After years of travels, I had developed a simple rule for quick familiarisation with a hitherto unknown city or town by visiting three places: a bookshop (even if I didn’t speak the local language: you can tell a lot about a place simply by looking at the books it publishes and the people who buy them); a coffee shop (the best place to quietly observe the locals, without being noticed yourself); and a train station (to make sure there’s an escape route in case I actively dislike the place and feel like moving away fast).
In the aftermath of recent open-heart surgery, with lots of subsequent complications, I – reluctantly – had to add a fourth venue to this list – a hospital. Since the surgery, a portable blood-pressure measuring apparatus has become my obligatory travel companion, alongside the faithful Swiss Army knife.
Until the last several months, there hadn’t been lots of hospitals in my life. The very first was in my native Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, then better known by its Russified name ‘Kharkov’, where at the age of seven I had my cold-prone adenoids removed in a rather crude procedure. Wearing my best (and only) little suit, I was tied to a chair, while the surgeon, armed with huge blood-stained forceps, managed – after six goes – to drag some resilient intestines (at least that’s how those slimy, red lumps of tissue looked and felt) out of my throat. No anaesthetic was used. ‘What a brave little boy!’ the surgeon said afterwards. ‘He didn’t even cry!’
I didn’t cry for one simple reason. One of the nurses had promised to give me ice-cream after the operation if I didn’t... She hadn’t meant it of course. It was the first time that the Soviet system, represented by the lying nurse, showed its true face to me, and I will never forget how miserable and let down it made me feel. The experience was useful in a way, for it prepared me for all the future lies I was to endure during my 35 years in the USSR. So, yes, hospitals sometimes do reflect the nature of the society they serve.
Here it would be relevant to note that geographical units: countries, cities, villages, islands, deserts, etc – are themselves capable of making you ill. Or stressed. Or both.
A couple of examples:
I had come to Las Vegas in the middle of an 11-month-long American journalistic assignment. In a way, I liked the place for its boisterous and unadulterated Kitsch – Las Vegas’ euphemism for ‘culture’, spelt with a capital ‘K’ – and for its total lack of pretence, as if the city was constantly taking the Mickey out of itself. ‘Mechanic on duty. Free aspirin and tender sympathy’ ran a sign on top of a city garage. One certainly needed a lot of aspirin and even more ‘sympathy’ to cope with Las Vegas.
Another city that is certain to give you a headache and make you crave for an aspirin is Rome, Europe’s only metropolis that – honestly and truly – never sleeps. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a recently deceased Russian poet, aptly compared it to a giant alarm clock buzzing constantly in your ear.
What else? Moscow, where I had lived for over 12 years, polluted and full of uncertain menace, gives you asthma and panic attacks. And New York, according to Jan Morris, is the best place in the world to have a heart attack. And not just because of the city’s ‘various spasms’. ‘If I had to have a heart attack, the best place would be on Fifth Avenue. There’d be more good people coming to help than in any other city,’ she noted after calling New York ‘in some ways the nastiest city on Earth’, but also possibly ‘the kindest’.
I remember asking a permanently stressed New York friend of mine why she kept crossing the road on red pedestrian lights and stopping at green. ‘We New Yorkers love our freedom. No one is telling us when to cross the road!’ she snapped.
I may not have had a heart attack in New York, but I came close to it during my recent post-surgery recuperation trip to Majorca. ‘What you need is complete rest and a bit of Mediterranean sun,’ my cardiologist told me a couple of months after the operation. I followed his advice and made arrangements for a week-long holiday in Bon Sol, a beautiful hotel-cum-resort in Illetas, one of the suburbs of Palma de Majorca, the Balearics’capital.
‘People come to us to heal, that’s what Bon Sol is for,’ Lorraine and Martin Xamena, who own and run the resort, told me. ‘This is a healing place, and we guarantee that by the end of the week you will fully recover.’
Mind you, Palma itself is not a tranquilliser city. Rather it is an energiser – a glass of intense Majorcan red wine you have with breakfast. A relatively small metropolis of under 500,000 people, it appears at least twice as large due to its boundless energy, noise and bustle. The city where one can indeed pick up a bottle of wine in an excellent bookshop called ‘Babel’ in which the world’s literary classics and wine bottles share the same spaces – part bookshelves, part wine racks.
I had been to Palma many times before and thought I had known it well, to the point that my latest novel – still in progress – is partially set there. In accordance with my tested travel rules, I had repeatedly visited the city’s cafes, bookshops and its small and old-fashioned railway station, from where one can catch an electric train (or tram) to Soller. This time I, sadly, had to add the hospital to that list as on my first night in Majorca, I suffered an attack of acute pericarditis and ended up in the emergency department (Urgencias) of the island’s main hospital – Son Espases.
The interesting thing is that we Brits do not associate the normally cheerful, talkative and robust Mediterranean dwellers with disease. Books have been written about some Greek and other islands famous for their healthy diets and the islanders’ incredible longevity. So one can be forgiven for assuming that all Greeks, Italians or, say, Majorcans are generally healthy, and seeing them being sick ruins the stereotype so it was surprising to see how some of the ailing locals in Son Espases were very poorly indeed...
Places do not just make you ill; they can also be healing. In my travels, I have been lucky to find myself in spots that looked and felt like meditations coming to life. They were mostly islands, for large expanses of water are calming in themselves, and that calm spreads onto the chunks of land, surrounded by seas and oceans. I found both the Falklands and the Faroe Islands profoundly relaxing and healing after spending some of the most peaceful days of my life there.
I came to the Hebridean island of Tiree in October 2001 to recover from the shock of 9/11, having stayed of the 32nd floor of one of the World Trade Center hotels – which collapsed shortly after the Twin Towers – only weeks before the attack.
Autumn in the Hebrides is the time when quiet and stillness reign supreme, when most tourists are gone and the strong winter gales that are known to have lifted schoolkids off the ground have not yet arrived. It is the season of crisp sunny mornings, of vast all-embracing skies mixing with granite-coloured sea, of stunning sunsets – exorbitant and over-the-top for a viewer having no one to share them with. I cycled around the island humming the unsophisticated doggerel of my own making: ‘Life is totally stress-free/on the island of Tiree’ to the accompaniment of the wind whistling in my ears like a hooligan and cleansing my soul.
At various points of my peripatetic life, full of crises and hardship, I found myself temporarily appeased in Tasmania, with its quiet nostalgia for good old Europe; in Melbourne, Australia, where I recovered from PTSD, caused by overworking and a relationship breakdown; and in Folkestone, Kent, where – day after day – I chilled out by pacing endlessly along the permanently deserted promenade above the cliffs, overlooking the Channel.
‘Take time to reflect and to nourish your soul’ ran the sign on one of Bon Sol’s viewing terraces. I spent hours on them breathing deeply and looking at the sea with its regulation yacht sail on the horizon – a living illustration to one of my favourite poems of all time, The Lonely Sail by Mikhail Lermontov:
The utterly peaceful and tranquil sea views were inescapable in this amazing family-run resort, where all the staff and all the guests felt and behaved as if they were part of the family too. It was also calming to discover that the hotel owners were champions of clean energy, and that several years ago Bon Sol was voted one of the world’s top ten greenest resorts.
A cheerful chorus of birds greeted me in the morning, replaced in the evening by a no-less-melodious choir of frogs, so familiar to me from my Ukrainian childhood and hence profoundly calming. All a far cry from the ‘chorus of drips’ in the hospital in Stevenage where I was recovering from a post-surgery complication several weeks earlier. Litres of antibiotics were pumped into my uncomplaining veins for hours on end from two drips, which I monikered Doris and Dorothy. With time, I learned to walk, even to ‘dance’, with the drips, turning them around in the long hospital corridor.
From my balcony, I watched white cruise ships leaving the Palma Harbour at dusk and accumulating the last rays of the sun as they moved away – those floating sun magnets. I would then close my eyes and repeat, like a mantra, the meditative and prayer-like Bon Sol slogan: ‘Paz en el espiritu. Sol para el cuerpo. Calor en el Corazon’ – ‘Peace for the soul. Sun for the body. Warmth for the heart.’
With every passing day, I was feeling better and better. ‘Peace, sun and warmth...’ How little one needs to be happy. How little and how very, very much!
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