Real people Real Experiences

In Dubious Honor of Karl Marx’ Birthday…or…Escaping Tsarist Russia Before the Bogeyman Cometh: Part 3

Back to my Grandmother.

The freighter arrived in The Golden Horn (Istanbul’s harbor). It seemed that the Ottoman authorities were unprepared, and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of refugees. On her ship there was a shortage of drinking water. There was also the rumor of a Cholera outbreak on one of the vessels, so everyone was stuck where they were.

The Greek fishermen wasted no time in turning this into a profitable opportunity. A cup of water, you say? I like that golden ring. A pitcher of water for your family? That Icon with the silver frame will suffice. And so it went. Finally, the harbor authorities provided food and drinking water, but not before many family heirlooms found their way into Greek hands. Many years later, when she met my Turkish Fiancee’, she wanted to know for certain that she was moslem, or Turkish, but NOT Greek! She breathed a sigh of relief despite my Fiancee’s religion.

The Church was ultimately unhelpful. She heard that there was a contingent of Russians in Belgrade. So her travels continued.

Belgrade! It was the “Roaring whatevers”. She found a job in a Taverna (Bar), and enrolled herself in the University. Being heavily educated in the “Classics”, and fluent in multiple languages it was fairly easy to enrol. A job also helped! It was an “interesting” time, to say the least. She became familiar with absinthe, which was popular. Also Opium. And Heroin. And Cocaine. She became one of the bar’s cardsharps. I recall when she was in her 70’s, just the right card would miraculously appear in her hand, seemingly right out of thin air! She was apparently very good, and very profitable for the bar, as they kept her employed until she graduated with her medical degree.

One day, as she was walking out the bar’s door, she bumped into a man coming in. She was smitten on the spot. They were married within 2 weeks.

Shortly after, they moved into a small village in the countryside. She was to be the village doctor. In fact, the only doctor within at least 3 day’s horse ride. She told me a story once, about a farmer who developed appendicitis. She travelled to his house (likely a hut) on horseback, prepared to perform an appendectomy. I dont remember if he was a Serb, or a Croat. It really didn’t matter, as the only way he would expose his belly to the doctor, was if they were properly introduced. A proper introduction involved many glasses of slivovitz (the local plum brandy – hooch, rather). It was just as well, as it was also the only available anesthetic.

In any case, by the time they were “properly” introduced, he was falling-down drunk, and she wasn’t far behind. She fell asleep with her head on the kitchen (operating )table. She awoke to a splitting headache, forced him to finish the bottle, and completed the surgery. He survived, as did many more.

Payment for medical services was generally in barter. Anything from a hen for a rotten tooth, to a piglet for a birth. Although the Doctor was well respected, my mom remembers an undertone of resentment in elementary school to the “Rus”.

Depending on the village, the townsfolk could be Serbs, or Croats, and either Moslem or Christian. And the level of resentment varied from town to town. Given the distances, my grandmother made many “housecalls”. I remember stories of trips in deep winter snow, where the farmer would be whipping the horse pulling the sled, while she would kneel, shooting at the pursuing wolves with a rifle.

To be concluded on Wednesday. Stay tuned!

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