Saturday, September 20, 2008

Irritable Hip

And then there was Wednesday...

My daugher started complaining of a sore leg (which 1st hurt when playing football on Sat). She was hobbling around, and by evening in a lot of pain.

So I did what all good mothers do at this point, administered large doses of Calpol and put her to bed.

By morning, she couldn't walk at all. She was in a lot of discomfort, couldn't put any weight on it, or even walk, and the hip joint was very painful whenever she moved it.

So for the second time this week I took her out of nursery and we went to the clinic. The Dr was perplexed and sent her for an x-ray at another private clinic where they fortunately ruled out tumours, cysts and infection in the bone. However he told me all the things he was considering, slipped growth plate, rheumatoid arthritis, early onset arthritis

He also said you can sometimes get a virus going to a joint. However, he said he was concerned by her degree of pain and lack of mobility and said it certainly wasn't subtle, the discomfort she was in.

I carried her the 15 min walk from 1 clinic to the other, and then back again, which my back didn't enjoy greatly. Living up 3 flights of stairs didn't help either. I spent the day carrying her to the loo, and fetching and carrying things she requested from the sofa. I think she rather enjoyed that part.

My sister, a physio, helpfully suggested a tip; put her on a blanket and pull her along, (which would save my back), but knowing her cries of 'faster, faster' and 'ride like the wind, cowboy' when on the back of my bike, I rather feared this would further encourage her view of me as general lackey and whipping boy.

The Dr had admitted he was worried by her symptoms but said we could see how it goes over the next few days, and if not better, he said we would need to progress to MRI and ultrasound, which he recommended doing 'in another country' because of the orthopedic and paediatric expertise and experience needed.

M says they would fly us back to the UK. I hope our health insurance would cover us for that; I had visions of driving alone across the mountains into Macedonia being the only 'abroad' the insurance would cover us for....

She remained immobile, very tearful and in a lot of pain for the rest of the day.

Friday morning I am awoken by my daughter coming into my room saying: "I can walk Mummy."

And sure enough she could. She was hobbling around, but definitely walking. My son had even been putting her through her paces in their room before coming in, with a rigorous programme of hopping, skipping and even running. Throughout the day she got more and more mobile and was completely pain free.

A Dr friend had written to me, saying there is a complaint called 'Irritable Hip' caused by a viurus I think, which is very common, and is self limiting.

By the end of the day you wouldn't have believed there had been anything wrong. It was the most bizarre, brief 'illness' I have encountered.

(Except perhaps for that time when I was 10 I had had a thing called 'post-viral rheumatism' when I had sore joints & couldn't walk and was bed-ridden for 6 weeks.) Nasty things viruses, whatever country you're in.

So on Friday morning (after the school run) when I noticed I had a flat tyre, I felt positively blase. I thought: 'Yup, I can do this. Flat tyre. No problem'

Never mind that I have little working knowledge of the language, am female and foreign and therefore ripe for ripping off. And have no idea where to go. Still, one more day of the w/e before I need the car again.

Resilience that's what it's all about.

Still it's been a VERY long week.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bad Hair Days & The Kindness of Strangers.

Ok, so the Pollanna smile has slipped a bit.

Turns out that was only the beginning.

On Sunday night, just as I had finished putting the children to bed, washed up, made sandwiches for the next day, I sat down at the computer (still get a little frisson, being able to say that, after 8 mths without) And the power went off. Probably just as well, or I'd have seen photos of my husband posing outside the temples at Angkor Wat. Looking very happy. And curiously relaxed.

The power stayed off till 11 a.m on Monday: which meant I cdn't shower and wash my hair (again) The water works on an electric pump. We have a reserve tank on the roof, but too much of a trickle to power the shower.

Oh, but then there was Sunday night, I almost forgot. It went like this:
Midnight: My son wakes me up crying because he's scared of the dark (no lights , power cut remember?) So he climbs into my bed (I know, plse don't quote the 'Mores of Successful Child Rearing' to me)

1a.m Daughter wakes me up saying she's had a bad dream. So she climbs into my bed.

3 a.m Daughter falls out of bed. Manages to stay securely in her single bed, night after night. However, the night she decides to join me in the king size bed, she falls out.

4.30 a.m Woken again. Daughter thirsty this time.

5.30 a.m Thunder and lightning begin again, in earnest, waking me up.

Daughter still has a fever and has added diarrhoea into the equation, so no school, but she still has to come with me to the Government Car Registration Bureau. this is not all bad, as a friend told me being female and blonde might speed my application process, so I figure a sick, sniffling child might swing it further in my favour. It's a tried and tested method in many countries.

It starts off surprisingly well, I mean we are offered a chair to sit on, there are not too many sharpened elbows in action. It seems almost civilised, there's even a system of sorts. We have a booth number and wait for it to vacate. A man is even keeping watch on who's where in the queue.

I have all 7 documents the previous official said we needed to register the car in our name, plus all the documents notarised by a lawyer, even power of attorney given me by my kind husband so I can collect the documents for him. And be allowed to drive it. However once speaking to the (new) official, we are told the car needs a 'physical' and we don't have it. Essentially the same as a human physical. The MOT certificate was not good enough.

I tried to argue that we had been told all the documents were in place and I had everything I needed. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread...

The Albanian who took me said this is quite normal, the drip feeding of information, so that you have to go away, get whatever else is needed, and then return and begin again. . I'm told it's no good trying to be clever and asking exactly what each and every document you need is, before you go, or even whilst there.

This seems to happen in so many bureaucratically constipated developing nations. Happened to us all the time in Sri Lanka. Also what you need seems to change between visits, sometimes originals, sometimes photocopies. In Albania, every photocopy has to be taken to a lawyer to be notarised.

So we went away. As my daughter really wasn't very well, my husband's Albanian work colleague, bless her, took my car, got its physical done, it was given a clean bill of health, and she took the papers back again alone. I won't go into what we had to do to get THAT arrangement accepted by the official. Suffice to say NO money passed hands.... She brought the car back, and was going to collect the document for me the next day. So actually it wasn't that bad. I went once, this colleague will have been 4 times in total on our behalf. for which I am truly grateful. And she does this stuff every day as part of her admin job for M's NGO. Poor woman.

This morning. I was teaching at my son's school, so had to drop my daughter off, then drive to school with my son. The power was still off. Managed a chilly wash in shower dribble. Still haven't washed hair though. Government official probably wouldn't even acknowledge me as a blonde in my current state.

7.31a.m Pouring with rain STILL. We all jump in the car, I switch on. Nothing. our car which passed its medical with flying colours, only yesterday afternoon, has died.

I immediately call the school, and say that, although yes, we have bought a car which we've had for 4 whole days, it has, in fact, snuffed it, and could I have a lift from the caretaker after all? (our previous arrangement) I am teaching there for free, so I don't feel too bad.

Then I call my husband's work, and ask the colleague (who in fact killed my car) if she could send one of the drivers over to help me.

Meanwhile, unnoticed in this organisational flurry, my landlord steps out of his door, staggering under the weight of a car battery, asks me to open the bonnet, armed with spanner, unscrews my battery, a few sparks fly, puts his spare in and says "off you go, you'll be fine now". All well and good. Mini-crisis over. Car risen from the dead.

Now all I had to do was undo all the contingency plans I had just made.

I arrived at school 45 mins late for my son, and 1 min before my 1st lesson began. However, it was fine, as I had that tried and tested method of all experienced teachers, firmly in my grasp. Winging it.

The power stayed off most of the day, but hey it's on now, I've had my computer fix, and now I must go and make use of the oven whilst I have electricity and make some chocolate brownies for my landlord. And then of course, I MUST wash my hair.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Earache and Electrical Storms

M has just left for a two-week trip to Cambodia. For work, though he is managing to squeeze in some sight seeing too. I should really have been better prepared. ‘Something’ always happens when he goes away, especially when he goes away to another country.

Sure enough my 4 yo developed earache and a temperature over 100’. So I had a very broken night followed by a huge electrical storm which began at 5.30 a.m (waking me up again). The storm lasted all day until 5 p.m coupled with an all day power cut too. We couldn’t go out, it was chucking it down, my daughter was ill, the flat was very dark, we couldn’t cook, wash, eat toast, or watch DVDs. The washing and ironing I was less concerned about. Situations like this make you resourceful (as well as slightly unhinged)

I was also aware that earache can suddenly get very bad, and one needs antibiotics. The clinic is closed today, and even Albanians tell you to steer clear of the hospital.

I had my “Your Child’s Health Abroad” book and, as you can buy antibiotics from pharmacies I decided I wd self-prescribe if I had to. (And check with my long-suffering brother of course).

Tomorrow is also complicated: I have to go to a government office to get our car insurance verified etc. It took M 2 ½ hrs last week, with all the correct documentation, and he still didn’t get very far. I have a number in the queue and a date, Monday 15th but no appointment. If I don’t go tomorrow I start all over again. So I need A to be well, and I need to NOT need to go to a pharmacy until I get back from there.

So far not so very bad, but when I look back, it is uncanny, or unlucky, how often my other half is away when I have a crisis. First there was the time I went, in the space of a week, from a visit to the dr, to a diagnosis in hospital of grapefruit sized ovarian cysts on my ovaries, (suspected ovarian cancer) to being whisked in for surgery. And yes you guessed it, M was away. In China. He also had no mobile phone then, and I had no way of contacting him. (For the record he was back before the surgery and it turned out to be endometriosis)

Then there was the time my daughter, aged 360 days, turned blue and couldn’t breathe and was hospitalised for a week with bronchiolitis. The Good Man? Philippines this time. With a mobile phone. It was broken, he’d typed in one too many wrong pin codes and it shut down on him. No contact for 9 days. It’s quite hard to explain, in hind sight, to a blissfully ignorant husband, just exactly what has gone on the previous week, and just how isolated and tough it was, when we are there back in the house where he left us, a little pale but otherwise ok, as if nothing had happened. On that occasion at least, we were in Oxford with our support network around us.

Oh and one week after arriving in Sri Lanka on our 1st overseas posting, me feeling more wobbly than a tightrope walker in stilettos, our daughter is hospitalised again, this time with Pneumonia (we later got the diagnosis of a genetic defect Left Pulmonary Sling) On this occasion, only 8 days after arriving in the country, My Good Man was in Kandy 6 hrs away. This time it took me an hr to track him down there and tell him to come home. Being very new in the country we didn’t have mobile phones,

I guess I should count myself lucky he was in the country for the births of our two children. Although considering how long number 1 took to arrive, he would have had more than enough time to get home, even from Australia shd he have needed to. But that’s another story…

Despite being married for 17 yrs, I often feel like a single parent. I go to school event s alone, parents’ evenings, performances. Summers I spend back in the UK with the children (that’s our choice I know, but it’s important to us that we create memories for the children, reconnect friendships, and a sense of where they are from) M only gets 20 days so it’s spread quite thinly over the yr; something you notice more when you are trying to factor in catching up with family and friends (which in normal circumstances you’d do at w/es) as well as being with your family on holiday.

I don’t resent him being away exactly, I think it’s made me very resourceful, though his description of nosing round markets, eating a Khmer chicken curry, visiting Angkor Wat before his conference, did hold a certain allure for me I must confess this w/e), it’s just that I feel so vulnerable with the children, and also weary of dealing with crises alone. After all isn’t that what marriage is about, sharing the crises, and riding the storms together? Somehow regaling him with the edited highlight s after the event isn’t quite the same.

The vulnerability comes particularly, again, from being away from home and support networks and known procedures too, not speaking the language, not having gd medical facilities, being alone often, and having no transport in a city where biking is dangerous, buses are very complex and taxi drivers don't speak English. And roads aren't referred to by names, or indeed rarely have a name. The address of our flat, for example, is a description, not an address, on our rental contract.

For 8 mths. I have been biking everywhere, with my 4 yo on the back of my bike, and my 8 yo on his little bike, dodging the very real hazards of the Tirana roads. Many cars here are stolen, insurance write offs, been in an accident or have inadequate papers. Trying to buy a vehicle is a minefield.

On another occasion back in June M was actually with us. We were coming back from a 4 day camping trip to Macedonia, and our son, who gets hay fever, was getting progressively worse and started wheezing. By the next day he was in a very bad way. The Dr's is too far to bike to with children so M took us in a work vehicle. Our 8 yo was given subutanol syrup which made not a jot of difference, and by late that day he was in a real state and really struggling to breathe.
We asked work colleagues what hospital to take him to, they said ‘you don’t want to go to hospital here’. We also discovered my husband’s NGO had not registered us with the clinic (we are only their 2nd ex-pat so induction has been largely non-existent) so we didn't have access to the emergency number. I tried to find out the number, available only to ‘members’, from the 6 people I knew well enough to have their numbers. 5 had left the country for the summer, and one was teaching & her phone was switched off.

In the end, in desperation, I called our son’s Headmaster because his number was on a school letter. I really didn’t know who to turn to. As it happened he was at that moment going to the Dr's for supper, so he called him, he opened the clinic and spent an hr with our son giving him steroids, teaching him to use a spacer and calming him down.

But maybe actually I just have a too Western, 21st century woman’s expectation of how much a husband should be around and helping.

I do know many, many countries, where people work far away or even in other countries just to have a job and feed their families. They may see their families once a yr if they are lucky.

And these medical situations I’ve been in make me realise how vulnerable the poor are, ALL the time. Imagine the stress of knowing you simply can’t be ill, because you have to show up at work to get paid in order to eat, and you literally couldn’t afford the fees of being ill.

The Roma live in leaking corrugated shanty towns, they pick through the bins to find stuff to recycle which they get money for, the Poor Albanians live next to them, and dig for iron on an old factory site to eek out an existence.

I don’t have to consider selling a child, in order to feed my other children. We are warm and secure and eat three times a day.

And then I remind myself that it is actually for these people that we’re here, doing what we’re doing. We didn’t move overseas for a better or easier life but to help those who are in far worse a position than us.

So instead of thinking about the exotic sights, the lie-ins, the buffet breakfasts, stimulating lectures etc my husband is enjoying, I remind myself that this morning my 8 yo mopped up the outside table and chairs from the rain, laid breakfast, got everything ready whilst my daughter and I slept in. He even offered her breakfast in bed and brought her her Dora magazines to read.
After 8 mths we have a car, a solid, old, battered but reliable 4x4, which cost less than half anything else we’d seen. bought from an old missionary who’d lived here for 10 yrs. The day he flew out, he phoned with a few more bits of info about the car and said he & his wife were 'praying it would serve us well and be great for our family'. I mean, how nice is that?

The power came back on after 6 hrs, we watched a DVD together, had sausages and mash, a hot bath and went to bed.

Oh and my daughter’s earache has gone.

So now all I have to do is tackle the government bureau tomorrow. Life's really not so bad.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Blank Canvas and British Reserve

When my cook books finally arrived after spending 5 mths gettinng to Albania, I found myself poring over them again, not weeping as I did in Sri Lanka realising how useless most of them wd be, but gleefully, realising all the things I could cook. It seemed like lots in comparison. I then found myself indulging in what was, no doubt, escapism or therapy, mentally planning meals for friends back home; thinking how Simon, an ex butcher, would love a good meat or curry meal, Big John, the traditionalist, Lanacshire Hot Pot or stew with dumplings, Giles with his addiction to chocolate, a roulade or chocolate mousse, Michael, just about anything as long as it was pudding, and Andy something simple, but impressive he could add to his 5 recipe repertoire. Strange it's always men. I think it's because I know my female friends are just grateful that someone else is releasing them from the daily grind, and cooking a meal for them, whereas our male friends are much more vocal about what they like to eat.

We have begun the slow, and sometimes wearying process of making friends and trying to settle, but it doesn't have the cosy comfort and warm familiarity of sitting down with friends who've known and loved you for a long time, for whom you are not a blank canvas. I miss the ease and tease of established relationships: even after long gaps, being able to pick up the brush, paint in a few missing details, and then carry on the unfinished painting.

Here it sometimes feels a bit more like 'paint by numbers'; artificial, and clumsy. And not terribly good.

Having said that I think we are further on than I thought.

We had a 'dinner party' on Saturday to celebrate M's birthday. 6 people for a meal. Haven't done that in, oh 2 yrs and 8 mths. I couldn't bear to cook in Sri Lanka, much as I normally love it. They say, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. So I did. But I missed it.

It was great to be cooking again. And yes I felt it was quite an achievement that 8 mths after arriving, there were 6 people we could call friends who we wanted to spend the evening with. And who wanted to spend it with us.

The weather is still hot here in September. 30' hot, but cooler in the evenings, so we ate out on the balcony surrounded by candles (and many pots of basil, due to my over enthusiastic hand when sowing) It was a balmy evening, no breeze. The builders had stopped building, the lion wasn't roaring (zoo's next door) and even the newts in the lake had packed up and gone quiet.

It was a lovely night. Idyllic almost. And it was fun getting to know these people. It hadn't quite started out that way however:

To start with, I'd gone shopping for lamb with a friend who speaks Albanian. I am getting more used to the fact that the countries I end up in don't cater for control freaks. I just have to wing it and decide on the day, according to what's in the shops, what I'm going to cook. No planning. Well I planned loosely, and was prepaered to deviate if necessary. Actually I'd planned specifically. Lamb shanks, because I knew lamb was in the shops, and even shanks had been spotted by this friend. So I was feeling confident.

The 1st shop had sold out of lamb shanks. The butcher, though, was very helpful and did suggest if we waited half an hour he wd have a whole lamb coming into the shop. I didn't want to seem callous, but I didn't want to wait around for the death throes of this lamb, and anyway, unless it was a less successful 'Dolly the sheep', (i.e with 8 legs) would only have 4 shanks anyway, so we moved on.

The next butcher had lamb but no shanks so I decided to buy leg. This meant literally buying the whole leg, ie complete with 30+ cm of leg bone attached. It also had something else attached. No idea what it was, I didn't wan tto conjecture too much, but it was in the other butcher's too, something like a small rugby ball in a membrane dangling from the sheep. I didn't ask, and thought it wd be impolite to ask for it to be removed, as I'm sure it was some delicacy as Albanians do love their offal. I cut it off and binned it when I got home, knowing the street dogs, at least, would be grateful, and my non- Albanian guests no less so....

On Saturday morning, I experienced another of those miscommunications that has its roots in cultural codes. Or maybe I should come clean and just admit I'm a bit dim.....

An Albanian friend (who has lived in the U.S and U.K for 9 yrs, in the UK with friends who entertained all the time) ) texted to say could she bring a friend? This threw me somewhat as I had told her it was a dinner party. First my control freakism responded with 'how on earth can I stretch 8 individual cheese souffles into 9'??

And then the polite Englishwoman reared her well-mannered head, to ask how I was going to manage to say no politely? So I used the 'not enough food' ploy. In itself a shaming fact in ALbania. But I couldn't think of anything else....

I then asked her to bring something warm as we would be eating outside on the baclony. She replied with asking me what time to come and then added 'my mum's going to make stuffed peppers to bring'. She lives with her parents, as do almost all adults here until they are married, even after marriage actually.

This really confused me. a.) how was this relevant? and b.) Further consternation. 'Oh no she' thinks her parents have been invited, and is bringing them too'

Now the Englishwoman was in a blind panic. How could I avert this disaster? Politely. I could just imagine the scenario that evening as people arrived:

To couple number 1 "Oh how kind you've brought some wine, thank you"

To friend number 2 "Some flowers, how nice."

To friend number three "Oh, some stuffed peppers.....AND your parents too. You really shouldn't have."

What to do?

In the end I just bit the bullet said I was terribly sorry but there'd been a misunderstanding about her parents and how we'd love to have them another time.

She replied, sounding rather confused herself, "No, hon it's only me coming but you said to 'bring something warm', so my mum's making me stuffed peppers to bring"

So much for abbreviated text speak.... Why didn't I just say 'bring a cardi'?

I don't think I'll ever be an Olympian when it comes to cultural hurdling.