Of all the countries on the European continent we were due to pass through, I only had misgivings about Albania. Beyond vague inferences concerning Balkan ‘baddies’ in Hollywood movies, I could find for no logical reason for this sense of unease. Albania seems to have a similar reputation in Europe as Nigeria has in Africa – undeserved shade thrown by a fistful of exported gangster heavies and underground smugglers that by no means reflects the majority of the population.
Zola pointed out to me that Voldemort had been banished to Albania: that probably explains it!
The road to the border began to look more like Africa than Europe:
Men with shovels standing amidst the CAT vehicles, cheerfully called Big Reg over the half-repaired road. My Dad would have had a heart attack.
The slow-moving queue at the border checkpoint made us nervous, but turned out to be due to a computer malfunction. A frustrated official repeatedly scanned our passports, while a 6 foot tall Albanian policewoman in a black uniform with red piping looked on, rocking her knee high boots, full glamour make up and aviator shades. She looked like she was auditioning for Rizzoli and Isles and was prepared to kick ass at any moment. But they waved our Green Card insurance copies through, no problem.
We drove in still feeling a bit tense, but the first man driving a donkey cart we saw split his face into the widest toothless grin and waved – Sampson and I automatically both waved back, delighted. This was a different style ‘We Are Not Europe’: it was a relief to be beyond Euro norms, back in a relatively tourist-free zone where it was natural to acknowledge your fellow human beings.
Albanians seems to take great pride in their houses, which are often colourful, and always dripping with balconies, pot plants and trailing vines. The first mosque we saw had a Disney-esque dainty white fluted minaret, and a church right next door.
Sampson stopped to change an oil filter, and asked for water outside a restaurant and function venue that looked like a castle. ‘Location location location’ seems not to be a principle applied in Albanian real estate investment; this enormous building deserved to be surrounded by rolling lawns if not a moat, but was slap bang next to the Rruga Nacionale. Milling young boys called a waiter called Emejdi who spoke awesome English and invited us round the back to fill up. He was almost fluent after only 5 years of lessons at school – an extraordinary achievement without ever interacting with a native speaker. I take my hat off to his teacher.
It was so cheering to meet a 17 year old sincerely saying “We work hard to support our parents where we can”. The four of them work there after school every day. They reminded me of my grandparents’ generation: short back and sides, work ethic and all. Emejdi taught us how to say ‘Thank you’ in Albanian – Faleminderit in case you ever need to know – and explained that Vllazmia was built by two brothers, is staffed by extended family and the word itself means (he hesitated for a moment as he sought the right translation) “Brothership”. What a gorgeous evocation of friendship and brotherhood, personified by these shy lads. Or I misunderstood and it just signifies the bros are football fans.
As we drove south, I reflected that a relatively poor Eastern European city looks very much like a relatively rich African city: the same half finished buildings, dodgy roads and lack of traffic lights. There seemed to be no town planning or zoning – residential, retail and industrial were all mixed in together. I kept seeing super modern corporate architecture, all angles and mirrored glass, next to crumbling appartment blocks or marooned like spaceships in the middle of arable land. Albania had an extra line in flourishes such as the mock mini-palace office two storey with a giant Buckingham Palace sized statue of rearing horses and a fountain.
There were also men en masse in bars drinking coffee in the middle of the day. I only saw one woman in a cafe in the whole of Albania. This was to become the norm back in North Africa, but at this point it still felt strange that half the population had just disappeared.
These huge double volume service stations were always right next to an extraordinarily flash hotel and bar. The forecourts were generally empty. Was it a case of ‘Build it and they will come’ or some massive money-laundering loophole?
That night we pulled off at Eurostop, where friendly waiters were happy for us to sleep overnight and enjoy the free passwordless high-speed wifi. I ate the last of our tuna and sweetcorn soup and sat online late into the night scrolling through the latest in the post-Weinstein avalanche of ‘revelations’ which were not a surprise to me or anyone female. One of the reasons I got ME in the first place was the toll taken on my health fighting in vain for justice in a series of rape cases at college when I was Womens’ Officer.
Sampson was feverishly downloading podcasts – I’m not sure when I wrote the following but feel the need to include it for British readers:
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I just found out via a comedy podcast that Jacob Rees-Mogg is standing for leadership of the Conservative Party. Quelle horreur. I only came across him once during my time at Oxford. It was my first week, when I went on an introductory tour of the Oxford Union – not the student union, OUSU, but the exclusive pseudo-gentlemen’s club which you had to pay an extortionate price to access. It wasn’t going to be an option for me, but as Benazir Bhutto had been a recent President, I was keen to sneak a peak at how this venerable university institution was evolving.
As we freshers filed through the foyer, Rees-Mogg was standing in the entrance hall. He was in front of a fire place, with his hands behind his back Prince Charles-style, wearing a tweed jacket and a bow tie, with his glasses and side-parting looking pompous and middle aged already. I laughed out loud and looked around to see if the others had noticed.
‘Good on ‘em!’ I thought, ‘Kudos to the Oxford Union for paying a student actor to perform the stereotype of upper class Tory twat to acknowledge how far they have moved beyond that, by inviting lower class yobs from the Midlands like me to join.’
As we were shepherded past, without comment from our guide, the dawning realisation that he wasn’t an artful parody but the genuine article was one of the many black-hole horrors I felt engulf me that first week. Another was the sentence I cut out and kept from the OUSU Handbook: “The good news is that Oxford has a thriving live music scene and a wide range of DJs and dance venues. The bad news is that every word of that is a lie.” No wonder that more often than not I was on the last coach up to real life in London every Friday night. Thanks to Sunship for keeping me vaguely sane…
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I warned you these catch-up blogs were going to be random. Like my veiled awareness at the time – hazy with brief periods of shocking lucidity.
It seemed weird that Montenegro and Albania were trying so hard to get into the EU when the UK was trying so hard to get out.
I was increasingly foggy: the slow undermining of the constant cold combined with exponential effects of longterm insomnia meant my capacity was on a slippery slope. I kept missing photo opportunities as I was lacking quick reactions to pull my camera out in time. Holding it up for too long gave me debilitating arm ache the next day.
I will always regret not capturing the turkey herders! We saw so many but I never managed to snap in time.
As Big Reg trundled along, Sampson and I sat in the front with the puppy on a bit of old blanket on the floor between us and discussed names:
Sampson loved ‘Monte’ best and already he seemed like his dog.
As Sampson coaxed Monte to explore, Zola and I took our French translation outside in the last of the sun at 5pm, while the cabbage was cooking and the rice fluffed in the hot box. We reflected that the cat had become ours by default.
I was so tired I slept through the mossies and Sampson wiping up Monte’s middle of night poo-on-the-floor that made him gag. It was so cold by the river, I was grateful Lucky came to snuggle on my feet.
In the morning, Daniel was bemoaning the constant tug-of-war that is Balkan politics: “Kosovo and Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, Turkey and Kurdestan – Albania, we don’t have a problem with no one”. He played me some wonderful a cappella music which he told me is one of two UNESCO protected pieces of Albanian heritage – the Balkan folk harmonies somehow reminded me both of Celtic ballads and isiXhosa throat singers. He sits here all day in his hut by the side of the river selling his CDs and listening.
“I love nature too much” said Daniel dreamily.
We figured he must have a sideline; people on motorbikes were popping by till very late and we couldn’t imagine that their need for traditional folk songs was that urgent.
Sampson also chatted to a passing Polish couple, who were somehow managing to travel home from temporary work in Croatia without passports. This was certainly not Europe!!
This was the first day Lucky and Monte started playing together.
We got to the border and found it closed! Apparently Greek customs officials were on strike. I was so glad that we were not stuck and forced to sleep in cars like others there. It was a great excuse to drive 30km back to the city of Gjirokastër, Albania’s second example of UNESCO World Heritage that Daniel had told me about.
I began to understand the Albanian obsession with castles. There was a supreme feeling of safety and stability in the solidity of the stone.
The fortress gave me great perspective over the last few hundred years: like the view from the clock tower over the valley, I could take in the sweep of history from the might of the Ottoman Empire, over the Nazis and the Communist republic. The tanks in the gallery all pointed to the inevitable rise and fall of fascists and dictators. All oppression will eventually be overthrown as its excess becomes too much even for the apathetic or the brainwashed to bear. It was a comforting thought in the age of Trump and Zuma.
I can’t explain the feeling that descended on me as I entered that tiny courtyard under the trees. At the time, I knew nothing about the Bektashi and their panentheism, or the widespread religious persecution in Albania under the socialist regime. An information panel on the wall told me that the Bektashis were not forbidden alcohol and women went unveiled in public. Their were no gender divisions within the tekke and no strict rules on times of prayer or fasting. Above all, Bektashism taught tolerance of different nations and religions.
The tranquility of the Babas’ tomb wasn’t just generated by the green leafy calm and the lilting birdsong echoing off the ancient stone walls; no, there was something more tangible, created by hundreds of years of prayer, offerings and reflection in this glade. Great great peace.
This was the last time I walked anywhere alone for three months.
Not as stressful as other situations you have successfully navigated!
One of the few things I know about Albania is their love of Norman Wisdom, although I’m not sure the younger generation would understand if I did an impression of him (which would amount to moving in a slightly jerky motion and exclaiming “Mister Grimsdale!” in a high pitched screech).