Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
If you'd like to know what's going on, please see the welcome message here.
If you're wondering what the book reviews are about, I direct your attention to the reading list/classic lit challenge here.
Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Es ist so weit/It's time!

June 14th, 10:10 pm

Ah, here we are again. Here I am spending another night at the Waldklinikum in the cot by the door, headphones in, with Hamlet keeping guard over the bed, waiting for surgery. I've just taken a nice long warm shower, since I don't know when I'll get another chance.

Today was unexpectedly stressful; we arrived at the hospital at half past ten and the ping-pong began. It began with the paperwork and blood samples with a couple of very cheerful and friendly nurses. After waiting a bit (and being a little irritating) we got a meeting with the head doctor, who explained what they were expecting and intending to do. Then it was off to the anesthesiologist, who could barely speak English and yet tried to explain to us the various risks in English, although we had read through them in English already. After some more waiting, we went in to a speech therapist, who determined that my speaking, eating, drinking, swallowing, and all other functions were completely unaffected by the mass. We grabbed a surprisingly tasty lunch from the cafeteria, then it was off to the neurologist, who yet again confirmed that everything seemed completely normal; then finally, at 3:30, after another meeting with the head doctor, we were done.

The two meetings were the doctor were of course full of warnings and worst-case scenarios, since they have to plan for all contingencies. Plan A is to remove the tumor internally, through the mouth; if the initial incision is inadequate, they may also have to cut into my velum, which I really hope they won't do. Plan C, though, sounds worse; they may have to cut under my jaw and get to the thing from the outside, avoiding lovely things like the carotid artery and salivary glands and the nerves that move the tongue. All sorts of terrible scenarios were presented to us, and every risk examined from every side. The appartus used to hold my jaw open could damage my lips and teeth. My jaw might be dislocated and have to be put back into place. I might need blood if someone really screws up and nicks a vein. They might have to insert an interal line through my arm and thread it through the vein to my heart. If things really go pear-shaped, they might have to do a tracheotomy and punch a breathing hole in my neck, like a smoker.

I really shouldn't let my imagination run away with me, but I can't help imagining coming out of the anasthesia tomorrow like waking up out of the Matrix, with tubes in every oriface, whimpering and confused. I know for a fact I'll have a feeding tube in my nose, which is somewhere on the well-known continuum between "Dude, that's so cool" and "That is not going to be even vaguely comfortable."

The thing that bothers me most about this at the moment (outside the obvious pressing issue of surviving) is the various effects that the operation could have on my ability to produce language. My velum, lips, teeth, tongue, and throat are all involved, all of which are passive or active articulators and therefore directly involved in my future career as a student and teacher of language.

But speculation and worry are as pointless, as the Sunscreen Song says, as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. ("The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind--the kind that blindside you at 4pm on an idle Tuesday.") By the time I post this, the surgery will be over and most of these questions will have much surer answers. I shall defer asking them, then, until I have to. In the meantime, I'm going to watch Dara O'Briain for a bit and wait for my brain to slow down, and then I'm going to try to get some sleep.

June 15th, 10:10 pm

I feel like a starfish: my stomach's on the outside.

The surgery went off surprisingly well; all those worse-case we-might-have-to-cut-your-neck open scenarios were entirely unnecessary, and instead of the forecasted four to six hours, the operation took less than two. For the second time in just more than a month, I drifted out of anesthesia, feeling like I was slowly being pushed ashore by fitful tides. The day was mostly uneventful after that; I slept mostly, listened to my mother read to me and watched some movies.

The big problem right now--or rather, what I like the least--is the long white tube taped to my nose that goes through my nasal cavity and down the back of my throat to my stomach. As you may imagine, this does not feel good. In fact, when I swallow, the left side of my throat (where the tube is) hurts just as much as the right, where the actual incision is. Hopefully they'll remove the tube tomorrow, since all they've given me is tea anyway...although I'm not looking forward to the extraction itself. (Do they believe, like Bethany, that tea is a magical cure-all? Seems like it...) Dang, I'm hungry.

Anyway, I'm going to try for some sleep. The sooner unconsciousness comes, the better.

June 16th, 8:58 am

Well, during the night I got to experience what it's like to be fed tea with a syringe through a tube in my nose. It's not altogether a pleasant experience, but luckily it's one I won't be repeating for a while, since they took the tube out this morning, much to my relief. As anticipated, the moment of extraction was awful; imagine throwing up a slug through your nose--er, actually, no, don't do that. Anyway, my throat's still sore, but with the tube out I feel much better; I don't have to expend so much energy trying constantly not to gag.

I keep finding little things--abrasions on the inside of my jaw from the jaw-holdy-openy dodad, sore muscles in my neck, swollen lips. Also, my uvula (the dangling bit in the middle of your throat) has taken a beating and is quite black and blue, which makes pronouncing the uvular R a bit tricky.

But--and I should have mentioned this before--for the most part I feel great. The surgery went well, like I said, so they didn't have to incise anything besides the capsule itself, and the thing just came right out. (I have pictures!) So as I predicted, all those worries about waking up mute or unable to pronouce certain consonants were pointless; besides some soreness and awkwardness swallowing, I feel pretty normal and rather good.

I'm waiting now for my mother to come so we can walk around a bit. If I move well, I can take off the TED hose tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm watching music videos and eating ice cream--they like me here. :D

June 17th, 10:03 pm

Yet another day passes in idleness in the forgotten forests of Gera. I didn't mention that yesterday two representatives from the hospital chain's marketing team came to talk to Mom and I for a few reasons. First, because the tumor itself is so weird; second, because they wanted to play up the joint surgery between my HNO doctor and a spine surgeon from Heidelberg; but third and most amusing, I am apparently the first and only American they've ever treated here.

This explains much more fully the total amazement and confusion I encountered when I came here the first time, and while they're not exactly giving me celebrity treatment (what passes for "vanilla soup" here has almost the exact consistency and texture of raw eggs, except vaguely and unenthusiastically vanilla flavored), they do sneak me an ice cream now and then. I made the appropriate noises about how great the hospital is (I'm still hoping to get out early, after all), and the photographer staged a picture of my doctor looking down my throat with a metal tongue depressor and then asked me to smile. They didn't show me the resulting picture, but I'm sure I look like they had a gun to my temple just off-camera. (For the record, they didn't.)

I finally managed to hook up the Internet today, but then my computer ran out of batteries, so all this will finally be posted later. I have a new roommate who snores with gusto, so sleep seems unlikely at the moment. The last IV line was removed today, so maybe I can wheedle my way to an early release tomorrow. It's so frustrating to just sit in this place and watch the last days go by.

So, quick news summary: I'm doing fine. The throat's sore, obviously, but it gets better every day and the pain meds mean it hurts less than your average sore throat. I'm otherwise healthy and mostly happy. The news today was that the preliminary examinations of the tumor led to the conclusion that it's definitely not maglinant; what it, in fact, is, remains to be seen.

P.S. Did I mention I had pureed veal for lunch today? :S

June 18th, 8:47 am

Well, I was hoping they'd let me leave today but no dice. Sounds like tomorrow will be the day instead. I'm thinking Mom and I will just bail for the day (they don't ever bother to keep track of where we are anyway) and go shopping and stuff, and I'll come back later and pretend that I was following the rules. I feel great; I haven't taken any pain meds since yesterday morning and the pain is almost negligible. I've just spent too much of my life in this hospital and I'm past ready to be gone.

June 20th, 12:53 pm

Welcome back to Stadtroda! I got out of the hospital yesterday and strolled around Gera with my mother. Today, after a nice cup of coffee at my favorite coffee chain (Coffee Culture FTW!), we've arrived back in my complete disaster of a room. We've got to do some grocery shopping, then we'll be off to see the bees!

It's less than two weeks now until I depart. The time is getting close to get a visa extension (the suspense is killing me!) but the post-Germany trip is the stuff of daydreams and I really, really hope it works out. Considering that my flight home leaves from Lisbon, I'm not sure what I'll do if they don't let me travel.

I'm generally feeling great, except that this morning I verschlucked one of those foul-tasting antibacterial pills and scratched the back of my throat, so I've been gagging all morning. Other than that, swelling's down, healing's going well, and I'll be back to normal in no time, minus one Überraschungsei. Still no definite news on what exactly it was; maybe they'll tell me when I go get the stitches taken out later this week.

Thanks to everyone who's been praying for me, sending me support, asking about me, and keeping me in their thoughts. I love y'all!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ich Weiß Auch Nicht, Aber...

I've just finished watching the movie "Redlight", a documentary on child sexual slavery and trafficking in Cambodia. I would highly recommend the movie, especially if you aren't familiar with the topic; you can find the whole thing on YouTube:

There's no need to describe how heartbreaking it is to see these young children list with faraway eyes the horrors they've been put through. This is an evil for which there is no excuse.

I'm not sure why, but the issue of human trafficking and slavery has been on my heart a lot recently. It may be because of the indifference I've met in my students here in Stadtroda. The Fachschule has been getting teaching assistants for fifteen years, and I can't see that any of the students much notice or care. There have been before me, and there will most likely be for many years after me (if the world doesn't end on October 21st, of course) bright, privileged university students vying to come here. This school doesn't need me; there will always be someone overjoyed to be placed here.

Which got me thinking: I have the skills and the means to go where other people can't, or won't. I want to work with people who need to learn English not because they're being forced to but because it will make a difference for the better in the course of their life. And somehow, that brought me to rescued victims of slavery.

I can't teach these rescued women and children a practical trade, and I've never been a political activist or lobbyist, but damn, do I know my own language, and I have some vague idea of how to teach it, and I've got some experience finding my way around a strange culture and a new language. That's not much, but maybe learning English is a way for rescuees to help lift themselves out of the pit they've been so cruelly tossed into. If so--man, count me in.

There are problems. I've found a lot of organizations who work with governments, other organizations, and companies to fight for and free the victims; they're happy to help me organize a rally to "raise awareness" (a phrase I thoroughly detest) or to accept money to fund their efforts, but they don't seem in desperate need of English teachers. In fact, the Somaly Mam Foundation is the first I've seen to mention the need in the first place, although it seems to me that offering English would be a huge help.

Another problem: I'm a foreigner and an outsider. Would it be worth it to go all the way to Bulgaria or Cambodia or wherever, when I'd be almost as helpless as the rest of the students? And if not, how else can I help? Because I don't want to just sit back in my room full of books and clothes and food, content with tossing a small tithe of my riches to a good cause and moving on with my incredibly blessed life. I want to do something with my time and energy, heart and mind, to help people who really need it.

I've send the Somaly Mam Foundation an (extremely truncated) e-mail to this effect. I'll let you know what they say.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Life Recently

I was the only one to disembark from the already mostly empty train onto the deserted platform in Stadtroda. The night air was not unpleasantly cool, though I'd forgotten my coat in the hurry and sunshine of my afternoon departure. At the bottom of the hill, atop which perches our Wohnheim, I stopped as is now tradition to sniff one of the rich pink blossoms of the wild rose that grows at the corner. Even closed up tightly against the dark and cold, the scent of sweet lemons still hangs about the petals.

The stretch of parking lot leading to the Wohnheim's back entrance is almost entirely unlit, except for two motion-activated lights that I always try, without success, to avoid tripping. Away from the flickering glare, the sky was perfectly clear tonight, just as the day had been stainlessly blue. The Big Dipper was directly overhead, but I sought other familiar constellations in vain; Orion, it seems, is gone until next winter, and I don't have the imagination to connect the scattered points of light into other recognizable shapes. I wondered again if we still use ancient constellations because our imaginations have atrophied, or we're too busy, or simply don't look up enough, or if the ancient people of the world saw something different in the stars than we do.

The night wind carries a wonderful smell: like grape Jolly Ranchers and honey. Every night when I come home, I smell this wonderful perfume and wonder what makes it, but the daylight never reveals any obvious culprit. It's a stupid thing to treasure, maybe, that sweet scent on the cool breeze in a dark parking lot under dimmed and distant stars, but my remaining time here is short and I'm trying to gather all the memories I can.

The last few weeks of my life have been both enjoyable and frustrating. I may have mentioned that I've been consistently ill with various minor afflictions for most of May, a trend that will continue with my surgery in June. Despite that, I've been relishing the warm and fragrant springtime, conversations with new friends, frequent trips to Jena for Stammtisch, class, movie nights, dances, ice cream. My teaching time is minimal and I have more free time than I know what to do with, much less use responsibly. As Relient K says: "It's seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, routine, and here at twenty-three it's the same old me."

Bethany's departure at the end of the month also looms dark on the horizon, and neither of us are looking forward to it. I find it very difficult to believe that we'll soon separate and after this summer, the odds are against us ever seeing each other again. I'm not always nice to Bethany, which I regret, and very rarely anything approaching her definition of polite, which is half habit and half intentional needling, but I'm going to miss her very much. She inspires me to a kinder, less sarcastic and, dare I say it, more polite person, and plus, who's going to make me tea?

We've been trying to cram in everything we wanted to do before she left, so last weekend was our long-awaited trip to Wittenberg. Bethany kind of has a thing for Martin Luther, even outside of the fact that she's writing her dissertation on him, so she's wanted to visit Wittenberg for a long time. She mentioned this to the head of my school, Herr Präger, who grew up in Wittenberg and volunteered to take us around, which is how we--Bethany, me, and Victoria for good measure--ended up in his car driving through the rain at 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning. Herr Präger conducted us around the town, pointed out all the important sights, and bought us all coffee, then left us to head to Leipzig so we could explore on our own.

Of course we had to visit the church where the 95 theses were (putatively) nailed to the door, although the door itself, now engraved with said theses, was (in true tourist-thwarting style) behind hoardings. An overlong visit to the Luther House means that I learned more than I ever will be able to make use of about Martin Luther, almost all of which I've subsequently forgotten. The highlight of Wittenberg for me, besides its cozy, colorful, community atmosphere, was seeing the house where the Danish prince Hamlet supposedly stayed while studying at the university.

After eating an obscene amount of ice cream each, we waddled (by way of the Luther Eiche, where Luther burned his opponents' writings) to the train stations and got us a train to Magdeburg. On the way, we were plagued kept company by two young children who kept wandering from their supervising adults to talk to us, and by "us" I mean me. I'd begun, for reasons now lost to me, to read Pride and Prejudice aloud, which flabbergasted the two little ones, and eventually they got the courage to talk to us, ask to play with my Kindle, and make me show them pictures and video on my camera from Scottish Night. Bethany and Victoria unhelpfully (the supposed Kinderliebhaber!) sat there and watched sniggering while I entertained two (admittedly very adorable) German children for over an hour.

It was full night when we checked in at our hostel, but we went off to explore anyway. Magdeburg at night was oddly otherworldly...the unseasonable warmth, the ubiquitous orange glow from the streetlights, the clouds of gnats by the river, the imposing, vine-draped cathedral, and the well-maintained but very random ancient fortress next to it all made it seem like we had taken a step sideways in time. We were all tired and didn't stay out long, but our plans to make an early start before the train home that evening were dented when Bethany was violently ill that night.

Instead of all gallivanting around the city together, therefore, we left Bethany in a cafe to rest the next day, and together Victoria and I visited the world's biggest wooden tower (wow) and found the Sunday flea market quite by accident, where we bought irresponsible amounts of fruit. After reclaiming Bethany, our last stop was the cathedral, a vaulted sanctuary of pale cream stone and cool air. We strolled around the attached cloister and then it was time to sit on the trains for four hours back to good ol' Stadtroda.

Now it's almost two in the morning and I need to convince myself to go to bed. I've finished the last Schluck of the current bottle of Apfelschorle, which will now join the small forest of its fellows behind my door; by the time I depart, there will be a minor fortune in Pfand there. But best not to dwell too much on that now.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I Guess I Owe Y'all An Update

Right, so, last you'd heard, I was maybe going to have an operation on Tuesday the 10th. As you can surmise, that didn't happen. So, let me catch y'all up a bit.

On Thursday the 5th, I got to go home, and that meant I got to spend the weekend celebrating my birthday. On Sunday, Bethany, Stefanie, Victoria and I drove to Zella-Mehlis, a town deep in the Thüringer Wald, for the express purpose of visiting the aquarium there. We also met Alison there, and spent a few hours wandering among eerily blue-lit tanks and peering into the grotesque faces of their inhabitants. We watched the alligators being fed and made faces at the tiger sharks (well, I did) and talked to fish of all shapes and sizes. I can't help it; I love aquariums. (Aquaria?) Lucky for me, it was my birthday, so my ever-patient friends had to put of up with it.

Reemerging into the warm afternoon sunshine, we drove back to Jena to meet two more friends for dinner. First, though, we dug into the delightful chocolate buttercream cake that Stefanie had made for me, then we went off to find a cafe. We ended up at this silly bio-obsessed place, but thankfully I wasn't too hungry anyway because of the cake, so we just stayed and chatted and ate our all-organic sandwiches. Alison had to leave after dinner to get her train, and the rest of us decided to see a movie. Nothing was on at the cinema, so it was off to Anja and Claudia's flat.

Anja is the kind fellow Spanish student who had brought me to the English conversation group the first time. Her and her sister have a lovely flat in a quiet corner of Jena, and in honor of the day at the aquarium, we watched "Finding Nemo" in German.

After Bienenkunde the next day, I returned to Anja and Claudia's flat for a movie night--namely, Rapunzel. I cannot explain to you why I love this movie so much, especially in German, but it is so wonderfully adorably and preposterously cheesy I just can't help giggling madly when I watch it, even though I've seen it at least 10 times now. After that, we played SingStar until I realized that I was about to miss the last train, so we went flying through late-night Jena and I bolted on the train just in time.

Finally, the dreaded Tuesday morning rolled around, and Frau Woehlbier called the hospital to see what the verdict was. They said that they wanted to first do a biopsy to determine the exact nature of the growth, then a second operation to remove it altogether. They also wanted to bring in a renowned neurosurgeon to take part in the surgery, so it wouldn't be happening any time soon. That was good, because not only did I have two classes to teach that day, I was also coming down with a cold.

I snuffled and moaned through Wednesday but managed to recover by Thursday, which was very good because that Thursday was the Scottish Dance Night. Professor Liston (alias "Chunky", for no discernible reason; he looks like a slender, Scottish twin of Aaron Eckhard) of the Anglistik department is from Edinburgh, and 60 people crammed into one classroom to hear him, now be-kilted, play the bagpipes and learn some Scottish dances from him. Eventually, it got too loud and too packed, so we spilled out into the square in front of the university buildings to dance in more space. As much as I hate club and one-on-one dancing, I love group dances; there's a wonderful pattern and logic to them, and there's no pressure to be any more graceful or clever than the rhythm and sequence of the dance demands. When every member of the group pays attention and does their part right, there's a delightful sense of harmony that comes from every person working together to form and enjoy something beautiful. Also, Scotland is love.

On Friday, after a double guitar lesson (I'm learning a song involving lots of bar chords, which means the going is torturous and slow), I put on a skirt (no clean jeans left!) and went to see Thor in Jena with Bethany. Got to admit, for a Marvel movie about a Greek god, it was surprisingly interesting and well-done. Also, it was visually stunning, not only because of the 3D (which seems to be generally pointless and distracting) but simply the colors, effects, and images. Anyway, there are worse ways to spend a Friday evening.

Saturday was spent with a classmate, Maria, in the library working on a presentation for that wonderful Tolkien class I mentioned before. After three hours of Tolkienness, we broke off for coffee and cake (a German institution) at a flat belonging to a friend of Maria's. It was very kind of them to invite me, but the friend also had two young boys (one and three years old), which put me out of my element. I excused myself after a bit and went shopping, arriving home just in time for the start of the Eurovision competition.

Now, I'd heard quite a bit about Eurovision from "My English Friend" Stephen, who watches it religiously. For those Americans who have never heard of it, it's basically a Europe-wide singing Olympics. Each country sends a band, group, or singer to represent them; through the semi-finals, the number of entrants is whittled down to 25, and on finals night, each act performs before a screaming, flag-waving international crowd. Just like any other obnoxious reality performance show, the audience can then vote for their favorite; after the voting closes, the hosts video-call representatives from each country, who announce the points they have awarded. At the end of the night, the country with the most points wins a victory for their national pride, a hideous trophy, and the dubious and expensive honor of hosting next year's competition.

There are two things that struck me as a first-time Eurovision spectator. The first was the unbelievable quantities of tackiness, boyband-level cheesiness, and general glitzy and glamorous ridiculousness, all taken with completely straight-faced earnestness. The competition began with a cute kid from Finland who looked about 15 singing a ballad about world peace; Ireland was represented by Jedward, twins with hilarious red-sequined jackets and gravity-defying hair who can't sing to save their lives but bounced around the stage like hyperactive chipmunks on pogo sticks; the Moldovans were dressed in enormous cone-shaped hats and yodeled into their microphones as a girl with a trumpet circled them on a unicycle; and it was completely impossible to pay attention to Ukraine's rather good song, since behind her was a Ukraine's Got Talent (is that a thing?) winner drawing shapes in sand on a lightboard. Personally, I voted for Greece, who had a split act: an absolutely terrible rapper and a gorgeous young bloke singing in Greek amid jets of flame. I have to admit that I'm glad Eurovision isn't broadcast or even well-known in America; if it was, tourism into Europe would plummet as Americans realized with horror just how insane the Europeans really are.

The second thing that struck me was the oft-bemoaned (among people who care) fact that voting in the countries has little to nothing to do with the actual quality of the offerings and everything to do with the political and historical relationships between countries. Britain and Ireland voted for each other, as did Portugal and Spain, and Germany and Austria. But the main problem is that apparently, all the Eastern Bloc countries vote for each other, which is how we ended up with Azerbaijan as the winner. Really, now, how many people actually know where Azerbaijan is? I didn't--it's south of Georgia, bordering on the north of Iran, and if you just said, "Is that even technically Europe?" well, that's what I was wondering too, and since Israel also took part (what?!) I guess the definition of "Europe" is pretty loose at this point.

Anyway, if nothing else, it was highly amusing to watch--like a train wreck between an ICE carrying the sparkly costumes and sound equipment for Europe's Got Talent and a truck full of pyrotechnics. It was a cultural experience, at least.

Sunday was a trip to Gera with Victoria and Joe; we visited the Otto Dix house (some very odd paintings), played in a playground, then took the train back to Jena to meet Alison for a show at the planetarium. Going to the Jena Planetarium has been on my to-do list all year, and it didn't disappoint, although it wasn't anything I haven't seen in other planetaria before...except, of course, all the pinwheeling stars and beautiful galactic clouds were explained in German. Afterwards, we chatted over waffles at the Milchmix cafe about grammar, and I was thoroughly contented with my life.

This was unfortunately short-lived. After the first honey harvest on Monday and a class to teach on Tuesday, I headed to the English Stammtisch in Jena, which is the highlight of my week. But before I even got there, my left eye was starting to itch, and was seriously hurting by the time I finally gave up and headed home earlier than normal. This was so disappointing, since I had also been sick for last week's Stammi, and chatting with fellow language-lovers is one of the things I get the most joy out of.

By Wednesday morning, I could only open my left eye with stabbing pains and significant effort, but our Tolkien presentation was due so I packed up and shuffled off to Jena anyway, mostly blind. I made it through the presentation, but barely; it's extremely difficult to sound credible talking about heroic couplets and iambic pentameter with constantly watering eyes and a runny nose. After class, I found a doctor who prescribed me some antibacterial drops; I picked those up and headed to the train station, only to find the trains half an hour delayed. By the time I finally staggered back to my room in Stadtroda, I was exhausted and went straight to bed, having to miss entirely the goodbye barbecue party that the Stadtroda Stammtisch was throwing for Bethany.

Today, due to rest and medicine, my eye is better, but I can't help being a little irritated that I have managed to be sick with a different illness every week so far this month. The first week was the throat infection and tumor; the second was a cold; and the third is this cursed eye infection. I was perfectly healthy all winter, so my body seems to be taking revenge by making my life miserable now that the weather's nice.

Speaking of the tumor, here's the latest news. The surgery is tentatively planned for the 15th of June. My mother will be arriving here in Germany on the 9th of June so she can be there both before and after the surgery. The good news from today is that the insurance has confirmed that they will pay all costs, which I'm sure will be in the thousands of euro range. With the surgery still a month off, I have time to get over all the weird illnesses I'm suddenly susceptible to, and hopefully I'll recover quickly so as not to disturb my summer travel plans.

Now you know!

Sweet Harvest

I entered the Bienenhaus on a cool Monday afternoon and breathed in deep of that exquisite smell: the sweet scents of wax and honey mixed with the comfortable mustiness that one finds in old houses and yellowed books, with just a whiff of the golden forsythia that bloom in exuberant explosions around the entrance. That smell, golden-brown, warm even in the dead of winter, and delightfully sweet, seems to promise sunshine no matter what the season or weather, but now it's especially apt: we're harvesting honey.

Inside the long-unused honey room, the Schleuder (centrifuge, for lack of a better word) was vibrating noisily. It looked like an enormous tin can, squatting on three slender legs, its spinning contents a blur under its plexiglass lid. But out of a faucet at the base ran a steady stream of golden honey through two sieves into a yellow bucket proudly marked ECHTER DEUTSCHER HONIG (Real German Honey).

The harvesting process begins outside, of course, at the Bienenstand. Several weeks ago, the hives were each given an extra Honigraum (a Zarge, or level, filled with empty honeycombs) separated from the rest of the hive by an Absperrgitter. This is a grating through which the smaller worker bees can crawl, but which is too narrow for the larger queen; this prevents the queen from laying eggs in the honey room. The beekeepers outside look through the hives, making sure the queen is in good health by either spotting Her Highness or by finding Stifte, tiny white newly-laid eggs. From the Honigraum they take out the Waben (honeycombs) that are full of honey and bring them to us in the Schleuderraum.

The bees let the honey air until the right amount of water has evaporated--about 18% is right--and then they cover the honey cells with a thin layer of wax. Our first job is to take off this covering with a special fork. We set aside the uncovered honeycombs to wait to be spun. As they sit in a rack, the honey drips down the open combs like syrupy raindrops; you can catch the drops on your finger and taste right away. Honey doesn't get any fresher than this.

Once there's room in the Schleuder, four honeycombs are loaded into spring-cushioned cages in the centrifuge's silver belly. A tiny white motor at the top spins the combs, extracting the precious honey and doing minimal damage to the combs themselves. Ideally all the honey is removed, and apart from a few tears and smushes, the combs are perfectly fine and can be replaced directly back into the hives for the bees to repair and fill again with honey.

One honeycomb contained a few wax-covered brood cells. As I leaned in to look, I noticed that one of the cells was missing its cover and instead, the triangular head and waving antennae of a hatching young worker bee were visible. I set that comb aside and waited, and in a few minutes, the young worker reached out of her confining cell with dainty black legs and pulled herself free: first head, then the thorax covered in downy silvery-tan hair and adorned with delicate wings, then the long abdomen striped in black and dark gold. We took her outside, and hopefully she found her way to her own or another hive. We spun that comb anyway with the rest of the brood still inside; we'll see if any of the rest survived.

We worked for about three and a half hours and produced more than six buckets of honey. I even took a jar of it home. This is how every Bienenkunde will be spent for a while: the bees will work hard to stock up with honey for the winter, we'll steal it away and give them the empty combs back to fill for us to steal again. There are some concerns that the hot, dry weather we've been having means the bees will run out of pollen, which is one of the ingredients of honey...but that remains to be seen.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Short Hiatus

In the words of my much-loved and ever-direct mother: "What's taking them so long? If this were America, you'd have been scanned twice, had the thing cut out and be playing golf by now!"

And indeed, Day Five in the delightful SRH Waldklinikum Gera drifted by unhurriedly in the glow of the spring sunshine, and it does seem like they're taking their sweet time. At least I did actually have the CT scan this morning as promised; Mohawk Man from yesterday and his grizzled comrade drove me back to the same building, which still looked like a nuclear bunker under siege, and I took a seat, thankful that this time I had the sense to bring my Kindle.

In contrast to the half-hour auditory torture of the MRI, the CT was a cakewalk; the thing whirred and spun and made important-sounding electrical noises for about two minutes, then I was already done, probably with five years taken off my life in radiation poisoning.

I declined to wait for the Fahrdienst and got myself happily lost in the maze of roads and buildings. I just tucked my official red folder under my arm and tried to look like I knew where I was going, and eventually found my way back to my ward.

The final (sorta) verdict: The growth is some sort of boney thing. (If you just went, "Hey, that's pretty much no improvement at all over what the MRI showed," yeah, me too.) It doesn't seem to be too close to any major nerves or blood vessels and it's apparently not attached to other bones, so it should be operable without too high a risk. The doctors want to collaborate with some nerve and bone specialists, so they want to schedule the surgery for next week, and I'd be able to go home tomorrow.

After talking to my mother ("Why can't you go home today?"), I got to thinking: why can't I just go home today? There are no more tests to do. There's no reason for me to just stay another night. So I went and asked the doctor, who assented. When Stefanie and Bethany showed up to visit, I was already all packed, the IV out of my arm and a huge grin out of my face, and we waltzed out of there.

So. For the weekend (and my birthday!) I'm free, but early on Tuesday I'll have to call the hospital and hope they're ready to do the surgery. That's fine with me--I'd like to just have the thing out, for heaven's sake!

The Weirdness Geht Weiter

Originally written May 4th

I was awakened this morning by the cheerful news that I was not, in fact, going to have a CT after all but rather an MRI, which didn't mean too much to me so long as they did something. At 11:47 I was picked up by an apathetic Transport Services guy who had us wait for the special bed-sized elevator even though there was just the two of us, standing on our own, perfectly functional legs, and a entirely serviceable set of stairs directly behind us. I was shown to a van which trundled to another building about a hundred yards away and we all got out again.

I was brought to a waiting niche (it didn't have enough walls to be a "room") across the hall from a really epic sliding metal door behind which crouched the waiting MRI machine. Some blockhead had chosen to paint one of the hallway walls fresh-blood red and then light said hallway by shining diffused light onto the same wall, resulting in a haunting red glow which, combined with the ominous door, gave the whole area a delightful nuclear-submarine-under-attack sort of feel. When I first noticed it, I honestly thought that the red light meant the MRI machine was in operation or something, and went looking for sirens.

It turned out the waiting at the elevator and the stupidity with the van was actually a kindness on the part of the hospital because it killed 10 of the about 70 minutes I spent pacing around the niche waiting for my turn and wondering if I wanted to risk wandering away to find a bathroom. When my turn was called after a dude with a leg injury, I was greeted by some really lovely baby-English. "You, sitting down," the nurse explained eloquently to me. "Jacket taking out." When I asked her where the bathroom was, she told me to go to the end of the hall and "turning left," while pointing right.

"Do you understand a little of what I'm saying?" she asked me when I was back in the slow, simplified, talking-to-idiots German that I've had the luxury of not hearing for a while.

"You can speak to me normally in German. I understand you," I answered in German, hoping that would make her stop. I really hope I don't sound like that when I talk to my students.

Behind another epic (but sadly hinged) door lurked the huge cream-colored tube. The nurses stuffed pink earplugs in my ears, hooked the contrastive agent into the IV port in my arm, and wedged by head in place with foam. They both disappeared from view, the door sealed shut, and I slid into the surprisingly tiny opening.

They'd warned me it'd be loud. I tried to focus on staying completely still, and even managed to doze off once or twice, although the sound was like someone had left the beach invasion scene from Saving Private Ryan cranked up on full blast: machine-gun pulses of ten or so at a time that vibrated through my whole body. The frequency of the bursts varied and overlapped, and I wondered, half-awake, if anyone had ever considered using the sounds as the percussion for a rock song.

Half an hour later (I won't torture you with the play-by-play) I staggered out, got dressed, and was sent back out to the waiting niche to be transported back to my building. Half an hour after that, I was starting to study a handy map of the hospital campus, figuring I could've walked back and forth half a dozen times by then and trying to plot my escape, when a blue-and-pink-mohawked Transport Services guy came in asking for "Frau MahnKEEN?" How could I say no to that?

When I got back, Stefanie was already there to visit. I'd just sat down to my long-delayed lunch (green bean stew, yum) when the head doctor trotted up to our table to inform me the the tumor/growth thing was benign and nothing to be scared about. I could barely smile and nod before he dashed off again.

Later, I cornered the nice English-speaking doctor for a more thorough explanation. She let me look at the MRI images, and I was surprised by the sheer size of the thing. Through all this, I hadn't actually seen the thing myself. The doctor finally had the sense to take me over to the mirror with a tongue depressor and a light and let me see for myself. I finally understood the GP's "du Scheiße" on first looking down my throat, since that was (more or less) my reaction, too. Behind and to the upper right of the uvula is a smooth purple-red lump about the size of an egg or golf ball. The rush to get me into surgery at first makes a lot more sense now, since if an abscess that large had burst, I would've been in real trouble. In any case, despite how grotesque and huge the thing looks (now semi-affectionately termed my "Überraschungsei", "surprise egg", after the Kinder chocolate eggs), it doesn't hurt, and apparently it's not out to kill me at the moment. It's invisible in the darkness of my gullet, and without the (apparently totally unrelated) throat infection that first prompted someone to look down there, it probably would've gone unnoticed for quite a bit longer.

Well, that was good news at least. The less-good news is that they still want to do a CT scan (augh), and then hopefully they'll cut the damn thing out of my face on Friday. Know what that means? That means at least four more days of observation in the hospital and eating through a feeding tube in my nose on my birthday. Yay!

I am really grateful, though, that this is something so minor. I'm basically complaining about having to do not much of anything except sit around, play games and chat with my friends, eat ice cream, and occasionally be injected with various fluids. I'm reading Schindler's Ark right now, and damn, do I have it good. Schindler's Jews, living in huts, fenced in by barbed wire, working menial jobs for hours every day, living on thin rations, having lost everything they owned from their families and houses and money to their very status as humans, were the lucky ones, snatched from the jaws of torture and merciless, indiscriminate death.

I, on the other hand, spent my afternoon and evening laughing and playing card games with the four friends who came to see me and bring me stuff to make the hospital stay easier. So, I'm being well taken care of, well fussed over, and with any luck, operated on on Friday!