Albania: From Mir to Shum Mir
We spent the last ten days in Shqipria (Albania in Albanian) with our friends Ardit and Nick. Both are dear friends of mine from high school. Ardit moved to the US in fourth grade, and in 10 years of friendship I’ve heard many stories of life growing up in his hometown Hoxharë. When he told me his brother Klevis was getting married in Albania around the same time we'd be heading to India, I wrangled an invitation faster than you can say Shqipria.
Ted and I took the ferry from Corfu to the Albanian town of Sarandë, where we were met by Ardit’s dad, Theodore, and elder cousin, Spiro. Theodore is a long haul trucker who knows America better than any Albanian on earth and who is also the nicest and least patriarchal father you'd care to meet. His reassuring "Yyyyes" was one of the highlights of the trip. Spiro was one of the first licensed drivers in Albania, as the chauffeur for VIP communists in the '70s. He and Theodore had driven 3 hours just to pick us up and bring us to cousin Beni’s house in Fier, the closest city to Hoxharë. At Beni's we accepted course after course of sweets, smiled stickily and mumbled our 5 words of Albanian ("Good," "Very Good," "Thank you" & "Cucumber"), which were met with undeserved praise. This process was to be repeated many times before our trip was over.
Ardit and his pet Americans made the rounds to visit to relatives in Hoxharë and neighboring towns. Ardit was met with tears and kisses by aunts and cousins everywhere-- it had been 6 years since he’d been back. During that time, baby cousins had been born, Ardit had graduated from law school at the top of his class, and as was always felt and rarely spoken, he had nursed his mother until her recent death from cancer. Each home welcomed us warmly with more treats, most grown and prepared by hand. One breakfast of feta, cherry jam, watermelon and fried bread wasn’t entirely homemade, Ardit translated, only because his aunt had bought the flour.
Hoxharë is a tiny cluster of about 6 brick apartment blocks rising from the surrounding fields and orchards, all full of Ardit's family and admirers. There we saw the famous tractor that Uncle Agron used to let Ardit ride on as a little boy. Agron is a farmer, fisherman, hunter and mechanic, who despite the language barrier bonded with the American guests through a genius for sign language and shared love of ice cream and his fat grandbaby. In one memorable incident, he suddenly stopped the "village car" he was driving us in (so called because everybody used it and nobody registered it; "Agron's best friend the cop isn't gonna pull him over") and reversed down the street to fix a broken-down car by the side of the road. Before we knew what was happening, he'd crawled under the injured car with a wrench, emerged 10 seconds later grinning, and the car took off good as new. It belonged to the son of his watermelon dealer, he explained through Ardit.
Throughout the Albanian cities and countryside are houses under construction, hand built by the owners from bricks and reinforced concrete. Families build one story, move in, make a little money, start on a second story, and pause until perhaps a relative working in Italy sends remittances that finance its finish.
The countryside is also dotted with bunkers. Albania’s paranoid communist dictator Enver Hoxha spent his nation's limited fortune on 700,000 concrete bunkers, one for every 4 Albanians, in case America invaded. The invasion never happened, Hoxha died, Communism fell, but the bunkers remain. Some are put to use as storage sheds and love nests, but most just collect graffiti and refuse to crumble.
Our first night in Albania was the groom’s side of the family’s party. In a beach restaurant, we feasted on fish, goat, tomatoes, cucumbers, home-made wine and raki. It was our first introduction to Albanian dancing, circle folk dancing with steps simple enough for everyone to follow and join (though it took Ted a little time to pick it up - Ardit’s aunt later told him he danced like a grandmother). We ended the night by wading into the warm black sea under the stars.
Albania is a mainly secular country, but Klevi and Visa were both baptized, and chose to have an Orthodox wedding ceremony. They had spent the week before traveling the country to take wedding pictures in various picturesque spots in 6 different gowns. They were married in a 13th century church in the middle of the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Apollonia. The city is on a hill top next to the village of Pojan, Ardit’s father’s ancestral home. On one side was the sea glistening in the distance. On the other, hills covered in farms and olive groves and a row of bunkers. The entire area was occupied by charming little turtles, whose only defense against being picked up was to pee.
After the wedding, Klevi and Visa’s nuclear families - plus Nick, Ted and I - went on a trip to the south, around the city of Sarandë. After many nights of dancing , it was time for a break in the sun. We lounged on beach after beach of crystal clear water, diving off rocks and swimming through caves. The drive from Fier to Sarandë was through a spectacular riviera, with the sea on one side and dry, rolling mountains on the other, topped by centuries old castles. We explored the ruins of Castle Lekursi on our way down, with its panoramic views, and Gjirokaster Castle on our way back. Along the roadside we stopped for refreshment at what Ardit called “mountain pipes,” or cold, fresh streams of water rushing down perfect for drinking, dunking, and cooling watermelons. One cold spring (the Blue Eye, for it’s color) bubbled up from the earth with a force so strong that if you threw in a stone or a Ted, it would rise back up before being carried downstream.
Finally, back in Fier we mirrored our initial rounds of greetings with a round of goodbyes, coming to each family member’s home in turn to pay our respects. We also sampled from an array of local souflaqe (gyro sandwich with french fries) shops, and took a final "jiro" - or promenade - down the main boulevard. But we never made it to the supposed best of the bunch before the meat ran out for the day. We’ll be back for Ardit’s wedding.