I’ve been reading Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by Christopher Smith, John Pattison and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, and highlighting it here for the past several Mondays. The book is important, with an important story to tell.
Little did I expect to experience directly the message of the chapter entitled “Hospitality.”
We left for a two-week vacation in London on Sept. 28. Travel was uneventful, movement through British Customs at Heathrow uneventful, and soon we found our jetlagged selves at the same hotel we had stayed at last year, 51 Buckingham Gate.
Yes, it’s expensive. But it’s also reasonably expensive, and located two block from Buckingham Palace, three blocks from Westminster Abbey and Parliament, a block from a tube station, close to buses and, rather surprisingly, in a quiet courtyard off the street. In fact, when you’re in the courtyard, it’s so quiet that it’s difficult to imagine you’re located in the very center of London; it’s that quiet. Our room was on the seventh floor, and I could look out the window and see the top of the gold-plated memorial to Queen Victoria that sits in front of Buckingham Palace.
Our first two days went as planned – recover from jet lag, see a few things, start easing into a new schedule and time zone. On Tuesday I took an early morning walk across St. James Park to St. James Square and Piccadilly, and watched the swans and pelicans in the park lake.
On Wednesday morning, I was in the shower, and leaned to wash my foot. I felt my lower left back muscle pull. It had happened before; I know what it means. Take some ibuprofen, and take it easy. I took ibuprofen, and stuck to the original schedule. We had limited our activities for that day because we were meeting friends for dinner. On Thursday, we took a long walk on the South Bank, from London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral to Westminister Bridge, with a few stops along the way. On Friday we hopped a train to Salisbury to see the town and cathedral.
Back in London, I went to bed late Friday night. About 2 a.m. Saturday morning, I woke up, any movement causing severe pain in my back. My wife helped me get out of bed (it took several minutes to maneuver this). I finally did what I knew was the most comfortable thing to do – lie flat on my back on the floor, in the living room area next to the coffee table. Any movement created a back spasm that froze the left side of my back in knock-your-breath-away pain.
On Saturday morning, I was able to get myself up and stagger to the bathroom. I immediately went back to the living room, and my wife had moved her Pilates mat next to desk and phone. I got myself down on the mat, curled in a fetal position on my right side, while she called the hotel concierge.
Severe back pain is no fun. Severe back pain in a foreign country is frightening.
I remember snatches of the conversation. The hotel doctor on call was not available. Another doctor, from the National Health Service, was coming, promised with four to six hours. The alternative was an ambulance to a hospital, and the wait there could be as long.
|Boots on Victoria Street|
The NHS doctor arrived about 11:45 a.m. “You back muscle feels like a brick,” he said, “and any movement creates a back spasm.” He explained what he would do – a pain shot, followed by three prescriptions – one for acute pain, one for longer-term pain, and one like Valium to control the spasms (and keep me calm). He was caring and knowledgeable. He did write the prescriptions on one form – and one was a controlled substance, needing a different form.
My wife, after getting the first two prescriptions filled at a nearby Boots pharmacy, got herself on a bus and headed for Soho, to get the form from the National Health Service office near Soho Square. (She can now tell you about Soho; it’s never been on our list of “must-see” tourist attractions.) (If you don’t know about Soho, Google it.) She encountered a problem: the center couldn’t write the prescription.
|NHS on Soho Square|
Arriving back at the hotel, and not having the most important prescription, she turned to the hotel staff. Kristina was the receptionist on duty. She calmed my wife down, told her to go upstairs to tend to me, called the hotel doctor (who was at his daughter’s birthday party), had the doctor talk directly to my wife, and arranged to have a bellman pick up an over-the-counter medicine prescribed by the doctor. A few minutes later, I was taking the equivalent of Tylenol in Alka-Selzter form – with codeine (they can sell this over-the-counter in Britain).
The hotel staff delivered dinner for my wife, maneuvering around the fetal-like husband on the floor. My wife was able to get a cheese-and-tomato sandwich for me (and I couldn’t eat much more than that). By midnight, I was finally able to stand and walk around the hotel room.
|Bus 24 on Charing Cross Road|
I still slept on the floor – the hardness stabilized my back. I slept for 11 hours straight. I stayed in the room on Sunday, taking my medicine, with the hotel housekeeping staff working around me.
The entire hotel staff knew what had happened. We were tended to and taken care of. I actually left the hotel on Monday morning for a short walk, and Sergio the concierge (who had not been on weekend duty) immediately asked me how I was feeling, and that he was glad to see I was up and about. For the next two days, I received the same question from the entire staff, include the dining and housekeeping staff.
“Hospitality connects us to a place,” the authors of Slow Church write, “because while hospitality can happen pretty much anywhere, it has to happen somewhere. Hospitality requires proximity, and by definition, proximity requires nearness in space, time or relationship – all of which assume certain limits.”
Hospitality happened to me at 51 Buckingham Gate, some 5,000 miles from home. And yes, it connects me to a place, and the people at the place.
We knew where we will stay the next time we go to London.