Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ferry Crossings

    Last September while I was in Sweden, my friend Lasse and I took the Stena Line ferry from Gothenburg, Sweden, to Frederikshavn, Denmark, a three-and-a-half-hour journey.
Even though I expected the ferry to be mere transportation, like the ferries I know in the Puget Sound, this one was more like the cruise ship I once took to the Caribbean. It had slot machines in all corners, playrooms for children, ping-pong and air hockey, an enormous duty-free shop, and a lounge for drinking and dancing. At this mid-September date, the large ship had so few passengers it felt cavernous, its many rooms and passageways relatively empty, its pleasures muted, its ping-pong tables quiet and air hockey sticks still.

    But the weather was beautiful, and the ship was sailing into a clear blue sky over a glass-smooth blue-green sea in a bracing wind. The beautiful rock islands of Gothenburg’s archipelago slipped by. The coast of Sweden diminished and disappeared. After that, there was nothing to see from the deck but the enormous expanse of water, uniform and unvarying, an unending sameness of dark blue sea and its horizon-line meeting with the sky. 

I could have stood at the railing for hours, staring not so much at the sea as at infinity itself – the emptiness, the nothingness, the foreverness, the mystery. Pre-Columbus sailors must have been afraid to sail far from shore not because they thought they would fall off the edge of the world but because they feared they would be sucked into eternity. 

    As I stood at the railing staring at the sea, a group of elderly people from a nursing home made their slow way onto the deck, bundled tightly in coats, hats, and mufflers, accompanied by attendants or family members, who wheeled them onto the deck in their wheelchairs or held their elbows as they shuffled against the wind or walked at their sides as they made hesitant, slow steps with their walkers. Wheelchairs were turned to face the sea and braked against the roll of the ship. Walkers were set aside as elderly bodies sank onto deck chairs. The point of the outing was pleasure of the crossing – the view from the deck, the amenities on the ferry, a chance to leave the nursing home, to be with family, to be outdoors. I didn’t want to stare at them, but I had the same impression I had looking at the sea: here, too, I was looking into infinity.

    Downstairs we went into the cocktail lounge with its many small tables and end-of-the-season, one-guitar-plus-electronic-back-up dance band. Because the ferry ride makes a good inexpensive date, the lounge is usually full of young people or of families and older couples out for an excursion, but today only four or five elderly couples sat at the tables, only one or two gray-haired dancers swayed to the guitarist’s “Heartbreak Hotel."
    A couple of days later, on the way back to Sweden, Lasse and I took the ferry from Helsingor, the town dominated by Kronborg, Hamlet’s castle. It was late at night when we boarded the ferry, and I watched the lights of Hamlet’s castle until they were swallowed by the dark.
Hamlet called death “the undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveller returns.” With those thoughts, with Hamlet, I was right back with the elderly couples dancing to “Heartbreak Hotel,” the old people shuffling with their walkers onto the deck, the infinitude of the sea itself.

    Back in Gothenburg, I made a solitary excusion to the grave of my friend who had died the year before. Sadly I strewed on her grave the rose petals I had brought from home. I planted flowers on her grave, flowers she loved, watering them with my tears.
I miss her so much! Mixed with my grief is a misplaced anger. What is her name doing on that stone? Why is she not here, with me? But cancer wasn’t her fault. Her death wasn’t her idea. She was put on the ferry for the final crossing, while I am left here on shore to plant flowers on her grave and contemplate without understanding the infinity into which she has sailed.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Eating Chocolate

            Last week, I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers, and ate a piece of chocolate. For the first time in decades my tongue experienced the taste of chocolate. It was like a glimpse of heaven.
            For more than twenty years the slightest intake of chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, cultured milk products, nuts, sourdough bread, or aged cheese would inevitably result in a migraine headache – the pain, the vomiting, the ache behind the eyes, the whole schmiel. Even alcohol cooked in a sauce would result in a migraine. Even wine tasted and spit out would result in a migraine. Even decaffeinated coffee, which has a trace of caffeine in it, and non-alcoholic wine, which still has 0.01 percent of alcohol, would result in a migraine. No matter how minute the amount, any of those substances would send me to bed the next day. No medication could touch the pain.
            I don't remember the last time I ate chocolate, but I do remember my last cup of coffee. I was at a café in Greece, sitting at a table under an enormous tree so old its limbs were propped up with boards. Although I knew that drinking even the tiny demi-tasse cup of coffee set before me would, with a 99% probability, keep me in bed the next day, I wanted to taste that deliciously strong Greek coffee, and so I did. I didn’t regret it, though I paid for it the next day.
            Chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, nuts (almonds in particular), yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, sour cream, cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese, Parmesan, Gouda, Gruyere – those were the migraine kickers. If I avoided them, I wasn’t headache-free – I still got freebies, migraines I didn’t pay for by eating the wrong things but that happened anyway – but at least I was preventing the migraines that were deliberately triggered.
            A couple of decades ago I also suddenly developed an allergy to peppers, which gave me not a headache but gastrointestinal uproar. Then one day two years ago I inadvertently ate peppers, hidden in a sandwich. To my amazement, I didn't spend the night going back and forth to the toilet. So I started, slowly, to experiment – a little cayenne here, bell peppers in a salad there. I never again got sick from peppers. The allergy that had suddenly come on had now suddenly gone away. And if my body chemistry had changed in that way, maybe – maybe! – the sensitivity to migraine kickers had changed, too.
            I decided to test the theory. I started with yogurt because I used to love yogurt and because eating yogurt didn’t result in as bad a migraine as drinking wine or coffee or eating chocolate. So one day, when the next day was expendable, I ate yogurt. The next morning I woke up without pain. It was a miracle! I started eating yogurt like mad, as though to make up for two decades without it. Before I went to Sweden last summer, I tested aged cheeses – no migraine. I was free to eat whatever Swedish cheeses I liked. I can eat nuts again, too, and sourdough bread.
            The real test would be with chocolate, alcohol, and caffeine, the three substances that resulted in the worst migraines. It would take courage to test them. When my friend who owns the English Lavender Farm down the road gave me a box of chocolate-covered lavender salted caramels for Christmas, I recognized the opportunity. 
I chose a day when I had nothing pressing to do the next day, and, that evening, I ate a chocolate. The taste was both strange and strangely familiar, as though I were reaching through the mists back to something vague and beautiful that had been lost and now was recovered, a memory, a photograph in sepia tints, the whiff of perfume from rose petals kept in a pewter vase. As with the coffee in Greece, for a moment I thought the migraine might be worth it.
            But when I woke up the next morning – no migraine!
          I am ecstatic. Is it possible that the long, long years of migraine headaches are over? I read somewhere that for most women who suffer migraines, menopause ends that suffering but that for a small percentage of women, the migraines get worse at menopause. Unfortunately, I was one of the latter, but I haven’t had a migraine, freebie or paid for, for many months now. I can eat chocolate, yogurt, nuts, and cheese. Wine and coffee, here I come! I am beginning to feel like a normal person, one who can indulge in the dietary vices as I like or, to put it another way, one who can experience, pain-free, some of the best tastes food has to offer.