Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Thin Bears of Summer (A Short Story)

I’d always believed myself to be aggressive and unrelenting like the thin bears of summer that ravage and forage trying to curb their insatiable appetites that consume them following a long season of fasting. I’ve seen the bears roaming around in their sagging black fur, grabbing everything in sight to stave-off that hallow feeling of hunger. We had one come into our apple orchard once and devour Butch, one of our prized hunting dogs, as it tried to chase the bear away. Now I’m here alone, fasting and hoping to rot away in my small cave. I want to show my capturer who is stronger. I want only to leave this sick bastard to his bottomless hell.
I saw him—more than once, too. That’s what irritates me the most. I should have known it was me he was after when I caught his beady eyes devouring me on those occasions. He was scrawny, boney, unable to handle direct eye contact—eyes darting away as if looking for something other than me. Now I know it was I, only now it’s too late.
Groggy hunger laced threatens to take me back into slumber, as I wonder why he chose me. How does one go about selecting a victim, I question, succumbing to a deep yawn. He’s not looking at me, so I survey him to look for a clue. He is anti-social in his behavior. His hair is matted and greasy, his fingernails ragged from biting them—nails that always have a thin line of embedded dirt showing through. I wonder where he lives—surely not here in this dark dingy hovel.
How are you to know the signs or evil in someone unless you’ve spent time with him? He must not have anybody close to him, because if he did they’d probably have him committed.
He caught me looking at him. He knows I’m judging him. I see him squirm until he tells me never to look at him again. He now ties a sour-smelling soiled thin-striped dishtowel around my eyes. My pleasure, I think while enjoying the smirk that I hide from him. If only his odor would dissipate, I’d erase him entirely.
I couldn’t really afford the apartment, but it was in the middle of Manhattan. It felt so New York after twenty-four years on an apple farm near Walla-Walla, Washington. I was willing to suffer the consequence: eating meals from McDonald’s, day old bread from the store and over ripe fruit. The big box stores provided cheap meals, too, like boxed macaroni and cans of vegetables. It didn’t matter. I was living in Manhattan. I’d watch myself in the reflection of huge business-front windows as I walked to work—unable to afford public transportation—admiring my savvy wool suit and smart leather briefcase—a graduation gift from my attorney-uncle—and, I reveled at the sound of the soft click of my thin leather patent heels striking the Manhattan sidewalk. Never mind my meager salary—I knew it could only go up. I had to start some place. I had talent and had easily passed the New York bar exam. I’d crash through that glass ceiling, with my goal of a partnership in a prestigious law firm once I got a little experience under my belt.
I’d actually caught him twice. That’s what’s so damn disturbing. Once had been near the office and the other so near to my apartment. There could have been other times and now I wonder how long he had really been watching me and what he was thinking as he lie in wait. The coward. His dirty fingernails make me want to puke. He’s weird. I don’t even want to know anything about him. I refuse to talk to him. He won’t get the satisfaction of knowing I’m afraid. I’ll just wait, like I waited for Manhattan. Watching my mother struggle as a farm wife, working side-by-side with dad, raising four kids and then struggling just to get me through college, made me want to succeed and sit at a desk with the world at my doorstep. I can’t remember the last time she bought make-up, had her hair done or bought anything special for herself. How selfish I’ve been. Things will be different for her once I’m a partner.
It’s funny; I’ve never been really hungry. Food was always abundant on the farm. I thought Mom was being overprotective warning me about big cities and their weirdoes. How’d she know? She’d only lived on a farm. She read mystery novels for her nighttime entertainment, and I thought she took them too seriously. I’ll figure it out. I’ve got a good head on my shoulders—well, some times. My judgment wasn’t good this time.
I couldn’t remember drifting off to sleep. It seemed like hours had passed, but I had no concept of time—it was always dark in my closet. I could leave only when my capturer came back and opened the door, allowing me to roll out into the room.
Before I had been blindfolded, I noticed there were no mirrors in this place. I could hear church bells in the distance occasionally, and I tried so hard to remember the sounds of Manhattan and the sound of bells. If I could just know where I am. Why doesn’t he have a telephone? That alone is abnormal. Nobody knows him. Nobody calls him. What does he do all day? How does he pay for this horrible apartment with no artwork or carpet, and very little furniture? All I can remember is the sound of traffic in Manhattan—unending, noisy, horn-honking traffic. I don’t remember church bells. Where am I? God, I want the noise of Manhattan. Why doesn’t anybody hear me banging when I know he’s not around.
When he told me to take my clothes off, I thought he was joking. He didn’t fit the profile of a sex pervert. I told him so—that was my second mistake. He must have been ridiculed all thirty or forty years of his life—I really couldn’t tell his age. That’s when he started making me swallow the pills. I couldn’t fake it. I tried. Parking the pill under my tongue or on the inside of my cheek—between my gums and cheek, only pissed him off and he’d double the dose and I wouldn’t wake up for several days. When I did, his odor became mine and I’d vomit because it made me sick to think of his dirty hands on me.
I can feel the bandage on my shoulder where he deliberately cut me. It hurts. I wonder if I needed stitches. Will I survive to worry about a scar on my shoulder? Will I need plastic surgery? Will I live through this? If I could just free my hands, I know I could escape.
I’ll change my strategy. I’ll find out everything I can about him. See if I can find something redeeming, to use against him. I try, he tells me to shut up. I try again.
Now, he won’t let me talk. If I talk, I have to take more medicine—medicine that induces vomiting. He’s nasty in his torture. That’s what he enjoys, he tortures for kicks. I wonder what he gets out of it? He transfers the torture of his miserable little nothing life to the torture of others by making them weak and defenseless.
I wonder if the cherished houseplants I’d bought—using money that would have bought a month’s supply of boxed mac and cheese—lasted more than a week. I had left the window cracked that morning, so it wouldn’t be too hot, but the plants weren’t hardy. Oh, what does it matter? Will I ever see Manhattan again? Smell it? Taste it? See myself in the reflection of the big business-front windows?
I can still feel the pointed cold steel tip of the blade he held to my back, when he took me by surprise. I knew better than to empty my trash late at night—but the place was so small and by mid-week the choice was clear, either I had to go or the trash had to go. If only I had waited until daylight, I know someone would have been around to hear my screams. The gash from the knife was painful and my healthy blood spilled so fast it was soaking my clothing and I could feel it. I worried that he might be thinking of murdering me, and so I decided to cooperate. Maybe I’d get lucky and someone outside the building would see that I needed help. It didn’t happen. Even on the subway. He made me wear a hat and hold my head downward so I couldn’t see where we were going. The tape he put on my shoulder burned and pulled and I could feel the wetness of my blood as the tape turned cold in the night air.
His calmness unnerved me. He has more experience in his line of work than I did in mine. I wondered what made him tick, why he wasn’t ordinary, and if there was really such a thin line between sanity and him. I don’t even know his name or where he lives or anything about him. Silence is all I know. I don’t even know what he does to me, though I can sometimes guess. He makes me sick. He’s so damned meticulous about everything he does. He’s like a watchmaker, who has to deal with the tiniest of details only he tinkers with the small stuff of kidnapping, torture and rape. He can’t even stand himself, so he drugs me so I can’t see how nasty he is and what he looks like beneath his shabby clothing. Does he fashion himself a prince or a wild lover? Does he pretend that I’m overwhelmed with desire for him? He’s sick. He never looks at me. He knows he’ll see repulsion on my face.
He rigged a drinking bottle with a long straw, like the ones I’d seen serious bike riders wearing on their backs while peddling around Manhattan. Mine was tied to a bedrail and when I was let out of my cage, I could drink. Oh, how I wish it were tied to my back as I peddled around Manhattan.
At first he tied me to the bed, where I spent the first week. Every day was the same. I’d eat, drink, use the bathroom, then return to my bed, swallow his rainbow pills and wake up because of the hammering pain in my head. That is, until I worked my hand free from one of the ties and was almost untied and ready for my escape when he walked in the door. I wondered if it were a test, ordinarily he wasn’t home early.
Now I spend my days locked in a closet, a very small closet. I no longer know how long it has been since my capture. I thought it would end in my death relatively soon afterward. I’ve lost track. I feel like a bear in hibernation. I’m lethargic, tired, drugged and don’t want to eat. I want to sleep. I want to forget that I am a slave, a sex slave for a depraved animal who knows that if he didn’t drug me, I’d take him, I’d squash him, pulverize him and rid the world of his uselessness.
I want to go home, home to Washington. I want to hear the chickens’ soft greetings, the lowing of the cattle and bleat of the sheep. I’ll sleep now. Winter will soon be over and then I’ll be hungry and I’ll ravage and eat. My mind culls through the bounty of food, the smell of the floral damp air of summer and I hear the click, click, click of my heels on the sidewalk.
I hear the gasping sobs of my mother and feel the rough hands of dad rubbing the back of my hand while holding it between his. He says nothing.
I feel like I’m in a spiral. I saw a movie once where a spiral spun around as someone lost consciousness. This time, though, I heard the muffled sounds of people I love. My only thought is that I’ve gone. My refusal to eat has killed me. I’m no longer going to be the subject of my capture’s fantasy. I don’t feel pain.
The swirling spiral makes me sick and I want to vomit and I try to put my hand to my mouth but I feel restrained. I hear my mother’s voice again. But she’s not crying, she’s yelling. What is she saying?
I hear the soft voice of a woman. Within seconds I drift calmly, floating like a feather. The last I remember is the sweet smell and feel of sheets against my skin, crisp. I feel something warm around my cut shoulder and it doesn’t hurt any more. Yes, I think, I’ve died. I’ve heard it’s like this.
Time passes and I have no thoughts.
I hear my mother’s voice, once more. The blindfold is no longer on. But, I’m so confused. I want to open my eyes, but I don’t want the feeling of comfort to end.
“Rosie. It’s me. Open your eyes.”
I obey. It’s real. “Wha—”
“Shhh. It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re safe.” I see the tears fill in her eyes and see them spill in a steady stream down her cheeks, and she never takes her eyes off me—she looks deeply into my eyes, she knows. She feels my pain.
“It’s over.” She says, draping herself across my chest and sobbing against me. I let her and I lift my left arm, the one free from the IV tubing in an attempt to console her. It’s then that I realize that my father’s large rough hand, now trembling, is holding onto me—just as he did when I saw small and he was afraid I’d somehow get loose from his grip and dash into the street. The lines were deep on his face and his blue eyes dark with worry. I was his first born, his pride and job—the new generation to leave the hard labor of farming, he’s said to me one day.
I hadn’t been the only one. His DNA match met found on seven other of his victims.
Someone had heard my weak pounding. The building had been abandoned and boarded up, but an elderly homeless man had entered to get out of the cold a few nights ago. He was well known on the cop’s beat, and the cop often gave the man money for hot coffee on a cold night. The cop never doubted the man’s story. As soon as his backup arrived, they found me. This time, someone was lying in wait for my capture.
He won’t hurt anyone again. He hung himself in jail. I’m grateful to not have to relive the ordeal through a trial. I’m also grateful for the caring way of a man I didn’t even know, or I too would have wound up dead.
I don’t empty trash or walk streets at night. I don’t live in Manhattan any longer either. I took the Washington bar exam and passed it. I have a small office in Walla-Walla and I send a check every month to a post office box on the outskirts of Manhattan to a kindly old man—a man who saved my life. He’s no longer alone and with the extra money I send, he’s able to live on his social security and is no longer homeless.
Living near my family has provided the ability to take as many opportunities as I can to pick mom up and take her to lunch, the beauty salon or whatever she wants to do.
I cannot forget what happened to me, but I can be grateful for my freedom and life—a thought that comes to me as I gently rub that small scar on my shoulder. I long for the day when women are no longer objectified but instead treated with respect and equality. My talents as an attorney are now directed toward that end. I’m hoping that the glass ceiling I break will be one that benefits all women—not just me.
I should also say, I enjoy picking apples during harvest—just for fun.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I'm Not As Tall As I Used To Be!

I’m Not As Tall As I Used To Be

As strange as it may seem, at one time I stood five foot seven. Today I’m half that size, each day brings me hope that through determination and effort, I’ll be back tall again. One thing is certain: I will be grateful for my tallness.
No, I’m not some freak of nature, I just took the wrong step while vacationing in France and fell down landing on my side. I moved into a fetal position after I instinctively glanced down at my foot to see the reason for the unbelievable pain emanating from it. Mistake. I saw my anklebones were no longer gracing the side of my foot, but rather they protruded fore and aft. After that first glimpse melded in my mind with the pain I was experiencing, I could no longer bear to look. The wonders of nature some how kicked in and pumped some adrenalin into my body and whatever else to help me escape the pain—my husband said it was morphine instilled into my blood stream, but only after they set my fracture without any anesthetic. Ouch! Notwithstanding the momentary relief, I’d suffered an angular (the worst kind) fracture of my right ankle along with fractures of my tibia and fibula. Three surgeries later, and three months of healing and I’m still half my former height or rather still living life in the sitting or reclining position.
The reason I’m only half my size is that I live each day confined to a wheelchair. Oh, don’t fret, it won’t be for the rest of my life, however, it will be for a very long time to come. I’m told that since I had three surgeries within a 10-day period, I’ve developed some significant scar tissue and that means a long rehabilitation, e.g. one to two years. Also a lot of weakness and swelling from a condition called reflex sympathy dystrophy—this condition brought on by too many surgeries too close together.
With way too much sitting time on my hands—meaning thinking time—I’ve come to the realization that I am guilty of something I thought I would never be guilty of: insensitivity. What? Yes, insensitivity to other people, who like me are confined to a wheelchair.
During my long healthy life I have tried my best to open doors for people confined to wheelchairs (or mom’s with babies in strollers), however, now I find that my actions were insufficient. I say that because I never really thought for one moment what it might be like to spend one’s life confined to a wheelchair. I’ve learned much through my own disability and realize how fortunate I have been to have relatively excellent health until this incident.
I’ve promised myself to go beyond just feeling sorry for those confined to a chair and instead, plan to recognize that they are my peers and I care about them and understand the inconveniences they face every day of their respective lives. I don’t know where this will lead, but it must be something greater.
What is it like to be so short after a lifetime of enjoying my tallness? Well, I do have a new perspective to share.
This past summer our vacation began in Dijon, France. We’d taken the fast train (TGV) from Paris Gare de Lyon to Dijon, where we were to stay for a month in a home exchange. Because our plan was to return to Paris at the end of this vacation, we purchased a round trip train ticket and made advance arrangements with a friend for a ride back to the Dijon train station at our journey’s end.
After the fall and two subsequent surgeries in Dijon, I was ordered to bed rest and it was an absolute necessity to have my feet elevated (I should mention that I severely sprained my left foot, too, so was completely immobilized). They (my French doctors) had, along with additional internal hardware, inserted an external traction device on my right leg and it protruded about eight inches above my leg, was very heavy, and made movement virtually impossible for me. I had to be very careful about bumping the device since it was affixed to my leg by drilling a long screw through my heel and three long screws through my fibula. Ouch, again!
The problem with train riding is that there are about four or five very steep narrow steps to climb in order to board the train. I might add here that there are no laws in France, such as the American’s With Disabilities Act, to create access to travel people like me who are disabled. Indeed, in most train stations throughout France it is necessary to schlep luggage down steep stairways, go under the train tracks, and back up steep stairways just to get from the train track into the train station. So, forget traveling by train if relegated to a wheelchair! No elevators, escalators or lifts exist at train stations to my knowledge.
With this in mind, there was absolutely no way to get me into a train. It was an impossibility to manage me and also carry our luggage and laptops (we’re both writers), onto the train. No, instead we had to rent a one-way car to drive from Dijon to Paris. The car had to be large enough to allow me to lie down in the backseat, placing my legs on stacks of pillows. By the way, Euro Rail at first refused to refund us our train fare, but subsequently after seeing pictures of the horrendous injuries I sustained, they knocked $100 off. For this we were very grateful.
I was, of course, very worried about transitioning from the car once we left the hospital. We were to spend the first night out of the hospital at a friend’s home. Fortunately, he had a wheelchair, so we managed to get me from the car into the house. Once out of the hospital, I had my first experience in using a bathroom not designed for handicapped. What I found was that a standard wheelchair (one that can be wheeled around by the occupant, as opposed to a transport chair used simply to transport with someone else pushing), does not fit through a bathroom door. For me, it meant that we had to tell our host family not to come into the hallway of their home while I used the facility since the door had to be left open and because I could not stand up, I had to disrobe in the hallway with help from my husband. Oh the humiliation.
In France homes and apartments have “water closets.” This is a very narrow small room that only has a toilet in it and barely enough room for one to maneuver onto the toilet seat. With the chair parked at the entrance of the water closet, I had to use my left foot (with an air brace in place) to swivel into the bathroom and onto the seat. This was extremely difficult because I then had to rise and replace my clothing before sitting in the wheelchair again. I’d already suffered humiliation in the hospital from lack of privacy, but now I had to endure it with my friends. Most uncomfortable, and I promise never to use a handicap (although I’d rather say handi-capable, because we can do most things!) toilet stall in a public place again because should someone in a wheelchair need to use the toilet, I would feel awful for usurping that need (if I were not in a wheelchair). Our friends were very understanding, but this new experience was still embarrassing to me and the difficulty of the movement caused me additional pain as well.
Trying to sleep with the external traction device hooked to my leg, kept me awake most nights. I am a side sleeper, but was only allowed to sleep on my back with my legs elevated. In addition, I had to have shots every 12 hours (into my stomach) to prevent a thrombosis. By the time I returned home, two weeks post injury, I had slept only a couple of hours each day. The traction was a nightmare for me and it was very difficult to maneuver because it protruded into the air so far that I couldn’t sit up to a table or in a car seat sitting straight forward because there simply wasn’t room.
We drove to Paris the second day after I was released from the hospital. We planned to spend the night at the Sheraton CDG so that I could rest before the trip from CDG to LAX. Although we’d ordered a wheelchair at the curb at the Sheraton, nobody was there to greet us when we arrived at the hotel. I stayed in the car, alone, while my husband worked out the terms of getting me from the car into our room. After about half an hour, a nice man showed up with a wheelchair to transport me. I had been trained to transition from bed to chair and from car seat to chair wasn’t a big deal. However, it had been a very long drive and I had not used the bathroom on the trip—again, there would be no way as bathrooms in France are either holes in the ground upon which one must squat or very small stalls and we also had no wheelchair either (no one-way rentals available).
What a horrible experience. I’d never given any thought to not being able to use a bathroom. I mean it truly is something that is usually optional, right? If a public restroom is too dirty, I’ve exercised my option to simply wait until I got home. Or, if I found a public restroom unavailable because it was being serviced, I’d wait until I got home. Even if I wanted to use a bathroom on this trip, I couldn’t. Another eye opener and this was just my second day out of the hospital. I had endured a four-hour drive without drinking even a sip of liquid because I feared having to use the bathroom. Not a good way to travel. Suddenly bathroom thoughts became a primary part of my thinking—something that had been automatic before this incident.
I also have to say that at one point we stopped for gasoline. In France, where trust is important, a customer first pumps gas then goes into the mini mart and pays the cashier. My husband locked the car door and went in to pay. Suddenly, I was alone and realized my helplessness. What if someone were to see me there, in my helpless condition, and try to kidnap me? I know these are crazy thoughts, but when suddenly you are unable to look out for yourself, things like this do pop into your mind. I even worry sometimes that if there were a fire in our home, I could not run to safety. It’s not that I dwell on these things, but really it is difficult not to think about it once you’ve lost your ability to be independent.
Once in our hotel room in Paris, I couldn’t wait to hit the bathroom. We got the luggage inside the door, paid the porter and shut the door. “I’ve got to go!” I said. “I’m sure you do.” My husband replied pushing me quickly toward the bathroom door.
What? The chair won’t fit? Talk about going from a scale of ten high to one low, my first instinct was to cry—something I rarely do since I’m relatively happy most if not all the time. My caring husband immediately picked up the phone and politely requested a room that would accommodate a wheelchair (what was the receptionist thinking, anyway?). Of course, they moved me to a room designed to accommodate a wheelchair and I was able to not only use the toilet but also to wash up as the chair fit nicely into the sink area. However, again I was confronted with realization of how my life had changed.
My next surprise came my third day out of the hospital, when I boarded the aircraft that was to take us from Paris to Los Angeles. We were in premier seating (although I might add—and as if things were not bad enough—Air France did not comp us a seat or agree to upgrade us either. We had hoped for kindness from the airline, especially since we are air mile members and have flown this airline six other times. Boy, we were wrong. Even in light of our dire circumstance and carrying with us a note from my doctor that I could not fly unless I could elevate my lower extremities, they flat refused us any courtesy for an upgrade. Instead, Air France dinged us $9,000 each to upgrade, refused to credit for the return flight we’d already purchased and had the nerve to charge us 159 euros each because, although we were flying on the same flight we’d earlier booked, we changed our seats! Remember that when you fly Air France. Also, don’t forget to purchase emergency medical insurance BEFORE you go, it will save you by paying for GOOD (not substandard) medical care and also will pay for your first class flight home).
Because of our premier status (by the way there was only one other passenger in this expensive seating area), the bathroom was available to us and this other man. The aisle wheelchair would not, however, fit into the tiny bathroom. We had to ask the flight attendant to stand-by in the hall, blocking entrance, leave the bathroom door open, and again I nearly fell trying to maneuver onto the toilet in the tiny space (mostly because of the horrible offending external traction device drilled through my right leg and the instability of my injured left foot). I wondered how people who fly and are handicapped manage to use the restroom. It seems an impossibility.
The flight was long from Paris to LAX, and I avoided liquids even though it was dangerous for me to do so. The thought of enduring the embarrassment of having to use a public bathroom with the door wide open was more than I could handle, so I did what I had to do.
The next rude awakening came when we arrived at LAX. We thought we had made it clear to the Sheraton Hotel just a few blocks from LAX that we needed transport from the airport to the hotel, however, something was lost in the translation. Instead, we had to take a taxi. In Los Angeles, drivers worry about their respective safety since crime rates are so high, so they have plexi-glass dividers separating them from their fares but also limiting backseat space markedly. The approximately one-foot space within to place the rider’s feet, was insufficient even for a healthy rider. There was no way I was going to fit into a taxi. Also, the large airport wheelchair I was sitting in was at the curbside sidewalk level and the taxi was at street level with a drop of about nine inches. There was no way I could get from my wheelchair into the taxi. Finally, the barely understandable foreign cab driver suggested I sit in his front seat. I agreed and he cleared it of all the junk and I basically fell into the seat, causing a great deal of pain in both my broken ankle with the debilitating external device and my left sprained ankle. How do the handicapped ride in taxis? Another conundrum.
While the hotel dropped the ball on transporting me from the airport, they did put me in a room designed for disabled (after all, I was back in California), which made it easy for me to use the bathroom and to bathe. In addition, they provided free bus service from the hotel back to the airport. There was a lift on the bus and I only had to roll onto a platform and was then lifted up. The hotel sent along a porter who made sure I was safely in the hands of airport personnel and into their wheelchair before he returned to the hotel with my borrowed chair. How nice was that? I’d recommend Sheraton LAX any day. Kind, caring and sensitive to handicapped individuals, and much appreciated.
Finally, after a three-day trek, we made it home. Our dear friends not only met us at the airport, but they were kind enough to rent us a wheelchair and have it at our home when we arrived back so that I could transition from car to house—the airport wheelchair had to stay on the premises, of course, so after the nice skycap got me to the car, I was stuck. My new wheels served me well, as I moved from car to house. Another lesson: friends are more than friends when it comes to the needs we had. They were so helpful and we could not have made it without their love and kindness.
All seemed well now that we were home, except once again I had traveled from LAX to Honolulu, a five-hour flight, without using the bathroom and without drinking any liquids. I could hardly wait to arrive home and use my own bathroom. It was then that I once again broke down into a blubbering mess. My nice rented wheelchair was about six inches wider than the entrance to my bathroom door! There was no way for me to use the bathroom! Oh, horrors, I thought.
Fortunately for us, just prior to leaving our friend’s home in Dijon, he had offered and we had accepted a bedpan—just in case the trip by car proved to be too long—therefore I was saved until the next day when we arranged delivery of a narrow transport chair. This is not to say that using a bedpan is a glorious thing. To the contrary, it is awful, and I thought I had graduated from the embarrassment of it after leaving the hospital. As I soon learned, such was not the case! Rather than waking my husband in the middle of the night, I’d drag out the dreaded bedpan—something that occurred only for a couple of weeks (the next day, when I visited my doctor, he put me immediately into surgery to repair the substandard prior surgeries and to remove that horrible external device drilled into my leg by the French doctor).
If there is a hero in all of this, it is my husband. He has had to not only witness me fall, the setting of my fracture without benefit of anesthesia by the French doctor, wheel me around, worry about my transport while traveling and also empty my bedpan, but he has also had to assume the chores, including cooking, shopping and the like, previously performed by me.
We’ve learned to adapt around the house, although we’ll definitely have to hire a contractor to come in and repair all the ruts and chips in wood and paint from trying to squeeze the transport chair into small places in our home. That’s another thing: homes are not designed to accommodate wheelchairs. I assume that, like us, others adapt their environment to needs.
We’ve purchased a shower chair. The first time I was able to shower, instead of striping down and washing each body part in the bathroom sink, rinsing it over and over to get the soap off, and shivering with wet skin all the while, I sat on my new shower chair and cried for the first 15 minutes while warm water caressed my back. Unfortunately for me, we have a kooky shower that regulates the water temperature only when the shower knob is turned fully on. So? Right! So, what that means is: when I turn on the knob the first shot of water out is ice cold. I have to sit, since I’m still not weight bearing, with my back to the shower spray and endure a full 15 seconds of an ice cold shower of water! I often think of how nice it would be to stand up and move out of the way just for that brief period, then slink back into the hot water. Oh well, it’s another one of those inconveniences. At least I know that I will some day be upright, and there are many who have no choice and must always endure the inconvenience. I’m fortunate, and I know it.
We have a three-story hillside house that we’ve spent many years remodeling and improving. Fortunately our first street level has the main living area (kitchen, living room, full bath) and a bedroom. I wonder at times what we would do if this were not the case and if I had to go downstairs to sleep! In the three plus months that we have been home, I’ve gone downstairs twice. To do this, is not easy. I sit on the sofa, lower myself to the floor, scoot to the internal stairway and lower myself step by step down to the second level of our home—the place where our “usual bedroom” is located. I’ve done this so that I can point out clothing that I need my husband to haul upstairs and also to view some of the work that has been done by our contractors. It’s not so bad getting down, but coming back up is very difficult since I must pull myself up one steep step at a time. If I look at the glass being half full, instead of half empty, I can say that I really do have some improvement in my upper body strength—which isn’t so bad.
One day, after nearly three months of sitting, sitting, sitting and not doing anything independently (I am usually very independent), I convinced my husband—who was leaving to attend a business meeting in town—to drop me at the huge Ala Moana Mall to do some shopping for him, since his birthday was only a day away. He reluctantly agreed and got me into the elevator at Nordstrom before leaving. It was a hot, humid day and this mall is an outdoor mall. I wheeled myself, maneuvering through crowds and sweating, until I came to the shop I wanted to shop at. On the way to the shop, there is a ramp for handicapped to use to get to street level, next to an area of steps. I wheeled down, but it seemed very steep, so I held onto the side railing slowing myself so that my chair would not shoot out into traffic that passes through this particular division in the mall. It was a bit scary and I wondered if other chair bound people felt the same way or if it was just my own fear.
I purchased the things I wanted, then realized I had no place to store them—wheelchairs that are people operated (not motorized) don’t have baskets and such. So, I put the large bag on my lap and wheeled myself out of the store, albeit much more slowly. The bag kept sliding, so I’d replace it on my lap, and begin to wheel, making my way back to the area where I was to meet up with my husband again. Horrors! I came to that same ramp—the one that had already frightened me—and immediately began to sweat realizing that while I had to slow myself going down, I now had to climb it and with packages and my purse teetering on my lap! I tried to push forward and up with all my strength and immediately became aware that there was no way I was going to make it, I just didn’t have that kind of arm strength with my small frame. I grabbed the railing and pulled with all my might, moving forward a couple of inches, but at least moving upward. Beads of sweat began to drip down my temple and my heart raced. A young Japanese man in an information booth to my left happened to be leaving the booth for his break. He saw me and immediately came over, took the large package from my lap and using all his strength (he was small too) pushed me up that horrible long steep ramp. I was embarrassed but relieved for his kindness. Not only did he push me up that long ramp, but he also asked where I was going and he pushed me the entire length of the wing of the mall and up an additional ramp near Nordstrom. How lucky was I? I have learned that there are many angles out there, who go out of their way to be kind and helpful. People who see me and realize at once how fortunate it is that they are upright. Thank God for those angels! I don’t think I’ll venture out alone in the future, something I used to do without thinking about it. Funny, now all of a sudden I have hazards at every turn. Again, my mind leaps to the plight of those who face these challenges daily. Perhaps, like me, they resolve to only go shopping with someone else!
I decided one day while we were visiting the Apple Store where my husband was replacing his old iPhone, that I could wheel down to Macy’s to pick up a replacement pair of Capri pants that had been cut off of me by the doctor at the hospital in Dijon. I just loved those pants! Macy’s was a short distance from the Apple Store, so I figured it would be an easy (and independent) thing to do. Again, I was confronted with challenge. Wheeling on carpet, I found was not so easy—especially when there were many people out shopping that day. I made it, but my arms were aching and I was out of breath. But, the real dilemma came when I tried to search for the pants. I could see them on a rack in the distance but could not get my chair to move through the narrow aisles stuffed with racks of clothing and on a carpeted area. I looked down aisle after aisle trying to find a way into the rack I needed, but could not get to it. A very nice older saleswoman saw me and came to my rescue—recognizing that I was unable to maneuver. She went to the rack and retrieved the pants I wanted, in the size I had asked for, then brought me to the cash register where she rang up my order then walked around and placed the plastic bag on the back handle of my chair. Another angel, I thought! I waited outside the Apple Store for about a half an hour. During that time I reflected on how difficult it must be to carry on a normal life while sitting in a chair. I know the district manager for Macy’s and I’ll be sure to send her an e-mail and tell her of my experience. Hopefully they’ll change their way of doing business so that all people are well served. Strange, this Macy’s is so near to my home that I go there often—even if just to browse—and I’d never realized until that moment that it was not a store that is conducive to shopping for all people.
I must say, in all sincerity, that due to my inability to cook (my poor husband has no cooking experience or desire), we frequently eat one meal out. Each time, we have been met by hosts who willingly give us a large booth where I can elevate my foot on a pillow and they graciously remove my chair and tell us to let our server know when we need it back. They are always kind and accommodating. I am trying to cook, more and more, but realize how difficult it is for those of us relegated to a chair. I have to roll around on the chair, to get supplies I need and cutting things like vegetables and fruit at sink level is very difficult, but I manage even though it takes me at least five times longer to accomplish this task. Something so simple as cooking (I love cooking), has become a difficult task for me. I will always remember these inconveniences and realize how fortunate I am to have the ability to stand and accomplish those things that I’ve taken for granted for so long.
I do have a complaint about movie theaters, though. They set aside a very small area (one aisle with two chairs) at the back of the theater which is flat and can accommodate a wheel chair. So, if more than one handicapped person is taking in a movie, there is no place for another one to sit. It’s very frustrating. We’ve learned that we must go to the theater much earlier in order to be accommodated, but then I feel just awful when someone else comes in and I’ve hogged the only place to sit. It seems like the owners of the theater just threw a Band-Aid on a deep gash just because it had to be done, e.g., they had to do something to comply with ADA. I know it’s small potatoes, but handicapped people enjoy getting out and the movies serve as a great bit of entertainment in that respect.
Each day is a new day in which my eyes are opened to some new thing that, while easy for those fortunate enough to be upright, becomes a nightmare for those of us who must sit. I am grateful that through my determination to recover through extensive physical therapy and retraining I will eventually return to an upright position, but I shall forever carry with me understanding for those who must endure. In so many way, our world could be changed to accommodate everybody. Maybe some day it will happen. Let’s hope!

Monday, September 20, 2010

How I Survived The Vacation From Hell (A Short Story)

Chapter 1 – Three Wonderful Weeks in Dijon

The turmoil of the past month begins to subside as a bright light slowly emerges, bringing life back into focus. In the overall scheme of things, it hasn’t been such a long time. However, a lot has happened during that short period and I feel compelled to share this experience as best I can.

It all began about a month ago, on July 31st, when we arrived in France for a month-long vacation in the home of exchange partners. Our anticipation high and longing to jump into the activities we had planned, we eagerly boarded our Air France flight from Los Angeles to Paris. Our first leg on Hawaiian Air had been an easy one with the good fortune of scoring an exit row seat with plenty of legroom—always deemed to be good fortune by the two of us with our relatively long legs.

The large-wheeled belly of our Air France jet touched down on the runway at Charles de Gaulle with such grace, we felt it to be a good omen of the wonderful times to come. Smoothly we glided through customs, to the baggage zone and onto our Air France transport bus into Centre Ville de Paris. This, our sixth trek into our favorite country within as many years, was smoother than ever in light of our relative travel experience at CDG. We felt very French, capable of maneuvering in a timeless fashion, and soon found ourselves standing in the lobby of the Novatel a short jaunt from Gare de Lyon with our room key in hand.

Upstairs to our room we went, smiling at the nicely appointed air-conditioned room overlooking the entry to the train station. It was now July 31st, the day the Parisians leave Paris en masse for “vacances” either in the south of France or out of the country. We took out our clothing for the next day, watched the huge exodus of Parisians for a bit, then showered and strolled out onto the streets of the 12th Arrondissement.

We walked for about a block, not really knowing where we were going, when I finally said: “If the truth be known, honey, I’d really rather take those metro station steps down and find the train to the 15th where we can go to our favorite resto on rue du Commerce.”

“What a great idea.” My husband seized my arm and guided me into the cool confines of the 12e metro station below, quickly paid for the metro tickets to get us there and back, and before we knew it we were enjoying an apéro on rue du Commerce followed by our favorite pizza, a demi of red wine and a plate of their crisp hot creamy inside frites! Wow! Talk about contentment. We ate slowly and methodically enjoying every sip and bite before walking out into the 15e and enjoying the buzz of nightlife that was emerging.

I can’t forget to mention that we also stopped at our favorite patisserie for a small bag of the delicious crisp yet gooey chocolate macaroons!

It’s quite amazing to be able to travel all the way from Hawaii to Paris and still be capable of simply taking a refreshing shower and then going out, despite the time lapse of many zones and hours of travel. We discovered a homeopathic remedy called “No Jet Lag” a few years ago, and we swear by it ( We took it on this trip, as we have in the past, with the same great result.

After this wonderful reintroduction to Paris, we caught the metro not far from the rue de Grenelle (La Motte-Picquet-Grenelle) and back to our room to get some sleep before leaving the next day for Dijon by TGV (the marvelous fast trains of France). Needless to say, sleep came easily and we woke the next morning about 4 a.m. already adapted to French time. It was humerous, to us, as I plugged in the teapot, pulled some of our favorite mint tea bags from my purse and brewed up some tea while we ate macaroons. Ha! Love vacations.

Our hotel serves a nice French petit dejeuner (small breakfast) as part of their room fee and it is served until late morning, giving us plenty of time to lounge around. There is a nicely lit, small room with tables spaced in such a way as to provide a more intimate setting. We were served an entire pot of steamy rich French coffee along with a pitcher of warmed cream, and we enjoyed the fresh breads and jams while sipping contently on our coffee. A small bowl with yogurt and fresh fruit topped off our meal and we went back upstairs to answer e-mail, read and relax a bit more before walking the short distance to the station. What an enjoyable, slow start to our vacation. Lovely.

Gare de Lyon was filled to capacity with fleeing Parisians. Limited station seating gave way to standing tight hordes of those watching the overhead marquee, anxiously awaiting the post of train track numbers. It was now nearly noon and the aroma of the crispy but doughy French baguette sandwiches filled the air as people quickly devoured a meal in anticipation of a period of sleep during travel. We also took advantage of enjoying our first Parisian ham, butter and Compte cheese on a baguette, soaking ourselves in past memories of the delicious Parisian on-the-go snack. Calories? As the French say, "pfft!" We're on vacation.

The trip to Dijon took us through fields of sun flowers, faces tilted toward the sun, green hilly pastures dotted with the famous white cows of France and neatly trimmed hillsides filled with leafy green vines holding the treasure that promises to become another great vintage. Within an hour and forty minutes we were greeted by our friends and escorted to the car where a chilled bottle of champagne awaited our arrival. What could be better? I can answer that: nothing!

We easily found our exchange home and were met by the parents/in-laws; charming people who speak enough English to convey the intricacies of the home to us. They had also delivered some nice breakfast items and coffee, enough to make it unnecessary for us to visit the store until the following afternoon. We were invited into the Centre Ville de Dijon to dine with this nice couple, enjoying some French culture, for a Saturday dinner (just six days hence). Needless to say, we were delighted and accepted with joy.

Our friends were having a welcoming party that evening at about 7 p.m., so they left us alone and traveled to their home in nearby Couternon, France (about 5 kls), while we settled into our new place. It was only 3:30 p.m., so we not only had time to unpack but also to retire to the nice little terrace at the rear of the garden for some delicious wine our hosts left for us and a bit of a snack. The garden was filled with herbes, fruit trees, several flower varieties, strawberries and black berries, as well as bushes of lavendar—a peaceful respite and very calm. After soaking in the late afternoon sun, we showered and readied for the party, easily driving the short distance and meeting more wonderful people of the region.

We enjoyed bottles of good wine, homemade gazpacho soup, loaves of fresh bread, locally made sausages, marinated grilled pork, and crisp fresh salads, finishing the meal with a lovely fresh apple tarte we'd brought purchased at a neighborhood patisserie (recommended by our exchangers). Of course all of this was followed by an array of traditional creamy artisan cheeses. We had a wonderful evening filled with culture and lively conversation.

As my blog suggests (, the next two weeks were filled with travel in and around the Dijon region and Grands Crus. We could not have had a more enjoyable visit and we became very attached to our exchange family and their art deco home during this period. To us the blooming friendship that arises out of the home exchange process, is the cherished aspect and a bonus to travel accommodations.

We had planned a side trip to Lourmarin to visit our dear friend. She had invited us to stay a couple of nights, so we spent Friday morning renting a larger car to drive the four-hours into Provence and also purchasing some high quality chocolates to take along as a gift. Once we finished, we decided to stop to see if I could find a pair of shoes to wear to a wedding we’d been invited to so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it during the pending week. We didn’t see much in the way of something I’d like, so we decided to stop at a department store and see if they might have something. This proved to be the wrong thing to do, a life-changing event.

Chapter 2 – The Incident

The Galeries La Fayette,, is a well-known shopping gallery the origin of which began years ago in Paris then spread throughout France. Most major cities sport such a store.

On the spur of the moment, and since we would be walking very near the store on our return to our car which was parked near the “centre ville” area, we decided to drop in to see if they might have a pair of shoes like those I had in mind for the outfit I would be wearing to the wedding the following weekend. It seemed like a good idea because if I were fortunate to find an acceptable pair, we wouldn’t have to shop after our return from Lourmarin.

There are several doors to the entrance of this building and my husband selected the second from the right. People were moving in and out as it was still the busy market time before the afternoon rest period. He opened the door for me and I stepped in. Strangely enough, there was an immediate step downward, something never encountered in the U.S., where entry levels are one flat surface at ground level. It startled me a bit, but I negotiated it, by stepping down to the second of three steps downward. Since this was the entrance, there were many distractions. There were metal detectors, about six across, large signs telling us of “Soldes” (the government ordered periodic sales), and also to the left an “information booth.” As one normally does upon entry to a store, the signs and general area caught my attention. I was looking left and reading as I stepped down onto the second step. What I didn’t realize is that this second step was unusually short and my size 8 (U.S.) shoe was way too long for the step. As my foot came down, followed by my second foot, both of my feet rotated downward and under me as I struck the third step and was catapulted forward in a twisting fashion toward the left.

I immediately heard the cracking of my bones, could do nothing to break my fall and I landed hard on the floor below. Pain was beyond anything I have ever experienced in my life. I set myself on my right side, facing left where my husband knelt in horror. I assumed a fetal position, unable to breathe or do anything but moan, as shock consumed me.

Within minutes (or even seconds) store personnel were surrounding me. I vaguely recall my husband calling out to a woman to please get someone to help that speaks English. Unfortunately, he is just learning French and, of course, was in a huge emotional state at the moment. Soon a very nice woman, Heléné, came. She was soothing and reassuring. She’d called for an ambulance and she spoke to me in English. Strangely, I answered her in French—this, I do recall. Funny how shock reacts on us.

It seemed like a long time before the emergency crew arrived. I communicated with them in French and they realized my injuries as being serious. They put me into a balloon splint, after coaxing me out of my fetal position, and transported me. In route, my husband inquired as to where we were being taken. The ambulance attendant responded (in French) that we were going to the trauma unit at the Dijon University hospital, and that there was no choice. “It is where trauma victims go.” He said. And that was the end of it.

We, of course, were locked into a daze and had no idea of the reputation of the hospital, the physicians or, for that matter, anything about the socialized medicine of this country. We had to be willing victims, because we had such a language barrier that if we even remotely attempted to speak English, we were met with nothing but French and a look of impatience. Even my rough but understandable French, drew looks of chagrin and knitted brows.

While I understand that it is good to talk through things that cause trauma, it’s still quite difficult for me to do so. Suffice it to say, the next eleven days—the duration of my stay at CHU—were not pleasant. The reasons escape me, since I’m patently unfamiliar with socialized medicine and it’s affect on the general population, but I can say with certainty that I have a newly formed respect for the American medical system. Not that I felt any sort of animosity or had a bad opinion previously, but now that I have a comparison with another country, I am most grateful to enjoy the good medicine of the U.S.

Chapter 3 – Post Trauma and French Medicine

My first eye opener came immediately. Although moving from gurney to hospital bed was extremely painful, it was the setting of my bones without anesthetic that gave me the first clue that patient care was at the bottom of the rung in this medical facility. Although I’ve worked through this horrible experience fairly well, and no longer wake in the middle of the night sweating and screaming one long horrifying scream, I still find it difficult to write about. Perhaps this too shall pass with time.

There are some political things that I do not feel comfortable talking about, but can say this: in socialized medicine, everyone is entitled to free treatment. However, it does not necessarily follow that the actual care that is given by the caregivers is of the same "quality." Indeed, I was placed in a ward with Romas. This migrating sect of people are not favored by France—this fact borne out by the fact that at that very moment in time the Roma population was being sent back to Romania and Italy with a one-way ticket paid for in full by the French government. From the first day of my hospitalization until I was released (at my insistence) eleven days later, I was subjected to daily and nightly screaming, yelling and arguing between the staff of caregivers and the Roma patients. I slept little. At one point in time my safety was also in question as a patient in my room began throwing objects at me trying to get my attention. I tried to ignore her as I could not understand her language and secondly I was in horrible pain because none of the pain medications given to me were helpful. As soon as the lights were turned off for the evening, I could hear her in the darkened room as she struggled with something. Suddenly I felt movement of my bed and I began to panic. I grabbed for the bell to call the nurses but waited to turn on my overhead light until I heard them approaching. When I did turn on the light, the woman had removed all her life support garb and had pulled herself right next to my bed. She had her arm resting on my laptop iMac and her IV was resting on my bedrail. She was bloody and looked wild. My heart leapt into my throat and beat fast and hard.

The nurse came in scowling and wanting to know why I was calling her. I pointed to my roommate’s bed and the nurse flew into a frenzy calling for help. They went to work reconnecting this Roma woman to her various medical lines, then turned to me to tell me everything was alright and not to worry' this despite the fact that I'd already heard them paging for the hospital psychiatrist on duty to come immediately to this particular ward.

Surprising myself with the best most distinct French that has ever escaped from my lips, I informed this nurse that everything was not okay, that I was worried about my security and that they had a choice of moving me or moving the woman from the room and that I had already called my husband and he would pick me up if they could not accommodate me. They understood every word I said, especially in the tone of voice I used, and within five minutes I was alone for the first time in ten days. It was the very first time I slept more than two hours in one night in my eleven days of hospitalization, because the nurses never came back to check on me or take my vitals. It seemed that an American alone in a room, meant no need for assistance was necessary. Fortunately I had already learned to insist that a bed pan be placed on my nightstand at night, so that if I needed to use the bathroom, I didn't have to suffer. Fully refreshed and alert the next morning and after talking to my husband by phone, I demanded release. I'd had enough.

If I were to compare the emotional support given by nurses at CHU with the emotional support given to patients in the U.S., I’d have to give an F- to the CHU staff. Again, though, I must say that I don’t know what the standard really is in France, and perhaps emotional support for seriously injured patients is not important. I do know this: I’ve been a patient in the hospital in the U.S. In contrast: nurses are caring and kind; they treat all patients with respect; they insure the comfort and cleanliness of patients; they don’t yell and scream at patients; they don’t leave patients on bedpans for hours; they don’t put medications on the nightstands leaving it up to patients to medicate; they don’t walk into rooms at all hours of the night turning on bright over-head lighting and talking to each other as if sleep is not important to recovery nor do they leave doors wide open to hallway noise of clanking carts and constant chatter, and on and on. Seriously, I had surgery on Friday night, the same day as my injury, and then again Monday. My body endured the essence of two general anesthetics and I had been severely injured, yet Tuesday at 5:30 a.m. the lights came on in my room and a pan of cool water was set on my night stand with an order from a young nurse to wash myself. I had been given morphine a short time earlier and my body, taxed from both morphine and general anesthetic could not move. I whispered to her that I needed to rest and she barked loudly in my face, her face contorted with anger matching her words in French and her finger threateningly near my face waggling in time with her anger, and all I could do in my astonishment at her lack of compassion was look away from her. Not wanting any more than my saturated psyche could endure, I forced myself up into a sitting position, washed myself as well as I could, then collapsed back onto the bed and into yet another fitful sleep enveloped by writhing pain in my limbs both of which were throbbing, black and swollen.

Meditation was my salvation during this stay. Mornings faded into dark of night, ten times and then it was time to leave. Amazingly enough, my torturing nursing staff all came into my room when it was time for my departure and it was at this moment that I realized that my endurance and cooperation had meant something to them. They had respect for me. They were there bidding me farewell, something I had not seen them do with the others—the Romas, the dreaded ones. It was quite amazing indeed. I left with mixed feelings. Did these nurses ignore me because of their inability to communicate? Did they ignore me because they don't like Americans? Who knows? All I know is that once home in Hawaii, I had experience with a highly competent nursing staff at Kaiser-Hawaii, and the comparison is like trying to compare the Waldorf Astoria with a Motel 6. There simply is no comparison.

Chapter 4 – The Journey Back Home and American Medicine

The next four days were to be the toughest. Our dear friends had taken my husband into their home a few days before, since our exchange family had returned from Hawaii. I was to spend my first night out of the hospital there, as well, to rest before our drive to Paris. My husband had arranged travel via Mercedes. He rented a European model—it wasn’t a fancy sedan but rather an economical boxy sort of model with a spacious back seat and automatic transmission so that I wasn’t jostled about. My husband thought of everything. What a horrible experience for him, yet his focus was on me and getting me home as efficiently as possible.

A trip to Carrefour, the huge market there in Quetnigny, resulted in a purchase of four large soft square European pillows with white pillow cases and a light summer blanket, all of which have proven to be true assets for propping up injured limbs and covering me during transfers at cold airports and on flights as well as making the drive from Couternon to Paris and Paris to Hawaii more enjoyable.

We made it to Paris within a four-hour period, with light traffic and a bit of rain. We stopped only once for gas and drinks. I managed to not drink anything during this trip, so that no bathroom stops were necessary. From my backseat position, I navigated us to CDG and then our trouble began. It was so difficult to find the exit we needed for the Sheraton—a large hotel sandwiched between layers of stacked entrance/exist roadway and two of the largest terminals you can imagine. We’re not quite sure how it occurred, except to say that we must have entered an area when crossing arms were, for some crazy reason, in the upright position because we found ourselves locked in the taxi area where the only way out is through use of a special card that has a bar code imprinted on it and will raise the crossing arm at its exit. We were frantic. We could see the Sheraton but couldn’t get out of the parking lot to get there. Speaking no French, my husband had to be the one to go find help. I could not walk and we had no wheelchair. He made several attempts with a car rental place, to no avail. They sent us through an area that was even more difficult to get out of, requiring us to then have to go the wrong way on an access road to get back to the lot we were stuck in. Finally my husband was able to find someone inside the airport terminal, as I sat with emergency flashers on and the car running while praying that nobody would come to ask me to move the car, who understood our dilemma and directed us to an extension to call once we were at the crossing gates. This nice man then pushed an external button that automatically opened the gates for us. We were free after an hour of panic. Once outside the lot, we stopped along the roadway, called the Sheraton, kept them on the line and had them vector us into the hotel. It was an interesting route and one we would have never found for ourselves.

Once inside the Sheraton, we were taken to a room that would not allow the wheelchair to enter the bathroom area. After five hours without access, I was beginning to manifest some frustration. We prevailed upon them to move us to a handicap room and they did so graciously. The chair fit nicely into the bathroom and I found my first bit of relief for this day. We slept well and were up bright and early to be ready to get to Terminal 2.

Our hotel provided us with medical assistance and showed us the way to our terminal (just a short walk in the interior of the hotel and a door opened into the terminal. The Sheraton at CDG proved to be a good choice for a short respite before our trip back to the U.S. because of the convenience from hotel to terminal. We found the correct lift to the Premiere status gates where a concierge awaited us. This nice man disappeared for a few moments, returning with a large wheelchair, a very nice man to maneuver it and a very nice woman to be our guide and translator. Although both French, these two wonderful people spoke English and were so kind and gentle. Madame checked us in, getting all our necessary passes and paper work, while Monsieur walked us to the airport medical facility.

The medical facility is a fully staffed clinic of professional people. In comparison to CHU, the nursing staff was kind, gentle and sympathetic (making me wonder once more about what the real standard of care in France might be). They removed all my bandages and cleaned my wounds, replacing old bandages with new sterile ones. They also sanitized the external traction device and wrapped it in order to prevent aircraft germs from having a hay day on me during my 10-hour flight.

From the medical facility we were taken to an incredibly beautiful, peaceful well-appointed lounge area. Fluffy pillows and woolen blankets were spread out for me and a waiter appeared to take our order for whatever we’d like to eat for breakfast. We were taken to a secluded area where we could relax and enjoy our meal. It was the first time either of us had been totally peaceful since the incident occurred, and we enjoyed it immensely.

When it was time for the flight, our hostess and driver magically reappeared and they took us smoothly and swiftly through customs and security. From there we were taken to a gate where we were moved from the secured area to a waiting large vehicle outside and on the tarmac. A lift brought us up into the truck that had several nice seats and an anchor for my chair. This truck then drove out onto the tarmac and across it to another area (about a 10 minute ride) where our plane was sitting, engines running. The truck telescoped upward and connected with the front Premiere section where I was wheeled into the plane and directly into my seat.

The staff immediately began stacking pillows and covering me with blankets, adjusting my seat and foot couch so that I was perfectly elevated on both feet—this despite the fact that airlines generally do not allow this on take-off—and I was completely comfortable. I had a flight attendant assigned to me and she knelt down beside me, comforting me often and making sure I was well cared for. Except for the two incidents where I had to get up and use the bathroom, it was an amazingly comfortable albeit long ride back to the U.S.

When we arrived at LAX, things were not so smooth. A misunderstanding at the Sheraton LAX meant we had to board a taxi to get the few blocks to the hotel. It was hot and very difficult for me to transfer as the taxi was low to the ground and I had to also maneuver myself off of the high curb and into the taxi’s front seat. I made it, but it wasn’t so easy. We’d made advance reservations to spend the night, thinking that each leg might be easier on us if we could rest one night before starting on the next.

This time Sheraton put us in a handicap ready room that was incredibly wonderful as far as bathroom and shower facilities were concerned. The staff was very accommodating and helpful as well.

The Sheraton staff arranged for a bus with a lift to take me back to the airport and my transfer was comfortable and convenient. Again we were met by staff who took us swiftly through boarding passes and security and before long we were onboard the Hawaiian Air flight to Honolulu. Our first class staff was accommodating and efficient and aided us along the way.

This time I refrained from drinking so I didn’t need to make that dreaded bathroom run. The biggest problem, of course, is that the doors open very little and in order for me to transfer on my left (also injured) foot from the wheelchair to the toilet, I need to be as near as possible. Even with the narrow “aisle chairs” used on the aircraft. I could only get to within two feet of the toilet, and with my weakened sore left foot I could not bear weight long enough to transfer—at this stage I still had the huge external traction device affixed to my right more severely injured right leg making it impossible to swing it around. I nearly fell during the flight from Paris, so didn’t want to further injure myself. As it turned out, not drinking anything was the right choice and I drank a lot when I arrived in Honolulu.

When we arrived in Honolulu, a huge sigh of relief escaped unwittingly from both of us. We knew that early the next morning we’d be put into the hands of our local physicians and we’d finally have a definitive diagnosis and prognosis—something that weighed heavily upon us. We didn’t even know the name of our surgeon in France and he never once visited me but rather assigned an intern (someone studying medicine but not yet a physician) to assist us. Monsieur Macroon was a very nice man from Lebanon and he spoke fairly good English, but he really had no concept of the injury I suffered and his daily rounds came at 7 a.m. with a large group of wanna-be-doctors and nobody asked me how I was, they just talked among themselves in French and didn’t really examine me. Quite interesting in comparison to the regime I faced at home.

Two couples, some of our dearest friends, met us at the airport with open arms, hugs and kisses and, of course, consolation for my huge tears that flowed readily—mostly in relief for being back on American soil where I could be heard and better yet understood. By 10:30 p.m. we were home and in our bed. A huge black cloud lifted, as we felt that this would be the beginning of recovery for both of us. We slept well.

We were up early the next morning, getting ready for our big visit with the doctor. We weren’t disappointed, either. I had been assigned to a Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon and Sport’s Medicine Specialist all in one! I knew that a sport’s medicine guy would be accustomed to seeing the worst kinds of injuries and know how to fix them so that return to a given sport would be possible, and for this I was grateful. After four and a half hours of repeated x-rays, consultations with us, and consultations with other physicians, my doctor determined that further surgery would be necessary. At first I was devastated—knowing that I’d be set back another two weeks—but then I realized that he was intent on removing the offending external traction device (it seemed more appropriate for a 400 pound gorilla than for a slight-framed woman like me) and that he also noted some problems with the manner of repair from the first two surgeries.

Chapter 5 – American Medicine Stands Alone

So, Friday morning, two weeks after injury, there I was: prepped and waiting in the surgery center for my surgeon. What was to be a quick 45-minute surgery turned out to be a three-hour surgery, with my surgeon and another orthopedic surgeon working together to fix me. Not only did they find a nail that had been driven into the joint and through the cartilage in the joint of my right blown out ankle, they also found that the anklebone had not been set anatomically atop the joint. Also, there were many bone fragments that had not been attended to and an infectious process had begun around some of the other hardware that had been installed. Clearly my stitches were infected as well. I’m quite sure that since they didn’t change my initial bandages for over three days following my initial surgery in France, that the infection was inevitable. All of this explained why I was in such pain for two weeks. Once my physician cleaned up the area and inserted a plate to stabilize the fractures, stapled me up and put a splint on my right leg, my pain dropped from a constant level eight to a level five and then steadily afterward it moved down. With only minor exception, I’m now pain free.

The most amazing part of this hospitalization, though, was the comparison of care between the two medical systems (French v. American), for which I must say with certainty there is no comparison. Not only did the French hospital fail to provide any privacy for patients, e.g., no modesty curtains separating beds, no curtains on windows, doors left wide open while using bed pans and bathing, but they didn’t even have air conditioning for patient comfort nor did they have screens on the windows. There is a huge problem with mosquitoes in Dijon and with windows left wide open day and night, I was eaten alive by mosquitoes. I looked like I had chicken pox, with bites all over my face, neck, arms and feet. My husband bought some repellant at a local homeopathic store and I would smear it on me at night, but it didn’t stop the mosquitoes from swarming and buzzing around my ears all night long, preventing me from needed rest.

Furthermore, at our beautiful Moanalua Kaiser-Hawaii hospital, I was put into a private room, beautifully painted and decorated, with air conditioning and a lovely view of the mountainside. The nurses were always friendly, patient and compassionate. They were quiet as they walked in the hallway and the minute called, they responded—and, I might add, never did they make me feel like I was imposing by calling them. They cleaned the room daily, changed bandages, bathed me, and attended to my every emotional need—even stroking me and comforting me when I felt so bad that I cried. This kind of loving care resulted in a short hospitalization for me and I was out within a couple of days. I still think strongly that the emotional aspects of trauma can be just as debilitating as the physical aspects and that if left untreated, emotional trauma can be very bad and can delay the healing process.

Ten days post-surgery, I was placed in a hard cast. I’ll wear this cast for three weeks and then it will be time for a re-evaluation. If all goes well, I’ll be placed in a walking cast. Daily soaks with Epson’s salts have helped my left ankle sprain and although it is still tender, I can see a great deal less swelling and discoloration. My range of motion is improving as I work with it daily. I have high hopes for good healing and function and am currently looking forward to a lengthy period of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

I think it will be a while before I’m ready to travel to France again. I know we shall return because we do love it there, but I’m wondering if I should change the name of my blog from A Love Of Everything French to perhaps The Things I Love About France. I’m not quite ready to say that the French medical system is the best in the world.

I do hope that by reading this short nonfictional account of what can happen on vacation, others will be wise and purchase travel insurance that not only covers the cost of an unexpected first class ticket home, but the cost of all the other expenses such as hotel, car rental, medical costs and the like that accompany such an injury.

We had to eat the cost of our return flight on Air France. That was painful enough. We also had to pay $9,000 each to return home in first class because my doctor said no elevation of the leg means no travel. So, $18,000 in unexpected air travel, combined with the fact that we’d already purchased our fast train tickets to CDG and had to lose that money and in turn rent a car to take us to Paris, combined with the necessity of a first class trip form LAX to Honolulu on Hawaiian Air and a hotel stay in Paris as well as LAX, meant a huge unexpected expense for us. What really burned us the most, though, was that there were five other empty seats in first class. Only one other person, besides the two of us, sat in the eight first class seats. We still wonder how Air France could have been so cruel to us. We’ve been good and constant customers, taking six other trips—all on Air France—including two flights last year. We weren’t treated at all like valued customers. In fact, they charged another $100 to us because we moved from our economy seats into first class and they wouldn’t even waive that fee. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but it just really seems to be very unfriendly. If first class had been full, I can understand. But it wasn’t and I had no choice in the matter. It was either I elevate or I couldn’t come home. As it turned out, the necessity of another surgery would have been disastrous if I had been forced to wait to travel later. My surgeon said my results would be best the nearest in time to the incident. So while my prognosis is good, if I had waited any longer, it might not have been so. I'll update this post later. I wrote an appeal letter to Air France to see if they might show a little compassion and refund the $18,000 plus $100 fee and reissue vouchers for the two return flights we lost (another $2200 value) to be used at a later date. It seems to me that it would be unconscionable for them not to be accommodating, under the circumstances. We shall see.

So that’s it: My vacation from hell, so to speak. If anything is to be gained from this, it is that one must always take precaution when traveling. Not only in insuring one’s own safety regarding traps for the unwary, but also in taking out a policy of insurance that, if anything, will provide some peace of mind.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The French Laundry (A Short Story)

The French Laundry

It was late May when we arrived at the Zurich airport, following a twenty-something-hour trip from Honolulu, through New York and into Zurich.
The first glimpse of the gleaming modern Zurich airport immediately aroused us from that bound-up-tight feeling created by the tiny berth in which one must endure unbelievable discomfort while traveling across two oceans and half way around the world.
Zurich airport’s acoustics, lighting and amenities such as shops, markets, restaurants and easy-to-read signage—and let’s not forget the free and ample luggage carts—made our arrival delightful. We stopped at one of the well-stocked airport terminal markets and filled a couple of sacks with fresh fruits, cheese, a bit of Swiss chocolate (of course) and some pastries before taking the nearby elevator to the car rental agency on the next floor up.
Speaking perfect English, the friendly suit-and-tie-clad-clerk greeted us without a second of waiting, giving us keys and location of the car, and pointing us to the elevator to the fourth floor. A simple walk through a glass door and we were in a gleaming parking structure. The competent clerk had also provided us with a map directing us to our destination, a quaint ski village called Megéve very near Chamonix—Frances premier winter sports escape.
We loaded our luggage—which by the way was ridiculously over-packed (a lesson learned)—and started our trek. We drove through the most beautiful valley floor of chartreuse pastures dotted with brown and white milking cows and sparkling white barns and houses, all set against the craggy speckled white backdrop of the Alps. The air was light, sweet and cool, unlike the heavier tropical air of Honolulu where we live.
The drive was about four hours. We stopped midway at one of the restaurant/petrol stops that are characteristic of the toll highways in Europe. The sun warmed our skin as we exited our air-conditioned car. We entered the small café and the aroma of dark oily coffee beans combined with the yeasty fragrance of freshly baked dough, swept over us. We ordered our first French espresso and a buttery billowy croissant to share, taking our tray out onto the sunny open deck where we enjoyed a view of the highway we’d just traveled—from a much higher perspective since we were at the start of a gradual climb into the Alps.
Refreshed (mind you, we hadn’t slept in many hours at this point), we climbed back into our car and drove another couple of hours until we encountered something that shook our confidence a bit. We quickly learned that summer meant road construction in and around the Alps. It wouldn’t have been too bad, but the one exit that we needed to take to get over the Alps and to our destination was closed, period, end of sentence and, as luck would have it, with no alternate route designated.
Now, I have to say, when we started this particular vacation, I was fresh out of French 102. Meaning, as most people know, I knew how to conjugate a few verbs but that was about it. Putting words together in a sentence—or should I say having the confidence to do so—was not something I could or wanted to do.
We knew the word for Gendarmerie, though, and luckily we saw a sign pointing to an off-ramp with a police station. We’d already driven several miles past the off-ramp we needed, never seeing any sort of detour signs (we later figured we were heading toward Italy). So, we pulled off the highway and into the driveway where two uniformed officers were walking toward a patrol vehicle.
“Bonjour.” I barely could hear my voice and was sure they couldn’t hear me either.
“Oui, Madame?” The taller thinner officer replied.
At this point I froze. I knew nothing more to say.
“Parlez-vous Anglaise? I stammered, my mind racing through the small litany of words I could recall.
“Non, Madame.” He was starting to turn from us. My heart pounded.
“Do you speak German?” My husband shouted across me, but in what sounded like perfect German. I shot him a look that said: you must be joking.
To our surprise the officer began to roll German off his tongue as if he were a native, my husband nodded in approval while jotting down information. You’ve heard the cliché “could have knocked me over with a feather,” well, you could have. My husband had served in Berlin years before the wall came down and had studied German at the Language Institute in Monterey, CA. He’d learned well and I was sufficiently impressed. We were soon on our way. It is sort of ironic to think about it: two Americans in France, speaking to Frenchmen in German in order to get directions.
As it turned out, the closed off-ramp was a plus for us. We drove on a narrow winding road with Mont Blanc, still dressed in a heavy white winter snow coat, rising up before us and the tree line—a spectacular vision that sparkled and gleamed against the blue lagoon canvas of sky. It’s still framed in my mind as the most majestic sight I’ve ever encountered—even after having the fortune to visit Iguaçu Falls on the Argentina boarder in South America.
For this trip to France, we had arranged an exchange of our timeshare on the Big Island of Hawaii for an apartment in Megéve. Since May was an off-season period, it was easy to snag an exchange—though I doubt it would be so during ski season. We didn’t care, because this was our first time in France (now we go once or twice a year) and we had no idea where to go.
Megéve is small and picturesque with a center village area that is pied-a-Terre only (no cars allowed). We found our apartment, very near the centre ville and were a bit disappointed. Our timeshare on Big Island is a beautiful Gold Crown apartment, spacious and with comfortable high-end furnishings. The “lodge” was small and cramped with a room approximately 9x12 that contained a tiny dining table for two on one wall, a futon with small table and lamp on a wall and across from there a kitchenette. Once the futon was folded out, the room was too crowded to walk. The bathroom was barely large enough for one person and it contained a corner shower, toilet and very small sink. It was dimly lit as well. The plus was a nice deck with lounge chairs and a spectacular view of the Alps; however, it was way too cool to sit outside. We wondered how on earth we’d manage for an entire week in such a tiny space.
We maneuvered our suitcases into the tiny apartment, stowing them under the futon after we took out something to change into and for the next day. Although very tired, we were too excited to sleep, so we showered and strolled into the village. Tiny shops dotted the few short streets of the village. It was already late in the evening and being off-season everything was closed. However, we found a lovely small boutique hotel and spotted the first local people and guests staying in the area—I’d estimate about a dozen or so people, including the hotel staff and waiters. The hotel had a deck area for dining and the aromas were drawing us in. Although we had no reservation, they were very kind and gave us a lovely table where we enjoyed an aperitif and a small bowl of olives they provided.
Soft music played in the background, but it was evident that off-season Megéve was an exceptionally quiet place. The sound of wind moving through pine trees could be heard, despite the music.
Our server, a friendly Frenchman who spoke a little English, helped us through the menu and suggested that if we had never enjoyed a tartefletta, we must do so. He suggested a Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc wine and we awaited our main course. All the pre-holiday dieting was down the tube that first night. The plat prinçipal (main course) came to us piping hot from the oven in a large sort of individual ramekin. The dish consisted of layer after layer of thinly sliced potato seasoned and topped with a variety of good melting cheese such as gruyere and emmentaler, as well as layers of thinly sliced pieces of ham, then topped with heavy cream and baked until slightly brown and bubbly. Needless to say, we devoured this delectable food not daring to consider the calorie intake but swearing that we’d not indulge ourselves again during the entire trip.
We strolled back to our apartment with quaint generously spaced street lamps gently lighting our path. Pots heavy with spring blooms lined the walkway, scenting the night air with sweetness. Our first day in France left us sated and exhausted as we fell onto the futon for a long cramped rest.
We spent three days traveling in and around all the small ski villages in the French Alps and also traveled to Annecy on the Lake where we had our first experience in a country market. We bought up small packages of pungent artisan cheeses wrapped in bits of oily cloth tied with string or twine, loaves of freshly baked crusty artisan bread, home preserved jams, small rolls of fragrant hard sausages and bowls of Provençal olives. We also found a small wine shop and bought some wines to enjoy along with the local bounty.
On our fourth day of our stay in this lovely but all-too-quiet village, we knew that the NBA play-offs were over and that the final game was going to be played the next night. Our computer sat idle in its case, we had no connectivity in the remote lodge and couldn’t even upload pictures to our travel blog. Also, we had no cell phone capability. At least these all seemed like valid excuses to explore beyond Megéve and the Alps. My husband drove us to Chamonix, at the base of Mont Blanc, where we’d seen an Internet café. The young woman who ran the shop helped us set up our computer and gave us the password so that we could use WIFI (pronounced “wee fee” in France).
We surfed the net, found a four star hotel in Lyon in a beautiful old monastery atop Old Lyon, made a reservation and left the next morning thinking we would not only get to see a bit of Lyon but also could sleep in a real bed with enough room for the two of us! To our delight, the room was stunning. We had a view of Old Lyon, 227 steps below us (we know because we walked down those steps, but more importantly back up again), a huge king size bed with down laden bedding that cradled our futon-weary bodies, and a huge marble bathroom with toilet, bidet, huge Roman soaking tub and huge shower room. I immediately filled the tub with steamy hot water and sank down to my chin, lying back and closing my eyes. My husband jumped into the shower. After this refreshment, we took in Old Lyon and the quaint cafés and shops filled with silk, cheese, bakery, old and new books, flowers and wines.
We brought food from a small restaurant, had it packed to go, and walked back to our hotel where we climbed into the comfy bed, spread our tasty Lyonnaise food before us, and enjoyed a delicious bottle of Burgundy wine from a shop owned by Georges del Santos, the Flying Sommelier. We felt quite regal as we ate while watching the NBA on the huge TV screen. Talk about a nice respite from our mountain retreat! We were in heaven as far as we could tell.
Now more confident of driving around in France, we took country roads back toward the Alps driving through small villages and hamlets and enjoying the local culture. We snapped pictures of fields with clusters of tiny goats, fluffy pampered lambs or milking cows with tails in constant motion swiping away flies while slowly chewing their cuds—no doubt herds that provided the basis for the creamy pungent artisan cheeses of France. We also marveled at huge fields filled sun flowers—their bold yellow faces cast upward toward the sun. The short trip provided us with memories to carry and enjoy for a long time to come.
Arriving back in Megéve in the late afternoon, we still had one more night before we were going to drive to Geneva where we planned to turn in the rental car and take the TGV to Paris.
“We still have delicious goodies left from our trip to Annecy.” I looked inside the small refrigerator pondering a fabulous French meal our last night in the apartment. It was Friday and about four o’clock.
“Let’s do this . . . you figure out what to make us for dinner.” My husband suggested. “And, I’ll take this small pile of laundry to the laundry room and do the wash.” He began to stuff the clothing into a laundry bag. “Then I’ll bring the ironing board and iron back.” Smiling at me. “And we can press out some things before packing.” He always has good ideas, I thought, reflecting on the next stage of our trip. We were on our way to Paris in the morning for a two-week stay in a home exchange in the fifteenth arrondissement and were eager to get a move on.
“Great idea.” I pulled out the suitcases, placing them on the futon.
“It should only take about an hour.” Leaving the door ajar while he picked up the bag of dirty clothes. “I’ll stop at the office to get euro coins.” He closed the door and I locked it.
I went to work, packing up a few things for both of us and then preparing some food for our last meal in Megéve. It had been about an hour and a half, so I poured the wine, expecting him any minute. Then it was two hours. He must have had to wait for use of the machines, I thought, as I sipped a bit of the burgundy and reflected on the tones of chocolate and figs it offered.
We were only about one of two couples at this lodge, so it was very quiet all the time but I could hear the sound of voices off somewhere in the hallway of our structure. At first I heard faint rapping on doors, thinking someone must be locked out. Then there was a sharp rap on my door, jolting me for a moment. Something wasn’t right because I could hear the voices of a woman and a child. They must have been knocking on every door trying to find someone. I waited with pounding pulse until the next round of rapping commenced but this time with a woman shouting, “Madame! Madame, s’il vous plait!”
Oh my God, I thought, my husband has had a heart attack in the laundry room. I yanked open the door to a find a frantic woman and child standing in front of me motioning for me and speaking simultaneously and excitedly in rapid French.
“Les clés, Madame.” She motioned to the door to make sure I didn’t leave my door unlocked. I’d had enough French to know that she said “the key” and I grabbed the keys from the table and followed her as she periodically (as did her about nine year old son) looked over her shoulder motioning for me to continue to follow.
We wound our way through the lodge to the other side, the swimming pool side, and up a flight of stairs to the woman’s apartment—much larger than ours and with the door standing wide open. The woman motioned me further toward her bedroom. At first I was frightened, wondering if this was some sort of trap for me and that my husband might have already been trapped, but adrenaline pumping through my system drove me straight through her living and bedroom onto the deck. I saw a man on the other side of the still-covered swimming pool (I think it must always be too cold to swim in the Alps), waving his arms at me and pointing about eight feet above him.
I looked and saw the entire head of my husband peering through an opened window.
“What?” A word that came out wildly in a rant while my mind tried to piece it all together.
“What?” He says. “It’s a long story, but I’ve been locked in the laundry!”
Just then and white knuckled he pulled himself up into the window and with only a two-foot walkway between himself and the cold water of the swimming pool, jumped onto the deck.
At the same time he made this quick move, I shouted to him, “Wait! The clothes!”
I was simply too late. He was now below the window and on the deck.
“Shit!” He yelled and the woman’s husband, the woman and her son all began to laugh and so did I. My laughter, however, soon turned to worry, as I couldn’t see how my husband was going to re-enter the building to get our clothing.
See, the real problem was that the day clerk had locked the door below—the one that led to the laundry room—without first checking to see if anybody was in there. This, despite the fact that only an hour earlier she’d given change to my husband and directed him to the laundry room located within the gym. My husband hadn’t heard the door being locked because of the noise of the laundry process, so when he finished the laundry and packed it back into the bag and walked down the stairs to the exit of the laundry it wasn’t until then that he found the door locked. He pounded and pounded and yelled, but nobody responded. It was, after all Friday, and the clerk was long gone and wasn’t going to return until Monday. He later said that he even thought of picking up one of the barbells from the gym and hurling it through the window—this during his initial stage of anger at the insolence of this woman.
Of course, our train was leaving early and we needed to leave for Geneva by six in the morning. The window above the washer had a bolt on it and he couldn’t open it and there were no tools in the room, so he began to pound and yell hoping someone below might hear him. As luck would have it, a Frenchman received a cell call—apparently his French cell phone was capable of transmitting and receiving calls while our American cell phone would not—and he walked out onto the pool deck apparently to improve his call reception. After about 15 minutes of pacing and talking, he noticed my husband gesturing wildly from the window near the pool. My husband used his best sign language to convey his dilemma and finally got across the point that he needed a screwdriver to unbolt the window. The kindly man went to his apartment to tell his wife to find me (my husband relayed our room number using his fingers) and the man went to his car to retrieve a toolbox. That was how my husband was able to eventually escape.
My husband looked up at the window, then at me with a look of embarrassment (the French family still wondering how we would get our clothing), and jumped up grabbing hold of the window seal and pulling himself up and reluctantly back into the room. Soon clothing, an iron and ironing board came flying out of the window and the young boy caught them quickly before they hit the pool. My husband, now fully experienced, jumped back out the window and gratefully bowed and said, “Merci, Monsieur, merci beaucoup.”
“De rien, monsieur.” The man telling him it was nothing. I could see a slight quiver at the side of his mouth as he restrained himself from falling into fits of laughter.
We said our good byes and with clean clothes in hand, walked back to our apartment.
We settled around the table, enjoyed the last of our food and quality wine and I listened to the story once again taking mental notes so that some day I might be able to retell the story.
My husband wrote a long note to the proprietor and slipped it under the door of her office just before we left. I don’t know what the note said (in English, of course) or if she even understood it but we never heard from them again.
We don’t visit French laundries any more unless, of course, they are public and clearly marked as 24-hour establishments.
We continued to laugh about the incident on our trip to Geneva the next morning and have shared it with friends and family around the dinner table on occasion, too. It certainly did leave us with memories of Megéve that neither of us had anticipated.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010



It was an early-summer day when we left Lourmarin taking A6 upward toward Lyon.
We’d enjoyed the lavender and poppy laden quaint village of Lourmarin—made famous by Peter Mayle in A Year in Provence—for a couple of weeks, taking daily trips to surrounding hamlets and villages and returning each afternoon to enjoy the food and ambiance of our local village a short walk from our apartment.
While packing up, we reminisced about the trip already archived in our mind and on our blog. We were setting out for Dijon, north of the bustling city of Lyon, where we planned to spend four nights with our friends before dropping off our rented car in Paris where we were going to eventually wind up for yet another week.
A couple of weeks earlier we’d arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport, where we met friends who live in Paris. They took us to our hotel, conveniently located just outside Gare de Lyon. We met again for dinner, and then slept for a few hours before taking the fast train (TGV) from Paris to the car rental station in Aix en Provence—a point not far from Lourmarin.
Our rental agency provided us with a nice diesel Peugeot that proved to not only be economical to drive, but also quite comfortable—an excellent touring car. We explored the Vaucluse region of Provence for two weeks, requiring gas only once. The station clerk pointed to the appropriate pump at that time.
I should say here that I speak French roughly, but my husband doesn’t speak it at all. I’m the one who gets us by, albeit minimally, on our treks to France each year.
Just before ten in the morning we looked one last time at the beautiful gardens surrounding our rented apartment at Les Olivettes before heading out. We drove for quite a distance before it was time to get some gasoline. Anybody who has driven in France knows that there are many gas stations along the A6, so we knew we would not run dry.
Just to the south of Lyon, my husband stopped for gas, telling me he’d handle it. Speaking no French, he couldn’t figure out which pump to use. I told him to please go inside and ask the clerk. Instead, unbeknownst to me, he did what he thought to be the best thing: asked a man standing nearby.
“Is the green colored pump the diesel?” He asked in his if-I-speak-slowly-in-English-he’ll-understand-me tone.
The polite gentlemen (I learned later) gave a friendly nod and my husband felt he’d broken the language barrier. Pleased with himself, he lifted the hose and began filling the nearly empty tank with regular grade gasoline (I learned this later too when he told me what he thought the pump had written on it).
It was at this point that I asked him (my fault), “How did you know which pump to use?”
“Well, I know from the last time we got gas, that it was the green tank…and, well, I also asked a nice man and he nodded affirmatively.”
I felt a slight hitch in my stomach and silently pondered the question of what might occur if one were to put the wrong gas in a diesel car?
Less than 50 kilometers later we began to learn. The car began to sputter and jerk, sort of like it wasn’t firing on all cylinders, but only so slightly at first. We drove around Lyon, taking the by-pass, as I continued to silently worry with each jerk of the car. It was also nearing lunchtime and I’d packed a superb French lunch with the wonderful leftover sausages, cheese, diet coke, fresh French bread from our morning delivery at the apartment and some radishes. I suggested that we stop at a roadside stop—one with a picnic ground and a gas station so that my husband might ask a mechanic to look at the car. We decided to park in the picnic area to enjoy lunch and then my husband would walk back the 300 or so yards to the gas station to see if he could figure out the problem with the car.
We broke out the lunch and enjoyed a tailgate meal in the warm sunshine at the edge of the Côte d’Or wine country. Afterward, we packed everything up and decided to circle back around to the gas station.
All the cranking in the world wouldn’t start the car. It was not going to take us anywhere. We were literally in the middle of nowhere and with my rough French I lacked the confidence to explain exactly what might have happened to cause our breakdown.
My husband walked to the service station, but wasn’t successful in communicating, though he’d tried. Needing to work off my building angst, I said I was going to visit the ladies room, so I walked back to the gas station mumbling prayers as I walked.
When I came back out into the daylight and looked off in the distance, I panicked, as I didn’t see the car anywhere. As the car came screeching around a corner, I spied it just as the door flew open, with my husband shouting, “Hurry! Get in! I cranked the hell out of her, and she kicked.” I had to wonder if those mumbled prayers might have had something to do with it?
I quickly jumped in and we were off. The kilometers clicked off but the sputtering became more pronounced. We were heading into farm/wine country with no roadside stops or homes within visual range and the more the Peugeot sputtered, the more nervous I became.
To make things worse the sky had turned a threatening inky black—the kind of black I’ve seen in Kansas with the car radio blasting warnings to get off the road and seek refuge. Within minutes the sky opened up with buckets of water pouring out. Like Paris, when it rains in Lyon, it really rains—a virtual deluge and for a long while.
Now we were going to be stranded and drenched as if it wasn’t enough that we barely got by with the language. Being stranded would prove to be more difficult than ordering in a restaurant or purchasing Advil in the drug store. Although we thought it couldn’t be any worse, we were wrong. We entered into a highway construction zone with narrowed lanes and a missing shoulder—leaving us nowhere to pull off the highway when breakdown inevitably occurred. We were limping along in the slowest right lane at barely 30 miles per hour in the heavily traveled truck lane.
The worst occurred.
“Uh oh,” My husband said in a tone that alerted me unequivocally to danger.
“Oh no, it’s finished?” I tried to keep calm.
“Afraid so, honey.” His face paled.
I quickly jerked around to see what was coming behind us, as we were starting an assent up a steady incline on the highway. Trucks, lines of them were approaching and we’d be stopping in a very dangerous place in pouring rain in our small dark blue Peugeot.
With little power left, my husband let out a gasp as he spied an opening between construction barriers and, as if we were blessed, an emergency calling phone! He pulled the steering wheel as hard as he could and the car quit on the edge of the highway, just off the surface, next to a deep culvert.
We had no umbrella but quickly got out of the vehicle and pulled the emergency flag from the trunk (all cars have these emergency flags in France), and walked the 25 yards to the call phone.
We’ve have had a long love affair with France. The government runs well and with practicality. As it turned out, the emergency call station also had a video camera and much to our relief the operator was not only able to see us, but our car as well. The first thing she did was verified that we were okay and didn’t need police assistance. Imagine that! She also spoke good English. She assured us that we need not worry; someone would be out to rescue us within an hour. It was such a relief. We got back in the car and waited patiently.
Within the hour a Frenchman from a local village came by. He spoke no English but gave us the nod that told us the car was broken. He used sign language to let us know what he was going to do, e.g., trailer the car and carry us to the garage where he worked.
Because we did not know where we were, nor could we, with any sort of specificity, tell a taxi driver or anyone where we were (except somewhere on A6) or where we needed to go, our emotional state was filled with both dread and relief. Nonetheless, we climbed into the tow truck and sat wide-eyed as the driver drove and drove and drove. He took an exit off the highway, followed by a winding drive through small hamlets and villages, stopping at a Volvo dealer in the middle of a small village some distance from the highway where we’d broken down. The dealer’s clerk spoke enough English to tell us that the tow truck driver who dumped us and then left, had a contract with the State to provide service and that he was the nearest to our breakdown site. It was now approaching six o’clock on a rainy Saturday night and the dealer wanted to close up his shop and go home. Also, the local rental company was closed. We got only a recording in French—one we didn’t much understand—except the part about being closed until Monday! We really needed the refuge of this auto dealer at the moment since we hadn’t a clue about how to remove ourselves from the mess we were in.
We called our friends in Dijon. After explaining what had happened and enduring a long pause for laughter, we explained that we didn’t know where in France we were.
Our friend asked for the street address—something we could easily supply. He then plugged the information into his French GPS and voila our location identified. In our fearful moments, we’d passed our exit some 20 kilometers earlier (we could have actually limped into our friend’s driveway—but we try not to think about that). It would be another thirty minutes to get there in his 2CV, we told the polite dealer who made yet another telephone call to his wife. We’re not certain that she was very pleased, since he walked out into the garage to explain the situation further to her.
We removed our two Samsonite twirling suitcases and two twirling carry-ons from the Peugoet, rolling them into the dealer’s showroom to await our ride. Within 45 minutes our friend pulled in. At that point we couldn’t imagine getting all our luggage and us into the 2CV, but our friend exited the vehicle carrying a chilled bottle of champagne with four glasses and popped the cork, topped off the glasses and said, “Welcome to Dijon, my friends.”
He easily put the luggage into the tiny trunk, the edge of our day fading with each sip of good French champagne, and we were soon on our way back to Courternon, just outside of Dijon.
Our rental agency didn’t flinch. They located our vehicle and arranged for us to replace it with another in Dijon, near the Gare de Dijon,
Nothing felt better than to turn onto the street and into the driveway where our friend lived in Courternon. Some day we hope to make the trip again. We’re certain it must have been a beautiful drive, however, we were in no condition to enjoy it.
The one French word my husband now knows well is: gasole. A word he’s not likely to ever forget!