This is my third trip to Iceland since the new year began and it is the third occasion on which I have gotten deathly ill. I don’t what it is about myself and Iceland but when I came here over two months ago, I got so sick I wound up in the hospital with Avian flu. That lasted over three weeks producing the most miserable Christmas in living memory. A month later I returned and got a milder cold, but it was still enough to produce quite a bit of a setback, although to be fair, I recovered. And then the unimaginable occurred. About five days ago, while traveling through the Westfjords with my partner, whooping cough which I had largely ignored grew worse and worse and festered to the point where I could no longer breathe without coughing and choking at every turn. The cough became so bad that in trying to describe it to others it felt as if a dragon had embedded itself in my chest and anytime I tried to take a breath it was like breathing through fire scales. As if it couldn’t possibly get any worse, in the end, I developed a high fever which saw me confined to bed, hot and shaking, and praying to all the Gods and the almighty that this nightmare would soon end. Only it did not.
By day three of this calamity, with no end in sight, I called a friend who drove me to the local hospital and patiently waited the 45 minutes it took me to be seen by a doctor. My friend could tell I was sick and depressed and tried his best to cheer me up, but it wasn’t working. My biggest fear was that, just like the last time I was in Iceland, the attending doctor would take one look at me and ignore my plea for antibiotics, which is exactly what happened. Why doctors the world over are scaling back on prescribing antibiotics when patients are clearly in need of them for a quicker recovery is beyond my level of human comprehension, but when I saw I wasn’t going to win this battle I hung my head down in despair, followed my friend to his car, and generously took him up on his offer to take me downtown for a bowl of warm soup. I was feeling wretched and couldn’t keep any food down. During the entire duration of the meal, we spoke about the failure of health care systems in both rich and poor countries to adequately clear queues in emergency rooms and give patients proper medication from the get-go, thereby alleviating the need for a return visit.
I mentioned to my friend that if I couldn’t get the doctor to prescribe antibiotics than I was going to have to take matters into my own hands. “What do you mean?” he asked. I told him that once I got back home to my Reykjavik apartment I was going to contact another friend, a woman named Regina who was one of the few Icelanders I knew with a fantastic grasp of the Serbian language and a network of ex-Yugoslav friends living in Iceland that might be able to help me get my hands on the one commodity which was akin to antibiotics to anyone from the Balkans – rakija. My friend had never heard of Rakija and having never been to any of the Balkan countries, asked me what it was. I replied that it was an aperitif made locally in all the countries of the former Yugoslavia but most usually associated with Serbia, which tended to produce the stronger and more spirited version of it. “It’s basically a grape brandy” I responded, “but when we are sick our grandmothers give us a shot of it in tea or hot water and it’s been known to cure everything from high fevers, swelling of the joints and muscles, the common cold, and well, believe it or not, even well-known diseases (recalling a family friend named Dusan who claims it cured his cancer).” My friend paused and looked at me as if I was kidding. I wasn’t. We finished our meal and he dropped me off at home.
As soon as I was able to drag myself to the computer, I sent Regina a message. Regina being the consummate savior was already online. “What is wrong?” she asked, “what has happened?” I proceeded to describe to her my high fever, whooping cough, and the imbecile behavior of the Icelandic doctor who, even after many pleas, had sent me away with a prescription for cough pills and no antibiotic in sight. “This is ridiculous,” exclaimed Regina. “How can I help?” I proceeded to ask her if she could put me in touch with either a Croat or a Serb in town who may have access to the only form of liquid gold that would help me at this moment – domaca rakija (homemade rakija). “Well, you won’t believe it,” exclaimed Regina. “I do know one person who can help. His name is Miroslav Markovic. Let me connect the two of you right now on Facebook.”
Less than 10 minutes later, weak, tired, sick and broken, Miroslav contacted me to say he was there at my beck and call and would bring me the very last small bottle of homemade rakija which he had brought with him from Serbia a short time ago. Hearing this made me feel incredibly sad but at the same time brought tears to my eyes. Why? There’s nothing like being stranded and sick in a foreign country, even one I am trying to put down roots in, to make you realize that powerful longing and yearning for home. I had gotten sick and relied on the friends and family of my partner and the few I had made on my own and although everyone was wonderful and kind, the feeling of genuine concern and care was just not the same as it was back home. The one thing that Iceland and Montenegro do have in common is that being small countries, people will generally go out of their way to help and assist. Many of my Icelandic friends had come over bearing the famous Icelandic lamb soup with them and other provisions to ensure I kept some food down. The soup is fantastic and reminds me a lot of the beef soup we make at home every Sunday afternoon at the home of my parents. The friends came and went and made sure to drop food off and insisted I contact them should I need anything else. They were all kind and devoted and clearly want to ensure I get better quickly. But I am craving my Mother, the comforting smell of Slavic food and the scent of the aromas coming from my Mothers kitchen when I am sick and helpless. More than anything else, I am craving the Slavic language of concern when I am sick and down in the dumps. I sometimes wonder if I am the only person out there who feels this way when on fever row. Slavic people, in general, will treat an ill person as a member of their own family, even if that person is a total stranger. That’s exactly what I got from Miroslav’s tone well into ten minutes of our conversation.
Considering he was from Serbia proper, I had no idea whether he had come to Iceland because of the Yugoslav wars (as most immigrants from the former Yugoslavia currently in Iceland have) or if he was here as part of the preferred quota system. What I did know is that ten minutes into the phone conversation he was certainly going to detect my heavy southern accent and I was really hoping that wasn’t going to be a deal breaker. Despite my unease, I had no reason at all to be concerned. As soon as he heard me struggling to speak, he simply asked for my address and said he would come over as soon as he could with not only the rakija – the last of his homemade batch, but with other food items since he could guess I was too sick and tired to drag myself out of bed to hit a grocery store. His generosity, sense of duty, and loving attentiveness made me cry. In fact, I broke down over the phone and told him that hearing him speak in Serbian to someone who was craving their mother and who was emotionally broken down by illness had a profound effect on me. I must have repeated at least twice that I felt terrible taking the last of his rakija and that once I was well and healed up, ‘kava’ was on me, in the establishment of his choosing. Sensing my remorse, he begged me to hush up and proceeded to ask for my address, which I gladly told him. Right before I hung up, he asked where I was from. At this point, sensing that my accent gave it away, I paused and took a deep breath before saying, ‘Gospodine Miroslave, I am part Dalmatian and part Montenegrin. I really hope that’s not a problem.” Then, in the few seconds of silence that followed, he said four simple words in Serbian which had me fighting back tears: ‘Pa daj, ljudi smo’ or ‘Come now, we are all human beings.’ It’s difficult to describe to you what his simple words made me feel. There was a long silence on the phone because I am sure he could hear me crying before I managed to utter a deep ‘mnogo ti hvala’ in the hoarse voice which was left to me.
His kindness and generosity left such a deep impression on me that when he arrived twenty minutes later with the signature bottle of rakija in a small plastic container of Coca-Cola, I had for some reason expected a very tall man. Instead, he was about my height with rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes. He looked like the uncle you always wished you had growing up, the kind that would have let you get away with the things your parents certainly wouldn’t have allowed. He didn’t want to come upstairs but instead hugged me and said ‘drz se, cujemo se sutra’ (take care of yourself and we’ll be in touch in the morning). He also brought a small bag of goodies including a wheat-grass concoction he mentioned his daughter Ana made which is ‘good for the consumption’ and encouraged me to eat a hearty spoonful of every morning. Mr. Markovic closed the door behind him, but not before I managed to ask him where the rakija was from. “Oh, I brought it with me from Serbia during my last trip a few months ago,” he said, “but you will be happy to know it’s actually my brother-in-law’s recipe from Montenegro.” I couldn’t believe my luck and probably smiled between the crying jag. Mr. Markovic turned around in the cold darkness of the Reykjavik night but not before turning my way to exclaim “now take a generous shot of it before you go to bed but be sure to drink it slowly and preserve some for tomorrow.” I thanked him again and closed the door behind me and then slowly dragged myself up the stairs to the kitchens, still marvelling at my good fortune in securing some Montenegrin rakija in cold, far-away Iceland.