Yesterday we went on an interesting walking tour. A visit to the local amber museum was part of the program. I love amber as well as the next man or woman as the case may be, so I listened to the guide and snapped pictures of amazing jewelry and thoroughly enjoyed the whole event. Until our guide said blithely, “Now we are going down to the basement to see some medieval exhibits”. And I suddenly found myself pressed in the eager crowd of people streaming down those dark narrow winding stairs one habitually encounters in very old buildings. I somehow managed to struggle back up, gasping for air. Luckily an attendant realized that something was amiss and rushed to my side. She quickly opened a side door marked “Authorized Staff Only” and let me outside into a charming little patio. When I caught my breath I discovered that I was not alone, there was a young woman nearby who obviously experienced the same problem as I did, and got the same kind of help. She asked me what was wrong. I told her nothing was wrong with us; we were just claustrophobic. Is it possible to conquer it by an effort of will? No, though one can learn to control it to some extent. I told her that there are some places I cannot visit, for instance when I stared at the dark narrow opening leading to the famous chapel created by Michelangelo in Florence I almost passed out. I have seen all those wonderful statues he created in numerous art books but I know I probably won’t ever see them in real life. The only trick that helps those who cannot stay in enclosed small rooms is to avoid them. By the way I don’t have any fear, I just start feeling very oppressed then faint, and then I may actually pass out. I feel fine in airplanes for any length of time though. Getting to and from an airport or traveling by land or sea is another matter. I start feeling sick though I don’t get actually sick. When I get out of a car or bus I need a few moments to catch my breath; the wooziness passes and I am good to go.
Naturally such episodes occur when there are people around. Or I practically fall out of a car and witnesses may think I am drunk. “What will the members of our tour group think, what will they say about me?!” e young woman asked anxiously. I assured her that the sensible and kind-hearted ones will say nothing, they may only inquire about our health or ask how we feel. As for those who like to make fun of others, it is their problem. How do we deal with the inevitable aftermath? There is no shame in having a difficulty we cannot control. All of us live with something we don’t want to live with. Including those who like to sneer and jeer at others, I am pretty sure they experience some difficulties too. If anyone says anything derogatory to you, do not deny it, try not get flustered or upset. Give a straight answer whenever possible, it effectively shuts any joker’s mouth. “You were weaving after that ride, did you have too much to drink?” – “No, I get sick on a bus”. What can one really say to that? We are not obliged to tell the truth or to make confessions in front of strangers. “I am allergic to stuff” is a very effective retort to both comments about food (“Why don’t you eat garlic bread, it’s delicious!”) and/or about your clothes or absence of makeup.
Sometimes we may be caught in a cringeworthy situation not of our own making or volition. An old gentleman stretched his hand to me at an event when we were introduced, I extended mine expecting a mild handshake. Rather to my horror he bent down and kissed my hand! I suspect I cringed. I washed my hands immediately afterwards. Now I watch it and quite often simply do not shake hands with any men.
Emma Thompson plays a genius scientist who is also a klutz to perfection in “Junior”. What I love most about her portrayal is her complete unconcern in every embarrassing, cringeworthy episode. She tracks a long strip of toilet paper after her at a meeting, sends her shoe sailing over people’s heads, drops and breaks things, yet she is always cheerful and kind. No, not every researcher is a klutz outside their lab. And one does not have to be a scientist to be a klutz. Let’s just be tolerant.