Albania: A Visit to Elbasan

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.

Albania: Then and Now

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.

Motivational Quotes 6/12/20

In the past, you suffered, persevered, and survived. Like then, today you will suffer, persevere and survive.

One’s objective should be to get it right, get it quick, get it out, and get it over…Your problem won’t improve with age. -Warren Buffett

Always do what you are afraid to do -Emerson

The bold are always lucky -Danish proverb

Do the right thing even when the wrong thing is happening -Joel Osteen

Faith makes things possible, but it does not make them easy -Alonzo Mourning

Patience is the best medicine

No struggle befalls a man but one he can comprehend

Equality is for the afterlife; compensation is for this life

You are what you think, so think positively; you are what you believe, so believe in yourself

Effort and belief in yourself will get you where you think you belong

Memories from LA

…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)

Albania: Modern Tirana

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.

Responsibilities and Expectations

(I posted this on 29 Jul 2014 on an old blog)

If you think about it, if you have no responsibilities and nothing is expected out of you in life, you are in big trouble. At first, you might think that you’re on easy street, but did you know that an “easy life” soon turns into a “hard life.” Yes, in another sense, an easy life, i.e. a life without responsibilities and expectations, is a hard life.  It is your responsibilities that keep you going. If you think, “I have to do this, because it matters and it needs to be done,” you will be much more driven than if you think, “oh, I can do this today, but no one cares if I do it or not.” It is the expectations that others put on you to perform that make you feel important. If nothing is expected out of you, which may happen when a bully expects you to do or be nothing, you lose your sense of self-worth and feel powerless. Self-worth and happiness are often equated with work. Indeed true, we work not only to put bread on the table, but we work to feed our spirits too.

Albania: My Daily Outings in Tirana

In Tirana, I went out daily, with mixed results. The truth is whenever I went out early in the day by myself, I was hanging by a thread. I found myself walking down a busy boulevard without having anywhere to go or anywhere to be. A tourist is truly a creature out of place. I was completely out of my element. My mission was to pass an hour on my own, out and about, before I returned home for lunch. My first day out, I used my brain; I got creative and went up to a door of a large building with the word “Librari” above it. Inside two women who worked there, saw me, and wondered at my appearance. When I just stood there quietly unsure, they invited me in. The room was rather small and apparently the bookstore of a university. The two ladies welcomed me kindly, perhaps perceiving I was at the moment a tourist lost even unto myself. I shared with them my background and I think they perceived I was a lost soul cruelly ripped away from my dear country at young age by well-meaning but misguided parents and now I was doomed to live in wretched exile for the rest of my life…or something like that. Then they explained to me that the store sold only textbooks and offered no artistic books; the word artistic books struck me as new and I left perhaps a bit more satisfied than I came in. I had done something meaningful.

***
Several days I stopped by a local internet café to check email or facebook. It was just an empty room with a few computers and offered no coffee. Though the term Internet café is European and not in use in America, I think I finally know what it means: a place where people open laptops and connect to wifi. Starbucks is the ultimate internet café, even though in the States it’s just known as a coffee shop. The place where I now sat was dim and dingy. I was the only one there; the only good thing about it was it was in a happening locale, across a small university so as soon as I exited I found myself among students. All the people coming and going made the environment better, especially for a loner, and that’s what Albania offers that America does not: a lot of hubbub, or perhaps chaos, depending on your point of view. But I do like the pedestrian culture that I find there.

***
The operator of Internet café seemed like a nice man; yet I somehow felt I should not disclose my American identity to him and keep it a secret. This happened to me often as if for my own safety it was necessary to not disclose my outsider identity to strangers. It happened on a bus too; I met a very polite country young man, of the sort of decency that Albania was known for prior to the new age, and even though we spoke for a bit and he could probably tell my Albanian was not as sharp as a local, I felt it inappropriate to share my American identity. Part of the reason was I did not feel American; I felt Albanian. Telling strangers I was an outsider would have been a lie. Moreover, I did not trust strangers; one individual, an ill wisher, poked his nose into my background and did attempt to make me feel like a foreigner in my own home, and it hurt.

***
Several times I went shopping for groceries with my grandpa. We bought little as we were on foot so it wouldn’t be wise to buy more than a couple of bags worth but that’s a custom in Albania. There people shop daily at local farmers markets and tiny neighborhood shops. Recently the Western style supermarkets have been introduced but these are seen as fancy and luxurious. My grandparents have not changed their custom. One day Grandpa took me to a friend of his who owned a shoe store. I was not in the mood for shoe shopping and was totally against it but of course gramps would have none of it. That’s Albania; you are not heard unless you shout. Being Americanized I don’t shout; plus I don’t have “home country advantage” and feel all out of my element with a spine composed of boiled spaghetti; needless to say in a battle of wills, I always lose. Well, on this particular day, not getting my way worked to my advantage. Grandpa bought me a very nice pair of blue Italian loafers that you just can’t get in America.

***
Once I stopped by one of the vendors of the farmers market that grandpa had introduced me to. She was a lady with a daughter my age. I truly was hanging by a thread. Here I was clueless how to spend my outing… why else would I stop by at the farmers market without having to buy anything? Or perhaps all tourists are clueless. Well, they treated me kindly, sat me down and fed me apples. I chatted a bit with the daughter and left having survived yet another morning. I must add here that I’m a homebody; staying out does not come naturally to me. I don’t know what to do walking the streets alone; at home I can always find a hobby. Out in the real world I am kind of lost. Some people are natural born adventurers. They go to countries whose language they don’t speak, they cheat death at every turn, and they fear nothing. I think to myself I could do what they do, when I see them, but this is simply not true. Adventure done right is a talent. I sometimes wish to see the world’s great cities. But I am not adventurous. I will have to settle for seeing them on Youtube.

***
Grandpa and I also visited a few museums of earthenware, pots and pans from the Illyrian period. It was mildly amusing seeing the dishes and silverware people had 2000 years ago. We underestimate the past. The man of the past built the Parthenon, the Colosseum, and the Pyramids. True, the man of the past has achieved just as much as today’s man, in the appropriate sense. Sometimes more; the style of the ancients stands the test of time and cannot be replicated. And here I was now looking at their artifacts. Imaginately speaking, these pots had belonged to the likes of Julius Ceasar, Cicero, or St Paul; all great historical figures who have once walked the very earth I was now standing on. Ceaser even sent his nephew to study in nearby Durres while Cicero called it a great and important city. St Paul preached early Christianity here. I was standing on ancient ground; I was just out of time…

Note: Image not taken by me

Albania: My Friends

… The case being what it is, whenever I visit Albania, particularly in Tirana, I do not have any friends my age. I am left to hang out with my grandparents or relatives of their generation. Thankfully their visits are OK, or even entertaining. In fact, one gentleman in particular Mr Fejzi, is indeed interesting, and quite unlike anyone in America. That’s what I like about Albania, finding people with a different point of view from us in America. When you travel, you get that different world view; sometimes you’re going to like it, sometimes you won’t. Being Albanian, of course, I love the Albanian point of view.

My first time back, in 2004, as I bumped into Mr Fejzi outside my grandparents’ apartment building, I immediately recognized him, even though I hadn’t seen him in12 years! In 2008, as mom and I departed his apartment after a visit, he grabbed me by the arm, and said to me “We love George,” and he slapped me on the face. Then he said, “George is a good boy,” and he slapped me again on the other cheek, then another slap, and then another, and it went on and on like that for several slaps. As I walked down the stairs of his apartment building that night, I was overcome by uncontrollable laughter. “Mr. Fejzi just gave me a beating,” I told mom outside in the dusk and I couldn’t stop laughing. She said it’s a way of expressing affection, an apparent cultural difference.

Although I cannot explain what makes Mr Fejzi special, a cup of coffee with him might just be worth a trip to Albania. This time, Gramps, Mr Fejzi and I sat under the terrace of a local neighborhood street side cafe. This joint was very local, perhaps a converted house, and not trendy in the least. But the atmosphere outside was awesome, tons of foot traffic; right through the terrace in front of me, I could do some great people watching. I even saw a couple of gypsies strolling by while playing drums. That’s Albania, for you. The neighborhood was alive! So unlike the suburbs of America, that are spic and span, but devoid of life.

True to their generation, Mr Fejzi, and Gramps wore suits, ties and hats. True to my generation, I wore jeans and a spring jacket. They ordered a traditional Turkish coffee, which is soon being replaced by the modern Italian espresso, I ordered a hot cocoa or kakao which by the way is less sweet and better than American hot chocolate, and we had a conversation for the ages. You cannot get a conversation like that in America. You just can’t. The spirit is lost in translation. We spoke for a very long time, “tall and wide,” as they say in Albanian. We caught up on everything one can possibly catch up on in a conversation for the ages; the essentials, family, friends, my writing career. I gave Mr Fejzi a copy of my latest book, a short novel, a Christmas story, which being in English, served as a kind gesture more than anything.

As I sat there chatting, my mood improved and I was happy. The trip was worth it at that moment. Here I was with Gramps and Mr Fejzi, in my original home, Albania, a country without name, fame or currency, and yet I was happier than in America. There was no reason to rush, get up and go; why rush when you’re enjoying yourself? Besides, people in the Balkans don’t rush as much as we do here. The place is suited to easy living. It’s not like Starbucks in America, where you sit alone, open a laptop and work, or pretend like you are working. No, if you do coffee right in Albania, you bring your friends, talk at leisure, and relax.

Another person I met was a relative called Luli. He’s a bit of a slick and sly character, but perhaps a good talker. He could go on and on with some sense of poetry about anything but at the same time without firm credibility. Nevertheless, he taught me a good saying, “When one is in need and you can help him, help him. But when you cannot help him, leave him alone.” Coincidentally, it was that very day at the city zoo, that he helped out a bear who was all alone! The poor thing was inhumanely trapped in far too small a cage, and all he could do to survive was pace in circles. His excitement grew at seeing us as if we relieved his anguish. He cried out to us in loneliness as we passed his cage, for the zoo was empty and not many visitors cared to see him. Luli showed some mercy and came back to spend a bit more time with him. Luli also praised my initiative for coming to Albania; wise words again.

Photo: That’s the three of us, me, Mr Fejzi (center), and my Grandpa

History: The Illyrians

Why must one be interested in the land he comes from? Perhaps, it is self-evident. The place you come from holds secrets to your identity. I think this is what draws people to learn about their roots, the discovery of themselves. In life, we are born without identity and as we grow, we seek to discover it; the ultimate discovery is that of the self. Thus an expat is drawn to visit his homeland or at least to learn of its history. What has happened to his ancestors, one thinks, must have some impact on his own destiny. Thus, here I am, teaching myself Albanian history, to learn about my roots and thus myself.

The illyrians, the predecessors to modern Albanians, first footsteps in the Balkans dates back to 1000 BC. Their neighbors to the north were the Celts, who at this time, had yet to migrate to the outer fringe of Europe. To the south, lay Macedon and Greece. Thrace lay to the East, where Romania, and Bulgaria is today. The Slavs were still in North eastern Europe and would not arrive in the Balkans for over 1600 years. Today, of these ancient people, only the Illyrians-now we are called Albanians-and the Greeks have survived. The Macedonians and Thracians have been assimilated.

The first evidence is archaeological. We do not have any written texts in Illyrian. If they had great thinkers, or writers, they probably wrote in Greek or Latin. The Illyrians did not rise into an early civilization. No Parthenon, or Colosseum was on their lands. Moreover, they had problems with a lack of unity, factionalism and even civil war between the various tribes. But owing to a fortuitous location, neighboring Greece and Rome, they must have benefited in culture and trade. Indeed they played a sometimes major role in the Roman Empire.

They had their little settlements, tribes and small kingdoms, such as those of Kings Bardhylis, Clitus, and Glaucus in the 4th century BCE along the eastern coast of the Adriatic sea. But they were not a military power beyond their own kind, other than winning or losing land to their immediate neighbors.  They won Durres from the Greeks and lost land near Lake Ohrid in the east to Macedon under Phillip II, Alexander’s the Great’s father, and later to Alexander himself. However, oppression was accompanied by opportunity; many Illyrian leaders and soldiers joined Alexander’s army on his conquest of the east, a major event in world history. 

After 700 years of independent self-rule, the Illyrians were conquered by Rome something they provoked by attacking settlements on both coasts of the Adriatic and Greek colonies as far as Sicily.  Rome sent a large fleet and took over the coastal Illyrian settlements of Queen Teuta in 228 BC. 11 years later a second Roman expedition was sent to capture the interior. The Illyrians became allied with the Macedonians and the war between the two sides lasted 51 long years. Genthius, the last Illyrian king surrendered in 168 BCE. 

At the end of the war, the whole Balkan Peninsula became Roman territory. The Romans called Illyria the provence of Illyricum; it stretched all the way to Istria, modern Slovenia in the North down to the river Drin, in central Albania in the south; its capital city, Salona, was in modern Croatia, near today’s Split. Dalmatia and Pannonia were its two states.

The Romans held Illyria for four centuries. While there they brought much civilization such as the construction of the Via Ignatia, the army road, aqueducts and an ampitheatre, still standing today. They heavily influenced the population, by colonizing the coast. I myself am half Arumunian, (Vlach) of the very people descended from the Roman colonists. Today. the Arumunians are a large Balkan minority whose language is derived from Latin.

Many Illyrian soldiers joined the Roman legion and distinguished themselves reaching the high ranks of the Praetorian guard and a few even entered history as Roman emperors, such as Claudius II, Aurelian, Diocletian, and Constantine the  Great, the first Christian emperor and founder of Byzantium, and later Byzantine emperor Justinian who built the Hagia Sophia, the model for all Greek Orthodox churches. St Paul himself preached in Illyricum, and though Albania today is thought of as predominantly Muslim, historically, it was Christian for over 1000 years.

Selected Sources:

  • The Albanians: A Country Study, Robert Elsie / Walter Iskaw
  • Encyclopedia Brittanica: Illyria
  • Wikipedia: Illyria

Albania: The Fulbright Application

I got an idea. This time around I wasn’t going to go to Albania just to visit. I was going to go there with a purpose; a purpose would sweeten the deal. My big idea: I imagined teaching English and perhaps American culture to local students in Tirana. I found a program called the Fulbright Foreign Exchange program which offers grants to do teaching and research abroad. I was not a professor, but Fulbright had a program for students or new graduates. I was thirty at the time but I fit the requirements because I graduated college late, at twenty seven. 

Fulbright for Students was a prestigious government program.  But I thought I had several qualifications. First of all I was Albanian. That should count for something; I mean I knew the language, I was born there, and I was well acquainted with the country. I had been there on three previous visits and had lived there until  age 9. Secondly, I was a writer; granted I had never written a scholarly work before, but nevertheless I had already written a poetry book and 2 novels. That certainly ought to count for something, and most of all, I had the strong desire to reconnect with Albania. Any immigrant who goes to a new country can never forget his motherland. The older I grew the more I became interested in my roots. Thus I thought that Fulbright would be the perfect opportunity for me to go and live in the place that gave birth to me, Albania.

I filled out the online application, I gathered letters of recommendation, I scooped up transcripts from my alma mater and I wrote a project statement. About six months later I got a reply from the Fulbright student program: “Mr. George Shetuni, you are a terrible writer; how dare you apply! Please, never talk to us, write to us, or even think of us ever again.” Kidding!  Nuk ja mbusha syrin, as they say in Albanian. “I did not fulfill their vision.” Maybe I was too qualified for their taste. Maybe they wanted someone the opposite of me, a slacker who partied his way through college with a D average, skipping all classes, attending all football games, and who can’t even locate Mexico on the map, let alone Albania.  Well, anyhow, be it as it may, being a writer, I can handle rejection. I’m used to literary agents rejecting me all the time. It doesn’t bother me. OK, maybe it does, for a day, but it gradually wears off.

My dreams of going to Albania and being officially affiliated with an Albanian university blew up in smoke. That achievement would have boosted my ego, given me a sense of pride, purpose and accomplishment and practically speaking, a lot of money. But I was not going to receive a grant; nor was i going to receive a class of students to guide; nor was I was going to live in Albania for nine months. But I would go there under my own initiative, independently, for one month, with my own money, and have no one to teach but my own self.

Today’s Albania video:

Jemima in Albania