Colds & Christmas Crackers

I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worth while.
(George Bernard Shaw)

I woke up in Wales on Monday morning, looked out the window, and went back to sleep. Here’s the thing about working in a school library: whenever a new super-strain of bacteria or virus emerges after circling happily through the kindergartners, it’s only a matter of time. Every teacher around you can be hacking and coughing and sneezing and sniffling, but you always think to yourself, “I’ll be okay. I wash my hands. I have a giant bottle of hand sanitizer that lives on my desk. If I see a child sneeze on a book, I wipe that book down with germ-killing alcohol. And then spray it with pure ozone. While wearing a biohazard suit.1 Besides, I have excellent immunity from constant exposure to these things. I eat about ten clementines a day.2” Well, readers, there comes a point when even the best precautions can no longer protect you from five to ten different versions of the common cold all vying, like tiny gladiators, to battle against your immune system in the grand stadium of your body. One of them is bound to get in.

And so it was for me last week. My first day was one of denial. So what if I’ve got that weird tickle in the back of my throat that always signals an impending illness? It could be anything. I’ll just eat an extra couple of clementines.3 On day two, congestion and optimism went hand-in-hand. Hey, at least this cold is progressing really fast! At this rate, all my symptoms will be gone by the time I fly to England on Sunday. On Friday I bargained. If I skip karaoke tonight4 and rest instead, I’ll be better by tomorrow night. Saturday, acceptance. I’m going to England with a cold. My ears will pop on the plane and it will probably hurt because I’m so congested. Then we will arrive in rainy, frigid weather and I will have to take two trains to Wales, arriving too late at night to get proper sleep. This cold ain’t going nowhere.

Luckily for me, Barbara, my traveling companions and host in Wales, was even sicker than me. Harry, her husband, and I looked after her in the various airports and trains. Seeing someone who’d caught an even worse bug from the students made me grateful that mine was just a run-of-the-mill, pool-of-snot-on-your-pillow-at-night, annoying-but-ultimately-harmless-sniffling kind of cold. We spent the first day in Wales sitting in front of their log stove, nibbling chocolate and various types of cheeses while the weather outside couldn’t make up its mind if it wanted to drizzle, mist, or pour. We did that the second day, too. And the third day. In fact, I am told there are many beautiful and wondrous things in the Cardiff area, but this week, amid sniffles and group coughing fits, sitting in front of the fire with a ball of yarn and some music was the most splendid thing I could imagine.5

I made one brief foray into Cardiff, accompanying Harry on some errands around town. And that’s when the reverse culture shock hit me. I walked down the packed main street, shops ablaze with blinking Christmas lights and signs in nearly every window: “SALE!” “40% OFF EVERYTHING!” “50%” “BUY ONE GET ONE FREE” “75%” “FREE PRIVATE JET AND MANSION BY THE SEA WITH PURCHASE OF ONE-YEAR PHONE PLAN + DONATION OF YOUR FIRSTBORN CHILD!”6 I wandered, dazed, down noisy streets, through fluorescent shopping centers, past teenagers with neon hair and armies of chain-smoking mothers, strollers of wailing toddlers at the ready. I had forgotten exactly how commercial the western world can be especially–but not only–at this time of year. I wondered how I’d ever coped with it in the first place, and sat on a bench, ears buzzing and hands shaking, for the better part of an hour.

Many people who come to Morocco comment on how commercial it is. “It’s all about the money there,” they say, or “Everyone’s just looking to sell something”. I hear this constantly, from snobbish European tourists and wandering hippies alike. And excuse me, visitors to Morocco, but have you taken a good look at your own country recently? It’s incredible to me that the irony of this attitude isn’t immediately apparent to them. Yes, Morocco is commercial. But never in its wildest dreams could it be as commercial as the United States, England, or any major European country. And thank goodness! I love living in a country where towns haven’t yet been taken over by strip malls and Wal-Marts, where local businesses and even individual artisans flourish! You want a hat made in Tangier? Go to a haberdasher! When was the last time you saw a real, functioning tailor? How about a watchmaker? And you know that merchant who sells you leather goods and Berber carpets at double the correct price because you’re tourist?7 That money goes to his family, his friends, local businesses and cafés; not to multinational corporations.

There’s surely a lesson in the following anecdote, dear readers, but I’ll be darned if I know what it is. I arrived at the Cardiff train station with forty-five minutes to spare. I did the civilized thing and purchased a delightful orange-flavored hot chocolate from a cheerful fellow at the station café, then parked myself in an armchair, sipping my drink and reading Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. When the 10:45 to Nottingham appeared on the board, I walked out to the designated platform, double-checked the arrivals sign, and waited. At just after 10:45, a train pulled in. I lined up with a group of other Nottingham-bound passengers and we chatted while waiting for everyone to disembark. “Is this the train to Manchester or Nottingham?” A man in a tweed cap asked. “Oh, this one is Nottingham,” several others replied. “Manchester is next.” I boarded my train. A man in a business suit sat beside me and I smiled companionably, asking him “This is the train to Nottingham, right?” He smiled back and nodded. “That’s right.” Doubly reassured, I put in my headphones and gazed out of the window as the countryside began drifting by.

Possibly half an hour later, the conductor ambled through and frowned at my ticket. Uh oh, I thought. I’ve seen this look on a conductor’s face before. Either he’s constipated or I’m on the wrong train. “Sorry,” he grumbled, though he didn’t sound especially sorry, “They changed the platform back at Cardiff. Didn’t you know? You should have gotten off at the last stop and taken your train from there. Now you’ll have to get off at gobbledygook8 and wait for the next train to whatchamacallit9 and from there find a train to Nottingham.”

Now, unlike my dear mother, who tears up at the beginning, middle, and end of nearly any film,10 I don’t cry easily. But when I disembarked from that train in Cyllewuinaellyn,11 rain pouring down on me, and noticed that the next train back to Newport (where I could catch the correct train to Nottingham) wasn’t due for another hour, I lost it a bit. After a minute of solitary sobbing, which would have embarrassing had the platform not been completely deserted, I wiped the tears and snot from my face and sorted out my tickets back.12 The kindly ticket lady took one look at my flushed face, huge backpack, and rain soaked clothing, and wrote me a special note to take on the next train: “Due to platform alteration at Cardiff, Customer & others13 boarded wrong train. Please Allow to Travel on New Service [squiggly signature and official stamp]”

Halfway through the cab ride, I started laughing. My knickers were all in a twist14 over this train mix-up, but in Morocco it would be business as usual. I’d smile wryly, shake it off, and get on with my day. But because it happened in the UK, a place I associate with order and punctuality,15 I had a much harder time dealing with the change. In Tangier screwups like this are a part of everyday life, and I expect them all the way from a spice merchant in the street to a government official in the visa office.

After laughing loudly and awkwardly, I explained this to my bemused cab driver, who chuckled and said something reassuring and Welsh about everything being “all right now” and feeling “better after you’ve ‘ad a cup of coffee and a bacon roll”. Thanks, wise cab driver.16

On the train to Nottingham,17 I looked out the window and listened to the rhythmic humming noise as we breezed through an overcast landscape. “Aah-ah aah-ah aah-ah” over and over, turning to “aah-ooooo” when the the train slows. I saw a little girl with a headscarf and pretended that I was back in Morocco, on a train from Tangier to Marrakesh. It’s pretty hard to imagine Morocco while gazing at the British countryside. Like an English garden, there’s something reassuringly tame, yet also wild about the landscape here. Wet green fields in grids, with (sometimes) neatly trimmed hedges arching up into the hills. Craggy winter trees sprouting along roads and beside cottages. Thorns and gorse and nettles lining wooded footpaths. Rain pouring down until it turns the fields a bright, joyful green and fills the country lanes with calf-deep puddles of icy water. Wind that cuts through every layer of clothing and makes you feel as if you’re walking around this landscape naked, like a modern-day Lear.18

I enjoyed exactly one day of good health before relapsing in Newark. Whatever hit me this second time around was a doozy! Sore throat, cough, congestion, runny nose and eyes… probably the sickest I’ve been in five or six years. Spent a sniffly Christmas with family, maintaining a safe distance so as not to spread my horrible germs. Saw my two lovely cousins, which cheered me up more than all my Christmas stocking chocolates combined. Not much else to report, except that I’m happily tucked into bed,19 hoping that tomorrow is a little better.20

And two special bonus holiday photos of the beautiful food21 I ate on Christmas day, despite the sore throat:

  1. Those last two things may not be entirely true. []
  2. This is true. []
  3. A word of advice: twelve clementines in one day may not actually be excellent for your health. []
  4. And, by extension, copious amounts of wine. []
  5. Harry fell ill on the second-to-last day, too, making the house of invalids complete. A perfect concept for a singularly dull reality TV show. Cough cough cough. Barbara? Can I get you some cheese? Yes, please. All r–cough–ight. Harry, are you downstairs? Cough cough sneeze. Not at present. Would you like me to bring you a snack? No, that’s–cough cough–all right. I’ll come down. And so on and so forth. []
  6. Well no, not really. []
  7. It’s still half the Wal-Mart or Target price. []
  8. He didn’t actually say “gobbledygook”. He said something Welsh. []
  9. He probably also didn’t say “whatchamacallit”, given that he was a proper adult and a locomotive professional. []
  10. But only during scenes that are one of the following: dramatic, heartfelt, humorous, scary, reassuring, upsetting. []
  11. Disclaimer: This is not the real name of the town. But, to the best of my recollection, it may well have sounded something like this. []
  12. This following my memorable train mishap of last year, when I fell blissfully asleep on a train from London and overshot my intended destination by three stops and forty minutes. []
  13. Thanks, kindly ticket lady for making me sound a little less like an idiot. []
  14. To use one of my favorite English expressions. []
  15. Well, also delicious breakfasts, some of history’s greatest authors and worst monarchs, mad cow disease, pantomimes, and the Spice Girls. []
  16. Sidenote: You know how difficult it can be to hear taxi drivers through that muffled intercom when there’s a plastic barrier behind the front seats? Well, imagine that plus a thick Welsh accent. I smiled a lot, and agreed whenever I guessed it might be appropriate. For all I know, he might have been inviting me back to his place for a mountain of bacon rolls and Welsh sitcoms. He did point out his house during the drive to Newport. []
  17. The real one this time. []
  18. What, exactly, is it that makes us think that the British landscape is so hospitable in comparison with northern Morocco? The worst that happens there is a touch of sunburn or an unusually chilly sea breeze that makes you shiver in your t-shirt. Macbeth, Mary Lennox, the Baskerville hounds, and most of Daphne Du Maurier’s characters will all tell you that the British Isles are wild, untamed, and dangerous. Unless, like Drs. Doolittle and DeSoto, you can communicate with dogs, you will have to assume that this is what the Baskerville hounds are saying. []
  19. And have been all day. []
  20. I wrote the more eloquent sections of this post during my one healthy day, and it probably shows. []
  21. Prepared by my aunt, uncle, and cousins, who worked tirelessly for days to bring us a gorgeous Christmas lunch. []

8 Responses

  • mmm reverse culture shock is the worst. Can leave you miserable and apathetic. Rural Western Kenya to London was a killer. Though sickness is pretty bad too. You’d better be better for the dinner party…

  • The cheeses look marvelous. I wish I could share them with you. I think that being around people who care for you will do wonders for your feeling better. Sorry you didn’t get to enjoy the beauty of Wales. But there’ll always be an England! Enjoy your time there.

  • One more thought: Poor Walmart, the Target of liberals everywhere. No one seems to appreciates Walmart except the millions of low-income families relentlessly shopping there in record numbers each year.

  • It is wonderful to have you here for Christmas – sick or healthy! Glad your appetite is still good for baked beans, bacon and sausages:)

  • Beautiful writing.
    But where’s the mention of your wonderful cousins, our gracious hosting and the glorious food?
    If we don’t get a mention now, when will we?!?

  • Gabriel:
    Sorry about the dinner party. We’ll just have to plan another one together next time, and it’ll be the greatest dinner party of our lives. No pressure.

    Oh dear me! How could I leave you out? Post amended.

  • You ask: When was the last time you saw a real, functioning tailor? How about a watchmaker?

    My answer: I saw a real, functioning tailor just today, right in my hometown in the United States. There are others in my neighborhood, too. And there are several watchmakers here as well, the nearest being a half-mile from my home.

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