Friends, here I am. It is now Summer 2021, I have recently completed series I of my blog Curiosities from Albania. What a fun time I had. I did not realize it would be so much fun. I was hesitant to begin but once I got going I got thirsty to learn more and more about my country, to write more and more about it, and to share my experience there on my last trip. Recalling those memories connected me to my roots, to my relatives, and it was a very worthy affair. It gave meaning to my days.
But now I would like to begin a new series; on Albania, of course. However I have a problem. I don’t have any additional trips to Albania that I can write about. My final trip there was in 2014. Typically I visit every four years. My next trip ought to have come in 2018. However owing to poor health I have been unable to travel. I’ve been struck down in my prime! Chronic fatigue syndrome. Not only does it prevent me from visiting Albania, if affects me in my daily life. Yet despite aches, pains, and debilitating fatigue, my spirit soars when I think of Albania! Just like eagles of Scanderbeg which mark the center of my world!
I wish I was half as strong as Scanderbeg. He was known for prodigious physical strength and a great military mind. I don’t know when or if I will improve enough for travel. I may never set foot in Albania again for as long as I live. It doesn’t bother me. I have come to terms with it. But this means this new series will be primarily historical and memorial, since I have no fresh experiences to write about.
Although I have not been able to visit my dear country, Albania, I find nevertheless that in writing about it I get closer to it. I think people have an innate desire to learn about their home; they are fundamentally attracted to their roots, some of us more than others. I am one of those people who is indeed very drawn to home, to the place of his birth. I have an older brother who doesn’t much care about Albania. He is the opposite of me. He is happy here in the US, doing his job, raising his family, and never thinks of his roots. But I am one of those people who roots deeply, as they say. So with that being said, I look forward to a new blog series on Albania. I look forward to learning more and more about my homeland, and to sharing it with you here.
I had completed my long awaited trip. I had spent four weeks in Albania. In this time, I had fulfilled my desire to “be in my country, to walk those streets, to eat that food, to breathe that air.” I had reconnected with my grandparents, as well as many relatives who welcomed me. Though I had been bored, and watched too much TV, though some of my relatives rejected me, and though i did not have the creature comforts of home, or the purpose of the natives and was merely a guest, I achieved my mission. The trip served its purpose. I had gotten Albania out of the system.
Now it was time for my flight back home. I said goodbye to my grandma and grandpa and my aunt and I passed through security. I took a seat in front of my small gate. There are only two at the Tirana airport. It was early morning. It was dark outside. I had been told by my mom that I would be meeting a friend at the airport. In fact, I was told it was a young lady who was perhaps five years younger than myself who was immigrating to the US, and I was supposed to help her along the way. Wanting to find her, I reached out to my neighbor who was a girl about this age. I leaned over and said to her, excuse me miss. However, this girl who apparently took herself to be very pretty thought that I was trying to hit on her, and she refused to turn her head towards me. I said excuse me miss, once, twice, three times. I could tell she could hear and even see me, but she would not turn her head. I knew at that moment that her behavior was characteristically the new Albania, souless to the very core.
Anyhow, be it as it may I gave up on her and sat very quietly. I then got up, walked over to the airport shop and picked up a bottle of water. I sat back down a few seats further out from the unfriendly girl, and perhaps had a sip or two. Meanwhile, another girl sat to the left of me, and soon after yet another girl. The two of them engaged in conversation, and soon enough I leaned over to one of them and asked, excuse me are you Albana? Yes, said she in a friendly and warm way. Albana had no pretensions to great prettiness but was simple, decent and kind. Once the souless chick saw me engaging in conversation with Albana and her friend she finally looked over my way, though she still refused eye contact in order to maintain consistency and her face assumed a friendly look. I thought I even saw a smile play upon her lips. Apparently, now she thought me a harmless young man and wished to be my friend! Hey, perhaps she wished to be friends with all of us. Well, regardless, now it was too late.
Albana was moving to Missouri. Her friend, who was with her mother, told me she was immigrating to Germany. As I heard her say that, I could not believe that people were starting immigration anew this day and age. Perhaps I thought Albania was too good to leave. Perhaps, I thought it absurd that someone should begin anew now that my own battle was over. Perhaps, both. But let the record show that immigration in Albania is still fever pitched. Even thirty years after isolation was broken and the border was opened, everybody wants to still leave. Sure, word has gotten out that life in the world out there is no easy feat for an immigrant. But this does not deter Albanians. They are willing to brave the disadvantages of being a newcomer. America is their number one destination followed by western European countries. However, one thing is for sure. The immigrants of today are not the immigrants of the early 1990s. They are much more advanced and better equipped. They have more skills. For one thing they can now drive. Secondly, they know some English. Thirdly, they have more money to start life out with. In a word, they aren’t as desperate as the immigrants of old. I’m not saying my family was desperate; we were just like everybody else. But the situation in the early 1990s was a desperate one.
We landed in Vienna. Albana and I were joined by another girl who was immigrating to Canada. We sat for coffee at a nice airport cafe. Here I was among my peers, setting off for a new frontier, and a new life in the new world. I was doing the right thing, the “in thing,” for that is the perception: “Blessed are the ones who leave.” Dismissive and forgetful are Albanians of the difficulties that await them, such as the low pay and fatigue of manual labor. Many Albanians trade in office jobs, or jobs where they lounge around all day, for the American dream. It is better to be struggling in America, than to live like a king in Albania, the thinking goes. I disagree. I personally like Albania.
In Washington DC something strange happened. Albana and I got separated. I was standing after her in line at customs check-in and she got ushered along without me. By the way, as soon as my feet landed on solid ground, I felt entirely disoriented. “Where am I? Albania? America? The moon!” You know how those international flights are; the jet lag makes you lose all awareness of your surroundings. I had not slept a wink all flight. I was as if in a dream state where reality lacked all clarity and nothing could be known. In this state of mind, I would lose my very own head if I could… so it’s probably no wonder that I lost Albana, the very person whom I was entrusted to look out for.
“I can’t believe this,” thought I, as I exited customs. “That girl went on without me! Albanians are all crazy.” I looked left and I looked right, amidst a large throng of people. Nope, there was no sign of Albana. She did not even thank me. She did not even say goodbye. She plain old ditched me. How soulless of her! Totally, the new Albania… Well, be it as may, thought I, now I have to carry on alone, without her.After all, I have a flight myself to catch or I may have to spend the night sleeping in ditch.
After I checked at the front desk, as everyone must re-enter, I began to get ready for security, yet again. And there, as I first approach, I see a person, a girl who just like myself, was totally lost. It was Albana! She had not ditched me… it was all just a terrible misunderstanding. Finally, my faith in humanity had been restored. I thought I knew this girl and I was right. She was decent, simple, and kind. “George, they won’t let me through,” she said. And it was my turn to “strut my stuff” and come to the rescue. Though I am no globe trekker, I know the basics of international travel. I rushed her to the front desk, got her a ticket for Missouri-coincidentally, the very state of this nice girl I had met last time in the DC airport-and we both went back through security. We then said our goodbyes and she was off to her new life in America. Meanwhile, I had lost so much precious time that my flight was departing in just five minutes. I went on a mad dash from security to wherever the hell that gate was, the fastest airport run walk I’ve ever done. By the time I arrive at the gate, there was no one there! The attendant pulled some strings and allowed me to pass. I was the last person on that plane. It pays to hustle.
Mom picked me up in Columbus and I was still on the high of travel. In the car, I madly gulped down a sweet frapaccino from a vending machine, as I had been dying of thirst on my last flight. Boy how I regretted throwing out in DC that full bottle of water I bought in Tirana. On the drive home, I dare say I felt better than the locals, for they had spent the month milling about town, while I had raced halfway around the world. I felt energized with the spirit of Albania deep down in my soul.
Soon enough, I returned to my aimless life here in America holding down some volunteer positions such as working in an animal shelter, going to the gym three times a week, and to my usual coffee houses almost five days a week. Though my life was not a paradise, certainly not the so-called American dream, now at least after visiting my country, reality, or at least my reality no longer seemed and felt bleak, for I now knew this: America, was my country. I am content to walk these streets, to speak English, to eat American food, to breath American air, and to flirt with American women! I am home.
In the early 1990s, after a 47 year isolationist dictatorial regime, Albania was starting to open up. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the USSR had disintegrated, and Romania’s dictator had been promptly executed. All signs pointed to the end of communism. This was the first time that we as a people were allowed to immigrate in almost half a century. And the general mentality in Albania was “Anywhere but here!” In fact, in 1990 when Europe saw that our borders could no longer hold us in, and that we were dying for a breath of air, they opened their doors to us. Embassies from major western European countries like Germany, France, and Italy set up shop and were filled to the brim with people desperate to immigrate. These people had nothing to lose. They tended to be a bit younger in age and perhaps a bit adventurous too. They stood in line, and camped outside from morning till night for days on end, hoping for the embassy doors to open. They did open and everyone was labelled a refugee and got instant political asylum.
At the same time, there were heart wrenching scenes of large cargo ships being stormed by thousands of people who climbed aboard via ropes! These ships were for the daring and desperate. They sailed to the nearby Italian coast; this journey took place a few times until the final one sunk under suspicious circumstances. The most accessible destination was Greece; it was reachable by foot over mountain and field, or by vehicle. Being the most developed nation in the Balkans, and part of the European Union, it was the default destination for countless Albanian refugees, mainly from the south. It is fair to say there was an exodus of Albanian immigrants in the early 1990’s; something that was bound to happen after a nation was forced into isolation, and thus into poverty, for over 45 years.
America was the ultimate dream for us Albanians. There a culture reigned where America was and is beloved. I don’t know when the love of America began; perhaps it began at the very beginning when America defeated Great Britain to become civilization’s final frontier in 1776. Although, historically, I don’t know when the first Albanians started immigrating to America, by 1900, the largest community was in Boston numbering at about 50,000. Other large cities such as New York and Chicago may have had similar sized communities at the time. Then in 1944, our communist government put a stop to all emigration, particularly to America. We were now allied with Russia, and later with China. These Eastern powers became our mentors, and we were made to believe America was our enemy.
Albania has always looked up to America, and with good reason. It can be argued America is Albania’s greatest ally. In 1920, America came to our aid at the end of the first world war. At this time, our Slavic neighbors, and Greece wanted to use the chaotic opportunity to partition Albania altogether and take it for themselves. Their armies invaded the country and and our very existence was threatened. Although, other major European powers like Italy, Austria, and France were actors in the decision as to Albania’s fate, it would be America under the leadership of President Wilson that supported and conclusively reaffirmed our independence. This made our countries allies. In 1999, it would be with the aid and protection of America that Kosovo’s Albanians would survive the Serbian campaign of genocide. In 2008, our alliance was renewed yet again when Kosovo declared independence, with support and recognition from America.
On top that, like it does to much of the world, to us as people, America gave us hope; in the early 1990s Albania was a small eastern nation with a troubled recent past, and bleak immediate future. By contrast, here was America, a big western nation, powerful, with a storied past and a promising future. We were all dying to come here! It was a dream so big that we dare not dream it. America in our eyes was larger than life. Certainly, part of this impression had to do with the fact that no one had ever come to America and lived to tell about it. America was the dream of the unknown. Although, our dictator had tried to brainwash us that America was an evil imperialist who had intentions of invading Albania for decades on end, and he even forced us to build thousands of unsightly “defensive bunkers,” which littered neighborhoods and the countryside alike, by the fall of his regime we were free to think for ourselves.
Our natural inclination was to look up to America. Not Russia, not China; as the communist regime had bade us do all those decades, but America, the forward thinking western super power. We all dreamt of coming to America. Of all possible destinations, America the best; a nation built by immigrants for immigrants. In my family, in the early 1990’s, my dad really wanted out of Albania. But God knows my family was not “the cargo ship” type. Dad was a musicologist. He didn’t have that sort of daring in him. Dad thought of all possible destinations particularly the ones where he had contacts, through work. In Europe, this included Romania, England and Austria. But none of them came to pass.
Like other western embassies, the American embassy also opened in Albania at this time. There were rumors they were even offering Fulbright Grants to those few who dared apply; this was the type of daring appropriate for dad. He was an academic. However, earning a Fulbright was impossible at first. There were none! However, dad got a chance to meet the person in charge of the Fulbright Program in Albania, a man called John. Dad gave him a copy of his book; this gesture, and the fact he even had written a book, I believe impressed John. John was a kind man, but he could not help dad; there simply were no grants left, for any one. It was a game of numbers; too many applicants, too few grants. The small budget was already spent. Yet, as fate goes, after months and months pass, John calls dad with great news. A few Fulbright Grants had come in from America and he told dad to apply. He applied, and the rest is history. In the meanwhile, dad invited John over to our apartment for dinner; it was a celebration. We never heard from John again. As we left for America, he left for Asia.
Contains excerpts from my essay: “How did I get here? Out of the Old country and into the new World.”
During this visit i had a most unremarkable time in Durres; being so near Tirana, less than one hour away, my company and I drove there haphazardly one Sunday, coupling it with a visit to the Bay of Lalzi; a secluded beach that in my view outdoes the one at Durres. At Lalzi, we parked our car, walked past the woods and to my pleasant surprise were met with a white sand beach strewn with cute wooden umbrellas the kind of which I’d never seen before. The only catch was it was a cool, cloudy and somber day and not a soul was around. We strolled a bit, jumped back in the car and zigzagged through a suburban neighborhood of nice, gated houses; a concept that didn’t even exist back when I was growing up here. We only stayed in Durres for lunch, eating in the restaurant of a random hotel. The food was average, the weather dreary and rainy…
I prefer to remember the Durres of my youth. Back then, Durres was a popular beach destination. Being on the Adriatic coast not too far from Tirana, though back in those times one took the train, it was the default destination for middleclass Albanian families of all nearby towns. We went there every summer, for one or maybe two weeks.
One particular vacation to Durres that comes to mind is 1990. I know this because it was a World Cup year, and being a young Albanian kid, I was mad about soccer. I was only seven but I understood the game and I loved watching it and playing with my friends outside on the dusty asphalt of our apartment building. Today, except for the World Cup, you can’t pay me to watch your soccer! I prefer football but back in that time and place I was a fanatic, like my brother and our friends. All the men in the country were soccer heads. All the women never watched a single game! But now times have changed there and girls and women participate in athletics.
That year a friend and colleague of my dad’s was also vacationing with his family in Durres. This guy had a kind of gift at getting ahead in life under communism. He always found a way to make friends with those in power and in turn secure advancement for himself and his family under the most meagre of material circumstances. Well, in Durres, he did it again! He had pulled some strings, and booked a room for his family in the fanciest hotel in town, reserved at that time for western tourists and the political elite only. We would visit them daily and live the high life which to me today seems standard, but back in that day when material possessions were so very lacking, everything this hotel had was a big deal.
It was the at that very hotel that I first became exposed to color television. At home, all throughout my life we only had black and white TV. Seeing this new color TV set in the lobby of the hotel was a huge deal. It was a new thing for us. Moreover, it was absolutely awesome because that World Cup I mentioned was taking place at this time. We could watch games on color TV! Boy oh boy, I have seen one of the wildest soccer games of my life on that TV. It went into overtime and then into penalties. We were loving every second of it, only as a fanatic can!
Another incident that took place at this hotel was more comical. It was here that I tasted Coca Cola for the first time in my life. But not in the usual way, where one buys a drink and enjoys it. No, we weren’t staying at the hotel so I suppose we weren’t allowed to buy anything. Besides we didn’t know what coke was. Anyhow, my mom, my brother and I, and her friend and her two sons went up to an empty table spontaneously on a patio cafe where the privileged westerners had just leisured and left all their pop cans. Well, we saw the remains of a dark fizzed drink at the bottom of their glasses. Out of curiosity to know what it was, and perhaps to see what the fancy tourists were having, we picked up their cans and had a taste. It was awesome! It was Coca Cola. It was also pathetic that our country’s economy could not even provide us that…
The village is an Aromanian village. I am Aromanian (also called Rremen or Vllah) on my dad’s side. There is no difference in appearance between us and Albanians. We do have our own language, though, which is similar to Romanian. However, we do not come from Romania. We came from the Roman colonists and assimilated natives of ancient times. The village has three streets dotted by cute small houses, many of which are newly renovated or rebuilt. Strangely many are seasonally empty. Many people of the younger generation have found work in Greece and perhaps the elderly is the largest demographic. Everybody knows everybody, perhaps for a whole lifetime, and many houses have relatives in other houses. There is one small church without a priest. But the faithful can always light a candle. A small school was in use for several years but now is closed as there are so few children, it’s easier to bus them in to the nearby town of Gjirokastra. I hear the population fluctuates increasing in the summer when emigres from Greece return.
In the village, I was stationed at my cousin Anna’s house, whom I am close with. But she had married recently and gone off to live in Italy. Just my luck. Her younger brother was around but I saw little of him till evening. We were roomies. Anna’s parents showed me great “village hospitality,” which is the only hospitality left. The cities have turned cold. Her mom cooked vegetable rich stews for me every night, often with fresh feta cheese made from milk from their very own goats. Her dad, meanwhile, works various country jobs and in the evenings he took time out to eat dinner with us.
The pace of life in the village is predictably slow. Very little TV, and no internet; truly I had no interest for either. Good conversation is your best bet at passing the time. Thankfully, for interesting conversation, if not a little absurd, I had Papo Nidha, (Grandad Leonard) my dad’s uncle to talk to. He is an old man but still of sound mind and eccentric as ever. Curious and open minded, he had many questions about America as we sat leisurely chatting in the shade of his grape vineyard in his front yard. Yet, Papo Nidha’s ultimate curiosity is not about the west but about the east! But I cannot fault him; when he was in his prime, Albania was allied with China, not the US; and as every old person sticks to the fashions of his youth whether be it in clothing, music, or political ideology, Papo Nidha still maintains an affinity for Communist China.
Strangely, it was not only China. He also likes Japan, “One time, in Tirana,” he spun me a tale the only way he can, “there was a tour group from Japan and this young man saw a young girl that he liked. She was a cashier at a shop. He told her on the spot ‘I like you and I want to marry you.’ She told him, ‘Let me go ask my parents.’ (Papo Nidha emphasized parental approval) She came back soon, with her parents blessing, and accepted his offer. They married, and moved to Japan.” Whether or not this tale is true i have no way of knowing; but i did catch a TV show while in Tirana that mentioned an Albanian woman had intermarried with a Japanese man. Now they were living in Tokyo with their 5 year old son.
I also had chaps my own age to hang with. Papo Nidha’s grandchildren, Cousins Lambro and Pandi, were visiting from Athens. Pandi was very Hellenized. He doesn’t speak Albanian; but speaks perfect English. Lambro reminded me of my brother and had maintained his Albanian roots. I did meet with cousin Thoma, a warm and welcoming person. However, unwittingly he took me on a rather wild ride, an errand with a bus driver friend of his to buy a new window for the minibus. All that wind blowing in my face from the broken window, however, gave me chills for the rest of the day. His brother Dhimo showed me around Gjirokastra. On tour I was struck by the beauty of the old town with 19th century Ottoman villas and cobblestone streets. Looking on, I felt a pang of regret, knowing I’d leave soon. Dhimo and I settled on the wisdom, “Let us be well off wherever we may be.” I also met cousin Nikos of Greece. He hated Albania, he told me, and generally he was a lovable grump. He smoked, napped, and played dominoes all day. In other words, he was the perfect Greek.
The village is very small and that too slows down life. There are three restaurants but they are usually empty or closed. There is a tiny market; I did go there and have a beer with the owner, a family friend or perhaps a distant relative, as far as I know. One evening, I ran into an old man, a cousin of my grandma. Very nice guy, very happy to see me, and he felt as if I had materialized out of thin air. True, when you expect one to be in another continent, it must be quite a pleasant surprise to see them walking down your street. You know we don’t have villages, in America do we? Not the way they do in Albania. This village is so small, I cannot possibly find a counterpart to it. Of course, one could argue American villages are the suburbs. Suburbs have single family homes with yards. In this view, America is full of villages, more so than Albania. But the suburbs are gigantic, and thus not true villages. An American suburb would be considered a rather large city in Albania. Perhaps one could argue that small rural towns are villages. Maybe, but in my view, villages are distinctly old world.
I was now to go south to a village near Gjirokastra. My grandpa took me to the bus station. By the way, I feel weird saying my grandpa, as if I was 3. I was 30! Anyhow, I took a seat, the sole person in the minibus. As I was sitting, I saw grandpa chatting up the driver and his assistant, as if to make sure I’d be in good hands, and it occurred to me what a charismatic old gentleman grandpa is. He was full of good humor and cheer, dressed in suit and tie, and even a hat, as if he were going to some fancy downtown office, not to a pot-holed bus lot full of dirty rainwater. Anyway, Grandpa stepped outside, a few people came in, and I waved good bye to him out the window.
The driver was a man with a comically shaped head and his assistant was a lean older man who reminded me of Regis Philbin, though he was not funny like Regis, but rather funny in a sleazy way. The minibus got going, and the driver was exceedingly distracted by everything to the side of the road. He would look for any reason whatever to stop the bus; the most bizarre stop that came to pass was a vegetable stand by the side of the roadway. Can you imagine a professional driver in America stopping a bus full of passengers so that he can, on his own whim, get out and purchase the likes of lettuce and green onions! Absurd. But that is exactly what he did, and us passengers were just sitting there, our journey made slightly longer by the distractions of this buffoon and his sleazy companion. OK, so then the journey picked up some momentum, for an hour or so, but the driver’s absurd desire to stop was ever present; the pretext being to pick up more passengers, but the real reason I suspect was that he was lazy and always looking for an excuse to not do his job!
Anyhow, we passed a few hours and finally took a scheduled break at a roadside restaurant and shoppe. I walked out, as it’s nice to have a break and stretch, picked up a water and returned on the bus. The bus was nearly empty but there was this nice teenage girl sitting behind me, and so I thought to ask her if she knew whether we were near so-and-so a village. She was of that area and told me were approaching it. Although I said nothing more, I could tell we were both friends, in a way, and I enjoyed chatting with her simply because she had that youthful charm that I cannot find in adults. Though beyond her, I caught the eye of a shady character in the back who gave me a dirty look simply for speaking…
All the passengers boarded and we were now at full capacity. Yet just as he had done all along, the buffoon kept up his unquenchable thirst for breaking for every single passenger on the road. He picked up one and he picked up another, and yet another, and then a fourth. And where was he putting them? There were no seats open. They were all standing in the aisle! But even that wasn’t enough for him. He had to congest the isle! Only then would his absurd desire find satiety. As the aisle was clogged with standing passengers from the back to the front, the idiot stops yet again. This was too much, and a young man from the back of the bus spoke up: “Where ya gonna stuff ‘em, oh master?” Certainly the voice betrayed sarcasm, concern and incredulity.
When my turn to depart the came, a young fellow near me who was travelling with his girlfriend turned his head and winked as if to say goodbye. Yet soon enough this warm jest was marred by the crazy driver who suddenly turned his eyes to me in the mirror and made a sharp, hurried gesture as if he couldn’t wait to be rid of me and had been wanting to do so from the moment I got on. The whole way, not once had he looked at me even though his eyes went everywhere. I was rushed off in an unfriendly hurry, though it is true my seat was coveted by long standing passengers. I walked by the side of the bus to pick up my suitcase aware that the young girl’s eyes were on my face. I wish I could have looked happy for her, so as to leave a good impression. Unfortunately, I could not as I was too fatigued.
photo credit: Powers to Travel
After getting my fill of Tirana, I decided it was time to go off and see some other relatives. First up, was my first cousin Leda who lives in Elbasan. Elbasan is a city in central Albania, about one hour drive south of Tirana, but even closer now that the roads are better. It is the third largest city, but like every other Albanian city, it pales in comparison to Tirana, having only about 75,000 residents in the city proper. Occupied by Illyrians, in ancient times, the via Ignatia, the ancient military road from the Adriatic coast to Constantinople went through this area. Back then it was just a trading post called Mansio Scampa. Mansio Scampa grew into a city of 2000 by the 3rd century and was an early center of Christianity. However, once Rome fell, so did ancient Mansio Scampa.
The Ottomans set up a huge fortress here in the 15th century, that they called il-Basan, it’s namesake, meaning simply the Fortress. For the next four and a half centuries Elbasan stayed in Ottoman control and understandably turned Muslim. At the beginning of the 20th century the population had grown to 15000. During Communism the city became an industrial center enabling population growth. Recently, in 2014 it became the host city of the national football team, a surprise to me, considering Tirana is the capital.
My aunt, on my dad’s side, and her family lived in Elbasan. My grandma used to take my brother and I there as kids. I don’t have any outstanding childhood memories, though I do remember that she and her husband lived in a house, something utterly unusual for an Albanian city, as apartments are always the norm. I have been to Elbasan twice since my family immigrated, once in 2004, on my first visit back to Albania. Back then my aunt and my grandma were still alive. We had a drink inside the castle, though it was “gutted” as I heard a recent tourist put it. This time, I sat alone one morning, outside facing this fortress, having a drink on the piazza, and truly felt an American on tour.
I have never been drawn to Elbasan. It has an industrial feeling, no doubt due to the decades it spent as a town with iron works and other factories. Someway, somehow, as happens to people, its trade became incorporated into its look, giving it a gritty feel. It is not a tourist destination and has no standing historical sites other than the Ottoman castle, which is large but does not impress. The social life of the city centers around this fortress, which also has restaurants, and houses.
My aunt was gone. What drew me back to Elbasan was her daughter, who though a decade older, I am good friends with. We had kept in touch through Facebook, enough so to warrant an in-person visit, if the opportunity should arise. This was a calm visit. Not a lot happened, but she and her young teenage daughter were gracious hosts to me. We chatted and caught up as cousins might, when reuniting after a few years. I was long lost American convert, who could still relate to my Albanians counterparts. We get along well. Unfortunately, she had me housed in her father’s house-you know the spacious commodity so unusual for Albanian cities, that I remembered from my youth-well, as soon as she went to work on Monday morning, her father, secretly rushed me off to the bus station and sent me back to Tirana! Poor Leda, she was upset when she found out…I spared her the fact that her father kicked me out.
But what a scene that bus station was! That was one of those “only in Albania” moments I witnessed. It was outside the fortress, so there was a lot of people watching, something I personally like. My “gracious” host and I were standing amidst a large gathering of people. “You wait here,” he told me. “There are no empty seats unless you rush in.” Fine, thought I, there’s no way I can hussle my way into an overcrowded Balkan bus. I come from America, the place where buses go empty. So I stood there, people watching, and my eye caught this girl. She had curled hair, your typical brunette Albanian complexion, and was wearing stylish jeans. She had the aura of Albania, slightly yet unmistakably different from American girls. She was pretty but she was preoccupied, no doubt worrying about shoving her way into an overcrowded bus.
Then the bus came, and I can tell you, all of the people huddled in the station gathered around the door, but before they could enter, the people on the bus had to exit. You see it was already full! Only a few seats opened, and it was a mad scramble for them. I never could have gotten one. I entered the bus with a delay, and took the seat my host had got for me. Give the man credit, he was good at saving a seat, though his motive was questionable… Only about half the people did not get on. I don’t know what became of my bus station beauty.
The ride went without incident. But I will remark here that I did witness a special moment. It was a sunny day and our bus now came near upon a mountain. In the olden days, when I was a kid, this route would zigzag around every bend. But today Albania had drilled a tunnel right through the mountain. My small country has progressed! Now you’ll say, big deal George, America has been drilling tunnels since Albania was under the Ottoman yoke. True! But never have I seen a tunnel as picturesque as that one. The traffic lights, the entryway, the sun’s light hitting the mountainside; it was a moment where Albania shined.
Today, Albania has all material goods that money can buy. What it lacks is not material, but rather spiritual. People don’t care for their neighbor, because the country’s social fabric has been torn. One extreme, communism led to the other, extreme individualism. But I will give credit where credit is due. In many aspects Albania today has made many improvements. Power and water is one big example. In the eighties when I was living there as a kid power and water outages were a fact of daily life. Today, they are far less frequent. Moreover, as Communism was collapsing, food shortages were also turning commonplace. My grandma stood in line at 6 AM to buy milk and eggs for the day, every day. Today there are no food lines. Back then there were no other goods for purchase. There were very few stores. Today there are many stores with many goods. Back then, finding something, whether be it clothing, or some other commodity like a home appliance was comically difficult.
In Communism, scarcity was appalling. For example, when one needed a suit or a jacket he couldn’t just go out and buy it. There were no suit or jacket stores. There were a few stores that sold dubious fabrics at certain times of the year. One had to buy the fabric then find a tailor, a friend of a friend, secretly mind you, because private enterprise was illegal and pay him under the table. Home appliances were assigned by the State. Apartments were assigned. Cities were assigned. Universities and majors were assigned. Everyone was a state employee; doctors, lawyers, garbage men… Pay for all workers was the same, seven dollars a month. So nobody worked hard; why try when there is no prospect of upward mobility? People socialized a lot for they were one big state run family; the catch was they could say nothing against Comrade Enver, the dictator, and the regime.
Finally, when the system did collage, the populace went mad. It all erupted into a self destructive spree against its own society. Any and all things were looted, vandalized, violated. My school windows were broken. The hanging lamp in my classroom was clipped off at the ceiling. Neighborhood trees were chopped off at the roots. Nights were spent in a state of fear. New European embassies were stormed by throngs of Albanians desperate to leave. Cargo ships were madly boarded by the same crowd of desperate people. With standing room only, they made three or four trips to the nearby Italian coast. Greece, close and reachable by bus or even foot, became the most frequent immigrant destination. Such was the frightful state of Albania that kicked out my family along with many others in the early 1990’s.
…Then one time our cousin came down from Monterrey to visit us. His name was Angelo, or Avdul, as he was called in Albania. He was 28 years old and he had immigrated six months prior to us here in the States. He had gone to Monterrey because his uncle, Uncle Mersin, as we called him, who was also a relative, had been living there. A quick background story on Uncle Mersin here; when he was a young man, Mersin decided to flee from Albania. This act was something that could not be done. It was illegal under the dictatorship and dangerous. But Mersin was a brave. He fled the border to Greece at night and the guards shot at him repeatedly. When he told this story to us, you could tell he was in moved at how he survived. From there he immigrated to America. That was forty years ago, but now he did have a glass eye as a result of a shard of debris damaging his left eye on that fateful night. So back to our story, when Angelo came to America, Uncle Mersin naturally he took him in, and he helped him get established.
As for Angelo himself, he proved to be one of the most generous relatives I have. When he visited us, it was like Santa Clause came to town. He had filled the back of his car with presents for us all. They were practical things like plates, and peanut butter, some clothes-things a family starting out anew might need. He even brought me my first bike. It was used and old, but hey it was free, and it did the job. I learned how to ride all in one day, on the grass in our backyard. Angelo kept cheering me on. My brother, Besian had more trouble, and it took him several more days. Well, Angelo stayed with us a couple of days. He and my parents exchanged some good stories about the old country, we ate a lot of good food cooked by my mom, and then he had to take off and we had to go on in our new country…
… But I was good at playing Super Nintendo. Have you ever played Street Fighter II? You know the one, the adaptation, of the great fighting arcade game. We went up to Monterrey to visit some relatives of ours, Uncle Mersin’s family, and that’s the first time I had seen the game. Well, before the night was over, I was beating everyone in the company, Mersin’s son included and he was older than me. He wasn’t mad though. It’s just a game. You don’t want to mess with me in Street Fighter II, buddy! Besjan was the king of John Madden football ‘93. That game is stupid. You can only play it on snowy conditions; otherwise the players don’t seem to move at all.
But my favorite video game of all time is Super Mario World. Both Besian and I spent the whole year in LA trying to beat it. It was such great fun. Super Mario World really was a microcosm for our life in LA. Like in the video game, we started all over in a strange new land. It had good things and fun things, but it had difficulties and hard times too. But with every scary castle that Besian and I beat in that game, it seemed our family had gotten a little stronger, wiser, and more established in our new country. Indeed just as the game was challenging, so was our new life, but we knew we had to go on, we had to keep fighting.
(excerpt from How did I get here? Out of the old Country and into the New World)
Let me describe Tirana a bit. It is Albania’s capital and largest city coming in at over 500000 residents. Locals claim it to be up to 850000. In a country that is only 3.1 million residents this makes Tirana a juggernaut. All other cities pale in comparison. But Tirana is not large in terms of land area. It is rather small, by our sprawling American standards. Tirana is a compact apartment city with meandering alleyways and lean main streets. Many apartments have a minimum of 5 stories. This all means Tirana has crammed a large population into a small area. The place is a beehive! There is a soul on every back alley at all times of the day. Once you enter a main street you become part of a swarm of humanity.
Everyone loves to walk here; not for pleasure but for transport. City busses are utilized to the very brim; they have standing room only, sometimes breathing room only. That is not to say Albanians don’t drive; they drive Mercedez, almost exclusively. Most are inexpensive and older models, but a few are top of the line, brand new and very pricey. Yet, at the same time, new or old tires often bounce up and down muddy potholes and maneuver on streets without lanes. Traffic is bumper to bumper. Left turns are negotiated at close range and pedestrians do not get the right of way. Tirana is brimming with energy and it packs a punch. If chaos is your lifeblood, Tirana is your paradise.
Tirana is trendy, vibrant and artsy, but it has the problems of chaos. The sidewalks are broken, sewers are open, litter is rampant. The mail may sooner cross two continents before it crosses two neighborhoods. What is made today wears out by tomorrow. One year may turn a new cafe into an old cafe. There is no staying power. Makeshift farmer’s markets are as if houses of cards that tumble and vanish with the blowing winds. There is no rising power; construction sites are fenced off ghost towns; years may pass before a single brick is laid.
Tirana is flashy and colorful, but without standards. Apartment blocks built today are often ultra modern, chic and stylish but not without blunders in basic design. It appears looks have been prioritized over quality. A support beam may poke awkwardly beneath a ceiling. Living rooms may be illogically small, balconies illogically large. Elevators may stop working due to the power failures; you may find yourself walking up several flights of stairs in the dark, lighting your away up the windowless stairwell with your smartphone. The apartments of the old Communist era were no-nonsense, but they had ample room, and were free of anomalies. Be it as it may, today these older buildings have often succumb to decay. There are so many eye sores. But there is one good thing: Eye sores in Albania are not considered bad. They are commonplace.