Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The importance of being "gypsy"

There is a very good reason why I didn't study medicine. 

I excel in faking I am super cool and composed while mending minor scrapes or pulling splinters out of a screaming child’s finger with tweezers - wielding the triple action Polysporin as if it was a magic wand. However this only stems from the fact that the accountant in the family would have handled it worse than I. Far worse.

Forget the Discovery Channel's Shark week - I can't even watch a tooth extraction on close circuit TV let alone be close to an open wound, blood or layers of skin stretched open. And speaking of stretched open, that moment when I was told to push and was politely offered a mirror to actually see the baby's birth: "If I was supposed to see that, I would have been a giraffe. No. Please. Thank you!" is what my skilled Mt.Sinai Hospital team heard back. "Never ask me again!” Although, two years later - they did. 

So when a young gypsy boy entered my pharmacy for the fifth time that week, limping on little crutches, I felt uneasy. 

I knew this kid. He was about 10 years old and I saw him every morning as I walked to work. He would be sleeping on the street on a flattened cardboard box covered with a dirty blanket next to his mother, who would, with a baby in her arms, set up her post at about 6:30 a.m., right at the entrance to Belgrade's main hospital complex. The sight of her 'coming to work' always bothered me, as I had heard many stories of how these women are just exploited peons in one stream of organized crime, having the pimp-like characters who would 'protect' them take all the money they collected sitting endlessly on a dirty street. With their kids. Breastfeeding. 

Each time the boy entered the pharmacy I would tense as I wasn't allowed to let him stay and linger due to the threat of him stealing something or robbing one of the waiting patients. He certainly wasn't buying anything. But then, he was just a kid and I felt that possibly I might be that one person who would always be kind to him. Besides being a brand-new pharmacist, I was also a brand-new wife and I didn't have a child of my own yet. So what I tried to offer, as I walked past the little family each morning was a banana, or a granola bar, a silent blessing and sometimes spare change. 

When his turn came to approach the window, he signalled that he couldn't speak, his one leg lifted up so high that only his dirty bare toes with their black toenails peeked out of his trousers. Was he really disabled? I tried to recollect whether he was the one I saw playing with a tennis ball, accidentally hitting me in the back one afternoon when I was walking home from work? I wasn't sure. Trouble is, Belgrade has a family of gypsies lining all major corners; begging is a career. I tried to envision what these slender, swift, dark-eyed children would look like should they have a chance to belong to a normal family. One that owned a bed. And a shower. 

"How can I help you?" - I forced myself to address him as I would every other patient. 
Instead of replying, he signalled again that he could not speak, pointing to his throat.
"Do you have a sore throat?" - I attempted to see what he was looking for, suspecting that he just wanted a few dinars. 
He shook his head and slapped his forehead.
"Does your head hurt?"
He shook his head more vigorously, clearly getting annoyed with me, pointing again to his throat as if to say "woman, I told you already I cannot speak" and stretching one of his arms as if asking for money, his unwashed little palm open in front of me.
"I am sorry, I can not give you money from the cash register. Is there anything else I can help you with?" He pointed back to his throat. Then moved even closer on his little crutches to the glass that divided us. 

Some people in the line behind him started getting impatient. A few coughs and a loud sigh were urging me to end his visit.

In Serbia, many things seem to be 'behind' the advancements of the modern world. I won't argue that. But not the pharmacies. From what I have witnessed in my time as a pharmacist in North America, they have yet to learn what a pharmacy should be like, feel like and smell like. It is a place of individual care and education. It is a temple of sophisticated smells of compounded preparations made according to the unique prescription. The lab behind the row of shelves only staff can access houses both prescription medications and OTC's (yes, teens can't actually buy six bottles of pain killers, at least not at the same place). Behind that wall is an orderly, white and well-lit lab where we mix our knowledge into creams and lotions. And suppositories. The dark glass storage containers are lined up in divine order, their Latin names whispering secrets to us, the pharmacists, in crisp white, starched and meticulously-ironed coats. We are that chosen extended hand of not only the doctor who saw the patient last; we are channeling Panacea and Hygeia and of course Hippocrates. We are chanting his oath with everything we do. 

In stark contrast with North America, there is no fridge with Coca-Cola. There are no Nachos. Or Doritos. Or isles of junky chocolate bars. There is no mascara either. And for sure there are no cigarettes. There is only a counter and shelves behind it. And if you need a heart medication or an antibiotic, I will check your prescription for the dose and contraindications, and hand you your medicine with counselling not obtained while reading the computer screen. In an unrushed minute. Or five. Whatever it takes other than a 16 page print-out set to spook you and confuse you with it's dire legal warnings. No you don't have to roam around the store for the next half hour hopefully remembering you also needed a greeting card, a toilet cleaner and a TV dinner. It is not a convenience store. Or a local grocer. It is a pharmacy. 

The hand of the gypsy boy now entered the little opening in the glass divider where we usually exchange prescriptions and payments. 

"I don't have anything to give you." - I was starting to sound desperate as the line-up stretched behind him. 

With one hand, he now lifted his shirt, attempting to show me a wide yet old scar of what was likely an accident with boiling water. I cringed. Closed my eyes. Then in total panic blurted out loud: 
"You are not sick, I saw you playing with your sister this morning!" 

Hearing that, the gypsy boy promptly stood on his feet, tucked both crutches under his right arm and feistily marched towards the door. Right before he kicked it to exit he turned around and in front of all of my other patients snarled, spitting on the floor first: "Pu, apotekarice, 'lebac ti jebem!" which can be only translated, for sure losing some of its original charm, as: "I f*ck your bread, pharmacist-lady!"

I don't remember ever having laughed so hard while at work. A few patients whose ailments did not tamper with their sense of humour also giggled. The others just moved closer in line as I continued with my regular work, pursing my lips yet still laughing. 

One of my favourite movies
What was so funny to me? I laughed feeling the relief that he was gone but healthy - his leg wasn't injured. And he wasn't mute. Or crazy even though he kept pointing to his head. He just grew frustrated that his gig didn't work this time, knowing exactly what to curse - not me, but the way I earned my living. 

Twenty-one years later I still laugh at this. This time, I laugh more because it strikes me how much I learned over the years from the gypsies. Not only from my young friend who spat on the floor of my pharmacy, but from all I came across, all I met over the years. They packed lightly, moving swiftly.  There was an importance to setting up a home even if it were only for a day spent on a cardboard box.  And they often lived more joyously than those who had everything. This benignly profane line when said in Serbian is what works for me when seeking refuge from stress. It gives instant relief while I long to let something I cannot control go. And it does it completely and swiftly. Both crutches under my arms, slam the door, I'm done with this!

It doesn't have to be smart. Or sophisticated. I just want it to work. This one works for me. 

Realized I lost my favourite wrist watch. Pu 'lebac ti jebem! 
Husband gave kids' large school photos to his mother leaving me only the wallet-sized ones. Yes, she already framed them. Pu 'lebac ti jebem! 
It's -19 C outside. Pu 'lebac ti jebem! 
It's gonna be -19 C for the next four months, if we are lucky. Pu 'lebac ti jebem!

It might sound very un-sage like for me to suggest you find your own relief profanity. But if you can create a shortcut out of some daily crap not spending too long simmering in what you cannot change? What the heck, be a gypsy!

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