It occurred to me that I was really in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation—even if it wasn’t a part I relished […] But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, a sailor—landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before.
I came across the above lines quoted in a piece of writing I’m revising. They’re from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. No question there’s a fundamental part of the sentiment I can’t connect to, since Coates is describing what it feels like to be African-American and, for the first time in his life, not in America: the “garden” is the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris. But when I came to those lines today, I instantly recalled the feeling I had when I arrived in Albania three weeks ago: landless, disconnected, alien.
How much longer than three weeks ago it seems! I feel quite at home in Albania now. Most of the initial uncertainty and anxiety are gone. It’s not to say I know much of anything at all about this country, but the condition of not-knowing has changed. I’ve settled into my ignorance and I’m fine with it. I just am who I am here: a gentle, clueless hippie.
And I no longer “struggle to associate colors, smells, dim memories,” in Andrzej Stasiuk’s words, which I quoted in my first post from Albania, while I was still getting my sea legs under me, so to speak. Familiarity sets in quickly: there’s Albanian red on all the flags; the by-now familiar pungency and oily clearness of raki, which I’ve sipped all over the country; and there are dim memories that are at once stabilizing and cross-contaminating. Albania has honeysuckle and jasmine, just like we have in North Carolina, and they smell the same. It has black crows, Snickers bars, and people wearing t-shirts with inane English catchphrases on them (albeit occasionally misspelled in Albania); it has the same faint aromas of not-quite-closed sewers and burning garbage that became powerful indicators of place during the two stints I spent in Jakarta, Indonesia. A couple of times here, in the drift of those aromas—which I don’t actually find unpleasant, because I associate them with unforgettable travels in another part of the world—I’ve sometimes had to stop myself from thanking vendors with the words “terima kasih,” which is Bahasa Indonesia. In Albanian, “thank you” is “faleminderit.” (The accent is on the fourth syllable.) If anything, at times I struggle to disassociate colors, smells…
Too, there is consistency from town to town in this country: ethnographic museums, steep walks uphill to ruined castles; someone selling appealing-looking produce from baskets on the sidewalk. That late-spring produce is the very nearly the same as what I found in Provence at the same time of year, if a bit less varied here: young garlic, cucumbers, strawberries, apricots, snap beans. In isolation, any of these details can transport me somewhere else, or in any case transpose themselves onto other locales. “The world is not very big,” an illustrious writer told Heather and me in parting a couple of years ago in London, a pitch-perfect farewell to bid people you aren’t sure you’ll ever see again, because they fall into that category of acquaintance with whom it’s fifty-fifty that each visit will be the last. (It so happens that Heather is seeing him tomorrow. His absorbing new novel is about, among other concerns, how simultaneously big and small the good world is.)
In any case, what you know of the world reappears everywhere, which is to say, No matter where you go, there you are, in the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai. And once you stop moving so much, what you know of it begins to take hold right around you. Before I left for Albania, I told family and friends that part of my purpose in traveling was to find an uncluttered place and time to write. My first two weeks here were given to the excitement of seeing the country, but soon I felt my internal rhythms and needs change, and by the time I reached Përmet my inner sonar was actively seeking a place where I could focus my gaze down onto pages (or screens, as the case may be): a very familiar, very comforting routine for me, no matter where in the world I do it.
What do writers need, I asked in my last post? I arrived at the bigger, more abstract conclusions via Joyce and Orwell: silence, exile, cunning; less flatteringly vanity, selfishness, laziness. More practically, there is Woolf’s famous room of one’s own and Hemingway’s clean, well-lighted place. And you need a sort of lucky break: not the one that lands you on the bestseller list but the one that snaps the writing mechanism into place. It’s a delicate and only half-explicable combination of circumstances, and it isn’t always the same. Writers are constitutionally finicky; it’s easy to throw us off our game, or sometimes unexpectedly back on it. I was not expecting to write very much about my trip to Albania. I’ve written 20,000 words.
I left Gjirokastra after two nights, which were the appropriate number for me to stay. From there I took a bus to Berat, which in terms of sheer aesthetics is the best-looking city I’ve seen in Albania. That’s partly because its two historic quarters, Gorica and Mangalem, which face one another from hillsides across the Osum(i) River, like rivals to see which is the prettiest, were declared “museum zones” by the communist regime in the 1960s and left untouched; today, there are strict rules about what kinds of renovations property owners can do to these attractive, historic houses, in order to maintain the image; and so Berat—another World Heritage site (so is Gjirokastra)—retains its museum-like character. And it has its hilltop castle (a nice one, even though the ominous name ENVER has been graffiti’d onto its tower in 8,000-point font), its ethnographic museum (didn’t go), its art museum (good enough; no Ohrid), and its Byzantine cross-in-square churches (never anything less than charming).
If I’m making Berat sound a little been-there-done-that, that’s not Berat’s fault; it’s mine. Had I started here three weeks ago rather than in Kruja, I might have found Kruja less interesting than I did. The experience of travel is very much about the order in which you see places and things. I made a deliberate choice to get into the deep end of Albanian travel fairly soon after arriving; it has gotten easier over the last week and a half, not only because I’ve grown more familiar with the country’s ways (albeit superficially, in a tourist context), but also because I’ve visited easier and easier places. Përmet was placid; Gjirokastra straightforward and straight uphill; Berat is urbane, low-key, and seems fairly well-heeled. It knows itself and gives the feeling of a city that is quite comfortable in its own skin. It has not been the scene of extensive mass protests and other upheavals, as in Shkodër. It does not have Gjirokastra’s vertiginous, challenging urban design—a city steep as San Francisco, and made mostly of heavy, commanding stone—or a twentieth-century history quite as complicated.
That’s not to say Berat has been going peacefully and obliviously about its Beratitude all this time while its surrounding country has done all the heavy lifting of Albania’s weighty past; this place has been inhabited since antiquity, and like everywhere else it has been invaded and sacked, built and rebuilt, and so on. But Berat feels different: less rattled, more assured.
I booked yet another $15/night guesthouse for the customary two nights. The place is small, just three rooms, but clean and well-appointed, and I was alone in it for those two nights. My hostess—the mother of the woman who handles booking—was an absolutely delightful human being named Theodora. She brought me breakfast, which was included in the price, and surprised me later on with fresh fruit, and with gliko she made from that fruit (gliko is simply fruit conserve in syrup) and plates of whatever she was making for herself in her living quarters below mine: qofte, fritters, rice pudding.
I had another host of sorts here, another anchor of familiarity. My coworker back home, Sokol, is from Berat. Of the three reasons I gave for my choice to come to Albania, he’s by far the most compelling. It was Sokol who talked about his home, Sokol who gave me a tactile sense of the country. His father still lives here, and he and I met for coffee on my first full day in town. After coffee, he suggested lunch. Before I knew what was happening, he was driving us way up into the hills about thirty kilometers southeast of Berat, to a village called Bogovë. There he parked at an inn overlooking the river. I told him to order for us. We had what was described to me as lamb head. I thought I detected some ribs in there, too, but what I know for certain was that it was delicious. This was the kind of food you want to pick up with your hands and gnaw on, and that is exactly what we did. Everything Sokol’s dad did betokened a grab-it-by-the-bones gusto we should all borrow, at least sometimes. It’s an unassuming, embracing reach right out into life. There was no ceremony in any of his actions, just unadulterated, unhesitating yes to everything. He drove avidly, he ate avidly; he interacted with me, a stranger, avidly, as though we’ve always known each other, like I was his nephew. He had us stop and take pictures together.
Integral to Albania’s kanun is a profound respect for, even devotion to guests. According to tradition, which Sokol has elucidated for me, if a stranger showed up in an Albanian village, it was the village’s sworn duty to take that stranger in and lavish the best of everything on him or her. If I’m understanding this correctly, you are to treat a guest as you would treat a king if he walked into your village, better than you would your own flesh and blood. This is an enormously important, besa-level point of honor. I could see inklings of that in Sokol’s dad, who wouldn’t let me pay for anything and, in parting at my guesthouse, left me with olives, raki, wine, and gliko, all of which he makes at his home, gifts which were not only an expression of besa but also communicated an eagerness to give back to the world at least some small part of himself in exchange for what it gave him, to reciprocate in his savor and delight; and it communicated that the world isn’t very big as explicitly as the novelist saying it out loud.
Sometimes Sokol’s dad walked with a little strut, the same strut I sometimes see from Sokol. It’s the strut not of pride but of a gladness to be here that picks the heels right up off the cobblestones. (It also embodies the lower center of gravity that I perceive in Albanians; they walk more connected to the earth than Americans do, with our generally prancing, pinched step.) I began to feel like I was getting to know Sokol a little better, seeing the place he came from and the man who brought him to life, the daily ways of Berat and its people (Beraters?).
More than anything, Sokol’s dad simply made me feel welcome here, and so did Theodora at the guesthouse. And I could feel that snapping into place of the lever I was waiting for, the joint aligning with bone that says: it’s all in place here; stay; sit; work. I asked Theodora if I could keep my room longer, and it turned out I could keep my room all week. In fact, I’ve been the only one here since I arrived. Every morning, Theodora brings up breakfast, and it’s always a fun first-thing-in-the-morning discovery of something never before encountered (breakfast has never been the same twice.). She surprises me with snacks and fruit; we commiserate that we don’t speak each other’s language, and use hand signs, our pidgin English and pidgin Albanian, and the babel fish prototype that is Google Translate. Then I sit down and write in one of the other guest rooms that has been unoccupied all week, not the one I sleep in, which has no desk or table; Theodora was kind enough to let me spread out into this second room, even though I’m not paying for it. In other words, I have not a room of my own but two; and both are clean and well-lighted. Tonight, Theodora insisted on doing my laundry.
Afternoons, I take a break and maybe go for a run, which in just a few kilometers takes me to parts of town where it’s still a previous century. I don’t mean the twentieth—I mean the nineteenth. It’s still alive here. Men drive sheep, or lead pack mules towing carts. Women use scythes in the fields. The older people walk almost impossibly slowly, not because they can’t go faster, but as if conserving energy against ancient, implacable devastating hardships that have been impending since antiquity: famine, invasion, plague.
Or I hike up to the top of the castle. On the way back down to the guesthouse, I buy some produce or eggs or a byrek or a rotisserie chicken and take my provisions back to my little kitchen and eat them accompanied by some of Sokol’s dad’s raki (once I splurged on a perfectly fresh and satisfying red wine that was made up the street and cost $4/bottle). My food budget, on which I eat perfectly well, is about three dollars a day. After eating, I write for a while longer, then move to my bedroom and read, and I’m soon sound asleep. I wake up in my room which looks out onto picturesque Mangalem quarter and the cliff face atop which is Berat Castle, and in which is nestled one of those lovely Byzantine cross-in-square churches, like the one in Kosina. I feel as though I’ve been living here for years, not days.
It’s phenomenally lucky, and perhaps it sounds very romantic, too. In many ways, it is. But writing is really not romantic at all, and it’s likely that anyone who says it is is a bad writer. It’s mostly sitting there putting sentences together, taking them apart, and putting them back together again. It’s a tremendous amount of sheer staring, either deep into the screen or very deliberately away from it. In the case of this particular project, I’m not writing, I’m rewriting; and today in “uphill-harder-downhill-more-dangerous,” uphill is writing, downhill is rewriting. Maybe it seems like it should be the other way round, but for me that’s how it is. Generating new material is a healthy climb. You may not know quite where you’re going, but if you keep marching up, up, up, you’re going to arrive somewhere. It’s a matter of stamina and determination, sweat (sometimes literally), the generation of forward motion, and optimism that a summit is reachable. All of tat is fairly easy to come by if you’ve been at it for some years, which I have.
In fact, although many writers lament the solitary hours, I find that I’m not alone when I write: I have a team to help me, and that team is other parts of me. There’s the original planner who plotted the route, there’s the hike leader who forges the way, and there is a small squad of assistants who revise as the leader goes, marking blazes, changing tacks, clearing foliage, and so on. This is a horrendous analogy, but I’m well up in it, so:
Downhill, revising, you are on your own. Your team did its work, and now you basically have to get back to the place you started by making sure the trail you blazed is followable, i.e. readable by someone else. You are no longer generating any propulsion, which was salutary exercise on the way up, even fun if it has gone well. You are now fighting gravity, sidewinding, steadying yourself on branches, trying to stay low to the ground when you can. The number of mistakes you can make is quite large, because you made this path and now you have to stick to it and try to tidy it up so that others can walk it. There is no choosing that ridge over there anymore; you’ve narrowed the way to just this one, and if you go over there you’ll never work your way back to where you began. Remember not to step in that place right there because you discovered on the way up that it’s a sinkhole. Maybe you dislodge a word and fifty others go tumbling down the slope after it, taking out all sorts of waymarks you left behind. This section that seemed simple on the way up is ankle-turning misery coming down. You proceed with caution, even apprehension. You wonder if it was worth climbing this hill in the first place. Sometimes you get stuck for long, paralyzing minutes. The flat stretches come to seem like no relief at all but a total bore. Sometimes you see a quicker way down but are worried about the consequences of making the cut. Elsewhere, you see you should have used more switchbacks. Have I worn this analogy out yet? I think I did, a ways back.
Tomorrow my little artist residency gets crashed by another guest—two, actually, sharing a room, neither of the ones at my disposal. I understand they’re Chilean, which means I may get to speak Spanish in Albania. They’re only here for a night, so I expect they’ll be gone most of the day. If not, I’ll write in bed, like Proust. On Friday, I’m taking a day trip to Apollonia, an ancient Illyrian ruin that eighteen hundred years ago was the domain of Pyrrhus, the guy who gave us Pyrrhic victories, which is what writing often amounts to.
As I said in another post, I packed for a summer trip. I was not expecting the cool weather that has obtained pretty much throughout my three weeks in Albania, marked by frequent rains that haven’t generally been heavy but have been persistent. (An exception was two days ago, when Berat got soaked from morning to night; a good day to write, or rather rewrite, which is what I did from breakfast to bedtime, with a rain-pelted walk in between.)
Something is about to change, though. I remember from previous trips to France around this time of year that the mistral blew hard cold wet wind down on us until one day it abruptly stopped, like a paid mourner who has been relieved of duty—and it was suddenly summer. I don’t know if the mistral reaches all the way to Albania, or if it’s sirocco or simoom or one of those countless other funny words for seasonal or sea-specific winds that they have in Europe; but whatever it is, it appears to be closing up shop tomorrow. The forecast for pretty much everywhere I can get to on a bus from here is mid-eighties and not a cloud in the sky for as long and far as the smartphone weather app can see.
That’s another piece of luck: just as my little revising project is reaching a natural stopping point, the weather is getting beachy, and the beach is where I’m headed to meet Heather on Saturday. From there it’ll only get warmer—Greece, Turkey, July, August—and there’ll be times when we’re wishing for these cool nights again (she’s had them even cooler up in Ireland); but not too much. Like the poet says, winter gets cold in ways you always forget, and I’ll take summer over it anywhere in the world. Fortunately, we have numerous places in the world on our itinerary, and I’m curious to see what the weather will be in each of them, and what they call the wind there.