2016-10-08 Moving freely about Europe – but for how long?

Moving freely about Europe – but for how long?

After a busy time in Sweden during August and early September, it was off to Heidelberg and a healthcare communications conference. I was presenting my poster on risk communication for women.

It was my first time in Heidelberg and I was delighted with the city, especially the compact, lively old sector where I was staying. My hotel was a small, unpretentious establishment in an old building. The room was spacious and comfortable and the buffet breakfast was splendid. There was no food during the day, nor fridge or coffee-making equipment in the room, but the staff were friendly and cheerful and found clothes-hangers, extra pillows and ice for my drinks in no time at all when asked.

The conference was held in the university buildings just a short walk from where I was staying. They were deeply unattractive in the setting of the old city and I had to ask myself how an academic institution could, in the twentieth century, approve the construction of buildings that so lacked character, aesthetic appeal and harmony with their environment. The general facilities and lecture rooms were serviceable but undistinguished. There were several hundred participants from all over the world, but predominantly from Europe and America.

There was a complex programme of parallel lectures and presentations, and I skipped about from room to room trying to catch the ones that really interested me. The most remarkable and memorable was by Iona Heath, past-president of the Royal College of General Practitioners. Her long, intelligent, powerful talk was called: The missing person: the rule-based totalitarianism of too much contemporary healthcare. The core argument was that medical practice was losing its grasp of the uniqueness of individual patients in a welter of guidelines and bureaucratic distractions. She quoted poets, philosophers, novelists and scientists from the last couple of centuries and presented a passionate case for re-establishment of focus on the patient as a person for whom standard procedures and generalisations were irrelevant and unethical. The audience rose to its feet and applauded her for several minutes afterwards.

Because one if her themes was the topic of end-of-life choices, I contacted her after I got home and asked if she would like a copy of Time to Let Go. I took a copy from Oxford on my travels. When she replied saying she would like to read it, I sent the copy to her when I was in Sicily. It will be intriguing to see what she might have to say about it!

My poster attracted some interest and discussion. I met one or two influential people from the UK and the US and a whole range of busy professionals. Among the new acquaintances was a professor of social work from Ulster University who was an old friend of an old of mine who works in London for the European Medicines Agency. The three of us had an amusing and enjoyable time together at the conference dinner in Heidelberg Castle, laughing disrespectfully at the strange speech and weird sense of humour of the new president of the association hosting the conference.

Two weeks by the river

After Heidelberg, it was off to Oxford for a couple of weeks. Rafe and Marie arrived the day after I landed in the UK. They stayed for a couple of nights and we had a happy time together. We saw Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking at the Playhouse and they went on their own to see the film of the Roald Dahl story The BFG (I’d seen enough of it on a plane not to want to see any more). We had a great dinner at the Head of the River pub (just along from my house, by Folly Bridge), some good walks in the sunshine in Christchurch Meadow as well as happy shopping in town.

There was an excellent lunch cooked by Mark and Rose at their home, with Stewart and Evelyn in attendance; brunch with Claire and John in Jericho (they later came for drinks at River House) and light lunch with Nicholas, the Byzantine art scholar. I bought rather too many books at Blackwell’s and Waterstone’s, including my second Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Dream. That and the first I read, Between the World and Me, are stunning accounts of one of the very dark sides of life in the US: the implacable oppression and disempowering of black people. Coates is spoken of in the same breath as James Baldwin and other great voices, though his genre is documentary and autobiography rather than fiction.

Keyboards: out with the old, in with the new

Since I had been attempting to recover some of my piano playing skills in Chiang Rai, and the only credible way to achieve any kind of progress was daily practice, I felt I needed to have a keyboard in Oxford. My ancient Victorian harmonium (still in tolerable working order) would not fit the bill so an alternative was required. Rafe and Marie and I went to the main professional music shop in Oxford and examined a range of electronic pianos, similar to the model I have in Thailand. The quality of sound and the action of the keys of most of them was very impressive, even the ones at the low end of sophistication and price. I bought a Yamaha P-45 for under GBP400 (about 440 Euros). It was delivered the next day, along with a temporary stand while the proper one was ordered. I played, with great pleasure, every day until I left for Sicily. The harmonium, which I’ve had for forty-odd years, sits in the garage until I can find a good home for it.

My old friend and colleague Geoffrey Bowring came up from the south-west for one day and a night, and we spent our time planning our joint work on revision of the UMC website, a huge project that we had been charged with completing as soon as possible. That continued later in October in Uppsala and would require a further visit to Sweden at the end of that month.

Next destination was Erice, Sicily. Another meeting, another challenge – and lots of good food and wine including the disgraceful local speciality – canolli. More to come soon!