From Albania: Keep Moving, Never Change

Hello from Albania, by which I mean Macedonia: this morning I checked out of my hotel in Peshkopi, Albania, where I stayed overnight, and took a taxi over the border and then two buses to Ohrid—boom boom, one after another, in lucky timing sequence. Ohrid sits on a large, deep lake of the same name. Somewhere I read that it was “the jewel of Macedonia,” and it’s just across the Albanian border. So here I am. My big agenda when I got here was to find a place to do laundry. It turns out the affordable places are closed for the weekend; the hotels will gladly charge daftly inflated prices, i.e. as much to wash three shirts as I spend on food in a day of travel here. I think I’ve got enough clean clothes to last me a couple more days, by which time I’ll be back in Albania. In the meantime, let me write about it a little.

I came to Albania for three reasons (but do there need to be any at all?):

1) Heather (my wife, if somehow you’ve come to read this without knowing me) is teaching for three weeks in Ireland, and when she’s finished we have plans to tour part of eastern Europe and what I would loosely describe as the Caucasus. I wanted to go somewhere that might make a good jumping off point, south and east of her but not too far south and east.

2) I wanted to go somewhere inexpensive.

3) Probably most important, my coworker and friend Sokol is Albanian and has been talking up his home country to me for a while now. So if you have any serious questions about this place, I’ll probably have to refer you to him.

I admit that none of those reasons probably suffice on their own, but taken together they made a somehow almost inarguable case for flying to Albania. I suppose I knew a little about the country: how it suffered under the crippling, isolating dictatorship of Enver Hoxha for forty years after World War II, and has only really begun to find stability in the last couple of decades. Those are the facts, such as they are, but I was more interested in what I recently read in On the Road to Babadag, an absorbing travel book about “the other Europe” published in 2004 by the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk:

Yes, everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe.  It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything is settled once and for all should peer.

So much gravity there. Too much, really. Stasiuk’s case is overstated and overweighted, of course, and probably already outdated. Albania has been changing very rapidly over the last fifteen years, A more recent comment on Albania comes from the expat American author Nell Zink, whose debut novel The Wallcreeper so delighted me that it inspired the reawakening of my blog a few years ago after long mothballing. The Wallcreeper is partly set in Albania, where Zink has evidently spent a good deal of time, and which she calls “the West Virginia of Europe. Single mothers there dress and live as men.”

Zink can be glib, as you might guess, a hip-shooter. In fact, after I wrote about The Wallcreeper, she left a comment on my blog post (!).  I wasn’t going to let that go by without notice, so I emailed her and we had a brief back-and-forth. That was in early 2015. More than four years later, shortly before I came to Albania, I emailed her again and asked her for any advice on what to see and do here. I expected no response, and didn’t get one—until more than a week later, after I had already arrived. It’s a brief email that contains no practical suggestions of any kind. Half of it is a glib joke and the other half goes:

Albania is so interesting and harmless that you don’t have to know anything at all. There are no land mines. You can be a gentle, clueless hippie.

This does not sound like Andrzej Stasiuk, although apparently there may be some land mines, in a part of the country I could hardly set foot on if I tried. I figured the truth was somewhere in between, as it nearly always is on earth.

I flew from Raleigh-Durham to London, transferred from Heathrow to Gatwick, waited there for eight hazy-dazy hours, and connected via a crowded, unbelievably noisy flight, on a jet without a single television screen in it, as though we were traveling backward in time, to Tirana, Albania’s capital, where about a third of the country’s three million people live. (It’s small geographically, too—about half the size of West Virginia, Nell Zink’s comparison notwithstanding.) I was met at the airport by a driver from my guesthouse, who was actually the owner’s father. He drove us through the darkness of Tirana’s outskirts up to Kruja, an ancient castle town half an hour north of the airport, which is itself north of Tirana. I’m not visiting the capital on this trip. Sokol will probably scold me for this.

Kruja is one of the places in Albania that lays claim to George Kastriot, aka Skanderbeg, or Skanderbeu. He is the national hero, a fifteenth-century firebrand who led Albania’s charge toward a national consciousness and spirit in the face of Ottoman imperialism. (The “Skanderbeg” alias is a rendering of Alexander, as in the Great, tagged with “beu”/”bey,” a Turkish honorific—a sort of portmanteau of reverential nomenclature.)

That Skanderbeg ultimately failed to keep Albania from succumbing to the Ottomans, who then controlled Albania as the empire’s westernmost territory for five hundred years (!) until the early twentieth century, is no matter, at least not to Albanians. The castle at Kruja, fortified since antiquity, when much of what is now Albania was known by the beautiful name of Illyria, was Skanderbeg’s stronghold of resistance to the Ottomans. Inside the old castle walls is the Skanderbeg Museum, which is the least interesting attraction in Kruja: three rather vapid floors of “Skanderfest,” in the words of my guidebook—the only dedicated Albanian travel guide in existence, well done by Gillian Gloyer—easily passed through in less than an hour without leaving a trace of recollection.

There’s another museum inside the fortifications, a rather more interesting ethnographic reconstruction of life in a traditional Turkish household inside an actual old Turkish house. Here was where they cooked, there where they took steam baths, etc. As I left this museum-house I came by a man who was one of its caretakers and who alerted me to another site of interest (which in fact I’d skimmed in the guidebook), a small teke up at the top of the ridge above the castle. A teke is a sort of sanctuary/shrine in the Bektashi tradition; Bektashism is a branch of mystical Islam whose world headquarters are in Tirana. A far-flung sect of Islam has found its home in the Ottomans’ farthest-flung historical reaches.

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The teke inside Kruja castle.

A LITTLE DIGRESSION ABOUT YOGA

I had already been to another teke, the one inside the inside the castle walls (as was my guesthouse), and spent a good half an hour in there, sitting cross-legged and indulging in a few stretches of the sort I do first thing every morning.  I’ve reached the age where it’s necessary for me to warm my body up for a while before I start using it each day, as though I’m an old car that has to idle in the driveway (I still remember what my professional-baseball-playing friend Fernando told me when I interviewed him about a decade ago, toward the end of his career: “At 22, you can show up to the field and pretty much just start playing immediately. Now, if I just rolled in today and just took a swing, I’d feel it in like six different places.”) I wouldn’t quite call these extremely basic, almost totally undemanding little movements “yoga,” even though most of the routine is derived from warmups I learned in yoga class (plus two exercises given me by a physical therapist after I threw out my back for the 847thtime). But I wouldn’t object to calling them yoga, which is an old Sanskrit word that is cognate with “yoke” (union, join etc.). What it’s meant to yoke you to is the divine spirit. The asanas, the physical exertions of yoga—downward-facing dog, half-moon, and so on—are meant to prepare you to meditate by uniting body and mind through the concentration of breath. “Otherwise you’re just making funny-looking shapes,” my instructor Abigail once reminded us in class when she noticed that no one was really breathing very much.

Speaking of old cars, my morning exercises help hitch my body to my mind, which usually becomes fully active sooner than my corporeal being does. I’m nearly fifty, after all. But it isn’t just a matter of getting my bones and muscles up to speed. It’s also to keep my mind from rushing into the day without sufficient deliberation: the yoke pulls in both directions. I start by sitting motionless for a little while—not very long, just a couple minutes or so, enough to begin breathing in rhythm—before I begin to move in ways my mind cannot possibly run ahead of: turn head one way, extend arm the other; raise both arms, look skyward. Arch back, curl back (seated cat-‘n’-cow). Lie down on back with feet on floor and drop legs to one side, then the other; do it thirty times. And so forth. Some of these movements are very nearly the least effortful a human body can perform. That is exactly what I like about them, and about anything resembling yoga: that the simplest poses must be done with “single-pointedness of mind,” as my yogi Bart will sometimes say in class. All of your being, your full breath—not rational thought, but concentrated breath—should be invested in each asana.

This is all very basic stuff to anyone who has practiced yoga, even to a relative novice like me; but knowing it doesn’t make yoga, or even make turning your head one way while extending your arm the other, easy.  And that’s partly because the exercises are so boring and pointless that the mind and breath readily wander away from them. Yoga is profoundly impractical. The poses accomplish nothing outside themselves. They are not like those repetitive Karate Kid wax-on-wax-off motions that turn out to be perfect defensive gestures against attackers. They really are just kind of funny-looking shapes. They are pure action. That’s why you have to do them with full intensity. Never just go through the motions, as we do in most of daily life—from habit, for money, in haste or necessity, or simply to burn up extraneous hours. “I fill my days with work because I’m lazy,” goes a line by one of my favorite songwriters, Scott Miller. The antidote is in another line, from the Tao Te Ching: “Perform all acts as worship.” If you observe that mindedness, almost nothing you do can ever be lazy.

Traveling to a faraway place, especially alone, is a form of yoga. You can do almost nothing without investing yourself all the way into it, because you are operating from a position of complete ignorance. You don’t know the language, the customs, the directions, or anyone at all.  Andrzej Stasiuk has a good way of putting it:

It is good to come to a country you know nothing about. Your thoughts grow still, useless. Everything must be rebuilt. There is no reference point. You struggle to associate colors, smells, dim memories. You live a little like a child, or an animal. Objects, and events, may bring things to mind, but in the end they remain no more than what they are in fact.

Another way of saying this is that when you travel to a truly foreign place (which I admit Albania isn’t quite; there are plenty of familiars), you pay full attention to everything because you really don’t know what anything is. Every act gains a duration and weight it doesn’t have in regular life, and the divine feels a little closer, unobscured by the usual wool of habit and the noise of work. Which is to say that that perhaps travel is a kind of yoga.

Maybe that’s why I tend to incline toward sacred spaces when traveling. Heather does too, which is one of the veins of affinity in which our marriage works. If there is a place along our travels where people climb for worship, we’re almost sure to follow. And once inside the small, scuffed, humbly beautiful teke within Kruja’s castle walls, completely alone in there—and, no doubt, in need of stretching out after my long cooped-up bout of transportation from the US—it was no surprise that in that house of worship I felt like stretching in such a welcoming but novel place, availing myself of the space and solitude there. And no surprise to be alert, later on, to the man outside the Ethnographic Museum who pointed up the mountain toward the shrine of Sari Salltik, a Sufi baba/saint/holy man in the Bektashi tradition.

It was not easy to find the trail. I must have asked five or six different people, using hand signals, baby-words, and Google Translate. (I’ll have more to say about smartphones and their applications later. Suffice it to say I now have more praise for smartphones than I’ve been known to express.) Proceeding by degrees, following one person’s gestures until I need another’s, I moved gradually upward through town until I stopped into a minimarket and asked the woman inside for yet another finger-point. Trail up the mountain? Yes, she nodded. She tried unsuccessfully to indicate the exact location until she was finally able to summon two words: “house pink.”

At the house pink, just a few meters further up, an object no more than what it was in fact, was the trailhead. Forty-five minutes is how long it took to go up—the people in town told me an hour, and here is another brief digression on why I’m in Albania: because I can be. That is to say, the reason Heather and I wanted to take this Eurasian trip, which we expect to last three months and will almost certainly include some fairly rigorous movement—intermediate yoga, I suppose—is that we’re still young and healthy enough to do it. I can still run. I can still walk ten miles up and down a mountain carrying a thirty-five-pound pack on my back, all day without exhaustion. Heather and I have developed the patience of older people, but we can still summon youth’s dash when we must. How long we will be able to do this, we don’t know. So take advantage now.

At the top of the hill was Sari Salltik’s shrine, inside a cave. To the left, a small room of worship and shelter, with photos of many babas, lit candles. Then down more stairs to the right, accompanied by the sound of echoing, dripping water into dark clammy depths—that unmistakable cave aura—and at the bottom was a little tap delivering an “endless fountain,” as I believe the signs put it: holy water diverted from a spring’s path down the mountain. I rinsed my hands in it and climbed back up.

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By the entrance to Sari Salltik’s teke.

Above the shrine, there’s an abandoned building where pilgrims coming to the teke of Sari Salltik used to sleep. The patio, overlooking the town of Kruja and the plains below, had a few tables and chairs set out, so I went to sit. After a moment, a man came out from a room behind me. He must have been the caretaker. He offered me a coffee—Turkish coffee, still almost as common as espresso in Albania and in my opinion better; we should all drink more Turkish coffee. He and I sat and talked for a while, I’m not sure how or about what, since we had neither language nor any experience in common. But it was a warm conversation. I’ve found Albanians to be almost uniformly genial and generous. The caretaker wouldn’t hear of my paying him for the coffee, the first of already numerous freebies I’ve received for no reason at all. Generosity: what really is better in the human spirit, or even the animal? We parted as friends.

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With the caretaker.

I have to admit that I was feeling a little tender, just hours on Albanian soil and still unsteady in time, place, and mind. Heather and I spent most of the spring so busy getting all our hatches battened down before our trip, our T’s crossed and I’s dotted and so forth, that it wasn’t until the morning of my departure, after packing and mowing the lawn one last time (a guy is coming to do it biweekly hereafter)—acts performed in haste, necessity and habit, without much worship—it wasn’t until that morning that I really began to contemplate for the first time what I was doing and where I was going. Albania? Alone? Why? What and where on earth? I began to feel suddenly anxious, disjointed and doubtful, and homesick even before leaving home.

To quiet some of this jangle, I went for one last run before my old friend Jim picked me up to take me to the airport. I took my familiar laps around Duke’s East Campus. I must have run in this circle literally thousands of times. I seldom pay any attention to the scenery. I’m just running. This time, though, while I was chuffing and putting one foot in front of the other, I made myself look up and take in the May-green trees, the surrounding buildings, and so on. And I thought, Durham is just a place in the world, and Albania is just another. And I’m just one person in the world, in temporary possession of a tiny sliver of its shared consciousness, a person about to go from this place and encounter that place and its people. That’s all this is, and that’s all I am, nothing more and nothing less. There doesn’t have to be a reason beyond that, and there’s certainly no reason to be anxious. To keep one’s wits always, yes; but to be wary without worry, that is the trick of it—always that groove in the middle.

That is not to say I relinquished all my apprehension. Yoga helps with this. After I sat in the teke inside Kruja castle and did my little stretches on my first morning in Albania, I resolved to go there again the next morning, not long before my departure for the next place on the loose itinerary I’d planned, and do them again.

But for now it was still the midafternoon before. After Turkish coffee on the mountain with the caretaker, I started back down the hill toward Kruja. Just after I passed the landing where the final flight of steps up from the trail meets the walkway to Sari Salltik’s cave, I heard behind me a small commotion. I turned around to see that someone had just taken a spill on the steps. His three companions were helping him up. “OK?” I asked. OK, came the response from the older man as he got the younger man to his feet. “Epilepsy,” he explained.

His son—so I took the relationship—leaned against him and against his mother as they hoisted him, the younger sister just ahead. This must have happened often. You could see it in the family’s practiced, unflustered way of tending to the young man, including the sister’s respectful (or perhaps embarrassed) distance; and you could especially see it in his face, which was scarred from previous falls and now had a fresh red scrape on it, eventually to fade into the crags of the others. As the family resumed up the stairs, he turned toward me, as though just now aware of another person at the scene. He could have been eighteen or forty. His face showed the age of trauma, not of years, the fatigue of a life of endless uncontrollable overwhelming accident.

Our eyes met. It was just for a moment, but it froze me. He regarded me first with half-comprehension, still dazed from his fall, and unrecognizing of this stranger in his family’s ambit. Then, suddenly, his gaze was stricken by shame and helplessness and, as I perceived, by envy: so mine was what a normal life was like? A life that could be fully lived, stairs that could be easily climbed, alone? Sufficiency and surefootedness, fitness and fettle, independence and vigor, freedom from attack—he would never know these. And then he leaned heavily, heavily into his mother who held him up, and he wailed, wailed, wailed the deepest wordless wail of the soul, as deep as any I’ve ever heard. And then the wail subsided, and he trudged up the stairs, up the perpetual exhausting climb of his life, with no summit to it.

How hard life wears on the afflicted! How endless suffering can be! How unfair, how intolerable the share of luck some of us have against the misfortune of others, meted out in disproportion by our maker without pity. I went back down into Sari Salltik’s cave by the endless fountain and cried there.

That evening, I sat on the beautiful patio of my inexpensive but comfortable guesthouse, eating a light dinner and gazing out over the glorious valley. Night fell, full of stars, a blue moon in the offing, and I thought of how fucking lucky I was. That night I slept under comforting covers, woke up and packed my bag in Albania, gingerly, almost confoundedly, as though I’d never packed a bag before, each object and movement unfamiliar, the act of putting a toothbrush in a plastic baggie twitching with uncertainty and newness. I pulled on my shoes slowly, a little awkwardly, favoring my back, and walked back to the Kruja castle teke, as I’d planned, to sit in that unfamiliar house of worship and do my morning stretches.

The gate was locked. It wouldn’t be open for an hour.

I didn’t have an hour to wait, or didn’t think I did in any case. I had to get somewhere, which is the opposite of yoga. So I went back to my room, wedged myself into the only practicable cranny, and executed my little sequence of movements as best as I could. I did it fairly quickly, with as much deliberation as I could muster under the circumstances: the incommodiousness of the space; the long and uneven travel day looming uncertainly ahead; Albania. In other words, I relied on habit. It really is helpful sometimes just to do what you always do and be who you always are, and recognize yourself again.

The only book I’ve published under my name is about Chrissie Hynde, the rock star. I worked very hard on that book, but thorough as I think it is, Hynde was hard to pin down. One thing I wish I’d made more of, and perhaps even used as the book’s title, was the line with which she concluded her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech in 2005, when her band the Pretenders were enshrined. “Two things, boom boom,” she said: “Keep moving, never change.” For a long time I thought that laconic koan was something close to a contradiction, but the more I’ve thought about it, the righter it seems, and except for comparing it to a rolling stone gathering no moss, I no longer think it needs even a word of explication.

I hitched a ride from a German couple leaving my guesthouse in a rental car. They took me a dozen kilometers or so and dropped me at one of those trafficky, dusty crossroads where all you can do is keep moving. From there I crossed a bridge shouldering my pack, which I’ve owned for eighteen years and know as well as anything I own. Then I stood and waited in front of a gas station for a bus I was told would come along. Soon enough, it did.

Till next time. Keep moving, never change.

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