Getting Sick Abroad

Getting sick sucks, especially if you are away from home, homeland.  There is nothing worse than having a medical emergency while traveling abroad.  But don’t let that scare you off the plane.  Take a few travel tips from a seasoned traveler…aka your fav ex-patriot.

My parents have made dozens of cross Atlantic trips to visit our Norwegian relatives and me without a hitch.  After a recovering from 4 different surgeries, my 79-year-old dad attained his goal to fly to Switzerland and almost didn’t make it back when he became gravely ill. Fortunately our daughter, a pediatrician, insisted we call an emergency doctor who demanded we take him to the hospital immediately where they put him on intravenous antibiotics and saved his life.  A simple urinary tract infection had developed into a life threatening sepsis. Luckily, we had a Frenchman aboard, who spoke both English and French and could interpret in the ER.  But in the course of ensuing chaos, it made me realize how frightening illness can be for someone traveling abroad especially if you don’t speak the local language.  When packing your bags be sure to include these items.

  • Medication for the duration of your stay in your carry on bag
  • Carry insurance and medical cards and a photocopy of prescriptions
  • Type up a short resume of your recent medical history
  • List emergency numbers of contacts in your homeland
  • If possible, obtain the number of a friend living in the area you are visiting (this is especially reassuring to parents when their sons/daughters go abroad)
  • In the event of serious illness call SOS Médecins
  • When in doubt, go directly to the emergency room

In Switzerland and France, public hospitals will admit you, but you may have to pay a fee, like the $500 up front that my dad paid at the Hospitale de Nyon before services could be rendered.

Jim & Lenore McKinzie in Switzerland

Jim & Lenore McKinzie in Switzerland

The medical system varies in each European country. In some places, doctors still make house calls.  Many medical people have independent practices in apartment buildings or a room of their homes.  Unlike our clinics or convenient urgent care centers in the states, often times in Europe you will have to go to separate laboratories to have blood drawn and/or X rays taken. Pharmacies display the universal sign, a green cross. In Europe pharmacists will answer simple medical questions and can advise you on minor problems. Major hotels have a doctor on staff or will call a local doctor for you.

Accept that medical practices in other countries, though different from those at home, are not necessarily bad.  For example in France and Switzerland, prescriptions are not counted out by the dose, but boxed in plastic in 7 day to one month doses.

During my overseas stint, I have been hospitalized after accidents and illnesses, for surgery and childbirth.  I‘ve seen my fair share of doctors, but I can assure you that like people, there are good and bad ones everywhere regardless of nationality.

Alors santé! (Here’s to your health) Bon voyage!

Sisters Only A Heartbeat Apart

“What’s wrong? I whispered as my middle sister coaxed my little sister out from under the bed.“Grandpa yelled at her cause she didn’t finish her milk at dinner,” Sue, explained.

“Oh, Kar, he yelled at me too,” I said as I stuck my head under the bed. “C’mon, I got a great idea. We’ll dance in the living room.”

Together in our matching pink nighties we pranced in front the our reflection in the picture window to the beat of the Pink Panther until Karen’s tears turned to giggles.

From the time we were little children, our heartiest laughs and greatest tears were shared as sisters; three girls just four years apart.

I, being eldest set the example.  I taught them how to slide veggies off the dinner plate and onto the floor for the family dog and to sneak out of at bed night to watch The Honeymooners from behind the divider in the dining room.  I kept them in line by pretending to hit their face, then socking their stomach.

3 sisters

3 sisters

We shared childhood memories of vacations when we sat facing backwards in our nine seater wagon and smoked candy cigarettes, waved at truck drivers from behind plastic sun glasses and pretended to be ladies. When we tired of comic books and games, we argued, until Dad threatened.  “Quit squabbling or I’ll stop the car and you can walk home!”

In instant solidarity against the enemy, the almighty grown up, we held hands in silence for the remainder of the ride.

Together we survived the early adolescence “uglies”.  Our finest feature striking blue eyes, hidden behind thick brown cat eye framed glasses.  Sue developed too much up front, I, too little, and Karen, The Babe, Miss-Perfect-In-Between was just right. Our personalities were as different as our body types.  I, an aggressive brunette tomboy, thought kitchen was a four-letter word. Sue, an easy-going blonde homebody loved to bake and clean. Karen, a chestnut haired social butterfly, enjoyed the outdoors and domestics.

“Get off the phone blabber mouth,” I yelled at Karen.  “It’s my turn to have the car,” Sue yelled at me.  In high school we were selfish about the use of the phone and car, but generous with our clothes and friends.

We went to the same college, Illinois State, and majored in helping professions.  One summer, we even fought for the same beau.  Sue caught in the middle, shouted, “Never thought I’d see the day a guy tore you apart!”  When he dropped me for my baby sister, I thought the hurt would never heal.  Later when he tired of her, I helped her put back the pieces.  Now, we laugh about the jerk, who tried to come between us.

In high school and college, Karen and I played on the same basketball team.  Sue never missed a game.  When a car accident ended my career in France, the sound of their voices over the phone helped me heal faster than the ministrations of a hospital full of foreign doctors.

We were always together for the important moments.  When I got married in Normandy, Karen flew over and Sue helped pay for her ticket. When Kar married a year later, Sue was her maid of honor.  When Sue wed, I was the best gal.

Now every summer, we set aside a week to return to our family cabin in Wisconsin where we roast hot dogs over a crackling fire, float on inner tubes on a silver-blue lake, and take long walks in the woods. We still dance in the living room, now we call it aerobics.

For in between times, we write long letters and make short calls, “ I can’t afford this, but I wanted to hear your voice.”

We developed a sixth sense sisters’ share.  After my miscarriages, my sisters mourned, too.  The night my daughter was born in Paris, Sue dreamed,” it’s a girl!” in Chicago.

As children we shared a room, held hands before falling asleep and vowed we’d live in a triplex, so we could always be together.  As adults, we ended up living thousands of miles apart in different states and countries.  Yet, as sisters, we remain only a heartbeat away.

Anders Behring Breivik: The Tragedy of Terrorism in Tranquil Norway

The blond-haired, clean-cut, blue-eyed man who triggered the bomb in Olso and went on a killing rampage at the liberal Labor Party’s camp on Utoya Island, did not look like the dark bearded, evil terrorist we immediately suspect. He looked more like my cousin.

I am an American born, second-generation Norwegian, living in neutral Switzerland, and I am shocked and deeply saddened by the tragedy in Norway.

I feel the pain of an entire nation that mourns the loss of its innocent children, gunned down at summer camp.  What makes it even more unimaginable was that the act was committed by one of its own, in a country that founded the Nobel Peace Prize and has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe. Where did Anders Breivik go so wrong? His actions defy everything Norway represents – freedom, tolerance and inclusion.

the fjord of Narvik, by Evanskjaer

the fjord of Narvik, by Evanskjaer

The Norwegians I know are soft-spoken, kind-hearted, and open-minded; a welcoming people, living in a nonviolent nation, equally respectful of nature and man.  Tolerance is a natural birthright.

How are we breeding homegrown domestic terrorism within our greatest democracies?

Freedom of speech also extends to violent expression of the hate groups, zealots and fundamentalists. It is disheartening to think that Breivik followed the teachings of American extremists.

How does the rhetoric of street based groups, which filter into more broad-based political forums, influence individuals? What role does social media play in fueling the flames of hatred? In Breivik’s manifesto, he denounces immigration, multiculturalism and proponents of democracy, which more mainstream groups like the Tea Party also alarmingly condemn.

In our world today, we are so quick to blame anyone whose appearance or beliefs are “different” than the majority – immigrants, Blacks, Arabs, Latinos, Asians, Muslims, Jews.  But who is responsible when the avenger is one of our own “Aryans”?  How could Breivik’s mind become so twisted after growing up in a tranquil country as the son of a diplomat?

What enemy lurks within?  For tolerance to become an inherent part of our social fabric, we must confront our own demons and question the soundness of our reasoning, every time we make a snap judgment of an entire people based on the evil actions of few.

As my thoughts and prayers go out to fellow Norwegians, I am also soul searching? What am I doing as an individual to help defeat a social climate that fuels fear and bigotry?

What are we doing in our families, churches, neighborhoods and political parties to promote tolerance and peace, instead of prejudice and hatred?

No matter what color our skin, country we live in, language we speak, political party we adhere to and church we attend; we still belong to the same specie.  We are all brothers and sisters in the human race.

Sisterhood, motherhood and marathons

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Hannah & Karen

Hannah & Karen

When my professional basketball career ended, my goal was to start running marathons.  Accidents and illness thwarted that dream; I never ran again, so my little sister is competing in a sprint triathlon for me.

Karen was always a good athlete with a body built for competition. She had perfect teeth and toes, providing a good bite and great balance.

During thousands of dollars of treatment for a misaligned dental occlusion, my dentist explained, “The massetter is the strongest muscle in the body. You ever notice all the best athletes have beautiful teeth?”

Ditto for the toes. Whereas my sister polishes her beautiful toes, my crooked ones remain hidden in clunky orthopedic shoes. My podiatrist has told me I should retire from teaching because my feet are so bad. My ankles are pronated, my arches too high, my big toe too short, so my balance is bad. My second toe is too long and the other three are curled like claws to grip the ground to keep me upright. Leg aches plagued me since childhood, but never slowed me down.

So while Karen and her friends train for the Chaska River City Days Sprint Triathlon – a third-mile swim, 16-mile bike and 5K run, I cheer them on. After raising children and caretaking in helping professions, they decided to do something just for themselves and began training together for the event.

Jean Pupkes, Ann Jackson, & Karen Carlson at the finish line

Jean Pupkes, Ann Jackson, & Karen Carlson at the finish line

Ever the competitor, I secretly train for my own triathlon – a walk, bike, swimathlon. Everyday I bike around the neighboring lake, walk to town, and swim to the island, each day pushing to go a little farther and a bit faster. It takes some ingenuity because I have to avoid the sunlight.

While my baby sister paints her nails and runs in preparation for the big event, I don full scuba gear, like the Loch Ness monster, to swim in a cold, purple lake.

When Karen finished the triathlon reaching her personal goal wearing the number 60, her birth year, she called me first.

“After the swim – my best event – I felt great,” Karen said, “But after the 16 mile bike, my legs turned to Jello on the run, then a guy ran by and offered me good advice – just put one foot in front of the other.”

My sister admires me for never giving up in spite of all my physical limitations, but she remains my hero, a younger, more refined, fitter version of myself.

Our competitive spirit spurs us on. If my baby sister, can finish her first sprint triathlon at the age of 51, I can darn well make it around the block again on my own two faulty feet.

Deflated Dollar Leads to European Invasion in America

The dollar is at an all time low, which means almost every European I know is heading to the United States for summer holidays. For some, it will be their first visit and like many Americans who venture abroad, it will be the dream of a lifetime. My dentist is flying to Seattle, a French colleague is heading to Grand Canyon, and our Swiss educational psychologist is off to the Arrondikes.[cincopa AUBA_rqiwimE]

Be kind to the visitors. Smile. If you can, try to speak a few words of their language, even if only to say hello: Grüsse (German), Bonjour (French), Hola (Spanish), Buongiorno (Italian) or Kalimera (Greek). Ask simple questions about their homeland.

Even with the best intentions, misunderstandings are bound to occur. A German friend, studying in the US, once brushed her teeth with denture cream. Years ago a 6’7” French basketball player, walked out the men’s store changing room in downtown Chicago in his skivvies to find another size of jeans, and his teammate peed behind a bush in a public park. I was equally mortified when a well-endowed  French teammate whipped off her top and perched on the bow of a speedboat.

If Europeans don’t ask a lot of personal questions, it does not mean they aren’t interested, only that they are respectful and fear invasion of privacy. Food and weather are safe topics; work and income are not. Sharing food is a special time of interaction. Mealtime is sacred.

Talk slowly. Use hand gestures. When people do not speak the language, they will pretend to understand even if they really don’t.  I know this from my own experience of feigning knowledge to avoid appearing dimwitted.

I have dined on local specialties in European homes, sipped wine in private cellars and shared coffee in living rooms across the continent.  Each time I learned far more about the culture and customs than guidebooks could ever divulge.

Greet my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances with a big grin as they travel from sea to shining sea. It takes so little, really, to make someone feel welcome…a smile, a handshake, a kind word. Not only is it good for business, it is also good for the soul.

Certainly the Europeans will be awed by our spacious landscapes, daunted by our city skyscrapers, and enamored with our natural beauty found in our Badlands, Grand Canyon and other National Parks. But what I hope they will remember mos,t is the warm, embracing spirit of the American people.