Archive for the 'memoir' Category

04
Jan
12

1918 – 2011

I remember the first time I said a full sentence to her in the language she could understand.

Ich lade Euch herzlich ein, inviting my mother-in-law and wife to lunch, rolling my tongue seven times in my mouth to make sure I got it right the first time.

It was summer, 1997 and we’d just moved to Germany, still waiting for the shipping container to pass the Suez Canal.

Oma went on a lot of our trips back then.  She’d take care of the little red-haired girl while we went off to the sand dunes, or cook up for breakfast when we were still flaked out from overnight duty.

She had a long life.

Born when the First World War was still in its dying months, she became a young wife in the middle of the next, marrying a soldier on home from leave who left for the Russian campaign a week later.

Pushed out of her home in the East by the threat of advancing Russian forces, she carried her first daughter in the middle of winter over streams and borders to arrive in the west and give birth in the dying days of World War II nine months later.

Her soldier husband had no idea of her ordeal, nor did she of what had happened to him.  Nursing a baby girl to her first steps unable to know whether her love still saw the sunrise, flung between the limits of hope and despair without a word one way or another.

Until one day nearly a year-and-a-half later she opened an envelope from the Red Cross, knowing it was either from or about him, afraid to discover what was inside before reading in scratchy script:

My dear wife and daughter,

I now have the great pleasure to give you a sign of life.  I can tell you that I am doing well and am still healthy, and hope you are too.  I wish you all the best and send my most heartfelt greetings.  Yours ever,

It took still another year and a half for him to finally return from a prisoner of war camp on the Caspian Sea near Baku, in present-day Azerbaijan.  She said he’d become a brute in his years of fighting and imprisonment, couldn’t remember at first how to conduct himself in company or at table.

If, from then on, she led a quiet life in the countryside as a wife and mother, it must have been to make up for the way it began.

Her second daughter, my wife, came along a few years later.  At the time they were living with two other families in a house you’d swear wouldn’t fit a childless couple.  But her husband was a carpenter and builder, and they moved 51 years ago into the new house she lived until suffering a stroke and, two days later, passing away the day before Christmas.

Still on my way by train, I was told to take a taxi at the station and go straight to the hospital because there was no time for them to leave her bedside.

Arriving at the hospital I walked up the stairs to the first floor and opened the door to room 201.  She lay peacefully, a red rose placed below her folded hands.  The whole family was there.   I said little, but did what I could to console them one by one.

In this way it was a Christmas like no other for us.  The funeral was held on my wife’s birthday, Christmas dinner – for the first time, just the three of us – on New Year’s Eve.

It’s a time for looking back and looking ahead.

I was chatting the other day with an old friend from Montreal.  She said we’re all at that age when our parents are getting old and dying.

She said: I don’t want to get old.

Nor do I, I said.  But I don’t much like the alternative, either.

09
Mar
11

A couple of reasons why German healthcare is in such a mess

From some of the highest drug prices in Europe to bloated bureaucracies, there must be a dozen reasons why healthcare in Germany is an expensive mess – about 8% of gross wages for those on the public plan, and rising.

trust me i'm a doctor buttonA few years ago, during what turned out to be the longest stretch I’ve ever had to endure in a hospital, I got a good look at two of those reasons.

It started out as a routine blood test at my family doctor.

“This doesn’t look good” he says when showing me the results.  “You’ve got to see a specialist about this as soon as possible.”

So I get an appointment at a specialist who performs an ultrasound, along with another blood test.   When the tests come back he hums and haws, says it could be this or that, but to find out for sure, we have to take a tissue sample.  Jab a hollow tube through my liver and rummage through what they pull out.

“Just a couple of nights in the hospital,” he tells me.

I get sent to a third doctor, the one who’s going to be taking care of the hospital visit, who performs the third blood test in about three weeks, which comes back with the very same results.

Upon admission to hospital a couple of weeks later, they take another two blood tests, one on admission, another the next day.

“Look,” I tell them.  “I don’t understand.  I’ve got an arm like a junkie’s with all these needles.  Why do I have to get a new blood test every time I’m sent to a new doctor?”

“Because that’s the way we do it here,” they tell me. “You may be referred to another doctor, but they have to take a new test each time.  They can’t take the results of the former doctor at face value.”

I wondered how many billions each year are wasted that way, but it was the hospital visit itself that really opened my eyes to the way the system is set up to rip us all off.

Not only did they only perform the tissue sample the morning of my third day after admission, already forcing me to stay one more night than I’d planned for, but they also arranged to have me undergo a colonoscopy a few days later, because the tissue sample showed nothing abnormal, and they wanted to “make sure we aren’t missing anything.”

That was on a Friday, and they told me I’d have to spend the entire weekend in the hospital waiting for the colonoscopy to get underway the following Tuesday.

What?  Wait f0ur full days in hospital when I feel perfectly healthy just to prepare for another procedure that might not even be necessary?

“Screw you,” I told them.  “I am not spending five minutes in this dump more than I have to.”

Dump?  More like an asylum.  My time until then had been spent enduring the ravings of an attention-starved recovering alcoholic in the bed beside me, who, completely oblivious to the impact his constant ramblings and interruptions had on the rest of us, actually woke me up the night before the tissue sample, because he couldn’t sleep and so was watching his personal TV at 3 in the morning.  Mostly to get away from him, I packed up and left that Friday afternoon, signing a waiver on my way out saying that whatever happened to me that weekend was my own doing.

After a beautiful weekend hiking the storm-swept mid-winter beaches of St-Peter-Ording with K and the little red-haired girl, I showed up Monday morning at the hospital, spent a day drinking gallons of some vile solution turning my backside into a storm drain, submitted myself to an invasion by a 12-foot black plastic snake, and spent a day and a half recovering.  The only thing I was grateful for was their generous application of Demerol.  I liked it so much, I’d have let them do it again just to get more of the stuff.

I told my family doctor all this and he replied with what I’d been thinking all along.  “I’m really sorry you had to go through all that, but hospitals do that all the time..  Every night you stay there is worth a lot of money to them.  They maximise the time you have to stay so they can turn around and bill the health funds.  There’s really nobody checking to see if what they do is really necessary.”

To top it all off, I received a bill from the hospital for the daily user fee we all have to pay.  They completely disregarded the two nights over the weekend I had left the hospital, billing me for the full nine days.

I paid for seven with a note and a letter explaining why, with proof I wasn’t there and all the rest, but the bureaucrats ignored it.  Instead I received a nasty notice threatening me with legal action and all associated additional costs if I didn’t buck up for the two days I did not stay in their comfortable surroundings.

So I paid for those two days just to get them out of my hair, only to find out a few weeks later from my healthcare people that I shouldn’t have, and that I could get the money back if I applied for it.

But by then I was so glad to have the whole sorry mess behind me I didn’t bother.

21
Oct
10

Brooklyn Heights Promenade then and now

Then:

September, 1991

Five-day trip to New York with brother Gordon

Drove down from Montreal

Fast driving

Not much sleep

Times Square a warren of crooks

Walk along the Brooklyn Promenade with stunning view of New York skyline

Probably a detour from one bar to the next

Random ladies sitting on the benches in the circle at north end

Did not walk across Brooklyn Bridge

Olympus OM-10 camera

Kodak T-Max 100 black and white film

Developed and printed in the Sherbrooke Record darkroom

Now:

October, 2010

Ten days in New York, 4 in Washington, with family

Flight from Hamburg via Heathrow to Newark, NJ

Headwinds

Slept well

Times Square Disneyland East

Walk along Brooklyn Promenade with jet lag on first day

New York skyline view still stunning, though something’s missing

My two special ladies in the circle at north end, placed according to what I recall of that photo nearly 20 years ago.

Walked along Brooklyn Bridge after

Two weeks, four beer

Kodak Z712 IS

No film, no darkroom

14
Feb
10

Skiing at Whistler: you looking for these?

Lucky I went back for the third ski lesson at that crappy hill.  By the time I was 12, my initial hatred of the sport had changed into such a passion I can clearly remember a friend  out on a summer hike screaming, “Will You Please Shut Up About Skiing!”

We used to pile in with friends into the old man’s 1970 Plymouth Satellite and head up to Whistler on the weekends at least 10 times a season.  Brother Gordon would drive until at 16 I got my license.  We’d get out at first light for the hour-long drive to be ahead of the Vancouver traffic and be the first in line for lift tickets so we could be first in line for the Gondola or Olive Chair lift and, of course, first down the runs.

It looks like a joke now, but the first lift ticket I ever bought at Whistler Mountain cost only three dollars.  When I turned 13 I had to pay more than double that – a whole seven bucks!  You can’t even get a whiff of a sandwich for that these days at Whistler.

We’d pack lunches and throw the bags in the trees near the Roundhouse at the top, making sure they were tied up well so the Whiskey Jacks couldn’t steal our food.  We’d come back to fetch them near noon so we could eat on the lift.  Why stop for lunch when there’s so much skiing to be had?  Near the end of the day we’d time our runs so we’d be at the very bottom for the last ride up the Gondola, then scoot over to the Red Chair for the ride up the top.

If I ever find a decent photo from those days, I’ll post it, but for now, this one from about 10 years before will have to do.

And so to the story of the day everything went wrong.

The weather had been iffy on the drive up, but on the hill it was shit.  Foggy, a  mixture of wet snow and rain, and so windy…  I’m not surprised that they’ve had to postpone the Downhill ski event at the Olympics, and don’t hold your breath until Monday.  Because it sits amid a coastal temperate rainforest, Whistler weather can be awful for days on end.

Anyway, that day brother Gordon somehow LOST the car keys.  We used to split up into two groups – he’d go off with his friends, I’d go off with mine.  While picking up our lunch that day, we cross paths and he gives me the news.  “But don’t tell Dad!” he warns me.

His telling me not to tell Dad gives me the idea to phone him in the first place.   So I fish out a dime and call the operator from the payphone at the top of Whistler to make a collect call home.

Nobody there.

So I pull out another dime and make another collect call to where I’m sure my father will be, because it’s  a Sunday: at the office.  Working.  My old man worked a lot, and when he wasn’t working, he was driving his car.

“Gordon’s lost the keys Gordon’s lost the keys!” I bark into the phone.  He swore, I think, but then says, OK, no problem – I’ll drive up and give you guys the spares.

So at the end of the day I meet up with Gordon and his friends at the bottom of the gondola and Gordon’s foaming with rage at me that I’d phoned Dad behind his back.

To me it made perfect sense.  Keys lost. Dad has spare set.  Dad drives Mom’s car to Whistler.  Then we have keys.

So we’re walking to the car in the parking lot and we see Dad’s bright orange MGB parked behind the Plymouth.  Just as we’re coming up to the car we see him bend over by the driver’s side.  Straightening up, he holds up the keys in his right hand and with a big grin on his face, says to us: you guys looking for these?

They’d been lying on the ground right by the car the whole day.

I told that story near the end of a speech I gave to those who gathered in early May, 2000 for his funeral, ending with: Dad had a temper and let it loose sometimes, but he was always able to see the humour in things.

15
Jan
10

My very first day of skiing: I hated it.

I was 10 years old my first day of skiing and it was on Rainbow Mountain, a rinky-dink little outfit about 4km north of Whistler, site of the 2010 Olympics.

It was a horrible place.  After bumping along in the yellow school bus for a good hour and a half they’d dump us in the parking lot and have us line up in the rain and cold to get our skis.  The skis were the really old kind, little more than wooden slats with screwed-on metal edges – and the bindings!

This was 1970 and the tail-end of the era of cable bindings, the kind that wound around your heel and didn’t release when you took a dive.  If you fell the wrong way, what did release was more likely to be a joint or leg bone.  The boots were leather lace-ups and freezing cold from the sweatsocks of the rental the day before, the poles bamboo with baskets of leather and a metal ring.

The  lifts were even worse.  No chairlifts here, just a thin metal cable with D-Bars every few feet.  Those things either send you flying to the ground or pull your arms out of their sockets if you don’t do it right, and the cable shreds your gloves to rat shit if you do.

Because Rainbow was at the same level as the bottom of Whistler – around 820 metres – it was subject to constantly changing temperatures and a variety of weather.   Our second time out we must have arrived after a week of rain followed by night-time freezing, because the snow was bullet-proof.  We didn’t ski so much as slip sideways in an awkward snowplow- if we managed to get up on our feet at all.

Lunchtime was spent in an overcrowded little diner that reeked of charred burger and old grease.  Smeared french fries were ground into the wet concrete floor as shrieking, unruly kids spilled them under the hard metal tables.  I was miserably wet and cold, unable to even peer out the fogged-up windows.  The ride back was spent just wishing we’d finally get home.

We were supposed to go once a week for three weeks but after two sessions of this so-called fun, exhilarating sport I told my teacher and school principal Mr. Cope you couldn’t drag me up there a third time.  I held off telling my parents for a couple of days, but when I did, they managed to convince me to give it just one more try.

Mr. Cope, who had a knack for humiliating kids in front of others, seized the opportunity once he heard my change of heart.

To peals of laughter in front of 150 kids lined up to go back into school after recess, he brayed:

What’s this Ian, you want to go skiing now?   I thought you said you didn’t want to go!  Make up your mind!  You’re worse than an old woman!

11
Dec
09

A chance to play hockey: this time, I hope to not break my nose

I’m bubbling in my skin, jumpy with excitement and anticipation at what I’m doing this coming Tuesday morning.

For the first time in ages – 32 years actually – I’m going to play hockey!  On ice!  With a real puck, helmet and even a stick!   Yaaaahooo!  I’ve been looking around for a chance to play hockey for ages.

Hanging out on the same forum where I stumbled upon a chance to play fake American pizza baker, I found a query about where to play ice hockey in Hamburg.  A couple of messages and phone calls later, I’m set up to go Tuesday morning at 8.

Good thing I’ve learned to skate since the last time.

Back then, a friend coaxed me into joining him at a weekly game.

“C’mon man,” he said. “You can ski like a pro, and anyone who can ski like you do can skate.”

So we jumped into a van to a rink 50km away, where I borrowed skates, pads, helmet and stick, skated onto the ice, and within five seconds slammed flat on the ice.

I got up, tried to balance – blood splotching the ice – flopped onto the boards, and struggled to the bench.

A guy looked over at me and says: Hey buddy, yer nose is bleed’n’ sump’n’ broodle.

Turns out I actually broke it, but didn’t realise it until eight years later at a routine medical exam.

25
Nov
09

Climbing the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

I’ve been bogged down in research for our next travel destination, so the next post on ol’ Malcolm – aka Dr. Feelgood – will have to wait.

In the meantime, here’s a travel story from November, 1980.

There were signs all around the base blocks: It Is Strictly Forbidden to Climb the Pyramids.

It was also Strictly Forbidden to do a lot of things, but there were a lot of men in flowing white robes ready to offer young backpackers a variety of opportunities.

“HelloEnglish! HelloMister! YouWantToBuyCamelYouWantToBuyHorse?” The Sphinx, eternally mute and stately, had had to endure these men for centuries, but I was getting tired of them after five minutes.

I knew they’d already stuffed their pockets with tourist dollars the whole day, and I’d be damned if I was going to be just another camel-riding tourist at the Pyramids.

In the end I spent six months in the Middle East without once getting on a camel. I regret that now.

But after paying a few Egyptian piastres to an unlicensed guide and crawling behind him through a narrow opening inside to marvel at how completely underwhelming the interior is – no brilliant heiroglyphics, dusty mummies, carved wooden chests, or gold-covered masks here – I’m glad I didn’t just leave to go back to my Cairo hostel.

I knew I had one chance in my life to do this.

The shadow was getting longer on the east side of the Pyramids as I looked both ways, placed both palms face down into the sandy grit covering the first block, hopped and swung my left leg around high to the left, and hoisted myself up.

Suddenly I felt exhilarated at the thought I was on my way to the top of one of the world’s most ancient free-standing structures, for centuries a magnet for travellers, grave-robbers, mystics, poets and archaeologists, the subject of endless speculation as to how they were built so many thousands of years ago, and until 1889 when the Eiffel Tower was completed, the tallest thing man had ever built.

I surged ahead, hauling my body up to the second level.

HelloEnglish!HelloMister! YouComeDownItIsForbiddenToClimb!

I turned around to see a man in a dirty yellow robe waving his arms in the air as he yelled at me to get off the Pyramid.

Meeting him sort of half-way, I jumped down from the second block to the first.

Crouching low to be at eye level I said to him: Many people have climbed the Pyramids.  I can see how people have carved their names in the blocks up there!

He didn’t understand me, or pretended not to, because he kept on waving his arms at me to get down on to the ground.  It is forbidden to climb!  It is forbidden to climb! he wailed.

Suddenly I remembered where I’d been over the previous five months and what I’d picked up on the way.  A few hundred Italian Lira. Portuguese Escudos, Spanish Pesetas, Greek Drachma, French Francs, a few Swiss Franc centimes, German Pfennigs, Dutch Gilders – even Yugoslavian Dinars and Swedish Kroner –  all sitting loose in one of the pockets of my canvas and leather day pack, the leftovers from a few months of waiting in train stations, checking out of youth hostels, museum entrance fees, ferry rides, buses, food stalls and more than a few bar bills.

It’s what you gathered without even trying in the days before we traded in all that colour and variety for the cold, antiseptic uniformity of the world’s most soulless currency, the euro.

I’d wanted to leave the coins in the youth hostel, but was wary of thieves, so I always carried them around with me.

Stuffing my hand in the bag and pulling out a fistful of coins, I took a few out and handed them to him.

He looked at me incredulously, then smiled.

“OK, English” he said, sweeping his hands as if to brush me away.  “You go up now.”

Backsheesh.  The eternal currency.

No points for guessing where we’re headed.




The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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