While planning this trip, I didn’t notice that its east-west span covered almost the same territory as the former Ottoman Empire. I didn’t notice because I didn’t know. In school, we didn’t learn much about it—some ancient realm, it seemed. But the Ottoman Empire officially dissolved only about a hundred years ago.
Once you’re in this part of the world, you can feel, you can understand. There’s the presence of Islam, of course, the food, the languages, museums, and ruins, but there’s also an absence, a sense of where you’re not: this is someplace else.
But where? A gap remains. We didn’t go to Turkey proper. We spent four days in Istanbul, and none at all in the rest of the vast country, which is bigger than Texas. I imagine that is like going to New York City and nowhere else in America, or Venice/Italy—something like that. I saw the heart and the limbs of the old empire, but not what connects them. And barely the heart. You have not seen New York City after spending four days in it, and Istanbul is bigger than New York. We saw but a sliver.
We were in Ioannina, in northwestern Greece. This was after four nights on Paxos, one of those Greek islands you see in photos that make you roll your eyes: surely nowhere is that beautiful, and if anywhere is, surely no one you know has been there. But Paxos is, and you do.
James Salter is reported to have said that “one of the functions of a writer is to create envy in the reader—envy of the life that the writer is living.” I happen not to agree with that at all, although I do see where he’s coming from at the level of descriptive prose: it should give the reader the feeling of a vicariousness so voluptuous that the reader experiences that delicious expansion of awareness, familiar to anyone who has been captivated by a book, of being here, reading, while also there, where the book is unfolding. Perhaps the reader’s envy, in Salter’s sense, lies in the space perceived between these two worlds, one real and one conjured.
My determination to see Apollonia was a bit like my attraction to Përmet when I read about it in my guidebook. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but simply gazing at a single picture convinced me. A week ago Friday morning, I went to the Berat bus station with my daypack, filled with a surprise bag of snacks courtesy of my guesthouse hostess, Theodhora, whose generosity and thoughtfulness never failed to catch me off guard. I caught a minibus to Fier, a rather drab slab of urbanity that would seem to be utterly skippable; Gillian Gloyer’s Albania guidebook completely omits it except in very occasional mentions as a place from which to connect to other buses elsewhere: it’s a place you go in order to get out of it. (Part of me can’t help suspecting that guidebook authors will sometimes omit a country’s less obvious gems out of protectiveness or possessiveness, concealing them from overuse by tourists, but I don’t think that’s the case with Fier.) From Fier it’s a short ride to a village called Pojan, and from Pojan you can walk to Apollonia in less than half an hour.
I arrived in Fier and quickly found the bus stop for Pojan/Apollonia. It was at a busy street corner, with a sign listing departure and arrival times, instead of the usual gas station lot with its motley assortment of conveyances and impatient men selling tickets to them. I was glad for the forthrightness of the sign and schedule, but not for the discovery that the next bus to Pojan wasn’t due for nearly an hour and a half. Looking around, I saw no appealing options for plunking myself down for a coffee and waiting for the customary sixty-three-year-old to start talking to me and pouring me raki. Nor was I in the mood or market for that, to tell the truth, fun as it can be. I had only Apollonia in mind—and in body: I decided to walk. Keep moving! Never change!
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.
Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from just after World War II until his death in 1985, was born in Gjirokastra. So was Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most famous writer—but to call him that is to undershoot by miles. To the rest of the world, Kadare is Albania’s only famous writer, although that doesn’t make him beyond compare. Think of someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s only well-known literary export.
Think of Vargas Llosa too because he and Kadare have some similarities. They were both born in 1936, are both still alive, by and large expatriates (Vargas Llosa in Madrid, Kadare in Paris), and both have made their careers by speaking truth to political power. (It was Vargas Llosa who, on a prominent stage, made the indelible comment about Mexico that it was “the perfect dictatorship” because it was camouflaged not to look like one.) Kadare’s early books, written in the 1950s and 1960s under Albania’s nominally communist boot (in fact a fascist regime), were banned in his home country. But as Kadare’s international reputation grew, Hoxha was shrewd enough to recognize the cultural and thus exchangeable capital Kadare embodied, and didn’t entirely censor him. Kadare even became an occasional writer for the state, traveling to China on diplomatic missions and going to Vietnam during the American war, where he reported from the side of the Vietcong, via Albania’s alliance with Mao’s China.
Kadare’s writing continued to run him afoul of the government, and at least one of his manuscripts had to be smuggled out of the country for publication, but he didn’t claim asylum in Paris until 1990, just before the dismantling of the political regime in Albania. Hoxha himself had been dead five years by then, and there’s something almost poignant about Kadare staying in Albania all through the dictator’s life, as though he couldn’t bring himself to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere until its ruler had left it, too. Later, Kadare was offered the Albanian presidency (he declined, twice). They’ll be forever intertwined, these two famous Gjirokastrans: a symbol of oppression and a symbol of freedom.
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”.
In the afterword to Lolita, Nabokov enumerates some very minor details of the novel, a few of them just a sentence or even a mere word, that most readers will have probably not even noticed. He calls these “the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted.”
Likewise, the subliminal coordinates of my Albanian ambit aren’t major figures like Lee or arresting moments like my encounter with the epileptic on the hilltop above Kruja. Those episodes are the flesh, muscle and blood of my experiences here. The bones and joints, what it all hangs on and what holds it together, is the actual travel.
It poured down rain overnight, timpani on the metal roof right above us. When I woke up, I thought about staying in bed all the next day in that chilly guesthouse, reading, but this plan suddenly seemed intolerable. I thought about walking back down into Theth and finding another guesthouse for the night, but that would only accomplish improving the conditions of waiting around. I had to keep moving. I checked the weather again. My phone couldn’t locate Theth, so I asked my hostess to check hers. Cloudy, slight chance of rain. Not a nice day for hiking.
Does every day have to be a nice day, whether you’re hiking or not? Isn’t there some corollary of this-is-just-one-place-and-I’m-just-one-person that posits that weather is just weather and any day for walking is as good as any other, as long as it isn’t pouring down rain? In any case, I had a rain jacket, and Lee had already set an example for me: he had decided to visit a waterfall partway up the Theth-Valbona trail and then come back and spend another night at our guesthouse. While I was deliberating on what to do, he did what should be done: he didn’t think about it; he just got up and left, shortly after our hostess cooked us frittatas she made with nettles harvested from her property—delicious.
There was only one thing to do. I shoved all my stuff back into my bag and announced that I was setting off for Valbona. The hostess’s mother, let’s call her bubbie, objected in Albanian. Snow! she warned. All that rain in the valley the night before wasn’t rain 1000 meters up, where the trail went. But her daughter wasn’t quite so worried. Possibly a light dusting, she said; perhaps mere rain. I asked how much I owed her for the room and the food. It was somewhere under twenty dollars, but I had forgotten exactly how much, and without WiFi—did I mention her guesthouse had no WiFi?—I couldn’t check the booking site; plus she’d fed me twice and given me a beer, so I owed her for board as well as room.
She was sheepish, and wouldn’t name a price. Her face betrayed awareness that her place was lacking, her son a problem. As if deleting amenities by the hour, after breakfast the power went out. Enough. I gave her a 2,000 lekë note (about $20), fairly close to the actual listed price of the place on booking-dot-com, plus a little extra for the food (she looked a bit surprised that I gave her anything at all); and I marched off.
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.
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.