Each time I go back to Tirana, I see big changes, but I seek out the old parts of town, the narrow streets, talk to people who live there and people who are visiting, and describe the unchanging and magnificent landscape. “Passages” describes several visits made to Albania (after my first stay there, which I wrote about in my travel memoir Tirana Papers).
1 Rain in Monochrome
Last night the rain fell on the corrugated tin that covers half the yard outside. As well as the rhythmic muttering, there were bigger drips, irregular, a bass refrain, with different sounds, striking different notes, like church bells.
The rain became an orchestra. And this morning I wake up from a dream of music. But something odd had happened to the music. If you can imagine music as having colours, the colour disappeared from it, the music had turned monochrome, the notes were flattened and when I finally woke up and remembered where I was I realised this music without colour was the sound of the rain falling on the tin roof outside.
In the summer the heat can be intense, the sky pale blue and immense here in Albania, land of the eagles, of mountains, cliffs and pinnacles of rock, of gullies, valleys, and a shoreline of intimidating beauty. Right now, I’m in the capital, Tirana, and the rain has dragged the clouds over the city like a wet cloth, back and forward, and the streets are slick with mud. And I have woken from a symphony of colour to the awkward brittle sounds of rain falling on the tin roof of the yard outside.
Every time I come here to Albania I face the unexpected. Whatever your plans and your arrangements are, they will be jostled by this country until you tear up your strict timetables and let the energy you meet here rearrange your purposes, barter with your defences and meddle with your sense of time. And, apart from the first time that I arrived here, when Albania was new to me, each time I’ve landed at the airport or docked at the ferry terminal, this mixture of familiarity that’s tangled up with unpredictability, has felt like coming home.
Five times now, I’ve entered the country and left it. I can now say—this time and that time, and the third time and the last time and I have a handful now of ‘times’, so I am armed with all these memories that I can point to, I have numbers now, to prove that this relationship exists. I have a handful now, of time, stretched over such a multiplicity of memories that something solid, something lasting, clearly exists.
The relationship has changed, in all the time that’s passed. The initial turbulence and the fertility, the fast-flowing streams of images and feelings, they have slowed down and the dreams have stopped infesting my night-time world. But in its place, there is something knotted and secured, as if my heart has been woven, threaded, sewn into the landscape and the country and everything we understand by ‘people’, both the individuals that make up such a concept, and what has formed these people, so they are one group, distinct from others. We have become, somehow, a part of one another. In whatever cloth we’re made of, we are braided into one design.
The patterns of our heartbeats cannot now be separated. The curving of its landscape, dips and hollows, slopes and precipices are a part of me as well. We are one now, you and I.
The gap in me, made by our separation, has been filled. I breathe your memories when I’m not with you, not with pain, but with abundance. When I’m with you, slate and limestone, sun and thunder pack themselves into my body, fill in gaps in my own precipices and ravines, the corrugations of my heart. My heart is a whole landscape now, as ringed with mountains as you are, as full of grapes, olives and pomegranates as you are.
2 Street Vendors and Sightseers
I’m walking down the steps from the Opera building at Skanderbeg Square, when someone approaches me and asks if I speak English.
When I say I do, he tells me that he’s travelling, he has just arrived here, and he has a van which he’s parked near the train station, on the Bulevardi Zog. He is on his way to the monasteries of Romania.
He wants to know what there is to see.
What is here to see is spread all around but as we make our way to a café he does not seem to like this.
Look at the broken pavements, they should get people to fix them—all these guys sitting around, they could be working on them.
I sigh. He doesn’t know the history. We step around an uncovered manhole.
That is so dangerous, he says.
As we drink coffee he says, Do you know where you can get something to eat? I was in Shkodra yesterday, on my way down here. There were lots of cafés, but none of them had anything to eat. But they were full of guys, just sitting around, drinking coffee, all day, they were just sitting there—
Some can’t afford to eat, I say, so they make do with coffee.
This place is beautiful. But he can’t see it. It’s his first time here and he is lost, dazed, looking for orientation and his gaze catches on chaos as if it was just the edge of something bigger, something that could unpick the vision he has framed his world in.
I try to give a short history lesson. Henri’s eyes are very blue, his face does not change expression, barely moves at all, it is a mask I cannot see beyond, he gives nothing, with his face.
Do you have trouble with men here?
Never, I say.
And has no-one ever tried to grab your bag?
No, never. Some areas of the mountainous north have a reputation for lawlessness and banditry. I haven’t been there, but I can assure you that here, you are quite safe.
No-one has ever stolen from me—purse or bag, as they have in Italy and Spain. I was once cheated by a taxi-driver. Shopkeepers have detained me when I was about to walk away—and given me my ten lek change. Others have written down, in figures, my small purchases, and added them up to show me exactly what is going on.
Values are shuffled here, like cards. You’re never quite sure what you’ll get. The man with a tiny kiosk just a few metres away from my apartment puts his hand on his heart as I leave. I bought bananas and a bar of chocolate and wondered if he’d had any other sales that day.
He sits behind the counter, sits with a contained and dense passivity, that you see here sometimes, especially in men. It explains the way they sit for hours in cafés, not even drinking really, because the small espressos can be downed in one gulp. They sit and they look, they watch. No flickering of restlessness here, just this solidity, this containedness, that is far from lifeless, far from absent, it is an energy of presence and it hums like a spinning top that moves so fast it does not seem to move at all. I feel their energy, I feel it on my skin, I feel it slipping through my body, there is no escaping it, no screening of oneself from it, it penetrates you and it mixes with your energy, it slips into your body and you carry it with you, you trail it like a wake, it follows you like feathers, brightly coloured maybe, brittle feathers, languid ones, a little dusty from the streets. The houses and the buildings have this energy as well, a heaviness, a weight to them, a canopy of time that sags their roofs and skews their window frames. You could sweep this city free of dust, but it would return again, from all the energy that slides along, with almost-imperceptible snake movements, gliding but unhurried, going somewhere, with time almost a prisoner certainly a hostage, in its coils. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the way that time is held, contained, poured out like coffee beans from sacks, cut into wedges from the massive rounds of cheese, even, in cafés, placed on tables—coffee cup, knife and fork wrapped in a serviette, a jug of milk, the holder with the oil and vinegar. Nothing is hurried. Everything is given its due weight, its due attention, and it is me who feels distinct from time, outside of it, formality with it, not intimacy, as these people do.
Time is their possession and they have it in their gestures or their stillness, in their movement, in the way they watch. They are not caught and ruled by time, the way we are. We are time’s slaves, while we pretend we’re free to do exactly what we want. We are squeezed by time, we feel its pressure, while these people do not. We can be appalled at such a freedom, such a seeming indolence, indifference to a god we have to serve, although if asked, we might not know quite how to answer why we do. It is the handling of the energy of time that raises hackles on the necks of Westerners, that surfaces in them sometimes in a burst of anger or dislike or judgment.
But Albanians hold time in their bodies, and they secrete it or accumulate it, or allow it to flow through them—or exchange it or reveal it and do all the things we are accustomed to thinking of as being done to us or if not done, at least imposed, necessitated. We see necessity outside of us. Albanians contain it and they use it as they choose. They have a mastery we haven’t. They were born with it, they did not have to learn it, with painstaking effort, in their schools. Their bodies and their beings are within Time in a way that ours are not. We are excluded. No wonder Westerners feel irritated, critical, rejecting.
They just sit there for hours in cafés, said Henri, a faint tone of accusation in his voice. Why don’t they get these men, who’re just sitting around, doing nothing, to cover up the manholes, fix the pavements?
He doesn’t really want to hear me, when I talk about the history. He looks away from me, presents the closed door of his cheek. He is letting nothing of my thoughts and feelings into him. Yet he touches my arm with his hand, lets it linger there. He doesn’t want what I am offering, he wants something else—without asking for it, he’s pellucid in his wanting. But he doesn’t ask.
It is a sunny morning, just beginning to be warm, in this late spring. Older men hold their hands behind their back, counting beads. Some of them hold bunches of keys in the same way, their fingers moving over keys.
Rhythm, breath and time. You see this intimacy everywhere, like an interlocking pattern, like the delicate proximity of cloud and sky and rain and warmth and weather and the carpet of the growing earth. These can’t be separated. And Westerners walk in the streets, feel disengaged, outside of something, faintly excluded and react to this sense of abandonment with irritation, slight contempt, disguised in laughter.
I walk the streets, I walk and walk, to become united with them once again, to re-establish a relationship I had with them. It cannot be the same as it once was, for even when you live with it, time changes you, as you change it, but my walking in the streets, that is my way of talking to them, listening to them and we murmur to each other, in the sunlight and the rain as well, the extravagance of spilling clouds.
And Henri asks me —What is there to see?—his face swinging to look at me, his eyes expressionless, but very blue.
I agree to meet him later. For right now, I have phone calls to make, meetings to arrange with publisher and translator. Henri thinks that he may visit the museum. He’s looking into the distance all the time, with those blue eyes, he’s looking out as if there’s something there to capture and hold onto. He has spent his life at sea, he says, so I suppose that’s why horizons are secure as alibis, they are the necessary limits that define what sea must be. So, if his life is with the sea, they must define him too. He touches my arm lightly, but consistently, as if he is accustomed to horizons drawing closer, through the way he steers the ship.
I begin to feel like land, that could be beached on and walked over, could even be appropriated, without asking. It’s clear he wants something, but he does not ask, he even claims he wants only to talk. This irritates me, his pretence, this blue-eyed falseness of his. Or is it simply that he must pretend, in the way a hunter narrows down the strip of land that prey must run across? Is this pretence more like a dance and so, containing truth, the way dance must do, with its banishment of language? The gestures of his hand—on my arm and, lightly, but with deliberation, on my thigh, are truthful, but I am not playing my part, because it’s his truth and his game and I have not felt a glimmer of an invitation, not since he found this city lacking in some way. He could gain my sympathy by showing love of his surroundings, but I feel no love there, I feel his mind at work, rejecting, altering, all that he sees in front of him. That means that I too am rejected, despite his touch, that lingers longer on my arm, as if he has calculated what will be acceptable.
He has made no attempt to know this place, or me, he is interested in poring over maps of tides and calculations of direction, weather, wind and currents—and comes up with formulae, to tell him how quickly he’ll reach shore. This kind of navigating can be useful when you travel, with a goal in front of you and a trail of memories behind—but to get close to someone—which he seemed to want to do—it’s not enough for me, for someone to sum up their life, then act as if it was a detail, in the past, not really relevant to now.
I want to know how someone feels the rub of time against their limbs, where they hold the scented memories of childhood. I want to know what lifts them like a wave of giddy joy or if it creeps up unexpectedly. I want to know what names have pulled them half across the world and how many times they wrote the sounds of names, or what code-words they used, so they could carry them with them, without having to pronounce the sounds, but could keep them, like a folded piece of paper, tucked beneath their skin. I want to know what makes them spread out like a fan, what makes them change their colours, what makes them secretly alive.
I want to know too much.
I want to know how they react to Adriatic water on their tongue, which shade of blue excites them and what sound they let out, when warm sand rains on their limbs and settles round them like a perfume. What exaggerates their sense of play and what makes them wind their breath round silence like a flagpole, running up their spine, like an intoxicant. I want to know what paintings make them cry, what music they avoid in company, what music they are brave enough to listen to alone, remembering when they were not alone. I want to know if they’re afraid of solitude and how they come to terms with fear, how they align themselves with failure and how they live with doubt. What is the nature of their relationship with time, and what importance do they give to the fulfilment of desire.
Clearly, it’s far too much I want to know.
I’m not impressed by calculations, proven facts, though I suspect I should be grateful to them, even if they’re not the cradle that holds my life, it’s possible they might have been, once, long ago. I’m not impressed by lengths or distances people have reached, not because it’s not impressive, for it is, but because of its finality, the conclusiveness of it seems to have no breath in it, no movement, as if the silence coming after some great music is presented, without the music being played—the greatness of the music has to be assumed, it is not known, experienced. It leaves me feeling cheated of experience, this silence, presented as the end result.
Henri may have found delight in the museum, or fear or dread even, but he did not linger on the telling of it, if he did.
I had to leave my bag near the entrance, he said. I didn’t want to—it’s got important documents in it—including my passport. When I came back there was no-one on the desk and anyone could have come in, taken my bag—so I told them they weren’t serious enough, they should have looked after my bag, since they demanded that I left it there—and so, I said I wouldn’t pay the entrance fee.
Again, I feel this slight sense of rebuff, as if it was I who had been careless, found lacking, judged because of my behaviour.
It has rained a little and the air has been wiped clean.
I like the rain says Henri, it calms people down.
I take his arm as we cross the road. For me, that is a gesture of intimacy—or politeness or good manners. Actually, with Henri it was neither. Partly, it made it easier to cross the road and partly, since words were pushing us apart, instead of bringing us together, it was for me, a simple way of saying—here we are together, let’s enjoy this moment, this damp evening, and this traffic that you’re not accustomed to, yet doesn’t seek to hurt you, it will avoid you, as it does all pedestrians, it will take your path into account. I trust this traffic, like the irritation of a child, you love it still, perhaps you love it more. But look, the melon-coloured street lights give a soft glow and we place our footsteps carefully on unbroken paving stones, avoiding puddles, unexpected holes, and the young man with a twisted leg, pulling himself along the pavement, with his hand stretched out towards the passers-by.
If only his intentions hadn’t been so obvious, we might have found a place where something in both of us could have relaxed and touched the other, not with gain in mind, but just with happiness. But his face remained a screen that wouldn’t open, wouldn’t fold itself, revealing pain or sorrow or an eagerness, or a receptiveness, there was a darkness there, whether an emptiness or too much memory, there was no way that I could know. He might say that there was nothing much to know. But it wasn’t facts I wanted it was a sense of his engagement with his life, or me, or what was all around him, a sense of his connectedness, with what was under and what lay outside, his skin. I wanted to see that he was, as we all are, as every living thing is—taking in light and emitting light and the changing colours of that light. Maybe it was sleeping, needing to be kindled. Oh the light-seekers, who deny the light but always want it, call it anything but light.
Every moment has the possibility of prising open, the close-fitting shells of Time. Sometimes they open as if they had been waiting for you. Sometimes they don’t belong to you, won’t let your fingers close to them.
Henri did not belong to me. His shells were gritty with sand, stuck with old salt, slightly yellowed, like old lace. I imagine mine slipped at an angle just as awkward to him, unsoftened by sunlight, pale blue with cold, like children’s hands.
I feel it as a failure, not to be able to feel love. But there is no sense of failure when I walk these streets, with rows of heavy-headed pines slanting their spiked green fingers, as if they were bending down and stretching down, to wander on the surface of your skin.
3 Moods and Mountains
I stayed in Entela’s house in Tirana for a few days, listening to the rain beating off the tin roof that covered half of the back yard. These houses were built by prisoners she told me, and they included an underground tunnel, built as an escape route. However, this tunnel can be a source of flooding, as water collects there and she’s thinking of trying to get it blocked up.
I wondered if people had managed to escape from their secret tunnel. In most stories of imprisonment, there is the lure of freedom, that is out there, somewhere. But in the communist regime, that ‘out there’ must have seemed remote indeed, almost impossible to reach.
Now, although there are all the trappings of freedom—new buildings, new enterprises, new street lights, brightly-painted façades—it’s still hard for people to leave the country, unless you’re a member of the government, or privileged in some other way. Contacts are important. Without them, and without money, you still cannot leave. Or, you cannot legally get an exit visa, but there are the other ways, equivalent to an underground passage built into the basement of a house.
Psychologically, Albania has a large basement. Geographically, laced and linked with high mountain ranges, the small plains area collects dust and torpor, and the Adriatic shimmers like a mirage. Because of its geography alone it would be a restless, travelling country, but with its borders psychologically spiked and mined, the migratory impulse is dammed-up and sometimes finds release in turbulent ways.
Albania has moods. I suffered from its moods and weather, which all relationships endure, whether they fight it or each other, become exasperated, insolent, plangent or withdrawn.
Entela’s apartment has lacework on the living-room table, and a few pictures on the walls. There is a scrawled and empty feel to it, like a hasty farewell note. Its contents are sparse, as if lacking magnetism. Or perhaps they are the signs of a life lived elsewhere—out of doors perhaps, or in some other country.
I listened to the rain’s tempo and arpeggios on the tin roof and went outside, with a striped umbrella, along the puddled earthen path, winding through the narrow tracks, until I came out into the wide and car-encrusted Bulevardi Bajram Curri, taking the pedestrian bridge over the Lana to Tirana’s north bank, through more winding warren streets that still echo the Ottoman preoccupation with twists and turns and narrow paths, as if mazes were more comfortable than straight lines and angles and placards telling street names and directions. The Ottoman psychology dislikes the open and straightforward, the declaration of intent, the brash presumption that we name, declare and live by. This mind, still lingering in the heart of old Tirana, favours the oblique approach, the circuitous address, the intention of something that could be akin to soul. It harbours and it shelters and protects. It winds and turns off into dead ends. The streets have high walls, defending secrets of identity. It feels as if too much overtness leaves you empty. Concealment is linked with an anticipation, an experience of something gathering in you.
Modern cities have been so exposed, you feel the ache of them inside you, even as you love the declarations of their keen and bare-eyed soul. Such declarations are now separating from the impulses and feelings that went into them. They are retreating into more hidden and secluded places. Too much exposure burns the skin of us and makes us weary of such constant affirmation. There is no room for seeking out, for tracking and discovering. So our modern world will change, is changing, from a need to rediscover what was once held back, to be revealed only in true intimacy, keeping revelation in its rightful, heart-open spaces.
Tirana’s winding warren, with its roofs at different heights, its buildings sometimes set back from the wall or entrance gates, retains the sense of veiled encounter, with its promises of revelation. The wrappings of mystery, frustrating to a Westerner with schedule, dominated by the clock, an instrument designed for service but which has turned into a tyrant—such measurement-ruled people will be frustrated by the winding paths and the maze patterns. But they are deliberately made not to be prised open by the rushing consciousness that has not entered fully into communion with itself, but skates on surfaces, carrying a blank, blind space with them, even contemptuous of true time and corresponding space, depth-denying, hurried and harassed, the signs of lack of intimacy with your own secret self.
Geography being the counterpart to the maps of human soul, the narrow streets, with their rooftops showing above walls, their multi-shaded brick red or beige or bleached pink tiles, lend quivers of excitement to the soul, with their irregularity. Each one telling stories, waking up the stories in you, fretting for encounter. Rruga Tefta Tashko, Rruga Beqir Luga, Rruga Musa Karapici take you into unknown history. By walking them, I become a part of them. Becoming part of them was giving life to something in me. That is why every muddy step became a treasure, every dusty street an evocation that could not be lined and sealed and printed off and parcelled up, in names.
The beggar on the Rruga Musa Karapici sitting on a wheelchair, one leg and one arm missing, has light and curiosity in his eyes, that familiar curiosity—he looks straight at me, his face is smiling with this light and he says zoti ju bekofte as I place coins on the rag in front of him. His eyes are not downcast, he looks at people, greets them, exchanges words, as so many people do. He is not cast aside or ostracised, he participates, he has a place, like any shopkeeper or pavement vendor, and his place is here, on the corner of Rruga Musa Karapici.
Albania’s enclosing mountains stoke an atmosphere of claustrophobia. There are roads that pass through the mountains, some of these roads stretching on tiptoe to travel on the mountain peaks, these illegible autographs in brown ink at the bottom of the blue page of sky, their valleys invisible from this vertiginous height.
But to travel upwards in these roads requires the psyche’s motivation, an upswing of the mind that’s strong enough to carry you through a mental cultivation that’s completely alien to your own. Geographically close, the dwellers in the plains hesitate to make a journey that leads you through the past, before you reach your destination. The past has sticky fingers and could trap you there. It is impossible to take with you your assured identity. If you pass through the mountains, there will be something taken from you, leaving your firm grasp on who you are a little perforated, nibbled and uneasy. These mountains have a hunger in them, and they may never let you reach the place you want to go, beyond them. You could be turned into a person that is not-you, changed beyond recognition, if you leave the comforts and security of all that you have built up, to recognize yourself as you. Because the landscape holds the memories of past, the recent past—of danger of imprisonment, such danger lurking in the unfamiliar—that sense of danger is still there, cupped in the mountains’ breath, like mist, low cloud or morning haze. And the urge to leave becomes more pressing and the pitfalls involved in such a journey, grow horns, like the deft strokes of a dilemma, batting you from one mood to another. But such is the claim of this resonant landscape that nostalgia is inherent, like a guide along the mountain roads that goes with you, however far you travel.
If you do pass through all dangers on the road, reach the somewhere else that’s drawn you out—the inner landscape of this country will never let you go. Its claws dig deep in you. If you cannot go back, you’ll spend your time in freedom fastened by its memory. Your body may have left, but there’s a part of you that’s anchored in its soul. I should know, for it has caught me too, as if I was a dropping feather from some eagle’s wing, as I drifted in my life and ended up by seeming chance, in the hollowed bowl of it. But I think it drew me in towards it, it set up the current that drew the drifting feather of me. I now belong to eagle’s wingtip as securely as if I had been born there and learned my flight skills and my language there. I feel all its mountain winds and the weight of summer heat, regardless of my physical location. Identity is mystery itself, when you find your breath breathed by this wind smelling of jasmine and orange blossom, of young mountain grass and the shiny skin of ripening pomegranates.
If low cloud and rain stretch a blanket over sky, claustrophobia turns into oppression, a stoked furnace that you carry with you. One of the deceptions of the city, is that, with all its boulevards and winding alleys, you can go somewhere. Yet it is a bolstering deception, for in the wandering and window-shopping, the exploring of the curving alleys, with the backs of houses turned to you, or their shoulders at an angle, so you know that you are seen, however hidden they may be, from view—in this metamorphosis of self you go through as you walk along these streets—the movement and the change that subtly alters your perception, is itself a kind of travel. It appeases, to some extent, the shifting feeling of the crowding mountains and the enclosing sky. But in the way it changes you, it turns you more into itself. The more you breathe its air, inhale its dust and scents, the greater claim it has on your identity and its allegiances. As you become accustomed to the sounds and scents, they percolate your memory and you become these memories. Identity is fluid, but it has an anchor in the mind, once the eagle has stretched its claw-curve into you and settled there.
I stayed at Gjergji’s guest house in the southern Albanian town of Gjirokaster.
People here he says, they talk, they know all your business.
Gjergji has a wife and family, but his wife’s job has taken her to Tirana while he of course, has to stay here, to run the guest-house. His mother-in-law visits one morning while I’m on the balcony, drinking Turkish coffee. She stops in the street and talks to Gjergji from there, while he stands in the doorway. Then she approaches, slowly climbs the steps up to the house.
She wears a black dress, a black scarf round her head, and carries a bag of shopping with her. She is not old, the hair that is not covered by the headscarf has just a hint of grey, but her face is lined and she moves stiffly up the steps. I smile and say si jne to her when Gjergji introduces us. Her eyes flick towards me only and she says mir to the stonework, not to me. I don’t see this as lack of friendliness, for older Albanians can still be reserved with foreigners, from a lifetime habit, when they were not allowed to talk to them.
Gjergji’s dream of movement is to go to Australia. Not just over the mountains into Macedonia, but over oceans and continents as well. He is hungry for a new life. I find this hunger everywhere, not just in visions of escape but in desire for change as well. Control attempts by the government are like a pot lid and it rattles and dances from the heat and vigour of its contents. Mjaft! (enough) says a movement, mainly of young people, determined to effect change.
Enough! they say, of the corruption endemic in their country. Enough too, says Gjergji as he gazes south-east, in the direction of Greece—or Australia. But he must first sell his hotel. Like a weathervane, his ‘enough’ points in another direction. I wonder if the mountains will ever let him go.
MORELLE SMITH’s writing reflects travel, particularly in European countries, where she has lived, worked, studied, or held writers’ residencies. Her awards include Audience Award for her poetry, (Ukraine, 2014) and Autumn Voices prize for her prose (UK, 2017). Her most recent book is Shaping the Water Path (poetry, 2017)
Featured image: Edward Lear, “Agia Paraskevi, Epirus, Greece,” graphite, pen and brown ink and watercolor, 1857, purchase, Brooke Russell Astor Bequest, 2013, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.