It's so long since I last bought specs that I forgot they follow fashion like everything else
As a downshifter, although I love fashion and beauty and all that, I have to keep to a very strict budget, and one area where this was beginning to affect me was my glasses.
I wear glasses full-time, and have worn the same pair for at least eight years - ovalish, smallish metal rims with a tortoiseshell finish. They suited me well and I liked them, and my prescription over the years had only changed by a quarter diopter, so I didn't feel justified in changing them, even though they were starting to look a tad old-fashioned.
About four years ago, I looked into buying a new pair and was absolutely gobsmacked by the prices in France. The idea of Specsavers etc hasn't reached this country yet and glasses are 300, 400, 1000 euros a pair, once you've put in the lenses - way beyond my budget (Jeez, for the same money I could take a holiday). And that was a shame, because I found some glasses that were perfect - smaller than my existing ones and more up to date, but at nearly 600 euros, well out of my price range.
So I gave up on the idea and put up with wearing old-fashioned specs - until this year. This year, my prescription has altered enough that I really did need to get a new pair (my sight has improved, go figure, but apparently this is quite common as you get older). And here's where I ran into the French health system.
Things are complicated here, for someone who grew up with the NHS. In France, between 65 and 100 per cent of your treatment is paid for by the state (100 for maternity, emergencies, cancer and whatnot). The state also pays everything you if you're unemployed, retired or have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes. But if you're solvent and in basically good health, you have to find that 35 per cent yourself. This is where health insurance comes in.
Colloquially called 'mutuelle' in France, your health insurance pays the component the Government doesn't, and more besides - up to 200 per cent of costs for dental prostheses, etc. It also pays for complementary medicine such as acupuncture, and enables you to ask for a single room in hospital, rather than having to share a double room. Everyone who can afford it gets health insurance, and you get the most expensive package you can afford.
Our package enabled us to get new specs every year, but we'd never used it before and had no idea how it worked. And neither, it seemed, did anyone else. Our friends who understand the system better don't wear glasses, and I could never get hold of the insurance company on the phone. However, via their website we worked out that it was best to go to an optician affiliated to our 'mutuelle' because then we'd get another 20 per cent off, so we toddled along to Mayenne to find the local Optic2000.
They couldn't have been more helpful but at this point I ran into another problem - I didn't like the frames that were on offer.
[photopress:Picture_6.jpg,full,alignleft]I have a little, pointy face with high cheekbones, and no chin. My glasses have to be quite tiny - particularly across the lens - or I look like an ant. Also, I prefer the top rim to cut directly across the eyelid, which disguises my uneven eyes (result of an accident when I was a child). And finally, I need the frame to be rounded, or it simply doesn't suit me. In times past, this has never been a problem and I've taken my pick from whatever's there. But this year, getting what I wanted proved rather a tall order.
The current frame style is very Germanic - heavy, rectangular lenses, with big, clunky arms. These entirely overwhelm my face. The lenses are also all far too wide, making me look like a child who's borrowed someone else's glasses. And the favoured colours this year are violet and pink, which I don't mind for a change, but I don't want to wear every day.
After scrabbling through everything on offer, I showed the optician a frame number I'd seen elsewhere in another branch of the same chain. "2006 model," he said - "We don't stock it any more".
"But everything here is too square," I said.
"Yes," he agreed. "Everything is square this year. In 2006 it was more rounded."
It seemed that I was stuck with it, but I went back and ferreted about some more and finally came up with a pair that I was happy with. In fact they are near as dammit perfect - slightly matt bronze frames, very thin, with very thin side arms, and exactly the right shape. They're still a tad too wide, but I think in this instance that beggars can't be choosers and they're certainly a lot nicer than the ones I've been wearing for the past decade.
A few minutes later and some complicated tapping into the computer and we were given a price of 119 euros for one new pair of specs for me with frames, one new pair of lenses for the DH (varifocals) in his existing frames and one pair of prescription sunglasses - free of charge and therefore my first, as I've never been able to afford any. I couldn't be more pleased. And next year, if I decide to go for the varifocals my optician would prefer me to wear, the charge to change them would be minor because, once again, it will be covered by the insurance.
The iron grip of the high-street optician is starting to loosen only slightly in France, but for a second pair, I'm thinking of EyeBuyDirect, where you can upload a full-face picture of yourself and try on your specs virtually (see all pix above). Frame prices start at 20 euros instead of the 90 that mine were, and although I wouldn't do it for my main specs, for a second pair, it's worth taking a punt on how they'll look in real life.