We moved to Toulouse in October, 2004. In December of that year my fingers started developing cracks which then refused to heal until the weather improved, making for long winters, pianistically speaking. This irritating little condition then disappeared for a few months before, apparently for no reason, rearing its head again and staying a little longer and spreading a little further. This pattern continued for a couple of years before getting serious, so I finally decided to have it looked at by a dermatologist. By this time I'd heard every possible medical explanation, ranging from conventional medicine's catch-all concept of treating the symptoms and not the cause to homeopathic calls to purify yourself from the inside out, preferably to the accompaniment of a CD of New Age music, available from the receptionist at €12.99. My eczema attacks became longer and more violent until I was finally prescribed neutral soap, a moisturising cream and a pot of cortisone to keep my paws on the straight and narrow, at least until that particular bout was over. I remember playing Carmen with the fourth finger of my left hand curled up against my palm, completely useless, and simplifying Meistersinger almost to the level of Peter Rabbit Plays Richard Wagner. I was told it was linked to my recurrent hay fever and that, basically, nothing could be done. I had to live with it and go through these periods when they chose to descend. Fine.
My current bout of eczema started in February of this year. I remember having it when I started yoga in March and cortisone and a Mapuche aloe vera compound cream helped me through my stay in Santiago de Chile. It had eased off considerably by the time I started in Bayreuth in June and strategically-timed bouts of cortisone kept the door bolted until I got back to Toulouse after my private concert in Leipzig on September 7th. After that, my hands exploded, literally. Within two days they looked liked something out of a horror film: my fingers went dark red, brown and green and cracked open, oozing a vile, toxic discharge which needed to be mopped up every fifteen minutes or so. At the same time, the skin around my eyes became inflamed, swelling up and giving me a false, neanderthal brow whilst covering over half my pupils. I looked like a cross between Fu Manchu and the Elephant Man and only ventured out with sunglasses, even when it was raining.
I made an appointment to see an acupuncturist who also specialises in homeopathic remedies. It was a good visit and he prescribed a modest dose of natural medication. The next day, a colleague grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me to his favourite magnetic healer, who immediately diagnosed my problem as me not wanting to play the piano any more and wishing to return to conducting. Apparently that's why I could no longer see nor play scores. After some prodding and poking he also suggested a few domestic issues which could be addressed and, before leaving me pensive and profoudly depressed, prescribed a shopping list of homeopathic medicine which left my local chemist gleefully planning a week in the Bahamas.
Rightly or wrongly, I just added this new round of medication to that prescribed by the acupuncturist. Seeing my hands immediately getting worse I contacted the acupuncturist and asked for an emergency appointment. To his credit, he saw me that same afternoon. Mrs. F and I cycled off to his surgery, where I sat in the waiting room with my sunglasses on and my arms folded, just so as not to frighten anyone else in the waiting room. After a few minutes I felt peculiarly sick, so stood up and made my way to the loo. The next thing I remember was being seized by the doctor and manoeuvred to one of his acupuncture couches. I'd blacked out at the door to the loo, my blood pressure was in the basement and now he was there binding my arm and pumping air into the reservoir. It didn't take long until I was feeling OK, so I also told him my dick had started itching awfully that lunchtime and would he mind having a look. The swelling was apparently due to the cocktail of incompatible pixie-dust I'd been swallowing in good faith and that it would go down very quickly. Later that afternoon, in front of this same computer, I checked my spam folder and found something I'd never received before: a mail exhorting me to increase the size of my member. Maybe the doctor sent it.
Anyhow, the acupuncturist said I was to stop the homeopathic medicine immediately and referred me to a conventional dermatologist - who would take me between patients - to get some good old white man's medicine. Cortisosteroids and antibiotics were the order of the day, then we could see about the natural treatment later. We turned up at the dermatologist's surgery and were seen almost immediately. The doctor's first words upon seeing me were "Fucking Hell" ('Oh, putain!'), a bizarre sort of compliment, if you like. He prescribed me a course of treatment which could fell a rhino at 600 yards: Silver Nitrate, Scrubs, Corticosteroids, Antibiotics and Cortisone Cream, just so that I can be pianistically up and running again by tomorrow. Once we've successfully masked the real problem an umpteenth time I'll be able to go back to the acupuncturist and find out exactly why my hands refuse to work every few months. For the Tibetan-trained healer it was clear: I'm not happy in my job. Whether or not that's true I don't know, but it certainly doesn't feel it on a superficial level: I work in a great theatre at a high level, have regular, challenging avocational pursuits, am with my children every day and live in a very sweet flat (although too small) in a beautiful city. Billions would kill for that, and I realise it. OK, I do miss conducting, but not on an everyday level. After being a lazy shit all through my teens and twenties I still marvel that top grade classical institutions want to keep me on their payroll. The last thing I conducted, other than my choir, was an opera in 2009 which, despite the complications involved and the knife-edge final few days when everything looked like imploding, was probably the most satisfying musical venture I've experienced in recent years, maybe ever. The subsequent studio recording was complex and time-consuming, as was the editing, but the only stressful aspect was making sure I wasn't late for the theatre after a few hours in front of the mixing desk. Let's be realistic, though: these projects don't grow on trees and my family needs to eat. Unless Stadttheater Khatmandu comes 'a-knocking with the offer of a conducting post, we're here for the foreseeable, and if the magnetist's diagnosis is correct, then my next challenge will be making peace with my decision to stay planted in front of the ivories.
So here I am, stabbing away at the keys with hands blackened by silver nitrate and rendered quasi-immobile by cortisone and my own frenzied friction attacks (which I'll have to stop, but hell, it's difficult sometimes). My digits should be up and running sufficiently to bash through the organ part in Tosca tomorrow afternoon, then there's the prospect of a much lighter October where I just have a lot of university English tuition here, and a wisdom tooth extraction around the middle of the month. By that time I should be having needles stuck into me, too. So this year, as I slide naked down the razorblade bannister of life towards my fiftieth birthday, will be all about trying to patch up what can be saved of my existence before the countdown towards my free bus pass starts in earnest. Maybe this is the beginning of a mid-life crisis, but I feel just as upbeat and optimistic as I normally do, occasional rants aside.