First, I don’t know anything about religious icons, or the schools that painted them. I went to another icon gallery yesterday, in Berat (to get a little ahead of myself), and there were those same long noses and bulging foreheads. What struck me as unique in Ohrid may not have been at all. Clueless! I shouldn’t have been so sure of what I was seeing, and remembered Stasiuk’s observation that unfamiliar objects can be perceived as no more than what they are in fact. (But I do think the Ohrid pieces, which were older than those housed in the Onufri Museum in Berat, were technically superior and more full of feeling. And none of the other saints look as sad as poor St. Clement, except perhaps for Onufri’s rendering of St. John the Baptist, into which it seems he poured most of his tears.)
Second, returning to Nell Zink’s line in The Wallcreeper about Albania, “Single mothers there dress and live as men”: I called Zink inclined to glibness, and she sometimes is, but this line is not an example! After reading the post, my sister sent me a link to pictures of Albanian women who really do dress and live as men. According to the artist Jill Peters’ statement:
“Sworn Virgin” is the term given to a biological female in the Balkans who has chosen, usually at an early age, to take on the social identity of a man for life. As a tradition dating back hundreds of years, this was sometimes necessary in a society that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. The Kanun states that women are the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. A family suddenly without a patriarch or male heir would find themselves in jeopardy of losing everything. As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha,” elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. She became a “he”.
Clearly, Zink knew about the burnesha tradition and was making reference to it. But by not saying so explicitly, and by setting up the reference with her “West Virginia of Europe” wisecrack, she allowed the line to be read as something like stand-up comedy, pure freewheeling fiction; the reader is encouraged not to take her seriously, or literally. (I read one review of the novel that singled out this particular line for criticism.) But Zink is being serious, and she is being literal, meanwhile dropping a little deft misdirection into the sentence.
It’s the same ingenious tactic as “You can be a gentle, clueless hippie.” I read “can be” as “It’s okay to be”; but I think what she meant was, “I recommend that you behave like.” Very much like Nabokov, Zink respects her reader by giving you opportunities to catch up with her on her unpredictable route. “Her range of reference and her computational power are immense,” Kathryn Schulz wrote in her 2015 New Yorker profile; “she has more dots, and she can connect them faster.” But Zink trusts that you’ll enjoy not having everything explained, or possibly not decoding her true meaning until years later: for example, when you go to Albania yourself, blog about the trip, and learn from your sister that (some) Albanian women actually dress and live as men, by ancient canonical custom. In other words, The Wallcreeper is still turning on lights for me years later, when I’m not even reading it. Zink called the novel “a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code.” But it’s quite evident, whether you crack any of it or not, how urgent the message is, and how clear and true its details.
Which leads me to another, more bracing correction. I said in my last post that what really holds this experience together as a narrative, in my mind, is the actual travel: buses, tickets, directions, rooms, and so on; the unremarkable but essential motion from and to—really very mundane stuff. Yet I can’t help formulating little axiomatic principles, like “the way up is harder, but the way down is more dangerous.” That’s all well and good from the safety of the philosopher’s salon, but I really do mean the way up and the way down. I’ve been on a couple of trail hikes in the last few days that required steep climbs and descents. In neither case was I wearing the shoes I brought specifically for hikes like these, a pair of impressive new trail runners with extremely grippy soles and so on and so forth. That’s because, again in each case, I hadn’t intended to wind up where I did, so I made one of the treks in my technical sandals and the other in my all-purpose Blundstone boots. Both performed well (although the Blundstones, already several years old, really need polishing now), but both hikes would have been easier if I’d had on more proper footwear.
I found myself quite aware of that as I walked—or, sometimes, scrambled, grabbing onto to shrubs for balance, spending fifteen seconds contemplating where I would plant my sole next, etc. And I was even more acutely aware of the totally non-philosophical, very literal difficulties of the way down as my steps dislodged loose rocks and caused little avalanches, or when occasionally I lost purchase and had to go into a full-body snap-back in order not to fall. I recognized how easy it would be, with one misplaced footfall or unaccommodating stone, for an apparently harmless move to send me ass-over-elbows and possibly to the hospital. That is not what you want to happen two weeks into a three-month sojourn overseas.
And so, chastened in both theory and practice, I come back down to earth. None of this is metaphor. Objects are no more than what they are in fact. Women in Albania really do dress and live as men. The way down is more dangerous, and there is sometimes more to it than meets the eye, and then an arresting eyeful. If you don’t believe that, then after a careful and tactical descent, touch down on what feels like the firm footing of the two-hundred-year-old, soul-warming Ali Pasha Tepelena bridge in the hills above Gjirokastra, with no one around in shouting distance; and as you walk across that short but narrow span, which has no guardrails, look down fifty feet to the stony riverbed that has obviously been dry for years if not centuries, and see the headstone with fresh flowers that marks the spot where some unlucky person landed and never got up.
Another subliminal coordinate, then: on the ride back from Saint Naum monastery, my taxi approached one of thousands of hairpin turns I’ve taken on this trip. Coming up the other way was a motorcycle, and as it leaned into the switchback the bike went down, spilling both driver and rider.
Traffic in both directions stopped. The riders slowly got up off the pavement. They were stunned but apparently okay. When the driver picked up the bike, it revealed a “RENT ME” sign on its fairing.
Motorcycles aren’t especially hard to control once you’ve gotten the hang of them, but they do take some practice, and as everyone knows, they’re really dangerous, even if you are expert, and even in countries where they’re a common mode of transportation. I don’t know a thing about the people on (and then not on) that bike, except that I guessed them to be a married couple in their sixties. They may have been seasoned riders; but I did notice, just before their accident, that they didn’t look like they were going fast enough to get around that twist; their speed precaution was actually an endangerment. (Right—that other bit of philosophy I’m going by these days, acquired from Chrissie Hynde, who also rides motorcycles: keep moving! Her memoir is called Reckless.)
I had plenty of time to consider them, full of concern, as they dusted themselves off. I decided they were too old to be renting a motorcycle on a lark on holiday in North Macedonia, if indeed that’s what they’d done. They made reassuring we’re-OK gestures to all the vehicles around them, but I noticed that the man had a baseball-sized scrape on his elbow (he was only wearing a t-shirt, another reckless move). Even if neither of them was otherwise injured, that abrasion alone was going to hurt and preoccupy him for quite a while.
To cite my former-ballplaying-friend again, from that same interview in 2010: I suggested to him that “a lot of sports is just trying not to get hurt”; he answered, “Also finding a way to make it seem like you’re not just trying not to get hurt.” Again, finding that place in the middle, in the groove between, partaking of both youth and age, adventure and discretion, and knowing where you sit on that continuum, which determines the proportion of each: there is the trick of it.
I guess to some degree that helps explain why you can’t just keep on going, going, going all the time, Chrissie Hynde’s dictum notwithstanding. The day I left Ohrid was the most travel-heavy of the trip so far (unless you count the twenty kilometers of walking from Theth to Valbona). I took a shared taxi from town to the Albanian border, just past Saint Naum: same price as the city bus I had taken to nearly the same spot the day before (and thus a reminder of how little money people make in this part of the world). I walked about four miles into Pogradeç, arriving at the bus stop just about exactly in time to make an 11:00 departure to Korça, one of Albania’s larger cities. Most people would have stayed in Korça for the night. There’s plenty there for tourists to do, and it’s apparently a handsome enough place. But I am really not much interested in urban bustle right now, and I was glad to arrive with enough time to drink a bottle of birra Korça in its hometown, sitting in eyeshot of the bus I was going to board next, and then press on to Përmet, in the southeast of the country. In three travel days, I had gone down nearly its entire length. Albania is really small.
There’s a lot of itinerary planning and building involved in a trip like this one, especially now that the internet is around to complicate matters: so many sites to book lodgings, thus so many more lodgings to book; places to look for food recommendations; walking distances; so on. But you start with an overview, the barest of guidance, start to feel a few tingles of interest, and ultimately operate from those, by instinct. Ever since I read about Përmet in Gillian Gloyer’s guidebook, well over a month before I left the US, I wanted to go there. It’s “really lovely,” Gloyer says, with understated delicacy. The book’s brief color photo section includes two from its environs, including one of a charming Byzantine church a few miles away in a village called Kosina. Përmet is perched over one of Albania’s loveliest rivers, the Vjosa. It’s known for its roses. It has “a budding ‘slow food’ consortium.'”
All of that is appealing on paper, I suppose, but none of it is really convincing. Yet something about these details gave me a dream of Përmet, not a sense of the real place at all but a vision of what it could be. If day-to-day travel formed the Nabokovian nerves of the novel, then this vision of Përmet was one of its vital organs, formed early in utero. It was a little like what happens to the narrator of James Salter’s notorious (and great) novel, A Sport and a Pastime, who becomes fixated on spending some months in the sleepy Burgundian town of Autun, even though he’s been cautioned that there’s no reason to go there. Preparing to leave for Autun from Paris, he asks his friends, a married couple who are letting him stay in the house they own there:
“How big is it actually?”
Billy doesn’t know. He turns to her.
“It’s very small,” Cristina says.
“Fifteen thousand,” he guesses.
“It’s not that small,” I say. “It’s bigger than that.”
“It’s small,” he warns. “Believe me.”
Përmet was not a far ride from Korça: 81 miles, roughly the equivalent of driving from Raleigh to Greensboro. Not far, but long. It takes four hours, because of the twisting, often bumpy mountain road. I made sure to pee after my birra Korça and boarded the bus, one of just eight people taking the only public transport from Korça to Përmet that day.
The ride did not seem to last anywhere near as long as four hours. My mind went into a state of drift and detachment. Chrissie Hynde is, surprisingly, a meditator, which you wouldn’t expect from a keep-moving-never-changer. But to meditate can be to move as well as to sit, once you get past conscious motion and into something perhaps more… fetal. On the ride to Përmet I didn’t read or write—couldn’t, not on that torturous and tortuous road—and didn’t I drink any water, either: who knew when (or if) we would stop for a bathroom break? The minibus windows were double-paneled, and the exterior panes were cloudy with scum, so the only views were what I could occasionally, momentarily glimpse through the windshield, and I spent a fair amount of time watching the driver’s elbow as he rotated the steering wheel into hundreds of turns. This sight I found pleasing. Later on, I must have gone somewhere inside myself, but I can’t say where. I wasn’t thinking; my mind was present but suspended. We stopped once, under that enormous plane tree I showed you in my last post, and then we arrived after five more minutes or two more hours in Përmet. I walked to the nearest recommended hotel in the guidebook, looked at a 15-euro room that was clean and well-appointed and had a balcony overlooking the main square, took it on the spot, and went for a walk in a town I immediately felt like I’d been living in half my life.
Maybe the affinity had something to do with size. In terms of absolute population, Durham is a lot bigger than Përmet; but Albania has only two cities of more than 100,000 people (depending on what figures you go by), which makes Përmet’s Autun-coequal 15,000 quite a bit larger in proportion: something like Durham, relative to the population of its own country (Albania has only three million people). I’m comfortable in places like that, in small cities. Not that I don’t enjoy the wattage and vitality of the metropolis: I’ve lived happily in more than one of them; but there’s a way in which big cities are really just a lot of small ones crammed together, and even in London and New York you find smaller, more human-scaled stomping grounds (Camden Town, Greenwich Village).
Something I’ve noticed about Albanians: they all love Përmet. Mention that I was going, or afterwards that I’d been there, and their faces brightened. Përmet, they almost invariably say, is clean and beautiful, the air is fresh, and the people are gracious. To be clear, its architecture is nothing special, and “‘It’s small,’ he warns. ‘Believe me.'” Just a few blocks in any direction from the central piaca, it gives way to scruffy villages on three sides and to the river on the other. Its only real attraction, the landmark “City Rock,” whose summit yields good views of the town and the river, is itself rather ugly. That’s partly because it’s way too big for the town, as though it was intended for Istanbul or Rome by a careless god who dropped it on Përmet by accident, whereupon perhaps the people were pleased that it flattened a dragon, so it was left there.
You’d probably be perplexed by my enthusiasm for Përmet if you were to go there, in the way of Proust’s dashing Robert de Saint Loup who, dispatched by the hapless, lovesick protagonist to track down Albertine—the suddenly fugitive love of the protagonist’s life—on finding her in Tours, can’t believe such a plain girl has been the object of his friend’s enormous affection (and angst). In any case, I was so happy in Përmet that I could have stayed there indefinitely, even though there was nothing much to do. I found the best byrek I’d had so far in Albania, and a nice little mom-and-pop restaurant a couple of blocks from the hotel. There I had a pair of really good hearty, fresh dinners that reminded me that restaurant means restorative. They welcomed me for coffee each morning like we were old friends. When I needed a knife to cut a tomato and cucumber in my hotel room, they gave me one. I asked them once to refill my water bottle and they simply handed me a two-liter, ice-cold jug of it.
In the evenings, Përmet’s promenade filled with what seemed like half its fifteen thousand residents, all out for the traditional xhiro—the evening stroll I’ve seen almost everywhere I’ve gone in Albania. It’s a shame we don’t observe the same custom in the US: this easy, unhurried walking-off of the day toward sunset, pausing now and again to greet our fellow Përmetians/Durhamites/[etc.], perhaps stopping somewhere to sit outside and have a little coffee or a short drink. (Instead we have happy hour, I guess: heavy boozing in cramped bars.) Përmet’s small but pleasant park was liberally planted with the rosebushes for which the town is well known in Albania.
On my first full day in Përmet, I walked up (and then down, because I overshot) to that little Byzantine church in the village of Kosina whose picture in the I kept lingering over in the guidebook, which recommended inquiring locally for access inside the church. A farm girl in the village tried to help me. We communicated in a patois assembled from broken shards of Albanian, Italian, and English. She asked me about where I’d been and told me that she longed to travel, too; the place she most wanted to go was, oddly, Singapore. When I told her I’d been there, she was dumbstruck. What can you possibly do for work, she wanted to know, that
Përmets permits you to travel so far and wide? I don’t think of myself as an obedient member of the American rat race, but I told her I had two jobs, which was true for a healthy chunk of 2018, and I was a bit chastened by the sudden recognition that I had been conforming quite fully to our national stereotype: the overworked American, obsessed with nonstop doing, earning, stockpiling money, and burning through the hours of a lifetime without ever looking up from the job.
On the way to the church, the girl asked a few people for help getting me into it, but no one seemed interested in dropping what they were doing. I didn’t blame them, and frankly just the walk to it, bringing to life the image I’d gazed upon in the guidebook so many times, in Proustian fashion, was satisfying enough (although the truly Proustian response would have been to find it disappointing, which I did not.)
On the door of the church was a sign giving a name—Vasil Thomollari, another subliminal coordinate I’m not likely to forget—and a phone number. So I broke a pretty hard rule regarding my phone in Albania: I used it to make a call. Texts and low-speed data are free under my plan, but calls are a quarter a minute. This seemed like a justifiable exception. I tapped out the number, was surprised that the call to country code 355 went through, and more surprised that someone on the other end answered.
“A flisni Anglisht?” (Three of the twentyish Albanian words I know, sadly, are “You speak English?” which somehow seems to invalidate my claim on the other words I know.)
“ … “
“Turisti Americano. Kish. Kosina.” (Kish = Church.)
Ten minutes later, a car pulled up. From its passenger side emerged none other than the village priest, in full black vestment. He was sixty-three years old. I know his age because later he showed me his ID, one of a number of Albanians who have seemed eager to do so. I thanked him profusely for responding to my call. We went inside the church. The interior was in stark contrast to its charming, healthy, spruce exterior. The room was dilapidated, the frescoes were mostly eroded, not even remotely a rival for the walls and ceilings of religious buildings I’d just seen in Ohrid; as Gloyer fairly pleads in her guidebook, “the whole church urgently needs conservation.” But standing in it for a few minutes with Father Vasil, who simply allowed me to walk around and take it in, was for me a perfectly fulfilling experience.
Afterwards, he insisted on driving me back into Përmet. “No lekë,” he promised, a free ride. Although there were no identifying markers on it, the car he’d arrived in was actually a taxi, and I got the impression that he needed to go into town anyway. Even if he didn’t, his offer wouldn’t have surprised me. All this generosity in Albania is so widespread and so daily—free food and drink, offers of cigarettes, lifts down the road, escort on foot to a point on the map well out of the escort’s way—that the traveler runs the risk of getting used to it and taking it for granted.
I’m determined not to let that happen to me. When we got back to town, where Father Vasil didn’t appear to have any business, after all, I offered to buy him a coffee, and wouldn’t hear of him saying no. So there we were in the very late afternoon at an outdoor table by the main street. We probably looked quite the pair over our coffees: the man robed in priestly black and the hiker in dirty shorts and sandals. (Actually, I know we looked quite the pair: I have a picture of us.) Passersby who knew Vasil greeted him with amusement, whether out of surprise or there-goes-old-Thomollari-again I don’t know. He and I talked for a while, using our hands, short words, and a lot of Google Translate. What I remember most clearly is that he said he had a kidney removed a few years ago, and for that reason had to decline a second coffee.
As for Përmet’s luminous Bektashi teqe, I’ll have to let this picture suffice for the thousand words I don’t have the capacity to write, and for the hundred long, transfiguring breaths I sat inside and took.
The next day I walked up to the village of Leusa, where there’s an old monastery still bright inside with frescoes, and bats dangle gently from one of the cupolas (although the exterior painting has been unconscionably damaged by etched graffiti). A group of students from Italy were having the run of the place, and I mostly confined myself to the corners and the upper level. It was just as well. The icon paintings were by now familiar to me since my exposure to Ohrid’s, and I found myself getting interested in the nonreligious margins where the painter had freedom to make sheer aesthetic choices: the man-in-the-moon (and man-in-the-sun) hanging around the bottom of one frame, for instance; and why this particular blue-and-white filigree here, preferred over all other possible border designs? I was quite taken by the part of the ceiling that looked from below liked stained glass but turned out, on closer inspection, to be wood still shiny with old paint.
Maps.me indicated another monument kulture not far from the monastery at Leusa, although it didn’t indicate exactly what the monument was. The walk there was deceptively long and difficult, because the map didn’t alert me to the plunging ravine separating the monastery from the diminutive mystery monument, which was hard to spot even from a mere twenty meters away across a thickly vegetated gully, let alone to tell what the thing actually was. It looked like a monolith that had been partly thatched, or some sort of hairy hut, or even an interesting but harmless woodland creature of the neolithic age. After an arduous walk up-over-and-down, proceeding by guesswork and tentative calculation, laughing at how tantalizingly close and vexingly far it was, the ravine having made a short distance as the crow flies quite long on foot, I finally got within mere feet of the monument. There I found the last few steps blocked by barbed wire, which went all the way up the slope.
An unusual feature of the Albanian landscape, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on until someone I met on my travels (ultrarunner Alex maybe?) identified it in words, is how little fencing the countryside has. You can walk pretty much wherever you want, including on private land, and no one seems to care very much. The whole country has a very open, welcoming feel. So when I encountered this firm and long and injurious and thorough barrier, I took it as a sign that I was very much not invited to explore whatever the monument was. Even at just a few feet away from the furry, hermetic thing, I could barely make out its shape and nature, for it was heavily obscured by dense overgrowth that, though wild and tangled, seemed as deliberately mounted as the barbed wire. So I left it there, a truly secret point, not only in the Nabokovian sense but a secret to me, too: an obscure and unprepared pilgrimage made to an enigmatic, impenetrable endpoint.
The old Chinese proverb about the freshness of houseguests and fish (three days) applies to travel, too. Unless I was going to settle into Përmet for a longer stint and get to work on some writing I’ve brought with me overseas, it was time to push on. I gave the notion of staying there lengthy, serious consideration as I slowly descended the trail back to town, and had very nearly decided to stay for perhaps as much as another week. But as it happened, when I returned to the hotel the owner intercepted me and said that my room had been booked for the following night—a full year earlier, in fact, by a German tour group. The entire hotel would be full.
I stood corrected, and reminded to keep moving. The next morning I found a cheap souvenir that was at once the most ordinary of clichés and entirely unlikely. Then I caught a morning bus from gentle, idyllic Përmet to steep, austere Gjirokastra, the city famous in the twentieth century for one man’s birth and infamous for another’s. I’d known well before I arrived in Albania that Gjirokastra would be an important stop on my route, for I had business there. Yes, take only pictures and leave only footprints; but I had brought with me from America something weighty and tangible to leave in Gjirokastra, a seed to plant in Albania’s forbidding City of Stone.