This entry was supposed to be about what we thought would be an amazing trip to Vienna, Austria; Salzburg, Germany; and Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Instead, the universe said, “Oh, hell no! You guys have been traveling enough and having too much fun lately. It’s time you experienced something a little less awesome.”
So it dished out about a year’s worth of bad luck and trauma all crammed into the space of about 48 hours.
Because, y’know, you can’t live in a country with the best weather in all of Europe, populated by the kindest, humblest people on the planet, with a cost of living that makes our retirement even possible, with cuisine we have fallen in love with, where within a matter of hours we can land in just about any city in Europe, and with a health care system whose quality and cost puts America’s to shame, without being reminded that, well, you still live inside these fallible and aging human bodies.
We’ll start with Carolyn: she had to be rushed to the emergency room and receive emergency surgery on her spine.
To start from the beginning, Carolyn has had some aches and pains in her bones for a while now (probably due to her tragic high jump history). It’s also one of the reasons we wanted to move to a warmer climate. She has been receiving physical therapy as well as trying to tone up via a thrice-weekly aqua-size class.
But a few weeks before we were scheduled to depart for our whirlwind tri-country tour, the pain suddenly became so intense that her head started spinning and she began spewing naughty words in the same tone of voice I first heard in The Exorcist. After one of our windows shattered from her screams, we decided maybe it would be a good idea to see a doctor.
So I sprinkled some holy water around, loaded her writhing body onto the hand-truck, and then wheeled her out to our car. While I folded her into the seat, her shrieks set off several car alarms in our neighborhood. I did my best to reassure her by telling her that a little pain never hurt anybody. Immediately I learned that Linda Blair’s evil stare has nothing on Carolyn when her back’s hurtin’.
To shorten what will already be an even longer story with more twists and turns, she ended up in an operating room the same day after being carted away in an ambulance. The hospital scrambled to find a neurosurgeon, and they finally located one named Doctor Watermelon wandering incoherently on the side streets. Fortunately, he sobered up fast, and actually turned out to absolutely terrific. He was kind, humble, down-to-earth, spoke English well, and he wielded a mean scalpel. I’m kidding about the side street thing, but not his name. His name is Dr. Melancia, and in Portuguese, melancia translates to watermelon.
(Last names can be interesting here, we’ve seen or heard of names that translate to chicken, rabbit, wolf, war, and pine tree. I kept seeing a billboard asking people to vote for a rabbit, and was confused until I was told it’s not uncommon for animal names and other things to be used as last names. I wonder how that started?)
Anyway, Dr. Watermelon removed three broken chunks of spine that had been pressing on her spinal nerves, and placed a carbon spacer in there to open up the space and keep that temperamental nerve happy. Apparently nerve pain is a different kind of pain from what you might experience when, for instance, your finger is chopped off. It might be described as to what it might feel like for a woman to give birth to a pumpkin –with the large stem still attached– while a sadist fires a blowtorch on her back as he sings the theme song from “It’s a Small World.”
It was near-miraculous that she was put under while experiencing excruciating pain but when she awoke (seemingly for her, only a few seconds later) the only pain she felt was from the cut on her back!
By the way, this surgery was performed without insurance coverage. Our policy will only cover pre-existing issues starting next year. Since we are in Portugal, that news didn’t come with the terror that we would have experienced in the US: the total bill for the neurosurgery here was under 9,000 euros. Which isn’t small change, but it probably would have been ten times that in the US. Between that and the insurance rates, believe it or not even with that surgery we’re still money ahead. Just as one example, getting a saline IV in the US runs anywhere from $100 to $500 (I’m not making that up, I looked it up). On our Portugal bill, they were 98 cents. 98 cents! The sooner America gets its head out of its ass when it comes to health care, the better.
Speaking of asses, I know the picture here makes it look like she now has two butt cracks, but that’s just the scar… plus the bruises where Dr. Watermelon spanked her for laughing at his name after she started feeling the affects of the anesthesia.
But the universe wasn’t done with us yet. After all, what’s one spinal surgery when you can have so much more fun?
Being oblivious to the universe’s determination to humble us, on the way back to the hospital in the morning I stopped to get some gas. To my surprise, my Portuguese debit card declined, which I thought was odd because I had just transferred a sizable amount from the states a few weeks prior. So when I got to the hospital I checked online… and lo and behold, all our money was gone! What the– ?
Since she was in the safe hands of the kind and professional hospital staff, I drove to our bank about fifteen minutes away. Sure enough, some buttwad had stolen our card number and made about eighty different travel purchases all around Europe. (Using stolen cards for travel is a fairly common way to turn that ill-gotten money into value because by the time anyone figures it out, it’s all spent, plus they don’t need address verifications, etc.)
So here we were without a Portuguese penny to our name and my wife recovering from spinal surgery.
In Portugal, they handle that type of fraud differently than in the US. I had to go to a police station and get a police report and bring it back to the bank before they could initiate anything. They told me the nearest police station was about a fifteen minute walk away, and since the bank was closing for lunch (yes, they do that here), I decided to walk.
I can just hear the universe snickering as it decided to poke it’s snarky finger into my iPhone and make Google Maps act as if it was sitting under one of those cartoon magnets Wile E. Coyote used to buy from Acme when he was trying to catch the Road Runner.
Accordingly, after a ten minute walk, Google Maps told me I was going in the wrong direction. So I reversed course, passed by the bank again, and walked another fifteen minutes in the other direction. It guided me to this very large building that didn’t look much like a police station. It turns out it was a university. I have no idea how Google Maps changed that, but I swear I didn’t put anything about a university in there. So I asked a couple of young men if they knew where a police station was. They immediately bolted in terror, thinking I was going to report them for something. They were college students, after all. No, actually, the Portuguese are very friendly and helpful, so we were able to figure out that if I continued to walk another ten minutes, I’d find a station.
And I did. Except that it was manned by two officers who spoke no English. Which wasn’t a huge problem, because I can communicate in Portuguese like a non-precocious two-year-old, but more importantly, the bank had given me a note telling me exactly what document the police needed to produce.
Despite the fact that it was written in Portuguese, they told me I had to go to another police station across town. So back I walked another 25 minutes to my car, which was sitting in front of the now-open bank, and drove to the other police station, with Google Maps still acting as my guide.
Turns out it was a police station in a heavily-touristed area, seemingly there to handle all the touristy problems dumb foreigners like us experience, like dealing with waiters who berate us for leaving some money on the table after lunch. I guess my Portuguese baby talk didn’t convince the original two cops that I live here, so they sent me to the station more accustomed to foreigners.
Since it was so crowded, parking was nowhere to be found, so I parked about twenty minutes away, up a long hill amongst a thousand tiny roads. I could only hope I’d find the car again, but to be safe, I pinned it in Google Maps.
Meanwhile… let’s flash back a few weeks to a swim we were having in the local public pool during aqua-size class. A big rubber mat had hit me square in the eye as I was horsing around. I didn’t think too much of it, but afterward I started noticing little black floaties in my vision. So I looked it up on the internet. It said that floaties are not a real problem; they’ll generally dissolve after a while. BUT, if you happen to see a white flash in the corner of your vision, get into see an ophthalmologist right away! You could go blind!
Since I wasn’t seeing anything like that, I had been simply waiting for the black floaties to disappear. However, on the drive back from the hospital the night before, I started seeing white flashes! At first I thought they were reflections from oncoming cars, but eventually I realized I was beset with the dreaded, sight-stealing white flashes the internet warned me about. My concern about that was temporarily pre-empted by our drained bank account, but as I sat in the police station waiting for my number to be called, it felt like the flashes were getting worse, and I started wondering if I’d go blind while I waited for an officer.
Plus I started seeing filmy things every other time I blinked. I mean, going blind is not on my top ten to-do list. My vision is bad enough as it is.
Plus I had to pee in the worst way, and there were no obvious bathrooms. That’s almost as bad as thinking you’re going blind. I did eventually find a bathroom behind an open door that said “Do Not Enter.” But I went through anyway, figuring they’d have to risk getting peed on if they did in fact try and stop me.
It was then that I had an epiphany: since I would be going back to the hospital that day, maybe they could squeeze me in for an urgent ophthalmology visit. In the US, I figured there’d be a snowball’s chance in hell an ophthalmologist could see me the same day, but as this is Portugal, I had some hope.
Anyway, my number at the police station was finally called, and my hopes for a “quick in and out” were quickly dashed when I realized she needed to total up all eighty charges, line by line, plus take all of my information, including my parents’ names (seriously). Forty-five minutes later, I finally got out of there, police report in hand, and perhaps my eyeball as well, I thought.
So I walked back in the direction of the car, hoping I could navigate the maze of little roads Lisbon is so famous for. After a while, I thought, hey, I pinned this in Google Maps. I should be fine. So I looked on Google Maps. I spent fifteen minutes standing on the sidewalk trying to figure out where the hell Google Maps puts the information about the pin you set. I finally gave up and started walking some more. Long story short, I got pretty close, and looked at Google Maps again. There was the pin. Turns out it only shows it to you when you get close enough. The programmers responsible for Google Maps should be sentenced to a month in Lisbon having to find where they pinned something just so they can realize a better system can be had.
Of course, now the bank is closed (many close at three here… hey– lunch can be exhausting!), so I decide to drive back to the hospital where at least I might be able to be seen by someone. But it is now rush hour, in tourist season, and no one cares that I’m driving with increased panic that my eyeball is going to melt down my cheek.
Even though the bank was only fifteen minutes from the hospital, and even though the police station I ended up in was in between the bank and the hospital, Google Maps was showing that the drive would take about an hour. It was about the only thing it got right.
But then it really started going haywire. It directed me to go the wrong way on one-way streets. I also ended up in bus/taxi lanes, where I hoped that people would think I was an Uber driver. I managed a U-turn in the middle of a city street because the line of cars ahead of me stretched to infinity, and it wasn’t moving. Google Maps even wanted me to turn straight into a building… I kid you not. There was a long building to my right, with not even a driveway in sight, and it wanted me to turn into it. Once I passed the fake street, it re-routed me again, this time I think to Iceland.
Anyway, I cursed at Google Maps and shut it off and made my own damn way to the hospital, eye in hand… which actually came in handy because it was still attached and I could look all around and even behind me to spot other bus/taxi lanes I could illegally drive in.
I finally made it to the hospital, and lo and behold an ophthalmologist was able to see me within about thirty minutes. Her name was Dr. Peaches. I’m just kidding. Actually I never even got her name, but she was very nice. She examined me, and told me something or other (I forgot the name of it, but it wasn’t the retina) was slightly detached, but it shouldn’t be a big problem and no, I wasn’t going to go blind. After hugging her and kissing her feet, I went up to Carolyn’s room to let her know that between us, her spinal surgery still held the crown of physical problems.
But the universe, being so big and all, wasn’t quite done with us yet. The same day, we received a phone call from Carolyn’s son Ben, who was visiting and staying at our house, asking how to turn on the washing machine. Turns out, it was broken. Yes, the universe chuckled at that one. Also, when I was driving to get something from the pharmacy for Carolyn, I plopped a stick of gum in my mouth, and my gold crown came right off in my mouth. And then the universe poked a small hole in our car radiator.
We think it’s done with us for a while, deciding to move on to more important things, like making the political situation in America even worse. For once I’m hoping that Trump continues to wreak havoc… even something as big as the universe has got to be so totally occupied with that mess that it surely has forgotten us by now.
In the end, all’s well that ends well. Carolyn’s back is healing, I can see just as badly as I ever have, our washing machine was repaired, my gold crown was glued back in by the dentist (for 20 euros), and I had some money transferred from the US, because it will take weeks before they’ll restore all the charges here. But they will be restored. Plus we had multiple awesome friends not only loan us money but also deliver us some delicious food. We may be tempted to fake another surgery just to get more of that.
And we’ll deal with the car’s radiator when I’m done panicking over it.