Published Sep 10, 2005

It was a wonderful summer. One of the many perks of being the child of two university professors was a month-long family vacation, every summer, and this one was in France. Now, France is a good thing for a seven-year-old, to the extent that a seven-year-old notices France, but what really stood out was the ice cream. Sure, it was all better than American ice cream, but my favorite was Smurf flavor (in French, “Schtroumpf”).

Smurf-flavored ice cream was the bright blue color of The Smurfs (although, hopefully, vegetarian), and tasted vaguely minty; I insisted on it at least once a day. My preference, at this age, was to eat ice cream from a cup, rather than a cone, because I wasn’t really able to eat fast enough to outpace the melting action caused by both the sun and the ambient temperature of the Paris summer. Rather than ending up with sticky hands for the afternoon — for I’d always get the ice cream as a treat as we walked around the city and visited the various historically interesting locations therein — I’d eat the ice cream from a cup and drink down any leftover melt. It was wonderful.

Until, one day, I felt bad after we returned home. My stomach hurt, and I believe we stayed in for dinner. Sometime during the night, I threw up in my bed, and made my parents change and wash the sheet; as a reward for their effort, once they had new sheets on my bed, I threw up all over them as well. In the morning, a French doctor came (in retrospect, I have no idea how my parents procured a doctor in Paris on so little notice). The tall, gray-faced doctor, in a long black greatcoat despite the summer, took me to a hospital, where I got to throw up in a hospital bed instead.

The hospital itself was a children’s hospital and remarkably happy place, painted with some bright colors and with children’s drawings posted on the walls. I had a room alone, with a bed and a chair in the corner, and was happy to fall asleep there and escape my stomach misery.

But in the middle of the night I was shaken asleep by one of the nurses. I sat up and, knowing no French, asked what was going on; another nurse held me down while a third nurse took a spinal tap. It was like being hit in the back with a hammer, but, despite the trauma, I fell asleep straight afterwards. (It wasn’t a random tap — at least at the time, French standard practice was to test for meningitis in almost all cases with even one or two meningitis symptoms.)

The trick about a spinal tap is to keep the subject of the procedure recumbent for at least six hours, in order to avoid the major complication of blinding headaches. Well, less than six hours after my tap — probably more like four — I was awoken again by the nurse, who sat me up for breakfast in bed. I wolfed down the breakfast and then played with a new toy my father brought me, a little Playmobil pirate playset . A day or two later I was released from the hospital, my probable food poisoning having passed.

And then the headaches came. They seemed to be worst when we were sitting at a restaurant, waiting to order dinner or to be served — or maybe it was just that they most annoyed my parents then. The pain would come from the back of my head and would be blinding, and my poor parents tried every which way to relieve my symptoms. Finally, relief came from a French friend, who recommended that I bring a book with me everywhere to distract me, and, further, recommended the specific book I should read: Tintin.

If you’ve never read a Tintin, you’re missing out. Tintin is a little Belgian reporter, of uncertain but young age, and with a very unruly cowlick. He solves crimes and mysteries with the help of his dog, Snowy (“Milou” in French), and his friends, including Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and Thomson and Thompson from Scotland Yard. Tintin goes everywhere, from Peru to the Middle East to China to the Moon to the bottom of the sea, all in well-written four-color comic style ( Bande Dessiné in French) How could a kid not love these stories?

So, for the rest of the vacation, we carried Tintins with us. Every meal, I’d sit down at the table and turn away from my book only to order and then, with some chagrin, to eat. The headaches passed, but I kept reading books while waiting at restaurants for several years, until my parents, I guess, got bored of me being non-interactive and decided I should pay polite attention. But, when I’m sick, I like nothing so much as to read Tintins in bed.


Re: recent links… I think Tim Noah at Slate may’ve been the first person to post the Amazon customer service number on the web. I forwarded him the link to Find-A-Human, since it’s a pretty cool resource.

As for French comic books, I still prefer Asterix.

tintin rocks!


poor little wade. baby wade. so cute and little. i love all these little kid wade stories.
i dont even really remember a lot of my childhood. i think the experts call that blocking out or some such shit.