Eyewitness to 1984, Part Two

Chapter Three – Social Life In Shkodra

There was no social life in Shkodra as we know it in the western world. Coffee houses and pubs did not exist, a fact which disturbed the doctor immensely because, as she explained in an angry tone of voice, there are no places for people to come together and discuss social issues and personal matters. Consequently, socializing only took place in the home, the street or the city square. That was not really a good social climate for the young people since there was no place to foster relationships, a situation exacerbated by the poor economic conditions that forced them to live with their families. Any romantic attachments on anyone’s part would have been academic because of it.

She was very dissatisfied with that arrangement. I could see her point. Even at home the doctor could not enjoy privacy. Neighbors constantly knocked on the door asking for medicines and medical advice. I helped to ameliorate that situation by taking her on walks in the evenings. We usually strolled to the park in the center of the city. It seemed to be the popular meeting place for the populace. The people walked about, many of them in colorful native costumes. Occasionally a horseback rider came galloping up the street sometimes accompanied by a rear passenger holding on for dear life.

The park was fairly attractive with a large water fountain, grass areas and benches. Adjoining it was a huge square (how communists love big squares!). In the middle of it lay a flag and a bouquet of flowers, changed daily, commemorating the spot where police had killed demonstrating students in 1989. In retaliation the people had dragged party officials out of their offices and had shot them.

Since the family used an antiquated wood burning stove and an electric hot plate, the doctor and her mother had to start cooking several hours before dinner time, but the meals were always appetizing. Since the parents were on a meager pension, I felt strongly about sharing expenses and I was a bit annoyed because they would not accept any money whenever I accompanied them to the produce market. Vegetables and “melons” were plentiful but not meat. Prices were slowly going up auguring a coming bout of inflation. Odetta’s brother was present at times for dinner and we all engaged in lively talk, political usually. He told us some hair-raising stories about his search for work in Greece. The police were more brutal than the soldiers, he exclaimed heatedly; whenever he and his friends were caught the former would set the dogs on them, whereas the military people would buy them a ticket back home along with an admonition.

It was on our visits to the square that I introduced Odetta to the nuances, complexities and beauties of American English. I baffled and discombobulated her as I explained such marvels as: “you’d better believe it; tell me about it; don’t beat around the bush; welcome to the club; get with the program; right on, baby”. But what really floored the exasperated and confused doctor was Groucho Marx’s old bromide: “take two pills and call me in the morning.” She could not believe that professional people used those idioms. Certainly doctors would not say that to their patients, she exclaimed. She demanded in an imperious manner that I explain further. I did. Everyone uses those expressions in America because they get to the heart of the matter, I explained patiently. Doctors do not talk like that, she countered; they use proper language. I was speechless, defeated. I let her win the argument. Nonetheless, before I left I heard my Albanian doctor shout exasperatingly; “tell me about it”. “Bravo”, I quipped, “right on, baby”. She became hysterical and blurted out: “The American language is impossible to understand” (she obviously had forgotten the complexities of her own native tongue). I did not resent losing that argument. Any time she laughed was a reward in itself.

One day the country was ablaze with the news that a distinguished visitor was in our midst: Mother Teresa was coming home.

Few people realize that she was born in neighboring Macedonia of Albanian ancestry. She would be taking part in a Mass in the missionary house. So we all got up early to join her. But we were a bit late. The villagers were already swarming around her, hoping to touch her or be touched by her. The press of people prevented me from accepting the priest’s invitation to join her up front. Some supplicants crawled on hands and knees; others were carried by relatives or friends. I could only watch and marvel. As a result of such a display of faith I contented myself with taking pictures of that living saint. To my ever lasting regret the roll of film did not develop correctly.

She is a small woman in stature, but a giant as a human being. The Mother spoke in English; she no longer speaks her native language very well. I remember that it was a brutally hot day. I’m sure she was aware of that; hence the brevity of her sermon. Odetta translated and also accompanied her on a trip to neighboring villages. Again I was shut out of another golden opportunity. I would have been honored and delighted to have been in her entourage.

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