The room is large, and painted white, so it’s full of light. At the far end are black boards, and above them, slightly squiffy, hand colored drawings on A4 paper demonstrate the Albanian alphabet from A to Z (or Zh?). Q is Qukupiku, which I know! To the left, the wall is full of windows, while down here, at ground level, the room is ringed with a circle of desks. Behind the desks are ranks of children – boys on one side, girls at 90º and littlies to the left (under the windows). I am given a seat with the teachers, at the far end of the room, opposite the blackboards, next to the wood stove. To my left is a New Year’s Tree in a bucket, decorated with tinsel and balls. It looks beautiful.
I arrived in a jumble, late as usual. At home, waiting to parcel off our guests, I wasn’t worried about being late. I’ve volunteered, or stuck my oar in, at the school for 4 years now – and after 4 years they’re used to me being late. I’m always late. Everyone in Albania is always late, but I am always later. The children calculate this in, I think, which is something terrible I’m teaching them, I guess. I am even late on a grand scale, as in this year, where I only turned up at the school last week, 4 months after the school year actually started. We had a grand meeting (4 months late) to discuss everything we would try to do this year – or rather, everything I think it would be fun to do, which they will take what they want from, I suppose . . . . but what they did tell me was that today, Tuesday, they would be having a party, and would I come? Wouldn’t I come? Did I promise I would come? Was I definitely coming? Yes, I said, and yes, yes. I promise. But, I thought this morning, as the day got later, well, they know me. I’m sure it doesn’t matter that I’m late. So there I was, driving up, an hour late, I thought. The school, except for the thread of smoke coming from the chimney, looked quiet, abandoned. ‘I hope I haven’t missed it,’ I thought – a little disingenuiously, since I am as lazy as the next person and maybe even more so. I parked the car. I got out my camera, and checked my pockets – telephone, keys, 3 packets of sparklers I thought would make nice presents. The window on the near side of the school slid open, and Drita leaned out ‘O moi Ketrin!’ she called (oh my Catherine!) Ku je? (where are you?). Dona appeared around the side of the school, no coat, to lead me in. ‘EVERYTHING,’ she told me (in English) ‘is very Good. Very Good’ and tucked her arm in mine to lead me in.
Through the somehow NOT broken front door, the blasted corridor, around the corner, in the room, and . . . . there is EVERYONE, sitting in front of full plates of food, untouched . . . . they are waiting for me. And there is a massive round of applause as I enter, and I find my seat amidst laughter and good cheer, not with the children as I expect, but with the teachers(!), and everyone tucks in.
This is my Albania. That is what suddenly occurs to me. This is MY Albania. Zemra ime. My heart. Not because I chose it, but because they chose me. Because we chose each other. Because they accept me, and here I belong. Here I am wanted. Here I am loved, and can love. Here I am accepted.
This room, full of children and beautiful young people who are suddenly barely children, although I knew them when they were still too little and shy to speak, and the new little ones whose growth in a year or two I will also be shocked by, the teachers, who have shown up every day, through every regime for this school, for this building, for these children who don’t even remain children long enough to understand what a feat of devotion this is, has been, remains . . . . I am settled. The feast progresses. One teacher leans over and whisper-yells to me ‘Take pictures! We want to post them in the hallway!’ I take pictures. This is so new. Or is it? Four years ago, the school was exhausted. It was beginning to fall down around them, had no electricity – but still these teachers showed up every day. Or almost every day. And the students showed up, every day, or almost every day. In the old environment, I was a curiosity. Even the children didn’t know what to make of me, for the first year. Why? Why would she? What is in it for her?
And then we began to know each other. And then we became friends.
Now we have had a little victory. There is a new head of school, and he’s heard how Alfred and I have been successful at doing things for the school. Which isn’t hard. Mostly we only have to be receptors, because so many people who visit here would like to help, and offer to help – one sends a camera, many drop notes into a jar labelled ‘Donations for the School’ – so many offer to bring something, and when we say ‘bring something for the school’ they bring books, colored pens, notebooks . . . . some go home and think of bigger ways to help, so that the school is suddenly receiving help from around the world. Well this new head of school has heard of this, and so he says ‘Give me this money you’ve collected, to fix the school.’ He says this to me, alone, when he comes to our home for coffee out of nowhere. ‘Fixing the school is a good idea,’ I say, ‘But this is the Children’s money.’ I say ‘You’ll have to ask them.‘ He says ‘We’ll put a sign in the school for you,’ and I say ‘That is very nice, but really unnecessary.’ I say ‘I haven’t really done anything.’ I think and believe ‘at best, I am a portal.’ He says ‘but we will put a BIG sign, with a photograph.’ Sigh. I hold him off for two days, while Alfred is busy, and then I say ‘Alfred,’ I say, ‘the new head of school wants to take the donated money for the children to fix the school.’ I hold my breath. ‘There is a meeting,’ I say, ‘on Friday, to discuss.’ Alfred seems to sort of inflate. Air goes in, and he goes bigger. There is a pause. ‘NO WAY’ is what comes out. Alfred is not given to excitement, or hyperbole, or any of my normal modes of expression. So this is BIG from him.
This is the meeting that happened last week. The head of school came, and Alfred came, and I did too, and a bunch of teachers and all the kids, and the head of schools proposed his idea, and I was talking to the children, who couldn’t have been less interested in him, so I didn’t really hear, and Alfred stepped in to argue with him and point out that the state should be fixing the school and several parents and teachers were shouting, and really, I don’t know what happened, because I was talking to the children, and they said: ‘No Way.’ I said ‘He also says it would be good if other teachers could use this library we’ve made for classes.’ Not even a pause. ‘NO WAY,’ they said. ‘This building is FULL of empty classrooms,’ they pointed out. ‘We took one, and made this. Let them fill another.’ ‘Fair enough,’ I said (while secretly exulting), ‘But think of it the other way – we made this here, and now it’s the prettiest room in the school. Meanwhile teachers like Drita and Lazer and Mysli have less nice rooms – it’s not fair.’ They looked thoughtful. ‘So if you want to keep this room for yourselves,’ I said, ‘I think we need to fix the other rooms.’ A slight pause, while they thought about it. ‘Okay,’ they said, ‘why not?’ They even said ‘Maybe we can use a little of our budget?’ Which rapidly turned into a discussion of how this wasn’t necessary at all, since there is plenty of money around, if you know how to ask for it.
Anyhow, that was the background to the party today, which was mostly just children eating potato chips and oranges and apples and turkish delight, and getting up to recite variously dramatic snatches of poetry, and getting up to dance around. I was so relieved to be the official photographer, to be seated with the teachers . . . . I know the children. They are my friends. I hope I am theirs. But I don’t really know the teachers. Or didn’t know I did, until today, when they all waited for me.
My Albania. Shqiperia Ime.
And as the beautiful children danced around, as they squirmed in their seats with hands thrust in the air “Can I recite now?” The teachers were talking. At first I didn’t listen, but “ha ha ha, head of schools, ho ho ho’ penetrated even my thick brain. They were laughing, triumphant. These good teachers, these good children. At one point, one teacher leaned over ‘I told them,’ she said, ‘Catherine doesn’t care about anything – only the children.’
So there I am, sitting at my end of the room, the New Years Tree in a bucket by my side. Drita, who taught Alfred in his day, though she looks too young for this to be possible with her beautiful blonde braid down her back, sits beside me. The children laugh and pose for me, they take the camera, and snap their own. Someone hands me a baby.
I am home.