I’m in a tiny Tirana café built around a eucalyptus tree. John Belushi, the Madonna and someone’s deceased grandma charm its wooden walls. I sip a macchiato to start my day. At the bar, an old man in an old suit orders a raki. It’s not quite nine, yet he’s downing a shot of five-alarm firewater. A minute later, another grandpa does the same.
Near the Avni Rustemi roundabout, there are grilled meat joints where I sometimes sit after dark, enjoying the breeze and gazing at the sidewalk. For around $5, I can stuff my face with kebabs, sausages and fries, and drink a large beer. Even in the morning, though, there are old farts at these zgara places, with fat mugs in front of them. Albanians start early, I’ve learnt.
In Shkoder, there are many kebab carts on sidewalks. Served on a soft roll, each costs less than a buck. Some mustard would help, certainly, but this is not Germany. Though no soft drinks are for sale, many carts have raki, though not always advertised. I’ve been advised that raki goes well with kebabs, best eaten with fingers. Fork tines ruin the taste.
Half a liter of raki costs less than two bucks, enough for a temperate slush for two days. It’s much cheaper than beer.
A Shkoderian, Asti, tells me, “I drink raki when I get up, before I drink water, or eat food.” He laughs, showing no teeth. “Some people drink it at five in the morning.”
“But if you start so early, you must keep drinking it all day!”
We’re sitting in a café on Skanderbeg Street, not far from the Mother Teresa Statue, with its reverent flowerpots. At other tables, there are five men, all middle-aged. Michael Jackson is on the radio. Outside the plate-glass windows, beautiful young women keep parading by. Seemingly assured, with the world at their high heels or Adidas, they have their own unsquelched terrors.
Most cafes serve raki, of course, but many stores also sell it. Pointing to a tobacco shop across the street, I ask Asti, “They sell raki too?”
“Maybe. Many do. People know where to buy.”
“So it’s not regulated?”
Forty-four-years-old, Asti looks at least 60. About 5-10, he has that classic Albanian beak nose, and dresses rather shabbily, usually in a white T-shirt. Albanian men past 40 tend to be much more formal. Even when riding a junk yard bicycle with a plastic bag-covered seat, many wear a suit and dress shoes.
In his 20’s, Asti spent three years in Greece working as a construction worker, gardener, office cleaner or packer in a garment factory.
Asti’s two older brothers also do construction, same as their father, “I am the worst. That’s why I made small money. I was always a dreamer. I read too much.”
Asti has taught himself four foreign languages, Greek, Italian, English and French, with the last his weakest, “I started to learn it after I was 30-years-old.” His English is fluent enough, with few mistakes, such as his substitution of the French “magasin” for the English “store.”
Asti has written a 200-page novel, longhand, “As a boy, I had two dreams, learn a foreign a language, and write a novel.” So he’s done it, though it’s only read by maybe three people, before being tossed away.
Publishing anything anywhere is nearly impossible. With a population of just three million, Albania’s book market is miniscule, but at a Shkoder sidewalk kiosk, I saw translated titles by all these authors displayed: Orhan Pamuk, Amos Oz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Junot Diaz, Bukowski, Richard Kapuscinski, Jane Austen, Homer, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Swift, Goethe, Voltaire, Pushkin, Dumas, Orwell, Pasolini, Kundera, Kafka, Sartre, di Beauvoir and Faulkner. There were also several Kadare novels, of course, and serious history books, such as Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan, Misha Glenny’s Histori e Ballkanit and Bhuto’s Pajtimi [Reconciliation]. All this, at a tiny shop in a provincial city, so don’t tell me Albanians aren’t civilized.
Moving boxes and delivering for a food and beverage distributor, Asti makes less than 100 euros a month, but his duties are light. Often, he just sits at a nearby café. “I have a problem, you see. I’m slightly schizophrenic. I must take medicines every day.” Mixed with raki, they’re curing his madness, apparently.
To give you an idea of prices here, a fat baguette is about 60 cents. A sandwich costs $1 to $1.50. In a rather nice Shkoder restaurant, I saw an old man order pilaf with a single kebab for just a buck. A macchiato is 50 to 70 cents at most cafes. A bus ride in Tirana is 40 cents, and 30 cents in Shkoder.
Earning just over 200 euros monthly, Asti’s wife labors in a garment factory. They have two girls, aged 14 and 11, and an 8-year-old boy. One afternoon, he joins his dad and me for a long walk through the mostly drab outskirts of town. Three overgrown concrete bunkers are rare highlights. Quiet, the kid is just happy to be out of the house. We pass two young men on a motorbike truck.
“Gypsies,” Asti explains. “They buy junk.”
Another time, Asti has joked, “The Gypsies, they beg all day, then sing and drink until three in the morning. A Gypsy boy starts to smoke at 3-years-old, drink alcohol at 5-years-old. A Gypsy girl is a mother at 12-years-old.”
And, “A 15-year-old Gypsy leaves her 3-year-old boy at an intersection. When someone says, ‘Why are you leaving him there like that?’ She says, ‘I’m too old to work. He makes more money than me.’”
And, “During Communism, the border guards shot everybody who tried to escape, but not the Gypsies. If they saw a Gypsy escaping, they’d say, ‘Have a safe trip! I hope you’ll have a nice life over there! Don’t come back!”
When Asti was 14, soldiers dragged to his village two corpses behind a truck. These young men had been tortured then shot for escaping. With everyone gathered, a soldier asked a woman while pointing at a mangled cadaver, “Do you know who that is?”
“It’s your son,” he laughed.
Asti, “I will never forget that. He had bullet holes in his face and on his chest. No one could recognize who he was. They showed the corpses to all the villages, to scare people, you know, from escaping.”
Asti also told me about Dom Simon Jubani, a Shkoder priest who was jailed, and often tortured, for 26 years. In late 1990, Father Jubani conducted an illegal mass at a cemetery attended by thousands. His book, From the Depths of Hell, I Saw Jesus on the Cross, has not been translated into English, only French.
Unlike so many anti-Communists, Father Jubani did not praise the USA, but said on live Albanian television that Uncle Sam was “the master of terrorism.” This most impresses Asti.
With his foreign languages, Asti also supplements his pinched income by giving tours for tips, or for steering tourists towards hotels, with each referral earning him one euro. The Covid crisis has dried up this side hustle, however.
Luckily for Asti, he pays no rent. He shares with one brother a charming house built by their dad. Eleven people sleep in six bedrooms over two floors, and they have a pleasant and productive garden that grows tomatoes, eggplants, olives, onions, scallions and grapes, the last a must for most Albanian houses, even Muslim ones, with any patch of earth. I’ve seen countless grape arbors on concrete roofs. Homemade rakia is best.
I’ve sat at a cafe with this brother. Fifty-three-years-old, with close cropped white hair, he’s ravaged from decades of rakia, so now mostly sips B-52, the energy drink. He also likes to gamble, when there’s extra cash, which is almost never. Though a master with floors, he hardly works.
Asti’s mother also lives there. For 27 years, she took care of 23 cows and milked them. At her retirement, the state gave her one more cow. Her monthly pension of 100 euros isn’t quite enough to cover food and medicines, and she’s still in pretty good health. In simple black, she’s often seen sitting on an armchair on their shady porch.
From Asti’s house to his workplace downtown is just a twenty-minute walk, so there’s no transportation cost. Asti has no motor vehicle.
Compared to Tirana, bicycles are much more visible in Shkoder, and at least a dozen streets here resemble flea markets, with vendors, many of them rural people, selling absolutely everything on sidewalks, not just produce and clothing, old or new. I’ve seen used sewing needles, rusty frying pans, TV antennas, ancient microwaves and prehistoric washing machines, etc.
At bulletin boards with death notices, old people often peruse, to check for their friends and quietly delight at those younger who have perished. One day, each will jump at seeing his own face and name, for he will realize, with finality, that he has become a ghost.
After a decade in Greece, Asti’s other brother moved to Italy 20 years ago. He’s doing well and has a Georgian wife, a relative of Stalin.
Scoping out Il Bel Paese, Asti visited his brother for two months, “I could only make small money there, so I went home. You know, Albanians went there very early, in 1991. Some of us did bad things, so Italians, they really didn’t like us, but we are doing better. Albanians have Italian friends. They feed them, buy them drinks. Now, Italians don’t hate us so much.”
Foreign jobs simply pay more, so going abroad has become a standard aspiration here. Very nice houses built from money sent back challenge those who remain. Hamstrung for 45 years from the harshest Communism, Albanians are still recovering. Just be thankful you haven’t experienced a Hoxha.
“Your son is eight-years-old,” I say to Asti. “Maybe he won’t have to go anywhere when he’s 20.”
“I don’t know. I hope so. I’d like to keep him close to me.”
“When you’re an immigrant, you have so many problems.”
“That’s true. People humiliate you, look down on you. They say you’re taking their jobs, that you’re only there to send money to Albania.”
War, insane ideology and free transfer of capital have dislocated millions of people. Millions more must flee from societies they themselves have befouled, through collective stupidity, cowardice or depravity. It’s who they are, simply. Before you sneer or curse, though, remember that you too may end up just like them, perhaps even before dawn. How much have you contributed to your nation’s destruction?
A visible minority anywhere is like an albino or midget. Even if he’s never treated differently, which is impossible, he’s likely to build up resentment at being so odd, even if his distinctiveness is viewed favorably.
A traveler, though, doesn’t mind such handicap, for he gets the entire world in exchange. Easily bothered people can’t move an inch.
To really see any country, it’s important to get out of the capital, with all its financial, cultural and power distortions, so I’ve been taking buses or passenger vans here and there, with almost no idea what I’m going to see.
On each trip, I’m the only foreigner, but everything has been smooth. Once, I found myself sitting on a round cushioned stool in the narrowest aisle, for all other seats had been taken. Also on an improvised perch and with a bicycle tire between her legs, the woman facing me could barely suppress a grin.
Northern Albania was Skanderbeg’s stronghold, so the last part of the country to yield to the Turks. Its mountainous villages are also repositories of Albania’s most ancient mores. This is Albania at its most savage, true and tested. Shkoder is the main city of this region.
Asti, “Goat milk is best for babies, and goat meat is also very good. In the mountains, there are wild goats. You can only shoot them with a silencer, because if they hear the sound of your gun, they’ll jump three meters in the air!”
I’ve visited Shkoder twice before, but only this time, did I get a room, for three nights. Booking it online, I didn’t know its address was purposely incorrect, to evade the tax man, I suppose. To reach this unmarked property, I had to meet a young man at a street corner. It was like the worst spy movie. Smiling, he emerged from the dark.
Though the online price was $12 per night, he asked for over $14 before checking me in. Since it was already evening, and I was exhausted and more than buzzed, I didn’t protest too much. It was still dirt cheap.
There is no breakfast, as promised, but the room is large and comfortable. With two narrow beds, a couch, coffee table, chest, cabinets, sinks and TV, it’s a basic apartment, so for a long stay, it wouldn’t make a bad base. A bare bulb dangles from the ceiling.
My bathroom is indeed private, though not en-suite, and the water heater must be just for show. Nothing happened after I plugged it in, flipped on the switch and fidgeted with the dial. All my showers, then, have been bracingly brief.
The toylike toilet seat is suitable only for last stage anorexics. On my second contact, it loudly cracked. Still usable, it pinches one’s thigh slightly. For a buck maybe, they can replace it with an old one, off the sidewalk.
Two of my three keys were likely forged during the Ottoman era, if not Venetian or Roman. So many of the big boys have marched down this corridor. Since they’re impossible to use, I haven’t locked my door, but it’s fine. The owner is in the next room, so she can be my watchdog. Plus, we’re on the second floor, over a small courtyard, down a longish, narrow path, off an alley. (Four doors down is a Baptist church, sign of a changing Albania.)
I’m near Edith Durham Street, with its Saint Stephen Catholic Cathedral, built in 1858 with Ottoman permission. During Communism, it was converted into a sports hall, where ping pong was played and gymnasts could tumble and fall. After it was renovated in 1993, Pope John Paul II celebrated a mass there, with Mother Teresa in attendance.
Faint on an outside wall, there’s an all-seeing eye inside a radiating pyramid, with this inscription in Italian, “DIO VEDE TUTTO.” That’s our best hope for justice, isn’t it? Unless we’re the torturer, swindler or simple adulterer, then the absence of God means all is forgiven. Hallelujah!
More than anyone, Durham corralled Albania for English readers. Asti’s kids attend Edith Durham School. It’s heartening to see her honored.
It’s baffling how a nation that’s nestled between Rome and Greece, thus at the heart of Europe, could be so little known, and still so dimly seen. Read Durham’s High Albania, to start.
Spending much time here, Durham recorded Albania’s enduring customs, including its blood feuds. These have not been eradicated, incredibly. Honor still matters.
Durham in 1909, “Such backwaters of life exist in many corners of Europe—but most of all in the Near East. For folk in such lands time has almost stood still.”
Albania’s most exotic superstitions and practices, then, predate their exposure to the Turks and Islam, so don’t point your finger eastward with your diatribes. These are the deepest layers of Europe, its bedrock.
Durham, “Marriage is arranged entirely by the head of the house. The children are betrothed in infancy or in utero. Even earlier […] The most singular part of the business is the readiness with which most youths accept the girl bought for them. I never heard of one refusing, though I met several ‘Albanian virgins,’ girls who had sworn virginity to escape their betrothed.”
Durham, “According to the Canon a man is absolute master in his own house, and, in the unmodified form of the law, has the right to kill his wife, and any of his children. My informants doubted whether the killing of the wife would be tolerated now. She would be avenged by her own family. A man may, however, kill his wife with the consent of her family […] By the Canon a man could divorce his wife by cutting off a piece of her dress and sending her home thus disfigured.”
Albanian women did enjoy a certain leniency. Durham, “A woman is never liable for blood-vengeance, except in the rare case of her taking it herself. But even then there seems to be a feeling that it would be very bad form to shoot her […] I roused the greatest horror by saying that a woman who commits a murder in England is by law liable to the same punishment as a man.”
Durham on Albanian hospitality, “The sacredness of the guest is far-reaching. A man who brought me water from his house, that I might drink by the way, said that I now ranked as his guest, and that he should be bound by his honour to avenge me should anything happen to me before I had received hospitality from another.”
There were no prisons on Albanian mountains, so justice was often mete out through revenge, but its violence had to be proportionate. Durham, “I would remind you that we play the same game on a much larger scale and call it war,” and she wrote that before the two World Wars, with its millions butchered, and entire cities, filled with civilians, obliterated in a flash.
More than a century later, there are no more infant betrothals, legally discretional wife killings, sartorial divorces or fiercely honorable protection of guests, but the mindset that gave rise to such habits must still linger, like a bias, ghost, undercurrent or whiff, in this weather.
Honor was everything. Even if it would get him killed, a man must act correctly. Justice and balance had to be achieved.
“Ah, shut up already,” I can hear a chorus rising. “Those Albanians are just Turkic barbarians, with their chains of brothels encircling this disgusting world. Too bad there isn’t one in my Christian town. All we have are thrift stores and tattoo parlors. Never had Balkan pussy. Dark meat, I reckon. What’s this shit about Albanians being white?! I’m so white, I’m invisible! I only show up online, anonymously. Hold on a sec, let me adjust my new panties. Bought them on sale yesterday. Too much polyester chafes my purple balls. My wife just told me she’s a lesbian, by the way. That’s all right, I’m a lesbian too, but in a man’s body. We can keep having the worst sex ever, once a year. Fuck the Albanians!”
Still lagging, Albanians are the most unadulterated whites alive, and that’s to their advantage, whatever you may think. They’re some of the last Europeans with balls.
Sadly, they’re trying to catch up by reading Barack and Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, and about Joe Biden and Elon Musk. They’re listening to the worst American rap, and imitating it. In Tirana, there’s a George W. Bush Boulevard, and in Kamez, there’s a Donald Trump one. Many seem to think the American flag has talismanic power.
In Lezhe, there’s the American Strip Nightclub. Ogling local girls, patrons can pretend they’re staring at fake boobs and many more tattoos. In the dim, reddish light, they can add piercings to gyrating flesh.
On the fringe, Albanians are unaware they’re in much better shape than the toxic center, with its radiating foulness. Before Albanians are fully sucked in, though, the satanic cesspool will implode, thus saving them from soul sapping contamination.
Running for the hills when necessary, they’ve endured for over two thousand years, as countless other tribes have lost not just land, but language and memory. These hardy survivors will likely outlast yours.
By chance, I’m in Shkoder on Flowers Day, what they call Saint George’s Day here. Strolling through a well-landscaped park, I’m suddenly surrounded by beaming angels in paper headdresses, Native American style. Some wear goofy polyester skirts, with sequined or stitched flowers. On a stage, kids sing or dance, but innocent happiness is everywhere. From toddlers to the very old, they are simply enjoying themselves, being themselves.