If I took my cue from the journalists I most admire I would seize the occasion to write a proper New Year’s essay lamenting the follies and fatuities of 2013 or assessing the likely perils and pitfalls of 2014, but that really isn’t my style. I do wish all my readers all the best for 2014, and I do pray for the relief of our troubled land and our needy world. But for better or worse my modest muse, when we get to the crossroads, generally nudges me in the direction of the humorous or the absurd rather than that of the profound. So I will relate my curious experience in ringing out the old year.
Our recent trip to Geneva was delightful, but it included one awkward moment. On the third morning, I woke up with a sore and slightly swollen finger — the ring finger on my left hand. What we often call “denial” is the human mind’s eagerness to avoid unpleasantness by finding “rational” solutions, however implausible, to the little emergencies of daily life. I persuaded myself that I had somehow all unconsciously banged my knuckle on the bedside table during the night. We had things to do and places to go, and so went there and did them. But by midafternoon my finger was really bothering me, and by day’s end the knuckle practically glowed in the waning light. It was hot to the touch, half again its normal girth, and throbbing with pain.
My son Luke was sufficiently alarmed to suggest an immediate trip to the hospital. Still in denial, I assured him a drug store with some “Icy Hot” would be sufficient; but the pharmacist’s assistant practically fainted when she saw my finger. This was a case for the “Permanence” — which, I deduced, was an off-hours walk-in clinic. Luckily for me there was supposed to be a Permanence only four blocks away.
We actually found it, and less than an hour later I was in the office of the doctor on duty, an animated Italian woman, approximately four and a half feet tall. We met on neutral linguistic ground. I have often explained to my students that the social genius of medieval Latin was that it was nobody’s mother tongue and therefore the common domain of all. There is a reason that French was the lingua franca of the Swedish Crusaders. Admittedly limited experience with small female doctors has led me to hypothesize that small female doctors enjoy having large male patients at their mercy. I tried to engage in spirited repartee in French, but she immediately established her authority
She took one look at the finger and instantly offered two hypotheses. The first was an acute attack of inflammatory osteo-arthritis, but this in her view was unlikely. (In fact I think that hypothesis primo was mainly to scare me.) Her second hypothesis, which rapidly moved from probability to certainty as she talked, was la goutte. This caught me doubly by surprise. I was not prepared to suffer from gout. Even less prepared was I for the French word for gout to be goutte.
Gout was an ailment of aging eighteenth-century aristocrats who drank too much port. (What an insult to teetotalers that fruit juice is apparently even worse!) In later ages its victims were the caricature plutocrats of Monopoly board iconography, who are likewise the objects of cruel mirth in old Punch and New Yorker cartoons. Let me tell you that outside the pages of humor magazines, gout is no joke. Furthermore, gout was supposed to attack the joints of the toes, not those of the fingers. There was the additional linguistic insult. I thought I actually knew the French word goutte: a drop, as in a drop of rain. I even knew the special fancy meaning in medieval heraldry, in which a goutte is one of those little globs roughly in the shape of teardrops that feature on many coats of arms. This was a painful way to expand my vocabulary.
With confidence later vindicated by speedy results Dr. Colitta was sure she could fix me up in a matter of hours with prescribed anti-inflammatories. In the meantime, she told me, I faced an immediate crisis. My wedding ring was about to strangulate my finger; it must be removed immediately. I hope that captures the linguistic ambiguity I experienced, as it was not at first clear to me whether it was the ring or the finger that faced imminent removal.
It was the former. Digital goutte might be news to me, but it is apparently so common that your ordinary Swiss Permanence keeps not merely a machine to do the job but a highly qualified professional to operate the machine. The operator was a lively lass. I judged from her name — Svetlana — that she must have sprung from one of the eastern-most cantons of the Helvetic Confederation. She took an immediate interest in my son, who is a great deal younger than I and, truth forces me to admit, even better looking.
The ring-cutting device seems to work on the principle of a can-opener. The operation took quite a while, and it hurt like hell; but a good deal of life is dealing with lesser evils, and the only alternatives on offer appeared to be amputation or forcing the ring over the inflamed knuckle.
Very soon we were back on the streets on our way, first, to the all-night pharmacy with its anti-inflammatories and then to another splendid supper. We were also chuckling over Svetlana’s parting shot to Luke. With a wicked wink she had asked him if he didn’t want her to remove his ring as well.