17 September 2017

Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

I did not hear the siren of the ambulance as I was lying down in pain on a bench. Some of the train passengers had kindly stayed by my side – perhaps my repeated profuse apologies for bothering them had softened them. A jovial ambulance man approached me and started asking questions on how I felt. Pain had by then mostly subsided but I was feeling numb from the sweating – and screaming – I had undergone till then.

Dark clouds looming over the horizon

Let’s rewind to two weeks earlier. Despite my 10 years spent working at Google (https://goo.gl/R19RMz), I had for an instant completely forgotten that Google even existed as I was trying to find the phone number for an ambulance. The pain in my right kidney was excruciating – by then I knew a little bit about different levels of pain (https://goo.gl/n3uJnN). I couldn’t get out of bed for an hour and the best thing I could think of was to respond to a random work email asking a colleague what the phone number was for an ambulance in Switzerland. I didn't see the response that came in half an hour later. In the meantime, I had managed to find the number of the nearest hospital. It was probably better that I hadn't seen the email response from my colleague who apparently didn't believe I could have yet another health issue: “Sebastian, are you for real?”. Well at least I know whom I will not reach out to next time I have a problem! No hard feelings, Nathalie.

From the corner of my eye, I initially thought it was a real person!

Speaking to a doctor on the phone somehow soothed me a little. No, the symptoms didn’t look like appendicitis. Yes, I should head to the hospital if the pain didn’t go away within 20 minutes. The pain didn’t go away, but I didn’t want to go to the hospital. Enough hospitals this year, having had to return to one barely a month earlier which led to the discovery of a lovely internal cyst on the scar from the surgery from three years ago (https://goo.gl/7K93i8), debilitating me a little with occasional chest pain.

A flower stand, as can be seen very often across Switzerland

Two weeks passed and the pain only resurfaced mildly. I didn’t complain. I still conducted my meetings although my stakeholders and team members were probably too polite to say anything about the grimaces on my face – or maybe they thought it was the way I look naturally. Oh well. But I wouldn’t be left alone with pain – I suppose I hadn’t suffered enough this year (https://goo.gl/BqvsGd).

And thus, just a week ago as I was returning home by train from the airport after a week of business abroad, I started panting and moaning in the train. Passengers looked back at me. I was pleading with my eyes – using the puppy-eye expression I seemingly master so well – but didn’t utter a word, feeling too proud, believing I would be able to sustain the pain until I reached home and that maybe – I still naively thought I wouldn’t have to go – I could then go to the hospital. Except that I never made it home.

Along the lake – the typical view from the train

I started screaming in the train. Some people say that this kind of pain is worse than childbirth. I wouldn’t know about that, I have never been pregnant! What I have however experienced is the pain from the recovery process from the pneumothorax surgery. And yes, the pain I was feeling was as bad as the worst moments of that recovery (namely going from vertical to horizontal position, sometimes taking up to two hours and sometimes unable to not scream, to the point that mum would ask me to shut up, thanks mum, I’m surely screaming on purpose! But to mum's credit, she helped me with everything, so I'm only gently teasing!). Upon my request, a train passenger called an ambulance (I still didn’t know the number!) and thankfully he didn’t stop the train mid-way (I asked specifically not to do that, as I anticipated it would further delay my getting out of the train and into an ambulance). Tests at the nearest hospital confirmed my suspicion: a lovely and sizeable stone had lodged itself in my kidney, which had already gone through two of the three narrowest passage ways.

Leaving no stone unturned (hahaha), I started looking everywhere for advice on how to get rid of the stone, to avoid having to return to the hospital. Let’s just say that applications are still open for those (women) who want to help me (read the very serious results of this scientific study). My stone does seem to like me very much, however much I try to lure her (it’s a female stone, of course, who else would cause me so much suffering?) out by speaking softly to her, telling her that there’s so much more to see out there in the world. To convince her, I went out for a walk near my house today, taking a path I usually don’t follow so she wouldn’t be able to guess I was actually going towards the hospital – I had been given a week to get her out and the deadline had expired. But you cannot get blood from a stone, can you?!

Along the shore of Zürich lake

Dark clouds were looming on the horizon. Based on the weather forecast, I had two hours before I would get caught in the rain. I let my thoughts drift away. I realised I had now resided the most time ever in a given location: almost 9 years in Switzerland, just shy of a year to request the citizenship. I have moved 9 times before settling in Switzerland – but can I really call this “settling” when I still spend most of my time abroad, hence the title of this post?

Sometimes I would interrupt my contemplative state by noticing a scene worthy of a photograph, taking my time to properly frame the scenery. I freaked out when my peripheral vision spotted a pair of shoes and legs… but no torso! You may wonder what the big deal is about the photo with the self-service flowers. It’s something that makes Switzerland endearing to me: the trust that people would still pay for the flowers and that nobody would steal the money from the box. And what about those typical red public benches seen everywhere on the walking trails across the country? Every time I come back to Switzerland after a long business trip, “I am curious to see which of the country or me has changed the most”, quoting Nicolas Bouvier, a francophone Swiss writer in Japanese Chronicle.

Japan, that other country I’m quite fond of, a topic for another time – and Kyoto in particular, a city that doesn’t look like one, where I had even thought of moving to after having been enchanted by some of its 2,000 temples… and of course by the carefully assembled pebbles and stones in the attached Zen gardens. Kyoto, a city so culturally rich and with so many academics that it is known for the following proverb: “throw a stone, you’ll hurt a professor”. Nicolas Bouvier made me laugh when he wrote about Zen philosophy: “I have not been very studious: what I know of Zen today barely allows me to realise how much I need it, and how much not living it is painful. I comfort myself by telling myself that old Chinese Zen tradition instructed to choose, as successor to the master, the gardener who did not know anything over the prior who knew too much. My own chances were left intact”.

Thoughts meandered in my mind, I was no longer trying to control them. The clouds were changing from dark blue to a shade of greys, I appreciated the stark contrast of coloured flags against the gloomy sky. Perhaps I was becoming a little Japanese in coping with pain and behaviours I sometimes struggle understanding, remembering this phrase from a Japanese emperor that became even more relevant after the Hiroshima bombing: "we have to tolerate the intolerable and accept the unacceptable”.

Boat in Richterswil

A boat was firmly attached to the pier. I was wondering to what extent Nicolas Bouvier’s final sentence in his book also applied to me: “it is time for me to pack my bag again and go live somewhere else”. Let's see.

Zürich lake