The title for my latest blog post is borrowed from the 1980s horror film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, which some of you might remember. So why that particular horror film? Easy. Because yesterday’s experience truly was a nightmare, though not involving blood, guts and gore. It just involved the gory state my soul was reduced to after leaving the Clinic of Childhood and Youth on Copernicus Street, with the burning need to have a full-blown nervous breakdown there and then, on the snowy streets of Krakow.
I’ve been living in Poland for twenty-six years, and I keep thinking that I’m finally used to it now, both the good and the bad. I keep thinking that the bad bothers me less and less, as the old communist years are further and further removed from the present day. But some things apparently take longer to change. Bureaucracy being one of them. Bad manners and blatant rudeness another. Sometimes it honestly seems like the System is out there deliberately to confuse and frustrate the uninitiated; and that the employees off the System are out there deliberately to harm you. Twenty-six years, jeez! Why haven’t I got used to it yet?
So yesterday I took my daughter to said Clinic, where she was booked in for what we believed to be her first appointment. Something that had been arranged six weeks earlier. At last she was going to see a specialist and start treatment.
But do these sort of places – the ones that stubbornly linger in a post-communist, Kafkaesque nightmare world – truly want to help young people? Any people?
Our entry into the late nineteenth-century building did not bode well. As soon as we stepped inside the dark foyer, stamping the snow off our feet, we were confronted by an elderly, unsmiling lady who looked like a character straight out of Hansel and Gretl. And I’m not referring to the good guys.
She glared at us from behind the glass shield of her porter’s cubicle and barked, “What do you want?”
My daughter offered a timid smile. “I have an appointment with Dr X.”
“Room No 7,” the dour lady snapped, returning to her crossword.
“Er, sorry, but where’s …”
“In the basement, down that way.” The lady’s grey head jerked in the appropriate direction.
Thanking her for her time, we dutifully headed down that way and clambered down a set of cold stone steps that led into a dark, dank, windowless lair that resembled a modern-day dungeon. Lined up against the walls outside Room No 7 were several long, narrow benches upon which a whole pile of other dour-looking souls were silently seated. Each one of them raised their weary heads to us as we approached.
“Is this a queue to Room No 7?” I asked, and was answered by a series of nods.
It was supposed to be a set appointment, I thought, but never mind. At least we had finally got here, after all of six weeks. At last the sessions were going to begin and my daughter was going to get well again, in body and soul, under the expert guidance of a learned specialist who would take her under his wing.
After waiting for what seemed like the entire duration of War and Peace, my daughter’s turn at last came round. She stood up from our hard wooden bench, gave me a valedictory smile, and trotted off to Room No. 7, wherein the poor frail thing disappeared.
Less than ten minutes later she was out again, clutching a piece of paper in her hand. She appeared to be somewhat confused. “I’ve got a referral to see a specialist.”
“But you had a referral six weeks ago,” I said, equally confused. “This was supposed to be your appointment with a specialist!”
“No, apparently it was just a consultation,” my practically grown-up child replied. I could see the remnants of Hope fast fading from her wan face.
“But – ”
“I have to take this referral to Room No 2 on the first floor,” she bravely persisted.
Already sensing we were on to a losing battle, I stood up. Together we trudged back up the stairs, and eventually located Room No 2 at the end of another long, echoing corridor.
Upon entry into the stuffy room, a youngish woman with long blond hair glanced across at us from her elevated position on a set of stepladders by a series of ancient-looking bookshelves. “Yes?” she barked.
My daughter meekly held up her piece of paper. “I have a referral.”
Ignoring us with a totality that was astonishing, the frowning blond turned back to whatever task she had been assigned among the musty books. Silence.
“Is this Room No 2?” I asked in a somewhat louder voice than my daughter’s. Keep calm, I inwardly ordered myself. She is only an employee. She does not hate us.
With a clearly audible sigh, the woman climbed down her stepladders and approached the long counter that divided her world from ours. She grabbed the piece of paper from my daughter’s hand and spent some moments glowering at it. Then she raised her eyes to the enemy and glowered at us instead.
“You need to go to Room No 5 on the second floor,” she rasped, returning the piece of paper to my daughter and turning her back on us. Up the ladders she re-clambered.
So we vacated the horrible little office and made our way up the chilly stone steps to the second floor of this unwelcoming, nineteenth-century castle.
As we approached Room No 5, my daughter frowned. Narrowing her eyes at the plaque on the door, she read aloud the doctor’s name that was displayed on it.
“But Mum …” she began with yet more of the Fading Hope, “I recognize this doctor’s name. He’s the one I spoke to in December. He told me that he no longer works in the field that I need.”
“Don’t you remember? He said he hasn’t worked in that field for fifteen years. Then he gave me the telephone number to Doctor X – the one who I saw just now.”
“But … but maybe you’re mistaken. They wouldn’t refer you to someone who no longer works in the field you’ve been referred to. Why don’t you just knock on the door and see if it is him?”
Her faced turned a whiter shade of pale. “What, just go in …?”
“Look, there’s no one waiting in the corridor, so he must be free. Oh come on, he won’t bite.”
My patience wearing thin, I knocked on the door myself, opened it, and stepped inside.
A bespectacled man with thinning hair scowled at me from his desk. “I’m busy!” he growled, fiercer than any Rottweiler. Then he promptly turned back to whatever task was so preoccupying his short-circuited mind and soul. “Please leave this room immediately and wait outside!” Oh, how fed up I was of being snapped at…
“It is him,” my daughter said as soon as I turned round to face her.
So, once again down the wretched steps we trudged. Back to Room No 2, Lair of The Lady of the Stepladders.
I cleared my throat in order to announce our entry, which would otherwise have been completely ignored. The woman glanced at us from her position On High, refreshing her scowl.
Notwithstanding our fierce opposition, my daughter attempted a smile. “The doctor in Room No 5 doesn’t deal with my problem,” she explained ever so politely. I myself wanted to scream, rather than explain things ever so politely. Youth evidently has more patience.
The woman’s glare intensified. She was downright scary. I wouldn’t have been in the least surprised had she suddenly brandished a dagger at us and yelled, “Get out of here and leave me alone to deal with my musty books, you blithering idiots!”
But no, she didn’t do that. We were not murdered in cold blood. We survived.
The scowling lady suddenly decided to change tack, apparently having given up on how to deal with our particular brand of dilemma. “Let me see your registration card,” she grunted, heaving herself down the stepladder once again.
We stared at her blankly.
“What registration card?” my daughter asked, glancing uneasily at me.
The woman rolled her eyes. “You mean you came here and saw Dr X and didn’t even register?”
“We didn’t know we had to,” I replied in a tone of voice that was beginning to resemble that of our arch enemy’s. “The lady at the porter’s desk was the only person in sight, and when we showed her my daughter’s referral, she told us to go to Room 7.”
“But everyone has to register first!”
“How the hell were we supposed to know that? And where the hell is Registration? This building is a nightmare to navigate!”
“Do you have health insurance?” the woman suddenly asked, taking me aback in her unexpected change of tactics.
“I – ”
But it was no use. By this stage I was so worn out with frustration, I couldn’t even think straight. Of course my daughter had health insurance, but then I remembered that she hadn’t yet got round to applying for her dowód, or ID card, and that without this document it would be difficult to provide immediate evidence of insurance …
“Because if you don’t have it, then you’ll have to pay for the consultation with Dr X.” The blond bureaucrat was clearly beginning to enjoy herself. She should have worked for the NKVD, or whatever current-day equivalent Poland has.
I could feel the urgent need to scream bubbling up within the gory guts of my soul. Instead, I looked at my daughter and said in deliberately fast English, “Come on, let’s get out of here. They’ve wasted the last six weeks of your life, and now we have to start all over again because of their incompetence. Let’s go!”
So, conclusion of this nightmarish story? Private treatment. That’s what it’ll now have to be. No way are either of us ever setting foot in that God-forsaken hell hole ever again!!!
But here’s the sad thing. I’m half-Polish myself, and I love this country. I really do. That’s why I’m here. But for the first time yesterday, I longed to be back in England’s green and pleasant land, Brexit or no Brexit!