Updated: Mar 14
This story involves cockroaches. Besides Gregor Samsa waking up as a cockroach in Kafka's Metamorphosis, I now have a new cockroach in my life: the Alcoitão cockroach, a barata de Alcoitão. I'll come back to this shortly.
There's a saying in Portuguese, to matar saudades. Literally, to "kill homesickness" by returning home. In my case, to taste my favorite pastéis de bacalhau again, to be near my Leiria castle once more, to see the ocean and lighthouse from São Pedro de Moel where I spent my happiest hours.
What I survived last November nearly killed a bit more than my saudades! My sense of safety, dignity, even my sense of humor. They're taking a while to come back.
I've heard for a long time that Alcoitão was the place to go for rehab, Portugal's best, known across Europe for bringing sluggish limbs back to life, veteran and citizen. Fits my approach—I’m all for challenging the neuromuscular reluctance between the right half of my brain and the left half of my body—yoga, cyclying, phantom dancing, whatever works. No one knows what first jams reception in these neural networks, but synapse-talk gets fainter through time. In any case my inner choreographer shouts out Muscles lead, Neurons tango! so I was pleased to finally get an appointment here after many months of placing my faith in the labyrinthine public health system, available to me by virtue of my birth. At Alcoitão I would sit on the highest perch of Cascais, overlooking the blue bay after an honest day's therapeutic workout, like one of Thomas Mann’s wise invalids up on Magic Mountain, rolled up warmly for afternoon tea and witty observance of the worldly politicking far below.
Except—as I found out subsequently—there’s a private corporation now running the famous hospital. Cutting corners, as corporations do. Specifically, upstairs in the wards where no one is looking. The first floor, rés do chão floor zero, was shiny and splendid, at least in the glimpses I caught of the therapy halls on the way to the internamento elevators. I was already struggling to de-link Anglo connotations for this inpatient term—I wasn't about to be interned in a prison or graveyard—right?
That morning I was flanked by a distinguished delegation, my overqualified diplomat friends ready to defend me in any language. My expat-native mix was in good hands. They escorted me smoothly through administrative procedures and took their leave as I was wheeled back into the longer corridors. Little did any of us know that the preceding day Portugal's health inspectors from ASAE had condemned the place, shut down the kitchens for infestation! The disguised voice on the local news tape had even complained that while staff knew, the patients were not told.
So five hours later I was back at the elevators calling friends with cars to please come and get me. Unhygienic conditions, ancient equipment, crowded rooms...Moscow's Botkina hospital 40 years ago was in better shape, and that place had scared the hell out of me.
But no one could believe what I was saying, so very inconsistent with conventional knowledge about the place. Calma, Joia, calma! Calm down, everthing's fine, you need to stop fighting. Vais adaptar, é só os primeiros dias! No, this isn't about adapting. Nope, not going to get any better. Panic, so far under restraint, was now spinning out of control. But by this time four white-coated staff members were surrounding me, and since leaving was prohibited without someone picking me up downstairs, I agreed to stay for a minimal week.
I lasted another six hours, until the cockroach. I saw it creeping toward me in the dining room, where food that would make Rikers Island riot had been shipped in from Santa Casa da Misericórdia. A male nurse had just grabbed my arm and stuck a malfunctioning grip on it that kept squeezing regardless of my screams. He insisted the blood pressure mechanism was working fine, leaving it on far longer than necessary.
Não é prisão, you can leave any time, I was told. Except your feet cannot touch the floor. And once the bars go up on the beds, you can't get out until morning. And when you call for help, no one may come. Your shoes and cane have purposely been placed far out of reach. Well, she's nuts, better call the doctor.
Above all, the strangest thing about the place, even scarier than the cockroaches, were the doctors. Not the specialists, not the therapists, I mean the floor docs assigned to the patients. They looked like Barbie and Ken dolls, oddly morphed by too much plastic surgery and makeup, eyes permanently propped open by flawlessly stretched skin. I was suddlenly a Morlock dredged up to the surface where H. G. Wells' frolicking Eloi live, where they could glare at me and pronounce on my subterranean destiny. (Who are these people? Nowhere in Portugal have I seen this species, not in any restaurant or beach or on any Lisbon street. Are they the sons and daughters of local oligarchs, enjoying a prime medical internship? The children of Metropolis, whose feet never touch soil?)
So I lied. When no one was looking I managed to get dressed and repack my bags and make it out to the corridor. Accosted by nurses and too-tall, too-perfect doctors, I kept my troglodytic self stumbling forward with cane and luggage until I got to the elevators, firmly voicing the fact that downstairs at the main door my dear friends were waiting to take me directly home. I must have walked a good kilometre before reaching the lobby. My Uber driver that night became my favorite person on earth.
Leaving the best of all possible rehab hospitals caused European friends to quickly sort themselves into houses great and small, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff declaring me weak of character or strong of will, olhos fechados ou abertos, eyes closed or wide open, depending on the kindness of Brussels in fulfilling their basic needs and bank accounts.
Just go back and do the outpatient therapy! Yeah, sure, the Rikers Island guards probably had nice facilities, too. But I cannot unsee what I saw up in the neurology ward.
People with incomes closer to mine, who cannot remain within the private care bubble, understood immediately. The influx of foreign spending has only benefited old Portuguese money, driving up coastal real estate and living expenses for everyone. Inland the school shelves are still bare of books, the clinics still missing standard care, the people still juggling necessities from month to month. Under the veneer of EU modernity, far beneath the liberdade and the carnations, I hear the beating heart of an old dictator, the ghosts of his yes-men lurking in the shadows, I feel the grip of the famílias ricas on everyone, king and queen to pobre povo, I see the sunny white-washed façade cracking from years of neglect, the long lines and bloody knees of supplicants slouching toward the Fátima chapel, I hear the voices begging for forgiveness and mercy in a beautiful cruel land, once again.
You can't go home again, says Thomas Wolfe. True, in many ways. The castle will be smaller, the lighthouse not so tall. The yellow stucco house by Jardim Escola João de Deus is gone, but you will still be scared of the corner where the crazy bald man taunted the kids at the school gate. Childhood friends are now older and grayer, but your eyes will sparkle still with shared and precious memories.
In Gravity and Grace Simone Weil writes "Too great affliction places a human being beneath pity : it arouses disgust, horror and scorn." I can apologize for bringing to the fore what was not meant for expat eyes; the location of my birth, my obvious disability, my karma, my mission—however defined, I was sent to see what I cannot unsee, to say what I cannot now hide.
You can't go home again. Yes, the castle will be smaller, the lighthouse not so tall. But the ocean will be magnificent, its blue-grey abandon extraordinary still. The old tile plaque on the São Pedro de Moel cliff is there still, cemented in new white stucco: A minha alma é só de Deus, e o corpo da água do mar. "My soul belongs to God, my body to the waters of the sea." Fear claims us when we are down in the waves, in the unbearable heaviness of drowning, where calls go unheard in a gravity so dense that only grace can lift us into healing, once again.
8 JANUARY 2020