Eating Pho in Saigon, At Last
After six months in Albania, it was time to move on.
Céline, “When you stay too long in the same place, things and people go to pot on you, they rot and start stinking for your special benefit.”
Actually, this did not happen to me in Albania. The longer I stayed, the more I loved the place and people, and during my last month, I even discovered an out-of-this-world seafood joint, right on my street, Mine Peza.
For just five bucks at Detari Fish, you can get octopus and mackerel drenched in olive oil, tagliatelle with shrimps or even a tub of clams plus a beer. Freshly caught, all the fish are deftly seasoned.
Saying goodbye to my landlady, I gave her a hug then tapped my heart three times, as if in penance. She chirped, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” That’s her only English, besides “good morning.”
When I was sick with likely Covid in March, I really thought I had killed the cheerful old bird. After coming to my door to deliver a package, she disappeared for about a week. Hearing no sounds in the hallway each day, I felt terrible lying in bed.
Great, now I will always be remembered in this neighborhood as the Chinaman who came all the way from Wuhan to murder Mrs. Berisha! When she showed up again, I babbled my happiness, though she couldn’t understand a word of it.
A week before my departure, Emirates canceled my flight, so I had to book another with KLM. Instead of one layover, now I had two, and my ticket even cost $200 more! Such is traveling during Covid.
Granted, my destination wasn’t exactly hot, or it’s hot in all the wrong ways. I imagined many folks were trying to get out, even for good.
The day before my flight, I went for my Covid test at 7AM, to get the result by 1PM. If it came back falsely positive, I could dash to another lab, I reasoned. I also had to make sure the entry rules at my destination hadn’t changed, and there was no new lockdown.
Since Covid started, I had been in South Korea, Serbia, North Macedonia, Lebanon, Egypt, Albania and Montenegro. In all these countries, life was practically normal, with restaurants and cafes all open, and public buses or trains packed.
Only in Lebanon was I subjected to a lockdown, lasting two weeks, but it was so loosely enforced, it barely bothered me. (The Lebanese government has not been in control of much for a while.) During this “lockdown,” I traveled to several villages, and had pizza then coffee at two places around Tyre.
Much of East Asia is experiencing new Covid restrictions, as triggered by the “Delta variant.” In Vietnam, the surge in Covid deaths coincided with the introduction of foreign vaccines, starting this July. Saigon is in the midst of a five-week lockdown.
Two weeks ago, a Saigon friend emailed me a video of Cho Ray Hospital, with Covid patients lying immobile, and there’s even a corpse covered by a reed mat, with just his bony brown feet sticking out.
I’m familiar with that stiff posture (of the still living). Sick, I had to think for maybe an hour before daring to shift positions, and even worse, I could never really sleep. My extreme discomfort was constant for a month, with a two week span truly hellish.
In the video, a male voice narrates, “Oh God, I can’t even find a doctor at this hospital since this morning. They’re all hiding. There’s a dead body lying here since this morning, with no one to remove him to be cremated or be buried.
“Give the old man some oxygen! He’s about to die and there’s no doctor around. He probably won’t make it. All the doctors are hiding somewhere. The doctors don’t even dare to be here. There’s a corpse lying here since this morning. No burial, for real. There’s not a shadow of any medical personnel or doctor. Oh God, there’s an old man who’s about to die and there’s no doctor to save him.”
I was also emailed photos of a completely dead Saigon, including Trung Sisters Street in downtown at 6:34PM on July 26th.
Normally, there’s always some traffic on every Saigon street, even at 3AM, and a Saigon day starts at 5AM. In the middle of the night, farm produce is brought to wet markets all over the city, and there’s always a cafe that’s open wherever you are.
Just hours before my flight, I went to my neighborhood café, Lami’s, for the last time. Hearing, again, some rather schlocky Italian pop actually teared me up. Deep down, I’m just a total pussy. Adriano Celentano, “Io non so parlar d’amore / L’emozione non ha voce / E mi manca un po’ il respiro / Se ci sei c’è troppa luce.”
Just before taking the bus to the airport, I had my last Tirana meal at Chinese Garden, mostly to say goodbye to the Albanian waiter.
Like the two young ladies at Lami’s, he worked each day, and hadn’t had a day off in over four months. In fact, he had told me he worked 16 hours a day.
“No way, man! So when do you sleep?!”
“I barely sleep.”
“When do you see your girlfriend?”
“What girlfriend?! I don’t even have friends.”
But it’s OK, he said, for he was saving to buy an old car. “In Albania, they don’t appreciate these classic cars, but I want one. I’ll get one in five years.”
As a child, he had spent a decade in Greece, but he’s happy to be home, “Too many Albanians become criminals overseas, or they have dirty jobs. Yes, I’m a waiter, but my job is clean.”
Chinese Garden has a Chinese cook. In Tirana for five years, he’d work every day for 11 months, then fly home to see his wife and kids for a month. With Covid, airfares have jacked up and there’s a two-week quarantine, so he hasn’t been home in two years. Once, I heard him screaming for about half a minute in the kitchen. It must be terrible, his stress and loneliness.
As I walked out of the restaurant with my luggage, the waiter said, “Good luck, sir.”
“Maybe they’ll kill me,” I joked.
My first stop was Rome. With more than nine hours at Fiumicino, I lay on the floor in an empty section of Terminal 3, to await my 6:10AM flight. Slipping briefly into sleep, I heard footsteps all around me, but there was no one.
During boarding for Amsterdam, six Latin American women and an African nun cut into line, but no one said anything. As the nun tr
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