26 December 2023

the apple grater

In this part of the world, the show started as always on Christmas Eve at 2 pm when the shops closed. Until Wednesday morning, 27th December, no real live consumerism.

There's the usual string of services (we abstained from) with various themes, for the children, the pets, the elderly,  the homeless and so on. Mixed in were recitals, Händel, Bach, lots of choir singing and a couple of nativity plays. Also without us in attendance.

We did our best. On Christmas Eve, I cleaned most of the kitchen cupboards and we argued discussed which useless gadgets we should get rid off. R made cauliflower cheese and we watched that apocalyptic movie with Julia Roberts. On Christmas Day, we cycled where possible along the flooded river, it was quite spectacular. The third flood in so many months. R cooked the goose and ate it, I stuck to a slice of toast with a ripe Spanish avocado as I was mainly still working on yesterday's cauliflower cheese. Then I finished cleaning the kitchen cupboards and found my father's glass Bircher apple grater, which was sitting in the box with my grandmother's wine glasses, the ones that took on a greenish tinge and according to R. contain uranium. They will have to go.


That apple grater has been in use in the household of my childhood. I vividly remember watching my father grating apples into our muesli while my mother was breastfeeding my baby brother.  

When I was finished with the cupboards, I washed the floors, listening to the Rolling Stones new album. In the evening, for lack of another apocalyptic movie, we settled for a Swedish thriller. 

Today, Boxing Day, 26th, I used the apple grater with my porridge and got sentimental.

In between there were zoom calls and old fashioned phone calls with family and friends and we shook hands with various neighbours the way you only do once every year.

In the afternoon, R checked on the river once more, still high, while my abdomen started its merry game of bloating and cramps and colicking and I resorted to the blessings of a heating pad and distraction aka reading the news.

This is what I found out.

The Kremlin is ruled by an autocratic gang led by Vladimir Putin, who has declared war on the entire West. Iranian-backed militias are attacking merchant ships in the Red Sea, Israel and Hamas are fighting a brutal war in the Gaza Strip and a conflict with the potential for world war is looming in the South China Sea. The drones and cruise missiles that are currently falling on Ukrainian cities could also hit Tallinn and Warsaw or Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt. An unlikely scenario? Two years ago, a major war in Ukraine still seemed unlikely.

On New Years Day, I'll clean the oven and the fridge.

22 December 2023

christmas tale addendum

Thank you so very much for your comments, all very much appreciated.

Some points you raised:

To sue or not to sue. That was a difficult issue for me. The reason for suing would have been the fact that the actual surgery that was performed was not what I had agreed upon and for which I had signed the requested legal document. When I finally received the photocopies of my medical file - months later - that document was missing. I could have started my claim there. But as the lawyer explained, the document may have been changed, lost, misplaced, whatever, and still, I would need witnesses to prove what I had signed just as much as the hospital could dispute that. The same for the fact that hysterectomy was never mentioned to me, not even as a possible risk in case of an emergency during surgery, which again the hospital could dispute. Here, hospitals have watertight insurance cover and legal representation. It is extremely rare for patients to win any case and if so, usually only malpractice ones, like botched surgeries or wrong medication. I did not even have access to legal aid and although friends and family offered financial assistance, it was explained to me that a case like this could take many years and if I lose, it could bankrupt us all. Also, having to reiterate the whole story several times and answering a million questions, possibly mostly to and from men, was/is a harrowing prospect. And the best possible outcome? Maybe money, a sense of revenge, a dent in someone's career. This may look amazing in a Hollywood court room drama with Julia Roberts. I did not want to have this fight in my life. I am not that kind of person and I am glad I am not. 

There were two men involved, the head of the gynaecology department at that hospital and the gynaecologist who referred me to him. The department head was an eminent authority, a demigod of gynaecology.  He was a champion of natural birth, non- and minimal invasive gynaecological surgery methods, author of many books and articles. When he died in 2017, the national media was full of eulogies, midwives, doulas, women's groups, all praised his work. I was so convinced that I was going to the right place. I never met him, only doctors of his team and the gynaecologist, who referred me to him, used to work in his team.

By chance, many years later, I met a scrub nurse who worked in his team. When I told her a bit about my case, she nodded and said, yes, it figures, he's an asshole. 

Another aspect is that during specialist training in gynaecology, junior doctors have to perform a certain number of hysterectomies. Thirty years ago, this was at least 20 hysterectomies per year. I don't want to suggest anything that hasn't been suggested before. But you may be able to put two and two together here. I don't think I was mixed up with another patient. In the early 1990s, unlike today, a woman in her mid/late thirties who wanted to get pregnant was advised about age and health risks. As it happened, I was told that another pregnancy may result in a C section and/or eventual hysterectomy after the birth. So someone may have felt the call to speed up the process for me. I still think that.

As for the autoimmune diagnosis and a possible connection, no. That diagnosis was actually quite obvious. I had a clean bill of health in January, cut my foot in March, infected wound turned into sepsis, lots of penicillin April/May, elevated liver values by July, was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis by the following January. 

Therapy, yes, I've seen two therapists. Basically, the outcome, this is something I needed to learn to live with, not to fight. And yes, if I must have abdominal surgery, I will have every fart in writing, signed copies, the works. I will interview every person involved until I know their children's names and date of birth. I know my stuff now.

As for trusting the medical professionals who look after me? Yes and no. Some have been wonderful and I stick to them but there's always that arrogant odd bastard once in a while. I am fortunate that due to my work - which I started some years after this experience - my clients are mostly excellent medical researchers and experts, many have become friends over the years and often help me understand new aspects of my own medical history.

But the forgiving myself part? Maybe one day. Not yet. Maybe never.

And so to this xmas, here is some xmas-sy kind of music, recorded in the city where J.S. Bach lived and worked.

18 December 2023

a christmas tale

I have never written about what I am going to remember here and I have only ever told this story to one man, my husband. But over the years, I have told it to several women, friends, doctors and even to strange women in those special moments of sudden intimacy, when we can exchange true stories and know why. An empty waiting room, an endless train journey, outside the cinema after a film that has awakened memories. 

In a roundabout way, this post also explains why I blog in English, at least it does that to me. But more about this another time.

To begin, a warning, this is long and it deals mainly with issues of gynaecology.

Thirty years ago, in the weeks before Christmas, something was done to me. I can't find any other words to describe it. Something was done to me while I was having surgery under general anaesthetic for the first time in my life. It was not a botched job on the operating table. I was 36 years old and after lengthy examinations, discussions and even a second opinion I was promised minor surgery to reposition my uterus.

We had postponed any attempt to get pregnant for a second time long before. Miscarriages are painful, physically and mentally, and the ones I had experienced had been exhausting. While I had no problem getting pregnant, I could no longer carry a foetus to term and I wanted to know why. My first pregnancy was easy but our daughter was born suddenly eight weeks before her due date. So when we moved to Germany in the early 1990s and finally had reliable and affordable health care, I found out what the problem was and that there was a way to remedy it. It wasn't necessarily our plan to have a second child, but the idea that it might still be possible and that my other nagging abdominal problems would disappear at the same time was a relief. We were even a little excited and thought that something good was coming, for me, for us, maybe even for us as a family.

About ten years later, I came across the term PTSD for the first time. I had been commissioned to translate a review paper for a scientific journal, comparing research data on the effects of war trauma. It made me think of my mother a lot, but there was also this list of typical symptoms that are part of the diagnosis of PTSD: nightmares/recurrent dreams, flashbacks caused by triggers such as smell, taste or touch, and feelings of guilt. I remember that I reassured myself over and over that I certainly never experienced any war trauma.

When R dropped me at the hospital that December thirty years ago, we found everything very impressive. It was one of the university's teaching hospitals and lots of young doctors in white coats were scurrying through the corridors. In the afternoon, when all procedures had been explained, all papers signed, I was allowed to go for a walk in the park, it was starting to snow. The night nurse helped me get into the surgery outfit and around midnight, gave me a sedative. Routine, she said, so that you can sleep well and not be nervous in the morning. My surgery was scheduled for 6:30 a.m. I was the first one that day.

I've had this dream for thirty years, sometimes several times a week, sometimes not for months. It's not really a nightmare in the strictest sense. I am in a tiled basement room, lying on a hospital bed. I can see a payphone on the opposite wall and I know I have to get up and phone R, he needs to come and get me out of here. But I'm so tired and somehow tied to the bed, I can't get up. When I try to call for help, I have no voice. Sometimes in the dream, there are lots of other people on beds in the room, sometimes I'm alone.

When I woke up and for the first 24 hours after surgery, I kept vomiting, which I was told was a typical reaction to a specific anaesthetic gas. On the second day after surgery, the young trainee nurse who had brought me the medication for the day came back and apologised because she had accidentally added this hormone tablet. But you don't need that any more, she said with a laugh, no more monthly periods, that's actually great, isn't it?

The ward doctor, who eventually responded to my incessant pressing of the alarm button, read to me from my patient file: successful hysterectomy.

I still remember this: we were five women in that room, with various gynaecological diagnoses, cancer, miscarriage, pregnancy complications and me. It was the week of the Rhine flood, the great Christmas flood, the flood of the century, and at night we were lying in our beds watching live on TV as the historic center of Cologne flooded and people tried to get into the cordoned-off alleyways at the last minute to move their cars. I remember my friend Y furiously kicking the ward doors when she heard. When I was asked if I wanted to contribute a nice song or a favourite poem to the upcoming Christmas party,  I walked into the doctor's office, pulling the iv stand behind me and told her to remove all the tubes, while R packed my bag. I had to sign something I didn't even read, nobody said goodbye to me. In the car I leaned against the window and looked down onto the floodplains below the motorway bridge, water everywhere. The next day was Christmas day. We told R's father on the phone, he started to cry.

I find the smell of latex gloves hard to bear, the colour of the red rubber tubing used on ventilators in the 1990s makes me nauseous, only briefly but so severely that I have to leave quickly, and if I touch a balloon or a rubber band I get a splitting headache. Sometimes I think, maybe it's always been like this, you just didn't realise it, don't make an issue of it. But I think I know when it started.

In the months that followed, I functioned surprisingly well, the operation was a complete success, I was told.  My gynaecologist was delighted with how neat everything was healing and what an excellent outcome, really, for me as a woman because after all, only the uterus was gone, everything else still there, he said triumphantly.

Then I got sick, small things at first, herpes blisters, bursitis, UTIs, conjunctivitis. One after the other. Then pneumonia. No end to it.

At some point during those feverish months, I wrote a letter to my gynaecologist, the hospital, the head doctor whose team had operated on me and the ward doctor. I kept a copy of this letter for a long time. It wasn't until this summer that I finally tore it up, because every time I read it, it felt more foolish, much too emotional. My gynaecologist replied immediately banning me from his practice. The hospital sent me my an incomplete version of my patient file only after I had transferred an excessive amount of money for copying and postage. I don't remember when I threw all of that in the bin. I never received a reply from the doctors at the hospital.

To this day, there are times when I am convinced in my heart of hearts that I brought this all on myself, that I knew or should have known what was going to happen, that I was simply too lazy to get out of that bed and walk away. That I was fed up with painful periods and that perhaps deep down I didn't want to have a second child anyway. That I am just making all this crap up because I want attention. And that I certainly never had any traumatic experience but would have liked to have had one because, oh, the melodrama. Stop acting like a helpless ninny, says a voice in my head, it wasn't anything really. Other people experience real trauma. Not you. The voice sounds like my mother's.

I don't remember how or when, but one day I was sitting in front of a doctor I didn't know. I had yet another UTI and needed a sick note for work while our family doctor was on holiday. She asked me the usual one or two questions and somehow I started talking. I know I was very calm, determined to tell all this once and for all and then never again. She stood up, walked round the desk, took my hands in hers and held them for a while. Without asking, she called a lawyer and made an appointment for me, then she called her friend, an older gynaecologist, and made another appointment for me.

The lawyer didn't give me any hope, but the older gynaecologist was my doctor for many years afterwards, and now I'm seeing her successor. 

All that was a long time ago. It has become a chapter in the long story of my life, our lives. A lot has happened since then that made and continues to make me, us, happy and content. I also make sure whenever possible that any doctor I need to consult is a woman.

Some years ago during a routine ultrasound check-up, I was shown how my colon had begun to shift into the space where so many years ago my body had grown a baby and two months ago, I was told that in its new place, this bit of the colon has developed a twist that may need to be treated surgically. I was told that the eventual surgery was easy and that there was no reason to believe I would not recover rapidly.

Since then, I've been dreaming this dream more often. It does not surprise me. I am not afraid of surgery, but I am still not able to forgive myself for not getting off that bed and run from that basement room.


16 December 2023

This is the shape of things to date.

There is a new rash of sores inside my mouth due to the immune suppressing medication, something I have experienced on and off for years. I am used to it, my tongue counts the spots.

We haven't seen much real sunshine for weeks and all the trees and hedges are now bare but early this morning, before 5 am, I heard birdsong. Not a dawn chorus yet, more like a conversation between two or three birds. I was too sleepy to use the app on the phone that identifies bird song.

Most of the days, I am bloated and carry my swollen abdomen almost like a pregnant belly. At times, the corresponding pain can feel like labour, lasting hours. After so many months of this, I am used to it and ride it out. I carefully time my food intake, cut out almost all food groups that seem to have a negative effect, but it really makes no difference and so I wait for the final diagnostic step, scheduled in four weeks, to confirm what will most likely result in surgery. I like to think that I am at ease with this, see it as a problem that has a solution, but who am I kidding. 

A while back, I told R that I will not cook any more dinners or lunches until this has been sorted. I have little appetite anyway, breakfast is the best meal, but even the lightest of lunches can make it all go downhill. Thankfully, I am happy with porridge and semolina gruel and rusks dipped in tea and such like. The Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy lived all her live on one meal a day - breakfast - and a few beers in the evening. I'm not doing the beer thing but other than that, I am functioning surprisingly well. I decided a while back that having a bloated colicky abdomen will not stop me from walking and cycling and shopping, cleaning the bathroom and doing the laundry and so on. It's somewhat restricting social involvement but I am still confident that things can only get better.

I am still waiting on my pension. Whoever said that German bureaucracy was reliable and that Germans are always on time. Could we meet?

This evening, we wanted to join the good neighbours of this suburb by standing around an open fire, singing seasonal songs and sharing a hot beverage afterwards. Instead I hung onto a door frame breathing into my abdomen as if I was in the later stages of childbirth while R rubbed my back. Eventually, things started to shift and I got a good cup of tea. Then we watched cooking shows on social media. The best is this guy here, karadenizli.maceraci, which translates to Black Sea Adventurer. In my opinion, the best cook around, simply for effects, not that I would or could eat most of his food right now. 

08 December 2023

a day that went sideways

Two weeks to midwinter. Reasons to be cheerful. Other than that, it has been overcast for ever it seems. Today, I got up with great determination and housework intentions, nothing too fast or dramatic, I am retired after all. But in the end, we left after breakfast to bring all assembled sleeping bags and iso mats and the camping gear found in this house to the help-for-the-homeless center. I felt like a piece of shit, with my superwarm coat and my thermo gloves and insulated boots, handing over stuff so others may get a tiny bit less cold when sleeping on the streets. Now, according to official news and the social worker friend we have, nobody has to sleep on the streets in this city but many do not wish to sleep in the emergency housing, various hostels etc. for so-called private reasons. I don't handle these scenarios well or even wisely. I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. 

We then called into a furniture store and purchased a new red sofa. This is how capitalism works. The sales guy was very nice and keen and we did not ask him where he was from because what does it matter that his German wasn't quite there yet and also, asking the "where are you from" question is racism, I have been told. His jacket was the most gorgeous soft tweed and after the sale was done, I asked if I could touch it and he laughed and said, oui madame. (So my guess is Northern Africa, not said I asked for that reason.)

And now we are looking for a good home for my great grandfather's sofa, which looks a bit like this here 


but somewhere along the line, my grandmother chopped off the legs, removed the back and remodeled most of it. About 20 years ago, I redid the covers - same colour, velvet - and replaced the springs in the seat with hard foam. So nothing like this after all. I have loved this piece of furniture for as long as I can remember despite the fact that it is too low and angular to sit on it comfortably. Everybody in my extended family always disliked it, mainly because my grandmother chopped a potentially valuable antique to bits. That was her way of doing things. When my grandfather died (I was five years old at the time), she reportedly attempted to give away his supposedly most valuable stamp collection by handing out one stamp each to various friends and acquaintances after the funeral. 

My father used to smile and shake his head whenever he came to our house but I thought that secretly, he was happy that I had room for this sofa. But now, my father is dead and a few days ago, I said to R, let's get rid of this thing and here we are.

As it turns out, we do have a picture of the sofa, look here:


Next, we stopped at the art museum bistro for lunch which was awful (mine) and good (R's) and when we got home, my intestines were starting their usual cramp colicky routine and R straight away steered me out of the door for a long walk of distraction before the sun set just after 4 pm. I try not to think too much about the upcoming diagnostic to confirm the gastro expert's suspicion of damage resulting from something that was done to me 30 years ago. Walking helps. We looked into the windows of the grand houses further south, their impressive overpowering but ever so stylish xmas decorations and returned with relief to our under decorated small homestead. 

In good news, I have watched all episodes of three seasons of  Reservation Dogs and have found it be moving and funny and goofy but also heartfelt, honest, emotional and educational (to us here).

I was also introduced to the work of Ukrainian photographer Zoya Shu and in the past days, have spent a long time looking and discovering human life and love and pain in her work. Have a look here.

And now I am sitting here with a cup of tea and a heating pad on my abdomen and R is coughing a bit next door and in two weeks time, we will celebrate the winter solstice.

06 December 2023


We were going to be different parents. Or so we thought. It started when we got married in a London register office when I was already pregnant, the briefest of ceremonial stuff, no party, no family. The baby was not to be baptised (although someone did that behind our backs when she was 10 years old, different story) and definitely no stupid Santa or Easter bunny rubbish, no lies, ever, all questions answered truthfully and so on, we lived in a commune.

Of course, grandparents intervened. Generously, yes, with a twinkle and lots of fun. But in due course, we were left with a toddler who was firmly convinced that Santa existed and that letters had to be written etc. etc. One year, her one and only wish was to be awake at night when - as she was convinced - all her toys become alive. She only asked for it to happen once and specified that she did not want anything else at all. Santa of course failed her. We were all quite upset and disappointed that year.

Then there was the moment when she stopped believing. In hindsight, it was worse than the entire crappy Santa story telling that went on before. I had just picked her up from school, together with a friend, Natalie (whose name to this day is only angrily hissed in this household), and both were sitting in the back of the car talking while I drove. Natalie (hiss) had an older sister and was somewhat more advanced in worldly things. And there she was, telling my daughter, do you know Santa doesn't exist, it's just made up stuff by the adults. I looked into the rearview mirror and saw the shocked expression on my daughter's face. She almost cried but recovered just in time to respond, with a firm voice, so what, I've known that for ages anyway. 

Later that evening when Natalie (another hiss), was collected by her parents, my child turned to me and said, she's an awful liar, that Natalie, isn't she. She always makes up stories about everything. 

And then she cried a bit and we had one of these decisive parenting moments we still talk about to this day.

03 December 2023

key moments in human evolution

The cold is fierce, barely above freezing for a few hours before sunset. The winds are even fiercer, turning from north to west and back to north again. Most of the country appears to be inundated with snow except of course for our stretch of the Rhine valley. As usual. Like the fools we are, we go for long walks hoping for the wind to turn in our favour as we head out. It rarely obliges. Back home, I rub my white numb fingers to get the blood back into circulation. There's mention self heating battery powered gloves but it's only a few short weeks - I hope - and not worth the purchase.

My daughter sent me this late in the night:

It's from Eve, how the female body drove 200 million years of human evolution by Cat Bohannon.

Also, it is the time of year when the mind wonders about another key moment of human evolution. To be living in a world where society thinks it is a good idea that it is economically possible to make a substance, which nature has taken an eternity to produce and of which we have only a very limited amount available, explode it under controlled conditions with great noise in a fraction of a second to drive an engine that whirls leaves and small animals around, turning the valuable, limited available raw material into mostly particulate matter so that our driveways look neat. This morning there was a lovely bit about the different types of dead leaves on the radio. Just five minutes long. I enjoyed the bit about the beech leaves dropping in one go as if called to give up all hope and abandon ship. For more click here (5 m in long).