AIUTAMI, SONO MALATO!
I first traveled to Venezia, along with a group of Peace Corps friends, when I was twenty-six. We had just spent a month or more visiting a dozen or so places in Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. By the time we arrived in Venice, I was exhausted and spent the entire three days there in bed. Thirty years later I, along with Donald, made plans to return. On the train ride from Lucca I became ill and spent the first three days of our four day stay at Ca della Corte in bed. Each day I became sicker and on the fourth day Caterina, the kindly owner of the hotel insisted she call her doctor.
I was in and out of consciousness when the doctor arrived. He was a man in his early forties. He carried a black medical bag and had a kindly face, but I wondered, even though I was too sick to ask, where he got his medical degree. In fact, I wondered if he had a medical degree. As the doctor examined me, I looked at Donato. He was clearly nervous, but I was too spent to tell him not to worry. In fact, I was a bit worried myself. When the doctor finished his examination, he pulled Donald aside and whispered, “Your father is going to be ok.”
I could see the corner of Donald’s lip curve up even so slightly. He was dying to smile big, perhaps laugh even, but with my glare cast directly at him, he stopped himself and simply said to the doctor, “Grazie mille.”
The doctor prescribed some medicine and although for the second time in my life I saw nothing of Venice, I did feel well enough to climb onto a water taxi and head to the airport for our trip back to the States.
Shortly after the turn of the century Donald and I planned to spend ten days in the famous city. At the time there was a flu going on in the U.S. that lasted approximately 10 days. The evening before our scheduled flight I began to feel sick. My friend Micheal convinced me to take a horrid concoction of Chinese medicines, and by the time we arrived in Venice I was fine. We then enjoyed ten of the most wonderful days of our lives: attending the Venice Film Festival, where we sat outside under the stars and saw The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons; watching the annual Regatta Storica, the competition and parade down the Grand Canal of dozens and dozens of gondolas and massive Venetian ships filled with costumed participants; and, letting ourselves get lost, in Murano, in Burano, and in a number of other off the beaten path islands. It was magical.
Several years later in Lucca I woke up and the side of my face hurt. Donald blurted out, “Oh god!”
“What?” I asked…”What?”
“Your cheek,” he said, adding, “it’s the size of a small grapefruit.” I ran into the bathroom and sure enough my cheek was very swollen and, after looking up the words for swollen cheek (guancia gonfita), we headed to the hospital, just outside Lucca’s famous walls.
When we arrived at the hospital we were directed to a small room where a dozen or so people waited. I was told to register with the woman at the counter who, after looking at my face, gave me a piece of bright red paper. I did my best to read the paper, which of course was written in Italian. I could see there were five colors each indicating a level of seriousness: yellow was the least serious, followed by blue, green, orange, and finally red.
“Oh my god, I have red,” I told Donald, adding, “something is seriously wrong.”
“Calme,” he said.
I looked around the room and noticed one woman with an obviously broken arm and another who face was bloodied. As we sat there, three or four ambulances arrived carrying people who were in obvious distress. As the hour passed I began to get worried. Then another hour passed. “If I’m red, why haven’t they called me?” I asked Donald.
“Calme,” he repeated calmly.
At the passing of the third hour I looked more closely at the others in the room, none of whom had been called and none of whom had registered the slightest complaint and then, to my horror, I noticed that everyone in the room was holding a piece of bright red paper.
Again, I looked at my paper and saw, down at the very bottom, a little check mark next to the word yellow. “Shit, I’m not red, I’m yellow,” I told Donald and with that, after almost fours hours, the two of us stood up and headed for home. “Maybe the swelling will go down by morning,” I said.
But, come morning when I looked in the mirror, it appeared as if I had swallowed a regulation sized soccer ball. My cheek was bigger than it was yesterday. Quickly I got dressed and, hiding my face as best I could, I ran to the nearest pharmacy. A little kid stared at me and said something in Italian to his mom. “He’s probably asking her if I’m the Elephant Man,” I told Donald.
The pharmacist immediately utter the words, “dottore, dottore” and pointed across the piazza to a large wooden door.
I climbed the dark, dank stairwell to the second floor and wondered if the place would be filled with other hideous looking people. But arriving at the reception area, a dark, wooded room the size of a small living room with no receptionist, sat 15 or so people, mostly in their 60’s and 70’s. No one spoke. When I asked if this if the doctor’s office, a grey-haired woman pointed to a wooden door.
Within minutes, the door opened and a man in a white smock summoned one of the apparent patients. This summoning went on for an hour or so until the room was empty, except for Donald and me. Another 15 minutes or so passed and I wondered if the doctor exited through a back door. But within seconds, the door opened and the doctor motioned for me to enter.
The room was empty except for a chair. I uttered the obvious, guancia gonfita. The doctor remained silent. Then, without warning, he literally hit my swollen guancia. It occured to me that this doctor was a masochist and that he was going to beat me. But then, as suddenly as he had begun, he stopped, wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to me.
I was to go to the pharmacist and return next week.
I asked, “Quanti costa?” and he said, “Settemana prossimo.” I would pay next week, that is IF this quack has cured me 🙂
Stay tuned for Part Two of Getting Sick in Italy and find out what happens to my swollen guancia.