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Hi! I’ve been absent from here for a long time but today, the 13th June marks a significant milestone in my family’s life and I felt I should mark it somehow. It’s been one hell of a twelve months. I can never forget this past year but I happily leave it behind with absolutely no desire to repeat it.

 

Twelve months ago my lovely dad suffered a major brain haemorrhage resulting in him having a massive stroke whilst he was driving … on holiday … in France.

 

Strokes are very commonplace; according to the Stroke Association, every 2 seconds someone in the world will have one. In the UK, it is the fourth leading cause of death, a leading cause of disability and there are over 1.2 million stroke survivors. Not wanting to be too commonplace, my dad had a haemorrhagic stroke, which accounts for only 15% of all strokes.

 

As it turned out, my dad managed to choose a good location to have a medical catastrophe necessitating emergency brain surgery. He was taken ill in Annecy, a picture-postcard city often called Venice of the Alps. He had medical intervention within 10 minutes and Annecy just happens to have a shiny modern hospital with an Accident & Emergency (A&E) department (an ER for those of you across the pond) and a Neurosurgery department – Centre Hospitalier Annecy Genevois. I cannot speak highly enough of this hospital and its staff who went out of their way to help us, support us and who took the most amazing care of my dad.

 

Lac d’Annecy, France. My photo.

Annecy, France. My photo.

 

Medical staff all over the world exceed our expectations every day but somehow we never really expect it. I certainly didn’t expect ICU staff to find and book a hotel for us in the middle of the night, or, a few days later to express kind concern for my mother’s health and offer advice. I never once saw anyone get exasperated with my bad French or my typing questions into Google translate or our constant badgering for information about when my dad would be deemed ‘fit to fly’ home.

 

As an amusing aside, when we finally got his ‘fit to fly’ certificate it stated in English that he was ‘feet to fly’. I never did ask what they proposed to do with the rest of him! I assume something got lost in pronunciation. I was just glad the insurance company accepted it.

 

The Swiss neurosurgeon who operated on my dad 12 months ago today and saved his life will forever be revered by us. Every medical professional who saw the scar on my dad’s head when he returned home expressed great surprise at the quality of her repair. In fact, she did such an amazing job of putting him back together again it’s hard to find much evidence of it now.

 

To think that had all this happened when he was happily ensconced at home there would be much less chance of him having survived, just makes us realise how fortuitous it was that circumstances placed him in Annecy. In Leicester, we have three hospitals but no neurosurgery department. A trip to A&E in Leicester, scans and then a transfer to a hospital in Nottingham or Birmingham would all have added too much time and it is unlikely I’d be able to tell you now about my dad’s remarkable recovery. This is not meant as a criticism of the NHS whose care of my dad over the last 12 months has been fantastic, but just an observation. Call it fate, call it luck, call it what you like … I’m just grateful for Annecy.

 

I flew out there on the 13th June last year with my brother and his wife, none of us knowing what we would find when we arrived. I was in France for 10 days, dealing with the insurance company, trying to organise repatriation and learning French words for things like blood, catheter and pressure and speaking spectacularly bad French like “Mon père voudrais dans la lit” when my dad had had enough of sitting up in a chair. For the first time in my life I found I didn’t care if people thought I was stupid although I don’t think they ever did. Without exception, not just in the hospital, everyone we met was kind, so don’t ever believe that the French hate the British.

 

So, where are we now? My dad finally returned to his own home on 10th August. Once back in the UK he spent roughly a week on a stroke ward in Leicester Royal Infirmary before being transferred to a Stroke Rehabilitation Unit not far from where I live. When he went home he had to live downstairs as he was unable to climb the stairs. He had carers in 3 times a day to help him wash and dress and he had a walking frame. The support he has had from NHS carers, physios, occupational therapists and speech therapists has been second to none. But all of that aside, it has been his own determination and personal strength supported by my brilliant mum that has enabled him to become physically fit and well again.

 

Shortly after returning home, with broken glasses. My photo.

 

First glass of wine. My photo.

 

When he was still in ICU in France, a doctor told us in broken English that my dad would make a good recovery but that he would be left with some permanent disability. I’m not sure what we imagined when we were told that but I think the reality is probably somewhat removed from whatever we conjured up in our minds. My parents’ house sits on a plot of land that is probably nearly half an acre in size. Yesterday my dad cut the grass with a petrol driven push mower – all of it! He makes a cup of tea for my mum every morning and takes it to her in bed, upstairs. He does washing up and drying up and he does a lot of gardening. He will tell you that he “can’t always say the right words” and that he can “be silly” (for silly, read emotional). What he can’t explain is that he has aphasia and possibly dyspraxia as a result of his stroke. He has lost some of his sight – on his right – and his fine motor skills are impaired meaning it’s unlikely he will return to model engineering. He has had to relearn a lot of things like how to dress himself and even though he knows, he can’t tell me my name or his. He can, however, give me word-perfect directions to pretty much anywhere whilst sitting next to me in the car! The brain is a complicated yet mysterious organ is it not? Most of all, he is happy and enjoying life. What more could we ask for?

 

We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5

 

It’s been a difficult twelve months but family are everything. My wonderful brother and sister-in-law were absolute rocks last summer – I couldn’t have coped without them – but since then have had a truly dreadful year. They lost a loved one just before Christmas and then started the new year with even more bad news but they are strong, and with a lot of love and some of that determination that we seem to possess in our family they will get through it.

 

My mother has been a trooper too. Stronger and more able than she will ever believe, she has been there for my dad every single day and while he may scare her on a daily basis with the things he says he can do, she has never given up. I am so very proud of her and what she has achieved.

 

Most of all I am just grateful. Grateful that I could go and see my dad tonight, tease him about the tan he has obtained in the garden really being dirt and talk to him about politics. There’s a lot of guess-work involved in understanding which despotic world leader he might be talking about from which country, but we get there in the end. His use of language still improves a little bit every day and while his use of the wrong words can be frustrating, it has also provided much laughter. We now have a private family joke about badgers which I couldn’t possibly explain here. So here’s to the next twelve months; may they be immeasurably better than the last twelve have been!

 

My dad, proving that, at 75, he still has a sense of humour. My photos.

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Back in 1999 I had a moment of uncharacteristic bravery and embarked on an adventure. The adventure started with me deciding that I really wanted to go on holiday – a proper holiday.

 

Growing up I had lots of family holidays. We used to tour France, first with a tent and then later a folding caravan. We would board the ferry at Dover, wave goodbye to the White Cliffs, although it was usually the middle of the night, and then spend three or four weeks travelling around La Belle France. Once or twice we also went to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and even, very briefly, Italy. We almost always ended up in Provence. When we camped in a tent there was inevitably a point where we had some torrential rain in the middle of the night and my brother and I would be hastily dressed in our swimming costumes, kagouls and flip-flops, and bundled into the car to wait for my parents to strike the camp. We would drive through the night and arrive in Arles in the early hours of the morning, catching up on some sleep while parked on the street in the ancient city. We would wake with the sun and watch the street cafés coming to life before making our way into a park where we knew there was an old water pump with a handle on the top you had to spin at some speed to get any water and some toilets that seemed to me to be as ancient as the city. This annual arrival (in reality it probably only happened twice) in Provence is one of my most vivid memories of our family holidays. It heralded a trip through the Camargue to the beach, the smell of lavender, rosemary and olives, and endless scorchingly hot sunny days.

 

Arènes d’Arles – the Roman amphitheatre in Arles built in 90AD. Source.

Chapelle Notre-Dame de l’Assomption à Entrevennes, village de Provence.
Source: Charlotte Ségurel.

 

That sounds like a proper holiday right? It wasn’t like the holidays that many of my school friends went on. They went to Skegness on the Lincolnshire coast or other UK “resorts” synonymous with fish and chips, deckchairs and Mr Whippy ice cream. Those who went further afield went to Benidorm or the Costa del Sol in Spain, maybe Majorca in the Mediterranean. I don’t remember ever being jealous. The sort of holidays where you went abroad and still spoke English and ate English food have never appealed to me and I’ve never been very interested in the usual holiday destinations at home. But, I’d never been in an aeroplane, I’d never had a beach holiday and I’d never been anywhere I considered to be exotic.

 

So I did some research. I pored over holiday brochures and rather surprisingly I found I was continually drawn to North Africa. I had some romantic notion about stepping foot on the African continent. I’d read a lot of Wilbur Smith and fallen in love with the land he wrote about in his novels. Of course my funds wouldn’t stretch to Kenya or South Africa and even if they had I’m not sure I’d have wanted to go there alone. I was drawn first to Morocco and then to Tunisia. I chose Tunisia.

 

Why Tunisia? When I visited it was very popular with British tourists looking for a beach holiday. It was relatively cheap and you were pretty much guaranteed good weather. The price was a factor for me but I stumbled across one particular destination that caught my imagination. A small group of islands that most people have never heard of just off the coast of Sfax – Les îles de Kerkennah.

 

Why Kerkennah? There was only one international hotel there, there was nothing to do except lie on the beach all day, but apparently people returned year after year after year because they loved it so much. I would be travelling alone and I was keen to go somewhere I would feel comfortable doing nothing but reading all day and where I wouldn’t feel obliged to join in. I thought I’d feel safe.

 

The travel agent was horrified. “You know they sell women for camels out there don’t you? Wouldn’t you rather go to Spain where they speak English and you can eat English food?”

 

I think I rolled my eyes.

 

So £500 poorer (for a two-week holiday with full board – I’m still astounded at that price) I persuaded my dad to make a 300 mile round trip to take me to Gatwick Airport in the middle of the night to board my flight to Sfax. I was nervous about the holiday but incredibly excited about travelling by aeroplane.

 

The boarding pass for my first ever flight. My image.

 

My first ever flight could not have been more perfect. It took 3-4 hours, the skies were clear the entire way and I had a window seat. I saw the snow-peaked Alps and watched in fascination as Sardinia passed beneath me. And then there it was. The beautiful and endless North African coast which, from my position high in the sky, appeared to be devoid of any civilisation. It stretched as far as I could see and was green and lush with a white sandy shore.

 

The plane landed in Tabarka just east of the Algerian border in a heavily forested part of Tunisia where some passengers disembarked and others boarded, bound for home after the rest of us had been dropped off in Sfax.

 

As the plane flew further south to Sfax the land got increasingly browner. As it started to descend for landing I could see that there were olive trees in all directions stretching out across the arid land. There were houses under the flight path and I could almost see the whites of people’s eyes as we flew over them. I was shocked at how close to the runway people were living.

 

Stepping off the plane the heat hit me like a body blow. It was like stepping into a wall of hot air. I felt as if I’d been shoved into a huge industrial oven and was being slowly cooked. But it was a dry heat not a humid one and surprisingly, even at 35-40C, the dryness made it bearable.

 

Customs was a very slow affair. Ours was the only plane at the airport, it was a charter flight from the UK and we’d already filled out the compulsory paperwork while we were on the plane. There were three queues. I ended up in the one they’d opened to speed things up – the queue that usually only dealt with arrivals from within the Maghreb. He probably dealt with the UK flight every week but he was still very slow. He painstakingly asked each of us the purpose of our visit and then after much deliberation stamped our passports. I was so excited! My passport had never been stamped before.

 

Once through customs and with baggage claimed I made my way to the front of the airport where there were several coaches and a minibus. Someone from the tour operator ticked me off on a list, told me to leave my case with a white van and then get on the minibus. A Tunisian man, who seemed to expect a reward, took my case and threw it into the van. Having no currency, the Tunisian Dinar is a closed currency and can only be bought inside Tunisia, I don’t think I gave him anything. I seem to remember he was quite keen on the idea of being paid in sterling.

 

Once on the minibus my nerves set in a little but as we drove through the streets of Sfax I found myself fascinated by the city. I was momentarily confused because I could read all the road signs – then I realised that’s because they were all in French and I was automatically translating them in my head. (I should point out that my French isn’t really that good but I’ve seen a lot of French road signs.) Everything seemed so surreal. I remember driving past a butcher’s shop with animal carcasses hanging in the entrance, and many of the shops just seemed to be little more than concrete shells with open fronts. The overriding sound was that of car horns. The holiday rep talked to us during the journey, covering all the salient points of Tunisian history and some other bits of trivia. If you think the UK is a football mad then you have no idea; when the local team plays in Sfax the entire city shuts down.

 

We ended up at the ferry terminal to catch the ferry to Kerkennah, a journey that took roughly an hour. The ferry was the first place I became truly aware of the Tunisians. There were no women or at least very few, and the men stared. I’d never been stared at quite like that before but strangely it didn’t bother me. I knew enough to know that the staring was to be expected and I wasn’t concerned about what they were looking at because I was fairly well covered. Pale skin that burns easily has its upsides.

 

Les îles de Kerkennah. Source.

 

Kerkennah was flat, very flat, no more than 15m above sea level, and covered in a lot of date palms and not a lot else. It was to be my home for the next two weeks and I would fall in love with the place and its people.

 

To be continued…

 

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