Trek* Tradition

 

One yearly ritual of this blog is that I post a silly Fasching picture of myself, thereby erasing any last iota of respect I might still have from this or that reader. And this year I am dragging the husband down with me. It is HIS fault that my costume this year was soccer player. HE was the one to order the cheesy fake tattoo stockings from China. HE was the one that borrowed the jerseys, shorts and socks from a trainer friend. I just followed his lead because, frankly, it was easier than trying to come up with something to beat last year’s Cheesehead.

 

So now I have restart that long uphill trudge of re-establishing respect within my diminishing readership. Let me start by informing you that I have played a grand total of ONE soccer match in my life. And I have scored a grand total of ONE goal. The way I see it, that gives me a statistically perfect soccer career. It’s how I saw it back then, too. And thereafter I used my statistical perfection as an excuse to get out of ever having to play again.

 

Sociocratic Rumble

 

I’ve been back at work for two days now and, luckily, still feeling a bit of the “cure” Zen. I say that because during my absence from the school, the pace of rolling crises apparently quickened, the gossip mill heated up and exploded, a myriad of personal opinions and affronts were typed up late in the evenings and “Send” or “Reply All” was clicked, spreading these missiles out into every last corner of the school’s emailing lists. The first post-cure Team meeting was mostly spent hashing over all these chaotic developments at the parental level – and at the cost of planning for the coming school weeks. For the first time since starting there, I find my seriously worrying about Hummingbird extinction.

How did we get here?

And when I say “we”, I really mean “they”.

Because a big part of me feels only indirectly involved. Just like during the cure, I am an observer, interacting with all these people, but keeping to myself. Maintaining my distance in an instinctual drive for self-preservation. Setting limits to my participation to spare me from getting sucked into the vortex.

You’re confused now. Let me go back in time and explain.

The school I work in is financed by an association of the students’ parents and mostly run by the idealistic teachers they underpay, most of whom are (or were) also parents themselves. In the beginning, it was just a handful of families who were all on the same wavelength. The school developed and grew to the point where 25+ families had to agree on the major decisions.  At that point, the classic elements of such an association (General Assembly, Board, Chairman) were rejected and a huge yearlong effort succeeded in installing a sociocratic organizational structure. This means that decisions are no longer made democratically – where the majority can overrule (or roll over) the minority – but by consensus. Options are proposed and the one – if any – that no one seriously objects to is adopted. Ideally, theoretically, in principle, the result should be policies and measures that everyone can live with.

Ideally. Theoretically. In principle.

I’ve suspected for a while that this sociocratic experiment is failing and the last two days have only confirmed the feeling. Reading the thirteen emails of complaint sent out to everyone over the last 24 hours, it is clear that several personal conflicts among certain parents run deep and that the knives are out. Also, various working groups who are supposed to coordinate their efforts have become factions with competing interests. And at the core of all these discussions is the issue of money – which, as we all know, brings out the best in people. All of this together is the run up to a general meeting set for Saturday. I fear it is going to get ugly.

I won’t be there.

Being one of only three employees in the school and not a member of the association, I am not required to attend. I have no say in these matters. Only opinions. And we have all heard more than enough of those.

No, on Saturday I will be taking a long walk with my dog and then maybe a bath. I`ll practice my newly learned relaxation techniques and spend 10 minutes contemplating the toes of my left foot. I’ll tell myself that there is no sense in worrying whether I will still have a workplace to go to next year. I’ll find out soon enough. Que sera, sera.

 

Loose Ends

(Kur Report – Part Seven)

 

One of my goals in these cure reports is to give especially my American friends and readers a sense of what Austria’s health care system offers to it citizens. I have found discussions about health care (and the horrors of socialized medicine) in the States mind-boggling. I can’t help feeling that if Americans knew better, they would demand better. Much better.

So, in that spirit, I want to give a full picture of what these two weeks included. (Keep in mind, that there will be one more week in April. I am only at the 2/3rds mark.) I left off at the end of Week One. Here is Week Two.

 

Day 8 (Monday): This was an easy day with only three sessions. After another round of individual physical therapy, I found myself back in the mud pack station. Luckily, I was in a different compartment and didn’t have to stare at Lederhosen and Spandex Butts. This time it was Ski Pants Knees and Climber Calves, (both with just the tiniest bit of butt).

In the afternoon there was more spinal gymnastics and I was done for the day by 2:00 pm. In the evening I signed up for an extra yoga class – which was a great workout – very little lying around, breathing and listening to the choir of gurgling stomachs while trying desperately to relax.

 

Day 9: The morning included more electro-therapy on my shoulders, a Radon bath and then a talk on mental health which dealt mostly with stress. The last one was slightly irritating because the loudest and most confidant participants kept trying to shift the conversation toward whatever their own particular problems were. I spent most of the time wondering if there were really such a thing as “positive stress”.

After lunch and another session of endurance training, I took another walk to Böckstein with a friend and this time we went to the soldier’s cemetery there. For such a small place, there were so many gravestones of young men, all dying around 1943 or 1944, i.e. at the very end of that senseless war. Cemeteries can be very poignant places.

 

Day 10 included endurance training, an ultrasound treatment, and spinal gymnastics, to which I added an evening course in Feldenkrais. This was the first day I felt tired – sort of a low point. In the evening I shared a glass of wine with my walking friend, who left the following day.

 

Day 11: My schedule was filled from 8:00 am to 16:30 pm to make up for all the free time I had had on previous days. I had my second doctor’s check-up, grew another 0.3 cm, did underwater gymnastics, and partook in some excruciating relaxation therapy (“Close your eyes. Feel your left big toe  . . . . . . . now move to your second toe . . . . . . .” It took us a half hour to think through only the left leg. Longest hour of my life.) After that was an Exercise Motivation lecture followed by an hour of Nordic Walking. I went into that last one with a prejudiced mind but ended up having fun. In the evening, I finally finished my “Kur Report – Part Six” which was three days in the making.

 

Day 12 started somewhat brutally with weight training and endurance training all before 9:00 am. Then came a quick Radon bath and I was done before noon. Good thing, too, because I then hopped on a train to Bischofshofen to meet my bff, Ly. We mostly walked around for three hours and ended up seeing ALL the sights that town has to offer.

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And that brings me to today. Day 13. An hour of weight and endurance training in the morning and a quick electro-therapy . . . and . . . that was it!

Soon I will be packing and checking out. Returning cards and keys and towels, etc. Maybe a last walk through the village. A selfie with my table-mates. I can’t leave until tomorrow for technical, insurance-related reasons – I am officially on sick leave and legally required to stay here till I’m not.

So, I’m done. For now, anyway. As an extra souvenir (along with my little pink pig), I bought a badge for my hiking stick. Normally you have to climb up mountainsides and reach lodges to earn them, but there are exceptions – like the Vienna badge my sister-in-law bought me after I rode the Riesenrad (giant ferris wheel) in a state of terror. That was a sort of big deal for me. I may not have vanquished a mountain while I was here, but I do feel a sense of achievement. In terms of my state of health, these two weeks have been an upward climb to a nicer place with a better view.

 

 

Cure Cliques

(Kur Report – Part Six)

 

Before submitting my application for this cure, my general practitioner asked me if I minded traveling alone. That was the hardest part for her patients, she told me. I assured her that in my case, it would be no problem whatsoever. Other friends have warned me that a third of the people who do cures are really not interested in improving their health. They want the time off of work and the . . . the . . . (how do I say this?) . . . the partying with benefits. My husband made jokes about Kurschatten (literally “cure shadow”) which my online dictionary delicately defines as “a person at a health spa with whom one develops a relationship”. The upshot of all this is that I came here already wary of the people I would be meeting.

It’s Day 10 and so far, I have managed to small talk with half the people here but also to keep pretty much to myself. (Two nice women I go walking with in my free time are the exception.) These Kur Reports have mostly dealt with my personal experience, focussing on health and health care. But as I said at the start, this place is also a paradise for people watchers. My fellow curees come from all walks of life, covering all educational levels and all the regional dialects Austria has to offer. I’ve watched them meet and greet and slowly coalesce into groupings resembling somewhat geriatric versions of high school cliques.

 

One lady I talked to briefly while waiting for a therapy told me about all her extra activities using the pronoun “we”. I asked her about that, and she said she came here with a group of girlfriends. They had originally all met years back during a cure, had hit it off, and then arranged to meet up every year or so at a different resort. (I blurted out that I hadn’t realized this was possible. In my case, the timing and location were determined by someone else and I had little say about it. She waved her hand at me and said “Yeah, yeah”.) This particular group are quite exclusive and not particularly welcome to newcomers. They are the equivalent of that cool group of girls in Junior High who all came from the same grade school and were not interested in expanding their social circle.

Another time – out in the smokers’ hut – I realized that all the people there were not born in Austria. There were Bosnians, Albanians, Kosovars, East Germans, Italians, Czechs, Georgians, and an Egyptian. All of them had been living (and working) in Austria for anywhere between 20 and 40 years. Most of them had become citizens. As the week progressed, I watched them gravitating toward their own kind – as all people do – eventually loosely becoming a (non-exclusive) group. In High School terms, they are the Outsiders.

Then there are the barfly partiers. They trudge through the daily therapy plans, take a lot of naps in between, and then come alive at 5:00 pm when the alcohol ban is lifted. I don’t see a lot of their shenanigans because I usually retire to my room soon after dinner. But I hear stories. And when I do catch parts of their conversations, it is usually about their earlier exploits in previous cures, i.e. their glory days. They remind me of the high school Jocks, still hanging around in the hometown bar 15 years after graduation.

 

There is a special term in Austria for people who are (perceived as) parasites of the social welfare system: Sozialschmarotzer (“social freeloaders”). They supposedly take advantage of the generous system, living a life of ease at the expense of the hardworking. Cure patients in general are often suspected of belonging to this amorphous group. And among cure patients, suspicions between cliques abound.

“They’re just wives taking vacations from their husbands.”

“Those foreigners only came here to exploit the social welfare system.”

“The Party Boys are only here for another notch in their cure-shadow stick.”

There may be some truth in all of these statements. But I can tell you another fact. As far as I can tell, ALL of these people are employed. They have all paid into the system for decades. And all of these people are likely to remain employed and to continue to pay into the system, thanks to the chance of a therapeutic time out. Thanks to treatment for and prevention of work-related repetitive stress injuries. The National Health system has certainly done the studies and crunched the numbers showing that this cure offering comes at a lower price than permanently subsidizing those who have worked themselves into the ground – the damaged, the debilitated, the disabled, the unemployable.

Personally, I don’t think any of the above cliques are schmarotzing, but there is one more group that does raise my suspicions. Like any high school or institution, this place has an alumni honor wall: pictures of patients getting recognized for completing their 5th or 10th or 15th . . . cure.

   

The little lady in the white dress was not the winner with her 30 cures, though. In another room (that I couldn’t get into to take the photograph) there is a woman who has been here 40 times.  In my little high school analogy, I guess she would be the Principal’s wife.

 

 

Weekend!

(Kur Report – Part Five)

 

Before I left to come here, everyone wished me a nice vacation. They were only half kidding. And they were also half right. I really didn’t expect to have as much free time as I have, but on the other hand, by the end of each day I am really exhausted. Three days of therapy have gone by since my last post, finishing off the first of two weeks. Once I handed in my completed plan this morning, it finally dawned on me that it was the weekend and I was completely free till Monday morning. Time to catch you all up on the activities – rapid fire style.

Day 4: Underwater gymnastics in the morning was nice. In the afternoon I had to attend an exercise motivation lecture. Halfway through I realized it was the geriatric version of this speech full of tips for how to manage stairs or to get out of bed in the morning. “I’m way too young for this!” I thought. In the evening I voluntarily went to another lecture on the history of this village. At least 100 names were dropped of famous people who like(d) to come here starting from Empress Sissi and ending with Hugh Grant. The speaker was a nice and very knowledgeable local lady who walked in, started talking at a rapid pace, moved from story to story without even taking a breath in between, never paused or slowed down for even a second until the final “Thank you for coming”.  I left thinking that I had just experienced this village’s second waterfall.

Day 5 had me up and doing weight training at 7:00 in the morning. Ouch. Luckily it was followed by another Radon bath, but this time I had the foresight to bring my cell phone along. I listened to Rachel Maddow who really does relax me somehow. After lunch there was yet another lecture about cures and their purpose, after which I came down with a serious case of cabin fever. Having met a nice lady in a similar condition, we arranged to take a long walk together. Here are some impressions of a place called “Böckstein”:

 

Day 6 (today) included another short ultrasound treatment and then something called “General Exercise Therapy”. That turned out to be a group walk with a bunch of extra movements added in (walking sideways, arm movements, skipping, etc.). And then I was officially done. I filled the afternoon with another walk and some swimming.

 

The three major events of the last few days can be expressed in numbers: 779, 369, and 167½.

      • 779 is the number of my room which I originally had a lot of trouble finding. That was because it is tucked away in a little space next to the stairwell and it is the only guest room on this floor. I’ve come to love this quirky little place because it is the quietest room in the entire hotel.

      • 369, I was told, is the number of muscles we used on our exercise walk today.

      • And, finally, I stepped on the scale in the medical center out of curiosity. I joked in an earlier post about wanting to get at least one of my two lost centimeters back, but I didn’t. I got one and a half of them back!

 

 

Shock Therapy

(Kur Report – Part Four)

 

The first thing I had to do in my original medical check-up was to step on a state-of-the-art machine that measured my weight and height. It spit out the results on a little piece of paper which gave me my first shock. Not the kilos, but the centimeters: 166. “I’m shrinking!!” I thought. “I have lost two whole centimeters!” I wanted them back. I suddenly had a deep yearning to stretch, but my therapy plan had other ideas. On Days One and Two, I had to build up muscles on machines, improve my endurance on bikes, and pretend to relax in a bathtub. On Day Three, the therapy consisted of a blitzkrieg style assault on my shoulders.

First came physical therapy, which was actually fantastic. The very competent woman moved, tested and massaged all of the muscles around my neck, shoulders and upper arms, giving me almost a crash course in all the stuff that is inside that section of me and which ones needed some adjusting. She told me what to look out for and showed me a couple of short exercises to do several times a day. That was followed by electro-therapy where my shoulders were zapped for 10 minutes. It felt like ants were crawling around in there. Then came ultrasound, where a little suction cup was attached to my right shoulder and then . . . I’m not exactly sure what. Finally came the warm mud packs, which everyone told me were so wonderfully relaxing. Uh oh.

I entered the little curtained room with a stretcher bed all prepared, I was grumpily instructed to lie down, positioning my shoulders onto the warm brown packs by the pillow. The therapist then squished the packs into position and then tucked the sheets hanging down to the left and right tightly around me. He said “15 minutes” and took off, closing the curtain behind him.

I lay there like a mummy with my arms pinned to my chest, staring at the ceiling and, of course my nose started to itch. I needed a distraction. I scanned the room. On the wall to the left was this huge poster:

The fact that the biker was cut off at the waist along with the perspective were somehow discomforting. I tried to imagine myself lying on a bike path high up in the mountains with this guy whizzing past me . . . but then why would my neck and shoulders be feeling so warm?

I then looked over at the right-hand wall and noticed the second poster.

The runner was also disturbingly truncated. And how was it that he was running uphill when I am already at the top? It didn’t feel right either.

I went back to looking at the ceiling and tried to find a repeating pattern in the large and small dots up there. That made me dizzy. It seemed I had no other option than to alternate between Lederhosen Butt and Spandex Butt till the curtain was finally ripped open again. It didn’t’ occur to me that I could just close my eyes.

Relaxing is just not my thing.

 

The final therapy of the day brought it to a happy end. It was spinal aerobics and I FINALLY got to stretch. I bent over and not only touched the floor, but also strained to get my entire palms to lie flat on it. I raised my arms and extended them as high as they could possibly go, reaching for the ceiling. It felt fabulous. And I think I got at least one of my two lost centimeters back.

 

A Very Nice Nicotine Nazi

(Kur Report – Part Three)

 

In an uncharacteristically confessional way, this post will deal with my lifelong battle with nicotine.

This, of course, is prompted by my mandatory attendance at a smokers’ counseling session yesterday evening – which was, I admit, exceptionally well done. But let’s backtrack a little to the beginnings . . .

I’m 18 years old and it is Thanksgiving. I’m sitting at a nearly deserted table, staring at a lot of empty chairs, crumpled napkins and the carcass of a recently devoured turkey. It’s just me, my grandparents and maybe an old aunt. All the fun people have taken off to the basement where smoking is allowed. I can hear the vibrant conversation and laughter coming from down there. I get up from my seat and meander toward those sounds . . .

That is as close as I can come to an answer when asked what got me started. It is not a perfect explanation or an attempt to attribute blame to anyone else.

For the past ten years I have been an off-again on-again smoker. I quit dozens of times for periods ranging from 18 months to 18 days to 18 minutes. Three years ago, I quit for what started seeming like forever. I got to the point where I never thought about smoking. My reflection in the mirror told me I looked the same as ever even as I kept buying larger-sized clothes. Then one day I stepped on a scale for the first time in years and was confronted with a number 35 pounds higher than I had always been. Soon thereafter, I went on the Moron’s Diet. “When those 35 pounds are gone, I will quit again,” I told myself. The moment of reaching this target weight arrived about three days before I left for this cure.

I’m a creature of habit. Some of them are good, of course. But it is the bad ones that landed me here. Not getting enough exercise. Sitting for hours and hours in rigid or crooked or poorly postured positions while writing, translating, preparing teaching materials, working on projects like slideshows and photobooks (or playing Snood while listening to podcasts). I came here fully intending to break out of these habits, the nicotine one included. I even assumed smoking would be forbidden here.

I was wrong about that.

The Hut

One of the first things I discovered here was the nicest outdoor smoking area I have ever seen. It is protected from the weather yet still airy, heated, and decorated with warm seating and blankets. It looks out over a stunning view of the mountains and town (somewhat blurred in today’s snowstorm). It also seems to attract amusing people. Whereas the other conversations I had – at my restaurant table, in various fitness rooms or waiting areas – were haltingly earnest and dealt mostly with health-related subjects, the conversations in the smoking hut were open, variable, multicultural, sometimes raucous and always amusing. Once again, I found myself meandering toward the fun crowd.

Then came last night’s lecture to which all the smoking patients were invited. From my few visits to the hut, I figured there would be about 15 people there. (Some of the smokers had already heard the talk last week.) So, I was taken completely by surprise when the room started to fill up. There must have been 50 people there. It seemed like half of the patients in the entire center were in attendance.

I had mentioned this smokers’ counseling session in my last post, prompting one commentator to rail on the “Tobacco Nazis”. I borrowed his term, edited slightly, and used it for my title.  But that is not really a fair or accurate description of the doctor who gave the talk. For instance, he began by talking about all the positive benefits of nicotine (and there are some.) Next, he explained the physiological way it works on the brain which produced some “Aha!” moments. Then he started in on the statistics. I was surprised at how little information many of the listeners had. When he asked us to guess the average age Austrian kids first try smoking, most guesses were 15 or 16. I said 13. The correct answer was 12. Most people guessed that about 30% of Austrians smoke. I said 10%. The correct answer was 25%. When he asked us how many chemicals there are in a cigarette, people mostly guessed in the hundreds. I said 3000. The correct answer was 4600. It went on in this slyly effective way for a while. The most important thing, though, was the timing of how quickly the body begins to mend once you quit. Some positive things start happening after only hours or days. The final message was that 10 to 15 years of not smoking puts one’s risk of getting certain diseases equal to a person who has never smoked. He finished off by asking us to consider using our time in the cure to slowly reduce. Maybe even down to zero before we leave. It is the optimal time and place to do so. I had to agree.

So that became my plan. If today is anything to go by, it is already working.

 

 

“Relax!”  (Kur Report – Part Two)

 

After yesterday’s post, I got a slew of comments from family and blog friends expressing concern. Am I going to be lonely or bored, they asked? Well, let me put those minds at ease – no, I won’t be bored. This is a paradise for people watchers (like me) and I am already working on a bunch of ideas for future posts, including a Groening-style “12 Types of Kur Guests” debuting my dubious drawing skills (assuming I can pull it off). There are stories coming, folks. I simply didn’t want to start this series off too snidely.

Update: It is Day Two, 10:30 a.m., and I have two of my four activities for the day behind me. In my talk with the doctor yesterday, I had requested as few “relaxation” activities as possible (whirlpool, massage, meditation . . .) and more exercise stuff. He ok’d that idea but told me there were a few things he had to prescribe. The first one came today right after breakfast and had me soaking in a bathtub full of Radon water for 16 minutes. After getting in the tub, I lay there alternately contemplating . . .

. . . the clock counting down,

 the soft sounds of “Musak – Chimes Edition”,

the poster on the back of the door in front of me

and the bright fluorescent ceiling light, all the while telling myself “Relax! RELAX!!”

 

But then the poster started drawing more of my attention. It showed a stream of water rushing over rocks. The rocks in their shapes, positions and colors reminded me of something, but . . . what was it . . . ? I wracked my brain. In the last seconds of the countdown, it hit me – it was Ötzi! – that prehistoric man they discovered high up in the Alps. There was a definite similarity. You be the judge.

The alarm went off – a loud incessant “Get the Hell Out of Here!” sound which I obeyed. I took a quick snapshot of the poster, wiped up the floor and left. I’m not sure what most people feel after soaking in a Radon bath, but I doubt that it is pride.

After my bath I had another weight training session – which I enjoy – but after lunch comes another hour of something called “Endurance training”. That don’t sound so good. In fact, the only thing that sounds worse is my fourth activity today: an evening workshop called “Smoker Counselling”. More on that subject tomorrow.

Kur Report – Part One

Sometime back in the summer, I mentioned on this blog that my application for a Kur (“cure”) had been approved. This is an offering of the national health care system here in Austria and it means that a patient spends three weeks in a health resort getting individualized treatments for whatever ails them. In my case it is the tendency for my joints to become inflamed for no apparent reason, or at least none that any of the specialists in the vicinity of Loopyville could find. At any rate, my time has rolled around and I can now report on my first full day of . . . curing.

I arrived at the mountain village near Salzburg on Sunday afternoon and was shuttled the 200 meters to the front door of the resort. I checked in, got my room key and timetable for my first appointments on Monday: a short orientation in the morning, a medical check-up in the early afternoon, a training session to learn all the fitness machines in the late afternoon, and a tour of

My room . . .

the facilities in the evening. The rest of the time – meaning most of it – was mine to do whatever I wanted with it. After dinner on Sunday (when

. . . and it’s lovely view

I met my table-mates for the next two weeks), I spent most of the evening unpacking and befriending my cute little single room. I went to bed early for me and slept surprisingly well.

 

At the orientation on Monday morning I was presented with a little plastic pig who is supposed to inspire me. I then had five hours to myself, so I took a walk down to the old center of the village and the waterfall that runs straight through it. Since this whole place was built on the sides of mountains, the entire walk consisted of steep descents and climbs. But it is a cool place. Here are some impressions.

 

The medical check-up was quick and painless, followed by another two-hour break. The first round of fitness studio exercising was fun, followed by dinner and then a free evening. Before returning to my room to write this, I picked up my schedule for the first week. I began reading it, expecting to find the pace of the therapies picking up. But from the looks of it, most of the days are going to include almost as much free time as today . . .

You all might be hearing a lot from me in the coming days.