Sunday, 13 November 2016

Letter to Leonard Cohen

Six years ago, I wrote a letter to Leonard Cohen.  Not happy with what I’d written, I didn’t mail it, but have meant to rewrite the letter and send it ever since.  Now it’s too late, but this is what I would like to have said to him:

Dear Leonard Cohen,

You have been a part of my life since 1965, when the first boy I slept with read poems to me from The Spice Box of Earth.  My own copy of that book has disappeared, doubtless loaned to a friend years ago, never returned and now out of print.

I bought Songs of Leonard Cohen when it came out in 1967 and I still have it.  I attended three of your concerts; at Massey Hall in Toronto on December 7th 1970, Centennial Hall in London Ontario on June 6th 1993 and, the best and most moving by far, at the Roman-built ampitheater Les Arènes in Nîmes, on August 20th 2009.  Birds soared overhead while the sun slowly sank, the sky darkened and the lights came up on stage as you joined the band.  The entire evening was pure magic and the arena was packed with people of all ages and colours – so many young people.  We didn’t want you to leave us.

In 1973/74, when I travelled and worked in Europe for a year, I stopped one afternoon to spend the night on a lonely beach on the Peloponnesus in my VW camper, with the distant silhouette of Hydra across the sunlit water.  I’d known for many years that you had a house there.  I sang your songs as I walked and sat on the beach until it was dark.  (Not quite so idyllic was the attempt that night by someone to get into my camper as I crouched, shaking, in the dark.)

In 1979, on a trip to Greece to visit the elderly couple in Crete with whom my husband and I had lived for 4 months in the winter of 1977-78, we took a ferry to Hydra, a sort of pilgrimage for me.  As we walked up from the dock and saw Harry’s Bar, Tim said it looked like the sort of place you’d expect to see Leonard Cohen and I gasped, “And that’s him!”, but neither of us would have thought of disturbing you and your friends.  We walked around the island for a couple of hours, then returned to the dock to wait for the ferry back to the mainland.  As we sat there, you came down to the dock, perhaps expecting someone’s arrival.  After you'd paced back and forth for a few minutes, I couldn't help approaching to ask if you really were Leonard Cohen.  You couldn’t have been more gracious and warm.  When you said that you had a house on the island, I realized you were about to invite us there and told you we were leaving in a few minutes.  So many things I would like to have asked and to have said, but I was overwhelmed by the very fact of meeting you, my hero and icon, and quickly rejoined Tim.

Thank you for your music, your poetry, your wisdom and your wonderful, dry, subtle and self-deprecating humour.

Susan Wallis

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Ides of March

The Ides of March

A single departure from previous and future postings.  It's mainly to catch friends and family up on what some may not know already and it's longer than it should be, though I've taken out a lot of details.

Our friend Susan went with us to Narbonne last March 15th to look at a camper while I had an MRI, after about a year of worsening double vision.  When Tim came back to get me, we were told I was to be sent immediately by taxi to emergency in Montpellier, so he took Susan home and waited for news, as we were given almost no information.  (Susan inspired the title of this posting in an email later that same day.)

In emerg, after another MRI, they said I had a large intra-cranial aneurysm and would have surgery the next day, then was taken up to the intensive care ward of the neuroradiological section, where I was given a towel, a face cloth, a bottle of Betadine (an iodine solution) to disinfect myself from tip to toe, a mortifyingly backless hospital gown and - horrors - a single-bladed razor with which I was to perform much more than a bikini shave - or else the surgeon wouldn't operate.  The alternative was for the orderly to do the shaving - not a chance.

Then to a bed in ICU, where the side rails were raised and I was hooked up with several stickers to a monitor with flashing blue lights.  What do I do when I have to go to the loo?????  I was to ask for a bedpan.  Yuk.

That night was an insomniac's ultimate nightmare.  I was in an open ward with 7 other patients, all of whom had had neurological surgery.  Across from me, a man bellowed names, obsenities and gibberish until about 5 am.  Every time he shouted, the man beside me rang the bell for the nurse.  Alarms sounded, red lights flashed and staff came running and shouting.  Just as things had calmed down, the staff changed shifts and began serving breakfast, but not for me, since I was to have surgery that day.  Then no lunch.  And still no surgery.  Like all the meals I had during my stay in hospital, the evening meal was plastic-wrapped, microwaved and tasteless.  Some of our friends have rhapsodized about their wine-acccompanied French hospital meals....

Same routine the next two days, as there was no opening in the operating block.  No meals till evening and a Betadine shower each day until the skin on my arms began to peel.  But - I didn't have to shave again, the shouter and the flasher were moved out of ICU and one of the aides gave me a second gown to put on backwards, on top of the first, restoring my dignity.  Best of all, they left the bed-rails down and let me go to the loo. Apparently, as I was the first person who'd ever walked into ICU, they didn't know what to do with me and had followed the usual routine, ignoring my claim that I felt perfectly healthy, except for seeing two of everything.  I should say at this point that all of the nurses, aides and orderlies were kind, thoughtful, helpful and often very funny.

They let me roam the halls and eat lunch in the cafeteria with Tim - until the fourth day, when a stern new head nurse I called la commandante sent me back to my bed each time I got up, not wanting me to die on her watch.  When her shift was finished, a cheery crew came on duty, cracking jokes and entirely changing the ambiance.

The surgeon appeared one day with a coterie of interns and students, none of whom looked older than 20 to me (including the surgeon), to explain the procedure.  When he learned where we lived, he enthused about Minervois wine, pulled out his smartphone and bookmarked the names I mentioned of nearby domaines.  He also said that the MRI showed there was the beginning of a slight tear in the wall of the aneurysm.

Late on the fourth day, I was wheeled into the operating room, put to sleep, and a catheter carrying a stent was inserted into my femoral artery, pushed up through the blood vessel system, into the aorta and out again, then up into the carotid artery somewhere behind my right eye, where the stent was expelled into the artery to block blood from flowing into the aneurysm, while the surgeon kept his eye on a fluoroscopy screen in order to propel the catheter in the right direction.  One name for the procedure is endovascular stenting, which avoids the necessity of cutting into the skull to clip, coil or stent the aneurysm.

Another night in ICU, where I woke up to find myself trussed like a turkey, with a snorer going full blast across from me.

Next day, into a double room - hurrah!  Except - my room-mate was the previous night's snorer, who talked, snored and coughed in her sleep.  I called her name, shouted, flicked the lights on and off - no response.  I rang for the nurse, who poked a tranquilizer into my mouth.  Still trussed like a turkey and hooked up to several monitors, I could just reach a roll of paper towels on the side table, tore  off and crumpled them with one hand and, one by one, threw them at her.  Nothing woke her - I gave up and did a crossword puzzle on my iPod.

My second room-mate, Margaret, was wonderful.  Intelligent, discreet, funny and in great pain from acute apendicitis.  There'd been no room for her in the usual ward.  She was taken off for emergency surgery next morning and we've kept in touch since.

My third and final room-mate was in for her second femoral aneurysm, having continued to smoke after the first one.  Smoking is a major factor in the development of aneurysms and I was told that my having smoked half a package a day for about 4 years in my 20s might have played a part in mine.

After 8 days, Tim took me home.  Ratty and Badger had made the trip between Oupia and the hospital several times (close to two hours each way) and were becoming progressively more morose and thoroughly fed up with the boredom of the autoroute and the parking lot.  I was greeted me with lots of licks. 

At home with my MRI file, I learned that I had a "giant" aneurysm, meaning it was 25 mm or more in diameter.; mine was 27 mm and have been told that it would almost certainly have ruptured if the years of cycling hadn't kept my arteries strong and elastic.  I'd had no headaches, no dizziness, no symptoms at all except, luckily, the double vision, caused by the aneurysm being so large that it was pushing the right optic nerve further and further out of line.  So - keep exercising, everyone!

For the next couple of weeks, Tim took care of me, the dogs, the cooking (oh the food - real food!) and everything else.  He was amazing. The dogs cuddled up to me on the sofa and were unusually gentle - no Jack Russell head butts.

Here's my favourite get-well card, from the Centre d'Éducation Canine d'Azille - i.e. the dog school in Azille or, as a couple of us with difficult dogs call it, the Field of Humiliation.  Ratty and Badger have been going to dog school for more than two years and are still in the beginners' class.  Or, more accurately, Tim and I are still in the beginners' class...

Just as I was feeling better and stronger, I woke up one morning with a headache that kept getting worse and began throwing up everything I ate or drank.  Back to emergency in Montpellier, where another MRI showed a clot had formed in the stent.  Three days of injections and drips and home again, though the headache lasted for weeks and weeks.  When it finally stopped in early June, I felt great; lots of energy, back on my bike, rides to Minerve, trips to the Tuesday market in Olonzac, walks with the dogs and back to dog school.  The double vision began to disappear as well, helped by temporary prisms on the right lens of my glasses.

I'm still on a couple of anti-coagulants and bruise and bleed easily.  My GP joked that if I wanted to sue for divorce, now was the time - I look like I've been in a brawl.  I am SO looking forward to stopping the stronger of the two blood thinners in September and not having to worry about falling off my bike...

Here are three of the MRI images from before the surgery:

Side view

Front view - 
dark spot behind right eye

Medical care here is incredibly good and, whatever my complaints about meals and iodine baths, I'm very grateful to all the doctors, nurses, aides and technical people who saved my life.  All the good things you may have heard about the French medical system are true.

St Martial, August 7, 2016 - my biggest cycling accomplishment since March (loads of climbing, fabulous scenery and great downhills, for those of you who haven't done it) and one I'll be showing to the surgeon:

Susan above Minerve, August 12, 2016 (also lots of climbing, but easier than the previous ride):

No more grim postings from now on, I promise, but more about our adventures with Ratty and Badger and our camper and, sometime in September, notes on my "political career".

And, because this is supposed to be about the dogs, here they are, with Tim:


Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Ratty & Badger at the Tour de France


July 13th - the Tour de France sweeps through the Minervois

A beautiful day, not too hot and perfect for watching the Tour passing 8 km. from our house.  The evening before, I cycled up to the corner where we intended to watch the Tour; Tim drove the new camper van.  We hoped to be the first camper at the top of the road from Aigne, between La Caunette and Aigues-Vives, for those of you who've been here and know the area.  As it happened, ours was the fourth, with two more arriving later that evening.

We now have a converted Citroën Jumper, called a Pössl Roadcamp.  Not sure how vehicle names are chosen here; the smaller Citroën van is called a Jumpy; Renault makes a Trafic and Peugeot makes a Boxer and a Partner.  And so on.  English words and names are very cool - to the French, at least...

Setting up the evening before the TdF was to come by: 


The TdF organizers place directional signs along the route.  This one was tacked onto the permanent sign warning motorists that they are approaching the local garbage dump.  This TdF sign was picked up as a souvenir well before any of the TdF-related vehicles had appeared.

At the entry to Aigues-Vives, coming from Aigne.  Note 3 bikes on pole, the topmost one painted white and red (polka dot jersey for the best climber), the lowest one painted green (green jersey for the most points, by winning sprints) and, of course, the yellow bike for the rider with the best time:

The following 8 photos of the caravane, the peloton and spectators are by K.C. and are not to be copied or used in any way.

Our camper is second from the left.  The next two larger campers to our left were from Picardy and had been following the Tour since its beginning at Mont St. Michel.  The minute the last of the Tour vehicles had passed, the other motorhomes departed to find a good spot to watch the next stage.




Part of the fun of watching the Caravane pass is trying to catch the souvenirs and samples (hats, food, scarves, toys, etc.) tossed out by people on the float.  


Climbing the hill east of La Caunette: 


The peloton as seen from the hill above the road (by those of us who were energetic enough to climb up for the bird's eye view - that didn't include me...)


Just to the east of us, between Mailhac and Bize-Minervois, raged a huge fire that any of you who watched the stage that day would have seen.  It burned 350 hectares (865 acres) of pine trees and garrigue.


My photo, taken just before I was dragged away from the road by a friend who preferred not to see me mowed down by the peloton (or the peloton mowed down by me?).
One of the meanings of the word peloton, by the way, is "small ball of wool", so the peloton is the tightly-grouped bunch of riders often preceded by a "breakaway" of one or more riders.

The next 3 photos are also by K.C. and not to be copied or used in any way.

This Tour de France was a lot more interesting before they put us back in the camper - there was so much to bark at...

You think I like having to wear a collar and a harness and be buckled into the camper??

Sporting my so-called prize from the Caravane.  At least it was yellow...

This is more like it - we're heading home and I'll make sure he takes the shortest route...

Not sure if anyone outside France can access this site but, if you'd like to try, here's a link to full live coverage of the July 13th stage.  If you know the area and, especially if you've cycled the roads between Carcassonne and Montpellier, you'll enjoy it.  Our camper was parked with the group immediately after the sign to Aigne and Olonzac, at minute 54:

Turns out that a lot of people weren't able to subscribe to the blog or to make comments.  My friend Mindy suggested a way of doing it, so I hope it works; once you type in your email address, you're directed to a security check pop-up.  The list is private but, even so, if you'd rather just be on my list to be notified whenever I do a new posting, please let me know.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Learning to live with terriers

Ratty and Badger, in our old camper

Ratty is the little dog on the left; we adopted him from a shelter in Carcassonne in January 2014.  

When I saw this notice on the Carcassonne SPA (Société Protectrice des Animaux) website on January 25th, I knew we'd take him - we went that same day - but no way were we going to call him Piglet.  He was so small that he had been boarded with the cats.  When asked there what we would call him, all I could think of was Ratty (in French, he's a ratier, a rat-hunter).

He had been abandoned and, from the way he reacted to us the first few weeks and to others for several months, it was obvious that he had been mistreated.  Eventually, he learned to trust us completely and then not to fear visitors.  Now, he snuggles up to trusted friends and barks in outrage when they leave.

We were told in Spain that he was a "Ratonero Bodiguero Andaluz", translated roughly as an Andalusian wine-cellar rat-hunter.  As far as we know, he hasn't yet met any rats, but he does chase anything that moves...

A few weeks later, friends with a springer spaniel came for dinner.  Ratty was ecstatic and they ran and played together until both dropped, exhausted.  When Tim suggested that Ratty needed a companion, we went to see a couple who had bred their female Jack Russell with a friend's Jack Russell and now had 5 male puppies.  Badger was the runt of the litter but, at the age of 3 weeks, was already eating solid food.  We were asked to take him two weeks later, when the first-time mother refused to nurse her pups any longer.

Badger at 3 weeks (the lower two hands aren't mine - they belong to a rugby player!)

Holding Badger on my lap for the first time:

At 5 weeks, wearing one of my socks.  He still shivers with cold, lies in the hot southern French sun in summer and as close as he can to the wood stove in winter.

We wanted a French name for him.  The custom here is to name dogs according to the year of their birth; born in 2014, his should have begun with the letter J, but I couldn't find a name I liked, so we called him Copain (Pal in English), as he was meant to be Ratty's buddy.  After a week, we knew it didn't fit him and, seeing how feisty he was, we called him Badger, with only the slightest tip of the hat to The Wind in the Willows.

Getting acquainted:

At first, Ratty only tolerated Badger who, having been removed too early from his mother and four brothers - and seeking warmth - snuggled up to his new companion:

Badger at 5 months, with muddy nose (he is a terrier and there are lots of moles in our garden):

At 5 months, he could still fit next to Tim in the armchair, sort of...

Badger didn't stay a runt for long; he's now 9 kilos of solid muscle, while Ratty is a wiry 6 kg.  Don't be deceived by their innocent looks in the photo at the top...

Photo by Wilf Noordermeer

but there are still lots of sweet, peaceful moments:

Walking on the Serre, just above Oupia, April 2015.  They're much calmer at the end of a walk...

Photo by Wilf Noordermeer

More to come - and it won't all be about Ratty and Badger.  I'll catch you up on what we've been doing as well, in irregular postings; if you'd like to receive notifications of new postings or make comments, please see below.