Eyewitness to 1984, Part Two

I had to remind myself that the main reason for my visit was to work on the unfinished projects. But since I lacked the Major’s expertise the next best thing that I could do was to secure materials. That was easier said than done. I scoured the market places at different times of the day on the theory that materials would show up irregularly. I could get lucky and be at the right place at the right time. But that only works in novels and movies, not usually in the real world.

I did manage to find a few wall outlets, plugs and hose clamps. I bought things that might never be used by the hospital people on the theory that one never knows when one will need that particular gadget. A sound capitalist principle I believed. I did connect on one thing, a porcelain floor toilet basin. I had the funny feeling the word had gone out that I was looking for that particular object because someone approached me and told me in perfect English that he could obtain that item. Fine, I told him. Then I asked him if he could bring it to the doctor’s home that afternoon. Sure enough he did.

His asking price was twenty dollars American. A donnybrook developed when I did not bargain for a reduction in price. I explained to my friends that negotiations do not work very well when there is only one item for sale and many buyers. Odetta’s family got quite vociferous in its objections. I understood by this time some of the local customs and that one of them entailed complicated economic give and take. But I do not have the mental facilities and patience for that sort of thing. In time, they understood this and I acquired a toilet basin. I could not install it, so I made the missionaries promise that someone else would do it.

Finding plumbing supplies in Shkodra was out of the question. So one day Hassan showed up at the house (mysteriously as usual) and the doctor and I accompanied him to Tirana. He drove like all Europeans and never missed a pothole. That city is pleasant enough with tree lined streets, a first class hotel, some parks, minarets, a museum dedicated to the late unlamented jailer (I’m sure it will be used for a better purpose in time to come) and a giant square. But this one contained a memorial of a different nature. It was the statue of Skanderbeg, a far different man than Hoxha. Of course, the sculpture was romanticized to a certain degree, depicting an extravagantly handsome man, with the noble and resolute features of a proud warrior that indeed he was. Still, if one knows something about his story then one must admit that the depiction could have been a fairly accurate one. I liked the monument.

I heard my first Muslim call. I could not locate the voice at first, but when people stopped, kneeled and faced a certain direction it dawned on me that I was in a multi-religious country and that the devout Muslims were being called to prayers. This statement seems to fly against my earlier assertion that the country was an official atheist society. We in the West know that religion never really dies. It may lie dormant for a while or go underground. So it was in Albania. For centuries Islam had co-existed with Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. It would have taken more than a “tin horn” dictator to change that. The Muezzin was at the top of a minaret not far from Skanderbeg’s statue. It seemed appropriate that it should be that way.

Odetta introduced me to her uncle who at one time was a top surgeon. A quiet, gentle man, fluent in French and Russian, he had received his medical education in Paris and Moscow, in the process accumulating a fairly good sized library and much knowledge about the western world. He was a widower, had been for four or five years, I realized. He soon told me a sad story that epitomized all the cruelties and stupidities of dictatorial rule. It seems that his wife, also a doctor, had become ill. Since the local hospitals had no facilities to deal with her sickness, it was deemed necessary to send her to Vienna for treatment. But the lady required a travel visa.

Time after time it was denied. It was impossible to obtain, she was told. Meanwhile the disease now diagnosed as cancer spread through the woman’s body. Finally an old family friend, a government official, intervened and the doctor received her visa. But she reached Vienna too late. An operation was of no benefit and she died there. The man’s voice faltered at this point and he stopped talking. I then changed the subject and we discussed other matters.

It was not until our return trip that I heard the rest of the story from Odetta. There was retaliation. It came when the surgeon was accused of incompetence and forced to resign his post. That, I believed, happened before the fall of the party. Since then the doctor had become a devoted television fan. Life was meaningless for him now. I wondered why he did not offer his services to the new government. The reasons were none of my business really, but when I returned to the states I sent him information about international organizations that were recruiting medical personnel. I have no idea if anything came of my suggestion.

Hassan needed tires. He also knew exactly where to go. I cannot remember all the strange places we visited and the amount of time spent in search and negotiations. But Hassan was a marvel. It was a delight to watch his scrounging technique. Several times after he left Odetta at various places he would disappear. If the doctor arrived at the car before he returned, she would become highly agitated and mutter incomprehensible words concerning his behavior. I was totally amused by the whole scenario, but I dared not show it. I wondered how she would do in a battle of the sexes. I debated with my male psyche if it would be worthwhile to provoke her. I lost. I saw no tire shop, no “Pep Boys”, not even a garage. I could go and on with superlatives about Hassan’s abilities at scrounging. As I said before he would be the quintessential bunk mate.

But miracle man that he was he could not locate what the Bushat hospital required. However, we returned home not quite empty handed; Hassan had his tire. Even now I remain amazed and dumbfounded by that strange society’s adaptability and will to survive.

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