here is a strange atavistic urge that makes you long for home when you are feeling ill or vulnerable, even if you have lived abroad for many years and home is really more here than there. I suspect it has something to do with wanting to be able to ask for a bedpan in your own language. And I know it goes a long way towards explaining why I went to great lengths to flout airline rules and fly back to England to deliver each of my three children.
A recent accident gave me no choice in the matter so I found myself plunged headlong into the complex business of being hospitalized in Italy. I have never been very good at fitting in and my stay in Terni hospital was no exception. It wasn’t just that I was a foreigner. I realized from an early stage that I was not the only one when I heard shouts of “Prepare an enema for Hassan!” coming from the men’s ward across the corridor. And it wasn’t just that I didn’t know the word for bedpan in Italian. It’s padella, or frying pan, by the way.
Needless to say, I got things wrong from the start. First of all, I didn’t have the right gear. In fact, I didn’t have anything at all, though everyone else in the ward had a huge assortment of pajamas, nightdresses, shawls and slippers.
To be honest, I couldn’t have worn them anyway, as my head was jammed into a full brace to protect my broken neck, but my lack of suitable attire certainly didn’t help me to blend in with the crowd.
Then there was the business of the bedpan, which, try as I might, I never really mastered. “We may be reserved, but at the end of the day we’re all the same and we all have to use a bedpan,” mused a lady from Orvieto philosophically as we lay side by side trying to produce the goods.
She did rather better than I. “Is that all?!” asked the nurse scornfully when she came to retrieve mine.
But the thing that really set me apart was my lack of assistenza. I have never been in a hospital in any other country and I hope I never will, but in Italy, if you don’t have assistenza you stand out like a very sore thumb. It’s not the same as having visitors — I had quite a few of those. It’s more about having a friend or a relative at your bedside 24 hours a day to tend to your every need, even if you don’t need it.
The poor old lady opposite me certainly didn’t need hers. She was in a coma following a brain hemorrhage, but a relay of sons, daughters and daughter-in-laws dutifully stayed with her round the clock, though uncharitable as it sounds, I rather wished they hadn’t. Their doomed attempts to get comfortable in the creaky armchair between our beds put paid to any slim hopes I had of getting some sleep before the nurses came clattering in to jab a needle in my arm at 5.30 a.m. And one of the sons had an unfortunate taste in chewing gum, an obnoxious sickly strawberry flavor that I have long banned my own children from bringing into the house on the grounds that the smell makes me feel violently sick.
Sour grapes may be, as I had no one, a fact that did not go unnoticed. “She’s English and she doesn’t have l’assistenza,” my neighbor hissed to each new relative who came to minister to her. They shot me sympathetic glances.
Meal times were the worst. For a start, I didn’t have the kit. All the other ladies had brought their own cutlery, as well as napkins, cups and glasses. More to the point, I had no one to feed me, until word got out that I didn’t have l’assistenza and a Rota of young missionary nuns was dispatched to help.
They were a well-meaning bunch, and without them I would probably have starved to death. But sometimes their zeal got the upper hand and I remember politely choking while a Spanish girl rammed chunks of hard lettuce down my throat as she enthusiastically explained how her order’s founder was coming up for sainthood.
As for the bedpan, I just couldn’t get the hang of it. It certainly didn’t make it any easier having to ask for it in front of everyone’s relatives and hearing the nurse shout: “Everyone out. The signora needs to use the bedpan!” Knowing that everyone was waiting impatiently to be allowed back in did rather add to the pressure. Ashamed and exasperated, I took to leaving it as long as possible before ringing my bell.
The tactic paid off — kind of. “Madonna!” yelled the nurse who had previously derided my paltry offerings. “Quick, I’m going to need some help here. The signora has produced a fountain!”