The doctor looked at me intently for a moment and then said: “You are not a translator.”
At first I thought that he thought that I had been lying to him. "What do you mean I'm not a translator?", I said. "I have clients, they send me their stuff, I translate it, and they pay me."
“That’s not what I meant,” he said, holding up the results from my latest blood test. “This is not the blood of a translator."
“Umm…ok, what kind of blood is it then?" I was trying hard not to betray that I thought he was crazy. The other four doctors I had been to couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me so I was going to listen.
“Look”, he said, circling the serum ferritin, free iron, hematocrit, and a bunch of other values on the blood test. "These are all way too high. Your body has 300 horsepower. It’s like a Porsche but you’re just driving it around the city. You need to take it out on the Autobahn and let it run.” (I was in Germany at the time.)
“I know you don’t believe me,” he continued, “but I’ll show you. We’re going to take blood from you until the iron level comes down and you will see."
He was right, I didn’t believe him. We were having these conversations in German and I was starting to wonder if what I was hearing wasn’t the result of some huge linguistic misunderstanding. I had been sick for a long time. I had absolutely no energy, I slept 12 hours per day, and my heart palpitations had gotten so bad that I had the feeling I was going to have a heart attack at any moment. His explanation that my body was like a Porsche was the polar opposite of what I was experiencing; I felt more like an old Pinto.
I went to see him a bunch of times over the next 4 or 5 months to have phlebotomies. They would test me periodically to see how the iron level was. It would drop after they removed blood then bounce back up. This went on for a while until finally it dropped and stayed down. After about 2 months of this I started to feel better. After 3 months I was starting to become the Energizer bunny.
That winter in Berlin it snowed around New Years Eve and it didn’t thaw until March, each thin snowfall adding to the last, compacting into a 3 to 4 inch layer of ice. I started running on the ice, at first from Prenzlauerberg down through Tiergarten. Soon I was running out to Potsdam or Bernauer then taking the SBahn back. Next I joined a gym and started going every day in addition to the running.
At my next doctor’s visit (I call him Verrückterarztmann) I told him what I was up to. He said it wasn’t enough.
“Most of my patients come in here complaining about not feeling well, and most of them I can't help. They don’t have what you have. I don’t have what you have. I wish I did, I would love to be able to do what you can do. You’re like Lance Armstrong. In fact I looked them up and your blood values are higher than his are. When I go out in this weather and get cold and wet I want to go home and sit in front of the fire. You're not like that. You can keep going and going and going, no matter what the conditions. Get off your ass and train for a marathon or something, or go climb a mountain.”
The Lance Armstrong comment got me to thinking. And so I discovered cycling. I had hardly ridden a bicycle since I was an adolescent but I wanted to put Verrückterartzmann’s assertions to the test. I borrowed a bicycle from a friend, bungeed a backpack with a change of socks and underwear to the rack, and set off for Usedom on the coast of the Baltic Sea. It was February, with temperatures in the mid 20's and the ground still covered with ice and snow. When I think about it now I laugh at how completely clueless I was about bicycle travel. I was wearing jeans and a ski parka, had no pump or tools, no oil for the chain, no food, no maps, no spare tubes, etcetera… Did I mention that I was wearing jeans? (I would pay dearly for that bit of ignorance.)
I started riding. There is a marked bike path that goes from Berlin to Usedom and I just followed the signs. It's a beautiful ride, most of it through the woods. I crashed on the ice at least once every couple of kilometres. The farther north I went the thicker the snow; I had to carry the bike up a lot of the hills, stumbling and falling. I was cursing the doctor in Spanish (don’t know why in Spanish, he just seemed like an hijo de la chingada) and asking myself what the hell I was doing this for, until I took a particularly bad spill on the ice and slid a good 4 metres, winding up on my back in a snow bank. And I just started laughing. This was a blast!
So began my cycling adventures. In April I bought a bicycle, closed up the apartment, and rode from Berlin to Barcelona. Then from Boston to San Diego. Then Mexico. And so on. And now? Not sure, just going to keep going until something happens or I run out of planet. Doctor’s orders.