Wednesday, April 13, 2005


After a bad night on Monday (I had to sleep with Skittles, which meant being knotted like a pretzel and bonking my head on the chair that is next to her bed), Skittles had a final puke about 6:00 a.m. which confirmed that she was not going to school on Tuesday.

But from that point on, she did nothing but thrive: she ate constantly, she danced with her sister to Bob the Builder, she ran through the house. In short, not what I would call feeling poorly.

I did regular pox checks ("Show me your tummy!"), but nadda, zilch, zip. She's just fine and went to school today which was good as they had a field trip to the Natural History Museum.

Go figure.

My day started at the Foreign Police Office. This is where every foreigner in Slovakia, well, Bratislava anyhow, goes to get their residency permit. It used to be that there was an office in each district of the city, but recently they have all been consolidated into one central, unmarked office that is literally in a corner of an apartment complex in the vast housing estate of Petrzalka.

I find this especially amusing since every foreigner is going there and it is impossible to find. Once inside, everything is clearly and helpfully labeled and marked with signs, all in ideomatic Slovak. You cannot possibly know what to do if you cannot read it or if you don't have the benefit of a Native Companion.

Since we already applied for our 2005 permits, The Spouse's office manager reminded him that since we had received no word from the Foreign Police claiming our application was incomplete (the requirements seem a moving target . . . every year something that was previously accepted no longer is or some such nonsense) and our current permits expire March 20, and the office is only open Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, we'd better stop in and pick them up.

To avoid the appearance of any misdeeds, no cash changes hands at the Foreign Police Office. You do pay a small fee (a few hundred crowns each), but it is paid in the form of stamps.

I asked The Spouse if we needed any more stamps, but he thought we had paid when we applied. I did not remember because for some reason all four of us went the last time (it must have been a school holiday), and I sat on the bench and amused the girls while The Spouse and his Office Manager dealt with it. I just sign where I'm told and take people for passport type photos.

So we went by ourselves to the Foreign Police Office. We negotiated the queue. There is no Take-A-Number system. Instead you must ask, in Slovak, who is last in line and then announce that you are last to the next people who arrive and ask.

From time to time an officer would emerge from behind the closed doors of the office that deals with non-EU residency permit applicants. She would ask, in Slovak, if anyone was there just for information. A few people would go forward, including a very persistent Chinese man who clearly had no question but was merely exercising his Chinese survivial techniques (When You're One in a Million . . .). He was rebuffed repeatedly.

I cannot for the life of me figure out who the other people there were. They all seem to speak fluent Slovak. Today most of them were rather attractive young men. Perhaps they were Croats or Ukranians?

At last it was our turn and we are admitted to the Inner Sanctum of the Foreign Police Office for Non-EU Applicants. Although this is a new office, it, apparently used to be a school so the room has features like a sink. About 3/4 of the space is taken up by an L-shaped counter that separates Us from Them. There are about four or five stations where an officer can deal with Us, but last time and today it seemed that there were no more than two women working with applicants.

The female officers wear jaunty green uniforms--either with skirts or trousers. Today ours had the skirt version and we noticed, as she photocopied our finished passports, that she had, beneath her sheer nylon stockings, rather dense leg hair. We concluded that the stockings were what one does in the winter, while in summer months We Girls wax our legs and stockings are not necessary?

Of course, when we presented ourselves, Officer requested four 100 sk stamps, one for each passport. Oh, now good heavens! But all was not lost for she explained, in Slovak, that we could go out of this building and into the one just next door and purchase stamps there.

This we did. Noting again that all the signs, including the one that said BUY STAMPS HERE, were in Slovak. Thank goodness for language-buff spouses.

It's not that I want the signs in English because I speak English. I just wonder about the French and Korean and Japanese and Spanish people who come through those offices. What do they do?

Passports in order, I went over the border to get my annual mammogram in the little hospital in Hainburg.

I tried last year to deal with this in Bratislava, but I apparently have dense tissue and lots of microcalcifications and the equipment at the oncology hospital here just was not sophisticated enough to give a comfortable diagnosis. In fairness, the Slovak doctor who looked at those films asked to see previous films which, at the time, were in a doctor's office in Ohio as American are generally not trusted with their own medical records. The Austrian radiologist, the delightful Dr. Koppensteiner, said the same thing last year.

What amuses me about these cross-cultural medical experiences is how different they are from the average American experience. The Europeans, like the Argentines, devote a lot more time to each patient, which makes them very warm and fuzzy. On the other hand, they are very matter-of-fact about the body and its functions, so you are often told to undress while the doctor finishes writing his notes and there you stand, taking off your knickers, say, if you are at the gynecologist.

This was sort of the same way. I have had mammograms, twice in fact, in the US. There is a great deal of attention paid there to modesty. One receives a pastel or floral hospital-type gown to wear over one's naked top parts. There are no men for miles, and the technicians speak in hushed and revential tones as they apologize for squishing you. Like most routine medical experiences, it is quick. Any report is mailed to you later. Your doctor will discuss any abnormalities with you, but otherwise no news is good news. You never see the films themselves and certainly would never be handed them.

Today I was summoned into a room with an x-ray machine by Martine, the efficient technician. There is an alcove with hooks and some shelves and you take off your tops and hang everything up and there you stand, like a topless cocktail waitress, while they rat around for your papers. That takes longer than they expected, so they invite you to sit. So there you sit, like a topless cocktail waitress, without your glasses, while they give up on the paperwork and decide to begin shooting films instead.

So she shoots a few. Her phone rings several times. It is clearly work related. Once or twice she bellows "ELIZABETH!" to an unseen colleague in another room. Then she bids me sit while she leaves to develop those films and determine the next course of action which we all know will be Shoot More Films. So this time I collected my glasses and the latest copy of The New Yorker and read about a place that serves terrific Philly cheese steak sandwiches with my legs crossed at the knees and one foot swinging, impatiently, since I did not want to sit back, topless, in the pleather chair that, undoubtedly, every other topless woman has sat in since the hospital opened.

So Martine returns and confirms that she needs to shoot a bunch more, but we knew that. So she does and leaves again. And then a very nice fellow comes in and says I can put my clothes back on and wait in the lobby. Oh. Hello. And you are????

So I sit in the lobby, reading my New Yorker, until the charming Dr. K appears. Dr. K, like Dr. G, my gynecologist, somehow manages to sport this perfect 3-day beard growth. He must only shave on Saturdays or something. Anyhow, he is cheerful, as only a man who looks at breasts for a living all day must be. But he is all business and smart and very funny even, which is probably all part of how he makes clients not feel like a topless waitress.

We go to the ultra sound room where he slimes me with ultra sound gel, but then we get to watch the marvels of fatty tissue and micro calcifications unfold before us in black and white. It is all very thorough and I even get to pick what color towel I want (pink, in honor of Skittles . . . although I suspect, and he concurred, that it was probably a white towel that had an unfortunate encounter with a red sock) to deslime myself with.

So it's clothes back on and back to the lobby while he studies the films and writes a report.

I love these diagnostic chats with him because he talks as if you want to know what he has found even if the short answer is "Nothing significant." He has last year's and this year's films up on the light board and he points out all the landmarks and topographical features. He even opens a drawer and produces a magnifying glass so we can both really see the details and all the while he is chatting amiably about what he sees.

The office, while part of a small rural town hospital, feels cozy and warm, like the inside of a Swiss chalet, and this is because of the indirect lighting that comes mainly from the light board where the films are and the wooden panelling I swear the room has.

We chat about the earlier written reports and what this year's report says (it's in German) and his commute (he lives northwest of Vienna and commutes about 70 km each way) and the nuclear power plant the Slovaks still maintain in spite of pressure from the Austrians to Get That Bad Boy OFF Line, Bitte!

Then it is handshakes all around and "Looking forward to seeing you next year."

This sort of experience is something I will definately miss back in the US.


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