Giving and receiving

I love receiving gifts. I love giving gifts especially if the recipient expresses joy, rather than gratitude.

This photograph taken in the Khanderao Market in Vadodara (India) expresses the joy of giving, which, as in the case of this flower merchant, can be greater than the joy of receiving.

Gifts of the grateful

In the 1980s, I visited my friends in the former Yugoslavia frequently. Also, I visited Albania and what is now independent Kosovo. During my trips, I picked up a large vocabulary of Serbo-Croat, including quite a selection of outrageous swear words. Grammar has always been beyond me in foreign languages, and often in my own. My interest in Albania and my brief visits to Albanian-speaking parts of the Balkans resulted in me acquiring some vocabulary in Albanian, but far less than in Serbo-Croat. Until the 1990s, I believed that my fragmentary knowledge of these languages would be useless outside the Balkans.

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Prizren in Kosovo, pre-1990

During one trip to Belgrade, a friend arranged for me to be an observer in a clinic of a leading oral surgeon. I turned up at a large hospital and spent a couple of hours watching the surgeon reviewing a series of his patients. Although I was grateful to be allowed to watch the great man, I learned little that was relevant to practising dentistry. However, one aspect of this clinic interested me greatly. As each patient entered the consulting room, he or she presented the surgeon with a gift: a bottle, a large piece of cheese, a ham, etc.

The last patient to enter, a man in a somewhat shabby suit, entered and sat in the dental chair without having presented a gift. After his mouth had been examined, the surgeon took the patient and me out into a corridor. We walked through the hospital to a room with locked doors. My host unlocked it, we entered, and he locked the doors behind us. After a brief conversation, the patient handed the surgeon a small brown envelope, which he thrust into his jacket pocket. Then, after the doors were unlocked, the patient went one way, and we went another way. As we walked along the corridor, my host patted the pocket containing the envelope, and before bidding me farewell, said: “Pornographic photographs.”

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Poster of Marshal Tito in Sarajevo, Bosnia in the 1980s

My last visit to Yugoslavia was in May 1990.  Soon after that, wars broke out in the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated painfully to form smaller independent states. In the early to mid-1990s, there was terrible strife in Bosnia. Many people fled as refugees to places including the UK. In the late 1990s, Kosovo suffered badly from warfare between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians. Many of the latter fled to the UK.

I moved from one dental practice outside London to another in London, an inner-city practice, in 2001. A significant number of my patients there had come from the former Yugoslavia as refugees. I was the only person in the practice who could greet them in Serbo-Croat or Albanian. Maybe, I was only one of a few dentists in London at that time who had this ability.

To the Albanian speakers my vocabulary was restricted to words such as ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’, which brought smiles to their faces. Following a trip to Communist Albania in 1984, I recalled the Albanian words of political slogans such as “Long live Enver Hoxha”, “Enver’s party”, and “Long live the Peoples’ Party of Albania.” As many of my Albanian patients had come from Kosovo rather than Albania, these slogans meant little to most of them.

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Travnik, Bosnia, 1975

My limited Serbo-Croat was more extensive than my Albanian. I could entertain some of my Bosnian and Serbian patients with polite small-talk. Many of the ex-Yugoslav patients, like those I had seen long before in Belgrade, brought me gifts. Even those, with whom I felt I was not getting along with well, brought me, usually, bottles of home-made alcohol (e.g. rakia, slivovitz, and loza) that had been distilled by relatives who had stayed behind in the former Yugoslavia. These strong alcoholic drinks were delicious, smooth, and delicately flavoured. One fellow plied me with DVDs of the latest Hollywood and other films that he had ‘pirated’. One lovely lady from Bosnia presented me with a pair of earrings, which her uncle had made, to give to my wife. She wears these often, and she is very grateful.

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Many Middle-Eastern patients also felt that it was appropriate to bring me gifts. Thus, a lot of delicious baklava and other similar confections came my way. Delicious as these were, they were neither good for my teeth nor for my general health. A Hungarian family kept me supplied with large gifts of paprika powder, and there was a Romanian gentleman who brought me nice bottles of wine. Incidentally, the only words of Romanian I know are “thank you” and “railway timetable”. Once, we employed a Romanian dental nurse and I told her my Romanian party-piece “Mersul trenurilor.” She pondered for a moment and then replied “Ah, the programme of the trains.”

Once, my dental nurse, a friendly West Indian lady, and I were standing near a window facing the main road when a delivery van stopped nearby. A man was delivering trays of baklava to a nearby shop. I said to my nurse: “Why don’t you see if he’ll give us some to try?” She returned with a tray of baklava. Carelessly, because I was in a hurry to see my next patient, I put a large lump of baklava into my mouth, and then bit hard on it. As I was doing this, I heard a deafening bang in my head. The baklava was not too fresh. I had split a molar tooth into two parts, the smaller of which was loose in my gum.

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Baklava

Unlike this disastrous piece of confectionary, the gifts kindly given to me by my patients did no harm. Furthermore, what I believed to be a useless tiny vocabulary of Balkan languages proved to be quite useful.  

Finally, you might still be wondering whether anybody ever took me aside to present me with an envelope containing pornographic photographs. To satisfy your curiosity, I can tell you that nobody did.

Don’t ever use aftershave!

CASIO

 

When I was a child living in north-west London in the early 1960s, I used to accompany my mother on shopping expeditions in the West End. I loved going into the centre of London because I considered that Hampstead Garden Suburb, where we lived, was pretty, but pretty dull – a cemetery for the living! We used to take the Underground to Oxford Circus. Our first port of call after leaving the ‘tube’ station was Dickins and Jones, a now no longer existing department store on Regent Street. It closed in 2007, long after my mother died.

Like many other department stores, Dickins and Jones devoted its ground floor to displays of cosmetics and perfumes. On one visit, when we were walking through the over-fragrant ground floor of the store, a sales-lady working behind one of the many stalls, each representing a different cosmetics company, beckoned to me. I pointed towards myself, and she nodded, meaning she really did mean me. I walked over to her, and then without my saying anything, she said: “Sonny, never ever use after-shave lotion on your skin. Now, get along.”  I have never forgotten her advice, nor disobeyed it. I was about twelve years old then.

As I moved into my teens, and I began needing to shave, I was inundated with gifts of after-shave. Well-meaning friends of my parents and adult relatives gave me numerous gifts of cuff-links, which I have never used, and copious bottles of after-shave, which I dared not use. The unopened bottles piled up in my wardrobe and gathered dust.

Many years later, I became a dental student. From the second year onwards, we treated real live patients. They had either referred themselves for free treatment at the dental hospital or they had been referred by general practitioners who could not handle their problems. Many of them made multiple visits. Treatment at the hands of students was often slow. Some grateful patients gave me gifts either during their course of treatment or at the last visit.

One of my patients was a young lady from the Far East. She was always accompanied by her little son, aged not more than four years. Whenever I gave his mother a local anaesthetic, he would pipe up: “Look Mama, dentist man coming with needle. Look Mama, dentist man… etc.” When her course of treatment ended, she presented me with what I regarded as a wonderful gift, a treasure. It was a Casio digital watch with a tiny calculator keyboard attached to it. This was given to me in the late 1970s, and these watches had only been available for a very short time.

Someone, who came to dinner with my parents in the 1970s, brought us a gift of a box of chocolates made by Floris Chocolates, a company that no longer exists. I remember that the chocolates were far, far better than any I had ever tasted. So, it was with some excitement that I unwrapped a gift which a happy patient had given me after I had made him a set of dentures at the dental school. It was a box labelled ‘Floris’. At the end of the day, I took my gift home, and opened it with great anticipation and high expectations. My heart sunk when I found that the box contained not chocolates, but small bottles of fragrant perfumes. I gifted these to a friend.

J, an attractive young lady, became one of my patients at the dental school. I asked her what she did for a living. She told me that she sold men’s fragrances at a leading London department store (not Dickins and Jones). She asked me: “Have you heard of Brut?” I said that I had heard of the company. “Well, I represent Brut at the store,” she told me. “Do you use fragrances?” she inquired politely. “No,” I answered. “Oh, that doesn’t surprise me. Hardly any doctors or dentists seem to use them.” I was sure how to interpret this and hoped that I was not smelling unpleasant. “I’ll bring you some next appointment,” she told me cheerfully.

On the next visit, the Brut seller, true to her word, presented me with a large box, saying: “See how you get on with these.” I took the box home at the end of the day and examined its contents. It was filled with little bottles labelled with names that I found mysterious: ‘pre-shower splash’, ‘shower splash’, after-shower splash’, pre-shave rinse’, ‘shaving splash’, and (the to be avoided) ‘after-shave lotion’. No instructions were provided, so this well-meant gift was consigned to the wardrobe. After what the lady in Dickins and Jones had advised me, I was not going to risk the after-shave lotion nor any of the other even more curiously named products.

With the exception of the cosmetic products, I have received many other gifts over the years, most of which have given me great pleasure. These gifts, useful or not, have been given by grateful patients who have either also paid me or have been treated free of charge courtesy of the NHS. More than my earnings, which were, of course, very important, even a simple heartfelt ‘thank you’ made  me feel that doing dentistry was worthwhile.