Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One Stop Shopping: Harrods & the NHS

19 June
My dad and I have breakfast in the Club Lounge before hailing a cab to Paddington and then boarding the Heathrow Express to the airport. Paddington...I love the name, regardless of the bear, which of course is being hawked in kiosks throughout the station.

Once at Heathrow, we wait. And wait. And wait. We arrive much too early for a flight that is delayed. At least I am able to get a cup of coffee at Costa's (it actually seems to be an Americano--the barista pulls a couple of shots of espresso that magically morphs into a cupful, and they add the milk for you; one way of controlling expenses and mess, I suppose). It dulls the ache in my head, the ache I know so well. Per my daughter J's request, I craft a sign with our last name in large dark block letters, much like a limo driver or tour guide. I brace it against the railing that separates the arrivals from the waiting masses, in imitation of the other livery services. Travelers trickle out of the sliding doors, some emerging from the right, others from the left.

Finally I spot a clean-shaven lad wearing a black "Wales" shirt (tricky choice, there) and towing an oversize black suitcase, followed by a blonde girl in a green plaid fedora. They are here!

We buy rail tickets and sandwiches and wait. And wait. The train finally arrives and once we emerge into the daylight J is all grins through the British countryside and into Paddington Station and into the taxi queue. Still smiling as we are ladled into a black cab and hurtled thought the streets, this way and that, on our way to High Holborn and Chancery Court. As we travel I notice a bicyclist trailing us. Our eyes meet and he gives me a smile. He is able to keep pace with our cab, catching up at the stoplights, until we overtake two double-decker buses and he is lost in traffic.

There are hugs all around as family converges at the hotel. We maneuver bed occupancy once again, in order to house all of us. I later learn from my cousin that we have totally befuddled hotel staff with our room--and bed--swapping. Adding to the hilarity is a lovely tray of chocolate-covered strawberries in honor of hubby and my 50th Anniversary, which, as the card notes, "is an amazing milestone" (made more amazing by the fact of my prenatal nuptials. Hubby wasn't even a gleam at the time.) My parents--who are the REAL Golden Anniversary celebrants--have already received a complementary bottle of champagne in honor of the event. Did the confused hotel staff conclude that they were hosting a group of swinging 70-year-olds whose secret of lasting marriage involved random group hookups?

After a chat, we decide the afternoon's expedition will be to Harrods' by way of Covent Garden, a former flower and produce market of the 19th century and now a walkway of shops. We thread our way though cobbled alleys and antique facades. And then we find ourselves before Harrods and it is SALE DAYS...and overcrowded. Synchronize watches, pick a meeting point, and off we go in pairs, like the animals in a 6-storey ark, to see what we can see.

J is my partner, and we decide to start at the top and work our way down. Some floors are definitely better than others--Sporting Goods is a yawn, Books/Music resembles what we have back home. But Toys is amusing (Reusable Artificial Snow, on special this week! Imagine.); Fossils and Minerals are fascinating, if just for the mystery of who would spend L 10K on a trilobite; Art Glass was lovely. Musical Instruments were diverting; I was taken with the staff performing a duo piano concert, while a young opera singer leaning over the stairwell balcony captured my uncle's attention.

But what really captivated us--for its beauty AND its ugly--was Couture. I don't know if J will ever design a chain-mail-and-leather-dress in imitation of the one we saw, but she did like Balenciaga, and RM's folded lapels and pleats were stunning. The hats were a hoot, truly wearable sculpture. When we reconvened, it was fun to compare how other duos spent their time.

Back to the hotel for strategizing about dinner. But I have a problem. Earlier in the day I notice a dull ache in my left breast, like the onset of PMS or a strained muscle. But now it is a burning, and when I look at the skin it is scarlet. To my mind, it's a rapidly brewing infection and needs attention. I hail my cousin, who is well connected in the medical world, and she starts making phone calls. She connects with an MD from Milan who knows London, and he suggests an exam with a Gyn on Monday, but I push for an eval today, now. Memories of my knee infection flash in my mind and I picture PICC lines and Vanco and inpatient admissions...and by conclusion, trashed vacation plans. The doc admits that the A&E (Accident & Emergency) is not ideal, especially on a Saturday night, but University College Hospital is one of the best and it is nearby. I break the news to my parents nd kids, reassure them that although it IS an emergency, it's not life-threatening. Discussions ensue; my mom will accompany me, my cousin and her beau will take my place to collect hubby at the airport and hopefully reassure him. NHS, here I come.

We decide that we ought to take dinner with us, given the now international regulations governing A&E units (3 hour minimum wait time), but the only shop open is the bistro across the street. Not every meal works as a 'take-away' option, so we settle for Croque-Monsieur (seemingly the only sandwich on the menu). And wait. And wait.

In retrospect, the bistro wait is perhaps equal to the A&E wait. Maybe longer. Catch a cab and nervously inform the driver of our destination. I feel like a pregnant woman about to give birth on the back seat; it feels vaguely like the stuff of comedies. Too bad I feel so lousy.

Again serpentining through the streets. The driver wants to drop us at the corner but we beg for the entrance, unfamiliar with the area (he comes pretty close but he could have done better). The second door brings us to a dismal waiting area which looks a bit too much like a bus terminal. The registrar explains the process to me, emphasizing that "the nurse will decide if you need to see the doctor." Which makes me wonder what percentage of customers come to the A&E with false alarms, not unlike the US, really. The form I complete has squares for corralling block letters...and not nearly enough to house my name or my symptoms. The waiting room is nearly empty, the other patrons exotic-looking (Two well-dressed young women walk in, carrying Harrods' bags and an icepack. We speculate: did the patient injure her nose in a scuffle over a sale item?).

A petite nurse bellows my name and I am taken into what feels like an alcove in a hallway, although there IS a door that shuts behind me. The nurse asks me brief questions and to convince her of my diagnosis, I pull up my shirt. She responds by telling me it may be a 2 hour wait until I can be seen by the doctor...and that I can go ahead and eat.

It's maybe half an hour--I barely finish my sandwich and the accompanying wilted salad--when the doctor calls me in. She is young, slender, but thoughtful, carefully examining my breasts and axillae, and concluding that I have cellulitis. Why? How? She can't really say, but a penicillin knockoff should do the trick. Gosh, I hope so. I've heard of inflammatory breast CA and it scares me. How do I know for sure?

I walk out of the A&E with a free box of antibiotic capsules and a brochure I snagged from the waiting room. "Neighbor Strapping" sounded too bizarre to leave behind, like something out of "Bum Paddle Magazine"...you "Arrested Development" groupies will know what I mean. Not to mention that the back page was a paid advert from a malpractice attorney's office. How absolutely unreal.

Mom & I realize we are mere blocks from our hotel, and to forgo the swerving taxi ride--as well as get a bit of exercise--we walk back. It's breezy, a bit chilly, but we motivate ourselves with the thought of the hot cuppa waiting for us in the Club Lounge, as well as the hugs of reassurance from our growing circle. And I plot how to best tell L. that I have done my part to increase his tax burden by being another one of those non-residents utilizing the NHS.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I know it's only been three weeks since school let out (please don't let me rant about the displays of school supplies now available in stores...it's been THREE FLIPPIN' WEEKS, PEOPLE...I won't know what the kids will need for another EIGHT weeks but by that time snowboots will be out. Argh!!).

OK, let's try that again: three weeks since school ended and I have already used up my vacation time. But it was fascinating and luxurious and fattening and wonderful. And it's also the content for the next several postings here.

Day 1 of vaca I was given a travel journal by my cousin (the official trip coordinator) and I jotted notes on some events, but there are gaps...and deep feelings of guilt. I want closure, I want completion. So we will try to make up the missing bits online, yes?

So let the story unwind, starting as it was written...

17 June into the 18th: The adventure begins. Middle son, B., and I are taken through Philly's rush-hour traffic on the Schuykill to the airport. Hugs and kisses on the curb of Terminal D and we enter the building to queue up to check our bags--a delightfully short queue (author's note: this vacation involves an extensive amount of queuing. Be prepared.)

Security flows rather smoothly too, despite the "Traveler Groups" the TSA tries to funnel us into: Experienced Travelers, Casual Travelers, Families. B handles himself adroitly, slipping out of his sneaks, assessing the required number of bins, stepping confidently through the metal detector.

We stroll Terminals D and E in search of dinner, deciding which evil we can stand to ingest, and manage to buy a tasty and moderately-priced meal at Chickie & Pete's; my turkey wrap was surprisingly generous. I will be thankful.

The flight to DC is, as expected, a matter of more time on the tarmac at either end than spent in the air. And I find the Embraer aircraft anxiety-provoking, the clunks and rumbles leading me to wonder if the plane leaves a trail of parts in its wake. I am also surprised to observe my son's head grazing the ceiling in the aisle; obviously not a craft for any passenger taller that 5'6".

We pull into the gate at IAD next to an Aeroflot (!), which stuns me; I thought they NEVER leave Russia. We notice they still have those unnerving trolleys coursing between the terminals. Ugh! (Why do they have those two flanges on the roof? What's with that?) We are able to take the new Aerotrain to the international terminal, though; a twin to the one in Zurich, minus the cowbells and the video kiss from Heidi. We speculate what the US equivalent might be; maybe Obama giving a high-five over the sound of traffic?

In the international terminal--after B points out the Asian general in olive drab accompanied by his four black-suited bodyguards with briefcases--we wander to our gate to find our flight has been seriously overbooked. I was grateful we had seats. Once aboard, I forgot how cozy Economy class is; like, DO NOT drop anything under your seat as you will be unable to retrieve it. I consider my oldest's proposed prank of toggling together all the tray tables to prevent the head of the passenger in front of me from landing in my lap.

Kindly enough, the young man sitting next to me offers to trade places with B so we can sit together--pleasant compensation for THE WORST AIRLINE MEAL in history. (They claim it was chicken.) When the salad and the shrink-wrapped brownie are the highlights of the dinner...I am grateful for the relatively tasty airport sandwiches of the evening before...because we are eating dinner at 11 pm. Of course. Yeesh.

Heathrow is clean and modern and rather empty for an airport undergoing major renovations. Terminal 1 seems miles and miles from Passport Control, as we walk in the stream of travelers from our 767. A couple of questions, some vigorous stamping of the passports, and we are free to get our bags and stroll through "Nothing to Declare" into the terminal and up to a husky gray-haired man named Harvey, our limo driver. A nice chap--perhaps the only Jewish limo driver in the UK?--who chats about the landmarks as he delivers us to our hotel. I realize that the major expense of visiting London will not be food or even accommodations; it will be transportation.

The hotel, Chancery Court, is an antique building with a central cobbled courtyard. Very British, very nostalgic. We score some keys to my parents' room only to learn they have just stepped out. Hungry and with limited funds we buy fresh sandwiches on crusty bread at my new fav eatery: Pret a Manger. For less than L5! We eat in the sun at a table in the courtyard of our hotel, hoping to spot grandparents and cousins if they arrive. No show.

Let's go around the block to at least see a bit of London while we wait, I suggest to B, who agrees. We head out the courtyard, turn left. Down the block, cross the street, just past the corner. Suddenly a small figure in pink squeals my name and clasps me firmly about the knees: my cousin's four-year-old daughter, A. Forming a circle around us are my mom and dad, my cousin, my uncle. And we didn't even have to try to find each other. We take this as a sign; this will be the vacation of perfect coincidences.

That afternoon we divide into groups and head for the Underground: B & granddad are sent to the Science Museum while "the girls" go to the V&A for a quilt show. Back at the hotel we will meet my cousin's beau, L, a native Londoner. I expect Hugh Grant--a dandy, willowy and anxious--but he is compact (built like the members of our family), casual, warmhearted, and witty. As we walk to a nearby Indian restaurant, our octet morphs into shifting pairs and trios, the conversation never lagging. Another good sign; we shall get on well. The fact that we down curry and korma with great enthusiasm bodes well too; everyone is open to adventures.

As we are arriving in London in staggered groups, the hotel rooms have been booked in stages. My cousin, uncle, and A had been housed with my parents, but now they vacate to a suite and B & I move in with my folks. We collect too many hotel keys and raid the Clubroom for tea and bottled water. The pillows are down, squidgy and insubstantial, but I don't care. My sleep will be deep, and I must be up by 6 AM to meet the flight of my other two children, C & J.