Peuchère or What Not to Say to a Disabled Person

Mom (c) Kristin Espinasse
I'm having the time of my life with my wonderful mom! I love this innocent, serendipitous photo with Mom and her little fish purse. The sign says: "You are at the right place. Look no further." Vous êtes au bon endroit. Ne cherchez plus

peuchère (peuh-sher)

    : poor dear, poor thing

Peuchère is a Provençal expression of sympathy, used to indicate compassion for someone: Peuchère elle doit avoir mal au dos! Poor thing. Her back must ache!

Peuchère may also rank among the top Ten Things Not to Say to A Disabled Person. Can you list some others? Comment... or read on in the following story.

A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

I was standing in the supermarket checkout line with my daughter when I saw a man approach in a motorized cart. A familiar dilemma returned: did I offer him my place in line--or risk making the man feel pitied?

Over the years I have struggled with the subject--ever since watching a man in a wheelchair open the door of his car (driver's side). A friend and I were across the street when we noticed the wheelchair-to-car transition--only each of us had a completely different reaction.

My instinct was to wait and see how the transition unfolded. If the man needed help, we could then offer it. But my friend fumed. "WHY ISN'T ANYONE HELPING HIM?" She shook her head angrily as she stood watching.

Her outrage made me feel ashamed. Had I not reacted fast enough? Would I have reacted in time? But I hadn't wanted the man to feel pitied. I hadn't been sure how to respond, I only knew I would be there if the man needed help. Meantime, the man managed to hike himself up into his car, taking with him the folded wheelchair. No assistance had been needed after all. But could the man's experience have been smoother had my friend and I intervened? Or might we have slowed or even put a snag in his familiar routine?

Fast forward ten years. Youtube. I happened upon a rant wherein a middle-aged man in a wheelchair complained about how people over-respond to his condition. "Can I get the door for you?" said the man (paralyzed from a bike accident), and the cynicism in his voice as he mimicked the modern-day good Samaritans made me even more uncertain of how to assist--or how NOT to assist--a disabled person. It seemed you were damned if you did, damned if you didn't.  But how to get past the poor them/poor me (all I wanted to do was help) syndrome in time to help out when needed?

Standing there in the checkout line I tried to be discreet while figuring out whether the man-on-wheels needed help. The answer came swiftly and easily when I looked up and noticed the sign depicting a pregnant lady. Aha! This was the caisse prioritaire line. It would be perfectly normal for me to offer my place in line without making the man feel pitied.  But the woman in front of me was about to fall into the same trap I had hoped to avoid.

"Peuchère!" she declared. "Il me fait de la peine!" she said, explaining why she had just given up her place in line, too. I wanted to shush her up so that the man wouldn't hear her "I feel so sorry for him!" remark... but who was I to shush another's expression of compassion? Her sympathy was sincere and mimicked my own sentiments as we watched the hard-of-hearing senior hand over his thread-bare change purse to the cashier so that the latter could fish out the somme due.

That's when we watched the cashier turn the purse upside down and shake it. Oh no! The man was 4 euros 36 cents short! Suddenly the "peuchère" woman went silent, opting to arrange and rearrange her pile of groceries along the tapis roulant. It didn't mean she was indifferent to the man's dilemma; she was probably doing what many do, French or otherwise: allowing the man privacy as he settled his finances.

But, given the purse's upturned state, it didn't seem likely that finances would settle on their own accord! I looked around nervously, and finally whispered to the woman ahead of me. "We ought to be able to rustle up the rest?"

The French weren't stingy, they just didn't seem to have the "pay it forward" reflex. "On doit pouvoir trouver ça," We've got to be able to come up with that," I hinted to the other customers in line. Next, I watched as wallets flew open and French fingers went to work rifling through the contents of their money purses. The collective reaction was so touching that I didn't notice, right off, how the contents of my own purse were as spare as those of the man we were trying to assist....

"Jackie!" I whispered, "do you have any change? I can't believe it," I said, searching through my wallet, "I don't have enough!" And there I'd gone suggesting that "we" pay the difference! Only, as things were, I'd given the job of debt-paying to the others in line! No matter how many times I rooted through the change purse, all I could come up with were pennies. The ten euros I'd been searching for was in my jeans pocket... back at home!

"No worries," the woman in front of me said. "I think I've got it!" I watched as she handed over enough coins to pay off the man's modest debt. I noticed the relief and happiness on her face. Whereas she had initially frozen up allowing the man to deal with his dilemma in privacy, she now had unwittingly experienced the "Pay it Forward" principle--and the good feelings it brings to all involved! The movement was gaining ground in other countries, but I'd yet to see strangers paying for strangers in France.

I watched as the senior-on-wheels gazed up at his lovely benefactor. "You are an angel," he said to the woman. And by the way his face beamed with light you'd think he was the very same.


peuchère = poor thing
il me fait de la peine = I feel sorry for him
la somme due = amount owed
le tapis roulant = conveyor belt, carousel
on doit pouvoir trouver ça = we should be able to come up with that

Colorful patina in Sospel

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety