Europe 2012

Corsica, Budapest, France

June 2012. We’ve moved from E 14th to the main floor of E 19th and lived there for over a year, while we renovate E 2nd, where we move on June 1. Quintan & Leighanne move into the attic. It’s hectic as the house is barely habitable. We are trying to move in and pack for a trip at the same time and are now realizing we will not be around for the finishing touches. We always seem to be going on vacation at the same time as we are completing a renovation. But the flights are booked and the Villa People will be expecting us in Corsica. We leave for Europe, putting Pico upstairs for 5 weeks while Mila finishes our part of the house.

We fly to Toronto, then Paris, then Nice. It’s a long haul so it’s great to see Sharon & Ray and their rental car at the Nice airport. We are convening with Ron & Julie in Villefranche before taking the ferry over to Corsica. Bev & Larry are already there, in their VW camper. Brian & Renee will arrive later.

With two days in Villefranche, we have time to hike up to Eze, a quaint lunch destination with amazing views of the Mediterranean. Is this when I begin to suspect that if money was no object, I could live in one of the Mediterranean countries? It is such a civilized part of the world!

The ferry to Corsica takes 5 hours and is pretty smooth. Bev & Larry meet us at the terminal. It’s a short drive to our villa, which is spacious and luxurious. Close to the beach. And a town, Calvi. Just the right amount of isolated in the countryside, with sweeping water views.

We get up at dawn one morning to start the 3 hour drive to the southern tip of the island, to Bonifaccio. A place I had never heard of. Incredibly! I wonder, with my love of travel, how had I never heard of it nor seen photos. A place definitely on my list of top 10 prettiest towns on the planet.

Bonifaccio is as sweet a place I’ve ever been. Sublime views of the sea, limestone outcroppings, a city built of limestone, colourful shops, Mediterranean cuisine, lots of fish. The photos show it better than my words. The photos don’t show the feel of the soft sea air, the perfect temperature. They don’t show the smell, a bit briny. The languor of the afternoon as we have lunch on a shaded patio, and then wander by the shops, stop for a drink and snack, before reluctantly leaving. But it’s several hours drive back. We stop for a beach snooze and then for dinner in Calvi. A long day, but worth the trip. I still dream of going back to Bonifaccio.

We leave Corsica on a ferry heading back to Nice. The ferry is crowded. As is the ferry terminal. Nice is full of tourists. We realize that one of the draws of Corsica is its islandness. It takes some time (5 hrs), money (50 Euro) and effort to get there, weeding out a lot of tourists. Once there, everything is just a day trip away. Beaches, mountain-top medieval towns, port cities, hiking, shopping. All very close at hand. And fewer people. Getting in the island groove, we find ourselves contemplating trips to Sardinia & Sicily as future destinations.


But for now, we are headed to Budapest. Our flight arrives early evening. Dusk is settling around the cobbled streets of old Buda (Pest is on the other side of the river) as we get out of our cab from the airport. Everything feels ancient. Historic. The 30 year fact of the iron curtain adds an allure. The 1956 uprising against communism feels like it could have happened last week. The fall of the Berlin wall yesterday. Hungary today, struggling with democracy.

The first day is spent hopping on and off the Hop On Hop Off bus. It’s a great way to see a city’s major sights and neighbourhoods. The parliament buildings on the banks of the Danube are incredibly photographic. The goulash incredibly tasty. The beer plentiful and, most importantly, cold. Hungary is experiencing a heat wave with temps over 30 degrees.

The next morning Craig complains of a headache and sore neck. Within minutes it progresses to intolerable pain, followed by vomitting and reduced consciousness. I call the hotel’s front desk; when an English speaking young man answers I am grateful. I quickly tell him the situation and that we need medical care urgently. He calls a cab. Says it will be faster than an ambulance. Tells the driver to go to a nearby hospital.

Well, not that nearby. A long enough drive for Craig to throw up out the cab window several times before we get to a deserted admitting area. The cabbie leaves with extra $ to wash the cab. We are alone, Craig & I. Literally no one around. A large empty waiting room. Craig is on the floor in pain, holding his head and groaning.

I rush around to the various rooms and find only a janitor pushing his cleaning cart. I grab his arm and get in his face, quickly asking if he speaks English. “A little”. OMG. So thankful. I slowly and clearly tell him that my husband who never has a headache and is perfectly healthy is experiencing a great deal of pain in his head and we need to see someone immediately. He seems to understand. Rushes down a corridor. To the end, where I can hear him speaking in Hungarian in a loud voice. He brings a woman in her late 40s, wearing a lab coat. I will later learn she is a neurologist. They put Craig on a stretcher and we go into a little examination room.

She takes a brief history from me and then examines Craig. Two others join her. One wants to see our insurance. Which I have. I show it and the janitor translates something to the effect of it being invalid. Turns out the hospital is part of a Euro-zone health care group that provides both insurance and care. We are not part of the group, so there is no way for us to get care.

“Can I pay?” The janitor looks shocked. I’m not sure what he relayed to the hospital accountant or whoever is asking us for insurance. The response is more shock and not exactly no, but not yes either. They seem to be puzzled by the request. Turns out they thought it would be too expensive for us. I don’t know what I expected to hear when they told me the cost  of the scan, but by the way are were going on, I expect it to be a lot more than $65. That’s it. I pay in U.S. cash. The test gets done.

The scan shows bleeding in Craig’s brain, thought to be due to an aneurysm. A broken blood vessel. Typically deep in the central structures of the brain. I can see the white area on the scan and so I know before she says the words that it is not good.

We are put in an ICU for a few hours where they try to stabilize Craig. He is agitated, in pain, still vomitting and now very afraid. As am I. I can barely comprehend what is happening. The male nurse kicks me out of the room, I think because I am asking too many questions. The physician in charge trained in New York and speaks English so I am asking a lot.

We are awaiting an ambulance to take us across Budapest to the outskirts of the city to a neurologic institute. Apparently Craig needs brain surgery and they can do it there. How is this even happening?

Two weeks later Craig is discharged, hale and hearty. Glad to be free and glad to be alive. The problem turned out not to be an aneurysm at all, but a vein at the base of his skull that burst and bled into the subarachnoid space. A subarachnoid hemorrhage.

The first week is nerve-wracking as Craig’s blood pressure keeps spiking, giving him headaches, and he has a couple of small seizures. Every time this happens a group of nurses rush in, speaking no English, and inject a bunch of medications in Craig’s IV. I have no idea what the meds are. I try to find out, but the nurses literally speak not a word of English. I buy a language book and try to learn a few Hungarian words. “Yo reglat” is all I ever manage. I think it means good day.

Because the bleed is small, venous, and self-resolving and because he gets the proper treatment from skilled, English speaking neurologists, Craig emerges from this near-disaster pretty much intact. This makes the second week boring, as Craig begins to quickly recover. It’s like he turned a corner all of a sudden after a week of acute CNS symptoms. We have to stay for monitoring as per the protocol. Apparently a second bleed can occur within two weeks of the original.

Discharge day can’t come soon enough. Of course, because it is Monday morning and there is a 10 hour time lag to North America, it is not possible to have the insurance company pay the bill. We have to pay out of pocket. No cards accepted. No credit card, no bank card. No cheque of course. Cash only please. We have 4 credit cards, which we max out at several bank machines. We are still short by about $1000. Spying a Western Union type place, we go in, explain our predicament, and within a half hour they get money from Visa for us. Amazing.

More amazing is the bill. For two weeks in a private room with attentive nursing care, great doctors, okay food, lots of medications, many scans. Two more MRIs and several cranial ultrasounds. All of this comes to $4,500.00. Unbelievable. Once home, our BCAA travel insurance reimburses us completely and go after the provincial health plan for the portion they are to pay. All good.

Our nieces, Jaclyn & Mackenzie, fly to Budapest, instead of Amsterdam as per the original plan. We forfeit an air b&b in Amsterdam, spend a day in Budapest and fly to Paris, to catch up to the original itinerary.

A large apartment in a historic building in central Paris is our base. Close to the Place de la Republique. We walk and take the subway, seeing the major sights and going a bit farther afield to the famous flea market at Clingnancourt. Seonag & Geoff, friends from Vancouver, are in the city, staying nearby in the Marais. We invite them over to show off our apartment and go out for lebanese food in our ‘hood.

Jaclyn prefers Budapest and has difficulty adjusting to Paris. We never really find out why. She flies home early, leaving one morning before breakfast. It’s a bit of a calamity but we cannot stop her.


We have one more day in Paris after Jac leaves and then the three of us, Craig, Mac & I carry on to Quiberon, on the coast of Brittany. Craig insists on driving the rental car. Says he feels fine. And he seems to. I feel terrible about Jaclyn’s departure. Brood about it in the passenger seat as France whizzes by.

Brittany is originally Celtic, the traditional homeland of the Breton people and is recognised by the Celtic League as one of the six Celtic nations. Many of the place names reflect those roots. The mussels are the best we’ve ever tasted. Ever. We eat, drink, hike a bit, lie on the beach and just chill, trying to make the best of a trip that seemed plagued by disaster.


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