One of my favorite pastimes during the Pandemic has been the weekly conversations with two new friends. Through Conversation Exchange (conversationexchange.com), I have been able to practice French with Michel and Spanish with Sebastian.
Michel is a French man living in the south of France. Before he retired recently, he was a flutist in the Regional Orchestra of Montpelier, a city about 60 miles away. He is also a flight instructor. He loves learning to speak English and he and I have a good time correcting each other’s mistakes.
Sebastian is a younger man who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He works in the financial division of a software security company. Sebastian has several other “language friends” in the U.S. because he is trying to learn to speak American-style English.
With my language partners, we are not afraid to point out the errors that each one of us makes. This often leads to some very funny discussions. With both Michel and Sebastian, the conversation is free flowing; there’s no script or pre-defined lesson.
Our three languages are full of expressions which often don’t translate well from one to another. We enjoy explaining the origins of these expressions and their correct usage. We also try to teach each other how to converse more like native speakers instead of sounding as if we are reciting vocabulary lists. For example, last week I was telling them how in normal conversation, we use words like “wanna,” “gonna” and “gotta.”
In addition to practicing a foreign language, it is interesting to notice how one’s mother tongue is so rich in vocabulary and idioms. Now when I talk in English, I am much more aware of the complexity of our language.
I have discussed with Sebastian that English must be a very difficult language to learn. Since Spanish is an almost completely phonetic language, I have often said that most English-speakers think Spanish would be an easy second language. He is quick to point out that Spanish grammar is full of complex rules with many different tenses and moods (such as the indicative and subjunctive). He complains that it takes a lot of memorization to remember how to pronounce similarly spelled words like “cough,” “rough,” “dough” and “bough.” I then remind him how hard it is to learn the genders of new words.
Last week, we had an interesting experience. The three of us arranged to have a Zoom call. We did it mostly in English, but since Michel understands Spanish, we conversed in Spanish for a few minutes too. It was a lot of fun connecting three continents while sharing our mutual passion for learning foreign languages.
In the past two weeks, I’ve bumped into several of my old patients. When we pediatricians say “patients,” it doesn’t mean just the kids we cared for. It means the whole family. In order to be a happy pediatrician, you don’t just have to love children. You have to love their families too. It is important to fully understand family dynamics in order to enjoy practicing pediatrics.
The question I am most often asked when I see people from the past is if I miss working. It’s been more than six years now since I retired, and there’s never been a day that I wished that I could go back to work. I have been very happy staying busy with so many other projects that it is hard to imagine having to work at the same time. Additionally, in a very practical way, I would have found it impossible to wear a mask the whole day. It’s not just the problem of my glasses fogging up constantly. If can’t totally see a person’s face, I would find it hard to communicate.
More importantly, the one thing that I do miss is the personal interaction with the babies. I used to pride myself on being able to take a crying baby and get them to smile within a few seconds. My staff used to call me “the baby whisperer.” Interestingly, this never worked as well with my own children, but with my patients, I loved holding a baby in my arms, and magically, they would smile.
My favorite age of babies was from six months to a year. This is when you would observe the early signs of alertness and interpersonal connection, and it was so gratifying to be able to tell the parents that their baby was developing normally. Nowadays, the biggest fear among parents is that their child may be on the autism spectrum. The incidence of developmental disorders seems to have increased over the span of my career (starting in the 1980s), and parents are relieved when I would reassure them at a very early age that everything appeared OK. I loved seeing the look of relief on parents’ faces, especially first-time parents. Experienced pediatricians can spot developmental issues earlier than most people, and we are well aware of how very young babies normally focus on facial expressions such as smiling and eye contact.
In our practice, we offered new parents who had not yet chosen a pediatrician to come for a “newborn consult.” These new parents were hungry for information and guidance, and became some of the most loyal and trusting patients. The bonding that occurred from that initial visit and then continued after the baby’s birth is something that many parents recalled many years later at my retirement party.
I was very fortunate to live in a very diverse community in South Florida. There were some patients who were attracted to my practice because I spoke Spanish, but I loved the assortment of other ethnic groups that I would see on a daily basis. There were families from many Spanish-speaking countries, but in my panel of patients, I had patients from India, China, Brazil, Finland, the Philippines, Thailand, Viet Nam and Korea.
Since the schedule of check-ups is heavily concentrated during the baby’s first year, I got to know the parents very well during those “well-visits.” Many grandparents attended these visits along with the parents, so I would often become familiar with the extended family.
An experienced pediatrician can do a complete check-up in a very short period of time, so the rest of the visit is left open for discussion about whatever concerns the parents may have had. As the parents became less anxious and fell into a routine (especially after the babies started to sleep through the night after about six months), we had much more time to talk about other topics. I was always interested in their native languages and their cultures, sometimes to the point that parents would invite me to visit their countries.
I used to joke with patients that I might take them up on their offers. My wife and I have unique memories of Japan, Bali, Finland, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Ecuador, Brazil, Turkey, Spain, Angola, Israel and India because I accepted these invitations. Sometimes they were there while we were traveling, but more often, we had the opportunity to visit their relatives whom I had met in my office. Every one of those visits was a special personal experience, much more than any of the usual tourist attractions. At first, my wife was leery, thinking that it would be awkward to visit people’s homes, as she wondered if these people really had been sincere about inviting us. After a few of these special visits, she looked forward to the meet-ups that I would try to plan into every trip.
Early in my career, I started to give out small, framed photos of places that I had traveled to. The kids enjoyed getting something to remember from their yearly check-ups, and surprisingly, many parents would ask for their own “Dr. Kraft pictures.” This became a tradition so I would bring along these small pictures on our travels as an ice-breaker or as a way of thanking people for their hospitality or other special favors.
I loved teaching patients about the places that were seen in my photo gifts. I would usually tell the school-age children to read up more on the countries where we had traveled.
So back to the question about whether I miss working. What I loved about being a pediatrician was that I was often considered a trusted friend to those families. Since pediatrics is a long-term commitment (in my case, 35 years), I was very fortunate to have met so many marvelous families over several generations. Now that even though I am, in a way, “out of the picture,” I have wonderful memories and several long-lasting friendships to savor.
Ever since I retired six years ago, my wife, Meryl, and I have tried to check off the places on our international travel wish list. Luckily, we made it to most of them over the past ten years. During the three years before I stopped working, with an arrangement with my partners to work for two months and then take a month off, this reduced work schedule gave us an excellent opportunity to spend a month away from home in many different locations. It also gave me a head start in getting used to full retirement.
Since we live in Florida, my wife thinks that it is criminal to leave “paradise” during our beautiful winter season (from November to April). She reminds me that “people are paying big bucks to come down here” so it has always made sense for us to schedule our long trips in May-June and September-October. We have found that those are the best times to avoid large crowds and the extreme heat (or cold) in certain places. In addition, Florida in the summer, although hot and humid, is quieter and has less traffic. You just need to know how and when to plan your time outside when it gets up to the high 80s by 9 am.
During the Pandemic, friends and relatives who know that we like to travel have asked me often how we have been adjusting. After several months of self-imposed isolation, we have slowly been coming out of our cocoons. We still have very limited in-person contact, but we have recently returned to doing our own grocery shopping instead of using the delivery services. The social distancing and mask-wearing appears to be well-accepted so we are now comfortable in most supermarkets.
Going for even a 15-minute car ride now seems like an exciting field trip. We try to schedule our Costco runs for the early morning “senior hours” when the store is much less crowded. They have improved the flow so that you can get in and out in very short time.
For a real treat with an international flavor, we go to Whole Foods where spending some time in the cheese section makes us feel as if we are on a foreign trip. We have bought several Spanish and French varieties of sheep, goat and cow’s milk cheese. It reminded us of when we had an extended stay in Valencia and Madrid and used to make tapas every afternoon.
When we went to one of the local fruit and vegetable markets, Maria’s, we found that she had a large selection of Chinese and Thai greens. This reminded us of the trip a few years ago to China and Thailand. She also carries many Central and South American varieties of vegetables and fruits, making us nostalgic for the time we spent in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru.
It’s all comes down to your attitude! If you adjust your expectations, you find that you can satisfy your culinary interests by learning to cook many of the dishes you may have tasted during your travels. There has been such an explosion of food blogs during the last year that you can find the recipes for almost every type of cuisine. With some determination, along with the willingness to fail miserably, it has been an amazing experience to learn how to cook many foreign specialties.
Our trips to the Chinese grocer or the Indian/Pakistani store have yielded us with the ingredients that we had thought we would never find here in the United States. With some advice from our Chinese and Indian friends, we are now able to recreate some of the same meals that we enjoyed while traveling to those countries. A recent find has been the snow pea greens that we loved in China and which are very easy to sautee with just a little garlic and olive oil.
We have joked that our favorite restaurant is now our backyard waterfront café. Until the cold weather finally reached Florida in December, we had eaten every dinner for more than eight months on our patio overlooking the lake. It has been a lot of fun cooking together most of the time, and on some nights, we surprise each other with new recipes that we have found on the internet.
I hope that we will be able to resume our travel plans in the future. Who knows when that will be? Until then, we’re having a great time, trying to make the best of this very bizarre situation.
Today is November 30, 2020 and it’s the end of the season.
It is actually the end of many things here in South Florida,
where December 1 is the start of the winter dry season. After all, Thanksgiving is over and the Holiday decorations are quickly appearing. Even though an occasional hurricane may slip through during December, we can most likely rule out any devastating storms until next June when the hurricane season will once again begin.
During this Year of the Pandemic, we have had a very long summer. Besides the often-heard complaint that every day runs into the next, the higher than normal temperatures that we have endured since late March have made us feel as if the summer lasted forever! Except for a few days in the past month, it was rare that it didn’t reach at least 80 degrees since the Pandemic began.
In South Florida, that means that by about 9 or 10 am, the temperature quickly rises into the 80s and remains so for the rest of the day. When the occasional tropical afternoon thundershower rolls in around 4-5 pm, we sometimes enjoy a brief respite from the heat. At dinner time outside on our patio, the decrease of a couple of degrees makes a very noticeable difference.
In the past few days, we have been teased by some early morning cooler temperatures. One day as we left our house for our daily sunrise walks,
it had even dropped down to 68 degrees! We dressed in long pants and long-sleeve shirts for the occasion and I vowed to complain the whole time about what we call a cold snap.
Old timers used to say that you know it’s cold in Florida when you have to tell your kids to put on their shoes to get the morning newspaper from the driveway. Using that expression dates you since almost everyone receives their “newspapers” online, and young people wouldn’t even understand what you’re trying to say. This is definitely barefoot country where wearing sandals may be considered “dressed up.”
This afternoon, in celebration of the end of the tropical hurricane season, we are going to experience a cold front moving in from the North. Temperatures will plummet down into the 50s! The local weather report is warning us with words like “chilly.”
That’s how I will describe it and I will proudly complain about it like any good almost-native Floridian. I definitely fall into the group for whom anything below 60 degrees feels downright cold and in need of footwarmers.
We are prepared for the yearly December weather change. We have already shaken the dust off our warm sweaters and we look forward to wearing long pants for a few days. Soon after, however, the breezes from the still-warm Atlantic will return us to our usual Florida reality where the days feature temperatures that we enjoy the most, the mid-70s with low humidity. That’s a far cry from the low 90s with 80% humidity that we’ve put up with for the last 7-8 months.
No, I am definitely not complaining. I love the Florida weather. I will live with the heat and humidity any day in order not to have to shovel snow or suffer through the cold, dreary gray days in the 40s that I remember from my childhood. I will gladly forfeit the “change of seasons” that our snowbird friends love to brag about. For me, I will continue to get up every morning before the sun rises just to be able to observe nature at its colorful best while the conditions are almost consistently ideal.