Last week’s illness has reminded me of my worst vacation ever, since I was similarly afflicted during that trip.
It was November of 1990. I was spending that semester of my “college experience” in Brussels, Belgium. Included in the tuition costs were several long weekend trips to various places, and the weekend before Thanksgiving our group headed to Paris.
Now things do not have to go perfectly for me to have a good time. I am very flexible and can make the best of most situations. But in Paris, I was sick, and so even the finest of luxuries would have left me grumpy. The fact that there were no luxuries only made things pure misery. The youth hostel was the worst I’d ever experienced in Europe: no seats on the toilets, no hot water (not even tepid), dubiously clean linens, obviously unclean floors. I had forgotten my blow dryer, so after a frigid shower, I went sightseeing in the gray November chill with a damp head. It is small wonder that after this weekend, I ended up with a double ear infection.
I did have some good moments on this trip. Mass at Notre Dame was lovely, except that I had no idea what they were saying, and I was a bit distracted by all the people. They don’t close down the cathedrals for Mass in Europe (not in any that I was in). So the priest might be consecrating the host while half the nation of Japan filters around the altar taking flash photos.
The view from the Eiffel Tower was fantastic, especially at night. But even more impressive was the wind. Buried in an album somewhere are photos of my friends acting like they’re about to be blown off the side.
I went to see Huis Clos performed just to say I saw Huis Clos performed. It’s a good thing I had read the play, because I don’t speak much French. In fact, I really only practiced two sentences much to my French teacher’s annoyance: Je ne parle pas français and Avez vous un briquet?
I remember purchasing some trinket from a street vendor. He “didn’t have any change”, though, so he suggested I select another item (I was 19, okay? One is permitted to be gullible when one is that young). I picked a black, leather whip, because I thought it was funny.
We went to the Louvre, but all I really remember is running running running. We must not have had much time. I remember seeing how small the Mona Lisa is, and I think I found the Venus de Milo, but everything else is a blur. Can you really appreciate art while dashing by?
We returned to Brussels a few days before Thanksgiving and the one American professor invited us all to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. I was still plodding through my illness, thinking any day I would start to feel better. Somehow I found enough energy to participate in a game of touch football that afternoon, but by the time I got to the professor’s house for dinner, my head was throbbing, and then my ear drums burst. Both of them.
I left before the turkey was carved and stood in the rain waiting for a tram. An elderly woman stood with me complaining about the weather and for once I wished I could do more than nod my head and say, “mais oui.” The next day I went to the doctor, but the recovery was long. I was completely deaf in one ear and mostly deaf in the other. Instead, I heard a high-pitched ringing that nearly drove me mad. I remember wishing I had a gun, so I could blow my brains out. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted the ringing to stop.
So, while Paris cultivates an image of romance and urban chicdom, all I think about is it being cold, wet and dirty and making me so sick I was suicidal. I had another ear infection in my early twenties, but not again until this past week. I don’t know why I didn’t “tough it out” as I usually do with illnesses, but I’m happy for the instincts that had me calling the doctor for an appointment last week. I can’t imagine re-living the agony of burst eardrums while trying to take care of my family. As it is, they suffered tremendously without homemade waffles and pancakes, clean laundry and hot lunches. Had Bill not been able to go to the grocery store or fetch take-out pizza, the world might have come to an end, I tell you.
Sartre should have known. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is a sick mommy.