Frequent travel has, for me, been a constant of the last ten or so years. Partly due to the nature of my academic work, but mostly driven by a combination of curiosity and restlessness, I’ve taken extensive trips, often enrolling in language courses abroad, sometimes consulting archives, occasionally just country-hopping. The personal and financial investment required has paid great dividends, some big, some small, all life-altering in one way or another. Touring in Asia with a university choir when I sixteen, I navigated the streets of Hong Kong by myself, got lost in Bangkok, and quickly came to realize that an awkward, six-foot-tall white girl is a conspicuous presence in a South Korean shopping centre. While attending a United World College in Duino, Italy, I had roommates from Austria and Kosovo, forged long-lasting friendships, became obsessed with James Joyce, and was alerted to the fact that Italian culture and literature go much further than spaghetti, opera, and Dante. I met my North Carolinian husband while studying in Berlin. I’ve rented a Soviet-era paddle boat in Slovakia, gotten heat stroke in Budapest, spent hours in Bucharest, not a touristy city, trying to locate postcards to purchase, and broken a (still crooked) toe in Transylvania. In short, experiences that were often occasionally uncomfortable but were also instrumental in helping me shed the risk-aversion that characterized my childhood self.
I feel some pressure to be afraid to travel alone now. (Un)fortunately, I’m not. I recognize that tonic clonic seizures + lengthy periods abroad might not seem an advisable combination, but this is where the unfailingly stubborn core of my being impels me to put my foot down. Epilepsy has forced me to give up a lot, mental clarity (I hate you, Tegretol) and large tracts of time (I hate you, waiting rooms) among the sacrifices I resent most. I’m not willing to give up travel, too. So there.
I’ve come a long way, arguably too far, from timid ten-year-old me, who cried until my mother picked me up from summer camp five days early (in my defence, I was the only English speaker in a cabin dominated by little Mexican girls who made cootie catchers and conversed only in Spanish… not that I’m still bitter or anything). For whatever reason I tend to be spontaneous while travelling in a way I’m not at home, but I appreciate that impulsively taking the night train to Warsaw isn’t an option, or at least not an intelligent one, for someone with uncontrolled epilepsy. So I take steps to safeguard my physical health and to provide reassurance to family members, for whom the thought of me roaming the Italian countryside da sola is understandably nerve-wracking. I have a MedicAlert bracelet, leave itineraries and contact information with my husband, and don’t take the night train anywhere, no matter how tempting the prospect.
Yet even with careful planning, things can, and have, gone wrong. Epilepsy is an unpredictable beast, and, despite my best efforts, I inevitably find myself in problematic situations. Like feeling aura-y while gazing at David at the Galleria dell’Arte (wait, did Michelangelo mean to sculpt four arms onto that beautifully chiseled body? No, that’d be an impending seizure). This, my friends, is what public washrooms are for.
I’ve done three cross-Atlantic trips since being diagnosed, two to London, one to Italy. Figuring, maybe mistakenly, that sociocultural conceptions of illness there are similar to those in Canada, and buoyed by the lack of language barrier, going to the UK bothers me no more than does visiting other parts of North America. My blind faith remains unchallenged. England has been kind to me; I’ve had a seizure in a dark corner of the cloakroom of the British Library and several in the privacy of friends’ dwellings, but have yet to publicly embarrass myself. Not by convulsing, anyway.
I was a little more uneasy about last summer’s stay in Florence. Though I speak Italian and am familiar with Italian culture (five years—and counting—of graduate studies are good for something), I can only assume that my ability to convey crucial medical information in a foreign language is compromised in the moments leading up to or following a seizure. In an effort to tame this free-floating anxiety, especially acute while handling post-ictal ugliness, I prepared a Berlitz-style dialogue to be drawn forth in case of emergency:
Me: Buongiorno, signora. Sto per avere un attacco epilettico. Potrebbe aiutarmi? [Hello, ma’am. I am about to have a seizure. Could you help me?]
Nice lady feeding pigeons in a quaint piazza: Certo. Sono a sua disposizione. [Certainly. I am at your disposal.]
Me: La ringrazio sinceramente! Se mi strozzo con la saliva mi chiami un’ambulanza, per favore. [I sincerely thank you! If I choke on my saliva, please call an ambulance for me.]
Lady: Il piacere è tutto mio. [The pleasure is all mine.]
Armed with this flawed masterpiece, which now forms part of the collection of useless travel phrases I’ve been amassing for several years, I boarded my flight for Italy, where I conducted archival work, ate copious amounts of gelato, and had several manageable seizures. And was, when push comes to shove, totally fine.