San Sebastian Panorama, via Getty Images.
Artillery Row

Shingles and delirium in San Sebastián

Despite Covid-19 rates spiking, it was a dormant virus that caught the author out as he tried to venture through Spain

“Don’t be shy, drop your shorts a bit more,” came the Spanish nurse’s voice from behind before she plunged the hypodermic needle into my right buttock.

An hour prior to this I had been standing in a Spanish pharmacy after an exchange of photos with a friend on WhatsApp of what looked like an outbreak of leprosy around my right nipple and spreading in a band around my back. He suggested getting some sort of talcum powder for what we both assumed was a bout of the prickle heat rash we knew from our days in the army when carrying a heavy bergen in hot temperatures. I was undergoing a similar experience at the start of the Camino del Norte pilgrimage along the Spanish northern coast and had got as far as the elegant coastal city of San Sebastián before the rash became more of a concern.

The pharmacist didn’t speak English, so I excused myself in Spanish and then lifted my top. She made a worse face than I had expected.

“Talcum power?” I said hopefully, making a shaking gesture.

She shook her head and summoned the manager. I continued to hold up my top. He looked just as nonplussed. I tried the talcum powder routine again.

“It’s not a pharmacy you need, it’s Centro Medico for you, my lad,” he said, or something along those lines in Spanish.

Fortunately, the Centro Medico hospital was a block away. Even more fortunately, hospital reception appeared deserted.

After again lifting my top for the receptionist, I handed over my European Health Insurance Card—still valid until the end of the year—before being directed to room 117.

Initially the nurse was stumped and called for a doctor. He peered and stroked his chin for a moment before clapping his hands and exclaiming loudly doing a Hippocratic version of the Eureka moment.


“Herpes? Sex?” I replied somewhat baffled—the last few months since Covid-19 took hold haven’t exactly been Dionysian.

“Oh, no, no, no,” the nurse and doctor proclaimed together.

The nurse explained there are different types of herpes, mine being herpes zoster, more commonly known as shingles. It’s the reactivation of the chickenpox virus, typically experienced during childhood, and very uncomfortable when it returns.

Hence the next two nights were consumed with delirium shingles as I tossed, turned, groaned, and paced around my hostel bedroom wanting to beat the walls. If the three medicines I had been given in addition to the jab in the buttocks were working, it was very hard to tell as the clock ticked by: 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. I thought I might go out of my mind. By around 5 a.m. I finally succumbed to sheer exhaustion.

It at least provided a break from concerns about Covid-19, though that may have had an indirect role. After a person has had chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in certain nerves, and may never be activated, though it can be reactivated by various things such as age and stress. The past few months, as for many, haven’t exactly been the most wonderful.

Once in Spain, there was a similar sense of life continuing and people getting back out there

That was one of the reasons I hopped on the Eurostar to head off on the Camino, trying to keep in perspective eager British media reports about Spain’s Covid-19 infection rates spiking. The numbers had increased, but not to a colossal degree when you actually did the maths and comparisons, and the outbreaks centred on various cities. Spain is huge, and the Camino del Norte is in the open air and often through rural areas where cows and goats have bells around their necks. Keep things in perspective, I kept telling myself, a discipline that appears a dying art these days in the UK.

Because as I changed trains from the Eurostar to the French TGV in a Paris train station to whizz my way down south, I was struck by the bustle compared to London King’s Cross. The station was rammed with all sorts, holiday makers and hikers, suitcases and rucksacks, the only difference being that everyone was wearing a mask. Otherwise, though, France appeared to be on the move and determined to get somewhere.

Once in Spain, despite the stricter mask policy, there was a similar sense of life continuing and people getting back out there—in contrast to the UK.

According to a survey in July by the bank Morgan Stanley, British office workers have been much more reluctant to return to their desks compared to staff in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. About half of all British workers surveyed have returned to their normal workplaces, compared with 82 per cent of French employees and 72 per cent across the other major European countries surveyed.

The UK government needs to do a better job of not further alienating our European neighbours

It’s hard not to take such statistics as indicating a cowering mentality taking over among us Brits. On the other hand, it might indicate just how much more miserable we were being made by the British commuting lifestyle. Either way, the implications for our societies and economies of not going back are significant. High street retailer WH Smith has had to cut 1,500 jobs because of struggling sales for its branches at airports, as well as small kiosk-style stores in bus and railway stations. Sandwich chain Pret a Manger announced in July it would permanently close 30 outlets and could cut 1,000 jobs with sales plummeting as a result of people continuing to work from home.

In the Spanish towns and cities that I passed through, shops and cafes remained open and relatively busy. I’ve never gone abroad and met so few Brits—even in the Horn of Africa I would bump into them—though I am meeting plenty of intrepid French, Germans and Dutch.

Together we are marvelling at the astonishing scenery of the Spanish northern coast while eating tapas and drinking too much café con leche and cheap but quality red wine.

Occasionally when I check back into Twitter, I am reminded of that other world out there awaiting our return. As with any hit to your health, there is nothing like a bout of shingles to put all the arguments and vitriol about Brexit, Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump, etc., on the backburner, focusing your attention on life’s simpler, more fundamental precepts.

After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, I haven’t got much time for today’s self-serving political stances

“We show no mercy. ONLY THE HARDEST WILL SURVIVE,” was sprayed on a wall as I headed out of Bilbao. When I did my first Camino in 2017 along the most popular route, typically known as the Camino Frances or the Camino de Santiago, almost all the graffiti I encountered on walls or under highways was uplifting and life affirming, about love, peace and finding your way to being a better person. The darker hue of this sprayed warning made more sense given that Bilbao is Spain’s answer to Berlin—edgy with a strong dose of counter-culture alongside the fine architecture—and that there is still a strong separatist movement for the Basque region, similar to Catalonia.

There weren’t any other references though to indicate exactly what this this bold statement referred to. But it chimed with the current threads of the culture wars that are generating such a pugilistic mood in the US—and increasingly in the UK—that is riven by polarisation, caught between Donald Trump taking disingenuity to new heights and the riots and intimidations by the far Left.

After serving in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, I haven’t got much time for the aggressive and self-serving political and so-called social-justice stances being embraced these days. The belligerent approach might get you some short-term victories, but good luck sustaining a society long-term that is only populated by the hardest of people who show no mercy.

None of us knows when we might need mercy shown to us. Hence I’m keeping my European Health Insurance Card in my wallet until it expires in the shadow of Brexit. Did my shingles encounter while experiencing the astonishing environments and cultures of France and Spain give me pause regarding our controversial referendum? It certainly got me thinking that the UK government needs to be doing a much better job of not further alienating our European neighbours with broad-brush travel bans and quarantining rules that unnecessarily isolate and hurt livelihoods.

We must not lose sight of the good fortune of how our island sits across from an astonishing continent, nor how we need to get back out there. Both at home and abroad.

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