Now wash your hands

beer in austriaWell, what a lovely time I had in Budapest and Vienna, and how long ago it seems. My only issue with travel is that you have to take yourself with you. You can’t leave yourself at home. You even have to sit with yourself on the plane, that fidgety irritant. He can never decide if he wants to read a book or listen to music. He finds both at once impossible. That’s why travel books are always full of clichés about losing yourself in souks, bazaars, backstreets and canal paths.

I did my best to speak only German in Austria. Sometimes Austrians would respond in English, but the trick is confidence: we are what we pretend to be, and I pretended to be someone who can speak German. I only came seriously unstuck once: I ordered a couple of beers from a waitress. While she was off fetching them, another waiter pointed at my empty glass and asked if I wanted it re-filled. Panic!

How on earth do you say “I have already ordered another beer from the waitress, but thank you for your attentiveness”? The plastic wheels were falling off my linguistic tricycle. Knowing that I needed to use the verb ‘to order’ in the present perfect tense was as useful as knowing I’d need to run steadily at 15mph to do a four minute mile. The only thing I could think to say was “The fräulein has written of my thirst.” Do they have Jeeves & Wooster in Austria?

They certainly aren’t in danger of running out of beer and schnitzel in Austria. I could have stayed in Vienna for a long time, but I had to come home in time for all the election excitement. As I write this, Nick Clegg is being courted by both Brown and Cameron. If he passes up the chance to force a referendum on the UK’s electoral process, I may have what used to be called a nervous breakdown. I don’t even care if that means another chunk of Gordon Brown.

Brown. We’re like a nation of battered wives in denial: he’s only hit us five or six times, and it’s always when he’s been drunk. And we must have provoked him. Either way, our next Prime Minister will certainly be a man who voted for the Iraq war. Well done, everybody. White phosphorous all round.

bad ideaI take comfort from knowing that good ideas always win in the end. Take Professor Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who worked in Vienna. (Guess where I picked up this story.) Semmelweis had the craziest idea: he thought that germs caused people to get sick and die. This was a controversial idea only 150 years ago.

He noticed that one in ten mothers who gave birth in hospitals died shortly after, while only one in fifty women who gave birth at home died in the same way. He also noticed that doctors went directly from dissecting corpses in the morgue to attend to women in the maternity ward. He made a suggestion: that doctors wash their hands in between dissecting corpses and delivering babies. Who did this prick think he was, telling the great doctors of Vienna how to do their jobs? And to make things worse, his idea worked! The dying stopped. Wait til you hear what thanks he got.

To cut to the chase, he ended up being admitted to an insane asylum, where he died of a self-inflicted cut to the hand from a deliberately infected scalpel. Poor old Semmelweis. But his good, unpopular idea of people washing their hands after dissecting corpses won out in the end.

This is my mantra for May: honourable people with good ideas always win in the end.

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5 Responses to Now wash your hands

  1. McKinley says:

    I read the title of your post, and without thinking got up and washed my hands.

  2. Char says:

    I remember hearing about that doc in the Blood and Guts documentry last year, so, so heartbreaking! Poor man. At least his work is now recognised and erm.. less people are dying! x Char x

  3. Dan says:

    Loved the line about Brown. Political discussion can always benefit from a domestic abuse parallel 😀

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