In March of this year I spent a week in Albania. The experience was so overpowering that I started writing this account the day after I returned, while it was all fresh in my mind. I have never spent such an extraordinary week before and probably never shall again. It was partly like another planet, partly another century; partly humbling, partly inspiring; partly an indictment of Communism, partly an indictment of European politics; partly physically uncomfortable, partly the greatest generosity I have ever experienced.
This was my second trip to Albania, and my husband’s fourth. The roots of our Albanian connection go back twenty years, when my husband was travelling round the Balkans at every possible opportunity. His reason was to research the language and history of a little-known Balkan minority called the Vlachs or Aromanians. These visits and other scholarly periods of research culminated in the publication in 1987 of his book, The Vlachs: The History of a Balkan People. During the development of this book, his two trips to Albania had been governed by the limitations imposed on all tourists to Albania by the Communist government. Tourists could be taken round Albania in organized coach parties, but couldn’t act independently and couldn’t talk to people other than the Albtourist guides. The guides naturally had to paint every picture of Albania in the most glowing colors, so he couldn’t find out the truth about Vlachs in Albania — how many were there, were they allowed to talk their own language, and so on. We visited Albania together in 1989, still in an organized coach party, but by then there was a slight lessening in the control. Tom, my husband didn’t have to have his hair cut at the border. I managed a few rudimentary conversations in Albanian with children and waiters, and Tom talked to some Greek-Albanian children in Greek. The guide didn’t like this conversation at all, as he couldn’t monitor what was going on. Since then, Albania has gone through a dramatic process as Communism lost its grip and the country began to open up again.
This 1992 trip originated last summer, when Tom started receiving letters from Albania about his book. People could send him letters because of the greater freedom. The letters came from Vlachs, thanking him for his book on their history and language and asking him to visit Albania to meet Vlachs and talk to them. After months of difficult planning, our program was to be as follows: Tom, his daughter Naomi (a student), Maurice Byrne (our friend and musical specialist), and I were to be at the northern Greek/Albanian border at Kopeschitsa at noon on March 20th. We would be met there by Dr. Spiro Shituni, a 40-year- old Vlach with a high position in the Albanian Folklore Institute who has published books about Albanian polyphonic songs, has travelled abroad (very unusual in Albania) and is an official Albanian-English interpreter. He was to provide transport for us so we could travel round Albania — the trains don’t work, buses hardly work, and we were told it wasn’t safe for foreigners to be driving cars around Albania. We expected probably one large car for the five of us, which we would take turns driving.
The four of us from England met up in Thessaloniki on the 19th of March — Tom’s and my wedding anniversary. Naomi and Tom had come from England via Bulgaria by train, Maurice from Istanbul by bus, I tamely from Heathrow by plane. The first three were held up by a Greek customs strike, but we were all reunited by midnight on the 19th. Thanks to an early bus from Thessaloniki to Florina and a taxi from Florina to Kopeschitsa, we were at the border by 12:15. There we walked with our luggage through a crowd of silent, swarthy, slightly sinister Albanians to the police room. Suddenly the small bustling Spiro was there, greeting Tom as a kind of Messiah and hugging everybody. The police transactions took ages, culminating in Tom paying for our visas with dollars he had prudently hidden in his sock. Then we could walk out into Albania. Spiro showed us the two cars with drivers he had provided for us. This was unexpected and immediately made us worry about how on earth we would pay for this. We couldn’t possibly have done anything about it though, so we piled in and headed for Korce.
Korce is about the fifth largest town in Albania, roughly an hour’s drive from our border crossing. The drive was intensely depressing. When we had been in Albania three years ago, all the countryside was cultivated and everywhere there were groups of hard-working men and women weeding, planting, hitting clods of earth and generally managing to work the land in spite of vast difficulties. Now all was barren and neglected. The trees by the side of the road had been cut down for firewood. The fields were deserted. Nothing was happening. In the villages people hung about looking aimless and miserable. One beaten up bus went past, looking like something fron the Lebanon. In Korce there were more bedraggled, depressed looking people, mostly men. We went to the hotel where there was a beer and coffee reception party given by the hotel manager, his wife, the president of the local Vlach association and the founder of a Democratic newspaper called Alternativ. We were then taken into a dining room for lunch. While we were eating the first course (stodgy lasagne, which would have been a meal in itself), little boys wandered in begging for some leks, the Albanian currency. For the main course (more meat and potatoes) we were actually locked in the room to keep the boys out, while the waitress politely looked out the window rather than at us stuffing ourselves. By now we were all very downhearted by the gloom and ghastliness and wondered how on earth we would keep going for a week.
After a short rest we were driven about twenty minutes to the Vlach village of Boboschitsa. This was very rough and primitive, but much jollier. We were warmly greeted by the people and shown a very beautiful 13th century Byzantine church, surprisingly unspoiled by weather, neglect, or vandals. It would definitely have merited vaut le detour and yet none of the Vlachs seemed particularly interested in it either as a thing of beauty, a religious masterpiece or a historical monument. The man from Korce, twenty minutes away, had never even seen it before. Because religion had been banned for over forty years, Spiro knew absolutely nothing about Christianity and was completely puzzled by questions about which Saint John the church was dedicated to. After this visit, we went into somebody’s house, where 13 of us crammed into a small room for a very happy time of simple food, talk and Vlach singing. The men drank raki made from the mulberries for which the village is famous. Naomi and I were given a drink of something that tasted like cough medicine, also made from mulberries but non-alcoholic as alcohol isn’t considered suitable for women. Everybody was very friendly and treated us, especially Tom, like gods. We were welcomed and warmly embraced. I was very concerned about poverty and hunger, and tried to eat as little as possible, knowing I had a large cheese and ham roll at the hotel left over from our breakfast in Thessaloniki. After this meal, I more or less gave up on self-restraint about eating, because such pressure was put on us by our kind hosts to eat, eat, eat.
Exhausted by this day, we eventually went back to the hotel in a better mood. The hotel was basic, but perfectly adequate. It turned out to be surprisingly expensive when we paid in dollars, but this was to be our only expenditure on meals or accommodation for the entire trip.
The next morning we were taken to meet the Mayor of Korce. He was a wonderful man in his thirties, a Democrat who had somehow managed to keep Korce free of the violence and anarchy that reign in comparable Albanian towns. He, the deputy mayor, and the chief of culture all sat round a huge table while we discussed Vlach culture (he was a Vlach, too), Albania, Communism, Europe, and the elections. He said Korce needed help in setting up a school to teach English. Korce is the place where the first Albanian school was founded, and also where there used to be a French lycee where Enver Hoxha was a teacher. It has strong cultural roots and we promised to do anything we could to help the town and its people. I said that our family and our friends at work, church, and so on were all really interested in Albania and in our trip and had given us lots of presents to give people. He said he was very encouraged and moved by this — in fact tears came to his eyes — but that they must not rely on foreign charity as the only real solution lay in their own hard work. He seemed so brave and good! After more talk and coffee we parted warmly, and I gave him a postcard of the Houses of Parliament.
We were then taken to the museum and to the library. Here the most powerful impressions were of the contrast between the wealth of culture (more and more icons were brought out of dusty cupboards for us to see) and the poverty of what is there for people to use. I’ve never seen a library with so few books to look at and touch, although we were assured by the director that the library owned a huge stock of important historical books. This director was a very impressive woman, shortly to go to Poland for a conference about the position of women in Eastern European countries. I’m sure a conversation with her could have led to an article in itself, but we had to leave to eat the next large meal, lunch.
After lunch, which was a present from the Mayor, we piled into the cars to go to Voskopolje. Voskopolje is an ancient town of great importance in Vlach history; Tom has wanted to visit there for 20 years, but had never been allowed to do so in his previous 3 visits to Albania. So this was a very important event for him. We had a long, two-hour drive over an awful road and finally arrived at this large village, which had previously been a major town. You could still see where the wide, grand streets had been, but now it is just lots of basic houses, some wonderful churches and an unfinished palace of culture — an ugly concrete building begun by the Communist regime and neglected in disgust as a gesture of opposition. Here, as in the villages we had gone through and in Korce, there was great excitement about the next day’s elections. Everywhere people made “V” signs — the symbol of the Democrats. We were taken to a room which had the usual furniture: a woodburning stove, two beds covered with rugs and used as sofas, and a large, ugly unit enshrining a huge television. This house belonged to a man in his sixties who had spent twenty years in prison for not conforming to the Communists. He had six sons, the youngest of whom had been a baby when Vasili was imprisoned. The mother had brought all the boys up and four of them had married while their father was in prison. One of them had married Spiro’s niece, and that is why they were our hosts. More and more cousins, sons, nephews came in to welcome us. A lovely young woman of 24, Vassili’s niece, also came. She had been banned from school for four years because of her uncle’s “crime” and had taught herself rudimentary French. Her French was much better than my Albanian, and Naomi and I spent a long time talking to her. She was studying Math at university and was very intelligent; she told us so much about village life. Like everyone else we met, she was violently anti-communist but had no bitterness or wish for revenge for the hard lives they had been forced to lead. After the enormous meal of chilly goat (I think) with cold chips and raki for the men, Coca-cola for Naomi and me — sometimes I managed unobtrusively to tip someone else’s raki into it — there were toasts after toasts to all of us, all of them, the elections the next day, absent friends, the rest of our family. I was waiting for us to get on to toasting the cats. Naomi struck a blow for equality by having a few cigarettes, and I was glad of my fortified Coke. We needed these props as all the hospitality and all the food were quite overwhelming. Eventually it was over and Sophie, our friend, took Naomi and me to her family’s house next door. Tom and Maurice had been allotted the beds in the room we had eaten in — lucky them, as it was beautifully warm from the stove and twenty people eating and drinking for four hours. Our room was freezing, with a large bed beautifully made up with clean white sheets and a large sheep rug to give us some warmth. Sophie led us out to the well and pumped water while Naomi and I ceremonially washed our faces and did our teeth, worried about where to spit. She then led us to the outhouse where we took it in turns to squat over the hole in the ground. All this was made better by the quiet beauty of the night, the starry sky and the clean air. However the toilet facilities, here as elsewhere, were difficult to get used to.
In the morning we had hot milk and bread with toasted cheese. I felt like Heidi. Then we were taken to see the two impressive 18th century churches, one in the village and one about ten minutes’ walk away. Both were wonderful, with exquisite frescoes, though some had been covered with graffiti. In the churches we met two new people; one was a young man whom the village had sent away to train as a priest. Many of the village people had kept their Orthodox faith, and we saw one old woman crossing herself outside the church. After a whole generation of religion being banned, there was nobody in the village to carry on the traditions and we were very glad to meet this man. We flashed our crosses at each other and held our hands together to indicate prayers for him. The other man was even more interesting. He was about 65, and spoke very good French. I spent a long time talking to him and would have liked to spend longer but he was busy in some capacity with the elections — polling was taking place all day that Sunday. He had been at the French school in Korce as a child, and had been taught by Enver Hoxha. His father had been executed (assassiné) by the Communists. He knew a great deal about the churches in the village, and had been used by the Communists to guide people round the churches, but he always had to be very careful about what he said as his family had a tarnished reputation because of the father. He had once been arrested after showing some official figure round the church. I cried when he talked to me, partly because it was so sad about his father, and partly because when he was describing the 45 years of Communism to me he said, deeply moved, Vous n’avez aucune idée de l’isolation dans laquelle nous avons vecu. He was absolutely right. It is unimaginable how such a clever, good, cultured man and so many others could have lived totally cut off from the outside world for a whole generation.
Too soon we had to get back in the cars for the five-hour drive to Tirana. Both Spiro and the journalist needed to be in Tirana before the polling booths shut. The excitement about voting puts to shame the people I canvass in England who say, “Oh, I never bother to vote — what’s the point?”
On our way we stopped in Korce for what was meant to be a cup of coffee at the home of the hotel manager and his wife. In fact it was another three-course meal in their flat. They were comparatively affluent, because of his job. He was very keen to enter into a joint effort — the only English phrase he knew — and to have English business people coming to his hotel.
In Tirana we were to stay in Spiro’s flat, not in a hotel, as he thought we might not be safe in a hotel while the election was going on. Spiro is clearly a successful Albanian academic, with a wife who works as a copy editor, two young sons, and a widowed mother. They all live in a two-bedroom flat in a decrepit ugly collection of tattered apartment blocks, the sort a British City Council would have demolished years ago. There was running warm water and a shower fixture. The water ran straight on to the bathroom floor, next to the toilet hole. The cold water tap didn’t work.
We were given another enormous meal, lots of beer, wine, and raki. In this comparatively liberated household the women were also given alcohol, and this was the only time our hostess actually sat down and ate with us. (On all other occasions, the women of the house cooked the meal, sat and watched while we and the men ate it, and then cleared it all up. In the villages, the difficulties of washing up after a meal for perhaps 20 people with no running water were never made clear to me, as we were not allowed to lift a finger to help.) After eating and washing, we went to bed — Tom, Naomi and I in the parents’ bedroom, Maurice in a neighbor’s flat, and the rest of the household heaven knows where. Every family we stayed with gave us the best room, clean linen, too much food, and tucked themselves away to sleep in some nooks and crannies, as if this caused no trouble at all and was even a delight. Here we were given lots of presents too, making our gifts of soap, shampoo, balloons, and seeds for the villagers look shoddy and ungenerous.
At 7:30 in the morning, Tom and Spiro went to see the cultural attache at the American embassy. By the time they came back, the election results seemed clear: a decisive victory for the Democrats. Shouts of joy all round. Then we all went to see the Romanian ambassador, who gave us raki although it was only 10 AM. He was very interested and interesting; we spoke in French, with me acting as interpreter when necessary. This was difficult for Spiro, who didn’t understand French and felt rather out of things and every so often launched into one of his long toasts: “To Professor Tom, his book, his work, his family…” I enjoyed our visit and the conversation very much, sitting in the grand Embassy room. It was so grand I asked to go to the bathroom and was delighted to find a sit-down toilet with both hot and cold water taps working. We then split into two groups, with Tom and Spiro going in one car to meet an important Vlach, while Naomi, Maurice and I went in another car. Our aims were to see the archaeological museum, for me to try to meet an English academic working on forging links for small businesses, and to see a little of Tirana. The museum was shut, my English contact was not in the hotel. The driver drove us around a bit, by now through processions of cars honking their horns, everybody shouting and happy at the Democrats’ victory. We collected the driver’s sister, a student of economics who spoke English quite well, having taught herself for six months. Together we all went to Skanderbeg Square to join in the victory rally. There were thousands of people there, all happy and rejoicing, but nobody seemed drunk, flamboyant or over the top. They were all talking about the end of communism and new beginnings, but in a slightly stunned way as if they hardly dared believe it yet. It was wonderful to be there with them and something I shall proudly talk to my grandchildren about. The driver’s sister, like all the young generation we met, was so pleased to see us and be able to talk to non-Albanians. (She has since written me a very moving letter, saying this was the happiest day of her life and that things seem terribly flat and monotonous after the euphoria of the elections.) We kept swapping addresses, exchanging presents, and inviting people to England.
After this, we met Tom and Spiro at the Folk Institute, where we had an appointment with the Director. He was a gentle, quiet man, delighted to talk to Tom about history. This was about the only place we weren’t given food and drink, which was a relief. Then on to lunch with another elderly Vlach who lived alone with his daughter. They were, as always, incredibly pleased to see us and to meet Tom. They were also comparatively affluent — we were given oranges at the end of the meal. These were the only fruit we saw in our visit.
Our next destination was Selenitsa, a Vlach town the other side of Vlore. This was a very long drive, made longer because the drivers took a wrong turn. This is easily done in a country where almost all the drivers are new, where there are hardly any road signs, and where the main roads are so badly made up it is difficult to tell the main road from a track leading off it. A feature of these long journeys was the worry about fuel. Gasoline is very scarce, and gas pumps few and far between. When the drivers spotted one, they went and negotiated. Often they were unsuccessful and we just drove on. When they succeeded, it was still dificult as sometimes the pumps didn’t work and they had to take plastic containers, lower them into the tank on string, haul them up, then pour the gas into the car with Coca-cola bottles.
When we arrived in Selenitsa, it was dark. We got out of the cars in the main square and were immediately surrounded by the kind of crowd Princess Diana would attract on an impromptu visit to a British town. People jostled round us, we exchanged greetings in Albanian, Vlach, Italian, English, and French. Quickly we were hustled into the bar and surrounded by men. Naomi and I were the only women but we were treated as honorary men and given raki and cigarettes. I felt much less threatened than I would have felt in a similarly male environment in England, but too soon we were all bundled out because one man, I think the only one I ever saw slightly worse for raki and election fever, started shouting and a gun was drawn. We were taken to a Vlach household consisting of a man very ill with leukemia, his wife, young daughter and baby son. He had been sent by his family to a hospital in Italy in the unfulfilled hope of a cure. He had learned some Italian and had made his daughter a home-designed Italian textbook. Here again I was struck by the courage and determination to overcome problems of no books, paper, etc. He asked us for advice about what he do for his illness and it was terrible not to be able to help. As usual, also present were about twenty brothers, cousins and other relations. Eventually we were taken to the house next door, belonging to a brother, where we had a meal for about twelve, with flowers on the table as if life was easy and plentiful. In fact cooking seemed to take place on one small gas-ring on the floor in a room also used as a lavatory. Everything was spotlessly clean and the food much better than last night’s goat, though as usual it was cold when we ate it. Tom and I had one room, Naomi another. Somewhere else in the two bedroom house slept two couples, each with a baby and two grandparents.
In the morning we had hot milk, bread and honey. One of the mothers was a French teacher in the local school. She and I talked and talked like close friends. She was 24 — twenty years younger than me. The mother-in-law who shared her house was 54, much nearer to me in age. But the mother-in-law seemed about 90, aged, wrinkled and really at the end of her life in black clothes. Paulina, the young woman coping with baby, full-time job, and house to run seemed much more my contemporary and we got on very well. She explained her salary was 10,000 leks a month which would just buy ten kilo jars of the honey we had eaten for breakfast. She said she couldn’t accept the inequality between the men and women, and that she and the other young woman (married to another brother) would like to be allowed to go for walks and have some freedom to be outside the house. She also missed her parents and aunts, who lived about 150 miles away and whom she only saw about once a year because of the difficulties of travelling by bus. Her baby had been ill and had been in hospital. He was delicate and caught cold easily but they could not keep the house warm. The wrinkled grandmother looked after all three babies while the brothers and their wives were at work. Another baby was expected this summer, so then there would be nine people of three generations living in the two-bedroom house, using kitchen and toilet facilities of the house next door. The two sisters-in-law gave us beautifully embroidered cloths and napkins they had made for their bottom drawer before they were married — they had no time now for such fine work. I longed to help in some way and now have schemes for a little import business of embroidered table linen. Paulina said it was the first time she had ever met anyone from outside Albania and also the first time she had used French to communicate with someone. We promised to write and I hated saying goodbye to her.
When we had seen the ruined church of Selenitsa, we had to leave to go to Spiro’s village. As crows fly, this wasn’t very far. Even as roads are shown on maps it wasn’t very far. But the road wasn’t passable for cars, so we had to go miles round. On the way we stopped for lunch near a waterfall Tom and I had visited before. The drivers left the cars within sight and had lunch with us — by now we had got to know them very well and I really liked one of them, the one whose sister we had met in Tirana. The trouble was that parking was apparently prohibited where they had left the cars, and when we went out after lunch two policemen stopped them. There was a long argument. The police wanted to arrest one driver, and he lost his temper. Guns were visible and I got out of the car and stood watching, holding my British passport in a conspicuous position. In this, as in various other police blocks and confrontations, we were helped by the election as some of the policemen obviously thought we were international observers of fair election practice. Eventually the argument was over, the driver wasn’t arrested, and we all drove off.
Andon Poçi, Spiro’s village, had been built in 1963. Until then it had been a collection of roughly-built wooden huts, entirely inhabited by Vlachs. As a child, Spiro had grown up in one of these huts, with his father (a shepherd), his mother (whom we met in Tirana), and his brother. They had spoken only Vlach until they started at the village school, where they were taught Albanian. When they were older they had a two hour walk each way to the secondary school across the mountain. When Spiro was 13, some people came to the school looking for children with musical promise. He was given a scholarship to go to a music school in Tirana, left home for a hostel in the capital city, and cried every night for a year. This was a touching story and the fact that he had clearly been a Hoxha success story — local boy made good, achieving academic distinction, now a cadidate for a Fulbright scholarship — helped us to understand Spiro better. He took us round various cousins’ houses, and for supper we ended up in his uncle’s house. I got on very well in halting Albanian with another uncle, the village schoolteacher, and we had another jolly meal of chilly meat, chips and lovely yoghurty stuff. All the meals ended with Vlach songs, which sound to me deeply dreadful on a cassette in England, like a lot of bored sheep. But in the homes of these brave, kind, generous people, the songs really do convey a powerful feeling of peasant life, eternal human yearnings, and great brotherliness.
The toilet arrangements in this village made my earlier disquiet at the hole in Voskopoje, shared with a friendly chicken, seem incredibly fastidious. But as always, we had clean plates, clean sheets, and not even a hint of annoyance at all the work we caused. The drivers were always fed and given beds too, and I was very aware of the extra work we all made, especially for the women.
The next day Tom and Spiro had to go to a Vlach conference at Llushnje, four hours’ drive each way. My favorite driver took Naomi, Maurice, and me to Gjirokaster. I had to conduct difficult transactions at the bank and hotel, because by now we had discovered an alarming fact: we had to pay a thousand pounds for the two cars and drivers. We had budgeted about six hundred pounds for the week, including food and accommodation. One of the many topsy-turvy things about our stay was that, apart from the hotel in Korce, we had paid nothing for food, drink or accommodation, while this cost for the cars and drivers did seem exorbitant. In fact we couldn’t pay them, even using all our spare English notes. I have since had the interesting experience of getting Barclays Bank to wire dollars to the driver “in care of the State Bank of Albania” as he trustingly agreed we could pay the balance once I had returned home.
When we had dealt with the tricky business of exchanging money, we spent a very happy day. Gjirokaster is a beautiful old hilltop town and it was a relief not to be on public duty for once. We looked round the old castle, saw a Byzantine church, heard music coming out of the music school and when we wandered in were met by chance by some teachers and the director, who spoke English. They showed us round the school a little and we listened to a ten-year-old girl playing the piano lesson beautifully. The sad thing was that not all the notes worked. Later we sat in the sun and ate a picnic of leek pie and orange soda. The food for the picnic for four cost 14 leks — about one-seventh of one American cent. We wandered around the town, where pigs rooted about for food in the main squares. We saw the hilltop where I remembered a grand statue of Gjirokaster’s famous son, Enver Hoxha. It had been unceremoniously dismantled and only a bare patch remained. Had the pigs noticed?
When we came back to Andon Poçi, we sat on the balcony of the uncle’s house and discussed economics, using the wall of the house to illustrate riches — shoulder height — and poverty — ankle height. (The Albanians were all certain that they were the poorest people in Europe, and that by comparison Romania was rich. The Vlachs tended to look to Romania for help and aid, which as Tom said was like confusing Cinderella with the Fairy Godmother.)
All these conversations without Spiro took place in a tangled mixture of Albanian, Vlach, and English with occasional Italian or French and lots of body language thrown in. At breakfast that day, I had been asked by our host (a young man about to go with his wife and baby to work as a waiter in Italy) to translate into Albanian a letter he had received in German. By the end of the week all my languages had got muddled up and I couldn’t remember how to say “please” in Greek.
Our final dinner had even more people, more food and more toasts. We promised to come back soon and warmly invited everyone to come and stay with us. We were given more beautifully made presents and again felt ashamed of our humdrum offerings.
We got up very early to drive back to Kopeschitsa, but one of the cars broke down, because of damage caused by the particularly deadful road to Andon Poçi. The competent drivers made several unsuccessful attempts to mend it. Our plans depended on our arriving in Thessaloniki that night, and eventually we decided we must move to emergency plan “B” and head for another border crossing. We left Spiro, one driver and the broken car, and all piled into the other car to go to Kakavia — the border crossing which was nearer but unknown to us. There were no formalities whatsoever when we had left Greece, but the Albanian border had a high barbed wire fence, with a dense mob of about three hundred people pressing up against it. They were presumably Albanians wanting to work in Greece and having to prove their documents were all in order to the Greek authorities. Tom towered above them, waving his British passport, and was allowed through immediately. We then passed all the luggage over the high fence, with a human chain of surprisingly cheerful Albanians helping to heave things across. I led Naomi and Maurice across, all waving our passports and apologizing to the crowd, as it did seem so unfair that we should cut to the front of the crowd in this privileged way. The only jarring note was that Maurice got his camera out to photograph the scene and realised when he eventually got through that someone had pinched it.
As we hadn’t expected to be at that border, we had no firm plan about how to get from there to Thessaloniki. Luckily a kind bus driver was sitting with the policemen who examined our passports, and he led us to the bus going to Ianina. As we went along in the bus, there were several checks by the police of the Albanians on board and two were rejected. Ianina looked so colorful and rich after Albania. We ate hot kebabs at the bus station while we waited for the bus to Thessaloniki. We arrived there after a 13-hour day of travelling. The physical pleasures of retsina, a simple tomato salad, and a hot shower were intense and our fairly grungy “C” grade hotel seemed absolute luxury. The following morning I came home by plane.
Weeks later we are still trying to make sense of what we have seen and done, and to decide what we can and should do about it. Here are some of our thoughts:
1.Vlachs. The purpose of our trip was for Tom to seize the opportunity given by the end of the oppressive and secretive communist regime to find out the true facts about the Vlachs, or Aromanians as they are usually called, in Albania. He has written a scholarly paper on this, pointing out that there are probably more people in Albania speaking Vlach and thinking of themselves as Vlachs than in all the other countries of the Balkans combined. Other earlier writers about the Vlachs had not noticed their considerable presence in Albania and for the last fifty years it had been almost impossible to visit the Vlachs in Albania. It had also been impossible for Vlachs in Albania to emigrate from the country, and the cramped living conditions I have described had actually helped the preservation of the language since grandparents could pass on their Vlach to grandchildren while the parents worked. We met more Vlachs in this week than Tom has met anywhere else. Whole towns and villages spoke Vlach rather than Albanian as their first language. Children in Andon Poçi learned no Albanian until they went to school. Yet Vlach has no agreed-upon alphabet, and most people have never heard of this language. Many of the Vlachs we spoke to wanted their passports to say “Aromanian” not “Albanian”. What will happen to this large minority? They all wanted Tom’s advice about what they should do. Tom, while always saying it was not for him to decide what they should do, is absolutely clear in his advice that they should not try to create a Vlach homeland or a separate political party. He does very much encourage them to foster and cherish their language, their customs and songs and dances, and to meet up with other Vlachs in the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, America and Australia to explore and understand better their culture and history. Tom was concerned at how little many of them knew about their history. At the moment, his book is available only in English and it is a long and scholarly work. One elderly Albanian Vlach, who had taught himself English, has actually translated the whole book into Albanian. It seems to me that it, or a shortened, easier version, should be published in Albanian, Greek, Macedonian, and Serbo-Croat, and then in Vlach if the Vlachs can agree on an alphabet. But who would pay for this? Many things could be easier if a Vlach millionaire wrote a large check but this does not seem likely.
2.Religion. All religion has been banned for about 40 years, so as to avoid difficulties between Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics. We found some old people longing to practice their Greek Orthodox religion again, some lapsed Muslim women who were interested in Christianity, a young woman who said she was a Christian (we gave her a little New Testament in English which I had with me), the young man training to be a priest in Voskopolje and many other people who seemed interested to talk about religion in the abstract. The strong Christian tradition was deeply weakened by the ban on all religion, and I wonder whether we are doing enough to satisfy the thirst for priests, knowledge and Bibles.
3.The position of women. A Communist propaganda book published in English in 1984 says, “The progress of the Albanian woman, under the guidance of Party of Labour of Albania, is one of the finest examples of emancipation….. today in Albania the work of the woman is seen and her word is heard in every sector of life. She takes part in the struggle…full of dignity, she distinguishes herself for her lofty revolutionary spirit, for her determination and patriotism, she distinguishes herself in work and life…the emancipation of the woman in Albania is not a `feminist’ movement as it is in the capitalist countries. It means the advance of the woman towards full equality with men, their progress hand in hand, in harmony of feelings, aims and pure ideals, their march towards communism.” What this means, as far as I can see, is that all women had to work outside the home for eight hours a day, six days a week, except for six months’ maternity leave. There is no mention of state nursery child care — this is where the grannies are so vital and presumably why women were allowed to draw their pensions after only fifteen or twenty years at work. But the men did absolutely nothiing in the house, so the women really are doing two jobs in a way which middle class British women like me can hardly imagine. To feed, clothe, and keep clean a household of one husband and six sons with no running water, gaping holes in the walls and primitive cooking arrangements makes our moans about vacuuming and emptying the washing machine after work seem pathetic. We tried to challenge the status quo in a gentle way by emphasizing (truthfully) that at home Tom and I share the cooking equally, but I don’t think this seemed relevant to them. I was concerned at the innocent wish of my friend the French teacher to be able to go out for walks occasionally and to share in meals and conversations when guests were present. Soon the women will seize such basic rights, knowing as they do that the men have time to go to bars and play games in huddles in the villages. This will cause great conflicts and changes in the age-old unfair traditions of village life.
4.Unemployment. Most of the mines, oil wells, and factories in the towns had completely stopped working. Life seemed less changed in the villages; work and nature carried on as usual except in the many uncultivated fields, which people understandably didn’t want to work until they knew who would own the crops. We were told that out of a population of three million, half a million people had left Albania to work abroad, mostly in Greece or Italy. It is usually the young men who go, sending back money or goods to their families. How can the country reconstruct itself if its proportion of strong, young, economically active people to the old, the children and overworked women becomes worse? The country has great natural resources (oil, gas, copper, bitumen) that can be worked and exported but this will not be possible if the country’s manpower leaves so rapidly. There is a desperate need for the new government to spend money on the infrastructure — water, roads, drains — but it can’t do this if there aren’t people to carry out the work.
5.Poverty and hunger. Apart from the little boys begging for food in Korce, we saw no evidence of hunger. Some of the butter we were offered was said to be foreign aid, and in Selenitsa I was told it was practically impossible to buy salt. I think the villages and Tirana are probably better off for food than the North of the country, and I do of course realize that part of the incredibly generous tradition of hospitality is to give guests the best, while letting them think they are causing no trouble or shortage.
6.Living conditions. I was shocked by the difficulties caused by no running water in the villages. All homes have electricity and practically all have huge televisions. This seems again topsy-turvy when to wash you must either go to a pump or rig up a watering can with a tap and fix it to a tree. Cooking was difficult, washing up equally difficult, and the holes in the ground appalling.
All these problems and ideas make me feel desperately ignorant and I long to learn and do more. At the moment, I have two plans: first, to encourage a “sister cities” link between our home town of Leamington Spa and Korce. We know both mayors, the towns have some similarities, and Leamington’s connections with the University of Warwick could help Korce resurrect its tradition as a center of learning. My second idea is to ask Paulina in Selinitsa if she is interested in sending me more embroidered table linen, which I could sell in England and send her payment in dollars. There are many problems connected with this (not the least being her lack of time), and it would clearly be crazy to increase the pressures on her.
However these two ideas turn out, I am certain that I shall go on thinking about all the problems and possibilities I saw in Albania during one of the most extraordinary weeks in my life.