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.
Continue reading Albania 7: Berat
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.
Continue reading Albania 6: Gjirokastra
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”.
Continue reading Albania 5: Përmet, or Corrections
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.
Continue reading Albania 3: Theth to Valbona
I was an MFA writing fellow at the University of Texas while Denis Johnson was teaching in the program. Denis saw a production of one of my plays and liked it, and we got to know each other a little. In the summer of 2002, I happened to be driving to Idaho and Denis invited me to visit him at his home in the panhandle. Before I drove up from Moscow, a few hours south, I asked him if there was anything I could bring. Some half and half, please. It was a half-hour drive to the nearest store from the Johnsons’ house.
The property bordered on a federal wilderness area on one side and Canada on another. Denis told me to look for a gate and a sign that said “Doce Pasos North.” The reference, he explained, unnecessarily but as a sort of formal declamation, a diplomatic laying-aside of the entire matter, was to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. “I used to be quite the drinker,” he said, in a way that was at once offhand but definitive, understatement so laconic that it seemed intended to draw a vast pandemonium into a plainly marked but remote container. (I think he also told me he liked the name’s homophonic resemblance to John Dos Passos.)
Parked outside the house was a large vintage Cadillac convertible. Denis had bought it while he was in Texas, the crowning accessory to a general re-costuming he had undertaken when he was teaching there (cowboy hat, boots). It was a great car, he said, he’d always wanted a car like that, although he allowed that this collectible was now up in the weather of northern Idaho and was I interested in buying it. He was willing to give me a good deal and he had a price already in mind. About a decade earlier, when Jesus’ Son came out, I was talking about the book with a colleague who said he liked it but sniffed in it something of a put-on. In Idaho, Denis told me: “I wrote it because I needed money.” Continue reading Visiting Denis Johnson in Idaho