Notes from London: In Sickness and in Health

by Rachel on September 28, 2009

No foreign adventure attempted by my family would be complete without at least one visit to a medical practitioner or hospital. I know – we’re weak, high maintenance, and prone to strange illnesses, or something. I personally have tried out any number of foreign hospitals, outpatient clinics, and doctor’s waiting rooms. I’ve communicated the details of ailments (both mine and my family’s) in a number of foreign languages and have developed an entire hand signal vocabulary to be used when attempting to discuss medical conditions beyond my elementary school-level skill in the local tongue. It is all part of my own ongoing research into why all of the other advanced industrial economies have better healthcare systems than we do at home. I find that you really can’t speak about comparative health care strengths and weaknesses without using the systems yourself. It’s why I try to come down with something nearly life threatening whenever I travel. However, the summer of 2009 was my husband’s turn to gather data on the British National Health Service. He struggled with a cold/flu for two long weeks in July and then all hell broke loose. He looked and felt ghastly. We had a lovely visit with a Swedish or Dutch (not sure which) private pay physician whose office was conveniently located just around the corner from our flat. She spent ages with my husband and gave him a once over comparable to a full physical in the US. I must say that there is a sense of security being away from home in Britain that I did not have being away from home in say, Russia or Ukraine. I remember viscerally the fear that all of us felt when my stepmother needed medical care in St. Petersburg. None of us wanted her to drive off in that ambulance. Despite some of the complexity associated with the British National Health Service (had my husband actually contracted Swine Flu we would have been thrown out of the private pay system and into the “National Pandemic” program and a separate set of doctors, rules, etc…) the care in Britain was excellent. Our doctor treated us as though we’d been patients for years, not just a matter of days. The only member of the family to completely escape the flu was my eldest son. The rest of us, like many, many Brits during the summer of 2009, suffered from a range of flu symptoms (headache, tummy upset, mild fever, and well – worse). Our oldest son was standing in direct firing range during the sudden onset of my youngest son’s projectile vomiting episode. The older boy took the attack in stride and spent many hours ministering to his suffering little brother.

In the midst of our bout of flu, my Russian cousin (not the one who now lives in Zurich, but rather the one who lives in St. Petersburg) arrived for a weeklong visit. She is a delightful young woman. She made the best of her time with us making many long walks through London on her own while I tended to one or another of the sick Sterns. She is very industrious and spent more than a full day of her visit pursuing economic research that she hoped would help her finish her Russian Economics thesis.

She, like many members of my family, has significantly larger than average feet (You know what they say about people with big feet? They won’t blow over in a big wind). Large foot size can be a real problem if you live in Russia. In a strange carryover from the standardization strategies of the Communist Era, they don’t make women’s shoes larger than a size 10 because really any right-thinking (or left-thinking) Russian would have the sense to have the same foot size as every other Russian person so that there isn’t need for special foot treatment. One for all and all for one, and all that. If you somehow missed the whole foot standardization memo and have feet larger than a 10 you simply spend your life shoving your massive toesies into the largest shoes available, that or wear thongs. As you might imagine the whole sandal strategy is a bit of a bummer come January when the temperature drops to minus 367 degrees. My lovely cousin has a closet full of crummy Russian shoes, none of which fit. When she first visited me in the US I insisted on taking her shoe shopping. Initially she rejected the shoes that the kind, well-intentioned American shoe saleswoman brought to her. They were too big, my cousin said. She thought it odd that she could actually move her toes. It wasn’t right, she said. Toes should be held firmly in place by the end of ones’ shoes. You wouldn’t want them wiggling and squiggling around all day. Think of what they might do given such outrageous freedom. Though I did not convince her that day to go home with the ridiculously large “runners” I was trying to push on her, she has taken to spending a significant amount of her time outside of her homeland shopping for shoes and I noted that the ones she bought in London actually fit.

Finally flu free and clad in well fitting shoes, we spent a truly English day enjoying the splendors of Windsor Castle. The morning was clear and still and we leapt at the chance to enjoy a castle outing with what appeared to be slim prospects of a downpour. We made our way to Paddington Station and had the typical set of tourist glitches as we attempted to use the “Quick Pay” kiosk, a lengthy complex process that ended eventually with the evil, wicked computer spitting back my credit card but no actual tickets. Several frantic minutes ensued as we regrouped, got in the long que to transact with a live human, bought our tickets and ran as a galumphing herd across the rail station to catch our train with seconds to spare. No vacation is really complete until you’ve had to run like hell somewhere to catch something just as the doors shut behind you. It was apparently our morning to add this particularly delightful facet of travel to our list of experiences.

Windsor Castle, just before it poured!

Windsor, both the town and the castle, are a posh traveler’s dream. We arrived in town ten minutes before the Castle opened for visitors, and despite a number of Italian tourists’ attempts to crash the que, we were first in line for tickets, and therefore first to enter the splendid grounds. We had one of our least inspiring tours of the summer led by a humorless British woman (tight bun, dour expression, sensible shoes) who really should spend more time alone in a very dark room, and then made our way to see the changing of the guard. A lot of foot stomping, shouting by superiors at subordinates, minute shifting of regiment locations, and other mysterious activities ensued that made absolutely no sense to any of us watching, particularly my visiting Russian cousin who thought the whole thing was inexplicable and bizarre. An hour later the single soldier from one regiment who had been standing at a small booth had changed and a new single soldier from another regiment was in his place. I’m still not clear how or why that seemingly simple process takes a full hour – other than to entertain and confuse the daily hordes of tourists. If you are planning to attack Windsor you should surely plan it for the hour in which the guard is changed as all of the soldiers are consumed with complex useless activity and certainly won’t notice you storming the castle.

I bet my kids would jump if I spoke to them like this!

During the course of watching the changing of the guard our sunny still morning disappeared and a windy, stormy, rainy day arrived in its place. The two weather patterns could not have been more different and the whole transition took less time than changing of the guard. On went our ubiquitous raincoats and off we dashed to see the interior of the castle. The State Rooms are ever so stately, and since Windsor is a working castle, they’ve installed a number of flat screen TVs to show tourists what the place looks like when the Royals are around. Though my youngest child is generally a good traveler, he was feeling a tad sluggish that particular morning. We had one mostly funny episode when he threw himself in a thespian fit onto the carpeted floor and refused to go another step. Playing next to him was a video of the Queen and her consorts processing through the very same space. She, however, did not throw herself on the floor, at least not with the cameras rolling. Since non-Royal photographs are not allowed inside Windsor you’ll have to rely on my word that my son and the Queen have both traipsed over the same ground, my delightful child splayed out face down, and the Queen all robed and crowned.

  • Share/Bookmark
Print This Post Print This Post

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: