house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Albania, September 1999

Get out of the city and Albania sparkles, green and gold. Sun like honey, clings to enormous branches, oozes behind eyelids, heats the skin of the earth, bestows power and pleasure, sings.

We get out of the city. Seven a.m. stop at side-of-the-road café. Coffee, please. We wait, watch dozens of bowls being carried to other tables. Beetroot soup? 'No, sheep's head stew' says the waitress. 'Drivers eat it in Albania, in the morning, when they have a long journey ahead.' 'Well, I'm a droiver' says our Australian colleague, 'an' it's mo'nin', and we've quite a way to go. Oi'll have one a those!' It arrives. Eyeballs float in it, carrots, a greasy jaw, olives, nostrils, parsley, teeth. Seven a.m. light snack.

Later, a meeting on wooden benches, outside. More coffee, figs and honey on a tray. In the middle of it I say to you, in Romanian: 'I wonder how Nikita is.' Secret language and all that. (I wonder now what would have been if I hadn't uttered those words, at that exact moment. Much poorer by far.)

An old man sitting next to me jumps like hit by lightning. His sudden, joyful energy makes me sit up too, a puppet about to dance in the great provincial show. He forgets the meeting (so do I) and instead whispers a string of charming, incomprehensible words. Great urgency, desperate hope in his eyes.

I shake my head. He presses on, willing me to try harder. I listen and then stop listening. I close my eyes and walk into an in-between where I understand everything he says. And so, eyes closed and not-listening, I DO understand. He's telling me about his homeland. My homeland.

What a story. A nomadic Vlach shepherd, traveling with his sheep along ancient routes, roaming around the Balkans until, one day, Enver Hoxha closed all Albanian borders and he was caught in this random net. He couldn't leave Albania, so he made a life here, among fig trees and honey bees. When he talks about Romania tears fall and fall and fall. He's too old, he says, to cross the mountains again, and his flocks are long gone. 'How is it, these days? Our beautiful little country...'

We cry a little, laugh a little, he speaks his worn out words, I speak the shiny new Romanian of my childhood. Just now, I'd like to run to Romania and bring him a handful of earth, some elm leaves, linden flowers, one of our black clay bowls full of steaming polenta. A dog called Azor, the high wooden post of a water well, burnished by sun and blizzards. A nest of storks. A warm stack of hay. A whole flock of sheep, high in the Carpathian plateau, where the air is so fierce you can just about make out the spirits of wolves and old heroes.

Instead, we dip another fig in honey, smile, swallow. Inexplicably, it's salty and dry. The sun is still high, there is still a little time.

On the way home, a river so blue it makes the sky look like a worn handkerchief, washed too often, left too long on the line. 'The Blue Eye of Albania' – someone says – and I turn to see your eyes, the equal blue where I dwell, where I drown. 'Stop the car!'

We dive in, 'the blue eye' so cold it strips away unnecessary layers, dust, lies and worries. We emerge scoured, new. For a moment, the world hangs in perfect balance, sublime. Then we take a first step and re-enter the fray.


At 11 July 2012 at 13:35 , Anonymous Marina Sofia said...

Ce minunata intimplare! Ce aventuri frumoase - cum de reusesti sa iti aduci aminte de ele atit de clar, atit de precis?


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