Year of Grace, Day 124. Cards and socialized medicine

I went for my quarterly eye exam the other day, and that’s when I realized that among the other casualties from my brush with Barcelona bandits was my medical insurance card. The receptionist at the eye doctor’s, despite having seen me regularly over several years, insisted on my calling the insurance provider to have them send a fax confirming my coverage. It would take ten days to have a new card mailed to me. Until then, every time I access any medical service, a fax would have to be sent by the insurance company. I am grateful that my insurance provider has English-speaking assistance, a concession no doubt to the proliferation of UN offices here. (Under duress, my facility with spoken German declines.)

The other card taken was my Bonn commuter’s card. This allows me to go on all the Bonn transport services – bus, train, metro, tram — with a minute reduction for over 60s, unlike the very generous free bus pass to seniors in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. I shall have to reapply for this in person. Quite annoying.

How fortuitous then that I had removed all the other cards normally carried in my wallet just before we travelled. My library cards for the Bonn University Library and the Bonn public library; my loyalty card for Knauber’s, my favourite craft and garden shop, etc. What would modern life be like without these handy pieces of plastic we habitually carry and use?

There’s a new opthalmologist at my eye clinic, and being new, or perhaps this is how he is usually, he was exceedingly thorough. The only one who ever came this close to painstaking was the one I went to in England. The new doctor went repeatedly over what must have been every capillary and vein in my retinae. It is comforting to have this level of meticulous investigation on what I consider my most important sense. And I learned something new – those who have extreme myopia are at greater risk of retinal detachment as they grow older. All is well with my eyes, the new doctor said. There are no holes or tears. My eyesight has not deteriorated, I am gratified to hear, and I am to come again in three months, as usual. Unless, he said, I see flashes. If I do, then to come without delay.

My dilated eyes were extremely sensitive to the bright afternoon sun as I went home, but I was gratified to have my eyes declared fit. Not 100% perfect, but at my age, one does not expect the clarity of eyes belonging to someone aged 20, the doctor said. “Or am I allowed to say that?” he asked, perhaps anxious that I would consider his statement ageist.

I am truly grateful for modern medicine and the range of excellent medical services and facilities available here in Bonn. Especially as Bonn University has an excellent medical school for which it is renowned, and the University Clinic, actually a research and practice hospital, is just minutes away from the house. Contrary to those who decry “socialist” medicine, I am deeply thankful that I live in a society where medical insurance is compulsory and affordable and available to all at the same highly professional level of treatment, irrespective of social status.

It is interesting that Maimonides, the Jewish sage, born in Cordoba in 1135, and physician to the court of the Vizier Saladin in Cairo, had this to say, among other things, on how to live a good life — “Reside only in towns or villages where you know the following are available: a physician, a surgeon, … flowing water, a school, a teacher, a scribe, an honest treasurer of charity [the ancient equivalent of today’s social services?], and a court” (Simon Schama, 2014, The Story of the Jews, page 343).

I leave you with contorted hazel catkins, photographed the other day in the back garden: the long tassels are male, the small bud ending in tiny red rods, female. Unless you come very, very close, the female flower would be all but unnoticeable.

Flowers on a contorted hazel

Flowers on a contorted hazel: the long tassels are male, the tiny bud with red tips, female.

Year of Grace, Day 122. On Tortosa: pondering places and sushi

The sun is out today, but overnight there’s been a hard frost. Winter seems determined to hang on by its chilly claws, a sharp reminder that there are still a good two months to go before the Ice Saints (Eisheiligen) declare in mid-May that its frosty breaths are, officially at least, no longer welcome.

I’m reading a fascinatingly engaging book on Jewish history by Simon Schama, and in it he mentions a scribe, Menahem ibn Saruq, eloquent assistant of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the trusted right-hand man of the Caliph of Al-Andalus, Abdalrahman III. Menahem was born and raised in Tortosa. Now Tortosa is the provincial capital of Tarragona, on the lower Ebro River, and over the past two weeks most of our wanderings have been in the towns along the Ebro. It is this kind of serendipity in what I am reading about and experiencing that enthralls me – the links that bind the immediate to the ancient. And Menahem and the “minister” Hasdai and the Caliph lived in the 11th century!

Menahem penned the letter that the minister Hasdai sent to Joseph, king of the Jewish kingdom of Khazar in Western Asia (a vast one –extending from the lower Volga to the Caucasus mountains). It was among the documents in the Cairo Geniza collection, now stored in Cambridge. It described Spain as:

“[a] land rich, abounding in rivers, springs and aqueducts, a land of corn and oil and wine, of fruits and all manner of delicacies, pleasure gardens and orchards, fruitful trees of every kind including the leaves of the tree on which the silkworm feeds of which we have great abundance.” (Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, page 264).

Had I not been there, Tortosa would have remained a mere name. Just as Trier and Cologne and Bonn, also mentioned in Schama’s book, would have been, had I not been resident here and experienced being in those places. But having once been in a place and lived in it, or even spent just a few hours in it, one comes to place (pun intended) a town in one’s mind map. Not simply in the geographical and morphological sense, but the psychological as well. I had written earlier about the spirits of place, and I do feel that places – whether houses or villages or cities – possess not only a structural form, but an emotional content as well.

It’s a pity that we did not have time to explore Tortosa. We might have made the effort, if it weren’t for the quasi-sushi that we had in the Restaurant in Tortosa Park. We had expected quality sushi. There’s the Mediterranean and the wonderfully fresh catch of all manner of marine ingredients, right? And there’s the Ebro Delta, where rice flourishes with overflowing abundance. (And I digress here a bit, but the agronomist in me suspects that rice, much like coconuts, might relish a bit of salt intake from brackish water or the rainclouds that form over the sea). Put these local treasures of seafood and rice together, and of course the local specialty has got to be none other than paella. But hang on – what other food combines, so exquisitely, that inimitable pairing of seafood and rice? But of course, what else but the globally and gastronomically fashionable sushi. Naturally our Tortosan gourmet restaurant offered sushi as the day’s special. And we — naïvely assuming that with such abundant and good-quality local ingredients, no chef worth his or her salt could bungle such a simple dish — took the bait.

Big mistake! For a start, the rice was too decidedly al dente, as so often happens with paella. And it was unflavoured. I could go on about the underwhelming quality of the ingredients – why use fake crab when fresh is so easily available, and most likely cheaper than kamaboko masquerading as crab? Oh, and they also offered a set meal of “tempura” squid. (Our neighbours had it.) It turned out to be none other than calamares fritos. The dish was not even remotely presented like tempura: the sliced tubes of squid were just piled on a plate, indistinguishable from the less-pretentiously named calamares fritos at less-pretentious eateries. A gratis bottle of cava accompanied the sushi and tempura sets for two. On a positive note, on taste alone, I would imagine that the “tempura” squid might just be a tad more palatable.

Sorry to be such a sushi and tempura snob, but it’s a crime to foist such blatantly inauthentic food on Tortosans. On top of it all, the waiter was obviously not having a good day – he was surly and rude, and scowled throughout. Evidently, being around food and customers who enjoy food is not his niche.

Lesson learned: the exquisite meals we had enjoyed all along the coast of the southern Catalunya had been in simple eateries. The Tortosa Park restaurant was aspiring to be – trying too hard to be — in the gourmet category, with the waiter dressed head to toe in modish black and the artful cobalt blue glassware and matching (plastic) water containers. Those who appreciate food – good, honest, well-prepared food – are not fooled by faddish frippery. This is one Tortosan restaurant I would never contemplate going back to again.

Seriously, sushi is more – oh, so much more — than just raw fish and rice. Let me sweeten this with a gracious end note: the mandarin and orange curd served with the almond-citrus pie was lovely. (Yes, this area is justly famed for its citrus.)

The size of the sushi topping is the first knuckle of my thumb.

The size of the sushi topping is the first knuckle of my thumb.

Mandarin and orange curd with almond pie

Mandarin and orange curd with almond pie