Saturday, November 28, 2009 1550

We dropped out of sight for several disasterous days.

First: Where are we right now? RAF Mildenhall, England, in the very excellent quarters provided for us retirees by the USAF. And I do mean excellent.

Where have we been? We spent Thanksgiving day crossing France south to north.

From Vichy, France we traveled by train to Calais. This was a difficult day, involving two trains, one to Paris and one from Paris, several trips through the Metro through complicated and confusing connections caused by breakdowns and rerouting, seemingly miles of walking, and, of course, looking for ticket counters, looking for platforms, waiting on the wrong platform, worrying about whether we were waiting for the right train, worrying about the expense of things, finding out that we didn't qualify for a senior discount because we hadn't purchased the card you need to prove that. The cost of the card would have erased the savings unless we come back to France and use it again.

We did, eventually, make it to Calais in the rain and wind and dark. We were accurately told, for a change, where downtown was and where the hotel was. We walked there and booked a room. It was upstairs. There was no "lift". Our suitcases were much too heavy for the tired old people we are. Mine was full of books, Paula's chocolate. Paula occasionally thinks of other people besides herself. I would too, except there never seems to be time. I am far too busy thinking of myself.

The trains in France are swift and comfortable and clean. Getting on them is usually not so swift, comfortable, nor clean.

We were once again well advised by the concierge to take a cab to the ferry port.

Once at the ferry port, we had to go through immigration and customs. England is a foreign country to the rest of Europe. The English gave us permission to visit their kingdom for an unlimited time and we took the ferry across in good time. Time on the water was about an hour and 15 minutes and was pretty rough. You think you are walking straight but the floor moves from side to side as you walk over it. I believe you can get used to it. It made Paula slightly sick, but not much worse than she had been. We have now seen the white cliffs of Dover.

From Dover, England, we attempted the National Express (Read Greyhound, except a whole lot better) from Dover through London, and on to Milton Keyes. The cost is much less in England, as we qualify for the senior rate, without the expense of purchasing the card.

We were to spend the night at Milton Keyes and spend the next day visiting Bletchley Park. Bletchley Park is where the British broke the German enigma cypher during WWII, and where the first computer in the world was built--from telephone parts. There is a replica of that computer, called Colossus, that I have wanted to see for the last ten years.

But that didn't happen. What did happen was Paula got deathly sick on the bus and spent three hours being sick in the toilet. She couldn't come out, and it was dark. I can't personally think of a more horrible experience. Of course there was a "lorry" on fire on the highway ahead, and so, of course, the bus was an hour and a half late, and we ended our journey in Victoria Bus Station, in the middle of London.

Paula was taken to St Thomas' Hospital in an ambulance. She looked like death warmed over and couldn't speak, and there was no hesitation whatever in taking her to hospital. They only hoped they would be quick enough so that she wouldn't die en route. My own thoughts were slightly longer ranged. I was still hoping she wouldn't die at all.

The only symptom she presented to the hospital was violent and continuous vomiting and diarrhea. That being the only symptom, the hospital was ready to release her to get over it at home, except that we had no home. They bent the rules and put her into the observation ward overnight. I also think they were getting just a little concerned that she didn't seem to be getting any better. At one point the doctor asked Paula if we had visited any foreign countries. Paula couldn't talk then, and I really didn't know what to say. Did she mean some country even more foreign than England? England is by far more foreign than France. The only non-foreign country I could easily think of was the USA.

Hospital staff tried to act as travel agents for me and thought they had found a reasonably priced room in what was the most expensive square mile in the world. I was not pleased.

I spent exactly 5 hours in a hotel room where not only did phone calls cost extra, but it is the only hotel room I have ever paid for that had no soap. I paid $40 American per hour for that stay. Needless to say that hurt, and I won't be visiting London anytime soon.

The next morning Paula had been tentatively diagnosed with gastro-intestinal enteritis. They were still eliminating the possibility of hepatitis. It seemed to me that the diagnoses was simply a description of the symptoms, with no indication of the cause. Paula found out only this evening through an Internet search that gastro-intestinal enteritis was Latin for food poisoning. We think it was the ham for breakfast in Calais. I didn't eat it, and Paula did and that's about the only thing she ate that I didn't eat too. Ah, the joys of foreign travel. The more you pay the less you get, and if you pay enough, you can have ptomaine poisoning with your after-dinner mint. Nothing quite beats e.coli served on sterling silver. But my own personal philosophy is coming through, I'm afraid.

The hospital released Paula on Friday afternoon about 1600 with a prescription for an anti-nausea medicine and after fruitlessly searching the Internet and making phone calls to try to pin down the advertised rate, with absolutely no success whatever, the hospital staff offered us a room in what amounts to a Ronald McDonald house for visiting staff and family of patients who have traveled a great distance for treatment at St. Thomas. This cost us €40 per night, about $75, and I would have cheerfully lived there for the rest of my life. It was small and comfortable.

I mentioned that I had insurance that would pay, but it seems that under the English system, ambulance services and emergency room treatment, including the observation period, are all treated as a utility expense, and not itemized. They made no financial records at all. Not only did we not have to pay a bill, there was no bill to pay. It was all part of the day's work, and no record of it was made at all.

They did have some trouble with her name. After about three attempts at Hofmann, they got all but the middle initial correct. She is now Paula F Hofmann, rather than the old Paula W. So any help with a middle name would be appreciated. She herself suggests Faith, and I have thought of Felicia, so the field is still pretty much open.

Paula was getting over the food poisoning by the hour, and on Saturday morning we took great risks in travelling once more.

We spent from 08:00 until 10:00 navigating the London Underground from the middle of London to Heathrow airport west of London, a distance of about 25 miles.

I had spent some hours on Friday acquainting myself with the Underground routes to be taken, directions, tickets, stations to change lines at, and so on and thought I had it pretty well worked out. Wrong again.

The stations and lines I had done all the intelligence work on were closed for the weekend, and they were all sorry. So we ended up on a bus to Piccadilly Circus and then the Tube for over an hour to Heathrow.

Once at Heathrow, we ate lunch at the wrong bus terminal, and found the right bus terminal after several false leads about 11:45. Paula very wisely chose some Greek yogurt to start out with.

The Air Force runs a free shuttle once a day each way from RAF Mildenhall northeast of London to Heathrow airport, for the convenience of personnel and their families arriving and departing England by commercial air. Retired personnel and their Dependants may ride also, on a space available basis. The route is 2 hours and 15 minutes non stop on a very comfortable bus with a very polite and highly skilled driver, who, like all the others, absolutely insists on driving on the wrong side of the road. One pulls the curtains and refuses to look forward until it is over.

This trip was very frightening for Paula. I forget just now why she would be the least bit unsettled about this bus ride, unless it was some experience in the past that she couldn't get out of her mind.

But Paula has largely recovered from her experience, we had no problems on the bus, and are now, as described above, (far above, I fear), as comfortable as we can be far from home and friends. She is now eating ravenously to make up for lost time. She was afraid she wouldn't make it to morning so she took a box of Cheerios and some more yogurt out of the mess hall this evening. She never made it to 7:00 pm. When I go over to the billeting office to post this on the Internet I am to bring back frozen fettuccine so she won't have to wake me up a midnight to go for it. It is lucky the Billeting Office is open all night and sells mini-market food. This is likely to be a long night.

From here, we wait on a friendly KC-135 Stratotanker to take us back to Fairchild AFB in Spokane. There is no flight tomorrow, and the most likely day by far is Monday. But there is always the possibility that it will be next Monday instead. That's what flying Space A is all about. Tomorrow will be a day of rest, until Paula gets tired of that and we go to Mildenhall the Village for tea.