It is 2 o’clock in the afternoon, on a Sunday, after what MAY have been one of the most insanely over-committed weeks of my life. Which, if you know me, is really Saying Something.
The sun is strong, enough to make you squint. A few birds – mostly just one – are chirping and twittering in a dogged, as-if-on-principle way. There’s a general summer hum of insects, a whisper, now and then, of breeze in treetop leaves. Someone down in the valley is doing something to a piece of wood, making an intermittent, considered, rapping sort of sound. One chicken, far away, was complaining about something in indignant cackles, but now it’s stopped. There is a rare hum of a car passing far away and below. I was about to say “other than that, it’s silent,” but then Gjyl (General Gjyl) started screaming out orders two backyards away (“Get up! Get that!”), but what would Dojan be without her? Everything else is lazy, on a hot early summer Sunday afternoon, in Dojan.
I am having a day off.
I woke at 4 am. And then again at 4:30, when Ola tapped on my open bedroom door: “Catherine?” Oh? Oh Yes! I speak in a mumble, awake or not. I talk to her retreating shadow. I did wake up.
I throw on a pink sundress, the first thing I see because it is waiting to go into the wash, happily more on-principle than from necessity. The first socks that come to hand are hot pink. I put them on. I stick my feet into the first tennis shoes I meet, thrown across the floor. They are peach colored, and have a hole in the left hand toe. Just the other day, Enver Halilaj took one look at me, and said, as if in prelude to a deep consideration: “Catherine.” “Those shoes need to be washed.” In response to which I explained that there was really no point, since these were the sneakers I was wearing last summer when I was trying – inexpertly – to cut the grass with a hand-scythe, and in a moment of over-enthusiasm stabbed my left foot instead. We both admired the neat, raggedy-edged hole in the left shoe. “And the blood came WELLING up,” I said “right through the shoe!” And Enver and I both giggled.
These are the moments – not infrequent – when I feel certain that I’ve come to live in the right place. Who else would think that slicing a hole in your toes is a subject for mirth? But I DID put the shoes in the washing machine, since then. AND soaked them in bleach.
Over this colorful ensemble, I throw the thick knitted cardigan-coat I keep by my bedside against morning chills. It is blue and white in zig-zag stripes.
I find my glasses, tuck my phone inside the John Le Carre I fell asleep drooling on to save my page, the better to forget both on a desk, which I do, when I’m looking for the car key. I haven’t slept more than 4 hours, more often one or two, for the past week. We race for the car.
Ola and Krzysztof are two people from Poland who have been staying at the house-in-Dojan, while leading a 2-day photography workshop for local people in Tropoja. I’d promised to drive them to the airport in Prishtina to catch a nine am flight. That means leaving at 5am, to be there by eight. By my calculations, this will leave me just enough time to be back in Dojan by 10:00, in order to welcome a Swedish tour group who called last night, asking to stop by so that they can “meet real people and ask about life in Albania.” This is good, and I like this kind of visit, because besides having the opportunity for a good conversation, they have a budget. I suppose it’s categorized as a food expense, but I don’t care. It means that local people have the chance to earn something. Just for being who they are.
Ola, Krzysztof and I set off in the dawn light, and crossed Tropoja, in silence. We negotiated the border to Kosova, still in silence. The car swoops forward. I haven’t been in Kosova for almost 2 months, on account of me forgetting that my passport expired. The lush rich fecund greenness of Kosova makes me happier than I can say, as we thread our way at top speed along a potted asphalt ribbon, lined by horizon-wide fields. The first hay harvest is already cut and drying. A few fields sport denga, bales, already. Far away, on the edge of distance, the surrounding mountains are blue and dreaming.
Near Prizren, we switch to highway, and head north. The car growls beneath me, complaining for its dying transmission, but gathers speed and does its best to leap forward.
The sun is now firmly up, and Ola starts a conversation, asking about TOKA, and our resources, organization. This is always a funny starter. She is having a conversation, one NGO to another. And TOKA is an NGO – we have six projects this year! And an office! We must be real! And we are. But what is TOKA? TOKA is Enver Halilaj, doggedly insisting on devoting himself, whether I want him to or not. As long as he is rushing around, delivering things, collecting invoices, sweeping floors and decorating, if that is what needs to be done, then – I think he thinks – we must exist. And for whatever reason, which almost certainly isn’t a ‘normal’ one, Enver Halilaj has decided that it is desperately important that we do exist. TOKA is Dardan and Enerik, beautiful young men, who accept without question that we exist, and that TOKA is theirs. Let me NEVER forget Dardan informing me “This is an organization, but we have no hierarchy, right? We all work together. There are no bosses here. I am not your boss and YOU are NOT my boss.” Yes. Absolutely. Why not? And TOKA is lovely Ina, who everyone falls in love with, and why shouldn’t they, when so much goodness shines out of her? And TOKA is Rea, who sends out fiery press releases and articles, calling, calling, calling on us all to care and do, and be better, make a better world . . . And at 3 o’clock in the morning, when I wake up wondering whether SOMEONE is going to notice soon that TOKA is not really terribly professional, that our offices don’t actually have any furniture, that none of us really know what we’re doing, that we’re incapable of signing official correspondence in any way other than “Hugs!” . . . that we CANNOT find the highlighters I’m certain we bought some months ago – perhaps the dogs took them? TOKA is me too.
I explain it to Ola this way: “We cannot complete projects without staff. We cannot have staff without payment. We cannot have payment without a revenue stream. We cannot have a revenue stream without a physical location. Our physical location is dependent on a project. But we cannot honor the project without staff.” And this is how it goes around and around in my head. “So you’re doing it all at the same time,” she says. Yes. This is the point. THIS is why we are so tired. And messy. And only just-barely organized.
Not that, to be honest, I think we’ll ever be much different. Or, to be REALLY honest, would I want us to be.
Then she starts to tell me what’s happening with her organization. It’s fascinating. Well, to me. Basically, they are a Polish umbrella organization, of 11 environmental NGOs. Mostly they serve a watchdog purpose. This was eminently fundable, when Poland was undergoing EU accession (all those requirements to fulfill!) now it is less clear why anyone should care, or fund them. Which makes sense. And is SUCH a good question to ask ourselves. Why SHOULD anyone care?
In this world, they will only care if there is a profit. Profit can be equated with “benefit” I think, but “benefit” will realistically always have to have an economic profit – at least for someone, otherwise why would they fund us? Which actually leaves us with this very interesting intellectual challenge: To be very sure that this “other world” we are imagining would actually function. Not only ideologically and long-term, but here, and NOW. In our own, currently-loathsome context. But why shouldn’t it?
At any rate, it is in the coils of this discussion, that we arrive at the airport. About two hours earlier than the Poles really thought we would. (I told Krzysztof that it couldn’t possibly take 3 hours to get from Gjakova to Prishtina, but had I insisted, the car would have broken down or something, so I didn’t. Insist.)
I park the panting car (and a Toyota 4×4 doesn’t pant easily – poor dear, she needs a new transmission), throw caution to the wind – remembering guiltily that the SWEDES must be trying to reach me, to arrange their visit, and I have left my phone behind, tucked into the narrative pages of East German defection I was reading this morning – and go in to have a coffee. We talk some more. Krzysztof, as for the whole trip, alternates between being seemingly asleep, and suddenly adding some absolutely to the point comment. It is FUN. And I am suddenly realizing that perhaps, just perhaps, despite my utter abdication from any even basic host behavior, they have NOT had a terrible time, and that it has been a not terrible visit for them, and that we are tentatively friends now, and that this is all terribly exciting. The world it is the old world yet . . . and the generations I happen to be traversing are, as ever, trying to figure it out, to steer it, and isn’t, oh isn’t, that so much more fun than just being along for the ride? (And isn’t that maybe why Enver H is so devoted?).
I tear myself away. I have to get back to the Swedes, who are about to descend on my “lagje” – my micro-community, my neighborhood. Back to the car, which (who) relieved of two bodies, flies down the road at 100s of kilometers per hour. We swoop and fly, we can do anything. Outside of Gjakova we meet a convoy of cars, a wedding. We crawl. I curse them. You are the most cursed wedding in modern history, I tell myself. I hope you crash, I hope all your cars fall off a cliff. I hope, I wish . . . WHY won’t they get out of the way? We get stuck at the border. I almost succeed in passing two of them, and then wave them ahead. It’s their day, after all. I fume. Life is full of contradictions. HA.
I FINALLY arrive home to find POOR INA, who I left sick in bed, with a horrible temperature and all, sitting on the front steps, clutching a phone, saying “the Swedes are coming.” Go Back to Bed – I order her. And call Gjyl – our local general – and Gerta and Erind and Lona – the children of the house next door. They gather. My troops. “There are I-don’t-know-how-many-Swedes arriving any minute now! We have to welcome them!” Ah! Of course! – NO Albanian would ever question the imperative to welcome any guests, no matter how random – only I know that they will offer some payment, and to be honest, only I would care about this. And they all start rushing around. Erind carries carpets and pillows outside, to ‘strew’ the meadow at the top of the hill. Gerta and Gjyl are in charge of “qerasje” – the not-entirely-symbolic gift of welcome which MUST be offered to any guest: at a minimum – a glass of juice (“Do you have any juice?” asks Gerta. “No,” I say. “hm” she says. “It’s very nice water,” I say, “I have a box of Turkish delight . . . “) a caramel (we don’t have any), if possible, a biscuit (“How about we make some cookies?” asks Gerta. “THEY’RE COMING IN 2 MINUTES” I say. “Oh,” she says.), and often, for reasons I’ve never entirely understood, a bar of soap. Well, everyone has some, and it’s always useful (needless to say, we do NOT have 15 bars of soap, nor, do I imagine, would the Swedes particularly want them if we did). “FLORIANA!” bellows Gjyl at her 11 year old daughter “RUN TO THE HOUSE AND BRING THE BISCUITS AND CHOCOLATES!”
My heart is melting, at the generosity of these people: How much did Gjyl’s biscuits and chocolates cost? They will be for sure store-bought, even at the cost of not feeding the family, in order to have SOMETHING on hand to “qerase” guests. To hell with it! She will throw them into the mix, for the pride of our neighborhood, which is like the pride of one big family, that We Can Welcome People. They never question WHY they have to stop everything to welcome these people, empty our combined houses. Only I know that the Swedes will leave a small financial gift. But will it cover the biscuits and chocolates? To hell with it. We rush around some more.
The puppies – don’t even ask why we have puppies – have left two distinct disgusting intestinal messes in the entry corridor. Mops and buckets out! The troops sluice down the whole front of the house. I tackle the worst mess, but leave them to it as I run to the car. I have to drive off to meet the tour bus at the Varreza e Deshomoret – the Graveyard of the Martyrs – as they don’t know how to find the house. Ina has crawled feverish back to her bed and shut the door. Good – she’s safe.
I find the Swedes. I bring them to the house, to the neighborhood. They CANNOT negotiate the steep path to the blanket that’s been laid for them. Instead they gather, standing, before the house. “But we have no furniture,” I say . . . they can’t sit down. “It doesn’t matter,” says the guide. “We don’t have time,” says the Swedish guide, “We’ll just stand and talk.”
And this is where, in my memory, time slows down. 15 Swedes, a tour company, all think it’s somehow worth it, to come and meet us. Me and my friends. Me, yes, but more importantly, my friends, my family, these dear people, who are so much like all the other Albanians, which does not make them less, but makes them MORE. Gerta, 18 years old, so beautiful, so smart. Middle-daughter competent (there’s an older sister in Tirana), which she probably thinks is not interesting, but which leaves me more than a little in awe of her. I have brought the Swedes, but it is Gerta who will know how to “hospitalize” them. Lona, her younger sister, so practical – which might sound less sexy, but it is always Lona who laughingly has the solution, and so she is in fact a bit goddess-like, in my mind. Erind, their brother, shy, beautiful, resentful. He will NOT appear. Don’t even ask him to. But for some reason, Erind and I get on. Possibly that neither of us particularly wants to speak or talk, and we laugh at the same absurd things. Because of this, he would do anything for me. And me for him. And General Gjyl, the same age as me, but worn. In old photographs, she looks like Rita Hayworth. A tough woman. Kind. SO KIND. And her crazy daughter Floriana, smart, young, and irritating-as-hell, because she has all the confidence of intelligence combined with being loved.
The Swedes arrive. Gerta passes with a beautiful tray of offerings, qerasje. They don’t have time or energy to walk up the hill. They won’t even come inside the house. They stand outside, and we talk to them, from the balcony.
The Swedes ask about what it’s like to be young here. Gerta: “To be honest, most young people want to leave, for economic or social reasons. But I want to stay.” What are your dreams? Gerta: “I want to finish my education, at the highest level, and then return to improve Tropoja.” How is the government functioning? Gjyl: “We have no government. We have to decide for ourselves. Investments should improve things, but never damage the nature we have, which is our best resource, our pride and treasure. Investments have to insure that our children can stay, stay here.”
The Swedes have no time, they have to leave. Their Albanian tour guide takes a moment to thank and comment: “This was a very rushed visit, but we’re glad it could happen. Catherine is modest, but she has done so much for Albania . . . “ But all I can say is: “No really . . . “ NO REALLY.
No really. Look around you. Everything I have, I have been given. Just in the small exercise of today, the Swedes could only be welcomed because the whole neighborhood threw themselves into it, for the dear, wonderful, Malesori highlander pride in hospitality – mikpritje. And if you take an even longer view . . . ? I would not be here, I would not be important at all, if these people had not accepted me. My chief importance is that I speak for them, from my own experience. Of their kindness, of their strength, of their generosity and wisdom.
The Swedes leave, leaving something with the families. The families are surprised. I take this chance to tell them: I am NOT stupid. This WILL work.
We relax on the chairs the visitors left. Gerta makes coffee for us. We are laughing.
Some electricians from the electricity company arrive. We hear them coming down the road. Some children race off, to disconnect the illegal connections of their houses. (Gerta: “This is why they are talking on the phone when they come. So we will hear them. So we will know they are coming.”) The electricians come to the house, my house. WHY? I have no idea. (Erind grabs me in the hallway: “Have you paid your electricity bill?” Oh yes, I say – and he relaxes. “It’s the WATER bill I haven’t paid!” and we giggle.) But as we are geared up, we do hospitality. “Come and have a coffee?” oh no, oh why not? So Gerta makes them all coffee, and the three electricians sit at the table on the front balcony, for an hour or more, and fill out papers. I think they are filling out disconnect papers, but as no one else is worried, so I leave them sitting on my balcony. And they are QUITE happy, and so are we. We are fussing over Ina, who is still, let’s not forget, in bed with a raging fever. We make her salt throat gargles. We make her tea with the best honey. The electricians finish their work, and demand to shake my hand, before they leave. I have respected them. I have offered them the hospitality of my house. None of us know what these papers were, they were filling out, but nothing happened to the neighborhood. It is like a small warm glow to know, that as little as I understand it, they will not forget this. They shake my hand, and say “Respekt” as they leave.
Gjyl drank her coffee, then got up to go. “Don’t forget your biscuits and chocolate,” I say to her, still worried, that the sum total of the day’s generosity will cost her.
“What are you talking about?” she says, “They’re your biscuits and chocolates. I had some unexpected guests a few days ago, and I didn’t have a damn thing in the house. So I sent Floriana up, and Ina sent us the biscuits and chocolates.”
I look at her. And then I start to laugh. And I laugh doubled over until tears come out. We’re all laughing.
Do I believe in a better future, the future these people believe in and ask for? Yes, absolutely. I do.
And maybe THAT is what TOKA is.
In any case. This was my day off. I have enjoyed every moment of it. Thank you, all who were part of it.