Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why I Believe Hell is Cold

1985.  The 300th anniversary of the births of Bach and Handel.  My boyfriend at the time - a pipe organ builder.  Our vacation for the year - a two-week January bus tour, led by a distinguished German music professor, to many of the historic Dutch and German churches on whose venerable pipe organs Bach or Handel had played.  Most of the sites we visited were in what was then East Germany, so we were privileged to see many things that ordinary Westerners in those days couldn't.  The highlights of the trip included visiting churches still decked out for Christmas with gigantic evergreens wearing real candles (with buckets of water behind the altar, just in case); feasting on stag and wild boar in a mountaintop castle; peering inside the guts of a formerly fabulous organ whose pipes had been stripped of lead in WWI to make bullets; listening to a candlelit concert performed on authentic baroque instruments; and touring the amazing Dresden porcelain museum on one of the few days we didn't spend in a church.  I can still hear our fearless leader's stern disapproval of former tracker organs that had been "electrocuted," and taste the Jaegermeister with which we tried to warm ourselves after long days in totally unheated medieval buildings.  It was one of my best vacations ever.

It was also one of the worst.  I already had a head cold when we left, but I packed a large box of Kleenex, a biggish bag of throat lozenges, and a brand-new bottle of cough syrup.  I confidently expected to be over it within a few days.  Unfortunately, that turned out to be one of the coldest winters in recorded German history.  When the air wasn't filled with falling snow, it was choked with the yellow-gray smoke of the brown coal used for East German power and heat.  The churches were without exception unheated; that water in the buckets behind the altar was usually frozen.  Coming from South Dakota, my boyfriend and I had packed (and wore) heavy coats, hats, scarves, gloves, sweaters, and thermal underwear, but the cold inside those old stone buildings still stabbed the lungs like knives.  By the end of the first week everyone on the trip had a cold and all my supplies were gone. 

Without cough syrup, I did most of my sleeping on the bus; if I tried to lie down, I would cough literally until I threw up.  At one point my boyfriend, who spoke no German, bravely ventured forth and bought a bottle of cough syrup for me (he explained what he wanted by coughing at the pharmacist), but the local stuff contained licorice and honey rather than dextromethrophan and was only marginally effective.  As my tissue supply ran low, I started visiting every pharmacy and drugstore I could find but never located any East German equivalent.  After the Kleenex gave out, I considered using toilet paper, but the locally available variety was like the brown paper towels in public restrooms, and my nose was already raw.  I finally took to using a cotton bandanna I'd intended for a neck scarf, rinsing it out in the evening and hoping it would dry overnight.  The one time we stayed in the same town for more than a single day I skipped the church du jour and huddled at the hotel, hoping for rest and warmth, but the heat in the guest rooms was turned off during the day; I spent several hours in the (relatively warm) hotel restaurant, ordering refills of hot tea and mushroom soup.  My boyfriend later confessed that he was having nightmares about sending me home by air ambulance; fortunately, I was able to tough it out and recovered after a week at home with central heating and good drugs.

The head cold I have now is the reason I've been thinking a lot about that vacation lately.  This Thanksgiving I will once more be thankful for the life-changing things I experienced on the trip - and for the soft tissues, effective cold palliatives, and warm house that will keep my current cold from turning into a life-threatening experience.

"Winter is nature's way of saying, 'Up yours.'"  ~Robert Byrne

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