Albania: Series II introduction

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.

Albania: Feudalism of the Middle Ages

The feudal system of the Middle Ages that we associate with western Europe from about the 9th to the 15th century, was also a part of Albanian society. Although Albania was part of a larger empire, the Byzantine Empire, owing to wars and invasions, the power Constantinople had over Albania was not absolute. The local governors had to have their own armies for protection. Invasion was a constant threat. The commoners had to seek protection from these governors who exploited their power. They took the property of the poor either through unfair rates, or force and turned the peasants into serfs on their large estates. Thus a new aristocracy was born.

Although the emperors from Constantinople attempted to thwart this new societal development, history was not on their side. Moreover, sometimes emperors such as those of the Comneni dynasty supported feudalism, so long as the landlords agreed to go to war for the empire. With time the landlords refused even that, and they were aided by certain events, such as the capture of Constantinople in the fourth crusade (AD 1203). This crusade weakened a crumbling empire, and made it possible for a foreign invader, the Ottoman Turks, to capture Constantinople permanently in the 15th century.


They feudal lords called themselves Dukes, Princes, or Despots, and married only among their own rank; sooner marrying outside their nationality, than outside their caste. They built castles to live in and ran organized societies with their own military, city councils, or even money. Their serfs supplied them with goods as well as money. Peasant life was tough; not only did they suffer hard labor but also tyranny; and this moved them to revolt, from time to time. One revolt in 1336 first brought Turkish soldiers to Albania who were hired to crush it by Emperor, and crush it they did. At that time, peasants were freer on the mountains, as the mountains were inaccessible to the feudal landlords. These communities bred animals and were most independent. But by the same token, owing to isolation, they were less civilized.

Although Albania was often made part of larger empires, often led by outsiders, such as the Byzantine Empire, or the Bulgarian Empire, or short lived empires liked the Serbian Empire, Albanian towns always had some degree of self governance. After the 12th century, major towns like Durres, Shkodra, and Lezha became largely independent. These free cities sooner had to struggle against the feudal princes nearby than against the emperor in Constantinople. These princes waged a heavy tribute tax on these tows. But as tyrannous and miserly as the feudal princes were, it was even worse when independence was lost altogether to a foreign power, like Venice, and soon after the Ottoman Empire.

Source:
Tajar Zavalani, History of Albania

Albania: Invasions of the Middle Ages


In 395, after the division of the Roman Empire into East and West, the Illyrian lands of Moesia (Serbia) Dardania (Kosovo) and Epirus (Albania) fell to the east. The east, the Byzantine Empire, called their political units themes, large states led by a deputy to the emperor, with several provences such as Vlora, and Lezha, in central Albania or Praevlitania, in the northern Albania, or Moesia in modern Serbia; each were ruled by nobles. On a larger level, there were four prateorian prefectures, which were divided into dioceses.


Emperor Justinian, 527 to 565, built many fortifications to defend the Empire. Eventually, the invaders would come, and great as defence was, the wave could not be stopped. Though he built 26 forts in Illyria, his home, IIlyria itself would be most affected by invasion. The first invaders came from central Europe from the Germanic peoples. The Goths, and the Iranian Sarmatians, swept through Balkan regions such as Thrace (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Dardania, Epirus. etc. Though they wrought great violence and suffering, they left no trace on the people and place. The Huns came from the east in 441 followed by the Avars, to further ruin Dardania and Macedonia. Ostragoths from the north would follow in 459.


These periodic invasions however would only increase in the 500s and 600s. The new wave would begin from the East where the Bulgars, a Turkic people, would defeat an Illyrian army in Thrace and settle the land. Constant wars would weaken the Byzantine army and its capacity to defend the empire, which only led to further invasion, and finally permanent settlement. The waves of settlers would come from the north and east, from the Slavic peoples; these people, who were numerous and particularly ruthless, would ravage the empire, killing, expelling or assimilating the natives. So bold and unstoppable were these invaders that they attempted to capture Constantinople itself; in this ambitious campaign, however, they were defeated. But they would forever change the ethnic composition of the Balkans. Today their descendants live in the modern countries of Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria.


Illyria would loose Moesia to the Serbs and all territory north of modern Albania; though today there exists an Albanian minority in neighboring Slavic countries, like Monte Negro, as well as Macedonia, which is 25 percent Albanian. Ancient Dardania, modern Kosovo, would have centuries of conflict with the Serbs, until it gained independence as its own country in 1999.


From the east came further invasion into central Albania, this time from the Bulgars, who themselves now had been overrun by the more numerous Slavs. The Bulgarian Slavs were to build a kingdom in 851 whose zenith would be in the 10th century, and whose reach would extend through Macedonia, northern Greece, and central Albania. Though it would last for close to two centuries, until 1018, it would have no permanent impact on Albania, other than some Slavic place names or words.


From the west, Albania and the Balkans would have yet more invasion, this time from the Normans, an adventurous Viking people, who are most known for conquering England in the year 1066. In 1081, the Normans invaded Vlora and proceeded to Durres without much resistance. Meanwhile Emperor Alexius called on Venice for support. On the sea, the Normans would loose to the Venetian force, but not on land; all of Albania and Thessaly (Northern Greece) would be occupied until 1085, when Alexius raised another army and routed the invaders. Yet the Normans would return once more in 1107, this time without success. So weak was their campaign in Durres that their leader Bohemond instead of conquering, joined the Empire as a governor in Asia Minor.


Sources:
Zavalani, Tajar. (1903-1966) Histori e Shqipnis, 1957, Tirana. History of Albania. London, 1963. Reprinted, 2015 Robert Elsie and Bejtullah Destani, editors.


Elsie, Robert. (1950-2017) Albania in a Nutshell, 2015.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov 1881

Gjirokastra: the fairy tale city

I have been to Gjirokastra four times since my emigration from Albania. My most memorable visit came in 2004 on my first visit back to the country. The bus dropped my mom and I off at the side of the road. I was tired and certainly not in the best of spirits. A relative of mom’s was sent to pick us up. He took us to a clothing shop that he and his family owned. I was still not impressed, though the atmosphere inside the store was pleasant. Afterwards, his wife and us went to a cafe, and sat on its balcony on the second floor of a  building overlooking the main street. Beneath I could see a lot of life; people coming and going, running errands, or just standing and talking to friends. I also couldn’t help but notice how many pretty girls there were; I was young back in those days, only 21… And as I was sitting there in that balcony cafe, something strange happened; I was overcome by an unexpected feeling of traveler’s bliss. The atmosphere of the town was awesome. It was small, cute, warm, and it’s fair to say, I fell in love with Gjirokastra.

After the cafe, we were to go over to another relative’s house which was in the old town in one of Gjirokastra’s several boroughs that climb up the mountainside. If the modern town kindled my love for this place, the old town sealed it. These 19th century villas are nothing short of astonishing. I was amazed by their beauty and looking over them outside on the balcony I was overcome by a feeling of wellbeing that was utterly unique to me at that time. This is the most wonderful place on earth, thought I. It’s like a fairy tale. I spent the remainder of the evening in conversation with our relatives ranging in age from the elderly to a  young kid. This particular family sprang from my grandpa’s sister who was still alive. She and her daughter in law cooked dinner for us that evening and even the food was spectacular! Why can’t I get food half that good at the most expensive restaurant in my town? These feelings are those that can only grow from your home.

Gjirokastra gets it right in every way shape or form; more so than any other city in Albania. However, perhaps one may accuse me of over-exaggeration. And it is true that on my subsequent visits to Gjirokastra the magical spell was never quite recreated. But every time I visit, I am struck by Gjirokastra’s beauty. It makes you understand firsthand of the highest possibility of travel: completely unexpectedly running into a part of the world that you did not know about and being overcome by feelings of happiness at your novel surroundings. Personally, Gjirokastra has a special meaning for me because it’s also the home of my family. My mom grew up in one of those historic houses while my dad grew up in a nearby village. Though I grew up in the capital, Tirana, I am not a big fan of Tirana. When I visit, I find it hectic, chaotic and even rude. Gjirokastra is charming and sweet. Though I have never lived there a single day, when there, it feels as if I am home.

Albania: the village

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.

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.

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.

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