Catherine of Tropoja

Catherine of Tropoja

When I decided last year to take a house of my own . . . well, it wasn’t an easy decision.  I knew it was important, for my personal sanity, but I also didn’t know what it would do to my declared public identity.  For years, I had been “The American of Valbona.”  Who would I be, if I didn’t live, exactly and precisely IN Valbona Valley?  Would I love Valbona less?  No, of course not.  Would I fight less to protect Valbona, no, of course not.  But still.  Leaving daily life in Valbona was like leaving my own skin.

But needs must, and I did it.  The house in Dojan was found, and Alfred bought it for me, and I moved here.  DOJAN? say people here.  As if they were saying:  You left the empire of pleasures, the palace of natural luxury, to live in a skip?  But Dojan is beautiful, and Tropoja is beautiful.  Of course Dojan today has nothing but hopes, much as Valbona in 2009 had, when I got there.  Say no more.  I am sure we can develop things here, just as we did 20 minutes, 30 km away, in Valbona.

But what I want to say tonight is something more important, something about what it means to find home where you are, where you find yourself.  Something about what home is, and how it is not something you can claim or demand, but something which is given to you . . .

I got home late this evening.  Remember, please, that by Albanian standards, I am a terrible neighbor.  I do not visit (I don’t have time for visits!)  I don’t visit my neighbors, I don’t make time to sit in their houses, to visit with them, to know them.  I am, sincerely and truly, a CRAP neighbor.  When my neighbors come to visit me, sometimes, often, I hold them off at the door.  “How nice you are here, thank you for bringing me cake” but I won’t let them in the door.  I am terrible.  It’s true.  Of course, I do this not because I don’t want to have coffee, but because I am simply too busy thinking, working, plotting how to improve life here.  They want to have coffee, I am busy writing a grant proposal.  Please understand me, I say to them.  It’s not that I don’t love you, only . . . I don’t have time.

And they?  They are so kind.  They sigh, and forgive me.  Some of them yell at me.  You have to visit with us!  But I can’t.  Meanwhile, they feed my sheep, and shovel my snow, when I’m not here.  And they remain unvisited, and I remain guilty.

But tonight?  Tonight was something different.  I was away late.  All day I was gone, organizing a workshop.  I pulled up the car at 1o o’clock at night.  They’ll all be asleep, I thought.  But I’d promised a neighbor I’d give her 2000 lek, to buy hay, to feed her cows and horse.  So I thought, as I pulled up, I’ll call her – she’ll probably be asleep?  As my car pulls in, the first thing that happens is that all the wild dogs of the neighborhood surround my car, jumping up and down.  I get out of the car.  The dogs surround me, leaping up, leaping around, jumping, delighting, beyond sanity happy that I am home.  Yes dogs, fine, I’m here.  I call the neighbor – I’m so sorry it’s late?  Come to your gate, she comes out, the dogs are still leaping around me, like elemental spirits.  They start barking and fighting with her dogs – the doggy noise is terrible, the whole neighborhood will . . . and then I hear my neighbors calling “Winnie!  Winnie?”  Somehow in this culture, in this society which can barely look after itself, I have ended up with neighbors who love my spoiled little street dog as much as I do, and when they hear him barking in the middle of the night, they come out to defend him.  “It’s okay!” I call to them, it’s just me!”  I stagger up to my gate, calling out:  It’s just ME!  I’m home!  sorry , go back to bed!  NATEN!  Goodnight they call back.  Do you need anything?  I shout.  No no!  They call back.  And I go in the door.  Five minutes later there’s a knock on the door.  The daughter of a local family needs to research water springs, for school tomorrow.  Come in.

But CAN you imagine, what it means, to someone like me, from a culture of disengagement, to come home to this wonderful neighborhood of . . . ties?

That I can stumble in, hours after dark, in a neighborhood where most people don’t have lights, and find them not only awake, but looking after me, and not only that, but that I have something also to give THEM?

That I can simply shout out, at night “It’s just ME!” and that this is what makes them happy.  To know I’m home.  To know our little community is complete and safe.

This truly is life.  This truly is love.  This is Dojan.  I live here now.  And I am proud.