers” by the time she called the last doctor on the list and miraculously got an appointment for 6:15. Another hour of waiting to get the proper certificate. The french doctor critiqued my Swiss bandages and replaced them with French before letting me go. We finally dropped the paperwork the police station mailbox with such a sense of accomplishment. Victory over the French bureaucracy!
After a few of recuperating in the gentle care of our friends and a few days of finally using our Airbnb apartment in Geneva, we were back at Josh’s house for a party to end the week of meetings. Apparently, my story had made the Cern researchers’ message board and people kept greeting me as “you must be the American woman who was attacked by dogs” – which isn’t exactly how I envisioned being renowned with Europe’s greatest scientific minds.
Now, we’re in Annecy and my scars are healing well. I’m out of the sling mostly and able to shower again. Only a few more days on antibiotics and my stitches can come out when we’re back in California next week. It’s easier to see the bite outlines as things scab and bruise – but I’ve been keeping it meticulously bandaged as to not terrify the locals and start a campaign of Alpine anti-werewolf protests. A lawyer in the Rhone Alpes is going to help me prepare a letter to the dog owner asking for repayment of around $800 in medical bills – but it’s kind of a long shot. I think I’ll need to wear long-sleeved dresses to this summer’s weddings. Probably one or two of the wounds will leave a lasting scar.
Are there lessons to be learned? Truths about life to be discovered through the terrible French dog experience? Not really. At least none that come to mind right now. It feels like a reminder that bodies are more fragile than they seem, but also that they’re so resilient. That people can be the absolute worst, and also so super kind and helpful. It feels like the equivalent of that very French poofy sigh.