Monday, April 30, 2012

paris 1985... puzzled by a bidet

I woke this morning remembering our hotel in Paris in 1985. It was in the Marais, a narrow stone building crammed with rooms. Ours was on the top floor which was actually the attic. Twenty years earlier these must have been servants' quarters. The stairway to get to the attic was barely wide enough for an adult human dragging a humongous backpack to scrape through. The walls were low, the ceiling gabled. There wasn't a window but a skylight that belonged in a Monet painting of a Zola novel--both decorative and desperate. The toilet in the hallway had a window which was kept open. Wings fluttered when you opened the door. Pigeons scattered droppings in their fright. 
We'd found this attic room after spending a night in another hotel where the carpet in the room was embedded with olive pits and baguette crusts. We were travelling on a budget.
It rained the last day of October, 1985. I felt sad that it was Hallowe'en and no one seemed to know or care. R and I walked along sidewalks plastered--and slippery--with the wet leaves of the plane trees. Plane tree leaves look like gigantic maple leaves, but they hadn't turned colour as the maples did back home.
We'd worked for two years and saved our money in order to spend a year in Europe. Of course, our families thought we should make a down payment on a house, but we figured we could do that when we were older. We wanted to see what we could see which, in retrospect, was a great plan, though at the time I complained about cold hotel rooms, surly Europeans, cheaply prepared food.
We'd started in London, staying with a friend in a cold water flat. Whatever else we did or saw in England, I never recovered from the shock of discovering that the whole of my education (during the 60s and 70s, remember) lauded English history, literature, and cultural achievement--and yet there were people living in London, England without hot water. Not in a benighted cottage down some farmer's lane, but in a flat on Fulham Road a twenty-minute drive from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Our friend wasn't poor or stupid. He worked as a librarian. When I asked him how he took a bath, he snatched a tin and sprinkled talcum powder on his head. How jolly.
Fast-forward from England to Holland to Belgium to France. In our attic room in Paris, I had to pay the fellow at the desk 5 francs to take a shower on one of the lower floors. The bathroom wasn't heated. When I complained, the man told me that cold was good. Ça tue les microbes. It kills germs. He sat at the desk in a black leather jacket and gloves.
We stayed in Paris for two weeks and finally moved to a room on a lower floor. This room had a window and a hot water radiator, which was tepid at best. As well, every time la bonne made our bed, she opened the window. I made the bed myself. She still opened the window. R bought a roll of hardware tape and taped the window shut. The primitive insulation must have seemed too much trouble to unstick. She left it in place. Our room was never warm but at least we'd stopped it from getting colder.
Aren't I a complainer? A year in Europe! Canals, baroque façades, Mirò, Klee, sheep on the English moors, the Rhine, Vermeer, Van Gogh, vin nouveau and fresh walnuts... We saw and tasted and smelled and listened. I have notebooks scribbled with details and pasted with wine labels, train tickets, museum postcards, hotel bills. But at the time, I craved a hot shower and a warm bed. For sure, they were available, but they were luxuries. They cost.
And then the big puzzle: no shower or heating in the room, but next to the sink, this strange object, a bidet. You have to remember, this was 1985. There was no internet.
I ogled it, perplexed. What was its purpose? It couldn't be a toilet because you couldn't flush it. If it was a sink, where was the faucet? Was it for... washing out your socks? Was it clean? What had other people done there?
I asked Parisians what a bidet was for. One person told me the question was indecent. Others seemed shocked that I didn't already know. Didn't Canadians have bidets?
Not sure why I woke this morning remembering that room in Paris and how I never got a straight answer about the bidet. On Youtube I see people use them for washing their bottoms.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

motto for a scar

I saw this on FB and decided to copy it so I remember. Photo taken by Martin Turmel.

Friday, April 13, 2012

3 months post-op cardiac valves / the pledget adventure

In January I had two heart valves replaced with mechanical valves. A couple of weeks ago I asked for a copy of the OR report. Who knows, I might one day write an essay about the surgery. I thought I could quote a few fancy words... atriotomy, cardioplegia, anterior leaflet.
I expected the report to be a template piece of writing--routine dissecting, exposing, implanting, suturing. An operation is the one time in your life when you crave normalcy. Status quo. No excitement.
Everything proceeded as per usual until the surgical team discovered that a pledget was missing. "We looked for it for quite a long time." How long is a long time when a patient (ME) is under anaesthetic, with her heart stopped, on a heart-lung pump? And what the hell is a pledget? To me the word sounded like a sharp, poky instrument. I'm going to probe into this septum here. Hand me a pledget.
Unable to find the missing pledget, they had to reopen the left atrium which had already been sutured shut, and poked around until they found it. "We were extremely happy about this." Me too.
Of course, I wondered that no one mentioned this hunt-the-pledget game, which extended the time I was under anaesthetic. I told R who suddenly remembered that the surgeon had informed him after the surgery, but at that point R was in no state to absorb much beyond the fact that the new valves were in place and I was alive. Given the circumstances, I understand. But the doctor should have told me when I was conscious and well enough to comprehend. Ding! Ding! Ding! Guess who the patient is? Guess who speaks for herself?
This, by the way, is a pledget. It looks innocuous enough. Still, nothing you'd want to have sucked up an artery.
Here I am three months later. I've been diligent about walking every day. My tolerance for physical activity is better than it was pre-op. I can climb a hill (slowly) without huffing and puffing. People tell me my colour is better.
My left hand is still partly numb due to pressure the anaesthetist exerted on a nerve for the duration of the surgery. I have to assume that was necessary, because otherwise it would be stupid. I've been told that it can take up to a year for full sensation to return. That's a nuisance because I'm left-handed, but fortunately I'm not a musician--or a surgeon.
Apparently some people have no appetite after heart surgery. That's not been my case.
Apparently some people have trouble sleeping, but that's nothing new for me.
Apparently some people are afraid of over-taxing their new valves. I like to use my new hardware.
The valves click loudly which I have not yet learned to love. The clicking sounds and resounds in my chest. I imagine my ribs as the cabinet of a grandfather clock. The clicking distracts me when I'm reading or writing, and keeps me awake when I want to sleep. Earplugs make the noise louder. Ambient sound might help but I haven't yet found an ambient sound that's ambient enough. I prefer silence when writing.
The greatest inconvenience is the blood thinner which makes me feel like a semi-hemophiliac. Every paper cut requires a heavy-duty bandage. I don't even recall bumping into things but I've got bruises. Is it safe for me to cycle? Answer: no. But how can I resist the bike path all summer?

Monday, April 9, 2012

words we mispronounce

Tell me, who doesn't mispronounce words? Some of us—who, from a young age, read more than we heard people speak—are more prone to it than others.
I was a grad student, giving a talk on Coriolanus, in which I discussed various DIScraypanzies. There were snickers. Mostly male snickers since this memory dates back a few years when males way outnumbered females in graduate courses. The professor (also male) finally corrected my pronunciation. DisCREPancies. Ah.
I also called kitchen gadgets YOUT’nsles. I was married, divorced, and married again before I discovered everyone else called them uTENsils.
I had an argument with a once-upon-a-time friend who believed himself a connoisseur of all things related to the English language. I had just said succour which I pronounced as SUCK-or. He sputtered at the travesty I’d made of a word which he claimed was supposed to be pronounced SOO-kor. There wasn’t a dictionary at hand to check. He would have sputtered yet again at the suggestion we needed to check anything which he believed true. Just think, he shrilled, how stupid it sounds: he gave her suck-her! Maybe it sounds funny now, but when the word came into the language, maybe everyone didn't have cunnilingus on the brain as he did. Later, when I got home, I looked up succour and discovered that yeah, it is pronounced suck-her. No alternate pronunciations listed.
More recently I heard a friend with a background in teaching and editing say the word detritus with the middle syllable pronounced like trite. I’d always aligned my detritus with detrimental. Short “i”. Shortly after, when I saw two other friends, both writers with published books, I asked how they would pronounce this word which I wrote on a piece of paper. Both looked. Neither dared. One hesitated and said she used the word when writing but had never had to say it out loud. I believe that’s often the case with writers. We have larger vocabularies than we have mouths.
Another word I’ve recently discovered I mispronounce is lichen. It supposed to sound the same as the verb liken. My version makes lichen sound like a close cousin of lychees.
So should I keep my mouth closed when I’m out in public? I think that people who believe they never mispronounce words are the deluded ones.
Here's some St. Lawrence River lichen: