Our visits to the vet in Matera became a bit of a soap opera.
The Fab Four, our four pooches, needed various inoculations and an Animal Health Certificate (AHC) to enter Albania.
Paolo, the campsite manager, first ferried us there and back in his minibus one wet Friday morning because,
“The streets are narrow there, and you won’t be able to park your truck.”
Our appointment was not until 11 a.m., but due to other commitments, Paolo had to drop us off at 9. We sat and drank coffee beneath a damp awning on a grey pavement. Had it not been for the weather, we might have walked back to the campground via the Sassi di Matera, although Paolo said,
“The old town is a long way, and once you’re there, you will still have to climb down and up the Gravina gorge.”
The vet, Marco, was a slender, good-humoured chap who zoomed through life like a video on fast forward. With dark hair and a phone permanently glued to his ear, he welcomed us warmly and asked us to wait in an anteroom because he had a large Alsatian in the surgery.
Mark and I admired the white walls painted with a mural of jungle scenes featuring exotic birds and animals in the joyful but retina-searing colours you might expect to find in a kindergarten. Meanwhile, a comedy soundtrack slowly permeated our consciousness through the closed surgery door. We looked at each other as we heard hammering, followed by raised voices, a slight whimper, then what sounded like a lively struggle. I couldn’t help but see visions of someone being held down while having their leg sawed off.
Marco spoke no English, so when he invited us in, our only explanation of the preceding kerfuffle was a grin and a shrug. There was no sign of the Alsatian and his owner, and the surgery bore no visible signs of recent human/canine combat – or amputations.
In halting Italian, I spelled out we needed a rabies booster, protection against leishmania, ticks and fleas, plus an Albanian AHC. Fortunately, this was just a recap. Ever thoughtful, Paolo had briefed Marco in Italian when he had kindly phoned on our behalf to arrange the apopintment.
Marco was so gentle. None of the pups made a sound when he administered the rabies vaccination. In Italian, he explained,
“Now, there is a single dose inoculation for leishmania. It’s what I give my dog,” he said, by way of recommendation, “but you will have to make an appointment in a couple of weeks, because I can’t give it with rabies.”
As additional protection from disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes and sandflies, he recommended the pups wore an insecticide collar.
“Seresto is best,” he said, “although it is only moderately effective against leishmania sandflies, and it must be tight around the neck.”
While he said it was okay to sleep with dogs wearing a Seresto collar, we weren’t keen, particularly with it needing to be tight. We already had a spot-on medication that covered mosquitoes and sandflies, which we thought might be more effective.
Some of what he said regarding our trip to Albania did not tally with my understanding of the rules, but I think I lost a lot in translation. Marco insisted the pups needed a tapeworm treatment to leave Italy. We would certainly need one to re-enter the UK or visit some other countries, such as Norway, but I’ve never come across it as a requirement for departure. Perhaps he thought we were going to Scotland – Alba – rather than Albania!
Marco translated the odd word or phrase we didn’t understand using an app. He decided to speed things up by reciting a soliloquy into his phone. Individually, I understood every English word that came back. Not in the order they came out, however. What I heard could have been a nonsense poem in an obscure dialect of Mandarin Chinese for all I understood.
Throughout southern Italy, we’d noticed it was more unusual to see a motorist at the wheel not using their mobile phone – including truckers. Aside from translation, in common with most Italian drivers, Marco made good use of the device grafted on to his ear. He called “The Boss” – Paula – several times during our consultation to double check Albanian AHC facts, and accepted incoming calls because, “My assistant is on holiday!”
We learned we had to return in two weeks for the leishmania jab and to collect the AHCs, which had then to be validated by a different office.
As we were chatting, Marco revealed he used to work in a zoo, hence the exotic murals in his waiting room. He showed us a scar on his arm,
“Tiger!” he explained.
Mark elbowed me in the ribs and enthused, “Tell him we hand fed a tiger!” Mark is always keen to volunteer my rudimentary linguistic skills during complex situations. “And tell him about Mr. Lion Bollocks!”
After an hour-and-a-half of checking and double-checking medical facts in a foreign language and clarifying why we needed a codice fiscale – an Italian tax code – to obtain an Albanian AHC, my brain hurt. I had struggled with, “Do we need a prescription to get Advantix or can we buy it over the counter?”, never mind explaining how a friend of mine joined me on a big cat cuddling event and ended up with a lion cub dangling from his wedding tackle. Incidentally, this was the same cub that lay peacefully next to me while I stroked its head.
Unlike most men I know, faced with an apex predator locked on to their witch’s cackle (Cockney rhyming slang!), Mr. Lion Bollocks made no attempt to push it off. Instead, he tried to take a close-up photo.
We called Paolo to say we were ready for him to collect us from the vet. As we waited outside, a chihuahua shot out through the main door with Marco in hot pursuit.
When we returned two weeks later, we went through everything again. Why we wanted a prescription for Advocate, and why we didn’t want Seresto collars.
Marco administered the leishmania vaccine and gave us a certificate. It didn’t look like a bilingual AHC, but he said,
“You need to come back and get it stamped tomorrow, because the stamping office is closed today.”
The dogs could run free at the semi-wild campsite, where Ruby made good use of all daylight hours with her head in a bush digging craters. Several times each day, we had to comb out a variety of seeds and sticky vegetation from her coat. We asked Marco to check her ears, since she had been scratching and shaking her head. Ruby is not stoic at the best of times, so we weren’t one hundred per cent sure there was anything wrong. From the surgery table, before Marco even got near, she put in a performance that would rival Fay Wray cowering in the looming shadow of an approaching King Kong.
As she writhed and screamed, Marco expertly removed two huge spiky seeds from her ear canal.
During the consultation, Marco’s phone never stopped ringing, and besides asking me to relay humorous anecdotes about our big cat encounters, Mark kept interrupting with things like,
“Ask him which parasites the worming tablets cover!”
At one point, Marco said, “I need a litre of coffee!”
He wasn’t the only one.
When we got back to the campground, I needed a lie down.
After a few frantic phone calls between Marco and Paolo, we returned the following day to collect what we were told was a slightly different set of AHCs for Albania to take to the stamping office. They still looked like a simple list of each pup’s microchip number and rabies jab. This time, Paolo could not ferry us to the vet in his minibus, so we had to drive into Matera in The Beast. As the only linguist in our party, I had to visit the surgery on my own, leaving Mark, the only LGV driver, with the conundrum of finding parking for a ten-metre truck in the narrow streets and built-up suburbs.
I asked Marco if he could look at Ruby’s ear again, since it still seemed sensitive. He alluded to her performance the day before.
“The only way I can check her properly is under general anaesthetic.”
I went cold. Anaesthetic is always risky. I prefer to avoid it wherever possible and questioned myself. He had pulled out two seeds yesterday. Logic said there was nothing else in there. Was she really shaking her head more than normal? Maybe she was just tender from having the seeds extracted the day before.
Almost before I responded, with his phone still stapled to his ear, he injected her. Tears pricked in the corner of my eyes as her body went limp in front of me.
Has she stopped breathing? I panicked, but when I placed my hand on her side, I could feel a shallow rise and fall.
Marco hadn’t asked whether she’d had nil by mouth. With a piercing stab of dismay, I recalled giving her a chewy treat before we drove to our appointment, but it was too late to say anything now. Marco didn’t use respiratory tubes. Would she choke?
Vet treatment can be very different in some countries. Quite how different, we would soon discover in Albania.
I couldn’t bear the notion of leaving without my precious girl, all because I mistakenly thought she might have been shaking her head a bit more than usual.
Then Marco muttered something in French.
“Vous parlez Français? – You speak French?” I asked him.
“I think in French!” he told me, which suddenly drew back a heavy curtain from the whole communication thing. I’m not fluent in French, but I can hold my own in conversation. Certainly far better than in Italian.
Marco checked both of Ruby’s ears and, like a conjuror, removed yet another grass dart from deep inside the same ear. Worry and relief flooded through me. I was so glad I’d listened to intuition rather than logic. And for once, I was grateful for Italian bureaucracy, which had forced us to go back to the vet so many times! Despite my reservations, we had done the right thing. I hate to think what would have happened if we hadn’t acted. We could have talked ourselves out of a further vet visit so easily if we hadn’t needed to go for the AHCs. It was a pain to get there without a good reason, and neither Mark nor I were certain there was anything wrong with our little drama queen.
Marco and I sailed through the rest of the consultation, chatting in French like old mates. We didn’t resort to the translation app once.
“Did you work in a zoo?” I asked.
“I did!” he said, “and with a famous circus. I travelled all around South America with the circus.”
Hence the photos and murals of exotic animals on the surgery walls – and the fact he’d been scarred by a tiger.
Despite our newfound ability to communicate, Marco still talked constantly on the mobile cradled between his chin and shoulder, even when administering jabs. He gave Ruby a wake-up injection, then left her on the floor in the recovery position while he prepared yet another iteration of the Albanian AHC. I kept popping back in to the operating room to check on Ruby, but Marco didn’t seem concerned. After a while, he came and rocked her gently from side to side to bring her around, then told me to walk her up and down outside to wake her up. My poor little girl looked very spaced out and wobbled like a drunk baby deer, in awe of its first view of the world.
The following day, Paolo drove Mark to the local government office once again to get our maybe-Albanian-AHCs verified, and that was it.
It had taken three weeks to prepare; four vet visits, numerous phone calls, and two trips to the stamping office, but we could now complete our journey from B to A. The Fab Four were now ready for Albania.
Or so we hoped.
Join us next time as we find out whether our AHCs are valid, as we take the ferry from Bari to Durres in Albania.
Read My Forthcoming Book For Free!
To Hel In A Hound Cart – Journey to the Centre of Europe, the fifth and final book in my Adventure Caravanning With Dogs series is scheduled for release in early December. A few FREE Advance Review Copies of Hel are available here on Booksprout.
Be quick, though, numbers are limited.
The only catch is that you need to leave an honest review on Amazon, Goodreads, and/or Bookbub (preferably all three!) once the book is published in early December.
Below – The Fab Four on Ksamil Beach, Albania.