We have experiences that are so out of the ordinary that your family doubts your retelling, and you wonder, did it really happen? It’s not a: I walked ten miles to school every day, in the deep snow, uphill and into the wind kind. It’s more like the Candid Camera moment when a naked young woman, wearing high heel shoes and holding a purse, stepped out of an elevator and asked people for directions.
When my sister Stella and I decided to visit our oldest sister in 1984, the trip jelled into a shape we never expected. Sitting in a window seat on the flight from Detroit to Luxembourg, I kept climbing over Stella and a grumpy woman in the aisle seat. In fairness to the grumpy passenger, she was pleasant the first six times I said, “excuse me, please.” My bathroom trips meant that a urinary tract infection was on the itinerary.
Sliding into the rental car at Luxembourg airport, I focused on getting us to Adda’s. The four hundred plus mile trip included a stop for lunch at Saarbrucken (Germany), a drive on the autobahn, then south through France and into Switzerland. I don’t remember exact stops, but close enough.
First stop, standing in line at a restaurant counter, we ordered something that looked like stew, grabbed pumpernickel bread, then looked around for seating. “Why does it smell like a dog in here?” I asked Stella, who laughed heartily. Laughing at almost everything is a family trait. “Let’s go into a corner away from the smell.” But the smell followed us.
Eyeing the food suspiciously, Stella said, “What do you think we are eating?” A whiff of the stew confirmed my suspicion for the source of the odor just as Stella answered her own question, “I think this beef is dog meat.” Horror stricken, we grabbed our drinks and left the dog stew, feeling German eyes boring into our backs. After getting honked at on the Autobahn by Germans who considered my 80 mph too slow, we got off and onto slower France lanes.
It was a hot day, and my infection was getting harder to ignore. In Colmar, France, we found a store to buy ice. But how do you say “ice” in French? “Ice. We want ice,” I said to the caissier d’ épicerie. Stella said it louder as if that would help. “ICE!!!” Desperate moments call for creativity. I acted out ice. Crossing my arms, I shook my body and made a sound to be interpreted as I need ice. “Stop,” Stella said, “he is about to bring you a blanket.” French eyes followed us out the door.
We reached Adda’s late Saturday night. Sharing a stifling hot guest room, we opened the window for air. “Stella, we’ve been stormed by Swiss mosquitoes!” We came up with a plan to take turns fanning each other. I take the first shift. My arms sore from waving a Newsweek magazine for about an hour, I nudge Stella who was out like a spent lightbulb. Stella’s strategy to keep me out of harm’s was wasn’t fanning as much as slapping her hands together, cursing the Swiss mosquitoes and the Swiss people for not using window screens. I slept like a baby, waking up every five minutes crying.
The following day, Adda found a doctor who would see me. We arrive at a high rise apartment building. The elevator stops, and the doors open inside the doctor’s apartment. Doctor Médecin is gorgeous, well-dressed, and fit. Couldn’t fault him for not wearing a white coat.
“You sick?” he says in a sing-song accent where every sentence sounds like a question. “You don’t feel no good?” Much is wrong with this sentence, but the pain demands my concentration.
Médecin man points Adda to a den, and I say, “I just need a prescription for Amoxycillin,” careful not to imitate his French cadence. I never mean to, it’s just that I’m impressionable with a knee jerk for trying new accents. He puts a light hand on my shoulder to move me along away from my big sister. “No, no,” he sings. I’m really hoping his vocabulary is better than my mind is suggesting. “We do some sample,” and hands me a plastic cup that has a stem making it look like cocktail glassware. When I lift my hand with the urine sample, like a woman preparing to give a toast, I see the value of using a wine glass instead of a sterile cup. Felt more like à votre santé, a french and friendly expression to our good health.
Dr. Médecin shows me into a large room with huge windows and a view of the city. A quick scan reveals a black leather bench, a leather chair, and nothing else. So, he’s into leather. What about the paper for the leather bench? What about the box of Kleenex and cotton balls? A bigger question, where is the paper robe? Dr. French says, “Take off clothes, Oui?”
“What clothes,” I ask.
“All clothes, Oui?” he smiles. Uneasy silence follows, me waiting for him to leave the room. The windows are the kind you can’t open and jump out of. He shows no signs of leaving, standing like a centurion guard watching. I want to yell, ADDA!!! But I’m in Switzerland on a Sunday where anything resembling an urgent care facility doesn’t exist. Dr. French goes, “Oui, take clothes off. I see you much.”
As I strip to bare toes, I realize just how badly I feel, because I do not attempt to hold in my stomach. I drop my clothes on the black leather chair and lay down on the leather bench. Did I mention that Swiss doctors with home offices on the 64th floor don’t offer coverings? It turns out that a thorough check of my breasts reveals nothing about my frequent need to urinate. He pushes down on my stomach, and I want to kick his magnificent face. “We meet in office, Oui!” he says. I don’t know if its a question or command and I mumble “haltu kjafti,” which is Icelandic for—never mind the translation. The door closes. My humiliation continues.
Taking a few minutes stretched out on the bench to breathe through the pain, I hear a thump thump thump. Can’t be mice. There is no place for them to hide. As the thumping gets louder, I turn my head expecting to see a gang of angels, the kind I like to hang out with, coming for me. Instead, I see a helicopter that’s so close that I can see the pilot’s smiling face as he lifts his cap in a greeting.
Adda had heard something that sounded like a helicopter. Telling her what just happened, she laughs the entire ride to the first floor. Finally, some compassion creeps into my sister’s conscious, and she promises that I will feel better after I start on the medication. Dr. French didn’t give me Amoxycillin because “Yes. It’s good. We use for when very sick. Not for you now.”
When we got back to her house, Stella is drinking coffee in the kitchen with one eye swollen shut, compliments of no screens, no air conditioning, and Swiss mosquitoes. Sitting at the kitchen table like wildlife enthusiasts turned sour, we laugh like hyenas, it’s a family trait.