Albania: it’s about the journey, not the destination

Recalling the details of a trip that occurred 5 years ago with any certainty seems impossible; i feel more like a historian than a writer. Moreover the emotions have faded, the memories are no longer vivid; thus even if I could recall the details, it would sound like history, not good writing. Nevertheless, I will tell you a few things, as much as my ailing  memory still allows. I will begin with the flight itself, because in international trips where you cross two continents, in particular, I feel it’s about the journey, not just about the destination.

 I flew from Columbus, Ohio, my home, to Tirana, Albania on Tuesday April 2, 2014; this I know for sure. It’s written down in an old ticket that I somehow found.  I had a long layover at Dulles Airport, in Washington DC. I remember being particularly nervous. It was my first trip alone overseas, even though I was a full adult. I was late. Many college kids do study abroad at 18. I was 30. I wasn’t even going to a truly foreign country. I was going to visit my grandparents in a country whose nature and language I knew. 

What else can i remember? Oh, yes, while at the airport, I met a nice girl at a Starbucks near my gate. We were sitting on a bench near each other. She was cute, and had on these sneakers that caught my eye. But i could tell she was a bit shy. And I knew how to draw her out. I was talking on the phone, and spoke well aware that I was being heard. Once I hung up,  she warmed up to me and asked to borrow my phone charger. That’s all the opening I needed! We got to talking. She had an attractive quiet manner. She told me she was originally from Morocco; that vouched for her accent. But she was a modern girl. Her clothes were fashionable and western.

She looked white but was of brunette features and mysteriously pretty; but there was no chance for me. She was newly married, she said. Moreover, she lived in Missouri whereas i lived in Ohio. Another good reason why we could not belong together. Curiously enough as I later flew over the Atlantic listening to music half asleep I hear a song with the refrain: “We could, we could belong together.”  At that moment, I truly felt as if I could belong with any girl from anywhere. Now, I can say this is one pleasure of travel; relating to a stranger of a different background, and observing and liking the “little cultural differences” between us. 

I also made friends with a fellow Albanian. He, in fact, became my travel companion and we hung out much of the trip. I swear to you, and I am not lying, at the next airport, in Vienna, a place with a sterile all white interior, him, myself, and two fellow compatriots sat around a table and sipped coffee for an uninterrupted four hour block. I’m serious. This was the longest coffee session of my life! I finished my cup in like 15 minutes. The rest of the time, I mostly looked around, and heard them talk. They were true Albanians. They lived there. I was the fake; the American hybrid, for though I sound like the insider and expert, I must admit, I am not a pure Albanian. I feel there is a cultural difference between myself and true Albanians. It’s impossible for there not to be. I left Albania when I was nine. Now, when I go back there, I admit I feel foreign. The place has changed so much. And yet at times, it feels exactly as I remember it.

My travel buddy, as I call him, was a businessman. He made periodic trips to the US to obtain merchandise. “I come here often,” he told me, “but I could never live here. I don’t like it.” At that moment, as he said those words, I knew exactly what he meant. I too had felt what he had felt about America. I think he was referring to is the fact that America is not a joyous country. It is a serious place. It’s free, it’s fair, it’s great, but it’s not fun. Albania is cheerful! There’s never a dull moment. It’s hectic, noisy, messy; these qualities the very characteristics that make it bad, make it fun; for a chaotic joy is the soul of Albania.

From Albania to America

In the early 1990’s a lot of foreign visitors were coming and going in our apartment. They were contacts of my dad. And he was kind enough to invite them for dinner. And of course, he was hoping to get something in return! At any rate, my mom was the one who had to bear the brunt of the burden as she was the one who did all the cooking. One of them was an English man from America, named Ian, whom we knew for a long time; another one was an Aromanian man from Romania, and then there was an entire family from England who decided to vacation in Albania in our home! My dad went around the whole country with them, and it was all for naught! Not only did the Englishman not offer any invite to us in England, he brought his neighbor with him!

The American Embassy had really opened shop in Albania at this time. They were even offering Fulbright Grants to those few who dared apply for them. A Fulbright Grant, those of you “not in the business” is essentially a year of university research abroad. And if there is a daring man out there, it is my dad. He really wanted to get out of Albania. I probably would have stayed put! So tipped off by a colleague of his at the Art Institute, my dad heard about these great grants and he headed off right away to the American Embassy. But as these things usually are, once he goes there, he finds out they had already run out. They had only a few. So my dad, I imagine, was very disappointed, but while he was there he met the man in charge of the Fulbright Program in Albania, an American called John. My dad gave him a copy of his book, and this gesture and the fact he even had a book, I believe impressed John. John was a kind man. He felt sympathy for my dad, and he was in a tight spot himself having no Fulbright for him, but he could not help him. Yet, a couple of days more pass, and again as these things usually are, John calls my dad with great news. A couple more Fulbright Grants had come in from America and he told my dad to apply. My dad applied, and the rest is history. In the meanwhile, my dad invited John over to our apartment for dinner; this dinner however was different in that it was a celebration. We never heard from John again. As we left for America, he left for Asia.  (Excerpt from)

Why the Pilgrims?

On this Thanksgiving, let us discuss the Pilgrims, the people who began this tradition. Who were the Pilgrims? The Pilgrims, in fact, were religious extremists, in the sense they were willing to die for their religious beliefs, or at least suffer greatly for them. More so than your average man or woman, i.e. moderate Christians. They were outcasts in England. They were a group of about 100 people, who lived communally, a society segregated from the rest. And were thus dismissed, despised or even threatened by the English government to worship and live in and among ordinary society. This threat was enough to push the Pilgrims to immigrate to Holland.

Once there they settled into their “society within society.” They worked in the factories, and got adjusted to their new home, which was no easy task. They did not know the language, nor the culture. But what they did have was the freedom to live together and worship freely. Again, they went against the norm. They lived in Holland 10 years as a segregated group of citizens. Their project was clearly sustainable in Holland. But as is usually the case with immigration, it was the children that the parents worried about. The adults felt the next generation would be absorbed into larger society and the segregated community with its religious ideals would die out.

The Pilgrims felt they needed total detachment from encroaching society, whether it be Dutch or otherwise. This kind of freedom could only be found in a place that was thought empty: America. They arrived in Cape Cod, losing many members along the journey. But they were aided by their sailors… their colony made it, though they were plagued by illness, hunger and violent clashes with Native American tribes.

Let us conclude by asking this question: Why the Pilgrims? What made them able to become the first successful English colony of settlers in America? Let us remember others had tried but failed. At least one colony before them was lost.

The reason for their success is unique to them: practice. The Pilgrims started colonial life in England, when they separated themselves from ordinary society. They lived this way for several years. When they immigrated to Holland, they gained ten more years of practice living as a colony, under more challenging circumstances. It was this practice that gave them the confidence and intuition for success in an “empty land”. Without prior separate communal life in England and Holland, the Pilgrims would likely have never survived in America.

Within ten years a flood of settlers began to arrive in New England. The Pilgrims were soon absorbed… This time, however, they welcomed integration, for they viewed all newcomers as separatists.

America

A German named America,

But he named it after an Italian,

Yet this all happened in France,

But America was discovered by Spain,

And the most astonishing fact is that

In America we speak English.

 

Today, we have people here from all over the world,

And the whole world looks to us.

A big nation in a big land in the west,

It’s great and all-encompassing,

But most importantly free

We call it America!

 

this poem is from my book Poems for a Good Occasion