NEXT TO EUROPE'S LEFTOUT
Trip Start Apr 08, 2009
10Trip End May 27, 2009
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I only spent twenty-eight hours there.
As I was walking around a quiet town square, between a fountain surrounded by loungers, and the tall towers of a rectangular church, minutes away from my exit to Albania, some boys called me to join them in a cafe. They, in their early twenties, played cards (Rummy) there nearly every day. Some were fat-bellied; all had tan-colored skin and short, dark hair; several wore pink t-shirts. (Pink was very popular among Black Mountainite guys this fashion season.) They didn't have much to say, but they bought me a strawberry juice and were friendly.
I hoped that, 168 hours later, I'd have something nice to write about the people of Albania.
Albania was kind of Europe's leftout. It was basically ignored by European news. Its cars and semi-trucks were seldom seen on European highways. It never got invited to the best parties. A gentle, sixteen-year-old boy in Greece was the only Albunny I'd ever met. My only inspiration for going there was "tiagorelvao" on travelpod.com, a hitchhiker who wrote of the Albundi's: "Pessoas 5 estrelas" (5-star people). I expected to find a country of one-and-a-half million people, people who'd never heard of expressways or international companies, gentle people who farmed and cooked and sat around.
"This is AWESOME!" said British Alex, one of four young road-trippers who took me into Albania in their van.
"This is eerie," said Canadian Courtney. "This place is creeping me out."
At first, Albania was as different as I'd expected it to be. Our lumpy road drove through eerie, violet dusk. We passed rural an ancient stone temple; rural homes; neighbors helping each other pull a farm vehicle out of the ditch; and a giant lake bordered by bright crops on our side, dark mountains on the other. We drove through a northern city this Saturday evening, and its streets and wide esplanades and an amusement park were so full of pedestrians it seemed the whole city was taking a walk. "Wow, this is great," said American Ian. "They have such a community." "The New" was causing me to smile so gluttonously it seemed "Life" would only allow a person a few moments so happy.
The four road-trippers and their van and I and our tents found a free place to camp, beside a dirt road in this dark land. Flashing fireflies were so many in the hay fields around us that it seemed we were inside a computer.
And I spent the next four nights by myself on a deserted beach. Lots of rubbery jellyfish bounced their big heads off me as I swam. Actually, I only spent two nights on the beach, because Alessandro's family twice made up a bed for me in their nearby village.
Alessandro, and many other Albanjo's, disproved my theory that the people liked to sit around. These thin, white-skinned guys wore sun burns, as a result of manual labor jobs, or gardening at home. Forty-two-year-old Alessandro, like many others, had worked long years in Italy, where he'd picked up Italian so he could speak to me. In addition to hard-working, Albungi's were ambitious. Their large, two-story or huge, three-story homes stood like concrete, ugly squares in the countryside - most of them unfinished. And the country's roads were busily being transformed from dirt to asphalt.
Beneath Alessandro's large home, in the coastal village of Shempieter, sat the tiny mortar home of Alessandro's parents. During the communist dictatorship of Enver Hozha, people lived in tiny red-roof homes, even if they had seven children, as Alessandro's parents had had. Alessandro called Hozha's regime "brutal". Alessandro's father had been imprisoned for fifteen days for secretly owning a piglet. Alessandro's uncle died in prison, after he was caught trying to take a boat to Western Europe.
In spite of Hozha's brutality, Albania had a population two or three times as great as I'd originally expected. I now knew, because I counted them all.
A third theory of mine that got disproven was the belief that I'd feel comfortable in this "gentle" land.
First, an evil-looking boy called at me, "Oh ... Yeah! ... Oh ... Yeah! ... Oh ... Yeah!" Immediately afterwards, an eighteen-year-old with his muscles showing gave me a ride and wanted to be my boyfriend. "No a paura," he told me (Don't be afraid), though he was more comical than threatening. Later, in the touristy town of Kruja, young men in cafes seemed to have nothing better to do than stare at me darkly or make lewd gestures. Finally, a fat bus-driver spit on me while trying to spit on a friend; and, I suspected he made rude comments to a girl who eagerly spoke English with me.
Of course, because I didn't speak Albanian, because the people historically were more Muslim than Christian, and because I wasn't used to seeing blue eyes on such sun-burnt people, maybe I was just misinterpreting the culture. After all, most guys I spoke to were well-meaning.
Regardless, after 137 hours, Albania was leaving a negative impression. Friendly Alessandro and his firefly-catching children and freshfish-cooking wife were my only joy.
I had to pause, to see if I couldn't come up with at least four more good things about this Adriatic country. This sounded like a job for ... duh duh duh-duh ... the superheroic MODERN ODDYSEUS' TOP 5!!! Albania and all the Albaniacs had to be saved!
The Top 5 Worst Things About Albania! probably weren't going to help:
1. DARK STARES FROM GUYS -
One person told me young Albatrosses liked to fight.
2. BUNKERS -
Six-foot-tall, concrete toadstools were positioned all over the country for military purposes. The local communists had built them, figuring if any imperialist invaders came the Albagators could shoot at them from the protection of the bunkers. They gave the Albanian beaches, fields, etc. the look of an alien war-zone.
4. BIG HOUSES -
The old houses had been cuter than the newer, concrete cubes.
5. LOST THEIR IDENTITY TO THE COMMUNIST/CAPITALIST TRANSFORMATION -
The Albanana's didn't have many interests nor hobbies, besides sitting in cafes. It seemed like they worked to build big houses, for a reason they themselves didn't understand.
My understanding of the Albows was truly superheroic. It was especially superheroic when one considered I spent most of my 139 hours there on a beach, alone. Thus, it shouldn't surprise anyone if The Top 5 Best Things About Albania! were 1. A SHELL, 2. A TABLE I MADE OUT OF CINDER BLOCKS AND CARDBOARD, 3. SWIMMING ... No, no, no! Here was the list:
1. LIN, ON LAKE OHR
2. SHEMPIETER -
Older men, especially those in villages, were warm and harmless. Alessandro himself told me two of the best things about Albania were the gentleness of its people, and its tradition. Every June, Shempieter had a dance/party in which children and adults wore folkloric, white-and-red dress. And Alessandro's balding, sun-tanned brother still made his living as a fisherman in a small boat.
3. OLD MERCEDES' -
Alessandro explained that many people drove long, white 1980's Mercedes', because the cars managed the country's bad roads well.
4. IT'S CHEAP -
Albania was cheap even for the locals, especially those who'd worked overseas, and so the country seemed to be experiencing a sort of golden age.
5. LIVESTOCK -
Alessandro's father took his cow to graze every morning, and came back with her in the evening. Thus, I could drink fresh, unpasteurized milk and yogurt. I hoped that, when I grew older, I'd be able to take long walks with a cow, or a honking donkey, or sheep and goats.
There. But, Albania wasn't saved just yet!
Superheroically, I passed through Tirane.
This attractive capital had wide boulevards; banana-yellow government buildings; the statue of a guy on a horse, in front of the red Albanian flag with its black spider; a green park; and a mural of a young woman leading a mob of countryside fighters. A beautiful Jessica Alba gave me directions. This floating girl wore light jeans, high heels, a purple blouse, and poofy light-brown hair. If I wouldn't have gotten sick from the heat the day before, I might not have let her walk away.
I went all the way to Lake Ohr on the Albanian-Macedonian border.
This lake occupied a desolate, moon-sized basin, except that the water was bright blue and the mountains around it bright green. A strong wind carried a part of the cold lake, cooling me and the village of Lin. The few alleys of Lin curled around a mound, making it so I could never see much of the village at once.
The clean town was a mess of old homes, stone homes, crooked homes, homes whose mortar was deteriorating, all with red roofs and connected to one another, flimsy green balconies, picket fence porches, vines growing everywhere, stone steps and walkways between houses, old white windows, green wooden doors, crops pushed up against the lake, a humble mosque, livestock and chicken families, kids at play, women and daughters in gardens, men building with concrete or heavy stones, fat guys in suits on mopeds, shopkeepers selling me "bukke" (bread), and friendly people greeting me, "Mir." It was alive!
This darkening Friday night, I walked past acres and acres of crops to my tent beside the lake. I wished I'd found this place earlier.
Thanks to Ian, Courtney, Alex, & Matt; George; Arben; Berti & Darlin; Zene; a family driving and cleaning a school bus; Castrio; Shtepim; Piaci; Elio; 4 guys; Estrad; Emiliano; Eldi; Aleksei; and a talkative Albanese guy whose name I couldn't extract, for rides!
Much thanks to Alessandro, Molja, Daniella, Nikola, & Fabian for the place to sleep!