Friday, April 29, 2016

The "M" Word

The “M” word

We women do not have it great and for many reasons all of which start with the letter "M". Menstrual cramps and menopause are two that punctuate our timelines and order our lives – oh believe me they do. But the most dreaded is another one. It is shocking to me that it is legal, given its barbaric nature. I speak of the Mammogram. I cannot think of another experience that makes one feel more vulnerable, exposed and under attack.

After much delaying, I finally capitulated, as a result of all round pressure. I could not stand the reproach in the eyes of my doctor, mom, even daughter. “ You are over fifty, don’t you want to be safe rather than sorry? Would you not want to know early if anything was going on? It’s not just about you, you know? “ And so on. So, guilt ridden and petrified of what I would find out I drove over to the clinic. Called the Women’s Health Clinic it was cloyingly feminine and testosterone proof! No man had ever stepped into this zone, I was certain. And luckily for them no man needed to!

I had wanted to make a fulsome experience of it and had combined it with an ultrasound of the pelvis – “let’s find out everything that is going on in my feminine parts in one swell swoop”, was my thinking. I could not handle piecemeal findings. So I walked in with an overfull bladder sure I would embarrass myself right there on that ultrasound table. The poker faced technician tried to ease my urgency by making small talk – which was not helping. I was ready to scream. She remained calm and with deft hands completed the test pointing to the washroom so I could relieve myself and get ready for the next big ordeal – the much feared M. I was given a gown to don and asked to wait. A big African woman greeted me with a wide smile and seeing the terror in my eyes after one look at the machine inspired by the guillotine (same principle), she said “oh its not as bad as women make it out to be, you’ll see”. The left one was first placed on this icy cold surface ready to be smashed into a tortilla by the sledge hammer that would be slammed into it. I was trusting of her reassurance and steeling myself offered myself up. Done and done. I was so proud of myself. I skipped out, a spring in my step. This had not been so bad.

The next morning, I received that dreaded call. “The radiologist wants more pictures, can you come in?” Whoa, where had that come from? Me – “I was not expecting this, do you know if it is bad?” The clinical reply from the other end “she did not say”. Ok, I could not live with the tension of not knowing, so even though it was in the middle of my work day I said “I can come now”. I had set something in motion, I thought. Where was it going to end? This time it was only the right one that would be subject to some extra special treatment. Not 4 pictures like the time before but six. At least I knew the drill. This technician was ramrod straight and poker faced. She was a severe middle aged white woman whose life’s activities were run to clockwork precision. A robot with bad breath. She gave precise instructions, made no small talk and jammed the machine into me 6 times without minimising the experience. This time I felt like a torture victim, vulnerable and helpless. The sound of the x-ray only enhanced the experience. I had a sense of permanent damage to some vital parts. Efficient but cold and apparently uncaring. I knew then it was about the technician.

The story has a happy ending. A day passed. I convinced myself, if they needed to probe so deep it was not so visible maybe and so early days, perhaps? I was prepared for the worst. I finally got a call from the doctor’s office. All clean, come in to talk about your ultrasound – but absolutely no rush. Phew! Till the next time.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Travel diary 2 - In Barcelona, April 4 - 6, 2016

On Monday morning I left for Baracelona. My initial plan was to take public transit. However I got a tad overzealous making a salad and wraps for U to tide her over at least for a couple of days and did not want to take a chance. The taxi ride set me back £48 at least 60% more than the train ride. One of the truths about London is that public transit is the more reliable to get you anywhere on time. There is just no accounting for London traffic. Also I had to live with the guilt of travelling unsustainably given that I could have easily taken the overground to Islington and Higbury, the subway to Victoria and boarded the Gatwick express to get me there in better time. (Lesson 1 – In London, public transit is the better not just the cheaper option). My sensible light bags would have allowed for this. After a few tense moments stuck in traffic gridlock, we made it out on the highway to the airport free and clear. I caught Vueling Air, a budget airline from Spain and began my immersion in Spanish right from the moment I boarded my flight.

During the next 5 days I experienced the joys of operating without any knowledge of primary language and vigorously employed the art of using props and hand gestures to make myself understood. It's a good thing I needed no emergency services. I would have gone into panic mode. (Lesson 2 - Always carry a phrase book (better yet an App) that will help ask and answer simple questions in the destination country's language aka never assume people will understand English everywhere you go).

The flight was uneventful and I read my book of short stories “Bombay Meri Jaan”. I love Bombay but could not help compare it's living conditions to those in these smaller European cities which though not ostentatious were so clean and civilized with all necessary public amenities. The airline seats were bare polyurethane but there was sufficient leg room to allow for a decent flight. I landed in Barcelona around 5:40 pm, and without bothering to enquire after trains that would take me to my hotel, hailed a cab. The cabbie dropped me off at the square unable to identify my hotel from the few there were around the square. On my bidding he did call the hotel to receive no response. I felt abandoned and made my way to a hotel lobby in sight and she pointed me in the direction of my hotel quickly identifying the name on the sheet I held out to her. There it was above the Central train station. ( Lesson 3 – In Europe, always research public transit options for trip from destination airport to accommodation. It is generally available and definitely the cheaper alternative to cab, also giving one a perspective on the city's connectivity from the get go).

My travel buddy was waiting for me in the lobby. Delighted to see a friendly, familiar face I hugged her, travel odours notwithstanding. We met our other friend in the hotel room where I quickly partook of the a amazing rain shower (few hotels allow you to waste water like that these days) (Lesson 4 - when the shower architecture does not allow for water to remain inside the bathing space and there is a spray that causes the rest of the washroom to get wet, be considerate to other users and make do with the hand shower!).

We were in beautiful Barcelona and all was well with the world, except for eating places. There were few within walking distance and none with a suitably cosmopolitan menu. We finally arrived at an Italian restaurant hoping it would accommodate our vegetarian palates. We were greeted with a welcome drink of sparkling wine (Prosecco) served in champagne glasses ( nice touch!). We ordered a bottle of rose for the table. The menus were in Spanish and as we struggled to pick out items without meat or seafood or eggplant and convey our dietary preferences to our waiter, I noticed that his skin tone was darker than the average Spaniard and ventured "are you from India?" Turned out he was from Pakistan and spoke Urdu and Spanish but no English! - so the rest of the ordering was a breeze with us conversing with him in Hindi ( close enough to Urdu) except he was not the brightest light and lacked attention to detail. So he did manage to screw up my order and brought it with eggplant. I had to send it back. However, they were nice enough to bring me a thin crust pizza (Lesson 5 – South Asians are ubiquitous and so you may get by with knowledge of a language from that region, even if you don’t know language of destination country!). We stayed till they were ready to close around midnight chatting as we enjoyed the rose, the catch up and laughs.

The next morning we woke up around 9, showered and changed to head for coffee at one of the Station Cafes (Cafe Estacia). We picked up the Barcelona map and armed with a 10 ride pack on the metro headed to the station that would allow us to meander through this alluring city, with its architectural master pieces so audaciously lining the streets where the general public lived life out in the open. Its stunning grandeur was evident even its residential buildings, its boulevards, its wide roads, elegant cafes and stores. The cold (12 degrees) and rain did not deter us. On our list was the statue of Christopher Columbus(Spain's illustrious son) and the harbour front, La Boqueria (Barcelona’s world renowned Central Market), the Gaudi buildings, and Park Guell which boasted numerous examples of Gaudi's genius and vision in architecture and tile art. The market was teaming with commerce and activity. We ate some ice cream and drank juice. We did not enter the two Gaudi buildings in the city since it would have meant waiting in line for over an hour at least. We decided to take the metro and climb up to Park Guell instead. Wise move, since the weather had cleared. We had already done an impressive 6 hours of walking by the time we got to the park. We then tackled a steep trek up to it, partly by escalator but mostly by stairs and ramps to catch a breathtaking and panoramic view of this stunning city from that great height. It was totally worth the effort. At the park itself, we explored the early century porter houses, the tile art, porcelain installations and gardens, all of which were breathtaking. We took several pictures stunned by the boldness and uniqueness of the art. On our way back we were hungry and wanted to find a decent place to have a sit down meal - but to no avail. Finally we each decided to do our own thing with me settling for 2 empanadas (one with hummus and another with spinach) from the Station Cafe and a small fries from the McD at the station, all of which I ate accompanied by white wine, in the room. (Lesson 6 - Drinking water off the tap is scarce in Europe; your wine consumption is bound to increase, since it is a better deal than bottled water!).

Spain is not known for its vegetarian food options, though fruits, nuts, yoghurt, sweet sticky pastries, cheese bread and a savoury potato dish, are in abundance and very fresh and tasty. (Lesson 7 - in countries where you cannot find the right kind of foods to nourish you it may be a better and a much cheaper option to go into an Airbnb space where you can make simple meals - the trade-off is no room service).

The next day we did not have time for any serious sightseeing. We slept in, ate breakfast at McD and picked up fruit salad and yoghurt to have on the train. We boarded the train to Valencia at 2 pm. I promised myself I would be back soon.

Travel Diary 1 - London weekend April 1 - April 3, 2016

Arrived on Friday am. U ordered a cab which got me home by 12:30. It was a gorgeous day and I could have taken public transit given the weather and given I was travelling light for once. However, the cab traversed west to east London and I got a preview of this great city with its double decker buses, gorgeous landmarks, parks, it's rich, gentrified and poor neighbourhoods. The overwhelming impression was of much life happening out in the open with folks scurrying around in the broad sidewalks, or pedalling their bikes, riding transit or braving traffic in those narrow roads in tiny cars - mostly European and stick shift. The ride took an hour and cost £40. The Somali driver, who spoke fluent Dutch, told me in halting English that he had moved here from the Netherlands for love but 12 years later could not afford to buy a house for his growing family of 6. He did not think he could afford anymore than 4 kids. Certainly not the 15 his parents had. It was a pleasant chat on topics ranging from the weather to politics to the economy. I finally reached U's 4th floor walk up where she was waiting for me, having decided to work from home. I showered and left her to her devices taking off to the open market close by. Cheery, colourful and rich in cultural, ethnic, racial and linguistic diversity it was warm and welcoming. I bought some fresh vegetables eager to cook for U. I also settled on parathas from the Guyanese vendor formulating a menu in my head of a vegetable masala with roti and quinoa. The meal hit a spot combined with delicious pickle and yoghurt. Satiated we watched TV, got caught up, argued over silly things and then decided to diffuse the tension with a walk through the park that leads to Islington. A small tub of Haagen Das was just what we needed after what had been a long and tiring day for both of us.

We set out early on Saturday morning to the nearby coffee shop. Home grown and very civilized with gunny sacks of coffee and wood blocks at the entrance for effect, it was a welcoming place, the smell of coffee rich, flavourful and a quick draw. We ordered a mixed plate of avocados, tomatoes, artisanal bread and a boiled egg to share over cups of flat white coffee. U had hers with soya milk. The place was teaming with young yuppie couples with babies out for their Saturday morning treat. We came back home showered and changed to enjoy a glorious day in the sun. It was a balmy 15, the sky was blue and spring had sprung. I packed some fruit and we headed out to Hampstead Heath taking the overground and then changing over to a subway. We disembarked refuelled with delicious coffee at an upscale deli and coffee shop also picking up little packets of caramel and chocolate covered popcorn for a sugar fix after the long trek. We followed the undulating path and then climbed up to its highest point to catch a glimpse of the skyline. Clear and unhindered by smog, there it was. There were young families picnicking everywhere. It was a lovely sight. We made our way back to Hampstead subway walking past cafes and restaurants not particularly inspired to partake of lunch there. We set our sights on Soho for Chinese or Malaysian food. Alas the subway line which would take us there was closed for maintenance so we settled for Bank Street grabbed a wrap and some Sushi and headed to the National Portrait Gallery by a double decker bus. As the bus lurched I swilled coffee from my half full cup on a young woman across from the seat I was about to occupy. After profuse apologies and a few embarrassing moments we alighted from the bus leaving behind the impression of a naive tourists still learning the intricacies of riding public transit in this City. The National Potraits Gallery had Vogue and Churchill retrospectives which we did not get to see. We settled for the regular fare and were delighted to explore 500 years of Potraits of royals, nobles and famous figures. We were struck by the repetitive theme of the catastrophic and dreadful ends that most of them met as a result of disease, decapitation, depravity or depression. At 6:00, we jostled through crowded Soho in the light drizzle and took a long bus ride home riding on the top floor of the double decker, occupying the front row. Back in U's cozy apartment I cooked a nice South Indian meal which we enjoyed watching the last season of The House of Cards.

The next day was as gorgeous as the one before. U's friend and cleaning help Irina was home and so we left her to her devices as she cheerily did some deep cleaning, laundry and ironing. We decided to walk down to the Geffrye's Homes and Gardens museum which had homes of the merchant class recreated from the 1500s to the present day. I loved the narrations of daily activities from personal dairies retrieved from those times. I also liked how under the theme "swept under the rug" they talked about the mistreatment of the household help, including ayahs brought over from India. There were distinct variations in theme to the home gardens of these families over the centuries. We picnicked on the grounds. I had brought along Halloumi, tomato and avocado wraps and fruit. We then made our way to the flower market. It was packed as the vendors were packing up and giving away plants at bargain prices. There were so many young men and women, alone or in pairs. This was Shoreditch where the yuppie culture is alive and well and people were spontaneously gathering to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon in the watering holes and coffee shops around the corner from the market. It was so good to be young and alive in this place at this time, I thought!

We returned home and took a nice long nap. Famished I woke up, had dinner and went out for another long walk to make the most of the balmy night. It was after 10 when we found ourselves in the middle of a deserted park. We picked up our pace till we got to the well lit street and got home. U assured me she never walked or rode her bike through the city parks alone at night.

I left the next morning for Spain.