Shkodër, or Shkodra—the rendering of Albanian nouns can evidently change with usage in ways I haven’t figured out. In fact, I find the language hard to get a grip on, and so far I’m still pretty proud of just being able to count to ten. Albanian is a language isolate, like Basque and Korean. Its grammar, rules, and even pronunciation are resistant to quick study. There seems to be a different way to say a pronoun in every kind of sentence in which it’s used.
Shkodër is a pleasant city in northwestern Albania and has clearly been on a development kick over the last few years. There’s a handsome central piazza and newly pedestrianized main avenue, lots of young restaurants, and a new museum (about which more soon). I spent two nights there, and on the last of them I chatted briefly with a couple of Americans, one of whom lives in Shkodër and the other, his friend, visiting him for the first time in four years. He told me that Shkodër’s growth and general act-cleaning-up was very apparent since his last visit. “People have more disposable income,” he said.
Shkodër is an urbane, cultured city of about 200,000. An arts festival was going on while I was there, which for my purposes meant that the Marubi Museum was A) free one of the nights I was in town and B) open until 1:00 a.m. (!). Pietro Marubi was a nineteenth-century photographer, Italian-born, who seems to have fled the country for political reasons (he was a Garibaldist, not always a majority affiliation) and settled in Shkodër, which has long been home to resistors, protestors, and the like. Marubi was the country’s first ever photographer—he is said to have taken Albania’s earliest photograph—making wet-plate images into the early twentieth century. You’ll have to ask my sister for details about this technique, because she actually still uses it.
Marubi was childless, so he adopted his studio assistants and trained them to succeed him. The Marubi studios were Albania’s most renowned for decades thereafter, continuing through three generations well into the twentieth century. The Marubis photographed much of what we now know as modern Albanian history, so the gallery—very modern and stylish, an engaging contrast to the old photography it displays (in reproduction, it should be noted; the originals are stored in archives)—is as much a thorough historical record as it is an art museum. Albania has undergone massive changes in the last 100 years. It has gained and lost independence multiple times, been tossed inside-out and upside-down by both world wars, acquired and lost territory bordering Greece, Kosovo and Macedonia; then it was squashed under the boot of Enver Hoxha for forty years.
You see all this in the Marubi museum: Garibaldi, King Zog and his family, peasants, nationalist stalwarts; a shocking image of an anti-communist at the moment of his arrest in 1946, his eyes flashing grim foreknowledge of his fate, with his capturing young soldier grinning wolfishly at his side; shots of tribunals at which the accused stand at microphones defending themselves—I thought at first they were singers performing (there are numerous images of musicians in silvery matinee-idol glow, confusing the context). In one of these tribunal shots, a seated Hoxha, just then in the process of firming his grip on power, looks on coolly, almost indifferently. It’s as if he knows his cruelties are just getting started, and he has to play a long game, conserve his energy.
The accused, largely clerics, teachers, thinkers—the kinds of people these kinds of regimes always target; people like me—went to prison, where they awaited execution, often after torture, or were simply left to rot there. One of these prisons was in the center of Shkodër, just a few minutes’ walk from the Marubi museum, and is now also a museum itself, called the Site of Witness and Memory. In 2001, I went to Cambodia and visited their version of this installation, the infamous Tuol Sleng S-21 detention center, like Shkodër’s prison right in the middle of the city (Phnom Penh, in this case). One of the chilling things about these places was that prisoners could have heard life going on just outside their cells—although perhaps less of it in Phnom Penh, which the Khmer Rouge virtually emptied out during their reign.
The displays and the arched, neon-pink corridor toward the cells provide context and mood, and there are information panels on the cells themselves. But the effect is strongest where there is no explanation at all, and virtually no light: heavy doors opening into dark concrete boxes, one tiny barred window in each. At the end of each corridor was a WC, simply another cell but with a hole in the floor between the customary porcelain treads where the feet planted to squat: the porcelain was the only construction material in the entire place, other than doors and bars and faucets (long since removed), that wasn’t concrete. There was something strangely poignant about this, the only visibly extant concession to humanity.
In 2001, Tuol Sleng really shook me up, especially seeing it on the same day as the notorious killing fields just outside Phnom Penh. The Site of Witness and Memory left me less shaken than absolutely bewildered to the marrow that human society ever reaches this point of organized awfulness. I can understand the impulse to the swift eradication of one’s enemies, even in its worst genocidal examples, but I simply can’t conceive of terror and torture drawn out and systematized under bureaucratic officialdom, which requires a long chain of complicity and participation, paperwork, taxonomy: a sort of twisted civil order maintained by large numbers of people engaged in its daily persistence.
My bewilderment is naïve, of course. I’m Nell Zink’s gentle, clueless hippie. I spent much of the winter and spring working my way through Herodotus’ Histories, which is among other things a compendium of cruelties that can scarcely be imagined. How human civilization ever managed to arise and flourish in the first place is hard to grasp, given the readiness with which the ancients enslaved, exiled, tortured, sacked, disemboweled, razed. It should be unnecessary to point out how ready we still are to treat each other just as badly, with systematic intelligence and complex structures designed to do nothing but cause and enforce misery. I guess it’s good that we preserve the sites where we did this. The name is good, too—Witness and Memory. But it’s numbing, it’s alienating, it defies comprehension. I can’t say anything more. I regard these places, and Herodotus, with stony disbelief.
You want to know about Albania. I saw the famous Castle Rozafa in Shkodër; I ran to the landmark nineteenth-century bridge north of town, a graceful Ottoman example with an unusual curvature in its span. There I literally kicked up stones and waited to get out of town. Keep moving, never change. I was getting bored and losing my appetite. I ate byrek, which is a filo-like pastry filled with meat, cheese, yogurt, or spinach (every country has its own empanada). My report on Albanian food so far is that I eat a lot of byrek and that they have fresh vegetables that taste like good fresh vegetables; they are not like the platonic ideal of strawberries like the ones in Carpentras, nor are the cucumbers any better than the ones I grow in my backyard. But who cares? Traveling alone, I don’t generally feel like burning up time and money on sit-down restaurants. If you’re going to keep-moving-never-change, food fits in as little more than mere nutrition and calories; and anyway, food you can eat while walking, which suits my current priorities, is something they’re good at here. Byrek is really tasty. I also had qebap twice in Shkodër, made out of mystery meat grilled and stuffed into a hoagie roll and sprinkled with something red that could have included MSG. It cost a dollar and then I was full. My idea of eating “dinner” in my room was to buy bread, feta-like cheese, olives, and cucumbers. Two dollars. Done.
In her AirBnB review of me (weird that you get reviewed as a person whose act is mostly just to sleep in a bed), the hostess in Shkodër described me as “gentle.” Was Nell Zink so perceptive that she wasn’t giving me travel advice but actually altering my character? (And if so, what about Never Change?) But I had to admit I was behaving like a hippie. I carried an old backpack and dressed in a smelly long-sleeve shirt that I had to keep wearing because Albania was colder than I packed for. And I was done with Shkodër and wanted to commune with nature. If there had been tofu, I’m sure I would have eaten it.
Nature: I wanted to go up into the Albanian Alps. I had no trouble finding a guesthouse in the mountain village of Theth on booking.com, but how to get to Theth was not so easy. I asked the guesthouse proprietress for help, and she told me she’d arrange a driver whom I was to meet at a place in Shkodër called, naturally, Bar Theth, whose (Thethian) owner she knew. The driver had a red flatbed truck and three other passengers in the cab. In the bed was a chaos of stuff, including (I realized later when a flash of hide appeared in the rearview mirror) a couple of pigs. And we were off.
We passed a prison north of Shkodër, right in the middle of a lonely field. The exterior was emblazoned with platitudes like “One day closer to freedom” and “There are no bad people, only bad choices.” I found it strange that these words of encouragement were on the outside of the walls where the prisoners couldn’t see them, like advertisements for the prison. (“If you did crimes near here, you could be home by now!”) We entered the highlands and eventually stopped for a break at a place called Paja in a little outpost village called Qafë-Thora. Everyone sat down for coffee. Clearly, my driver plied this route daily. He knew the barmaid and the other clientele, and general conviviality quickly broke out. Everyone talking, drinking, smoking. It struck me that it was pretty loud, but I’m also aware that I like things quieter than most (gentle, clueless, hippie) and in any case a good time was being had by all. At one point, the barmaid said something that was apparently meant for my ears, and it transpired that one of the locals spoke good English. (Chances are high that someone in shouting distance in Albania—and I do mean shouting—speaks English.) The guy turned to me and translated, “She said she’s sorry that Albanians are so loud.”
I decided not to worry that the driver was drinking, along with his coffee, a full shot glass of fernet (everyone else drank plum raki, Albania’s national hooch), and in fact I think it was probably for the better that he did have that tipple; for just a few miles past Qafë-Thora, the pavement ended and our truck began bouncing at about twenty kilometers per hour over the very worst road I’ve ever been on. I say that as someone who has been on some pretty terrible roads: Laos, Arizona, etc. I could appreciate that he needed a little something to take the edge off, since we were about to drive right on the edge: thousand-foot drops from hairpin turns on a road not quite wide enough for two vehicles, studded with rocks as big as basketballs and cratered all over.
I should say that not once was I at all concerned. The driver chatted easily with the other passengers, smoking with one hand while both steering and shifting with the other. You can’t be worried when you travel by vehicle in places like this. Drivers know the roads and the proper demeanor for driving them. It helps to be a type, like me, who doesn’t get carsick and has costive tendencies. It helps to know how few people die this way. It helps not to be inclined to look down—another reason to keep moving, never change. Keeps the fear away. So does that unbudging stomach.
I was dropped off right at the guesthouse, which was about two miles up the hill before Theth proper. I was met by a cherubic little blond boy of four, straight out of a Mannerist painting, who spoke English and led me to his family’s farmhouse. There was his mother, who lived in the US for seventeen years—in Mahopac, New York, coincidentally, where my grandparents lived for a while before settling very nearby—and was welcoming and invited me to sit by the fire, along with her own mother. Three generations, a farmhouse in Albania, a warm fire. How pleasant.
And within minutes her son was gleefully farting, gouging furniture with knives, climbing up to the top of the credenza to snatch a box of Cheerios which he threw all over the floor. Shrieking, whacking me in the legs. Mom pleading with him to behave, in between telling me that last year she moved back to Theth, where she came from, because she was kicked out of America after a minor traffic incident revealed insufficient legal status, and her American husband killed himself. She was still so immersed in the trauma that she could not bring herself to make this last detail explicit. I had to infer it between the lines. She began to cry. She couldn’t return to America for a minimum of ten years. She was stuck in Theth.
So many commonplaces in travel, and one of them is that you just don’t know until you get there.
Finally she got the little gremlin upstairs for a nap. I might have taken advantage of the kid’s temporary absence and taken a nap myself—I’d been awake since six in the morning—but I discovered that my room was unheated; in fact the whole house was unheated except for the living room with its fireplace (I’d later learn that the whole family wintered in an apartment in Shkodër), and my room was cold and clammy in the damp late afternoon.
So I walked down to Theth. A gloomy place, not so much a town as a straggle of guesthouses along the river. There were ugly construction sites and other waste spaces where development had begun and halted. Dirt, mud, gravel, spitting rain. I went into a snack bar, Theth’s only apparent retail business, poorly provisioned, where the sullen teenager on duty reluctantly let me in, turned on the lights, glumly took my money for some peanuts and candy bars, promptly turned the lights off again and locked the door behind me, and went back to staring into his smartphone.
I walked down to the kulla, the lock-in tower. Albania, especially the northern highlands, has an old, old tradition known as blood feud. If you killed someone, instead of getting killed in return, you were sequestered in the local kulla, an impregnable stone structure, and you stayed there for something like a month while the village conciliators tried to work out a resolution with your victim’s family. Or, as the English translation of the plaque outside put it: “The guilty person waits the irritability to be substituted by reasonable actions. He believes that someone will negotiate for his fault to be judged in justice.” Often, this justice took the form of marrying into that family. If the parties couldn’t find a suitable agreement, you were released on your own recognizance, which meant you got the hell out of town before you got killed.
It’s all really weird, but it isn’t random. Albania has an ancient codified kanun, a complex set of laws, varying from region to region, that govern pretty much all the workings of society. The idea and enactment of honor seems to be a major part of the kanun, particularly the concept of the besa: one’s solemn word, vow, oath. That besa happens to sound like the romance-language word for kiss gives it the sense of sealing one’s intention: a kiss of honor, a kiss even of death. Along with Herodotus I’d also been reading Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most famous writer. The plot of his novel Doruntine, alternately entitled Constantine’s Besa, is driven by Constantine returning from the dead to make good on a besa he made in life to Doruntine, his sister.
So you see how big a deal this, and how a forbidding, potent structure like a kulla, quite appropriate to an ominous place like Theth, might be an architectural feature of such a society. It was a day about confinement and trial, from the Site of Witness and Memory to my hostess barred from getting back to America to the prison in the field to the kulla.
The kulla in Theth is not only in excellent condition, one of the country’s best examples, you can go inside it, and there is a re-creation of what would have been its contents. The first floor is literally the bedrock it was built on, and then you go up to the upper floors where the quarantined person waited. A little tea set. A chamber pot. Very oddly, a cradle. I thought, did people really kill each other so regularly, as a matter of course, that a structure both architectural and legal had to be set in stone in order to work this crime down? I thought also: I am a gentle, clueless hippie.
I got back to the guesthouse around 6:30 or so, and was served a truly outstanding dinner of roast lamb my hostess had raised and slaughtered herself. Zink again: the hostess did, come to think of it, sort of live and dress like a man.
While I was eating, we were interrupted by the arrival of another guest. This was a surprise. I’d been guaranteed a private room, and mine was the only room other than the one the entire family slept in. The hostess hadn’t said anything about another tourist coming that night. She didn’t seem surprised by his arrival, but she also hadn’t cooked enough food for two people. I sensed dissembling. She quickly whipped up a couple of eggs for him.
His name was Lee and he came from Korea. The way he came to Albania from Korea was by cycling. His English was a little hard to understand—he said he picked up the language on his way across Asia—so we asked him to repeat what he said. Yes, we’d heard him right: Lee had biked all the way to Albania from Korea! That’s more than five thousand miles.
It had taken him a year and nine months. By the end of the second year, this August, he expected to reach his final destination, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and then go home. He was twenty-eight. After six years in the army, he decided he didn’t like it and he wanted to see the world. He’d never been outside of Korea before. But why cycling? Because, he explained, driving was too fast and walking was too slow. Had he been a cyclist before taking this trip? No. How did he know how to repair his bike when parts of it broke and needed fixing or replacement in Mongolia, Tajikistan, Georgia, Kosovo? YouTube.
He showed us his maps.me route. To date it looked like someone had tried to draw a straight line all the way across Asia to Europe but had an unsteady hand—tiny seismic tremors in the line, each one probably representing an unthinkable series of curves, detours, mountain passes. He told us the coldest place he’d pitched his tent was in Mongolia in February, when it was minus-25 degrees. He had two sleeping bags, so he put one inside the other and that seemed to work. He was wearing shorts and sitting not very close to the fire. Also in Mongolia, a guy posing as a cop came into his tent and said Lee had to pay to stay there. Lee managed to chase him out. He pulled a sack out of his bag and emptied onto the floor dozens of gorgeous little handpainted Uzbek chess pieces, which the four-year-old quickly began scooping up.
Lee took us outside to see his bike. It looked not much more sophisticated than those clunkers you ride around Amsterdam.
He went to take a shower and the hostess was somewhat evasive on whether she’d been expecting him or not. Where was he going to sleep? My room had two beds in it, and there was nothing for it but to offer him the other one. I think that had been her plan all along but, having promised me my own room, she was either going to set him up on the living room sofa or move her whole family out of their room and give it to him. None of that would do, so I suddenly had a roommate for the night. After Lee came back down from showering and changing, we all talked for an hour or so while the four-year-old made monstrous mischief.
Eventually Lee said he was going upstairs to sleep. I wanted to sit by the fire and read for a while, but the fire was going out, and when I asked about putting more wood on it, the hostess declined, again evasively. It was clear she didn’t want to burn any more firewood, but did not want to cop to this cost-cutting measure. Off to bed, curled into a heat-conserving ball under the covers.
I wanted to hike the Theth-Valbona pass. Well, I sort of had to hike it. Walking over this pass, about a 20-kilometer route, is the only way to travel between Theth and Valbona. In fact, it’s really the only way to get anywhere from Theth other than back to Shkodër. The problem was that there was a good chance of rain the next day. I fell asleep in that deeply uncomfortable uncertainty of not knowing what the morning would bring. The only thing I knew was that I couldn’t stay here another night.