The Malësori or “Highlanders” are famous for (and pride themselves on living with) the harshness of the mountains, and the winter in particular. In summer, one of the first things Alfred told me as I was oohing and ahhing about the beauty of Valbona, was “Yes, but the winter is very harsh – Three Meters of Snow! and Very Cold. And very Boring.” In fact, it was then that I thought Oh Yeah? I’ll come back in January! (I’m weird that way.) Of course, a little conversation revealed that in fact, like everywhere else, it doesn’t snow as much here anymore.
Still, the Malësori live with snow. The word for snow “Bora” peppers most conversations. In Valbona, the snow stays year round on the mountain tops, as you can see from the pictures of the snowcaves that Alfred and I took last July. As you can also see from the pictures, the mountains are all around us, very present. Even if, in winter, you don’t go up into them as you do in summer, they’re still there, always rising up around you, and we live with them. In winter, we watch the snow move up and down the mountains – drawing closer, then pulling away. Even if there’s no snow on the ground here in the valley and it’s raining, there is snow above us, just a short walk up. We wait for it to arrive. Usually of course (like many magical things?) the snow comes in the night.
Last night it snowed. The sun rises around seven am, and I woke up in the warmth of my covers to a different light. Pulling myself into the cold air, I peered out the window. SNOW! There are some magics that never grow old, and this is one of them. A world transformed. I pulled on any clothes I could find, and left my bed. In the corridor, I stood at the open window (rooms are heated here, but not the house – that Malësori toughness leaves windows open so the snow blows in, and doors are thrown open wide and left so, if people are going in and out). I stood for a while, looking out, then . . . . Sometimes, often – I mean, a couple times a day in winter – the snow breaks free on the mountainsides, and there’s something like a waterfall of snow that crashes down for a couple hundred meters for a minute or two, and it was as if this happened inside me. So I slipped downstairs in the halflight of dawn. Sose was in the kitchen already, in the warmth of the woodstove that appeared for the winter, and laughed at me as I slipped in, stole a piece of burek, and slipped out again. I wrapped myself in coat and scarves and boots, and went out into what was becoming the morning. I climbed through the snow, up through the cow pastures behind the house. That good, warm, close silence of a world in snow, as more fat flakes fell around me. Perched on a rock on the hillside, I sat and smoked, and heard the only sound – a far away call of something small and lonely. Three short calls in a row. Of course, I am always hoping to see, or even hear just one of the estimated 400 wolves that still live in these mountains. I listened, as the call came again and again. Then, after a while, when it was fully light, the call stopped, and I went back home again, into the house.
I went and found Alfred, still asleep, and woke him up. I told him about the snow, and the call I’d heard. He didn’t open his eyes, but said “How did it sound?” And even though I’d practised it in my mind as I was listening, I couldn’t remember it exactly, back inside the house. But I remembered it was three calls: hoo hoo hooooo . . . . I tried to make the sound. “Did it come from over there?” asked Alfred, gesturing under the blanket at his cousins house across the field. “Yes!” I said, “Yes it did.” “Chicken” said Alfred, and went back to sleep.
Which I suppose it was.
Long may the wild Albanian chicken roam the wild wild mountainsides, striking a respectful fear into the hearts of all romantics who are silly enough to get out of bed before they have to . . . .