didn’t cry when my horse hurled me to the ground on the top of a lonely Umbrian mountain, even though it hurt like hell and I wasn’t sure anyone would ever find me. And I didn’t cry when, a couple of hours later, having mercifully been rescued, they wheeled me into the operating room, even though I’m so scared of hospitals that I can’t even bear to visit people. I didn’t even cry when they put me in a room with Mrs. Mad (I always get the nutter) when I came round from the anesthetic, even though she spent all night twiddling with the tuner on her radio so she could find Radio Maria and recite non-stop Hail Marys.
But my British phlegm finally deserted me when, after six days of being fed by intravenous drip, the medics decided it was time for me to start eating again. A kindly orderly plonked a plastic bowl full of a sinister-looking beige liquid in front of me — minestrina, she told me helpfully. I wrestled with the clingy film that sealed the foul-smelling concoction and gingerly brought a spoonful to my lips. And that’s when the tears began to flow. “You must eat if you want to get better,” a nurse told me, sounding none too convinced herself. But I couldn’t get the horrible gooey stuff down my throat. The more I tried, the more I cried, and soon the bowl was even fuller than when I had started.
I don’t know why, but I’d always thought that being in Italy, even the hospital food would be good. So another truism bites the dust. But along with that one, an equally well-entrenched misconception needs to be laid to rest. I’m talking about the one that says that Italian hospitals are dreadful and dangerous places, a conviction that I suspect lies in many a foreigner’s breast.
Take heart, it’s all a vicious lie, at least, it is if you happen to be in the Spoleto area when misfortune strikes, which I strongly advise. I now speak from some considerable experience. After nine long days and nights recovering from emergency surgery in Spoleto Hospital, I can vouch for the fact that the medical care there is first class. Though it grieves me to say it, it certainly knocks spots off the once glorious National Health Service in England, now a sad and sorry shadow of its former self. Talk about the Third World — when I gave birth to my third and youngest child in Gloucester Hospital a few years ago they threw a ragged and not very clean-looking piece of jute over me as I went into labor — the kind of thing I’d think twice before using to cover my horse (well I might do it now, as he’s not exactly flavor of the month at the moment). And when my 84-year-old aunt went in to have a pacemaker fitted recently, she was twice turned back at the last minute as the ward had to be closed down due to a life-threatening Superbug.
Give me Spoleto Hospital any day. They not only saved my life, they also did it in fine style, with fresh linen sheets, floors so spotlessly clean you could eat your breakfast off them (fette biscottate and slimy tea, since you ask) and nurses who smiled and made you feel like a human being. Well, there was one who was rather sour-faced, but she was an ace at giving injections, so I forgave her. As for the doctors, they were exceptional, with none of that frosty hauteur which some medics cultivate, nor the hurry-up-I’ve-only-got-3.5 minutes-before-my-next-patient attitude which I’ve seen all too often back home. All this against a backdrop of beautiful woodlands and mountains. If you’ve got to spend Ferragosto in a hospital bed, I mused as I listened to Mrs. Mad muttering on and on about the hour of our death, then let it be somewhere like this, with a view from the window of the mountaintop sanctuary of Monteluco.
As for the food, well it could have been worse. Like the time I gave birth to my first child, in Stroud, and was promptly presented with a cup of milky tea and a dish purporting to be roast lamb, with tubes and arteries sticking out in all directions and bilious-looking tinned peas so hard they could have been marbles. I nearly threw up on the spot.