#20 Dark Cloud (Available 11/27/03)
Our Dark Cloud
Our life on the road is wonderfully simple and it allows us to shed many of the stresses and hassles of modern life that come with careers, a house, cars and busy schedules. Our calendar is blissfully blank most of the year and keeping track of the time of day and the day of the week is primarily for synchronizing us with the local business hours for buying food and visiting museums. Our daily stresses are self-contained little events like finding something suitable for breakfast in the market and getting pleasant lodging before dark. It’s been a welcome interlude in our lives to have our regular challenges be simple things that usually get resolved in minutes or hours instead of being like the old hassles that piled up and lingered for months or years.
Unfortunately, our simple, blissful little world has been contaminated by a hefty dose of reality from that life that we have mostly left behind. What follows isn’t a story of where we’ve been and what we’ve seen but the stressful saga of our getting our laptop repaired while abroad and of accessing the health systems in 3 countries to deal with an unprecedented string of health concerns. Bill’s Dad would likely have called what follows “a pity party” but some of you may be interested in reading how we navigated these normal life challenges while on the road abroad. So, you may accept the invitation to my pity party and read on or decline it and wait for the upcoming report on our journeys in Germany and France.
It was in mid-September that we acquired this dark cloud that continued to hang over us for 2 months. Nothing really horrible has happened but we certainly have had a string of events that have kept us on edge and pondering dozens of "What if?" scenarios. It was an interval in which our plans changed endlessly, sometimes several times a day or several times an hour as new problems came up and as new coping strategies evolved in response. Too many of our days were overshadowed by the necessity of having a ready and rapid exit plan should we need to return home immediately for medical treatment. Factoring in what became a very real risk of having to drop everything and grab the next possible flight home colored every decision we made some days, from where to travel to next, when to mail a package of no longer needed items back home and how much food to buy on a given day.
The First Crisis
Our stressful streak began when Bill’s awareness of some changes in his body went from “I wonder what that is?” to “I WONDER WHAT THAT IS??” He had noticed an unfamiliar fullness or mass in his perineal (crotch) area for some time. Uncomfortable crotch sensations are a common issue among cyclists but most are managed by keeping the skin and clothes clean, careful garment selection, and being persnickety about bike seat comfort. But Bill had a weird (though relatively harmless) tumor years ago that could pop up elsewhere in his body so he needs to be especially vigilant about new lumpy sensations and this one qualified for special attention.
We were in the Czech Republic when his concern level rose to the alarm stage and neither of us was anxious to try out their health care system. (The Czech Republic is a nice place to visit but.…) While still in the Czech Republic we started the process of lining up an appointment with an English-speaking doctor in Frankfurt, Germany through International SOS (see International SOS in SideTrips for more about them ). We decided to bike to Dresden as planned for a few days of sightseeing and desperately needed bike repairs, visit with our East German friends for a day as promised and then take a train across Germany to see a doctor. Bill selected Frankfurt because its long history as an international hub should assure plenty of quality doctors. We were confident that big-city German medicine would be up to snuff with that in the US and Bill’s second language skills could be helpful. And if our worst fears were realized, Frankfurt is one of the easiest European cities to fly out of should we need to return home immediately.
Most of the anxiety around waiting a little over a week to see the doctor was buried by the intensity of the unexpected 5 night home stay with our East German friends described in “19 Germany”. That situation demanded all of our attention, which nicely left no room for fretting. Our friends helped us reserve the tickets for the all day train trip to Frankfurt and fortunately the journey went like clockwork even with our bikes in tow.
Much to our relief, the doctor had no trouble being reassuring that there was no tumor. His educated guess was that the combination of Bill’s greater than usual end-of-summer weight loss and a different bike seat this year had caused irritation of some internal structures that had then become swollen. Rather than a surgical solution, a new bike seat was the remedy. Having been referred to a hand surgeon for a perineal lump problem did however lead to some long lasting jokes between us that I’ll leave to your imagination.
Deeply relieved, we were able to set aside one set of “what if” contingency plans as we were now assured that there was no need to dart back to the States for treatment. We could proceed with mailing a package back to the States that included a CD back-up of our laptop and fill our pantry before hitting the road again. It took about 6 weeks of riding on a new saddle for Bill’s sensation of a lump to dissipate. It was a long time to wait for that last bit of reassurance that he wanted but it wasn’t surprising that the chronically inflamed tissues recovered slowly.
The next problem was already brewing though it hadn’t hit the alarm stage: while we were dealing with Bill’s tumor concerns I entered an interval of very uncharacteristic, prolonged uterine bleeding. I was surprised but was confident that a doctor’s opinion would only yield “Let’s wait and see,” which is what I decided to do.
And Then There Was The Laptop…
Our second crisis came about 2 weeks after Bill’s doctor’s appointment and was caused by a seemingly minor, late evening stumble on the AC adapter (power cord with a transformer) feeding our laptop computer. Though the jerk on the cord wasn’t strong enough to unplug it at either end it did cause a short that blew the electrical breaker for the room. We were able to shut our Fujitsu computer down normally and only thought the transformer was damaged as we noticed that the computer’s battery would no longer charge. We didn't realize it until the next day, but the event also scrambled the brains in our computer.
The next morning, Bill was on the phone to Fujitsu’s European service department to arrange to receive a new AC adapter. Last year Bill tried getting some problem solving help from them and discovered that they fit our stereotypic model of European customer service--that it’s regrettable and all but non-existent. Last year, Bill ended up calling the US office to get the help he needed and that was the case this time around too. Bill doesn’t have much of a temper but the man at the UK Fujitsu service desk helped Bill get in touch with his anger that morning. Good thing we were riding that day as the pedaling provided a healthy outlet for his fuming.
Because of the time zone differences, we had to wait until the afternoon to call the States but the delightfully helpful woman at Fujitsu recommended, off the record, that Bill look for a universal AC adapter. The risk would be invalidating our warranty if any damage was done to the computer by the substitute adapter’s settings being wrong. But especially after the morning call that left Bill fuming, we felt like we were on the road to a rapid resolution of our problem with her help.
We were stopping in Achern, Germany near the French border that night and it turned out to be the almost perfect place for solving our current and yet-to-unfold problems. Achern is a small enough town that we could easily get to all the shops we needed before the close of the business day but it is just big enough to have the technical supplies we needed. The first appliance/electronics/music shop we called upon didn’t have the versatile adapter Bill sought but the clerk knew of a shop that might. On Bill’s way to the second store he happened across a gleaming little computer store/internet café with a very helpful young man who spoke good English. Our excitement was building as the end of this computer problem was within our grasp.
The computer store clerk easily came up with a universal AC adapter that had multiple settings for each specification variable and it fortunately covered the combination we needed for our US Fujitsu model. Being a thorough young man, he suggested hooking up the laptop to make sure that it worked. Bill double-checked the adapter’s settings to ward-off warranty-invalidating damage and then they hooked it all up. Much to our amazement and despair, the laptop wouldn't load its software even with the needed power from the new adapter. Stunned, we both processed the significance of the non-event: the laptop was fried and we had no choice but to send it off to the States for repair. We opted not to buy his nifty $50 adapter as we would get a new, smaller and lighter Fujitsu adapter while the computer was in the shop for repair.
We thanked the clerk profusely for his unexpected, great customer service and Bill dove into our next problem with him. Even though he had never seen a handheld computer (or PDA) before, he was able to get beyond that and devise a way for us to charge our handhelds which we had been charging through the now fried laptop. His gizmo was big, clunky, and heavy but we were grateful for his resourcefulness and left happy to have it. Recharging our handheld computers was the first of a long list of lost abilities that we were just internalizing after learning that both the AC adapter and the computer were damaged—all from a seemingly insignificant trip on the cord. We had worried about theft and vibration damage to the computer, but not jerking its cord.
Speaking of theft, one of our little security precautions is that we strive never to say the words “laptop” or “computer” in public so as not to reveal that our frumpy bike panniers have anything that expensive in them. Instead, we fell into calling it “the baby.” It seemed fitting as we have to handle it gently and protect it like a baby (and it is only a little heavier than most of the babies Bill took care of). To ingrain the habit, we almost always refer to the laptop as “the baby” even when we are in a private setting. We also try to keep it out of sight and only allow it to be seen in places like hotels if the baby won’t be unattended until we check out. The baby is smaller than most all other laptops so even when its hand carried in a cloth bag through airports it doesn’t shout “Computer here—steal me!”
We left the computer shop happy to have our gizmo for the handhelds and still in a state of shock over the seriousness of the damage to the baby. The list of features we would miss and problems we’d have to solve streamed into our minds in a chaotic jumble. There were the expenses and logistical problems in both shipping the baby off for repair (or replacement) and then coming up with an address where we could receive it on a hard-to-predict future date. My heart sank upon realizing that last night was the last time I would be working on my velofun.us journals for weeks or perhaps months. That was especially painful as I had 1 file that only needed its photos attached before being ready to send out. A second file wasn't far behind and a third was in the works. Then came the realization that without the software on the laptop that we couldn't even post an announcement about our glitch on our website. We would now be in the same relationship with velofun.us as anyone else: we could read it but we couldn’t update it.
Then there was the inability to upload photos from our digital camera's memory, both for viewing on the laptop and for clearing the camera’s memory to make way for more photo taking (we only bought the digital camera after we decided to buy the laptop). That was a solvable problem as we could buy additional memory cards for the camera: it would just mean getting to the right kind of store. That easy solution to the camera problem drove home the point that this was going to be costing us $50 and $100 chunks of money every time we turned around—if we were lucky—if the problems could be solved. If we were unlucky and the baby couldn’t be repaired or it was not covered under warranty, the little trip on the cord would set us back $2000 or more when all was said and done. It also was clear that the space we would gain in our panniers by sending the baby off for servicing would quickly be filled by bulkier, partial substitutes for its functions.
A huge worry was if the data on the hard disk had been damaged or if it would be damaged in service. I could see all my journals and our photos going “poof!” Even though the loss should be minimal as we had recently made a backup CD, there would still be a string of problems to solve if the hard disk was damaged. The first concern was that the backup CD of the laptop’s files we mailed had not yet safely arrived in Portland. Once we received that news, we’d breathe a lot easier. If we needed the disk, then we’d have to decide whether to risk losing it by having it mailed back to us in Europe. And Bill wasn’t sure that if all the software had to be reloaded onto the hard disk that he would want to do it on the road. If the hard disk got wiped clean we might end up doing without the baby for 2 months and reassembling it all in Portland when we returned. Ugh! None of the scenarios were pretty.
The list of problems went on and on as did the list of the information and abilities we would miss without access to the baby. There were the emails from friends with useful travel information that were stored on it; composed emails waiting to be sent out; incoming emails awaiting responses; and websites that people had alerted us to that we had yet to look at. Then there were the reference materials that we love. For me, the English dictionary and encyclopedia are things I regularly use and for Bill it is the foreign language dictionaries, both the ones he downloads to his handheld and the ones he accesses directly from the laptop. Plus we have a set of DVDs on the history of the Middle Ages that we had been watching. All were little joys that had just slipped out of our hands in a flash.
And the thought of going back to the computer-less life of our first year of traveling was a grim one. We still vividly remember spending too many of our evenings in noisy, smoke-filled internet cafes with keyboards that changed with every country and pages of journals that just disappeared in unexplained computer blips. We would be in France the next day and the French keyboards are the hardest of all to use. They put a few key letters like 'a' in a different position and require using the shift key for the period mark and all numbers. And indeed, the very first journaling I did a few days later in France disappeared in one of those devastating but unexplained electronic blips that seem to be of little concern to the internet café staff. It felt like dark clouds were again engulfing us.
The next morning, while new problems were still bubbling up in our minds, we had to begin the hunt for suitable laptop packing materials. We stopped into a toy store to ask where we could buy bubble wrap as they seemed more approachable than the other businesses. Bill had managed to find the German word for “bubble wrap” on his previously downloaded handheld’s dictionary and we showed the women our box and the laptop. They immediately understood the gravity of the situation and even the customer finishing up her transaction chimed in with helpful suggestions. One clerk took it upon herself to assemble the flattened box we purchased from the post office while the other hauled out a variant of bubble wrap and packing peanuts for our approval. We were allowed to help some in nestling the computer in place. In a matter of minutes we were on our way with the baby snuggly packed and the kind clerks accepting no payment for their generous help or donation of recycled packing supplies. We felt very lucky to have gotten so much help from several shop keepers in Achern, both at the toy store and at the computer shop the night before—it helped take the sting out of the unhappy situation.
Our Achern glow dimmed a bit when we discovered that no outgoing private express services were available in town. Disappointed, we opted to use the German post office's express service which would provide delivery to the States in 5 to 6 days. We were prepared to pay for faster service but thought it might be almost as quick given it was Friday and using any other service would necessitate us getting to a bigger city, which could take a while and might delay shipping until Monday. We did inconvenience the clerk by making him redo the entire transaction and all of the special labeling as he hadn’t insured the package for the full value because of the high cost of the insurance. But at least the baby was securely packed and on its way and in a little over a week we’d know the extent of the damage and the kind of costs we were looking at.
But luck wasn’t with us—the dark cloud hovering over us got a little darker. The laptop didn’t show up in Memphis, TN in 5 to 6 days. It took that much time for it to be passed the USPS (US Postal Service), though we still don’t know if that was at a transfer point in Germany or in the US. After that, the baby dropped off the radar. We were ever so grateful we had insisted on fully insuring the package but we were much more interested in getting our computer back than in buying a new one (especially since our model isn’t sold in Europe). Bill began the tedious nightly ritual, a ritual that went on for weeks, of calling Fujitsu to see if the baby had arrived. And then there were the extra hours at the internet shops trying unsuccessfully to get help in locating our package from both the US and German post offices and time spent researching a replacement computer.
Then It Was Barb’s Turn
With the computer out of our hands and hopefully still on its way for repair and a swirl of plans and contingency plans in our heads, it was now time to deal with my brewing health problem. My uterine bleeding continued for many weeks and Bill urged me to consult with my doctor’s office in the US. Unexpectedly, the referral nurses raised the specter of cancer and other unpleasant things and urged me to see a doctor immediately. I of course went from being content to “wait and see” to “Oh, my gosh!” Once again our “What if?” scenarios had to include an option for abruptly interrupting our travels and returning home immediately. And of course, that scenario’s planning was all jumbled in with wondering where the laptop was and when and if it would turn up. The thought of it beginning returned to the German post office for some customs or delivery problem after we had headed back home for medical treatment became a nightmare. It was hard to believe that we couldn’t seem to get out from under this dark cloud following us around.
Another call to SOS lined me up with a doctor’s appointment in our next good-sized city, Lyon, France. Fortunately it wasn’t long before I had a French doctor reassuring me that both his exam and ultrasound indicated I was free of any worrisome or identifiable conditions—I was back to “wait and see”.
The doctor did make one very perplexing recommendation however, which was to discontinue using contraception as it was totally unnecessary. He was quite emphatic: French women over 50 didn't use contraception. As I expected, my doctor's office wasn't so confident. And as happened last year with my eye infection in Greece, we wondered how there could be such wildly different opinions in western medicine over something that seems so straight forward.
Our casual existence as bike travelers had taken a serious turn and it was like having a metronome in the background that steadily picked up speed. The first couple of jolts were well spaced and left us with enough time to integrate them. But by late October they were stacking up, with several stressful events occurring in a single day. We were acutely aware that we were out of practice at having so many things unresolved at one time and we longed to have the metronome slow, to live with less chaos and uncertainty again. We wondered when this dark cloud hanging over us would blow over.
Some of the other stressors we experienced were minor and wouldn't have been significant alone but added to the tension of the bigger issues. Things like learning that my dentist of 25 years suddenly was on an extended medical leave and was unavailable to see me when we returned; waiting too long for our somewhat flakey bike frame builder to return our calls so we would know whether or not to plan on buying new bikes this winter; and nightly having to dial 35 digits for every call we made and sometimes dialing a given number a half dozen times to place a call. Many nights we spent an hour on the phone trying to remedy our growing list of problems.
“My Tail Light is Gone”
A couple days after seeing the doctor, we were loading the bikes up in Lyon to be on our way again. We were still shaking our heads in disbelief at the difference in US and European medical truths, but were happily tucking the latest potential health crisis behind us. For big issues, we were back down to just dealing with the damaged and now missing laptop and it again seemed like we were outrunning our dark cloud. But we were wrong--that troublesome metronome was quickening, the dark clouds were gathering again. As we loaded the bikes Bill started noticing things missing from them--we realized that for the first time in all of our years of bike travel in the US and abroad that we had become the victims of theft and vandalism.
Fortunately, it was just little treasures that were taken and not the big ticket items. The thief had literally ripped off Bill’s tail light in such a way that he would have no way to mount it on his own bike. Then Bill noticed that my mountaineer’s clip that secures our altimeter to my aero bars was missing, even though it had been tightly cable-tied in place. And of course, the tiny compass attached to it was also gone. (The very expensive altimeter had been safely tucked away in our room.) As with any theft, we felt violated and were horrified. And even though these are small, inexpensive items they, like everything else we carry, are very carefully selected for just enough function for minimal weight and bulk.
We busied ourselves scrutinizing every inch of the bikes to see what else was missing and wondered what we wouldn’t notice for days. But that was it. Amazingly the 2 pouches strapped onto our bikes with Velcro were still there, as were their contents, and so were the tools Bill keeps stuffed in an old water bottle taped to his frame. It was hard to understand why they took what they took as they didn’t take the easy-to-grab things, nor did they go for the big ticket items.
I decided to mention our loss to the hotel desk as the bikes had been locked-up in a very secure garage and the theft seemed like the work of the hotel staff. I was stunned at their concern and the clerk rushed out to see for himself what had been taken, well at least where the items had been. He urged us to wait while he spoke with the hotel director and was back in a few minutes with instructions that we should trot over to the nearby shopping mall and buy replacement items. We were shocked as I expected to be met with indifference. He graciously let us wheel our loaded bikes through the lobby and leave them in an office area while we shopped. We were surprised to find all of the items at the low-end sporting goods store and the hotel clerk graciously reimbursed us the $25 cost. But it was all-the-stranger that the thief had gone for things so readily available and not things only available in the US. At least this new portion of our dark cloud blew away as quickly as it had arrived.
Barb in the Lime Light Again
But the metronome kept quickening as it was just 2 days later in Nimes, France that I discovered a presumed old bug bite on my shin was quickly enlarging. Bill shared my concern about it and with the help of a neighborhood pharmacist we managed to see a dermatologist the next day even though it was Saturday morning.
Even with her limited English vocabulary, the doctor made it clear that waiting 2 months until we were home was too long to wait to remove it, though a month's delay was OK. She offered to remove it that day but I would not be able to ride my bike for 2 weeks for optimal wound healing.
We sat in her reception area a long time weighing the options, ranging from the “do it now” to the “go home now” and several other intermediate solutions. We opted to delay the final decision few days so that we could bike to Avignon where we were scheduled to rendezvous with a friend visiting from the Portland area. That would buy us a little time to explore a range of options and to get a second opinion, though we both knew that dermatologists always like to cut-out anything that is questionable (and most skin growths fit that category).
This matter was much scarier for me. The growth was an ugly, blistery looking thing that looked menacing rather than like a familiar mole that had changed shape or color. And, unlike my bleeding problem, it was harder for me to use my own knowledge and body awareness to devise a harmless explanation. And then there was the matter of the longer period of uncertainty--the tissue analysis could be weeks in coming and I don't wait well. With this, we had 2 potential junctures that would send us home in a hurry: this first one of whether to have the growth removed in Europe or the US and the second would be if the pathology report came back with bad news.
For Bill the big concern was that my US doctor would never have access to the pathologist’s slides should I have the growth removed in France. The pull to go home for the procedure was very strong for him, as from personal and professional experience he knew how important the specimen slides could be in some diagnosis and treatment plans. Technically, the pathologist’s report should be enough, but in dicey situations the treating doctor sometimes wants to look at the slides first hand.
A diagnosis of melanoma was our #1 concern and the reason for promptly seeing a dermatologist. Though not likely because it’s relatively rare, it is very deadly. Other less catastrophic findings could be life-changing too. And then there was this matter of not being able to ride for 2 weeks. The dermatologist had even said something about not walking. The loss of the laptop was even greater now as my 2 week convalescence would go better with the distractions offered by it.
We sheepishly called SOS again for a dermatologist’s referral in Avignon but it got off to a slow start. The doctor told SOS that she wouldn't 'cut' on a first appointment even with a prior opinion—that the process would be slowed by needing 2 appointments with her.
The Avignon dermatologist was confident that the growth wasn't melanoma (but nobody diagnoses melanoma by looking at it on your body) but thought it likely to be a much less serious basal cell carcinoma. She thought waiting to have it removed in mid-December in the States was fine and if she removed it, it couldn't be for another week. By now we had decided to have it removed in France and saved a few days by finagling a Friday removal appointment instead of the Monday one offered. We had just unhappily added almost a week of treading water to the 2 week recovery time that would lay me up.
Back to the Laptop
The impatient metronome picked up its pace a bit more. While the uncertainty around my shin growth was weighing more heavily on me, we sent off a 3rd email to the USPS in hopes of news about our long-lost laptop. We had been able to determine that the German post office had passed it to the USPS but that is all we knew. We didn’t have a clue as to whether it was hung-up in customs and would be sent back to Germany, if it was being delivered to our Vancouver address by mistake as it was listed as the return address, or if it was lost or stolen in the USPS system. Bill felt like he prepared for final exam in German in readying himself for phone call the German post about our missing package. After his massive effort, he was told to call back in a week.
And just to add a little density to our dark cloud, now my handheld computer was acting up. So far only one little-used program was freezing the whole thing up but Bill only expected it to get worse and assumed other programs become unusable. The remedy of course relied on the laptop returning in a healthy state which would allow him to reinstall the ailing software. Tick,tick, tick the metronome sped up even more: later when we went out for a day ride a part of Bill's rear brake snapped off from sheer exhaustion. Yet another little problem than felt bigger because of all the other unsolved problems (though buying high quality bike parts in Europe is a very real challenge and not always possible).
Maybe We’ll Shed Our Dark Cloud
FINALLY we got a little break in the dark clouds hovering over us: we received the long awaited phone message from the bike frame builder that he was still in business and we had a fun 24 hour visit with Portland friends while they were in Avignon. We desperately needed that relief from our “tied-hands” sense of frustration from the last month’s events.
It was starting to sound like a second, “good news” metronome was beginning to tick as there was a countercurrent to the waves of disappointments. At last, Bill’s nightly call to Fujitsu yielded what we had longed to hear: the laptop had arrived at the repair shop in Memphis, TN though 2 weeks late. It would still be a few more days before we knew the extent of the damage, whether the memory was blank, if it could be repaired and if the repairs would be under warranty. But at least we wouldn’t be making a trip back to Germany to pick it up and Bill could stop his online research for a replacement model.
But we got both tricks and treats this Halloween. We showed up at the Avignon dermatologist’s office to have my growth removed and while I was standing there in my underwear she announced that she could not proceed as she couldn’t accommodate my latex allergy. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine a dermatologist (of all doctors) wouldn’t have a stash of latex-free supplies.
It was a take-your-breath-away blow for me to not proceed with the surgery that evening after days and hours of buildup. I had pedaled hard in the fierce wind and then rain on what was to be my last ride for 2-3 weeks and carefully washed up all my riding clothes afterwards as closing gesture. I was very conscious while taking my bath that it would be my last for weeks in which my left leg could be submerged. We stocked our hotel room’s shelves with extra food to decrease Bill's carrying burden the next few days. And I savored the last vigorous walk I would know for weeks on the way to my doctor's appointment knowing that discomfort, asymmetry and restless sitting instead would be filling my days. I was very conscious of these rituals marking a temporary end to my usual daily tempo and entering into the less familiar and less welcome routines of convalescence.
Even though it was Friday night, the dermatologist did get on the phone and contacted a surgeon that she thought likely to have non-latex supplies. We were in luck: not only did he speak much better English than she but he too was allergic to latex. Devastated by having a few more days slip away, we consoled ourselves with the prospect of having a doctor that was easier to communicate with.
The blow at the dermatologist was the “trick” of Halloween but at least the “treat” wasn’t far away. Bill’s nightly call to Fujitsu brought good news: Fujitsu would repair the computer under warranty and contrary to what they had said before, would ship it free to a European address. Before were looking at the expense and delays of having them ship it to Portland and then having a friend ship it to us in France. There was now some hope of having use of the baby during part of my convalescence.
At the Surgeon’s
The cheery surgeon didn’t realize that he pushed my buttons as I was standing in my underwear and he said “I have a problem…” “Not again!” filled my being. But fortunately, it was the first of his many little jokes and he promptly began the procedure. It wasn’t long and the blistery little growth was off me and on its way for scrutiny under a pathologist’s microscope. The wait had been worth it: the lighthearted young surgeon speaking passable English both put me at ease and inspired confidence. Plus, he used an internal stitching technic that neither dermatologist would have used. That meant living with stitches for 10 days instead of 14 and more importantly, he delivered no prohibition against riding. (The second dermatologist had even said no riding after the stitches were out.) As far as the surgeon was concerned we could be on our way to Barcelona as soon as we wanted and by bike.
The surgeon carefully explained the stitch removal technic to Bill and promised to expedite the path report. Yee hah! The only thing that could have been better would have been getting an 'all clear' on the path report then and there, but that news would have to wait. There was little pain during or after the growth removal. Most of my discomfort came from the bandage he applied and not the incision.
More Laptop Woes
With my growth removed and the 2 week convalescence period eliminated, we were down to calling a week later for the path report and waiting to receive our laptop—things were definitely feeling more manageable. Surely now we could outrun our dark cloud. Even though I could ride, we chose to delay our departure from Avignon in order to receive the laptop.
On the day of my surgery we received a form-email indicating the laptop had shipped to us the day before but the block for the Fed Ex tracking number was curiously blank. Bill called Fujitsu and was told it hadn’t really shipped on the day before on 11/3 but on 11/5, it was going via USPS instead of by Fed Ex and that there was no tracking number. The no tracking number was hugely significant: not only did it mean that it couldn’t be traced but it also meant the laptop it didn’t go by a USPS express service. It was now totally unpredictable as to when the laptop would arrive and it was even possible that it would show up in Avignon after we returned home in December.
Poor Map Man was in a tizzy with his various contingency plans: leave by bike tomorrow, leave by train tomorrow but stay fairly close to Avignon, make the 9 hour train trip to Barcelona, continue taking day rides and stay for an unknown amount of time waiting for the package. It was continuing to be quite the roller coaster ride and as Bill said: "It’s not possible to have enough contingency plans when things are going this badly." Some days we were committing to several radically different plans per hour, influencing even small decisions like how much food buy, how to manage the time left on our French phone card and how to allocate time spent at internet shop.
We were thrown into a tailspin wondering how many days or weeks it would take to receive the baby. We immediately sent out a frantic email to Fujitsu expressing our rage and disbelief that they would send our computer overseas with no way to track it, with no accountability. But our email got bounced up to management and yielded information we never imagined: the prompt reply stated that the laptop had indeed shipped via Fed Ex and a tracking number to prove it was included. We were elated: the tornado of uncertainty vanished and we could make intelligent planning decisions.
But the package tracking process painted a surprisingly blurry picture. First, there was the expected 8 pm delivery time the next day shown on the Fed Ex website—especially intriguing as there was as of yet no record of the package even leaving the US. And subsequent tracking details made it look like the package was prone to leaping up, twirling around and then sitting back down in the same place for 12 hours at a time. One series of reports showed our package in one place in Paris, then moving to another Paris location and back to the original site in the course of 3 minutes. Who knows what the significance of all of that was, but seeing several 12 hour intervals where it just twirled and sat wasn’t reassuring. It seemed like we would get the laptop soon, but our confidence was slipping as we watched the slow and tortured progress of our package as the days slipped by us.
After our package twirled and sat in Paris for close to a day I called the Paris Fed Ex office to see what was up. Our next imagined hold-ups would be a customs problem or having a huge duty slapped on it by someone who didn’t notice it was a repair return, not a purchase. The news was good: the package should arrive in Avignon today, Friday, 4 days after shipment from the US. Relieved, we were still concerned--if it didn’t arrive as scheduled the next delivery day would be Monday, which would mean more treading water in Avignon. (Avignon was nice enough but we had hoped to see part of Spain before heading home).
The sun was setting on the rainy Friday afternoon as I was taking my turn as ‘package sentinel’ in the hotel’s small lobby—we weren’t risking any slip-ups by the hotel clerks after an agonizing month of waiting for the laptop’s return. I was becoming increasingly nervous and unable to make much progress with my reading as the hour was growing late for a Fed Ex delivery. Then a rather wet and hurried young man darted to the reception desk with a brown cardboard box in hand. He lacked the reassuring uniform of US Fed Ex drivers and he wasn’t carrying the familiar white Fed Ex box I expected to see. Nonetheless I bolted from my seat to interrupt the delivery, hoping it was indeed our box and that there wouldn't be a monstrous and inappropriate duty to be paid. Yee-haa! It was our package and there were no charges due.
I dashed to our room after profusely thanking the driver and letting the hotel clerk share in the resolution of this long-expected package. I knew Bill would be back from his shift at the internet shop in a few minutes and I hoped to give him nothing but good news when he arrived. “First things first” I thought as I opened the box: “It was our laptop and the critical AC adapter was also there.” I was reassured as it whirled and made all the familiar noises as it booted. I was ecstatic as a quick look at my journal files suggested that we didn't lose any data. But the absence of the all-important black arrow on the little indicator panel told me that even though it was plugged in that wasn't charging and we only had minutes of charge left on the battery. Though I knew the wall outlet to be good from using our immersion heater, I quickly tried it out on all the other outlets in the room but the all important little arrow still didn’t appear: “They had indeed fixed the computer but hadn’t replaced the useless AC adapter as Bill had specifically requested.”
I couldn’t believe it. The day was ending with the most difficult and prolonged problem behind us as the baby was back in our hands after a month on a solo travel adventure, but it still wasn't usable. Bill came into the room and began an endless bout of wailing "I can't believe they did that!" while we plotted our next move. “Buy a new phone card; call Fujitsu; express the defunct AC adapter back to the States for exchange and select a new rendezvous hotel to receive the cord; look for a universal AC adapter like the one we had seen in Achern, Germany at an electronics shop…” were all things to consider. It was Friday night--we didn't have much time to formulate and implement a plan and had to act still while in numb from disappointment.
We bundled up in our rain gear and headed out into the dark to track down just the right electronics shop which would actually be harder in Avignon than in Achern because of its larger size. Amazingly, we did locate a suitable device in a glitzy electronics super store but for the price of a night in a 5-star hotel. We cursed and gulped: they had what stood between us and using our computer but at an outrageous price. “The adapter should have been replaced by Fujitsu at no charge or we could have bought an equivalent gizmo for a third of the price a month ago in Germany” pounded in our heads as we stared at the price tag. We quickly ran through the scenarios of running around looking for hole-in-the-wall computer stores with better prices versus risking adding days to the almost 2 weeks we'd already spent in Avignon or waiting for perhaps weeks for a new cord to be shipped to us.
Finally we came to our senses: “Buy it and forget it.” We put down the money and reconciled ourselves to maybe getting 5 bucks for the stylish and highly versatile adapter at our next garage sale.
As we walked back to the hotel, the sting of the unexpected expense was slow to dissipate. We tried to shift our focus from the hole in our wallets to the relief in having our laptop back and our good fortune of being able to make it function despite Fujitsu’s oversight. Additionally, if the path report in a few days brought bad news and we had to depart quickly for the States, we no longer had the colossal worry of the in-transit computer being left behind in Europe.
I had planned on cracking open tomorrow’s box of grapefruit juice for a toasting the laptop’s return but it was safe ‘til breakfast--we aren’t in the mood for celebrating. (My fingers struggle to find their proper home again after an uneasy month of learning the French keyboard’s dance.) We had hoped to be jubilant in closing this difficult chapter and to slip out from under the dark cloud that has been hanging over us; but instead the rains that arrived today and appear to have settled in for the weekend seemed to portend at least a few more struggles ahead. There will be the phone calls, emails, and trip to the post office to initiate getting our defunct AC adapter replaced.
The computer’s battery wasn’t holding its charge well before the electrical mishap and Fujitsu thought there was a chance that replacing the mother board would take care of that problem too, but that didn’t seem likely now. Buying a new battery was getting added to the “while at home” chore list and was getting the replacement AC adapter. And my post-surgical rash that I had expected to be on the mend by this day took an ugly turn by darkening and spreading. Bill could still make a case for “it will still be OK” but was scrutinizing the rash carefully as I was ever-so-grateful that the purply thing wasn’t on my face. We had hoped by tonight to be down to just the outstanding pathology report on my skin growth but unfortunately the list of problems that just won’t go away is a bit longer than that. Though very grateful to at last have the baby back and to have found a way to get it running again, we still found ourselves packing up with a sense of defeat.
The Path Report
That dark cloud that has been hanging around us for the better part of 2 months keeps raining on our parades. Last Friday our celebratory mood from getting the laptop back after a long month was dampened by it being repaired but essentially unusable without a new adapter. We were able to salvage that situation despite the dowsing but then our next parade got rained out too. I had been anxiously awaiting the pathology report that my surgeon said would be available a week later. Though melanoma is relatively rare it is very deadly and so I had been anxious to get the “all clear” report since the growth became a concern at the end of October. While I was knew that the risk of bad news was very low, I was still acutely aware that it was the first day in my 52 years that I was awaiting a diagnosis that might reveal that I had a terminal disease. It was a day I was anxious to get behind me—a day I was hoping would end with celebration.
But alas, the surgeon forgot that his office would be closed on that Tuesday for Armistice Day when he told us to call. Bill spent too much of an hour struggling with 4 different nonfunctional or barely functional pay telephones in the middle of our cycling day trying to assess if their office was indeed closed. The answering machine at the other end didn’t give the doctor’s name and though it invited the caller to leave a message, it would accept none. I was devastated to be literally left standing out in the cold without the release from apprehension under which I had been living. Were I in Portland, it would be easier to convince myself to be patient just a little longer--that I would get my answer the next day. But in Europe I have no such confidence and our track record for things going smoothly hadn’t been good lately. We were crossing the border from France into Spain that day so the next call to the doctor’s office would add a layer of confusion that comes with making international calls and using a new country’s phone cards. And then there was no reason to believe that the doctor would be in the next day or the day after. We had no clue as to his business hours or the days of the week that he is in the office. Probably I would get my answer tomorrow, but given the unpredictability of the phones and business practices it conceivably could take days to connect with him. I lamented being followed into Spain with our gloomy cloud and having its heaviness dull my senses for taking in the subtleties of a new country’s experiences.
Indeed, the surgeon didn’t come into the office the next afternoon as the receptionist had expected but she was more than helpful. The receptionist dug out the path report and rallied her limited English to tell Bill “It’s nothing. It’s benign.” And later, when we had a hotel for the evening, she faxed us the report for us to see for ourselves (and to have for my files). The relief I longed for finally arrived and another unpleasant “What if…” scenario was allowed to fade away. That nasty dark cloud should be on the run now.
Friday afternoon was the next chance to speak with the surgeon, which was really a formality now that we had the path report. But Friday would be closure day: that was the day Bill would take the stitches out and later he would discuss the wound and my allergic reaction with the surgeon.
Amazingly, everything went as planned on Friday. The only unexpected thing was that the surgeon wasn’t at all surprised that I had had a severe allergic reaction. The way he immediately emphasized that it was a reaction to the bandage and not the antiseptics suggested what we had suspected—that the rascal had sent me out with a latex bandage after all. But I was relieved that I hadn’t developed a new allergy to another hospital supply and was looking forward to the last of the splotchy, deep purple rash clearing from my shin.
At last, our dark cloud was behind us. We had an email from Fujitsu stating that they were sending the replacement AC adapter to Portland as Bill requested (fortunately, without us sending them the damaged one) and the saga with my leg was at last behind us. The only lose-end would be sending the path report off to SOS for translation once we were in Barcelona where we’d have a stable fax number for a few days.
But It Isn’t Over Yet
But darn-it if that dark cloud wasn’t lurking around the corner. As I crawled into bed the next night Sant Feliu de Guixols, I discovered that my shin wound had completely opened up. Poor Bill was stuck with dealing with both my distressed leg and my anguished mind. At 10 pm he went off in search of the 24 hour pharmacy that is supposed to be available in most European towns for some sterile supplies to tidy-up my gapping wound and to cover it (the incision is about 1¼” long) .
We were both stunned at this development as we had done everything by the book with my leg. We hadn’t cut any corners and hadn’t rushed the process a minute. I had been far less active than the surgeon felt was necessary and had been very lucky in not bumping the tender area at all. Bill’s best guess was that all the inflammation from the severe latex reaction interfered with the healing at the site and so it only closed superficially, not deeply as it should have done.
Saturday night in a foreign country isn’t the ideal situation for dealing with an urgent problem that’s not an emergency. And unfortunately there wouldn’t be any help if we called the surgeon the next morning—Bill already had experience with their answering machine.
The burden on Bill to decide exactly how to handle my open wound was a heavy one. Finally we tumbled to the idea of calling our old friends, SOS, for a second opinion. The doctor’s advice conflicted with Bill’s education, which was to go to a hospital right away and get it stitched closed. No taxi was available so at midnight we slowly walked up to the hospital--fortunately my only pain was mental. The ER doctor’s education was in sync with Bill’s—that the risk of infection was too high to stitch an old wound and instead they used a special surgical tape to clinch it closed. Bill oversaw the procedure and was satisfied with their technic and figured the risk of infection and scarring was less with the tape than with stitches. At 2:30 in the morning we crawled back into bed numb with disbelief and without a clue as to what we would do now. I was devastated and tried hard to close my mind to any thoughts about what the next weeks would look like until daylight.
In the morning, Bill said that one of the first thoughts to his mind when he saw my surgical wound split open was “We’ve got to get to a different hotel room.” Yes, Bill has been paying attention. (My first thoughts were “Gross!” and “Will this ever end?”) I love to be outside and if the weather or circumstances keep me in, I love to look out the window. Our hotel room was better than many but the TV didn’t have any English news, the telephone wasn’t internet-connectable, the heat was a little iffy, and the lone window looked across a narrow alley at another building with only a sliver of sky visible at best. He was right—I’d be a basket case in hours confined in that room. We both assumed that this gapping wound was a sentence for sitting on my rear end in a near-motionless state for days as the dermatologist’s had threatened and this room wouldn’t cut it.
So, with the awareness of our current hotel room’s deficiencies clearly in mind, he hopped out of bed after a night’s sleep severely shortened by our late-night trip to the ER and went on a mission to find a new room for us by check-out time. The good news was that we were in a resort town; the bad news was that it was Sunday morning in the off-season. Not many hotels were open and tourist info would be of no help today as they were closed for the day when we arrived on Saturday. Bill definitely had his work cut-out for him but he was highly motivated—both for me and for himself.
The great view out the window of our convalescent hotel room.
The fancy hotel on the hill was too far for me to walk to and indeed many of the beach side hotels with great views were closed. But Bill scored. He was disappointed that the furnishings in our new room weren’t as fresh as in the current one, but everything else was better. We were gaining BBC and CNN (we rarely get both), a phone that had the possibility of being usable for emails, there was a mini-bar type refrigerator in the room, the room had the bath tub I would need for keeping my wound dry while I bathed; and there was a balcony with a wonderful view out onto a rocky cove. The covered balcony would allow me to be out even in the drizzly rain if I wanted and the plastic lounge chair would keep my leg relatively elevated while there.
Our experience of the Mediterranean is as a quieter and calmer sea than the Pacific Ocean we know, but below us was this wonderful tiny cove with Pacific-like crashing waves. We both were thrilled to be serenaded by long-forgotten ocean sounds instead of the more familiar, high frequency whirl and screech of those blasted mini-motorbikes in Mediterranean towns. There would be slowly changing scenery for me to gaze upon as I took breaks from my sedentary reading and writing activities: the occasional fishing boat, a flock of birds, a few walkers on the rocky trails, the changing cloud patterns and the water running back into the sea after each crashing wave.
Plus, our new abode wasn’t just a hotel but a spa-conference center styled resort. That meant that there were a number of public seating areas I could enjoy for a change of scenery and to linger in when housekeeping was tidying up the room. Plus, massages were in my future. I had been foiled in several attempts over the last few months to get massages and this would be a great chance to catch up. Amazingly, this delightful convalescence spot was only $54 a night, less than the other hotel we were in.
But alas, despite the R&R quarters being more pleasant than if I was in my own home, I’d rather be out in the drizzle walking on the paths or riding the rugged coastline with Bill than sitting with my leg up, admiring the great view.
The New Convalescence Plan
We had only gotten a sketchy idea of the standard-wound-closure convalescence plan from the brief visits to the dermatologists who spoke little English, so we didn’t quite know what my activity level could be beyond not biking. We knew we didn’t have a prayer of speaking to the surgeon until at least Monday afternoon and yet I was anxious to get some ideas so we could start re-planning the rapidly disappearing last few weeks of our biking season. We knew SOS would take our Sunday call so waited until waking hours on the US east coast to get an on-call doctor’s opinion. They hooked me up with an ER doctor in Atlanta who patiently listened to my story and my queries as to just how many weeks I’d have to be a couch potato. In her drawly, heavy southern accent she said: “Honey, it’s just not that big of wound. I mean, what’s gonna happen to it anyway? If it opens up again, just close it.” It was all I could do to keep a straight face as she politely made her point that this life-crisis of mine was no big deal. She was clear that the doctors are more conservative in Europe and that’s why they wanted me to sit. Her opinion was the opposite: that exercise is good for healing. She added “If you came into my ER we’d just close it up and send you off on your bike trip.” Music to my ears.
We, however, were highly motivated to make the second time the last time to get this wound closed-up and decided to stick with our original plan of 3 days of mostly sitting in our lovely coastal hotel room. We did settle on letting me walk around the grounds some, but not too much. Then we would take the train to Barcelona and let my comfort be our guide to just how much sightseeing we did each day. We would also extend our 4 day visit to Barcelona to 7 days, just to go easy on my wound. The Atlanta ER doctor did recommend lining up specific supplies in case the wound opened again, which Bill did.
Bill called the surgeon the next day for his take on the situation. Clearly he didn’t have much opinion and was quite content to let us use our own judgment in handling the situation—he was done with this case unless I showed up on his doorstep.
I don’t know if we are yet at the end of this streak of challenges but it’s time to send this long missive on its way. It’s been 12 days and nothing especially difficult has happened. Oh, we have had the little set-backs: SOS didn’t receive the path report I paid the Barcelona hotel staff to fax to them; shampoo leaked onto my only back-up supply of surgical tape strips to re-close my wound if necessary; and there continues to be a small area of edema by my wound that Bill is using as an indicator of “Not healed yet.” But at least these are small things that don’t make us feel like we are being followed by a dark cloud and amazingly, there haven’t been any new crises. I know never to ask “What else could go wrong?” as the answer to that question is an unimaginably long list. I’m content to say instead that enough has gone wrong lately that it should cover us for a while.
Hope you had a good time at my pity party and perhaps it gave you an entertaining break from the serious side of your own life. And with this you’ll get a breather from our flurry of catch-up journals--this will be the last one for a while as the remaining 2 for this season need a lot of work.
Where We Are Now 11/27
We are counting down the last 2 weeks of our 2003 European tour by biking south from Barcelona on the coast in bright sun and against strong headwinds. A few days before our December 10th flight, we’ll take the train to Madrid to prepare for the journey homeward.