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Today has not been a good day.

Two days, ago, this past Thursday, I was trying to coax Mr. Maylith into taking a little more care of the backyard. There are lots of little baby trees sprouting, and we were pulling them up. While I dislike doing that to a tree, having a densely overgrown forest in our rather small backyard is not a viable option.

The forest fought back. Or rather, something did. I was, silly me, wearing sandals, and as I took a step through last year's fallen leaves, I felt the most incredible CHOMP on the first toe of my left foot — the one next to the big toe. The pain was incredible, and I nearly fell down. I honestly expected to see exposed blood and bone when I first looked down at my foot, it hurt that badly.

Instead, there was a small dot inside a slightly whitened circle on the top of my toe. And oh, did it hurt. That pretty much ended our little jaunt into yard care for the day.

I sat down for a while, elevated my foot and put a cold pack on it. I figured it would smart for a while, then eventually dissipate.

By that night, my toe was red. It didn't just hurt; it burned.

Friday, it was worse, not better. The toe, plus the base of the adjacent second toe, was swollen and red. The redness had spread into the skin on the top side of my foot by a patch about the size of a thumbprint. And worse than hurting (which it did), it ITCHED. It also felt tight, as though the front part of my foot and toes had been crammed into a glove several sizes too small for them.

Though I was still trying to delude myself into thinking this would be the end of it, I did think to myself that this wasn't good. Before I went to bed, I took a pen and traced the furthermost outline of the redness on my skin. More cold packs that night did little to help me sleep, and I tossed and turned all night.

Today, Saturday, I was due to go back to work at noon. Pulling my shoe on that morning hurt. I had more of that sense of tightness, and walked with a limp. I thought of seeing my doctor, but his office isn't open on the weekend. I thought, well, play it by ear. I went through my "morning" routine, trying to ignore the steadily increasing pain. I figured (in the moments I had time to think about it) that the increase in pain was due to the fact that I was now sitting in a chair or on my feet; the previous two days I'd kept my foot well elevated as much as I could, as well as iced.

So the morning passed, otherwise uneventfully; I made a few minor sales. Around 3:30pm, I happened to encounter into my supervisor. I asked her, Do you happen to know anything about spider bites? She said something to the effect of, Actually, yes, I do. What's going on?

I explained the situation to her. It was important for business reasons as well as personal ones that I should do so, as I'm supposed to walk the floor when it's quiet and if I don't have anything else to do. So, I took off my shoe and sock, and we both had a look.

I hadn't looked closely that morning while dressing, as I'd been in a hurry. Right away, I noticed that the toe wasn't just red and swollen anymore. The skin was deep red, tightly stretched over heavily swollen flesh, and shiny in appearance. I could barely flex it the tiniest bit. And that line that I'd mentioned drawing the previous night? Well, the redness was well past that, nearly three inches (8 cm) from the bases of my toes, and spanning my foot from side to side. There was some redness on the underside of my foot, too, mostly just those two toes.

She told me to go to see a doctor, like, now. This is rather embarrassing, actually, but sometimes when it's you, it's harder to see something, or easier to deny it. Had it been anyone else but me, I would have said the same thing days before. Anyway, looking at it then, I instantly knew it was bad.

I was scheduled to go to lunch at 4 pm. I thought (ha! silly me) that maybe I could get this taken care of and, though I might get back a little late, I wouldn't lose too much time. My supervisor suggested the walk-in clinic not a quarter mile away which our company uses for work-related health problems. I was less than thrilled with this idea due to my previous experiences with that doctor, but I agreed anyway. I clocked out right at 4:00pm.

It didn't take me long to get over to the walk-in place. I hobbled out of my car (driving a manual transmission car with a bum foot sucks almost as much with a bum knee, by the way) and up to the door. Locked. I peered inside. There were a few people sitting in there, looking back at me. I rattled the door. No one came. I then looked at the sign on the door; they closed at 4pm. My watch read 4:04.

I suppose I might have rousted them out if I'd made a huge fuss, but knowing those people, I doubted it, and I didn't want to waste my time. I got back in the car and headed for the emergency room, several miles away. I made a quick stop at a 7-11 for a sandwich, thinking I wouldn't have much chance to eat later.

I got to the hospital a little after 4:30pm. Though the ER was crowded, intake went smoothly. It turned out, though, that I was running a moderate fever and both my blood pressure and pulse were elevated. Are you allergic to anything? Yes — penicillin, and anything remotely related to it.

The rest of the evening was spent playing the waiting game. I wound up on a gurney parked in an aisle; there were no rooms free. Eventually, a physician's assistant showed up, poked and prodded a bit, and told me I had a bad infection. No, really?? How did I feel? Crappy. Was I nauseous? A little woozy, maybe. Did I have a headache? Yes. Was I sore? Yes.

I couldn't get warm, despite the heated blanket I'd been given, and later on, I kept alternating between feeling too hot and too cold. A candy striper was nice enough to remember to feed me. It was only apple juice and crackers, but it helped to eke out what little of that sandwich I'd managed to wolf down in the car. Another interminable wait later, a nurse came by, drew some blood, and started an intravenous antibiotic. Slightly after that happened, a medevac helicopter landed, and all hell broke loose.

I can't even begin to tell you all the weird things that were going on. Cops were escorting one patient around. I heard, down the hall, a nurse telling a patient in a no-nonsense tone that if he touched his IV line one more time, she'd have him restrained. I was parked right next to one of the external phones, so I also got to hear all kinds of gossip as well.

It was interesting, too, to hear the interchanges amongst the staff. I was bored out of my skull, so I was listening to anything and everything. Pretending to nap, I heard about the set of films that accidentally got swapped, though someone caught the error.

Later on, I managed to startle a pair of techs standing nearby. The shift had changed 30 or 45 minutes previously, and they were saying to each other, "Where on earth are the suture kits?" I rolled over and said, "The only ones left are in the storage unit in 1. And you'll have to go to the main pharmacy for tetanus vaccine." They both stopped and just stared at me with hilariously identical expressions, then went off wordlessly... to room 1. They came back out, still wordless, carrying the suture kits and stacked them where they were supposed to go, in another storage unit about 10 feet from the foot of my gurney. All the while, I'm getting these looks. I finally relented and explained that before the shift changed, I'd heard a number of conversations about where the remaining kits were. "I've been here for over four hours, now, and I'm learning where everything is." They had a huge laugh over that, of course. "If you can't find something, ask the lady in "H"!" one of them quipped.

Mr. Maylith appeared around 8:30pm; I'd left him a message on his cell phone. They finally set me loose about an hour later. The blood work was okay; no sign of systemic infection. I was given prescriptions for painkillers and a powerful antibiotic (Keflex), along with orders to take Sunday off. I was to keep my foot elevated, use warm compresses, check with my doctor on Monday or Tuesday, and go back to the ER right away if anything got worse. The official diagnosis was acute cellulitis. Cellulitis is a potentially dangerous bacterial infection of the connective tissue of the skin. It can lead to gangrene and/or septicemia if not controlled.

Ouch. I only had eight hours of sick time left, and I needed twelve... but I could use vacation time, and the way I was feeling, I didn't care anymore. I did have to drive all the way back to work, though, to get my timesheets signed, as I wasn't about to go back in on Sunday.

Mr. Maylith came along with me, not just because he's a dear, but also as a witness. You see, when I called work from the ER to tell them I'd be late coming back from lunch, and then, later, that I wouldn't be coming back at all, the manager on duty (not one of my supervisors) had the sheer effrontery to question whether it was, in fact, an emergency. At the time, I said only, tersely, yes. I was determined to nip any potential problems in the bud.

So, I hobble into my workplace with Mr. Maylith, the hospital bands still on one wrist and a patch of bloody gauze taped to the back of the other. I had an appointment for Sunday, and I thought to clock in briefly and call them (though it was late) to tell them I wouldn't be able to make it.

Turns out that manager (apparently and allegedly) can't stand the sight of blood. Oh no, don't clock in. No need. I'll leave a note for someone. Here, let me sign those for you; I'll take them back to the computer room myself. Oh, I don't need a copy of the doctor's order, I can see your hand...

It was amusing.

I stopped at the supermarket on the way home to pick up some easy-to-prepare food, some yogurt (in preparation for devastation the antibiotics were about to inflict on my digestion), and most importantly some cortisone ointment, since the itching was driving me crazy. The extra walking there did me no good. I shouldn't have gone there, I know, but I was moving on sheer momentum.

Once home, I continued on momentum, emptying the dishwasher, cuddling the cat (who was very put out with me for not having come home at lunch), and taking some notes for this writeup. I was too restless to go to sleep, so I sacked out on the couch to watch some mindless television and spend time with the cat. Sometime around midnight, I felt suddenly incredibly ill and had a rather violent bout of projectile vomiting. After that, Mr. Maylith sat on the couch with me, cradling my legs in his lap to help me keep my foot up. We dozed off and on — watching Iron Chef, I think — until 2 or 3am, after which I took a heavy duty painkiller and he helped me get upstairs to bed.


Update

I woke up around 5:30am out of habit. My stomach was in a much more amenable mood, thankfully, and I was quite hungry. I got up, so as not to wake hubby, and hobbled downstairs for some food.

I think one of us must've sat on the TV remote last night, because it doesn't work anymore. I ended up watching Shrek on DVD for a while instead — not being up to anything more challenging — and puttering with this writeup some more.

As of 9am, Sunday morning, my temperature is a bit below normal. A pair of bruises now darkens my right wrist where the IV used to be. My first toe on my left foot still looks like an extremely angry, fat, shiny red sausage, and you cannot see any of the tendons on the top of that foot the way you can on the right one. I think the swelling is slightly less, but it's hard to tell. The whole foot feels strange, too, but as long as I keep it elevated and don't touch it or move it, I can, with effort, tolerate the sensation. Then again, I probably still have some meds in my system from late last night. The gentle heat from the compress feels good, though, which I had not been expecting. Hubby said he'd go get my prescriptions when the pharmacy opens at 10am.


Further update

The fun didn't end there.


Many thanks to doyle and Lometa for their advice and reality checks.

Last you heard of me I was heading out to hunt for the basic necessities. Well that I did, buying cheap cigarettes and a turnover that promised 'cheese' but was probably lactose intolerant. I walked around a bit and am at a loss for a concise description of this place. People and cars act as if the other didn't exist so every pedestrian who isn't killed accounts for a small miracle.

Shops have a hit and miss approach to stock, so the most unlikely combination of items jostle for space on shelves labelled in Albanian, priced in Euros, and held together by string for the most part. It seems like there are no laws that enforce schooling and children play in the streets quite happily during the morning. The atmosphere is a relatively mild one with no real extremes, maybe similar in a way to North African cities and the Islamic influence can be felt occasionally. There is no religious fervour, no wailing from minarets, no ladies covered in black and no suq selling dubious shisha and silly carpets. Only the satellite dishes stuck to every rooftop and balcony face the Mecca but it is only because free-to-air satellite comes from that direction. Stalls, little shops, tiny shops and holes in between buildings sell an enormous amount of mobile phones, phone cards and cigarettes. Judging by the abundance of these wares one would think that every man and his dog in Kosovo spent eight hours a day sitting around, chatting on his mobile phone while chain-smoking. Curiously enough I saw none of this.

The city has no soul and no centre where all convene. There might have been either, or both of these but it must have been bombed into last century and is having trouble getting back here in a hurry. While shopkeepers wash the floor and pavement fastidiously, this cleanliness is restricted to their own turf, and common areas are most often in an appalling state of disrepair. There is no real sense of discipline, such a lack of it in fact, that the void it leaves is perceptible even to a Maltese person like myself. Parking just happens. Wherever a car can fit, there is bound to be one, parked at an odd angle to the pavement, on the pavement, touching a wall, peeking innocently through Osman's front gate. There is also a curious lack of fat people, especially considering that they eat plenty of fried and grilled meat all the time. They are also lucky to be quite genetically gifted, a privilege that girls tend to display in a truly non-Islamic strutting of wares at all times of day.

Next stop, Bulgaria. Our planned route was to drive out of Kosovo, into East Macedonia, skirt Skopje, then cross the country to leave the car on the West Macedonian border, where we would then take a taxi for the two-hour drive to Bansko, a ski resort in the Bulgarian mountains. We left Kosovo at around lunchtime which warranted a stop for lunch about half an hour out of the city in a Serbian enclave. The difference is that unlike the Albanians, they care about their surroundings and so Serbian enclaves, while not all walled or in any way delineated, can be told by their lovely red brick houses, tidy gardens and clean surroundings. The restaurant was excellent, service polite and cordial and a huge meal for both of us cost around €8. An auspicious start to our trip. Well, more of an epic journey than a trip, but at that point we believed it would be a trip.

We then drove across the border into Macedonia where the customs and border police waved us through at the sight of a big white UN vehicle and the hint of a light-blue UN passport. We then passed south of Skopje and started travelling east along the motorway that eventually leads to Athens but turns off towards Sofia, Bulgaria. The sign that indicated Sofia was missing since a new motorway was being built and signage considered an unnecessary luxury so we cheerfully drove south, stopping several times to ask for directions. It was one of those unhappy situations where the navigator and driver are the same person, who happens to be too proud to buy a map despite the insistence of a totally disoriented passenger. We eventually backtracked for about an hour, drove through a murderously tricky mountain road towards the promise of a Bulgarian border, bought a map, and made it to the border on the southernmost tip of Bulgaria at around 10pm. We were harassed by Macedonian police, allowed to walk into the no-man's-land, only to be harassed once more by their Bulgarian counterparts. We were eventually treated to a stamp and a grunt and begrudgingly waved onto Bulgarian soil. A solitary taxi driver was waiting at the border, chatting with the lonely chef of a restaurant that depends on the occasional maniac who crosses that border and he was talked into driving us to Bansko, a two hour trip deep into the heart of Bulgaria, home to the best ski resort in the region. I cursed the time of year, packed my little bag into the back of his ailing Mercedes, and gripped the edge of my seat for the unexpected nocturnal rollercoaster ride.

We arrived at midnight, and throwing a defiant birdie (not the golfing term) in Baden Powell's general direction, we were spectacularly unprepared, having neglected to take the address of the hotel we were staying at. We finally found the place and I was overjoyed to find out that it was a gorgeous 5 star but somewhat dismayed that a minor detail such as advance booking was missing and that they were overbooked. Although the pavement seemed smooth enough, the chill dissuaded us from pursuing that kind of lodging arrangement so we coerced a sleepy night receptionist into calling another hotel and booking for us. The 5 minute ride to the hotel down the road cost us almost as much as the two hour ride from Macedonia but we gratefully flung our bags into the princely suite that was provided and set out on foot to find a restaurant. Never have a bottle of Merlot and half a pig gone down so well.

Bright and early next morning we woke up and headed out to discover what the town had to offer. We were met by a surprisingly anachronistic blend of top-notch ski shops and horse-drawn carts, 200 year-old wooden houses in pristine condition and designer hotels that look like an Italian furniture catalogue, poncey faggot cafes and communist statues, and cars ranging from the classic Trabant to the latest German Vorsprung durch Teknik.

All around, towering snow caps provided an alpine backdrop to the hundreds of taverns and cobbled streets and the river Glazne noisily rushed through town as if in a terrible hurry to put a large distance between it and the Pirin mountains where it originally came from. I kept looking for a banner that said 'Under Construction' with a silly animated man-and-shovel because hotels and apartment blocks are practically springing up overnight in a flurry of over-zealous capitalising on the sudden metamorphosis that this town has experienced. What was a small agricultural village until a couple of years ago is now host to thousands of tourists from Bulgaria itself and from all over Europe who turn up in drones seeking virtually unspoilt trekking in summer and fresh snow throughout winter.

The food varied from good to excellent and was consistently cheap and generous. The only downside was the difficulty communicating with serving staff who insist on repeating themselves in Bulgarian slowly and loudly hoping that the change in rate and intonation would prove to be of sudden enlightenment. Ordering sparkling water verged on impossible so I found myself describing the product. I ask for "Water." She goes "Voda?". My reply, "Da, voda." Then I twist my fingers around an imaginary bottle cap and say "Tssss", imitating the sound of sparkling water. "Ah, soda!” And my flawless Bulgarian reply, "Da, soda." Sorted.

All this naturally had me in a snap-happy mood, whipping out my camera at every possible occasion to shoot as representative a selection of photos as possible. When I was finally pleased with my little collection of pictures, I tried to review my oeuvre only to be greeted with a large yellow, cheerfully stylised question mark on my camera screen and the cryptic message, "Corrupted data". I am not the type to deal with such calamities with a resigned "Oh, bother." and I cursed the digital entrails of my memory card, wishing it stretched upon an electronic rack until it's hexadecimal sinews ripped asunder, causing whatever pain the bloody things can possibly feel. I was ruthlessly overcharged for a replacement card that unfortunately only had one eighth of the capacity of mine and tried to make up for the lost pictures but as clichè as it sounds, there is nothing that can quite recapture the moment.

On a lazy Sunday morning an open-air market gradually occupies a portion of the pedestrian area. Unlike other markets I've seen, the Bulgarians are in no hurry at all and at ten they're still arriving and unpacking their wares with a slovenly disinterest. They sell shoes, carpets, original Pioner (missing 'e') speakers, more shoes, blood pressure monitors, more carpets, bits of old bicycle, more shoes and live rabbits and chickens. The latter are slaughtered on the spot when you're satisfied with the beast of your choice.

Having had breakfast we decided not to contribute to the homicide and headed back to the border, this time with an ancient grey man in an ancient grey car, sourced by a friend of a friend of an ex-UN lawyer who saw us there with the meticulous caution of cuddling porcupines and charged us more than a taxi would have. Once again we were mercilessly harassed on both borders by obstinate uniforms, that could possibly have contained intelligent bipeds, who were evidently bored and exacted exaggerated vigilance upon their only charge for the day. We reached our forlorn truck that beeped a warm welcome and started tugging our starving bodies back towards Kosovo.

Every mile or so was marked by a noisy rumble from my protesting stomach. Beef, poultry, rabbit and other highly palatable sources of sorely needed nutrition were present in huge abundance but unfortunately were still blessed with the ability to move and I was in no mood to chase any of them. I decided to ignore the fact that I was ravenous and enjoy the surroundings. Driving through Macedonia is very similar to driving through France in many ways. Old furrowed, weathered men stand at crossroads, ready to frown at you and bark directions in a foreign language, refusing to speak English. A good road finds its way through vast, fertile plains that are punctuated by endless vineyards, gentle hills and dark green valleys between dark dreen hills that join forces to gently steer a crystal clear stream towards the rivers that dissect the country. Solitary cows allow a solitary farmer to hang on to the end of a short string and in most cases one wonders which of the couple is taking decisions. As the cow turns to choose a different leaf to nibble, it waits for the farmer to pause his introspective rumination and eventually change direction as well. Men and women of all ages can be seen bent over double at all times of day, their hands buried deep inside the brick red earth, buttocks pointing towards the sky in a backwards nod of gratitude to whatever deity provided this year's bounty. As the sun sets, entire families and their harvest pile onto wooden carts and are slowly hauled back to the village, the dark wooden structures a deadly peril on roads that make up for the lack of lighting by providing a plentiful supply of blind bends and dips.

We made our way past Strumica (pr. Strumitsa), Radovis (pr Radovish) and almost past Stip (pr Shtip) when our collective hunger drove us into the village in search of food. This one-cow town was quite picturesque but only hosted one restaurant that would feed hungry travellers on a Sunday afternoon. I ate a horrible burger that swam in enough oil to keep Siberia warm all winter and some cold and droopy chips. We asked for sparkling water, causing the bubbly owner of the place to run out of the restaurant and return five minutes later, beaming like a celestial floodlight and bearing a bottle of water labelled "Good Water" in large blue letters. It all tasted horrible but was just as welcome as all the other delicious meals we had enjoyed.

A relatively uneventful trip back 'home' to Pristina (that's Prishtina to you) was interrupted for a brief shopping spree at a brand spanking new supermarket that carried absolutely everything you could possibly imagine, possibly to satisfy the needs of all the 'internationals' (ex-pats) that live in Kosovo. It even stocks a huge variety of pirate CDs and DVDs to ensure that wholesome family entertainment is available at a price to suit all pockets.

Photos of the trip would naturally help all this and pick up where I left off in terms of imagery. I'll try to upload these to some free hosting site and post the URL here. Anyone interested in visting Kosovo may feel free to /msg me or send email and I'll be glad to offer any help possible.

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