I have all but lost my way lugging my worldly belongings to the Mosaic Home Hostel by Google map when Jessica calls me on Whats App. I tell her my location – a quiet restaurant with a bar and half its tables and chairs outdoor under an awning.
While we wait for our lunch to share, of roast wild boar with potatoes, Jessica pulls out a wonderful surprise of presents for me and the family! Mine is an expensive book we browsed in the bookstore at Skanderbeg Square last night on Enver Hoxha – the communist dictator who ruled Albania and locked her people away from the rest of the world for 40 odd years.
And once again Albania cowered in a hut In her dark mythological nights And on the strings of a lute strove to express something Of her incomprehensible soul, Of the inner voices That echoed mutely from the depths of the epic earth. She strove to express something But what could three strings Beneath five fingers trembling with hunger express? It would have taken hundreds of miles of strings And millions of fingers To express the soul of Albania! Ismail Kadare, “What are these Mountains thinking About”
Of the countries in Europe, including former feudal statelets known by their postage stamps and large new nations that arose from the collapse of Communism, none is as mystifying and hard to get your head around as Albania.
On my first visit, to the southern city of Sarande sixteen years ago by boat from Corfu, I was warned that Albania was a dangerous place full of criminals and crazy people. Today although Albania’s fortune and standing have vastly improved, its oddball image remains tangled up with its lingering badass reputation
Everything about Albania marks it out as an oddity. It is Europe’s only officially atheist, muslim majority, ex-socialist, now staunchly pro-American country which once only friend and close ally was Mao Tse-Tung’s China. Albanians, or Shqiptare as they call themselves, claim to be the most ancient people in the region and are the direct descendants of the first humans in the Balkans. Their language is obscure and fabulously unique being the sole member of an isolated branch of the Indo-Aryan family that has survived the influence and onslaught of Greek, Latin, and Slavic.
Jessica’s family comes from Kukës, a picturesque lakeside town surrounded by mountains in the country’s northeast. Home for them is now Tirana – a city where she was born and brought up. Jessica sacrifices time to show me her city; supplementing my bookish knowledge with stories about her proud, wonderful but historically traumatised country.
Tribal geography, blood honour coupled with centuries of subjugation, neglect and misrule have gone into creating today’s Albania : a marginal and poor land that is disproportionately abundant, welcoming and generous in human spirit and possibility.
My three nights in Tirana have been tantalisingly short – barely sufficient time to scratch beneath the city’s surface to uncover its hidden past and apprehend its overt idiosyncrasies. But I am closer now to understanding the true meaning of Buk’ e krip’ e zemër (bread, salt and our hearts) – the old Albanian offering to any guest who comes purely and in peace.