Franco-American Health Traditions

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Anyone want to drink onion syrup to treat a cold? Traditional remedies for colds and muscle aches are as much a part of the Franco-American culture as religion and language. Some may recall drinking molasses with pepper to treat a bad cough (la toux). Others thought earaches could be "cured" with pipe smoke blown into the ear. 

To feel better (prendre du mieux), Franco-Americans employed some unusual practices, but some remedies could render a healthy person "tres malade" (very sick). In fact, some remedies could actually make one "blanc comme un drap" (white as a sheet). 

For example, chills associated with fever was sometimes treated with "boisson d'eau chaude melange a un gin, du whiskey ou de "al acool maison" (a concoction of hot water mixed with liquor, flavored with sugar or honey, lemon or nutmeg). 

Norman Beaupre, a professor of humanities at the University of New England in Biddeford Pool, recently lectured on "Franco-American Traditions Around Health and Aging" at June 3rd Bar Harbor conference on aging and geriatrics. Beaupre frequently writes and lectures about the culture in both the French and the English languages. 

The French language holds some traditional phrases for describing health conditions and maladies. It's interesting to describe a trip to the bathroom as "aller voir sa tante (go to visit one's aunt). A sickly complexion can be described as "vert comme un poireau", literally translated as "green as a leek". 

Franco-American children were typically subjected to home remedies or cures. Usually a mustard seed poultice was prepared and applied to the child's chest. 

Many descriptions for maladies and traditional cures are dialects or regional accents. Beaupre calls them "canadianisms" or French word with origins in the Canadian dialect. Although some people may think of this dialect as "Canadian French" it is more correctly described as French spoken with a Canadian dialect. 

One canadianism is the description for pain in the fingers, like arthritis. This pain is described like an insect or bug, called "bibite". "avoir la bibite aux doights" literally means to have a bug in one's fingers. 

Beaupre commends the Franco-American culture for supporting the values of aging and the respect awarded for the wisdom that comes with living. 

"Franco-Americans view old age with a respectful eye and endear the ways of the elderly," says Beaupre. Care and value for the elderly is passed from one generation to the next when aged parents live with their children and grandchildren. 

Most Franco-American healing traditions are ingrained in the culture's oral history. Few written stories reveal how colonial French settlers perceived health and illness. "Maria Chapdeleine", the first French Canadian novel written around the turn of this century, gives a somber hint of the culture's fatalistic image of illness. 

The heroine's mother becomes quite ill, but her family denies the seriousness of her condition. J'ai mal dans le corps," says the mother (I hurt my back). Eventually, the poor lady dies in pain. While she is suffering, the father laments, "I think she is sick for good". Eventually, the family is resolved to her death, the pastor is summoned and she dies after receiving the sacraments. 

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Published on June 17, 1999
Copyright 1999-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux