What hospitals really need–more pin-ups, cigarettes, and soldiers.

Once upon a time…

we took cigarettes the first time we went. One carton of cigarettes got us faster attention, and the doctor was pleased with the Camel brand. I’d never bribed anyone before and I told myself to look at it like a thank you gift. Since Bulgarian doctors get paid nothing close to what American doctors get, I thought we could’ve spared another carton or two. But our Peace Corps medical officer, PCMO, didn’t want to overdo it.

getting ready to come back home
getting ready to come back home

The second time we went we brought just ourselves and that was good enough. The doctor pressed his fingers in on my stomach and said, “You like Bulgarian man? Bulgarian man better than American one.”

“I’ve got a boyfriend back home,” I lied and wondered what would happen if I pushed his hand away from my abdomen. He grinned and stepped away. “You find Bulgarian husband,” he said.

I sat up, zipped up my jeans, pulled down my shirt, and looked over at the PCMO, who looked punched. “Maybe,” I said, now not wanting to look at anyone. The doctor put his arm around my shoulder. “You like me?” he asked.

The PCMO dashed over to the examining table and pushed his way between the doctor and me. “Thanks for the use of your facilities,” he said. “I think we’re about ready to leave.” The pictures of topless models in the doctor’s office came as no surprise after that.

The third time I went to the hospital I had to argue with the soldier on duty to get in. It was near freezing, and the soldier stood at the hospital door and decided who could and couldn’t go in. He said I couldn’t. He said I had no appointment.

“But I do have an appointment,” I said.

He shrugged and adjusted the strap over his shoulder that held a large gun. He had a gun on his hip too. “I don’t know anything about that.”

“Isn’t my name on the list?”

The crowd of Bulgarians so far not allowed in milled around us. They showed no interest in us. “I don’t have any list.”

Surely he wouldn’t actually splatter the American all over the hospital steps. “Then how do you know who has an appointment?”

“You have no appointment,” he said.

“Why don’t you call the doctor or something?” I said.

“I can’t call anyone,” he said.

“You don’t know that. You can’t stand there and keep me out. I’m cold. I’m sick. And I have an appointment!” I looked around and wondered at the Bulgarians who would never argue with this guy. And what was I thinking arguing in my bad Bulgarian with a 19-year-old with a very big gun? One day I would be back in the States and people there would still be waiting on the street in the cold to see a doctor.

I walked around the building until I found the soldier’s booth. Inside was a phone. The doctor–different than the ones before–came and got me. The soldier paid no attention as I walked triumphantly by.

In the hospital lights were on only in the rooms that absolutely needed them. There was no toilet paper. Rusted pipes ran along walls and ceilings. Fuzzy mold grew in corners of the bathrooms. The cup they gave me to pee in was the size of a thimble. There is no reason to subject anyone to the other details of my clinic travels there, but I gained a new appreciation for the strength of Bulgarian women after my time with the gynecologist.

In fiction, if you want to take your reader to a world they don’t know, you’ve got to pick those details wisely. What makes it sound real? How many details are even necessary? Some settings pop out and some recede–how do you know where your setting should be?

By that I don’t necessarily mean the location of your characters (city, country, suburban sprawl?). Should the setting be constantly yammering in the readers face (I am an ocean and you’ve no way to escape me)? Should it incidental (I could be any city anywhere really–who cares)?

How important is a sense of place in your stories?

4 thoughts on “What hospitals really need–more pin-ups, cigarettes, and soldiers.

  1. Wow, the things we survive eh? For me, a sense of place is vital -the stories are very rooted, and the landscape, houses are like characters. With description though, it takes little for people to fill in the blanks (as you say, the pin ups in the Doc’s room say it all).

  2. This is great. For someone like me — who’s been outside the US only a few times, briefly, and certainly never to central Europe — to read about Bulgaria is to read about life in the Andromeda system. (I very much like reading travel essays.)

    As you know, I blogged about setting a few days ago. Reading this has given me some other ideas about it though… may turn out to be today’s topic!

    I do admire the way you do just what everybody recommends: showing, not telling. In the demeanors of that doctor and the young soldier, I can see more vividly just what the place(s) looked like.

  3. Good question. Sense of place is really important. Like Kate said, place is like a character. But it’s definitely “sense” of place, not actual place. If I write about NYC, I am writing about MY NYC, not the one in Sex and the City or Bonfire of the Vanities. If I write about standing on a line for a club in the East Village in the 90’s, before laughing about why anyone would stand in line for some stupid club, and heading to a nice dive bar, what’s more important is my sense of the darkness pressing down, the glittering sidewalk, a nice cool drink and the shared adventure with my friends, not the name of the hip club and on what cross streets it sat. (That’s my experience of line standing. Or standing on line to get subway tokens. Or the Barnes and Noble check out line at Christmas, with the efficient expediter directing customers to the next open register. You lived an amazing life.)

  4. Oh yes, place is important to me. I think the setting, the landscape of an area is important and reflects (dictates?) what happens there, how people think and react. I see place almost as a character.

    And, man oh man, you’re good.

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