74: Living with language indignities plus can cold sores make you go blind?

The streets of Biel/Bienne, where I am working on a career as a social pariah.

There’s not much more refreshing than having ones personal medical information shouted from the pharmacy desk to the enjoyment of other shoppers.

First a little back-story: I have nearly all of my life carried the virus that produces cold sores – also known as Herpes Simplex Virus 1. This is not the more nasty Herpes Simplex 2 sexually transmitted disease. I emphasize: Not.

Rather, this is the one that produces the little fever blisters on the lip.

I got the virus the same way many did: By growing up poor. It is a true fact that more people in the lower classes have cold sores than in the more economically elite strata, even in supposedly egalitarian Canada. We the poor were more afflicted because we tended to share toothbrushes (yes, I shared a toothbrush with my four brothers – there is no amount of therapy that will reconcile me to this), our linens were laundered less often, and so forth, making the spread of contagion all the more swift.

This is, by the way, the same reason in past eras that poor people succumbed to deadly contagion long before the rich – the poor or orphaned often shared beds, hacking and wheezing on each other through the night. For those who protest, take it up with the lecturers of first-year Sociology and historians of epidemiology.*

But I drift from my topic.**

I went through life looking on the occasional cold-sore eruption as a minor inconvenience until 1985. That was the year that my friend’s son developed a cold sore lesion in his eye. Cue: Ewwwww and Gadzooks!

This is a rare affliction that usually clears up, however, it does put the cornea at risk of scarring, not to mention the conjunctiva and rarely and most dangerously the retina. This is, also, produced by Herpes Simplex Virus 1, which suddenly did not look so benign.

Thus was born The Great Contagion Containment Campaign that continues on even today. We do not pick off each others plates,*** share glasses, straws, forks, spoons, towels, and so forth in my household. I’ve disciplined myself to keep my fingers away from my mouth, especially when a cold sore has erupted. When I prepare food, my hands are washed repeatedly through the process and I only taste-test using a spoon that is then immediately thrown into the dishwasher. I even use surgical gloves when kneading or handling dough. I would no sooner double-dip on any food than I would slice off my baby finger. The prospect of licking batter off my fingers is as abhorrent as eating food off the floor.

I’ve occasionally been accused of taking this too far; that is until I point out that shutting down the disease-highway is a two-way street that benefits everyone, especially as I’m a carrier.

It is, of course, impossible to completely seal off contagion, but in 30 years of marriage, my husband remains in the clear and I’ve raised two boys to adulthood and neither of them has the virus. My doctor is in awe of my accomplishment.

Which brings us to the present: At the moment, I have a cold sore in the corner of my lip. Yesterday, I steeled my nerves and plunged into the pharmacy where by Swiss convention I must speak with a pharmacist before purchasing products that in North America are right out in the open on the shelves where we untrained laypersons just chuck them into our shopping carts with barely a thought. How I miss that shopping experience. But I drift again.

To ease my way into the conversation, I first asked the pharmacist for a cold cough syrup, sending her on the cold-virus track. After she had delivered it, I made a sad attempt to list the brand names of all the cold-sore cremes I know, none of which she recognized. The words cold and sore paired together mean nothing in German or French (or Italian, but I wasn’t going to try that language, I have enough trouble with the others).

I pointed to the cold sore on my lip and said it was a cold-virus-produced blister. A light of understanding crossed her face.

“You have herpes!” she announced.

“No, I do not have herpes. Not really. It’s just a cold sore,” I countered.

The word “no” threw her right off track, but I managed to steer her back in the right direction, at which point she announced even louder, “You have herpes! Herpes!”

And so she continued at increasing volume until I glumly agreed, “I have herpes. Yes. I do.” After all my denials, she gave me that look pharmacists reserve for clients suffering from mental conditions, a mix of pity, judgment and distrust.

She handed me a tube that cost roughly eight times what I would pay in Canada. I did not flinch. I paid, and then I crawled out of there as fast as I could.

Dave thinks this is not so bad. “You’ll never see those people again, and the odds are that no one else in the store understood English,” he said.

Easy for him to say. He works in an English environment all day long. Meanwhile, I’m busy in the community building my reputation as a social pariah.

* If you want to know more about cold sores from a reliable site, check it out at Web MD.

** I am always drifting from my topic. But on another note: You don’t have to be poor to get a cold sore. I wasn’t suggesting this at all. I was just recalling a lecture I heard at university. I do believe, however, that it was poverty that spread cold sores in my family. How else can one explain one toothbrush for five kids. Just typing this triggered my gag reflex. Excuse me.

*** That’s not entirely true. No one picks off my plate, because I am the disease vector. See, there is a positive side to having cold sores. I, however, have been known to pick off my husband’s or kids’ plates, but only with a clean fork.

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101: How Liz Lemon Saved My Life

The media used to say that Oprah Winfrey was America’s favorite girlfriend, overlooking the fact that no one is a better friend than a galpal whose life is constantly careening out of control, someone like Liz Lemon, who I will allow is not a real person.

A recent 30 Rock episode had Tina Fey’s alter ego Liz Lemon feigning personal filth, homelessness and plague-carrying contagion in a bid for more personal space on New York’s crowded subways and streets. Check it out here. 

It turns out that Tina Fey knew what she was talking about. Like Liz Lemon, I am a closet Emily-Post-aholic. I like good manners. I don’t always have good manners, but I really like it when others do. The problem is that societal compliance on this point is not as broadly practised as it should be.

Case in point: People who do not bathe seem to have no problems cozying up to those of us who do, usually in places from which we cannot escape, such as the grocery store line-up. They snuggle in, exuding the aroma of week-old nicotine, alcohol fermenting through their pores, and a body odor that I will not name (good manners prohibits it).

Oprah, loved by millions, has not helped me at all with my crazies-crowding-at-cash-out problem.

Ten minutes ago, this was exactly my personal experience at a nearby grocery store. A man dressed in clothes that could rightly be called a compost heap got in line next to me at the cash-out. I say “next” to me as opposed to “behind” me because he stood beside me, facing me, breathing down on me as though he were a personal delivery system for stale used oxygen loaded with carcinogenic molecules. My gag reflex was set to “vomit,” but there was nothing I could do but endure. It was that or abandon the line and as a serial shopper, I have never left my cash-out post. Ever.

In the past, my normal methodology to regain my personal space and some breathable air would be taken from my high school basketball days, which is that I would pivot in place, thus smacking said offender with my packsack or perhaps a random elbow, but no one can prove the latter. If that did not do the trick, I would step back into the too-close-non-companion, sometimes even stepping on toes.

This could be a form of assault, but who would convict me?

The problem with today’s freakoid was that he was so repugnant on every level of sensibility that I could not risk grazing the guy – the disease-and-pestilence factor was too high to chance. Enter Liz Lemon.

Desperate, gagging, I pulled a tissue out of my pocket and proceeded to empty my nasal passages into it. The problem is that I am not congested, so I really had to work at it to produce the correct repulsive qualities. From my peripheral vision, I spied the stinker take a step back. I laid my goods out on the grocery belt and then engaged in a coughing fit in his general direction. My performance drove the entire line-up back into the aisle,* even though I covered my mouth while coughing (some good manners are reflexive, I cannot cough without covering up or my mother might appear and smack me on the back of my head).

This is Europe, the land where lining up at a cash till is a contact sport, and yet, as my coughing continued and my groceries moved down the conveyor belt, the stinker was so aghast that he did not place any of his groceries in behind mine. No one did. I had not only a berth of about four feet to myself, but so did my food.

The cashier, instead of handing the receipt to me, tossed it in my direction, eying me for signs of smallpox. I felt like I had just won an Oscar for my performance.

Thank you, Tina Fey.

*This is true, except for a boy who looked to be about 7 years old, who began coughing with me. Visions of the plague revisited must have danced in the other shoppers’ heads.

** The stands-too-close stinker also wore dark aviator sunglasses inside the store. Does anyone else find that creepy?

Good things come to an end, Part One

These are not the high-end shopping carts. They are the "I'm thinking of going to the over $200 cart range, but I'm not there yet" selection. Prices in this batch are in the $150 neighborhood.

We are still more than three months away from our European exit, however, the disengagement process has already begun.

Yesterday, I took one of our two grocery pull-carts out to the canal, dropped it by the shrubs and said good-bye, I won’t be needing  you any more. We have not actually needed it for about nine months, since we replaced this $20 item with a $30 cart. But I drift: My point is that this marks the inauguration of the jettisoning of ballast.

In Canada and the U.S., personal shopping carts are looked upon as a sign of age, but here they can be a sign of status. True, the under-30 set stride out from the stores still carrying their goods in arms, but somewhere around 35 they realize that an easier life free of shoulder-strain is available to them in the form of a pull-cart. That’s when it starts.

But how do the suave make room for an appendage associated with arthritis and decline? They look to status pull-carts, the ones priced over $150. The under-$30 black wire carts clash with those Louboutin pumps. They will not do.

The pricey ones come with telescoping swivel handles, sleek brushed nickel and black finishes, large swiveling shock-absorbing wheels, light high-end metal tube framing, multiple pockets and privacy-protecting tops – you get the picture. Money.

The cart speaks for its owner, saying: I may be over 35, but my cart costs more than your grocery bill for the week. That’s the statement the well-heeled are looking to make in Europe this season.

Signs are popping up that the black and nickel Mercedes look may be on the way out. Yesterday, a silk-scarfed woman in a designer asymmetrical-hemmed  trench strode down our town’s retail corridor pulling an open-top green and cream polka-dot cart, a snappy convertible in the pull-cart world. She was making a statement: Yes, I am toting a shopping cart; don’t you wish you were, too?

It wasn’t too hard to imagine her giving the Audrey Hepburn flip of her scarf and squealing those wheels.

In the meantime, my abandoned cart wasn’t lonely for too long. By this morning, it was gone, perhaps adopted by one of the town’s elderly dog-walking ladies, a group particularly fond of pull-carts. Bet she wishes I had dropped off a Prada version on the pavement.

Import joys

O beloved affordable shoes, where art thou?

Shopping in Switzerland is not as much fun as one might think. For one thing, my favorite shoe brands here cost two to three times as much as they do in North America. A pair of Clarks loafers runs over $180, my treasured Merrell hikers are in the same range and higher.

No problem, I thought.  I’ll just order on-line.

This has not worked out as happily as I had hoped. While I scored the lovely North American prices, shipping costs tipped near the $40 mark, plus a few extra dollars for the import fees. Ouch. But it was still cheaper than buying locally.

That was until Switzerland’s diligent import bureaucracy caught up with me and plastered another import fee in the neighbourhood of 32 to 45 Swiss Francs on to my cute little purchases.

I am not going to reveal how expensive this has become, because just saying it produces a scorching sensation in my skull. This has not actually helped the Swiss import bureacracy as much as they would like, because I will just stop buying shoes until I find a more fiscal-friendly store, and very likely that will only occur when I’m back in Canada.

Nevertheless, I still love Switzerland. It has so many chocolateries, how could I not?

In other retail news: Here’s a photo of a typical “sale” price sticker in Swiss stores that reads “top price.” I’m sure they mean “best price,” but the first thing our North American brains read is that the store is charging the top/ highest price anywhere. Maybe that is what they mean. After all, this is Switzerland.

Mom told me not to talk to strangers

Every day from 1960 to 1976, my mother warned me against talking to strangers, sometimes upping the warnings to four-times a day. She knew I wasn’t listening. Then between the years 2003 and 2010, on more than a few occasions I saw Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox exclaim, “Stranger danger!” before fading chameleon-like into the walls, making himself invisible to newsroom visitors. I suspect he was on my Mom’s payroll.

Despite these admonitions,  I keep talking to strangers, but now, I’m thinking of quitting.

In a downtown grocery store, I was minding my own business when cold chalky fingers snaked around my forearm. It would appear there was no one there, but when I looked down I saw a withered white-haired woman with large brown eyes standing next to me. I want to point out: I was looking down.  The number of times I have looked down to see another adult is embarrassingly low, and in fact, it only happened twice in North America. The other three times were here in Europe, where women smoke a lot, leading to stunted growth.

The woman rattled off something in French, shaking her cane menacingly at me, then, with her hand still cuffed around my forearm, she led me to another aisle where she used her cane to point out items from the top three shelves that she wanted. It’s a rare experience to be the “tall” person in the crowd, so I didn’t protest. I retrieved the items, she released me, and I went on my way.

Only, I was flummoxed. I left my grocery basket in the aisle where she had abducted me, along with my senses, forgetting what I was at the store for in the first place. I picked up some yoghurt, just to look like I was there on legitimate business and headed to the line-up where I found the old woman in front of me. Again, she took charge, demanding in French that I go in line in front of her with my paltry purchase, but I, in a bid for self-determination, steadfastly refused.

“Je suis un idiot,” I said, “Je ne comprends pas.”

She was somewhat crippled, frail-looking but obviously used to being in command. I’ll bet she had 15 children and they are all still terrified of her.

A tall, lean couple shuffled into the line-up and I thought I heard them speak English. I turned to them, indicating the old woman and said, “She’s a feisty one,” so they would understand that I was a total stranger to her and not her mentally deficient grand-daughter.

The couple glared at me, and I realized they did not speak English, but that might not have made a difference anyway.

The woman, her long hair dull and scraggly, motioned toward one arm as though injecting a phantom syringe, let her tongue loll out, wagged her head back and forth with her eyes careening about in their sockets. It was the international sign for, “I am a heroin addict, I’m out of my mind, and I don’t know what you’re saying.” The man, tattoos covering his arms, grunted in agreement.

Okay, Mom. You win. No more talking to strangers. At least, not for today.