Le Diabète – by Olly Double
At ten past seven this morning, I waved our son Joe off on a French exchange. He’s 14 now, and much taller than my wife Jacqui, but he still seems quite young for such a challenging adventure. Even all these years later, I remember how scary it was going off on a French exchange when I was a kid. What would my exchange partner be like? Would he live in a nice house? Would I be able to make myself understood in French? What if I couldn’t remember the word for ‘toilet’ and ended up having to launder my underwear?
Of course, things didn’t work out nearly as badly in real life as they did in my runaway imagination. The kid I was staying with was nice and friendly, and it turned out that he lived in a cafe – something I didn’t discover until the morning after I arrived. We got to his place late at night, and I thought it was just an ordinary house until I stumbled down for breakfast the next morning and found the front room full of grizzled old French blokes drinking coffee and smoking Gauloises.
As for the language aspect, that worked out OK, and being surrounded by French meant that I quickly improved and didn’t have too many problems with understanding other people (eventually) and making myself understood (after a fashion).
The key difference with Joe is that he also has type-1 diabetes thrown into the mix. He’s very good at dealing with his own care, being able to estimate the carbohydrates in his meals, treat minor highs and lows, test his blood sugars, and change the infusion set on his insulin pump. Nonetheless, the fact is that there are times when people with diabetes have to rely on others. For example, if he ends up having a major hypo and needs someone to help him, he’ll have to be able to make himself understood in French. In this context, the ability to speak another language becomes not just preparation for a GCSE or a nice social skill to have, but an absolute necessity.
There used to be a column for travellers in Diabetes UK’s magazine Balance, which I always used to enjoy. It was essentially a tiny phrasebook, in which handy diabetes-related phrases were translated into various languages – a different one every issue. Like all phrasebooks, it was kind of amusing in that the phrases given in sequence seemed to form an imaginary conversation in which a narrative was played out. In this case, the story was always firmly within the genre of white-knuckle suspense. It would always start calmly enough, before quickly lapsing into a terrifying rollercoaster ride:
Hello, how are you? – Bonjour, comment ça va?
I have diabetes – Je suis diabétique
Please send for an ambulance, it’s an emergency ! – Envoyez une ambulance, s’il vous plaît, c’est une urgence!
The undercurrent of terror that ran through this apparently innocuous column seemed to fly in the face of the positive, optimistic, can-do kind of attitude which runs through most of Balance’s articles. Of course, they weren’t really trying to imply that if you have diabetes your holiday will end in carnage. Diabetic people go on holiday all the time, and live to tell the tale. It’s just that diabetes means being prepared and knowing what to do if something goes wrong – and that doesn’t stop just because you’re away from home enjoying yourself. In a sense, you’re never fully off-duty.
I wish I could take that away from Joe, but I can’t. Normally, Jacqui and I take on as much of the burden as we can, helping him to deal with anything from carb counting to adjusting basal insulin levels. While he’s in France, we won’t be there to do any of that, so he’s going to be totally on his own. He has that extra layer of things to deal with, as well just the business of trying to make himself understood in a foreign language without accidentally saying something ridiculous. Jacqui and I have spent the weekend quietly worrying if he’s going to manage with it all and keep his diabetes under control and crucially avoid having to visit l’hôpital.
The thing is, it’s important to rein in our runaway imaginations, because whatever worries we may have and however legitimate they might be, diabetes shouldn’t stop him having the same opportunities as anybody else has. A French exchange is a great rite of passage for any kid – eating French bread dipped in hot chocolate, spotting genuine old French blokes wearing genuine berets, giggling like idiots as you teach the French kids English swear words and they teach you French ones. Perhaps most importantly, it gives you a total mastery of another language that in my case has stayed with me throughout the rest of my life.
Note: Please excuse any mistakes in the French phrases above – I had to use Google Translate to translate them.