Being sick in this country is a nightmare. The locals put pressure on us to use the hospital located inside the diplomatic village. It is called Friendship, and it is apparently meant to be dedicated to us, like everything called Friendship in this country.
In the expatriate community, there are a few other options, that I will not list in detail, for those who don’t want to use the Friendship. The reason of this lack of trust is apparently the low hygienic standard of the local facilities. The Koreans know about these alternative solutions and dislike them.
There is apparently a long lasting ping pong on this issue, and I doubt it will ever be settled. However, there are people like me who, for one reason or another, wanted to try the Korean place. Especially because I had been suffering from neck and back pain for several days. Somebody told me that the masseuse in the Friendship is a good one. They call her a physiotherapist, although it is not sure that she really is.
As I have learned how things are in this country, I didn’t expect anybody to be able to answer the phone in English, so I asked my personal Korean to call on my behalf and to book an appointment, so I could avoid all the usual translations, misunderstandings, and quid pro quo.
It was Monday. The masseuse was fully booked that day, but she agreed on an appointment the day after, on Tuesday.
Being sick in this country is a nightmare
I hadn’t been sleeping for two nights already, due to the pain. I went there full of hope, just to be told by a translator that there was no trace of my appointment anywhere. Nobody had any memory of the phone call made by my personal Korean (which I witnessed).
There was no space for me that day either, said the translator. I felt smoke coming out of my ears. I wanted to burst. But with who? My team? The nurse? The translator? The invisible masseuse? At that moment, with disturbing candor, the translator told me a place for Wednesday could be found. Wednesday? I felt I would die if I didn’t sleep that night. I decided to use all my skills.
Simulating the same disturbing candor, I told her that, if she didn’t book a place for me that very day, I would have look for alternative solutions. Facing this threat, the translator went pale. She asked me to wait a minute. She disappeared in one of the many secret rooms hidden beyond a little green door. She came back after few minutes saying that the doctor was ready to meet me.
It was in this way that I became a regular client of the Friendship hospital’s rehabilitation ward. The doctor attended to the needs of my poor back every day. She says in a couple of weeks our appointments will decrease to two sessions a week. She is very sweet and she is sincerely concerned for me. We speak a little in English, a little in Korean, a lot in a sort of instinctual sign language.
She asks me to take my clothes off, she heats the green bed and she puts a yellow towel on it before allowing me on it. She massages my back and if I doze off she tries not to wake me up. If I am not sleepy, we sing Korean songs together so that I can learn the words.
At first there was always a translator with us, but she began to leave us alone – a big relief for me.
After the massage, the doctor puts me in an electric chair with a muzzle for my face. Then the doctor pushes a button and the muzzle starts pulling towards the ceiling, to apply traction on my spine and to relieve my vertebrae. The muzzle has some leather belts, they smell of sweat and make me think of all the patients who used it before me. There is no sign of disinfectant around.
It reminds me of the time I went to visit a workshop of ancient carnival masks. The master allowed me to try one of those. The stench was so strong I felt nauseous.
But yesterday the doctor introduced a big piece of news. While helping me to slide into the muzzle, she inserted a tiny piece of paper that protects my chin from the contact with the leather. It is said that the tissue is thrown away after each use. The doctor uses it for one patient only, only for one time, and afterwards, she throws it away. I ask myself if she started doing this of her own will, or if she rather received orders. In any case, I am grateful.
There is no sign of disinfectant around
Everybody arriving in North Korea quickly learns that there is a very high number of public holidays in the country (27, they say, but sometimes I think the number is much higher), and that all these holidays are somehow related to one of the leaders, to the glorious revolution, to the fatherland, to the party.
The calendar is handed over at the beginning of every year, so that we can calculate, more or less, how many mandatory breaks our working activity will undergo. In fact, not only do local colleagues not work during public holidays (which is legitimate) but the international staff is kindly invited to join in a long series of parades, ceremonies, functions, and rituals. When one is kindly invited, one cannot say no.
Among the many very special celebrations there is one that cannot be missed for any reason: April 15, officially the day of birth of the First Leader, Founder of the Motherland, and Eternal President. It is also the anniversary of the Juche idea and the “Korean New Year”. In fact, in the DPRK, years are counted in Juche years. If one is born in 1980, Gregorian calendar, they are born in the Juche year 69.
During the holiday the city is covered in flags, and everywhere one can hear songs and hymns. There are numerous celebrations around April 15, some of them even very interesting, like the Pyongyang International Music Festival, which is something we all rush to join, because the artists are usually extremely good and they come from all over the world.
When one is kindly invited, one cannot say no
On the 15th itself, there is usually some very official ceremony. That year it was announced that, on the occasion of the big celebrations, the revolutionary Moranbong Band would play in the big sports arena close to the war museum.
The Revolutionary Moranbong band is made of 4 stunning string players, surrounded by a series of equally stunningly good singers and players. They dress in mini skirts and play the new hits of DPRK, all linked – like the public holidays – to the Party, the Motherland, the Leaders. Some of those tunes are incredibly catchy. Sometimes I hum them in my office with my translator.
But through a series of coincidences and mistakes that I am not able to explain, I was eventually invited to join the concert together with the VIPs.
The appointment was at 3.30 pm. Clean car, a driver with an immaculate shirt, my personal Korean in his best suit and myself, gently nestling on the back seat, in my extremely high uniform, i.e. black dress, high (extremely high) heels, hair into a chignon and total-make-up that I know my mom would approve of.
But at 3.30 pm my personal Korean says there is a change in the program. I was prepared for something like these. These are the famous “security reasons” I never fully understand. Perhaps because I am not a diplomat. At 4 pm we end up in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
We are all there. Dozens of diplomatic cars, national flags, golds, high heels, ties and bow ties, kisses, handshakes, and introductions, how are you oh love your outfit. I am very glad to meet you sir. I feel like I’m in a b-movie.
The famous Moranbong band
Whispers, confabulations among all our minders.
Thirty minutes later we are told that we are going to leave towards the secret place. We start a huge convoy of diplomatic cars with flags and uniforms, blocked traffic, police men and police women standing at the sides of the road, people looking at all this parade in bewilderment. Briefly: a big mess.
Finally, we arrive at the gigantic palace of sports, and we undergo massive security checks with metal detectors et similia. I understand that somebody extremely important will be there. Perhaps the President of the Supreme Assembly?
I see the cars of the Party arriving, with the red star on the plate, and the army vehicles, all plates starting with 7.27 (the date of the end of the Korean war, celebrated as a victory in the DPRK) – the plates of high-ranking officials.
We undergo massive security checks with metal detectors et similia
After the checks, we are all guided into the arena. All the normal people are already sitting. Workers, farmers, housewives, possibly chosen for their diligence and loyalty. They have come from across the country to the capital for this special occasion. They are all wearing their best clothes: men in civilian uniform, women in traditional dress (which obviously in DPRK is not called Hanbok – as it is named in the South – but Chima Chogori). There are huge numbers of military people in their high uniform. In front of me, I see the military brass orchestra.
We wait for one hour, perhaps one hour and 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I entertain myself with my personal Korean and with some diplomat. It looks like a theatre: everybody knows the script.
Here we go.
Suddenly, the orchestra stands up and starts playing a march I have never heard before. People start to clap their hands frantically. Keeping the tempo with the orchestra, they produce a sound, a sort of continuous ovation: controlled, enthusiastic and neat.
The clamor continues. I turn my head to the right. Five meters far from him, here he is: the Marshal. With all his court of aunties, uncles, counselors. Exactly like on the TV. He smiles. His left hand is up, greeting his people. He stops in front of the diplomatic delegates. He greets them, smiling.
He looks so young, exactly like in the pictures. There he is, 5 meters away from me.
The Leader. I am attending this concert only thanks to an administrative mistake, and I met the head of the country. I want to go home and write to my father and mother about today. I want to share this with my friends. But I will not – not today, at least. Meanwhile, the Morabong band plays.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: North Korea - Maternity hospital by Roman Harak on 2010-09-06 09:05:48