Faik Konitza



Another Englishwoman in Albania

Impressions of summer 2010


The catamaran San Marco noses into the Port of Durrës - an hour and a half late. It's a fine July day and the sea not especially rough, but the San Marco is a small craft and the resistance of even a low swell is enough to slow her down.


My friends, Ligor and Taulant, wait at the narrow entrance to the port to drive me to Përrenjas. It is my fourth visit to Albania in almost as many years, and Safet and Anida have invited me to a wedding. As we leave Durrës, heading down the familiar coast road towards Kavajë, I feel a flush of happiness. I'm back. At my request we stop in Elbasan. I have heard about the renovated castle, and how until recently only a small portion of the walls was visible above the accumulated mud and earth. Now the ancient stoneworks have been excavated and cleaned, and inside we find a cool retreat of gardens, a restaurant and terraced cafés. As we set off on the next leg of the journey the sun is sinking. We are climbing slowly, towards the mountains, through narrow, tree-lined gorges, along the valley of the river Shkumbin. We follow the route of the ancient Via Egnatia, through Librazhd, until abruptly we turn off the road towards a few scattered lights shining in the darkness.


It feels like a dream as the car halts and we get out. The air is full of loud, joyful Albanian music, but it's so dark it takes me a few seconds to recognise the little family party gathered beside the road to welcome me. I'm exhausted, but I'm swept along on a wave of warmth and enthusiasm, and borne into the house. I'm offered a special pair of slippers, but I'm happy to go barefoot like everybody else. There are more than a dozen family members of all ages waiting to greet me – impossible to work out at once how each one is related. But my few faltering words of Albanian evoke amused tolerance, and I take my place at the dinner table. The food is delicious, and the meal punctuated very frequently by raised raki glasses: gëzuar! gëzuar! As guests, Ligor – who drove from Tirana to collect me – and I are served half the sheep's head each. Tentatively, I Perrenjassample the tongue and brains – not bad! And then my hosts start to sing, and the strong, polyphonic sounds catch me by the throat and overwhelm me.


Later that evening we visit the bride's parents. Male and female guests are shepherded into different rooms. The women are packed into seats lining the walls, smiling and talking. I know that everything is taking place according to rules and customs that date back beyond memory, and for me it is a privilege to be involved. The music plays long into the night, but I fall asleep, exhausted.

Përrenjas is a mining town. In its heyday, men used to come down from the mountains, walking for hours to find work, Safet tells me. Now the industrial buildings lie empty and in ruins, dominated by the imposing 'twin towers'. Rusting trains stand in unused sidings. But its strategic position on Albania's main east-west highway generates an incessant coming and going. Now, backpackers and cyclists are a more frequent sight, on their way east towards Lake Pogradec, or west to the sea. As we walk in the hills above the town, Safet points out parcels of land that used to by worked communally but now lie unused, their ownership in many cases uncertain.

The next day we visit the bride's family again, and find the guests already dancing in the sunlit garden. I am curious to note that one of the young girls, in smock, leggings and sandals, has a large crucifix round her neck. Isn't this community Muslim? Yes, but apparently so profound is the religious tolerance that it's not unusual for families from different faiths to share symbols. The bride, Enkeleda, is radiant. Her dress - a tight bodice above shimmering waves of frothy white fabric cascading to her feet – sets off her golden skin and intensely black hair. I cause consternation by bringing a present as well as 'an envelope'. It's not the done thing. In the evening the main party takes place. Erald, the bridegroom arrives, heading a procession of family and friends. He looks proud and elated. There is more food than anyone can eat and we dance until 3am. The bride is on her feet all evening – one dance after another, while guests stuff her bodice with banknotes.

The following morning we return once more, to see Enkeleda driving away with her new husband. Before she leaves, the women crowd round her, singing and decking her in jewellery. She looks exhausted – still in her tight wedding gown. In the hot, crowded room, she appears to be in danger of fainting. As one woman after another launches into an emotion-laden benediction, her eyes fill with tears. She is leaving her family. It is a momentous day.

So the wedding is over, the guests have departed, and one day we take a trip to Lake Pogradec. At Piskupat the water is clear blue and limpid in the sunshine, stretchingLake Pogradec before us towards the mountains of Macedonia. Below the surface we spot serpents and shoals of little fish. A simple restaurant stands on stilts over the lake, and we eat fresh Koran, the delicious but rare fish that lives only in the deep waters here and in Lake Baikal in Russia.

On my last day, we venture into the mountains to visit relatives in the tiny village of Lepushe. Bujar drives in his 'Albanian 4x4' – a battered Audi '88 that rattles over the ruts and stones of the unmade track. It takes some two hours to cover just 30 km. Like so many villages in Albania, Lepushe and its residents are isolated not by distance as such, but by the lack of road infrastructure, which makes access to schools, doctors and many other vital services difficult and arduous. I can only imagine what this track must be like in winter. We stop at regular intervals for Bujar to lift the bonnet and make improvised repairs. But he is confident that we’ll make it – and we do!

Farret is the local market town. During my recent visits to Albania I have been impressed to see that the piles of rubbish that used to disfigure the entrance to almost every village have largely disappeared. But Farret is the exception. At the central crossroads, the detritus of commercial activity lies everywhere: discarded pallets, bags, boxes... Rubbish has been ground into the very soil over years. Lepushe is deserted apart from a bar, where the friendly owner poses for photographs, and a young woman herding goats. We climb up the steep mountain on foot. As we get higher, an awe-inspiring panorama of peaks opens up behind us. We reach a green plateau, where two young men are making hay, shouldering loads as big as they are on their pitchforks.

They welcome us into the house. The room is plain, the white walls decorated with strands of bright plastic flowers and the small family photographs of weddings and ancestors that one finds in every home. As guests, we sit with the men around the table while the women of the family serve coffee and raki. Three young brothers live in this house, with their wives and children. The setting is breathtaking but the harshness of their lives is evident. “You only have to look around,” says their 22-year-old cousin At LepusheGenti. “It's a disaster. The people suffer a lot and there's no government action. Mountains are beautiful everywhere – in France, in Italy, but here we have no way to exploit them. There's no work and people live in poverty.” He has recently qualified as a health worker in Elbasan, but there is no chance of exercising his profession here. Despite their isolation, Genti and his cousins can converse confidently in four languages. He is waiting for visa liberalisation, and looking to move to the European Union. Suddenly I am startled by a loud bang. One of the brothers walks back into the room and leans a rifle casually against the wall. He has been signalling to neighbours the presence of visitors in his home.

At the next house, the rules of hospitality compel us to stay for a generous lunch. Everyone is curious to see the newcomers, and an elderly lady with a smiling face, her hair wrapped in a blue scarf, hugs me like a daughter when I tell her this place is “shumë bukur”.

Selami, one of the brothers, accompanies us back down the mountain. This rigorous life and pure environment build strong men, he tells me proudly. He stoops to grasp a fat brown toadstool which explodes into powder in his hand. “If you ate that, you'd die,” he warns. “But it wouldn't harm me.” Further down he stops beside a bush. “Look, a snake!” I strain my eyes but can see nothing amid the dark foliage. He could pick it up, and even if it bit him he would suffer no ill effects, he insists. I think I believe him. As we leave this curious world where harsh conditions and age-old tradition confront modern innovation, Selami gives me his email address. “Keep in touch”, he urges me. Yes, I will.

Kate Holman

Republished by kind permission of 'Albania'






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