Claude Piron

So many pleasant memories

I have so many pleasant memories of experiences in the Esperanto world that it is difficult to choose one.

My Esperanto life has been blessed with so many pleasant memories that when I decided to answer your request my mind felt like a throng of impetuous kids, every one rushing to be the selected one. And, indeed, one succeeded in being first out, although I don't think it has any more merit than its rivals. Here it is.

I had been on the staff of the World Health Organization for a number of years. After I had left it to start a private practice, it still engaged me once or twice a year for short missions, because I could make a reliable summary record of a discussion on health matters held in a few languages including Chinese and Russian, and there were not so many people around who could do that.

At some time in the 1970's, it asked me if I'd agree to go to Alma-Ata (now Almaty), Kazakhstan, to join the secretariat of a huge international conference called on to discuss basic health services. I always like to discover new countries, so I gladly accepted. I was then working on another mission in the Philippines, and when I went to Manila airport to fly to Kazakhstan via Delhi, India, and Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I was surprised to meet four former colleagues also bound to Alma-Ata. We all took the same flight from Delhi to Tashkent. At the time, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were still part of the Soviet Union.

When I travel, I always try to get in touch with local Esperanto speakers, a good way to know the country I visit through personal contact. So I had written to the delegito ("local representative") of the World Esperanto Association in Tashkent to inform him of my arrival. He had replied he would be at the airport -- this was pure kindness on his part, because the association's representatives are not expected to do that -- and had asked me to send him a photograph so that he could recognize me. When our group reached the tiny arrival hall, only four persons were standing there awaiting incoming passengers. Two stood together in the left corner, and two in the right one. The contrast in their faces and attitudes was extraordinary. The first two ones looked depressed, overwhelmed, dejected, the second ones full of pep and enthusiasm.

"Saluton!" ("hi", "hello"). The word resounded loudly in the hall. It came from the right corner. Both men who were standing there came up to me almost at a run and hugged me warmly as if we were loving relatives who hadn't seen each other for two or more decades. My colleagues were flabbergasted. They just couldn't fathom who were these two men who seemed to be close relations of a colleague who had never said he had any acquaintance in Soviet Central Asia, even when we were flying there. It was all the more astonishing since, while one of the two, a man maybe 50, looked -- apart from his clothes -- like any European man-in-the-street, the other one was an Uzbek in his early twenties, with jet black hair, slanted eyes and definitely Asian features. A scientist, he was the chairman of the local Esperanto club, his companion being the WEA delegito, a Ukrainian by birth.

While the three of us started talking in rapid Esperanto, the two somber ones came up to our group. They explained they were doctors working for the Health Ministry of Uzbekistan who had been sent there to welcome us. They addressed us in heavily accented and rather awkward English. The joyfulness of the two Esperanto speakers seemed to crush them completely. Maybe they were afraid that some spy (or spying device) would report them to the authorities as incapable of extending a really cordial welcome to the noble guests coming from afar.

"Ni iru mangi, mi invitas vin, la tutan grupon!" ("Let's go eat, I invite you, the whole group"), said the young Uzbek – it was dinner time – but when I translated for my colleagues, they hesitated: "We shouldn't. He doesn't know us, why should he invite us?" When I explained their reluctance, the young chairman asked me to tell them that this was Uzbek hospitality, and he led us to a nearby restaurant. We all followed him, including the doctors from the ministry, who looked more and more uncomfortable.

The meal was very pleasant. At my end of the table, we discussed politics and social affairs in fluent Esperanto. My colleagues didn't understand everything, but they picked up enough international words to know what we were talking about. As they told me later, they couldn't believe their ears. In Soviet Union, discussing such subjects without, obviously, any inhibition… how was this possible?

"You really do speak this Esperanto!", said Mauri, a colleague, on our way to the hotel. Mauri and me had been working in the same unit for at least seven years, and I had often extolled the virtues of Esperanto emphasizing how well adapted it was to communication in intercultural settings. I had told him now and again that the language was both easy and rich, that I didn't have any problem to reach a good level in it, and that I spoke it quite often because I collaborated with an Esperanto cultural center at home. So, he should have known. But before he heard me that evening, he hadn't taken me seriously.

The discrepancy between my repeated testimony and his image of the language -- a project, a remote ideal, a hobby without any practical value -- struck me as most interesting. Apparently, Esperanto, even if described from the speaker's experience, belongs to the field of unbelievable stories.

The following day, the authorities had planned an official visit of Tashkent for the WHO group, accompanied by the two gloomy doctors. "Ne iru kun ili, ni vizitos la urbon private" ("Don't go with them, we'll visit the city privately"), the young scientist had told me after dinner, and he duly called at my hotel the next morning.

My colleagues boarded an Intourist minibus while I got in the car he had managed to borrow from his office. We followed the tourist bus for a few minutes, but soon went our own way. I was shown things – slums, for instance – that the "official" group never saw. Once, when we were passing a river on a bridge, I asked my new friend what was its name. "It's not a river," he replied. "It's a canal. It was built by Cyrus, many centuries ago, when we were fortunate enough to belong to Persia."

Unfortunately we didn't have much time. A few hours later I had to be back at the airport to catch the Aeroflot flight to Alma-Ata. There, I faced an unexpected problem: how to find room in my already full hand baggage for the big water melon my new Uzbek friend had insisted I took along, saying that this was the area with the best fruit in all USSR. I hope he will never read this text, since I'm ashamed to confess that, finding no solution to my problem, I left the water melon at the airport.

In the plane I kept musing about his trust. This was Soviet Union, at a time when the communist regime was chasing dissidents with a vengeance. He had no means of knowing I was not a communist who would expose him to the authorities. Was he simply happy-go-lucky, carefree, the devil may care? I don't think so. Such people usually are superficial, which he definitely was not. When we discussed, we discussed in depth, without taboo, and without restricting ourselves to light subjects. True, at the very first second when we met in the airport, we felt a community of spirit. A lot can be transmitted and received in just a glance. But can you stake your life, or at least your freedom, on an intuition? Maybe his trust is the reason why this memory stands out.