The Pain and the Agony (of Owning a Set of Knees)

I send weekly emails to my friends and family back home. Sometimes I am going to post them here. They have been edited to ensure that certain private details never see the light of day!

And yes, this one refers to events which are several months old.

“How have you enjoyed Romania?” turns out to not be the easiest question to answer when moving through passport control. It’s not a matter of answering honestly (my answer would be “Yes”). Rather, it’s the fact that any answer is likely to get a weird response.

For example, the first time I left Romania (to attend a workshop in Venice a month after I arrived) the passport officer looked at me with a certain dismay on his face when I habitually (but honestly) “Yes.”

“Really?” he asked, looking at my passport a second time, presumably looking for evidence that I was engaged in criminal activities.

The second time, when I jetted off to keynote at the University of Padova in late 2016 (for I was always going to Italy back then), the passport officer’s response to my “Yes” was to say “You can’t have been here very long then.”

Needless to say, passport officers seem to have a very low opinion of their country (as do Romanian taxi drivers, from my experience).

Now, one cannot begrudge Romanians being surprised at Westerners not having a bad time here. But worrying about being able to leave the country and still come back makes going to the airport an exercise in an exercise in low-level anxiety.

For the record, I still say “Yes”, but now with an increasingly jaunty tone. I suspect I am not helping.


Pavements in Bucharest are treacherous, as my rather skinless knee can attest. I was running along Boulevard Decebel (named after the last Dacian king) when my foot decided that colliding with a slightly upraised cobblestone would be a grand idea. My body joined in the fun, deciding physics dictates that if motion has stopped with the left foot, that doesn’t mean the upper body should follow suit. Indeed, wouldn’t it be grand if the upper body kept moving forward, whilst arcing towards the ground?

My arms where having none of this, however. My hindbrain spurred itself into action (to the hindbrain all sudden capers like this are a bad idea), and directed that my arms must spring forward to arrest my fall.

Thus, in the space of just a few seconds I went from running to sliding to the realisation that I was on the ground. And there was pain.

You might think that Auckland is fairly battered by storms, but that’s nothing compared to Bucharest. Despite yearly winters, in which banks of snow reach several metres in height, and sudden springs where the temperature jumps a good 12 to 17 degrees in the space of a few days, Bucharest’s drains cannot cope with water. Any water. Especially not the melting snow. Rather, the water sits there and slowly degrades the roads, the pavements, and the houses.

Which leads to raised cobblestones and running accidents.

Now, the problem with being forty is that the body doesn’t heal like it did. Before I went away (literally the night before) I stubbed my toe in what a police report would doubtlessly describe as a “violent manner.” That lead to several weeks of walking very awkwardly, and when the toe healed I was left with a knee which ached as I walked because, well, I had been walking awkwardly with that leg and thus I had sprained the muscles around my kneecap. So, after a month of not running, what did I do? Fall over and hurt the other knee.

Expect to find me, on my return, with somewhat fewer limbs than I started. I’m obviously not able to be responsible for the requisite set of two arms and two legs anymore.


So, why am I at the airport? To visit Sofia for the fourth time in order to collect my visa, of course. It’s a one night trip, with what promises to be a ten minute meeting at 9am tomorrow morning. The thought of the trip is less exciting than it is… Boring? It’s not that Sofia is dull city to visit; far from it. However I’ve done all the things a tourist need do in Sofia, so the fact my flight leaves at 8pm means I’m not entirely sure how I will spend my day. Presumably it will be in some cafe, as I get on with the work that needs doing. I have at least three presentations to prepare and it turns out they do not write themselves.

Still, Sofia has seen some great brainstorming on my part; I came up with the idea that eventually became my highest prestige paper (published in Synthese) at a vegan restaurant in Sofia. I cracked how to parse talk of keeping secrets in a cafe there just a month ago. Thus, I have high hopes that tomorrow will be replete with exciting work. In fact, it kind of needs to be, because tomorrow it will be raining, and I don’t fancy wandering the streets of Sofia in the pouring rain with this rather damaged knee.

International travel. It can be so so glamorous.

A medical certificate

I send weekly emails to my friends and family back home. Sometimes I am going to post them here. They have been edited to ensure that certain private details never see the light of day!

“Your blood pressure is excellent,” the doctor told me. Then, slowly turning to look knowingly into my eyes, she said “It’s truly excellent.”

I felt I had to say something, something to acknowledge the “truly excellent” state of my cardiovascular system.

“Thanks” I said.

I knew immediately that I had blown it. I should have led with something about my diet (all plants all the time), or the fact I run (an activity that I do not actually enjoy, I should add; I only do it out of some weird duty to future me and their health). I could have talked about how not driving means I get to walk everywhere, or the benefits of have spent most of my life living beside the sea. Almost anything would have been a more meaningful contribution than “Thanks.”

Or I could have invented some rationale for the supreme pressure of my bloods. She knew nothing of me, and would probably never see me again. I could have told tales of scaling the Southern Alps using only my teeth, or how those of us descended from the Merovingian dynasty have characteristically good hearts. I was the only deep sea driver who didn’t need to get acclimatised before descended 50,000 fathoms; the first person to parasail in the upper atmosphere without a suit.

Instead, I said “Thanks.”

The why of my mundane response is, of course, obvious; my excellent blood pressure not the result of careful work but, rather, something that just happens to be the case (and vis also the product of certain genetic luck). In that moment I wasn’t sure how I was meant to respond to compliments about something I had never gone out of my way to achieve. Indeed, I was reminded of the time someone complimented me on my curls; my immediate response was to say “Thanks; I grew them myself.”

Now, those of you concerned for my well-being will doubtlessly be asking “But why were you seeing a doctor in the first place?” The answer, as always in Romania, is bureaucratic. To get my residency permit I needed to be given a clear bill of health, and a medical certificate from Aotearoa New Zealand apparently would not cut it.

When I last applied for a residency permit I was taken to the University of Bucharest’s medical clinic (which are called “cabinets”) where after five minutes of Iulia (the administrator of the ICUB) talking with the GP I was given a medical certificate. At no point did the doctor talk to me, and I’m fairly sure she didn’t even look at me; despite the fact the meeting was all about my health (and the potential for me to being new and exotic diseases into Romania), I was the one person who didn’t need to be there. So, I was surprised that my new GP (who I suspect, and hope, I will never see again[1]) was so keen to give me the once over. Especially since the entire consultation was unnecessary; after being congratulated on being in such fine health I was sent downstairs to fetch the already filled out medical certificate.

It was fated that I was going to get a clean bill of health no matter the state of my heart (and its associated blood pressures).

On the drive back to the NEC I wondered what would have happened had the doctor found something wrong with me. Would the certificate have been revoked? Would they hush up my frail state? Would I simply disappear into the Romanian medical system, never to be heard of again?

But then I realised that if it was determined that I would be in peak physical condition, maybe the doctor had lied to me. She had, after all, never shown me the results of the blood pressure test, and she had lingered when listening to my lungs. I thought that perhaps she was entranced by the slow, steady movement of them, but maybe she had heard some small murmur which indicated trouble to come.

Sitting in the back of the taxi, I could feel the pressure around my temples increasing. I felt sick. My legs no longer seemed capable of carrying my weight. My back had a curious ache. I stared blearily at the medical certificate in my hand, trying to decipher the doctor’s scrawl, but it was no good. Aside from the terrible handwriting it was also written in Romanian, and I had no idea what it said.

My mortality was imminent. I only had another sixty years to live.

What a waste.

  1. Not because I did not like the GP, nor because I thought she was in anyway incompetent; I just hope I do not need any medical advice or services in the near future. And because if I happen to need some medical procedure, Romania’s health system is not exactly well-regarded. I mean, three years ago they had a crisis where it turned out that the medical supplies company that provided surgical grade bleach for hospitals (used to disinfect instruments) was watering down the bleach to the point that people were dying due to infections caused by inadequately disinfected surgical instruments…