Apr 20, 2021

Medical Anthropology

No picture on this one, for reasons that will become obvious...

I was (embarrassing number of years old) before I realized -- I mean, really had it sink in -- that perhaps the US didn't have the best everything on the planet. I think this is normal for most people, and I think it's especially normal when it comes to medical systems. I mean, those are thoroughly grounded in science, aren't they? And science is universal -- so of course they should all be identical, and, if they're not, ours is right. Right?

In rural Thailand, there are livestock roaming the hospital, and if your visiting bipolar friend needs Lithium because he's about to run out, you just walk around until you find a bored 20-something doctor playing games on her phone and ask for it, and she'll consider for a minute and decide writing a script is less effort than arguing with you, and do it.

In Mumbai, the doctors ask whether you're veg or non-veg (this doesn't seem like such a bad practice, honestly). At a routine gyn visit, when the doctor learned that I was unmarried, he told me he would only do an external exam. When my 30-something self burst out laughing, he spent the rest of the exam silently but strongly radiating the accusation that I was the Whore of Babylon.

In England, you get a letter in the post inviting you for a flu shot, or for your pap smear, or for whatever else you ought to be having done. I like this a lot, because I can never remember when I'm supposed to get routine care, and always feel like I'm bothering an over-burdened system to go in for something that isn't an emergency. Getting a friendly written invitation is very civilized.

I really didn't want a pap test, not least because they're called "cervical screenings" here, and that's pronounced (per TH) "cer-VYE-cal," and I wasn't sure which was worse, to obstinately call it "CER-vicle," or to refer to it as a "pap smear" if that's not a meaningful term here. But I was overdue for one even before accidentally moving to another country a year ago, and, anyway, like everyone else, I've heard horror stories about the NHS. Might as well get on the wait list and deal with the appointment six months from now. "Of course," the friendly receptionist said, when I phoned on Monday (asking for the cer-VYE-cal screening; social anxiety trumps standards). "How about Wednesday?" "THIS Wednesday?" I sputtered.

So, Wednesday I strolled to the medical center that's a mile down the road (everyone is assigned to their nearest, though you have some scope to change that if you want). I presented myself to reception, and waited for the clipboard. You know, with the ten pages of stuff about insurance and billing and family history and HIPAA and everything else. There was no clipboard. I had brought every form of British ID that I've diligently acquired: my residence permit, my learner's driver's license, my NHS number, my US passport. They did not ask for a single piece of ID. (I was upset about that later, and raised it with TH as a serious flaw in the system. "Who'd want to take your pap smear in place of you?" he laughed. "Well, of course, someone who doesn't have their own insur....oh." I said.

I waited perhaps five minutes before a TV screen invited me to proceed to an exam room. I hate not knowing the protocol in a given situation, and I had interrogated TH before I left for the appointment: when I go to the exam room, do I immediately take my pants off? "Er, perhaps best to wait for the nurse and make sure you're in the right room," he advised.

The room was not the standard US doctor's office room: you know, aggressively sterile, full of aluminum countertops and jars of prodding instruments and swabs, and posters on the wall of the interiors of bodily cavities, and perhaps some unidentifiable large equipment that vaguely suggests that some unknown percentage of people who have previously visited these rooms has suffered abrupt deterioration necessitating immediate, heroic, and very expensive technologically-assisted intervention. I also truly hate those kinds of rooms. This was a clean and practical space, but it was also clearly a former residential house. It did not cause my blood pressure to spike in the way that those hyper-clinical sani-rooms do. ("Medical theatre," TH sniffed, when I told him about this later. "You're paying for the experience, and the customer wants to see value for money. They want all the swabs on the counter.")

The nurse was slightly nervous (not surprising, as my file probably said "is au fait with worms" and not much else), but extremely warm and chatty, and completely unhurried. We talked through things, I confirmed I was in the right exam room and dropped trou, and we proceeded with what was a fairly familiar routine. (No stirrups, though -- they don't have them here. And why on earth would anyone, really?) I was out the door a leisurely 20 minutes or so later, not having had to return to reception. 

You know that thing, where you wait for weeks for a bill from your insurance company, and then have to decipher all the codes, and then check they did it correctly (one time I was billed for, I shit you not, my son's circumcision. For those who don't know me: I don't have any children), and then a few weeks later you get a bill -- or two; you never know how they're going to divvy it up -- for labwork, and you just have to hope the lab the doctor chose was in-network? And then even if they are, you have to create a login on the medical center's website and submit your copay and then set a reminder to log in a few weeks later to make sure there's nothing left after everyone has allegedly paid? There won't be any bills whatsoever here. (After all, they invited me.) The entire experience was 100% paperwork-free, aside from that initial letter, from start to finish.

Anthropologists aren't supposed to be prescriptive: "right" and "wrong" are culture-bound and relative, and meaningless across different belief-systems. I'm not an anthropologist, though, so I'm just going to say it: Yeah. This is the right way to do medical care.

Apr 9, 2021

A Conservatory Is Not A Grilled Cheese Sandwich

 First - yeah, okay; it's painful keeping a vein open, which is what this blog is supposed to be, and, I guess, why everybody doesn't just do it. I'd entered a script contest, working extremely long and hard on my submission, instead of waiting until the last minute and dashing it off like I usually do (which also confers the benefit of being able to say, "yeah, but I dashed it off -- the real victory is in finishing it at all"). And, of course, I still didn't win. Perhaps it was because it was a series of submission windows, and I waited until the last one, and they reported far more entries in the final window, and it would've won in a previous one. Perhaps it was because it was a British contest and a US-set script. Perhaps it was because the fashion these days is for bold, impressionistic, and emotionally raw pages, and mine was a coldly cerebral little thing, full of wordplay and burning questions of interest to anyone with a passing fancy in semiotics. Or perhaps it just stunk. I don't know, and, more annoyingly, I'll never know. What I do know -- honest -- is that writers much better than me shrug off a hundred rejections before landing anything. The problem is, there's a huge gulf between knowing that and feeling each failure as a visceral gut-punch that causes you to take a month(-ish) off from writing with a good sulking wallow in the mire of self-pity. Fail again, fail better, blah blah blah; I'm back.

Second -- a conservatory, I had to learn, is not someplace like Peabody or Oberlin, where musicians hone their craft. It's a pretty glass room that is unfortunately often too cold in winter and too hot (briefly) in summer to be useable, and furthermore, as sniffed at me by a realtor (estate agent) evidently more interested in establishing our places in a hierarchy than selling a house, is terribly middle-class. I don't care; I like them. Do we have a name for them in American? Sun rooms, maybe? They're much cheaper to add to a house than they are in the US, probably because they're so common (in every sense of that word, I'm now educated to report). And they aren't really sun rooms, because there's not much here in the way of sun. But in a place where it's generally too cold or rainy to sit out in the yard (sorry: garden. There are no yards here outside prison. And "garden" is a much nicer word.), I like the thought of bundling up in sweaters (jumpers. Again, adopted without objection) and blankets on a couch in the conservatory and listening to the rain as I write. So, I've been assessing the conservatory potential on every house we've viewed, much to the dismay of most estate agents. Crass Americans. (What, you might reasonably ask, do they call places like Peabody and Oberlin? Conservatoires, apparently, but I use circumlocutions when the rare ostensive need arises, because I just can't.)

Third -- the grilled cheese. The picture above is of the extremely well-regulated Finzel's Reach Friday market, which employs a one-way system, socially distanced queues (li-- oh, c'mon; you can get some of these from context), and a gilet-jaune to enforce everything. Weirdly, on Saturdays, Harbour Market, about 100 yards away, is an undistanced and mobbed super-spreading madhouse. Choose your covid-theatre performance wisely. The reason we're getting to know the various street markets is due to TH's enthusiastic conversion from "you want me to pay £6 for a cheese toastie?" to learning that American grilled cheese, made by Americans, is really not even close to being a cheese toastie, despite surface visual similarities (the same deceptive gulf that probably runs, still mostly unbeknownst to us, between the American and British usage of similar-looking words, I try not to think). To be fair, this particular artisanal company churns its own butter. It is glorious. And TH is obsessed with tracking the company's appearance at markets, and I really can't object even if greater familiarity with grilled-cheese goodness leaves me slightly jaded, and I do think he should maybe keep an eye on his cholesterol. 

Fourth -- "A conservatory is not a grilled cheese sandwich" is the astute complaint TH lodged as we wrung our hands over whether to make an offer on the cottage in Clevedon. It has a superb conservatory, large and private. It is 14 miles from grilled cheese. Would we come into Bristol on a market day just to have a good sandwich (and also, it must be said, excellent coffee from a different vendor)? Is that even ecologically ethical? But one spends far more time sitting in and enjoying a conservatory than eating sandwiches, right? How does one even compare these things?

But compare we must. I think the inflection point was when we found a detached house in our strongly-preferred Bristol neighborhood. One hadn't come on the market in that area at all for, literally, months. (Okay: one under a million pounds hadn't. It's a nice neighborhood.) We rushed to see it, and, well, it looked tired and small. There was marble flooring in the kitchen, and it had been improperly set and was cracked and pitted. The otherwise rustic-style kitchen had also been fitted with glossy black IKEA-style cabinets that were a monstrous obscenity. One bathroom needed a stall shower to replace the 50's-style paneled tub, and there were settling (hopefully...) cracks throughout the house. All fixable, except the purchase price would've cleaned out our budget entirely, and there was already another offer on the place. I gamely indicated how we might be able to squeeze our stuff into the pocket-sized living room by filling up the single-space garage. TH gamely talked up the location and its nearness to the supermarket. We didn't confess to each other until much later, when it came time to actually write up our offer, that we just simply really didn't like the place. But this was, clearly, a fairly-priced property (witness the other offer and the difficulty in getting a timeslot to go see it). We couldn't afford a square foot more, and it seemed extremely unlikely that when another one comes up in the neighborhood, however many months hence, that it might somehow be better -- for us, for this area, this was realistically as good as it was going to get.

So we bought the Clevedon cottage instead.

Well: it's a process here, isn't it? The mortgage has been issued in principle, but we've had that happen before. I'm not regarding it as more than a 50/50 proposition until after the (in-depth) inspection. On the other hand: it's stood for more than 500 years. It'd be rotten luck if it fell apart during our tenure.

As the UK begins to open up again for the first time since three days after I unwittingly moved here, I'm lining up choir auditions and filling out volunteering applications and freaking out ever so slightly that all these things that are 14 miles away might as well be on another planet outside the limited possibility that I might be comfortably driving by the time of the move. It's a leap of faith, or perhaps a silly choice, or maybe just a frustrated and rash reaction to the forced yoking of incomparable decision factors. Perhaps I'll sit in the conservatory and work assiduously toward racking up rejections and TH can bring home the sandwiches on his way home from work. Perhaps neither of those things will happen, but something else will. A conservatory is not a grilled cheese sandwich, and there are sharp limits on our knowledge of the future, and, for disjuncts like this, research can only take you so far.

Mar 7, 2021


We challenged the landlord. What that meant is that I gradually convinced my conflict-averse husband to advocate for our interests instead of the landlord's, and we did that tedious thing that we always do for any delicate email negotiation, in which we each write a draft and then I try to combine them, and then we each write new drafts based on that combination and I combine those, etc. (I'm not exaggerating. This is what we do. Drives me mad, but I've learned that trying to hurry TH along on anything is a false economy.)

To our surprise, the landlord simply said, "okay, I'll have the estate agents issue a formal notification," and that's the last we've heard on anything. So...the estate agents ought to know that the current notification period (DDTC) is six months, right? Or, because all estate agents are terrible, they've found some loophole that'll keep it to two? Or one? Dunno. I'm bracing for bad news and/or possibly infected strangers to be trouped through our house on very little notice.

We also made an offer on Pelican House on Friday, and have not heard a peep back. This is not terribly surprising, since we're being forced to use The Worse Estate Agents on Earth, also known as Connells. Seriously -- I called them up about 20 minutes after the listing came on the market and asked to see it. An audibly gum-snapping teen with one of the most irritating accents I've yet experienced here ran through what was obviously a script with me, hard-selling their mortgage services.

"I'm not going to use your mortgage services," I said. "I can say that with 100% confidence. Can I please just see this house?"

"What's your maximum price?"

"I'd rather not say. The listed price is well within budget."

"Well, the sellers are only interested in serious buyers. We'll need some proof you can afford it."

"Seriously? What do you want, a screenshot of a bank balance?"

"Yeah, that'd be good."

"Well, that's ridiculous. I just want to see it; I'm not making an offer yet."

"But you didn't give a maximum price. So we don't know if you can afford it."

"But that would just be something I'd say--. Never mind. Okay. My maximum price is twelve million. Can I go look at it?"

The conversation ended with me hyperventilating -- I hate calling estate agents because we have trouble with each other's accents and I don't know the norms and I'm always terrified that something exactly like what happened on this call will happen -- and angrily telling her "you know what? Just forget it!" and hanging up. I eventually wrote a nasty email to the company saying that if they actually had any intention of, y'know, trying to sell the property, I was free the next day, and I got a call back from someone with a better accent who did not apologize and scrupulously avoided mentioning what just happened and booked us in to see the house without accusing us of being window-shopping time-wasters.

Anyway: long story short, I'm not shocked that they're ignoring our attempt to buy the house. Also, I really hate this agency.

Meanwhile, yesterday we tried out our alternative strategy of buying a house for cash. We found the likeliest prospect -- in a neighborhood a little farther out than we were previously considering, and clearly needing some work, but an okay size and a cute exterior.

The estate agent avoided eye contact when we arrived. "I'll just let you wander," she said, and explained that it was a post-death sale and that the son had moved in and "he's fallen on hard times. It's quite a sad story, really." The house was funereally dark, with the only light evading the thick velvet curtains managing to illuminate the heavily-textured low ceilings. The sitting room was bi-level. Not sunken; it just had a random staircase in it. Heaps of clothes were piled everywhere, along with empty soda bottles on the floor and jumbo opened packages of the British equivalent of cheese doodles. None of the kitchen cabinets closed, and the end one was crumbling into a pile of sawdust. The upstairs was covered in scrofulous carpeting. The toilet seats were up and vigorously expelling sewer gas from their scaly and discolored exteriors, which competed with a dank pervasive fug of cigarette smoke  and despair that permeated every porous surface. Someone had tried to cover it with harsh detergents, with the resulting scent being uncannily the exact smell of a neglected American 1950's cheap motel room with flat quilted pink bedspreads. A smoke detector chirped dejectedly. Being American and thus needing to find something positive to say, I remarked "gosh, that's a nice big water tank," to the agent as we fled, approximately four minutes after we arrived. 

We had some time to kill before the next appointment, so we walked by a listing we were meant to see but that had gone under offer the day before, and we easily confirmed that we would not have wanted it. We arrived at our next appointment early and encountered the owner, Phil, who was showing it. He had another appointment first, so we said we'd take a walk around the neighborhood and return. We walked around the back of the property, craning our neck to try to make out where the detached house ought to sit, presumably in the gardens of the solid row of terraced houses before us.

"Surprisingly small lot," I remarked. "Where is it?"

The inescapable conclusion was that it wasn't. We pulled up the listing and tried to work out what kind of unholy photographic wizardry made the house appear not to be attached to the ones next to it. And also gave it the impression of having a 15-foot orangery? Working through all the hypotheses -- the house in front of us had a detached annex, as did the one we were expecting to find; was the orangery maybe on the annex? Was it like a Spinal Tap Stonehenge? -- we eventually arrived at the correct one, which is that there were two listings on this particular street and the agent had simply disregarded my use of the keywords "the detached house for sale at [price point]." We dissolved in laughter at this point, despite the complete waste of the afternoon (and yes, Connells is actually worse than these guys, but we are also not terribly happy with these guys). We then went back to Phil and relayed what had happened. He was a bit confused, but his wife explained to him, "the agents -- they've done it again."

Result: utterly pointless house-hunting day. As of now, Sunday evening, we have no idea how long we can remain in the rental, no idea whether our offer has been accepted (or even relayed), and no prospects for moving. Keeping the perspective that things could be a lot worse (I am also simply waiting for my jab; the qualifying age is now within five years of my own), this is nonetheless an intensely frustrating time of becalm-ment, made more annoying by knowing that when things do start to happen, they will undoubtedly get a lot worse before they get better.

Mar 2, 2021

Panic! At the Discoed

I actually do have a bunch of non-housing-related posts teed up, but I've been absolutely buried on assignment, putting together a 14,000-word draft for something else. True, the project was self-assigned, but that doesn't make it any less important -- indeed, I'm slowly coming to realize that those are the only important ones. 

I also really wanted to use this title. ("Discoed" is a town in Wales. Where we might soon be living. Stay with me, here.)

Things have been going really well lately. My physical strength and stamina are verrrrrry slowly returning from a presumed encounter with COVID last month (or just some other virus that sucker-punched me; I didn't get tested, and the symptoms weren't an exact match); I'm starting to work through my abject terror of unstructured time and it is beginning to dawn on me just how much I enjoy my new and completely intoxicating freedom (yes, even in "lockdown"); and, coming up on my one-year anniversary of (accidentally) moving to England and living, for the first time, with my husband, I continue to marvel at just how absurdly lucky I've been in love.

Great time to get a text from the landlord summarily telling us to vacate the house by the end of the month, eh?

I mean, health and husband mean I'm still doing superbly on balance -- don't get me wrong -- but it's hard to overstate just how shite this is. The average home purchase, pandemic NOT factored in, takes more than three months from start to finish. We cannot buy before eviction. If we go into another rental now, we're out of the market for another year. If prices continue to rise as forecast, our buying power will slip further, and we can barely afford the sort of place we want now as it is.

I've spent the day in a kind of panicked stupor (was supposed to be doing my taxes today, so there might have been a slight bias toward procrastination anyway). We could challenge the landlord -- I mean, I suppose we'll pretty much have to, as there also aren't any suitable rentals on the market right now, and there's fairly unambiguous government guidance preventing short-notice property repossessions during lockdown. Still, I'd prefer things not to get nasty, and I'd also prefer he not exercise his right to troop potential (and potentially Brazilian-variant-carrying) buyers through our space. And, too, lockdown is easing soon -- not sure whether these tenant protections will likewise ease.

We could buy quickly if we bought for cash. We don't have a lot of cash, but it'd get us something in the suburbs. Or in Wales. 

Rentals are so incredibly depressing -- houses for sale in this area tend to be dreary enough, and rentals are the ones that are too ghastly to sell -- that even a modest cash-bought one would likely be nicer. And, of course, we'd hopefully benefit from the rising prices and thus preserve our purchasing power when we come back to the market in a couple years' time. 

Or, we could put in a mortgage-able offer on one of the properties we've been considering lately -- Pelican House, or the Clevedon cottage. Or the one in Wales. It wouldn't go through quickly, but if we can get an offer accepted somewhere very soon, there's a good chance of completion before the additional notice we extract from our landlord expires.

None of this is ideal. The damn market has absolutely disappeared in the last few months. I've tracked it for over a year -- normal active volume is around 10,000 listings for the area in a 10-mile radius from the city. It currently stands at 1,383. I just know in my bones that pent-up supply is about to burst forth, probably temporarily depressing prices while it firehoses out, and we're gonna be shut out of it, and that really sucks.

Truly first-world problems -- believe me, I appreciate that -- but deeply frustrating and unhappy-making nonetheless. Westward, probably, ho.

(Not really. That's in Devon.)

Feb 22, 2021

Dear Brits: It Doesn't HAVE to Be This Way

I have just submitted my online application to receive a paper application to get a provisional license which I need in order to take the theory test which will allow me to start driving so that I can eventually perhaps take the driving test. These are, of course, not currently being offered due to lockdown, but it seemed prudent to get started now.

There are, naturally, fees at every stage. There'd have to be! How else are they going to support all these necessary layers of their carefully-crafted system?

I am developing a Pavlovian twinge in my gut every time I need to interact even obliquely with British bureaucracy. There are no clever interfaces. No QR codes. No, I suspect, online databases. Of anything. Every interaction becomes A Thing. 

Every. Single. One.

I got alarmed when, after paying, I got a screen saying they needed more information from me and will be in touch by mail in about a week (and then another screen saying that, actually, all mail transactions are DDTC, Delayed Due To Covid, that glorious shrug-off-accountability phrase that is the silver lining to British Bureaucracy of this terrible pandemic and would probably need to be invented if it did not already exist). Googling around, it seems they will likely ask me to mail my original and extremely hard-won residency card to some address in Swansea, because god forbid they should share files with the Home Office or accept a scan of the document or have a local branch office I can take it for inspection. I figured I'd save time, and have already entered "follow up with the Department of Vehicle Licensing for the return of my precious residency card" into my dayplanner for three consecutive months (starting six weeks from now, because, y'know. DDTC).

British towns and cities are maddeningly higgledy-piggledy/fascinating (depending on my mood and how urgently I need to find the address I'm looking for) for quite understandable reasons: the modern city is a palimpsest built atop a physical geographic history the scope of which barely makes sense in the US mindset. But it's almost as if the British psyche has internalized this model as a prescriptive template. 

Take the driving license (say, for example). I'm sure it's been done via post for as long as it hasn't been sensible to do by parchment and village banns. The internet comes along, and, rather than re-making their system, they graft a layer onto it: input all your information online, so we can mail you an application and ask for it all again! (With, I'm anticipating with certainty, a demand for a utility bill as Proof of Residence.) Look! We're so modern!

People who talk about "disruptive technologies" or "moving fast and breaking things" are annoying twats. No two ways about that. But, dear lord, if anything was ever going to cultivate my sympathies for this kind of thinking, it's 11 months spent living in the UK.

Feb 18, 2021

The Nematode Episode

 'Round about Christmas (I never promised you a linear chronology), we were at TH's native place, as my friends in Mumbai would say. It's Up North. The time it takes a northerner to tell you they're from Up North is approximately the same as it takes a vegan to self-identify. But I digress.

The first time TH took me there, he slowed down on a residential street of forlorn ticky-tack rowhouses dominated by some cartoonishly sinister cooling towers looming over them like giant concrete mushrooms, and I thought he was being unusually sensitive to my fascination with dystopian vistas and was pausing so that I could get a picture. He wasn't. It was the street he grew up on.

TH's family home is really small. Smaller than our current rental accommodations. Small enough that we literally could not both open our suitcases at the same time in the room that we were sharing. And this house, home to TH's father -- to me, a culturally unfathomable and distant but very dignified man I have met just a handful of times -- only has one bathroom.

I don't really get it when people talk about having "a shy bladder." What's so offensive about a wee? I've peed in communal "trough" toilets in China, and, while it's not my favorite excretory anthropological adventure (that would be my first encounter with a Japanese toilet), it didn't leave lasting trauma. No, what I have is a shy sphincter. 

So it was that by the morning of the fourth day, the day we were leaving, TH was trying not to laugh watching me politely decline high-fiber cereal and take the tiniest sips of coffee that would suffice to keep caffeine withdrawal at bay. Four hours later, down some motorways in remarkably poor, bouncy repair, I barricaded myself in our bathroom. I won't, of course, go into details, but I believe the best metaphor would be childbirth.

Taking a post-flush peek (UK toilets can be underpowered, and one likes to be polite), something caught my eye. Something that should never catch one's eye under these circumstances: motion.

In the bowl was a very pink, very thin worm. It was about the length of a pencil, and -- and this is an exceptionally vivid image seared into my brain that I'm afraid will never lessen in intensity -- it was thrashing around with angry vigor by contracting its whole length and springing out, as if attempting a frog paddle. 

I ran out of the bathroom and collapsed against the wall, breaking out in a cold sweat. A few minutes later, I crept back in and took another quick look -- surely some kind of post-partum hallucination, right? Nope. I fled again. Then I took a deep breath and went and found TH. 

I sat him down and asked whether he was capable of dissociating the part of himself that is a trained medical professional from the part that is a husband. I asked whether he was willing to do something that might permanently endanger our sex life. When I finally gave him the specifics -- he was getting visibly worried -- he laughed and went into the bathroom. I heard a flush, and he ran out, looking stricken.

"Why did you flush?" I wailed. "That was evidence. We should have...I don't know, captured it somehow, or something." 

"I panicked," he admitted, "but we need to get you to a doctor anyway." We then went downstairs and pored over his medical books together, which mostly entailed his reading the books and occasionally asking me "do you think it looked like that one?" and showing me a picture I could only look at through partially-covered eyes. I had two main questions: (1) Am I going to die? and (2) How do we get these out of me?

Of course, this happened on a Saturday, and, having determined that I probably wasn't going to die, I spent a long day and a half sure I could feel worms doing that energetic frog-paddle throughout my gut and chewing through my vital organs. I was utterly terrified to use the loo.

TH placed the call for me on Monday morning, as I couldn't deal with having my first experience with a foreign medical system being my telling a dubious receptionist that I had worms. Fifteen minutes later, a very friendly and jolly-sounding woman with an accent that even I could tell was posh phoned me back. I related the story I'd spent the morning rehearsing -- light on the details leading up to the discovery -- and explained about my background living in places like Thailand and India. Could I have had worms for more than a decade, I wanted to know. She admitted that she wasn't an expert in tropical medicine, but didn't think I'd have been symptom-free for all that time.

"Did it look like an earthworm?" she asked.

"Not really," I said. "Too thin and active."

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Having lived in Mumbai, I'm a bit au fait with worms," I reassured her. I can't tell you what took place during the next five minutes of conversation, because I spent the entire time silently but viciously berating myself for actually having said "a bit au fait with worms." I think it was maybe caused by her accent?

"Can I tell you a funny story?" she asked.

"Oh god, please do," I said.

"When I was a medical student and living in grotty student housing, we had earthworms that would get into the pipes and end up in the toilet. The first time it happened, we completely freaked out and actually fished it out and sent it to the lab. Which confirmed that it was an earthworm. Do you think that something like that could have happened?"

I didn't think so. TH has lived in this house for two years and never seen a worm in the toilet. The toilet in question is on the first (that is, American second) floor, so that's a lot of pipe to travel against gravity. And that was definitely not an earthworm (I am, after all,  au fait with worms).

Fast-forward a bit: she gave me the name of a medication with a broad anti-nematode spectrum that isn't even prescription (really, TH, you couldn't have found that out in your medical books and spared me this conversation?) and said it was a pretty benign pill and I might as well take it, to be certain. She asked me a bit, with genuine apparent curiosity, about America and the Foreign Service. We commiserated a little on the indignity of my current situation. "Welcome to Bristol!" she said brightly.

I took the pills. Although I desperately wanted the worms out of me, I also very much wanted to not be aware of, or, if at all possible, present for, their departure. (Every time I closed my eyes, I envisaged something resembling an upended can of Spaghetti-O's.) This not being possible, I just screwed my courage to the, er, sticking place, and hoped for the best. I was not, as it turned out, aware of any mass egress (though I did not examine the evidence closely. Or, in fact, at all). 

I did not experience any ill effects from the pills, but neither did I notice any miraculous improvements in digestive health (always a bit dodgy, to be honest) from my de-worming. Because I'm now on the NHS, the entire cost -- not emotional, obviously, but financial -- of all of this was the price of the pills, £6. It's true, I was unable to so much as look at boiled pasta for weeks. It's also true that the entirety of my English medical records now consists of the details of that phone call (and I would almost be disappointed if the sentence "patient is, by her own insistence, au fait with worms" weren't in there), and I am going to have to deal with the horror and enormity of that at some point during an inevitable second and probably face-to-face appointment sometime in the future (hopefully not before we move, thus reducing the chances of it being this doctor, jolly though she was). 

No, the biggest lasting negative effect to all this is epistemological, the mystery that haunts us both to this day:

Either a worm that does not in any way resemble an English earthworm crawled up two stories of sewer pipe and chose to manifest itself during my most extreme constipation event in recent memory and despite no lumbricine evidence ever, anywhere in this house, in the two years prior or two months since -- a hell of a coincidence.

Or I have harbored worms (or just a worm?) since probably my last tropical posting ended, in 2007, with no apparent symptoms. 

Each of these is equally and extraordinarily unlikely.

One of them must be true.

Feb 13, 2021


1.  Semi-detached in town: sold.

We confessed to each other that we're both actually relieved about that. We both felt it was a hugely practical house that we really ought to buy, but we both secretly hated it. Certain houses just feel...tired. And it's not something new paint can fix. They're just weary in their bones.

2. Gorgeous house distressingly near the freeway: not in fact gorgeous.

Which is a little funny, 'cos it turned out you can't hear the freeway from inside the house at all. Those were extremely misleading photos, though, and while I haven't gone back over the floorplan, I'm pretty sure they lied on that as well. Why would you do that? Sure, people will come out to view, but they're going to spend the whole visit muttering, "what they hey?" Ideally, you want one good photo to draw people in, and leave the rest ambiguous and slightly concerning. I've retained the warmest feelings towards the places we've seen where I've said "this is actually much nicer than the pictures!" This house could be made gorgeous by an infusion of cash; possibly, quite a bit of it. Which we would never be able to recoup, because it's too distressingly near the freeway.

It's a shame, because it came with a paddock, and I'd looked forward to renting that out and playing with the goats every day. Still: the best outcome to a viewing is, obviously, an immediate and thunderbolt-like conviction that this is The One. The second-best outcome is an immediate and certain conviction that it isn't.

3. Cottage in the seaside village of Clevedon.

Speaking of the anguish of prospects being lodged firmly in the muddy middle. Still in the running. We'll go back for another look on Monday. However, in addition, to TH's height challenges with the staircase (for which I'll admit I'd have more sympathy if we'd ever discussed lowering the kitchen counters and shelves for my height challenges), I've learned that its listed-building historical status could make it more expensive to insure and difficult to get a mortgage. I do like this house, but the UK buying process is hellish enough without attempting the advanced level.

4. New contender: Pelican house.

Facebook friends will know it as this one:

5 of 19

Interesting thing: due to both COVID risks and general social anxiety (both of us), we often scout the position and exterior of a house before requesting a viewing. Had we done that here, we wouldn't have viewed it. I'm not saying we need to overhaul that system. I've always disliked "housing estates," and this is at the rear of one massive enough to have its own weather system. 

Still a pleasant surprise, though, to find a gorgeous house inside. As much as we mocked the photos showing unorthodox design choices before we went, I couldn't get over just how well it all subtly combined in person, despite the diversity of colors, textures, and influences. At least one member of that couple is, and I do not exaggerate, an absolute genius. I was humbled. (Some funny moments, too: he'd forgotten, when he opened the closets, that he'd lined the interiors all in leopard paper, and was embarrassed. It was adorable.)

And that's the thing of the house design: it was wonderfully playful, but in a completely livable way. Still, I kept telling myself, it would look very different with our stuff in it, even if we didn't paint a surface. I also wondered whether we could hire them to come do our place, wherever we end up buying.

In a nutshell: that house, if in one of the neighborhoods we've been favoring? Sold. (Though then we couldn't afford it.) That house, where it is, but not in an estate? Also, probably, still sold. As- and where-is? Probably not, Especially because the sellers hadn't even gone out to start looking at houses yet, and I can't bear to think how long we're going to stay in limbo. TH was seduced utterly by the design mastery of these men, and, I think, perilously close to wanting to make an offer, until I talked him down, pointing out how our grad-student-aesthetic belongings wouldn't work nearly as well in that pink-and-blue (-and pelican) kitchen.

5. New contender: Chepstow house.

Chepstow is across the river, in Wales, so in terms of fatal flaw, that's all you need to know. Kidding, sort of. But Wales really does have its own weather system, and the amount of rain in Bristol is trying enough, thanks. We're scheduled to see it on Tuesday, so more on this one then. It's not in an estate, but it also doesn't seem especially likely as of this moment.

And that's it. There are no other candidates even shimmering on the horizon; nothing else we're planning to phone up on Monday morning. Quite simply, houses are just not coming onto the market at all. Not just ones we don't like, or ones out of our price range; none. It's bizarre, and it's a mounting worry.

PS I promise to talk about other things besides real estate.

PPS I mean, I'm going to have to: THERE ARE NO MORE !#$%ING HOUSES.