Today was the eighth day in a string of oddly perfect days. Even the weather has been ‘perfect’ – if you don’t mind climate change. Warm in the sun outside, just a jacket. Sitting on a blanket on the ‘shpati’ or hill-bank next to my house, with the sheep grazing around me, eyeing the ever-increasing dogs who lounge in the sun and chew each other’s noses thoughtfully, pretending I don’t notice their sidelong, embarrassed glances at the sheep. Some atavistic urge tickles the dogs, but what they are supposed to do, about these two big wooly not-dogs, they are not sure. The clouds drift by, and all Tropoja is layed out before me, down in the valley. Some chickens cackle down among the naked grape vines. When I read, the ram ‘Bossi’ comes and wuffles his soft black and white nose delicately in my hair.
This is the house in Dojan.
“Dojan!” say Albanians “How . . . nice.” No one can understand why I would move 20 minutes away from Valbona, to live in an old farmhouse in a small neighborhood village on the outskirts of Bajram Curri.
But this is why. Eight perfect days, peaceful days, the first days of January, 2018. I have taken to keeping a calendar, like a lawyer, to write down what I do all day. In fact, I do a lot of work, too – looking after reservations for the hotels in Valbona, putting together projects for our NGO TOKA to save the world, or at least this corner of it. Dreaming about how to make life better here – or rather how to make life better for people, so that nothing too much needs to change so that we can all be happy with what we have, if we only had a little bit more. Because life here, in fact, is good. At least it seems so, to me. For me. Is that selfish I wonder?
Take today, for instance: Two hours this morning, writing emails, about projects to set up a community council, so local people can have a united voice. Writing emails about the crazy number of archeological sites scattered around Tropoja – 3000 year old Ilyrian settlements, tombs, vanished Roman roads, the old kullas of the League of Prizren. History is only buried beneath the thin red soil, peeping out like rocks, waiting to be noticed, waiting to be forgotten. The hydropowers will flood some old Ilyrian tumulus tombs I realized this morning – “Good!” I think – another chance another reason to stop them. Emails proposing a project to set locals up to monitor brown bears with camera traps and an annual Bear Poo Festival – why not? A 1cm square cube of bear poo, dropped into a vial of solution, can be sent to Slovenia, where they will analyze the dna and reveal mysteries of the lives of bears. Then an hour of taking care of Alfred’s reservations – this is fun too, thinking about other people’s holidays, helping them to discover this place, this place which I am always just myself discovering.
I take a break at some point to eat breakfast. Thick brown bread, I made myself (Alfred’s mother taught me how). Oatmeal, with chestnut honey from the trees behind my house.
And there is this other pleasure, a strange and simple, somehow secret pleasure – of doing little things, to take care of life – of doing them before I am exhausted, before I am late, before I should be doing something else. Rinsing the wooly slipper socks my mother sent me, without a care in the world, without an imperative, and hanging them up to dry. So simple, so clean, so tidy. In their own time. There is time for slipper-socks. There is time for tasks. The day is full of little tasks, to take care of the house, to take care of life, to take care of me – so easy, just little tasks – washing the dishes is like a homespun sacrament. So easy. Everything has a place, everything is at hand. Nothing takes very long. The laundry goes up, the laundry comes down, smelling sweet. In the evening I iron the thick cotton sheets while listening to Sherlock Holmes – I’ve read them all, a hundred times, so why do I never remember who done it?
At 12:00 o’clock I threw binoculars, a small water bottle, a drawing pad, the gps, my notebook of explorations and a bag of homemade biscuits into the little black back-sack that Rea forgot here, and called the small, black-and-white dog Winnie. We get in the car and drive to Bujan. I want to explore the Cherry Tree Hill. This is a rich red earth hill at the end of the road on the way to Rosuja – the 3000 year old Ilyian settlement almost forgotten on the mountainside above Bujan. The Cherry Tree Hill is terraced, and in August Jip and I discovered it – covered in ancient twisted broken trees. “What are they?” We got out and looked at leaves. Cherry Trees, I think, I said. Ever since then, I am waiting for spring, to see the hillside covered in cherry blossoms, to find if there are still cherries. Alfred says that these were the collective cherry orchards during communism. I don’t know whose they are now. I know the trees are alive, as they did have leaves in August. Now they are bare. The dog and I park the car, and set off up the goat track. He is grinning as he runs ahead, stopping dog-like to look back and check and grin and run some more. THIS is the path, says Winnie. Did you know? I know. Don’t worry. I’ll show you. I know these things. I know paths. This is one. Come on! I plod along behind him.
It has been a quiet day before, but now it becomes a perfect day. I can’t explain it. But my eye keeps catching pictures. A view, some light. A bare tree framed against the sky. Some juniper berries. The houses snuggling-not-tumbling down the far hillside. The almost-vast expanses of burned umber dead braken carpeting the top of Cherry Tree Hill. The far ridges of the mountains above Rosuja, iced white in snow, pricked out on the skyline with rows of naked trees, tiny and perfectly vertical, like beard stubble, like fencing, like trees on the horizon.
The dog and I meander back and forth across the hill top. It must be a sea of waist-high bracken in summer. The far side of the hill, also terraced as I saw from the height of Rosuja the other day, has no cherry trees, but is steep and covered with a strange kind of junipers, with fat hard mustard colored berries. Why terrace it for this? I find some good rocks, round and weathered, facing head on the view of what was once, some thousands of years ago, the Rosuja fortification. I sit, lean back against a rock, feel the sun and the breeze which is almost a wind and unpack my bag. I make a sketch of the layout of Rosuja. It’s relatively hard to get to now, although not long. But inconvenient. Why? I think. Why live halfway up a mountain, just there? When there were no lights, no transport – what was it like? It was supposed to be a city. Now it is just place-marked by a crown of boulder, almost impossible to scale. A scrap of dry stone wall – can this be a 3000 year old wall? My friend Rea and I climbed it the other day, one of the other perfect days. We were petrified to kick out a stone, a stone chip. Destroying history. But so many others must have done this, over the past 1000, 2000 thousand years. I tried, the other day, to imagine some ancient ancestor, grumbling, wishing the wall was DONE already, thinking about lunch. Bloody stones. I tried to imagine him imagining me, 3000 years later, worrying about destroying his work, when everything else around is long since vanished. Why indeed, says the dog, and curls up to take a nap. He curls like a pastry, when he naps.
On the way to the Cherry Tree Hill of Rosuja, I passed one car going the opposite way. There was a man driving, but the woman in the passenger seat was waving. I saw in the rear mirror the car stop, the woman hop out. I reversed to meet her. “Hello!” She says to me “How are you? Are you tired? Have you rested? Where are you living?” Do I know this woman? I wonder. I explain about the house in Dojan. Another tiny old woman, wrinkled and colored like a walnut shell, face framed in a crisp white kerchief joins us: Who do you live with in Dojan? I think about pointing at the dog, and realize this would probably sound rude. I live with myself, I say, smiling. “You were by our house the other day,” the first woman tells me. She has a necklace of beautiful indigo blue cut glass beads “But we were not home. That is OUR land, you know, where you were. It is all ours. Our land.” How nice, I say. At least two other women I met on other days by the two houses you pass on the way to the fortification also informed me that it was all their land. I wonder why I NEVER seem to meet any men. Tropoja, I am beginning to think, could be a sort of tired Amazons’ refuge. The bead woman smiles. “Are you going there again now?” She must, I am sure, be eaten up with curiosity. In a place where one car can park on a grassy bank with not a house in sight for 2 hours one day, and 5 hours the next and everyone knows you were there and somehow who you are, even though you never met them. Never, I feel quite sure. It must be, in such a place, an oddity to have someone so determinedly poking around. Suspicious. Alarming? Someone in her car blares the horn. “Just coming!” she shouts back, then to me “come and have a chat?” Well, I don’t think so, I said – there was now another car waiting, patiently, and I was blocking the road.
Today, I explain, I’m just going to look at the Cherry Trees. They must be beautiful in spring. But the other days, I was looking with a friend for Rosuja. “It’s so interesting,” I say, “maybe 3000 years old!” “FIVE thousand years old!” says the walnut, beaming “it’s ours, you know.” How lucky you are, I say. I think it’s very special. “What . . . ?” says the bead woman. “Oh well, you know,” I say, “You know I helped with tourism, in Valbona?” “Yes,” says the bead, “what do you want to do here?” “Oh nothing” I say. Only I thought that tourists might be interested, I might make a map. I’m not trying to profit for myself, you know. “Oh no,” says the bead, “but then what?” Well, I say, anything, really. If tourists come, maybe you could give them coffee. Maybe someone could make a guesthouse? The horn blares again. “Just coming!” shouts the bead, “come and have a chat?”
Winnie, who is really a strange little dog, choses this moment to climb on top of my head, and I gesture at him, scrabbling at my neck, at the car waiting, the horn blares again. Winnie whines, and plants a foot on my ear. He looks ready to leap from my neck onto the walnut. “Does he bite?” asks the bead. Oh no, I say, another of his feet in my eye. “Perhaps another day? Soon you can find me in Bajram Curri. We are making a community office. By February.” Or, as Winnie’s ribs brush the top of my head, “You can always ask Alfred how to find me.” “OH no,” says the bead, appalled, disgusted “we want to talk to you. ONLY to you.” Well then – they shake my hand, they think about kissing me, but as this would clearly risk getting them tangled all up with Winnie’s feet, they smile and turn away. I drive past the waiting car, with a small border-collie-ish dog perched jauntily on my head. The driver smiles and waves.
There at the rock, I make a list of questions. What are the names of the small rivers to either side of Rosuja? The GPS has names – Kauri and Dopside – but these are almost always wrong. Why was the far side terraced? Who owns that house that has no smoke so must be used only in summer, at the foot of Rosuja? Could there be biking here? Where does the water canal go that crosses the hill of Rosuja horizontally? For who was it made? What did they use to do with the Cherries? What do they do now? Does anyone maintain them?
I imagine myself visiting again, these woman, all these woman, who ALL own this land, and asking these questions. I imagine sitting in their houses, drinking coffee and raki and eating llokume. I remember the other lists on other pages of my “exploration notebook” and all the other places I’ve visited, promised to visit, promised to bring tourists. I sit, with the rocks at my back, and stare around, and think, this is it – I am finally learning – re-learning, the art of my youth, of my childhood. The art of doing something for no reason at all. The art of wandering, of meandering, the art of lookin’ about. The art of poking. Of being pokey. I feel no urge to leap up, nor any urge to stay. I am swimming through the day. Winnie picks this moment to get up, and fling himself into my lap. He is, as I have said, a strange little dog. He throws himself across my lap, buries his head in my arm, and we sit like that, on an ancient hillside, looking up at an ancient mountain, with the weirdly warm January breeze ruffling us. I run my fingers through his hair, scratching and tickling. He hugs me. After a while it is time to go. Why? Why not? The grin returns. This is a path, did you know? At least, I don’t think it is really, but I think we can go here. Oh dear, you’ve slid in the mud. Are you okay? Yes, alright. Come on then, there’s a path down there.
We meander down the hillside. Passing further to the northern, lower side of the hill, we find more and more ancient cherry trees. The grandmother of all these trees stands, her black and silver bark bursting with horizontal stretch marks, some limbs blasted and peeled open, some arms look dead. Some are fat and juicy, and on the eastern side of her trunk there are oozing pits of sap. I put my hand on her trunk, and look forward to spring. It’s important to talk to trees, I think. If only to be polite.
We pass a slightly younger tree. I touch it. “And this I suppose is her sister” I explain to Winnie. “Whatever,” he grins. Did you happen to see the path? It’s here, in case you didn’t notice. I’m on it, and so are you, and if we carry on this way, everything will be just fine. You’ll see. (Trees! He clearly thinks, disgusted.)
And we get back to the car. We go home. The drive is full of pictures again. The perfect day continues.
I decide to clean out the sheep. I spend one hour, shoveling dirty straw out of their manger. They mill about, looking alternately interested, bored, and disgusted. Can we PLEASE go out now? Will you not go out? I am busy. It’s quite difficult to break up the dirty hay. It looked so clean on the surface, but I realize there are 5 cm of compacted sheep poo under the surface. How did they do this? They keep it all so clean! All the doors are open, they could go if they wanted, and occasionally they DO foray out into the neighbor’s front yard. Oh SHEEP, I say. Yes? They say. Well, if you WOULD do anything interesting, we would follow. We ARE sheep after all. And they follow me back in. “There is STILL,” they say, “nothing new to eat. But it looks nice.” They get in the way, and look at what I’m shoveling. Goodness! Where did that come from? Six wheelbarrows later, and the manger is clean. I have had a wonderful hour in the rich warm smell of barn animals. It is pure happiness. I do stop to think “Alfred would hate this” but I don’t see why. But he would. But I should try to understand. Perhaps we are changelings? It’s important to understand. I don’t really know how to do this. I’ve only had the sheep for a month or so. I put new hay. Maybe next year I can cut the bracken on Cherry Tree Hill, and put this for them to sleep in. The sheep bustle back. They seem to approve. I give them buckets of corn, and they go into a berserk passion of gluttony.
And then? I stand and watch them. I have to chase away a neighbor’s little girl, who never will shut up. I feel guilty about this, but . . . she doesn’t understand. The sheer pleasure of standing quietly, for no reason at all, simply looking. I do this. I stand. I lean on the wooden wall of the manger, and watch the sheep. The ewe, Bardhi, is normally shy. But – snap – a picture again, an instant of perfect beauty, as she pauses in all her slightly soiled white majesty and tilts her head, and LOOKS at me. I look at the sheep. She looks at me. And she is so beautiful, with limpid eyes, delicate nose, an altogether lovely thing. Some intelligence, asking – something, as we look at each other. And then she ducks her head to nose some food, to chew. She forgets me. And time – this time of no time – moves on.
I have dutifully filled their bright pink baby bathtub (it was the only big basin I could find) with water every day, I’ve rinsed and refilled it, but I’ve never seen them drink. Today, with all the time in the world, I lean on the wall and watch them. And first one, then the other does drink. They don’t lap, like cats or dogs, but suck, like elephants. How interesting I think. That’s something new. Something I have never seen before, and only seen now because I have slipped somehow, in these perfect days, out of the adult tyranny of time, and back into the useless, happy stream of useless hours, of childhood.
I go in, to take a bath. There is no electricity on this floor of the house, so it takes two days to heat the water – with a cable, when the house’s heater isn’t on. And I light candles, as the sun is going down, soon. So soon. I think perhaps the days are made perfect, by their brevity. Perhaps? The hot water steams out of the shower head, and hits my knees, my calves and ankles. The rest of me sinks under the rising water of the tub. I think about what I will write, about these perfect days, this perfect house, in Dojan. Dismissed, discarded Dojan is paradise, it seems to me. A paradise of useless moments, precious, for their very innecessity. Their odd cast of characters.
WHAT is it that should be told about this day, these days? The pictures. The sudden stabbing pleasure of the sight of red and white checked curtains in the window of the clean new bathroom, lit by candles in the failing light of the day, with its enormous white tub. Something simple, but somehow celestial, or on that scale.
To feel hungry, suddenly, all that wind, all those hills. All that sheep shit! And to cut a piece of good brown bread, and toast it, and spread it with butter, and spread it again with marmite, sent by a good friend in New York (where, no, they don’t eat Marmite normally, but where you can buy anything, for a price). And how absolutely perfect that slice of toast was. That is something. Something so simple. Something so rare. Something so – dare one dream – everyday, in Dojan.
My neighbors, you understand, feel sorry for me. With their drunken husbands (by their account), their children they can’t afford. They feel sorry for me, because I am alone.
I lie in the bath. The sun goes down. The candles gather haloes in the steam from the bath. The curtains remain bright and cheerful, even if they are buried a little in the candle light, in the gloaming. I think about what to write. I get out, before the water cools unbearably. I get dressed. I have lost my socks.
I pad through the unheated house, barefoot. I find the socks where they fell, by the side of the bed. I sit and pull them on. Winnie comes in, and jumps onto the bed beside me, watching me put my socks on. Socks! Goodness! Well, as with paths, I know a LOT about socks. First of all, they are good to catch, better to chew, best to run around with. He cocks an eyebrow at me: Should I?
It has been a blessed day. I look at the strange little dog, the weird little creature beside me, patient, loving, eyeing my socks. “Winnie,” I start to say. It’s been a good day, I want to say. Thank you, I want to say. And then this odd creature, this little black and white imp, does the strangest thing. He somehow throws out one leg, across my body, and lick-kisses my cheek. Not a disgusting, wet and slurpy lick, but the closest thing to a kiss-on-the-cheek a creature with no lips can do. Then he buries his head in my arm, and presses his body against mine.
It was a good day, wasn’t it? I say to him. And we sit for a bit, like that. Then after a while he goes outside to bark at the night, and I sit down to write this.