Monday, April 16, 2012

Algeria 2012: Presents!

In the morning, a new surprise: presents!
Seems the presentation of the gifts got forgotten yesterday, and here they are on the couch in the lounge, minus the beaming officials. The organizers have given me an enormous kilim in bright colors on a dark red background. The thing is bigger than my luggage, but the fixers at the residence are charged with making it so I can check it separately at the airport.
My colleagues get framed pictures 3 feet across, but I don't see what's under the wrapping since we don't come down to breakfast at the same time. Remy tells me his features two old-fashioned pistols and a knife. He'd like to trade with me, but I think I have the better deal already. In addition to these bulky items, we all are given gigantic picture books of the region. I like photo books of the places I've been, but I wish I could go see for myself!

The day at the congress is very clinical. I'm not a medical doctor, so there's not much of interest for me. They seem to be going over the basics of breast surgery, radiotherapy schedules, mammography techniques, and suchlike. It's heartening to see them discuss the latest techniques and equipment as if everyone would be putting this information to use immediately, if it isn't already old hat. But I know that this stuff is only available in a few, select centers. Richer women just go to France for care, and even routine screening. The majority of women in this country don't have easy access to the latest medical care. There's a pertinent discussion of the case load in the big city centers that do have the technology - screening takes up so much of their time and resources that care for those with something serious often has to wait.
So the day passes. If I go out, I am missed, and there's noplace to go anyway. During the breaks I participate as I can in the discussions. A lot of people ask me about the state of breast care and mammography in the States, and it's hard to say anything; I haven't lived there in 15 years so my firsthand knowledge is a bit rusty. I follow the literature, but with my attention on risk factors and molecular genetics,  not clinical care. 
My scientific hosts are keen to start up genetic counseling, and wonder what's involved in training someone to be a genetic counselor. Well, there's something I know a bit more about. There are master's programs in France now training such people. Candidates need not be MDs. It's a two-year diploma, and to get into the program you need at least a licence degree (3 years college: more or less a bachelor's).
My colleagues could send students to join the French program, but they're more interested in developing a program of their own. They've discussed it with my boss already (I'll discover that when I get back), and they'd like to have us come down and teach the necessary classes. Maybe plan a week where my boss gives an intensive course in the medical aspects of the subject, and another where I go over all the scientific and technical aspects.
On one hand, it would be a pleasure to take two weeks in the spring or fall, teach hard for a week, and then spend the other on a camel-trek to Tamanrasset. On the other, that would be far from enough to turn their students into competent genetic counsellors. In any case, I'm sure to come back and give some classes at some level. And I might feel out of place here, but I'm making important contacts for the next steps of our grand collaboration. Now I'm unlikely to forget who Filali and Bastanji are. I have to work hard at names, and strange names are hardest.

In the morning at the residence it's just me and Remy for breakfast. The Bernards and their anti-mammography message were whisked away at 5 am to catch their flight in Setif. Our flights are at 6, from Algiers, and our ride to the airport is scheduled for noon.
Remy really wants to change his gift of weapons for something more reasonable. When I see the thing, I understand his concern about passing customs with it (a flight like this, even checked baggage is at least x-rayed, if not opened). It isn't a picture or painting of revolvers and a knife; it's two real revolvers and a knife, attached to a board & framed. Actual metal items.
What on earth?!
We should have time to deal with this if only we can convince someone to take us to the shop. There's no question of refusing an official gift. (Though it must be admitted, certain items and plates of cookies have been discreetly set aside already.)
Around 10 a driver and a dental surgeon who participated in the congress take us into the small streets of town, the interesting ones filled with little shops. At last!
The revolver & knife place deals in antiques and authentic stuff. My kilim is from here too. I'll hang it outdoors for a few days, let the napthalene evaporate. The shop full of its brethren makes for a pretty strong atmosphere. Remy has his choice of alternative items:
- goatskin bagpipes in poor to disastrous condition. One has been dyed in sections of pink and yellow and green.
- boxes with wood and mother-of-pearl inlay
- cheap metal jewelry
- kilims and rugs
- diverse secondhand items of metal or wood or leather or any combination thereof.
A red rug catches his eye. Naturally it's on the bottom of the pile, and a helper is shouted for to bring them all down. It's dark red with yellow bits here and there, not what he'd hoped after all. What about the white kilim up there?
The one with the blue pattern is quite nice, but a little stained and they won't part with it once it's held up to the light and some small holes become visible. The one with the brown pattern is in better shape. It feels nice, too. Wool, but soft and pliable. Wrap it up.
I have an eye out for something for my nieces and think of inlaid boxes, but the workmanship is poor. No luck here. Standing outside, I notice one of the models for the traditional women's outfits on display is draped with a rather nice wool shawl. It's not sheep's wool, but goat hair, a relative of cashmere. It's off-white, with grey and black designs; light but warm, and pretty. I have not a dinar on me, but my dentist friend insists on making my choice a gift.
The people here are so generous! It would be insulting to refuse, and I really do appreciate a souvenir that I have chosen for myself. Thank you so much!

Remy now needs a luggage accessory to transport his new kilim and all the other gifts showered upon him. He's a big fan of Thompson oranges and intends to acquire some of those as well. So we stroll down a couple of blocks and end up at a spice-seller who has large, flexible straw baskets on offer. Just the thing. And a hundred grams of that black pepper while we're at it.
Next stop a fruit vendor. Remy and I have been talking about strawberries and how the gigantic California ones can be so tasteless. Local strawberries are just coming in, and they're pretty large... Our host returns to the car with a sack of fresh dates on their long canes for each of us, a pound of strawberries for me, and oranges for Remy. The dates weigh a ton, and I don't even like dates, but how to say no now? He is so happy to give them. I will make a gift in my turn, later. 
Back in the car we drive right past the residence and keep going.

End tomorrow!

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