Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pleasures of Travel

I've been reading "Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples" by Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller.   In limpid, weightless prose, Hazzard writes an ode to Italy, where she has learned "that the ability to rise to the moment, to the human occasion, is linked to a sense of mortality intrinsic, in Italy, to all that pleases us."

In Naples, we are "initiated" into a mystery: "this sense of life profoundly informed by awareness of death that values the smallest pleasure as god-given, fatalistically attributing misfortune to the gods' sterner associate, Il Destino."

No one writes better about traveling alone:

"Never to have made the lonely walk along the Seine or Lungarno, or passed those austere evenings on which all the world but oneself has destination and companion, is perhaps never to have felt the full presence of the unfamiliar.  It is thus one achieves a slow, indelible intimacy with place, learning to match its moods with one's own.  At such times it is as if a destination had awaited us with nearly human expectation and with an exquisite blend of receptivity and detachment."

"The moment comes: we intersect a history, a long existence, offering it our fresh discovery as regeneration."

Steegmuller writes about his being mugged and seriously injured in Naples.  The Italian doctors are skillful, personal, warm.  He misses them when he returns to New York, where, "If there was a question to be asked, one learned to have it ready and to speak quickly . . . . One doctor in particular was like an indifferent priest opening and closing the slide of his confessional on a busy Saturday night."  The hospital attendants speak to him "across an artificial barrier of polysyllabic indirection."  Steegmuller's experience is not unique.  There are now specialists in "doctor-patient communication."  One such specialist "urges doctors to build rapport with their patients by greeting them warmly by name, asking briefly about important events in their lives, maintaining eye contact, focusing on the patient without interruption, and displaying empathy through words and body language" (New York Times, June 9, 2009). Directions for programming robots to act human.

Must we leave America to find what Steegmuller calls "the immediacy of care and human fellowship," and Hazzard, "a slow, indelible intimacy with place"?


  1. One has to shop around here in the USA to find the kind of care you describe. I say from personal experience that it can be done. I could write similar praise of a few doctors and health workers I came across during a recent affliction. But you have to sniff out the good and reject the bad. I have done both.

    I visited an ill friend last year in France and the atmosphere of the hospital was quite different. She was treated like a guest and a valued customer and not rushed out of treatment prematurely. Americans, brace yourselves for a bloody debate on this subject in the months to come.

    Yes, Hazzard is wonderful -- one of my favorites.

  2. Bluedog, You've been lucky with doctors. I've heard similar positive stories about medical care in France and hope things will change for the better here.

  3. I've been accompanying a Cuban friend to his doctors at Boston Medical and I am amazed by the time and care that they give him. One was his doctor during colon cancer, so they have a long relationship. Both he and his nurse listen to a long, complex, sometimes hard to understand, set of complaints. And his kidney doctors do the same. I am enchanted by these people who have humor and respect for a man who has taken such poor care of himself over the years.
    When I attended a pain clinic, the woman leading it did advise that people take a list of the most important questions. That made sense because there are often a jumble of things to talk about and many people leave the most important to the end. My Cuban friend really doesn't distinguish between the very serious and the not-too-serious given his precarious state of health so he is dependent on their extreme patience.
    I have a good doctor and my last visit lasted over an hour. That's quite amazing since my last and very wonderful doctor is now in a concierge practice because she hated the time limits.

  4. Hello, Melissa: It's good to hear about patient respectful doctors. Now that I come to think of it, my doctor is skilled and kind. I believe that specialists tend to be distant.