Nightshift

It is 3:45 pm and the sun has been setting already an hour ago….what better thing to do now, than starting another nightshift in the North?….

A brief glimpse at the car park of the clinic while finishing an evening run had informed me already that it will be busy tonight….

Following a shower and a quick change into scrubbs, I am arming myself with the first coffee of the night and head straight for the inpatient area.

Here I not only find out who will be on my team tonight (each team has its own chemistry….), but I also discover what patients I will be responsible for over the next 16 hours.

There are first of all the freshly operated patients that are not stable enough to go home that night. In addition to this there is usually a fair number of patients with various internal medical conditions that are connected to a range of infusions pumps and syringe drivers to keep them comfortable and most importantly hydrated. Some might also be cathederised or have been fitted with feeding tubes. This is when you appreciate having an experienced nursing team by your side that is keeping an overview…..

Finally don’t forget the patients in the various insulation wards that might for one or the other reason be infectious.

Thus “warmed up” and with most of my coffee drained already, my next stop is the team that is still admitting acute patients, initially to give a helping hand and then to take over whatever is left in the waiting room or what is on its way to the clinic (which can take a while in this part of the world…..).

Not surprisingly time is flying, especially at the start of a shift….

Nightshifts are a bit like Marmite……you either love them or you hate them….

If you – like me – join a veterinary team just on a temporary basis, it makes more sense that you see more acute than established patients with long and complex clinical histories which will take a fair amount of time to read up on and with clients that would prefer more continuity of care.

Because of that, I am quite enjoying nightshifts : most of my patients are clinical “white sheets” with short or with no clinical histories, where I can make a fresh start.

In addition to this I have always enjoyed working at nights (even more so here in the North where at the moment the hours of darkness are making up more than 3/4s of the whole day….). In addition to this working with a smaller, but dedicated team is giving you a greater opportunity to learn more about your co-workers while spending time together at the operating table or over a cup of midnight coffee in the otherwise abandoned cafeteria.

One of my first patients tonight is a Jämthund, a member of the canine family that at first sight doesn’t look much different from a wolf, but usually with a far more amicable personality. Following the successful destruction of a whole carpet followed by a three hour journey through half of Sweden, this dog doesn’t look happy at all and a control X-Ray of its abdomen shows so many abnormalities, that we are progressing without delay to the operating theatre.

As it turns out not a moment too early as the carpet fibres have already started to string up the whole small intestine while cutting off part of its blood supply. The fast intervention – the removal of the foreign body material – allows the full recovery of the gut. A couple of hours of further delay would probably have required the removal of a large section of the intestine combined with a much higher risk for postoperative infection.

Once the Jämthund is recovering in his cage, I have to return to the theatre as an obese cat is already waiting there for me, unable to urinate due to a small bladder stone. This poor boy has to be cathederised and will then also enjoy our hospitality for the rest of the night.

The next patient is then straight forward – its a Golden Retriever puppy where the owner is reporting that a rubber ball went missing just an hour ago. While the puppy is actually looking pretty innocent, the immediate application of an emetic gives a rather impressive result

and both owner and dog are sent home again 1/2 hour later.

The next patient has also traveled more than 200 km to us – a cat with a “loose screw”…..to be precise one that has unmistakably lodged itself in the stomach and here an emetic is not having the desired effect.

At least it is a very rewarding surgical case and half an hour later there is the unmistakable plinging of a metal object being dropped into a kidney dish. Another half an hour later and the cat is sitting upright in its cage asking for food and the screw has been washed and returned to the owner in pristine condition for the next DIY project.

Time for a midnight snack of household cheese and polar bread and for once not a coffee…..

Now there is also time to check again on the inpatients and to give the canine patients their regular toilet break.

This is an undertaking you need to be prepared for with slip resistant footwear for all team members

and with the necessary arctic weather clothing as by now the outside temperature has dropped to -12 C.

Thankfully our feline patients – like this 9kg HUGE Maine Coon – do not require this service.

They are happy to stay in their warm cages, where regular meals, their medication usually administered via established catheders and the occasional cuddles (sorry – can’t resist it…..) is all they need.

Another patient arrives – a dog that sustained a jaw fracture after chasing a moose (not a mouse….). Here another anaesthesia and thick cerclage wire is needed to both stabilise the fracture and hopefully safe the canine tooth. Luckily the root was undamaged.

Although it is by now already early in the morning, the nurses still find the time to comfort the severely ill patients

or to wash and groom a patient that is ready to go home in a few hours.

It is still dark outside when we are handing our patients over to the morning team and I am arriving back home for a “good day’s sleep” – or may be for another coffee ?!…..

Before the snow arrived….

Never work in a location you don’t like !…….

Not often enough did I follow this maxim, but luckily I have always been wise enough to make a move before settling permanently for a poor compromise. There are just too many hours in the day when you are not working and you owe it to yourself to spend these in nice surroundings.

This had been the case in Surrey and since starting to work and to travel at the same time, I have always made it a precondition for all my recent as well as for my future placements.

It shouldn’t stop you from trying something new, but don’t commit yourself for too long if it doesn’t feel right.

I had no such doubts with Sundsvall and the town and I hit it off right from the start : a sizable place with a good selection of shops and restaurants, right on the shores of the Baltic Sea, where not only I was born, but where also a lot of my friends and colleagues are working in other Nordic and Continental European countries. In addition to this a landscape broken up with a few hills and a lot of forest and lakes – what more do you need ?

In the middle of November I took the opportunity to explore the countryside around my new (temporary) home:

Norra Berget – a hill at the Northern end of the town – gave me a good overview over the “Stone City” which the place has been called since its fore-fathers had decided to change its main building material after the town had burned down for a second time at the end of the nineteenth century.

Thankfully they didn’t make a bad job at all of it, with a lot of Art Nouveau features on many of the central buildings, with a picturesque church in the middle of town and with a couple of great view points for everyone to enjoy from the hills both in the North and in the South.

The somewhat sleepy harbour is sheltered by Alnön, a low lying and completely forested island in the East, which at one point counted more than ten saw mills.

Today there are mainly signs that are telling the tale of the great timber trade and its main feature are a lot of weekend and holiday cottages and beautiful beaches.

Heading further North I am crossing the spectacular Högakusten Bron

which is not only the gateway to the cities of Umeå and Luleå, but also to the border to Finland and to the areas of Sweden that are located North of the Polar Circle.

Not far from the bridge is the small Skuleskogen Nationalpark with a dense pine forest that has hardly changed since the last ice age.

With the sun now just reaching above the trees in the middle of the day, it is my last opportunity for hiking before the snow is coming…..

A new clinic, a new team and….a new car (or something like that….)

Once again I am finding myself in new surroundings – the clinic in a recently converted industrial building houses some 60 staff, which includes this time some colleagues from Portugal. In addition to this some German colleagues are occasionally drafted in from Östersund to help out.

I find it interesting to observe the dynamic of Swedish teams that are integrating the cultural and educational background of colleagues from other nationalities into their working routines. Frequently individual clinics seem to prefer or are ending up with a group of vets from a specific country: in Kumla I found a fair number of French colleagues, Falun favored the Brits and here it was the above mentioned combination.

A new clinic also means a new uniform, a new practice management system (now once again in Swedish, rather than in English or in German), a new set of passwords (don’t we just love them…..), a lot of new names to learn (including an over representation of Annas, Lena/Linas and Åsas this time) and a new uniform – this time a set of blue and white scrubs which turned out to be a good match for the colour of my hair…..

The clinic is extremely spacious, featuring 16+ consulting rooms, a large reception area plus a separate area for feline patients. A state-of-the-art ultrasound machine is inviting to play with, as well as direct digital radiography machines (similar to, but much better than in Virginia Water) and as already mentioned a CT, which appears to become the standard in clinics of this size.

As it turns out, Sundsvall Djursjukhuset is one of only a few clinics left in Sweden that is providing a true 24/7 service which results in animal owners traveling huge distances to get their canine and feline companions treated, especially at nights or on weekends.

One of the first patients I was presented with was a Jämthund that had sustained a jaw and a couple of rib fractures after getting too close to a moose – an as I now found out common set of injuries for this sort of encounter…. His owner had driven over 300 km on mostly countryside lanes to reach us…..

Swedish veterinary clinics are constantly concerned about the mental and the physical wellbeing of their staff. Because of that there will always be tea and coffee in ample supply plus a couple of huge refrigerators for the storage of personal food and for large quantities of cheese and spread which together with traditional flat bread are provided free of charge to all employees at any time of the day and night.

If you haven’t brought your warm lunch or dinner, don’t despair – another couple of industrial freezers is stocked up to the brim with frozen ready meals, which are not for free, but that can be obtained at whole sale prices.

Which mug would you pick when starting a new job ?!……Difficult choice…..

To add to these physical wellbeing efforts, the large cafeteria features a quiet corner where a large massage chair appears to be in frequent use.

Another novelty for me is a whole floor dedicated for the accommodation of the dogs of all team members. With most employees being dog owners (of often two or three sizable dogs) this is an important perk not a lot of other employers can offer. As a result the number of staff dogs frequently surpass the number of canine patients.

So now I have a house, a decent place to work at and what was still missing?……a car to get around with!

As I had not traveled with my own car that far North at this time of the year, I had insisted that this was a basic requirement, considering the distances that have to be covered in this part of the world. However, I had also indicated that I wouldn’t care what car I would get, as long as it was somewhat reliable and as long as it featured some heating.

What I asked for, I got and admittedly it was love at first sight !…..

When asking Markus at the end of the day about by “Porsche”, he presented me with a key with a fob for “The Beast” – the clinic’s all purpose mini-van!

This car, which was certainly not a head turner, featured everythingI needed :

Decent tires with spikes (!), an engine heater (hence the fob on the key ring) for a reliably working diesel aggregate, a working radio permanently set (by me) on a local station that was playing the best rock music of the Seventies to the Nineties and a large loading bay that would later become handy for my skis. The cracked windscreen and the odd dent in the body work I considered as an additional plus, as it was indicating that this was a working vehicle and not a show room car. I much appreciated though that the dodgy brakes which apparently were also a perennial feature of this carriage had just been fixed.

So someone over here was interested in me staying alive – at least for the duration of my stay…

Arrival in Norrland

While in my dreams still on the descend from Triglav, I am waking up just in time for the train’s arrival in Sundsvall. Not to get off here would have resulted in a time consuming detour, as the next stop would have been Östersund – 200 km to the West….

Hauling my considerable luggage down the platform, my pass is suddenly blocked by a 2m bearded giant in a high Hi-vis overall….

“Hej, you must be Wolfgang !” my welcome committee says in a deep voice, ” I am Marcus – I was told to collect you and to bring you to “the house”….”

“Nice” I thought and after Marcus had disposed my bag into the boot of his Japanese All-Terrain vehicle, with not more than two fingers of his left hand, we hit the road.

It turned out that Marcus came from Kiruna in the “very” far North of Sweden; a town that is famous for its iron-ore and where everything – including its people – need to be a bit bigger and tougher than the rest of the country to withstand the extreme weather in the winter (that at least is what I am telling myself….)……

At the clinic Marcus works as the caretaker, the fixer of pretty much everything broken and he is in charge of health and safety. And as if this wasn’t enough already, he was also a member of the local life boat crew and in fact “on call” that evening.

Without a nautical emergency “call out” we arrived after a short journey first at the clinic – the place of work for circa 60 vets, nurses and support staff – and Marcus gave me a short guided tour of the place, which with so little daylight at this time of the year reminded me more of a ship or a polar station.

I was pleasantly surprised that it featured a set of state of the art operating theatres, digital radiography and even a CT, plus – also very important – a spacious cafeteria with an industrial sized coffee machine, where the black stuff was available in decent quality and quantity pretty much at any time of the day (and night…). Once Marcus had ticked off his H&S duties including advising me that the local electrician would suffer a nervous break down, if I would attempt to address a fire at the main fuse board with a foam extinguisher (which I had somewhat guessed….), we continued our journey to “the house”…..

“The house” as it turned out is quite a place….a beautiful bungalow right at the edge of the forest and at the bottom of a downhill skiing slope (more about this another time….). The place has a large kitchen, two (!) living rooms, a huge TV screen, an excellent working broadband connection and even a large jacuzzi outside (though frozen solid at the moment…). In addition to this it has five individual bedrooms, all of which include extra mattresses for dogs of all sizes!…..

The down- or (in my case being a pretty social individual) upside was, that you are never or seldom alone in the house, as all non-resident vets, nurses and other visitors live here as well and most of the time people turn up – usually together with one to three dogs – and then disappear again without any prior warning.

In the beginning I had to get used to it, that while sitting in front of the television set, suddenly someone was standing next to me or that when I was coming home from work at night, I found strangers fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room…..

It is great though meeting new team members already over breakfast in our kitchen and it turns out to be wise to always prepare dinner for two or for three, as you never know who else might be turning up.

But where are all these people coming from ?…..

Some are colleagues who normally worked in our branch clinics in Jämtland just 20 Swedish Miles (= 200km !….) away – it is somewhat understandable that they are not overly keen to cover that distance twice daily if they are working a shift in Sundsvall. Traveling these distances to work or – as I soon found out – to see a vet is nothing unusual in this part of the world.

Others arrive from much further away in the South and usually stay then for a whole week.

And then there are the more unusual or adventurous types like me ( and so far only me….) who travel through 1/2 of Europe to make it a whole month – or more – to experience the beginning of winter in the North…..

Triglav

” So, tell me about Triglav.” I said to Neca Jerkovic, who was living on a sailing boat in the Marina of Portoroz, while my skin was drying after a swim in the Mediterranian Sea, “I want to be up there by tomorrow afternoon….”.

This probably requires a bit of background information….

Triglav with nearly 3000 m altitude is Slovenia’s highest and also its National mountain, placed in the center of a national park right at the border to Austria. There are only a few places in the world where you can swim in the sea in the morning and stand on the country’s highest mountain on the same day – Mulhacén in the Sierra Nevada and Galdhøpiggen in Jotunheimen are a few other examples. Climbing Triglav is not only a thing you have to do if you want to experience Slovenia, it is also a rite of passage for Slovenians themselves.

Despite the fact that her parents own a sailing boat, Neca is really a child of the mountains and I found it always useful to listen to the locals before embarking on a new challenge in an environment I was not familiar with.

“It is quite a walk, but the weather is supposed to be good and you will be fine. Are you good with heights ?”

“It don’t like them, but I can handle them. Do I need any climbing equipment ?”

“No – if you have some good hiking boots you will be fine!……”

And this was the last time that I listened to local advice…….

The sun hadn’t risen the next day when I immersed myself in the warm water of the Gulf of Trieste, before hitting the motorway due North…..

After a brief breakfast at a roadside cafe in Bled, I reached the trail head near the ski shooting stadium in Pokljuka where I left my car at the end of a dirt track with the strong hope that I would not find it on four bricks and without the tires upon my return……(so far this has never happened to me, but it is something you should never talk about or you might jinx it…..).

On a well signed-posted track it took me only a couple of hours to reach Vodnikov Dom, a beautifully located mountain hut which I had visited a few years ago in the late autumn together with a Croatian mountain guide, but by that time there was already too much snow so that she deemed it safer for us to turn.

With hindsight this was clearly the right decision, as right after this hut, the first exposed sections with steel wires and with individual safety holds in the walls started. However, with a blue sky and with dry and warm conditions it was not a problem this time and I made good progress to Planika Dom, another refuge resting on a rocky ledge, just a few hundred meters below the summit. This place has absolutely no natural water supply and all drinking water has to be carried up the trail. Washing facilities are none existent….

After checking in at the hut, I reduced my equipment, had a drink and “hit” the mountain again – just another 400+ altitude meters – how hard could that be ?…..

It unsettled me slightly that most – but not all – people who were coming towards me were equipped with helmets and Via Ferrata harnesses featuring a double set of solid karabiners. The people without this equipment – to make matters worse – didn’t look like experienced mountaineers…..

Soon I reached the first overhangs and the vertical sections which would have been difficult to scale without the solid steel ropes anchored into the wall.

While being faced with another challenging climb, I started to fall into the trap that has caused a lot of accidents in the mountains: although I was not sure if I could do the next section, I was just too lazy to turn around because I had gotten so far already….

The ascents became more extreme the further I went and I was happy that I was only responsible for myself. What kept me going was that the weather was great, there were a few other people around and once in a while I came across another idiot who had seemingly managed the ascent without the necessary gear as well.

Eventually the small tin box, that is such a well known feature of the summit, came into sight and after nearly three hours of climbing, I finally was able to rest in front of it.

The view on this day was truly breathtaking and well worth the effort, but probably not worth the risk taken.

Another mistake of mine was to think that going downhill would now be much faster…being well aware that more accidents happen on this part of a climb, I was extra cautious and looking now downhill, I came across several sections where I wasn’t sure how I had managed them uphill in the first place.

Moving them downhill was only possible by focusing just on the rock features in front of me and by having blind faith, that if it had worked on the way up, it must also do so on the way down…..

Finally, just when the sun was setting, I reached the ledge of Planika Dom and with that the safety of the hut, especially as the outside temperature was now dropping fast.

The hut was packed, with dinner served in three sittings and with all the mattresses taken in the dormitories (I had bed number 30 in one small room…).

With beer now seemingly being the main liquid to replenish any fluid deficits (remember, there was not even tap water…), the atmosphere became progressively jolly and all Covid restrictions – if there were any in the first place….- went by the way side. Admittedly and as I really had no choice to go elsewhere, other than freezing to death or breaking my neck outside in the darkness, I decided to just enjoy my time at the hut and to rely on my double Astra-Zeneca jabs……

I can’t deny that it was a brilliant feeling being in a mountain hut with simple but good food, with something to drink and to enjoy the time with a lot of likeminded people from other parts of Europe.

My hangover the next morning was not so much due to the amount of alcohol I had (probably a couple of beers ?!), but more so due to dehydration as there was absolutely no drop of water to be found once the shutters had come down at the bar over night. A minor detail that I had overlooked……

Well, I survived and while enjoying the view of the mountain peaks around me the next morning, while the countryside below was covered by a blanket of clouds, I started on the final descend trying to reach Ljubljana and one of Europe’s finest veterinary dentists in time.

Sure enough, about 4-5 days later I developed a slight fever and a nasty cough, but four lateral flow tests (the first I performed on my trip to see Ana) and a PCR test failed to confirm my fear that the virus had finally caught up with me as well, but I think that it highlighted the sad reality that some simple human pleasures like a night in a mountain hut will probably have to wait until next summer.

Slovenia

It is the last day of August and the weather in Bavaria is dismal ……….but looking on the bright side, the COVID incidence figures in most European countries remain low and with the borders open, I have decided to take full advantage of the geographical uniqueness of the Alps – just three hours drive away, passing some dramatic mountain landscapes and traveling through one of the longest tunnels in Europe, the weather has changed to this:

Finally I am coming good on my promise to visit a few friends and colleagues in Slovenia……

Gliding in my by now slowly aging carriage (with right hand steering of course…) through a picture postcard landscape, I am passing Ljubljana and I am heading further South, where my first stop is the animal clinic of Postojna, a referral center for veterinary cancer patients from Northern Italy and from the Balkan countries.

A team of dedicated veterinary professionals are providing here high end diagnostic and therapeutic procedures for canine and feline patients.

Underneath one roof the center houses radiography, CT and MRI imaging facilities and patients can be treated surgically, with chemo and with radiation therapy at a level which equals the care provided to human patients.

Numerous photos and notes from grateful owners are lining the walls in the waiting room.

My journey continues further South to the little stretch of Mediterranian coastline which Slovenia calls its own. At the Hotel Marina, right next to the little habour of Izola my local colleague Lara Kralj has reserved a room for me and the day is finished off in style with local seafood and regional wine.

The next day I have been invited to visit Lara’s clinic, where her all female team is providing first and second opinion care for the local pets, which includes a fair amount of patients coming over the border from nearby Trieste. All team members seem to be bi- (or probably tri-) lingual communicating with pet owners in Slovenian, Italian and in English.

I am having my first (thankfully not direct) encounter with emetic eyedrops and with an entero-protectant developed by the Russian army. You might think that you have seen it all and along come developments you didn’t even imagined would be useful…..

I also notice the close proximity to Italy both in the more colorful outfits of the team (compare this to the plane and possibly somewhat dated dark green of British VN uniforms…) and even in the body dressings of the patients following surgery, which , I think, were real fashion statements.

Once I had a guided tour of Lara’s place and after we had finished the day’s surgical list, Lara took me for lunch to her favourite seafood place right by the marina and I couldn’t help being envious about all the amenities that the location of her clinic offered.

I then had the opportunity of visiting the famous Salina of Secoveljske which is right at the border to Croatia and which made a great background for some nice sun set images.

The next stop on my “Veterinary Tour of Slovenia” had to be the Vet school in Ljubljana where one of my veterinary heroes – Ana Nemec – one of Europe’s finest veterinary dentists, was already waiting for me (I was a bit late coming from an little alpine detour, but more about that another time….). Ana had been helpful with a lot of tips and practical advice for my own cases in Virginia Water and we had been communicating already for a few years, before meeting for the first time in person by coincidentally sharing a taxi a couple of years ago in Thessaloniki. Ana is not only an outstanding dentist, she also seems to run a secret branch of the Slovenian tourist office judging by the stunning mountain landscapes she is posting on a regular basis on her social media sites.

A joint photo at her purpose built dentistry table – a place from where countless veterinary students and graduates from all over the world were educated online about veterinary dentistry – was a must, before here too I was treated to an excellent lunch in the historic centre of the Slovenian capital.

After meeting with some more colleagues in Ljublana in the evening (yes, more wine and great food was involved….), it was an early start on the next morning as I was heading to the North Eastern corner of this small country. After 2 hours driving I was standing in front of an architectural statement that would have made Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus movement proud – the clinic of Natalia Hercog Gerbec in Maribor.

This is what happens I thought, when veterinary medicine is meeting with the love of art and interior design: a place both humans and animals feel comfortable in. We often forget that or clinics are the place where we as vets will spend probably the longest time of our lives at and only a few of us try (but all too often fail….) to make it more than just a set of functional rooms with a lot of pipes and cables running along the wall and stuffed with various machinery.

Natalia’s love for warm colors on a white background, combined with small playful features or with famous quotes, keeps the eye busy and provides a calming ambience despite the functional outline of the building. You can’t help feeling inspired and wanting to change something in your own home after visiting Natalia’s clinic.

My trip to Slovenia finished in truly Mediterranean style, with some more wine and with home made food at the mountain hut of Neca Jerkovic in the forest near Pokljuka, which became a rather crowded place with so many veterinarians and with Neca’s price winning family of Great Swiss Mountain dogs all under one roof.

The hiking together with these gentle giants the next day in the Triglav National Park was the icing on the cake for the by then exhausted traveler and it was hard to leave this small but so beautiful country behind at the end of a so memorable week among friends.

Heading North – again…..

I am sitting in a train heading from Stockholm 400 km further North along the Gulf of Bothnia to Sundsvall, a town of less than 60 000 inhabitants that had based its wealth on timber.

Despite its limited size, the place has a busy veterinary emergency clinic which is taking in small animal patients from a radius of up to 300 km. The clinic – and a wooden bungalow right next to the forest and to a ski slope…- will be my home for the next 4 weeks.

I had not more than a couple of hours sleep last night and my day had started this morning at 4 am in Munich with my first flight after nearly a year,

and while the forest outside the train window is slowly disappearing in the fading daylight, I am beginning to doze off with my memories returning to a rainy morning at the end of August……..

To write for a living ?….

It is 5.30 in the morning and its done……

With the coffee machine working overtime and our Vizsla snoring peacefully on the floor next to my desk, I am sitting in front of 71 pages plus eight appendices of an advisory job, which I had taken on to try my hands on a completely new task (no scalpel involved this time).

For the last six weeks I have pretty much been glued to my desk, studying veterinary legislation, pet owner demographics, have spoken to a large number of veterinary organisations and colleagues, have fought with spreadsheets and with power point presentations with running (not fast enough) and walking the dog (not often enough) on most days the only interruption.

When I started this task, I had several moments when I had severe doubts that I could do it, partially because it was a lot of work to do, partially because in the beginning I didn’t have the skill set to do it. What helped me through it in the end was to compare the whole task to the climbing of a mountain: prepare yourself as good as you can, have a decent plan how it could work, break the journey up into many small sections, have the company of good friends and helpful strangers, hope for some good luck and for even better weather and then start walking…..

At the moment I have no idea if the final result will be well received, but at least I have managed to finish it a week ahead of schedule (but still five days behind my personal dead line……) and now it is time for a reward:

A book !

And in this case not just any kind of book….

Christina Loggia, together with her husband Angelo one of my favorite feline clients in Virginia Water, had made good use of the last 18 months of restrictions by writing her first novel. Without knowing it, she chose one of my favorite genres: a second world war spy thriller which – even better – is set in Italy.

I had ordered my copy already weeks ago, but I didn’t touch it because I knew that it would be too much of a distraction once I had started to read it and it made an excellent “carrot” to aim for by finishing this job.

Even better – after a few hours of sleep we got into the car and a short while later I was sitting in Christina’s and Angelo’s living room in a Berkshire village to get my own copy signed by the author !

The novel is starting in the heat of the desert of North Africa – an excellent choice for a novel, but so, so different from my next adventure……

Gran Paradiso

It was still early in the morning and the sun was about to rise over Punta Feuillaz in the East. A thin layer of snow was covering the ground which was not unusual in September at 2500m above sea level and despite a double layer of warm clothes, Vittorio Emanuele was still cold. He was asking himself if it really was a royal privilege to hunt one of the rarest animals on the planet in such an inhospitable environment.

Riding and then walking up the well maintained mountain pass from Cogne together with his hunting party the previous day, he had spent the night in the simple hunting lodge in the Ciamosseretto Valley, which was more suitable for a goat herder than for the King of Italy. At least the food that had been brought up from the valley and the Piedmontese wine had been excellent and Guiseppe, the leader of the fifty gamekeepers he kept employed in the royal hunting reserve had assured him that his chances of getting another fine trophy were excellent this season.

The game in question was the elusive “Capricorno”, the Alpine Ibex, which had nearly been hunted to extinction by 1856, but by now – 14 years later – the initial stock of just over 50 animals had recovered well and his hunting party might be able to finish the day with more than ten kills, leaving the finest specimen – of course – to their royal patron.

And as the sun was starting to meld the snow, he knew that it would be a fine day after all……

It was still dark at 5.30 when I left the hotel in the center of Aosta to cover the short journey to Cogne more than 150 years later for a long overdue visit to Italy’s first and so famous National Park. Surrounded by some of Europe’s highest mountains and wedged into the far Northwest corner of the country with both France and Switzerland just a short distance away, Gran Paradiso is offering not only great hiking and climbing opportunities, but also some of the least disturbed alpine flora and fauna.

Walking in the foot steps of Vittorio Emanuele, who was “only” the King of Sardinia-Piedmont when establishing the royal hunting reserve and by this saving the ibex, I started my trip in the small mountain village of Valmontey and benefiting from the also today well maintained path, I was able to cover the over 1000 altitude meters to the hunting lodge in less than 2 hours.

The early start had been a wise move, as the East facing track was at all times in the shade of the mountain range on the other side of the valley.

The hunting lodge serves now as a mountain refuge and as the breakfast for the overnight guests had just finished, the only food to be had was the customary cappuccino and a slice of homemade blueberry cake. To avoid having to ask for another coffee later, I ordered two cappuccini right away with the result that I also received two slices of cake…..

There was no point in arguing and as I still had a lot of hiking ahead of me, I was pretty certain that I would burn off the calories anyway.

It was still early in the day and as the weather was perfect and as I hadn’t spotted an ibex so far, I decided to press on in the same direction to the Col du Lauson

and to the Punta del Tuf at nearly 3400m, allowing a stunning view of Gran Paradiso itself at 4026m and of most of the National Park.

Retracing my steps back to the refuge, I was finally rewarded with a view of a whole herd of young ibexes crossing the path not far away from me.

Heading then South, the trail led around the Bec du Vallon before descending steeply into the glacier valley below.

With hindsight I was happy that no dogs were allowed in the park, as the path was at times very exposed with some sheer drops allowing no room for errors.

The views of the remaining glacier tongues which once must have fed into a giant glacier filling the whole valley were truly breathtaking and reminded me of sections of the Icefields Parkway in Alberta.

Also walking eventually along the Torrent Valmontey, which is purely fed by the melting water of the glaciers felt somewhat like walking through the Rocky Mountains, just with less of a chance of bumping into a bear…..

When I arrived back in the village, I had covered over 30 km on hiking tracks and just under 2000m of ascend and descend, I had seen some great wildlife and probably one of Europe’s most stunning views and I was grateful for the hunting passion of a monarch nearly two centuries ago.

Surrey Practice Days

It was now the middle of the summer and the river of life had washed me back on to British shores, where the tsunami of “Pandemic Puppies” had caused a huge demand for veterinary professionals.

This times I was not alone though, as just before my departure from the continent I was re-united with Mia, our Hungarian Vizsla, who like me was missing all our British friends and – in Mia’s case – all her “surrogate pet parents” who took her on far more interesting walks than I ever did….

To keep myself busy, it needed only a couple of messages to some Polish friends of mine (some of the few that had stayed behind following Brexit….) and I had secured some locum work with the lovely teams at Alder’s and Croft’s Vets near Guildford – so just on my door step.

Both clinics have a long history with very charismatic practice owners and they are very established institutions in the local communities. Similar to my own clinic in Virginia Water, these practices had been sold to a corporate owner and young and enthusiastic teams of vets and technicians were making these places now fit for the demands of the 21st century.

Alder’s Vets was a busy practice in a pre-dominantly working class area, just next to a little pet shop, a convenience store and a fish-and-chips shop on a busy road just opposite of a petrol station. The building was cracking at its seams, with tinny rooms and vets, nurses and patients squeezing past another. With everyone being courteous and happy to help each other, there was a real ‘buzz’ in the place and I absolutely loved it.

Once again I realized that there are not a lot of jobs in the world where you are getting paid while cuddling puppies and kittens……

Even better was that Mia found a new “family” with the office staff, meaning that she too was looking forward to going to work every day.

Croft’s Vets is situated in walking distance of the village center of Haslemere, one of my favourite places in England, which can be described as “picture postcard” Surrey. There are still a lot of – very expensive – little cottages and plenty of coffee and tea rooms and even a still thriving bookshop. The scenery is dominated by groups of middle- aged ramblers and cyclists on high end mountain and road bikes desperate to get their caffeine fix.

Here we are in Labrador and Golden Retriever country, with only a few French Bulldogs in sight…

The clinic – with an over 100 year old history as a veterinary practice – was an amalgamation of modern and historic features with sculptures of a jolly pig and of a giant rabbit in the front garden.

Stepping into the waiting room you soon appreciate that the wife of the former owner was an interior designer, with the avian motifs of the wall paper and of the clock harmonizing well with the parquet flooring and the antique furniture, but yet blending well with the modern logo and the glass entrance door.

It was a delight to consult in the well lit examination rooms with their high ceilings and providing enough space to allow for the first face-to-face consultations with pet owners present in over a year.

Life over here was not quite as busy as at the sister practice, so that in my lunch breaks there was even time to walk Mia on the nearby hiking trail and to relax with a coffee and a newspaper in the village center.

A great plus was also the proximity of Haslemere to the “Devil’s Punchbowl” – a nature reserved owned by the National Trust which made for great evening runs after days spent in the foot steps of Crofts and Alders….