I am sitting in the restaurant, which means the main room, at Rilindja. I am in the Valbona Valley of Northern Albania. I am, somehow, home. After a lot of noise (arriving bands of local teenagers, out for a school-sponsored day’s exploration) it’s quiet, I’m alone, and all I can hear is the sound of the wind in the leaves of the beech trees outside. A cardboard box with two baby bunnies I’ve been feeding with a syringe is by my feet. It is very peaceful.
I’ve just returned home, as I’ll call it for lack of a better word, from a day spent in the local town, Bajram Curri, frantically emailing the world. I came back on the furgon, the local minibus, which travels down the valley this way once a day, around 3 o’clock. It is a Friday. This means that more than 30 people were crammed in a minivan meant to seat eight, with all their shopping, which in a place like Valbona which doesn’t have any shops at all – not one, not a post office, or police station, or a telephone box, certainly not a doctor, nothing like that, just 27 kilometers of people living as they have for hundreds of years – can be quite a lot. I myself accounted for a box of 150 eggs, as well as 5 kilos of tomatoes, 5 of onions, a sack of sausages, a bag of cherries, one of green peppers, two kinds of apples, some eggplants, a bag of bananas, three tins of coffee, three sacks of salt . . . oh and three cabbages that the man in the veterinary supply store went out and bought for me (no payment accepted) to feed to the teeny tiny baby bunnies which are nestled in my hat, wrapped in a scarf (three cabbages could crush them). I’m thinking that maybe this furgon ride illuminates the difference between here and, oh certainly New York, but maybe everywhere else I’ve ever been. A massively pregnant friend phoned me recently in New York, fighting back tears about how awful people were to her on the subway. No seat given, vicious glares for “taking up space.” Here in Valbona, the furgon is cheerfully packed. No woman is ever allowed to stand, even if we have to pile on each other’s laps, and seats are given by a combined precedence of age and gender. Everyone is cheerful. I think that, after 10 months, I am being accepted, as I was given the ancient wooden stool that is crammed in behind the front passenger seat. A chair certainly, but not one of the best ones. One appropriate to both my femaleness and level of strength. Artan, Alfred’s cousin, is standing in front of me, his behind hits me in the face on the left side occassionally. To my right is the window, which if I turn my head, I can stare out of blissfully, at the more than amazingly beautiful view. Someone sitting on packing crates behind me (I think it’s Azem’s brother, he looks like Azem, but with a mustache) is leaning heavily on my back, but if I jam my elbow against the window, and my fist against the edge of the front seat, I can push back enough to hold him up. At some point he shifts his weight, and his dusty suit-jacketed arm snakes past my right shoulder, to grab onto the seat back in front of me. This means I have to rest my chin on his arm to keep looking out the window, and I do, and this is fine. It’s a compliment from both of us, to the other. At one point I scootched to the edge of the stool and patted the space revealed, suggesting someone sit. “Nuk Ashtu!” said Azem’s maybe-brother, smiling at me, “Not like that!”
I think about being on the subway in New York, and how touching anyone else would get you spoken to. I think about New York, where the sign of belonging, of knowing how to function, is to grab what’s good, for yourself, and grab it first – Sorry sucker. Oh not always. People are capable of tremendous goodness in New York – it’s why I love the place. But it’s an exception. Not the code. It’s different here. People are proud of being good to each other, of being strong and using their strength to take care of each other. I wonder sometimes about the centuries of hard life that taught them this pride in caring for each other. In 1921, one Lulash Keqi said to Rose Wilder Lane, the Amercian daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who visited here: “Happiness comes from walking on hard stones, hard paths, and knowing that you are stronger than the stones.” How do you demonstrate strength? With kindness.
Kindness is the proof of strength. This is what these people know, what they demonstrate to me every day, and why I love them. And why I will call this place, if they will have me, home.
Of course it isn’t all simple. Why was I frantically emailing from Bajram Curri? Because these people are under threat.
These are the Bjeshket e Nemuna, the “Accursed Mountains.” Archeological evidence suggests that despite the harshness of the environment they have been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. Of course, no matter what the current political jargon is, it hasn’t always been the same people: shifts and immigrations, emigrations have happened, marriages, deaths, births, but people have always lived here, and perhaps they’ve always taken on – eventually – the character of the place. The character of the mountains.
I, for example, arrived here in a slightly strange way. I saw the coastline from a boat when I was little, and the place burned itself into my memory, so that years later, when I had the chance to travel, Albania was where I wanted to go. People ask me now, how I decided to come to Tropoja, to Valbona, and the truth is, I don’t really remember. I think perhaps, just between you and me, it was the mountains. I think perhaps they called me. Certainly, in a bizarre way, against all advice, including that of other Albanians, I stubbornly made my way directly here. I felt as though I were – although not unforgivably – very late, for a very important meeting. And once I got here . . . they talk to you, the mountains. Not in an obvious way. Perhaps it isn’t even speech, as such. It’s just that they’re here. Enormous and present, and lifting all around you. You can’t ignore them. And as I’m human, it’s my inclination to communicate, so I look at the mountains, and listen. I listen like a child might, because I am small, and my time here will be quick compared to those huge stone creatures that rise all around me. They are ancient, and I am young. The lean over the ceiling of the sky, and stare down at me. I watch them and try to learn: patience, strength . . . and the humor that comes from both. In this way, it is easy to think that any thought that pops into my head while I’m watching them comes from them. I don’t know. I do know that they’re better thoughts than I would usually have. Patience, strength and humor. Or as the old Albanian song goes: Bread and Salt and Heart.
At any rate, they must have affected other people the same way. For hundreds and thousands of years. So there’s a culture here. Based in stone and hardship, certainly, but with humor and a certain sort of grace, too.
According to this argument, I am simply meeting the latest generation of the children of these mountains. And, I suppose, I am not wrong to feel I might be one of them. Which explains why I have this burning sense of protectiveness. The people are under threat. The people of the mountains. And if the mountains’ people are swept aside, who will be left to speak for the mountains? Who that knows and loves them, that’s lived with them? The mountains themselves, the way they like to be, the way they whisper at those of us who love them, are under threat, too.
Pseh? Why? Sa? How?
I’ll tell you.
But first I have to feed the bunnies.