Sipping the waters

Should you be unfortunate enough, to find yourself at the not-so-tender age of 33, diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer which affects 1 in every 33,000 people each year; should you then undergo an enhanced form of chemotherapy lasting for 6 months, during which time your lungs and heart are put under such stress that it is no longer possible for you to climb stairs; should you, having undergone these various traumas, see fit to ask your doctors for some form of recuperative care, this is what they do to you.

In all seriousness, the mud bath is not an unpleasant sensation. One thing though, it does leave you with enormous peaty skid marks if you don’t wash very thoroughly afterwards, which is hard to do, as you’re not actually the one holding the shower-head. Oh dear…

I decided (to use a rehab phrase) to ‘get with the programme’. ‘The penny dropped’ (to use another) and so I did 30 lengths of the pool, had my massages and mud baths, and went a-promenading in search of a spa or two. Disappointingly, the other patients here do not seem to take their water cures as seriously as I do, as evinced by my swanky spa cup – a present from Jana, ever on the lookout for cute objects, and the only such one in town.

A highlight of our recent holiday was a visit to a thermal spa high up in the cloud forest of the Colombian Andes overlooking the town of Santa Rosa. To get there we were driven in a four by four along a precipitous and winding corniche with a series of signs which kept promising us at 15 minute intervals that we were another 2km closer to the spa. This was a bumpy trip into the wilderness riding cloud high overlooking valleys so wide and awesome that the whole Czech Republic could have sat quite unnoticed in one or other of them. The spa had 7 pools, of varying degrees of warmth or hotness. All were large enough to swim in. Some were artificial. Others were natural pools overhung by jungle.

By comparison, this afternoon I took a walk in search of 3 mineral springs that pollute this region. The dreaded Glaubers 1 and 2 and the more hopefully named Slunecni (sunny). So feared are the effects of the two Glaubers, that I was sternly warned away by the Polak lady, but being of a curious disposition I decided to take the risk. Glauber 1 had me coughing and spluttering the water back up, no sooner had it begun it’s descent to my intestines so I poured the rest away in favour of Slunecni, which turned out to be anything but. Dracula would enjoy the taste of Slunecni. I do not. On I promenaded in search of Glauber 2, but finding a well-hidden spa in the south of bohemia is not as rewarding an experience as you might expect it to be. Perhaps, but only perhaps, had I been wandering the Sahara desert for 3 days and 3 nights and stumbled across an oasis fed by the good spring Glauber would I rejoice and consider myself happily saved.

I have a tenacious side to me, so spying a sign to an unexpected spa I continued my search for a refreshing cup and tramped off through a mosquito-infested bog. Having done the old lady’s exercise class in the morning, I was able to swivel my hips, arms and legs in any number of directions to kill these vile winged cooties but to no effect. After pulling my shoes out of the peristaltic bog that I volunteer at other times to bathe in, I parted the nettles, and plunged onward to the spa. On arrival, I was greeted by a sign which I took to be the name of the spa. ‘Undrinkable spa’, it read, and I was about to sample the goods when the fortuitous arrival of a mosquito on my nose caused me to whack my spa cup into my face at which point I thought I’d better return to the caresses of the hotel.

On Friday, February 24th 1989, the cargo door of United Airlines flight 811 traveling from Honolulu to Auckland, failed, and blew open, over the pacific ocean. The difference of pressure caved in the main cabin floor, sucking out of the plane ten seats (G and H of Rows 8 to 12), as well as an individual seated in 9F. In total 9 people died, as seats 8G and 12G were unoccupied. The plane, incredibly, landed safely. Investigators later discovered some human remains on the blades of one of the stricken engines, which must have served as chum for the sharks better to find and devour those bodies that simply plummeted into the water.

If I were offered the choice of unknowingly taking up seat 8G on this flight, or alternatively, of a life spared but with the prescription that I continue to drink this hideous water, I should be hard pushed to make a choice.

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Robed for the pool

I have always felt somewhat out of place. In fact I would say that I am something of a specialist in feeling out of place. I can’t remember the last time I felt ‘in place’. When I used heroin I was out of place because a) I was a polite middle class kid, in a street-drug context and b) (I like to think) I wasn’t as cruel as many of those around me. When I went to the Royal Opera House I was out of place because I was a sweating heroin addicted mess. The same goes for Wimbledon. Yet when I was in rehab, I was out of place because I had been to university. I even moved to Czech Republic just so I could feel out of place legitimately, and now that I’m learning the language, and feel more at home, I want to move to South America, so I can once again feel out of place. Well, in this respect, the spa couldn’t suit me better. I am the only Englishman in a spa full of geriatric Germans and their considerably fewer Czech counterparts.

Bathrobes are to the Germans what the Toga was to the ancient Greeks. “Romanos, rerum dominos, gentemque togatam” Gentlemen of the Toga. Well, the Germans here in Frantizkove lazne are, to appropriate the phrase, the ‘Gentlemen of the Bathrobe’. It is with a relaxed ease and a confidence in their position and status in life, that they plough their slow march up and down the corridors, towel in hand, heading once again for the swimming pool. ‘Skup LTV v bazenu’ was much more popular than ‘Skup LTV kondicni’ (presumably because you can go to it in a bathrobe). The attraction of exercising in a swimming pool lured me in too. And so it was, that this morning as I struggled to understand the Czech instructions for ‘swivel your hips clockwise’ or ‘side-stepping to the left’, a refined-looking Berliner of advanced years took pity on me and dredged up her English to explain the moves.

I have established a line of contact with a Polak lady of unbridled energies, who has informed me that a famous Czech traveller is among the patients here and I plan to be introduced. A sort of Czech Michael Palin, I expect…

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Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

On only my third day here I can recount that I am already wearying of the routine. So far, I have become well acquainted with Mrs. Kafkova, who sees to it that I tread suitably in my foot baths, as I negotiate, with the aid of handrails, the assault course of 5 baths of varying temperatures, one of which, the coldest, has been mined with stones to ensure you don’t take the handrails too casually.

In part the weariness is brought on by the positioning of my room, which is in the attic of the building farthest from, well almost everything. This ensures that I have plenty of extra treading practice, as I tramp back and forth through the interminable forest of relaxation several times a day. The corridor of frustration, which leads from my building to all the others via the forest of desperation, and taking in the reception desk of perplexion, ends by the swimming pool of urination. It was here that earlier today I resigned myself to the idea that an afternoon swim was not the thing. Suspecting that this might be the case even before I set out over the hills and dales of the disability ramps that turn the corridor of frustration into the corridor of perspiration, I came prepared with a book to read on one of the plastic deckchairs that line the poolside. However the Germans had outflanked me, placing towels or bags on all the chairs, leaving me ambushed in a swimming pool of young Czech children brought in from the surrounding hills, and aged Germans wallowing in the whirlpool, all eyes on the empty but reserved deckchairs.

This, however, was as nothing to my morning ‘procedurals’. The highlight of which was something referred to in the literature as ‘Skup. LTV kondicni’. Now, I didn’t know what that means either. So I duly went along, but my suspicions were raised by the two old ladies sitting outside the room where this procedure was to take place. Normally, these are not group activities, so I just assumed that the old ladies were in front of me in the queue. Then 3 more old ladies arrived, further heightening the tension, and then a slightly younger lady in a suspiciously sporty-looking outfit arrived and told us all to go into the room, which it rapidly became apparent, as the old ladies hobbled to it, contained nothing more than some exercise mats. And so began my first gym class in a long time. Hips were gyrated, knees and thighs gently stretched, buttocks were clenched whilst balancing on top of a small deflated rubber ball. We even did some fast walking on the spot, with arms. Laughter and tears were suppressed. I have of course crossed out all the other ‘Skup LTV kondicni”s on my timetable, and no longer regard ‘Skup LTV v bazenu (swimming pool)’ as something to look forward to.

Well, tomorrow it’s back to having mud packs applied to my naked body by old communist matrons who then shower you down, and Mrs Kafkova and those treading baths… For now though, it’s down to the wi-fi zone of confinement to post this, back along that bloody corridor…

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What’s to complain about?

Lovely as this place undoubtedly is – I have a private room, overlooking a landscaped park. The room is in a building connected to the main body of the spa by an enclosed, carpeted wooden walkway, which takes one through the ‘forest of relaxation’. In the main body of the spa, where one has one’s gas injections, I breakfast, lunch and dine in a buffet style dining hall and have the choice to sit in the hall itself, the attached conservatory, or in the garden, overlooking the forest of relaxation, as the mood takes me. The meals may entail, should you wish, soup, cheese and hams, a choice of four main courses, salads, and dessert. Before meals, or after, if you prefer, you can take the key which grants you access to the attached swimming complex and bathe in either the indoor relaxation pool, with waterfall, fountains, bridge and water cave, or the more serious-minded 25m pool (but the object here is to relax after all, so it’s not popular). If you prefer outdoor pools, there is a large heated one, with waterslides. There’s also a whirlpool. And a sauna, but you have to pay for the sauna.

During the mornings you do the procedural rounds, which have so far involved mud baths and packs, treading baths for improved circulation and a massage. Today I missed my gas injection, but tomorrow I’ll be there buttocks at the ready. Each procedure takes around half an hour providing you with plenty of time to prepare yourself for the next one, or to take a perambulatory route to the next spa, perhaps along one of the colonnades, or through the parks, watching ravens rear their young or red and black squirrels stealing food from the bird tables. Or stopping to sample the water from one of the 16 spas. Or taking in the sculptures or statues of FranzJoseph I or Goethe who stayed here many times, and many others.

Yes, lovely as this place undoubtedly is…I am starting, most uncharacteristically to have one or two quibbles and qualms, of which more tomorrow….

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Arrival at the spa

Frantiskovy LazneTo sleep, or indeed, to type, on the bus between Brno and Prague, one must first practice by sitting atop a washing machine, set to an intermittent but very fast spin cycle. The motorway between the two cities consists of a line of large (but not large enough) concrete slabs, laid one after the other which when driven across at speed, shake the bones and tenderise the flesh.

Czech and Czechs have an inferiority complex, brought on by the presence of their supremely and smarmily successful neighbour Germany, and with precious little to boast about themselves (Bata shoes and Tonak hats spring to mind), they choose instead to play the role of the joker, or a Svejk-character, bemused in a world in which, they say, their motorways cost three times as much as Germany’s due to corruption. Czech motorways of which there is basically one, are of an appalling standard, but when contrasted with its neighbours’ autobahns, the joke fails. I would not put it past the Germans to have engineered this state of affairs to provide a sufficiently large testing laboratory for their automotiv industry’s suspension departments.

As I have been steadily punting my way up the Lethe and drinking deeply of its waters for a few years now, it came as no surprise to me to be taken by surprise last night when I learned that I was due in the spa today, and not tomorrow. So having had far less sleep than I had optimistically planned on trying to have following a 10 hour flight back from Colombia, I approached the bus this morning with sleep almost literally on my mind. In Colombia it was the drivers who all appeared to be practicing for roles as stunt-drivers on American movies in a bid to leave the country that did for my sleep. Yesterday, it was the blessed Czech motorways.

The Lazne is a sort of German ideal of a Disneyland – Las Vegas style health resort, if such a thing can be imagined. Disney, because it’s full of neo-classical and romantic architecture, and Las Vegas because there is a large casino….and several sphynx which it seems to me owe more to the American desert than to the Egyptian. My stay so far has consisted of traipsing up and down very long corridors several times a day in a large white dressing gown. I still don’t know what to make of it all – I believe this is known as culture shock – but I shall let you know in the coming days.

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In the clear

They say that 90% of the dust in a house is human skin. Well, in our flat, that percentage must be up to about 98% as I have been tearing off great bloody tranches of my left shoulder, chest and neck and heaping them up in corners of our several rooms. Shingles was a parting shot from chemotherapy – the treatment that just keeps on giving. Having decided it was too expensive and a bit pathetic to cancel a brief trip to London due to the painful rash that was making its way up my neck, I settled on taking the route between Stansted and home that goes via UCH for a quick reminder of what English A&E is like. 5 painful hours later, I saw a doctor, who prescribed me morphine. (Finally, I sighed. Afterall, what is cancer for, if not a free and easy supply of opiates…?)

Very amusing she was too. She needed blood, which always presents problems. In this case she decided the femoral vein was the one to go for, which was of interest to me, as it’s the one easily accessible vein I never used because its proximity to a major artery makes it quite dangerous if you miss and get the artery instead. Well, very dangerous. “Easily solved,” she said. “Just remember ‘NAVY’ Nerve, Artery, Vein.” (The Y is for Y-fronts, as access involves pulling them down). Away she prodded with a rather large needle (for the vein is deep), and a jaunty, “Try to relax now – I know it’s difficult when I’m staring at your groin.” Oh how I’ve missed such doctor-patient camaraderie. I must remember if the cancer comes back to go to England so I can indulge in this banter. Yes, if the cancer comes back. Yesterday I went to have my first post-chemo scan and the result was negative, or positive – never quite sure which is the right expression.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself, as for comparative purposes I’ll briefly describe Czech doctors’ banter. At yesterday’s scan, upon once again finding that my proffered arm was as disappointing as a strip of beef jerky would be to Dracula, the doctor came up with ‘you’re a hard nut to crack’. This is one of the two favourite idioms of Czech speakers of English – the other one is ‘not my cup of tea’. In both cases they translate fairly directly to Czech (though the Czechs prefer coffee to tea), and so are easy to remember. Anyway, although this was not the time for an English lesson, he was holding a syringe of radioactive glucose, so I congratulated him on his idiomatic English, and he got on with it, into my wrist. When telling me the good news he was after another pointer or two. ‘You’re cured, or healed? Is that right? Maybe I should only use idioms’. I told him both cured and healed were perfectly alright by me. And left with a spring in my step without looking back.

So that’s it. Chemotherapy over. Scans all clear. I shall let you know all about my next illness, whatever that may be…

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The root of the matter

Like an unfortunate speleologist groping around in the depths of some great abyss for the light he has dropped, so I have been trudging back and forth along the muddy neural pathways of my chemografied brain looking for a subject to write about in the absence of anything substantial actually having happened. Notices warning against unauthorised pouring briefly appeared above the coffee machines following the great coffee pouring fiasco. More than once, I have left behind the patient lift queues to slink into the more urgent staff lift on the way to receive my regular briefings on neutrophil levels. Nothing more momentous than this. So unfortunately, I didn’t stumble upon some superheroic crystal cave. All I could find, curiously, was the discarded remains of a few root vegetables.

It is none too easy to convey my journey from the barren realms of dismay to the borders of screaming despair when the face of the person opposite me, as though suddenly struck by the solution to some sudoku problem, constricts with that most dislikable of qualities – earnestness – and mouths yet again those fearful words…

 “Have you thought about….eating…asparagus?”

When, in an attempt to provide an adequate (indeed the only likely) explanation for your sudden reversion to toddler hairstyles, you inform someone that your new stylist is a drip stand and a bag of chemotherapy; indeed you might even be so explicit as to say that you have cancer, what you are looking for is not, I repeat not, to be offered a floret of cauliflower, broccoli or any other of the cabbage family. If the problem were that I had spent the last 9 weeks on hunger strike, and as a result had picked up a spot of alopecia, then by all means, bring up the subject of tasty roots freely. But when the problem is cancer, the correct response is not to suggest a quick tour of an allotment. No, a stiff drink would be more appropriate. A cigarette perhaps?

It is with a bitter taste in my mouth that I report that the first response of 50% of people who you inform of your cancer reveals them to be worshipers at the Temple of Asparagus. They usually recommend that you eat a particular legume – often beetroot, sometimes asparagus – or otherwise espouse the virtues of a vague, herbaceous notion. Also highly commendable to these shrub-lovers are nuts, fruits, berries, and herbal teas. People are well within their rights to believe in vegetables, even over and above chemotherapy, just as believing in the mystical qualities of Jesus, Allah or the Buddha is everyone’s right. However the vegetable response, I believe, is straight out of the school of well-meaning but entirely inadequate answers to the problem. The sort of thing Chamberlain would have suggested.

For those of you who have managed to humour me this far, you perhaps ought to be rewarded with some hard cancer ‘news’. The last round of chemo starts…well, soon. It should have started yesterday, and it may start tomorrow – everything hangs on a few neutrophils… So in roughly two weeks I can begin decamping the vast arrays of needles and pills that have taken over one of my cupboards. I shall also be discussing with my doctor the possibility of my having developed a case of lachanophobia over the last four months.

Right, I’m off to fill my celestial teapot with a nice brew of sleepy tea.

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