What the Heck do we Mean by Tropojan Culture, and Why is it Important?

What the Heck do we Mean by Tropojan Culture, and Why is it Important?

“I was trying to explain to my father, but couldn’t.  All I could say was ‘Everything just feels more REAL there.’” 

— paraphrased from 2023 conversation with young friend who was returning for her 3rd year to visit Tropoja.

I know I (Catherine) am always banging on about culture, but what do I mean, and why do I think it’s such a pity that it’s missed by people who stay in even only moderately fancy hotels, or who never get to meet any actual Tropojans (other than the odd waiter)?

Eee.  How do I start?  Well, did you ever see the film “The Matrix”?  (I know, I know, this should be a ‘duh’ question, but I did just meet someone – forget who – who’d never heard of it.)  Alternately, you know how this period of earth’s history is now called “The Anthropocene” – defined by Oxford Languages (who for some reason don’t call themselves the OED online?) as “the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.”  Of course human activity is also the dominant influence on humanity, such that (ala the Matrix) I suspect it is now almost impossible (if you happen to live in it) to disentangle what developed world culture is telling you is normal, from what may or may not actually be normal, if you were willing to dip a toe into a non-mainstream, non-human-centric, state of existence.

I could put this some other ways:

  1. Let’s say that the definition of “normal” is currently supplied by the developed world (call it Europe and North America) (Or, okay, we could call it ‘the culture of globalization’).  Because these cultures (societies?  civilizations?) control so much, they can also march around the world and through either diplomacy, war or NGO projects, tell everyone else what they ought to be doing in order to be as “successful” as the developed world.  This seems kind of weird to me.  Because as rich as they are, these developed countries also created (and profited from) things like colonization, world wars, climate change, the great plastic gyres, the rape of environment and (perhaps not coincidentally?) depression as a disease (as opposed to being justifiably sad because things suck).  I mean, when even the head of the Catholic church says things have gone too far, you have to wonder.  Okay okay, I know WWI is blamed on the Balkans, but – when you think about it – that’s just plain hilarious.  “The Balkans are very small.  If Europe didn’t want to go to war, I’m sure we couldn’t have made them.” (Alfred’s brother Lirim’s comment, when I was fuming about some idiotic diplomats in our dining room smugly trotting out that old chestnut “the tinderbox of Europe.”)  I mean, the developed world didn’t become rich from being nice, did it? 
  2. OR.  Cities and ‘urban centers’ are humanity condensed and compacted.  I know that when I left NYC (back in 2010), there was a flurry of books coming out:  “How to keep bees on the roof of your apartment building” or “I didn’t buy anything for one year” or even “How not to use toilet paper” (that last might not have been a book, but people were talking about it.  I swear!) but when you come right down to it, there is no way NOT to live in a mainly human-centric/Anthropocene way, if you live in a city, and quite possibly if you live in the developed world.  I mean, you can try to re-introduce aspects of non-human-centric life, but at the end of the day . . . it’s still not what I would call ‘reality.’  Posit:  If weather doesn’t directly and dramatically affect your life, you’re not in reality.  There’s nothing more real than weather.  If your behavior and activities don’t change drastically with the seasons, you’re not in reality (assuming you don’t live somewhere like Los Angeles which doesn’t have seasons?  In which case I rest my point).
  3. OR.  How the heck do we change anything, and drag ourselves – and our poor world – back from the brink of extinction – or at the very least stop thinking it’s normal to be depressed, when the only models we can refer to are the very ones that created the problems? 

Answer:  COME TO TROPOJA!  Yes, you’re supposed to laugh here, but laughter aside, I’m quite serious (you can laugh and be serious, I think?). 

Before the communist period of Albanian history (officially beginning in 1946 – so within living memory), the highlands of Albania were largely self-administered.  As one man here told me “You have to understand:  In the past, there was no ‘higher authority.’  We had to decide together how to live, agree to laws, and then abide by them.  We knew there were only two paths.  Honor or Chaos.  Our children could not grow in Chaos.  So we chose honor.”  From this need to create order and a commitment to the “breza qe ardh” or the generations to come, grew the various local ‘kanun’ – or customary laws.  But here’s the thing, when you start reading them, they are mostly about how to ensure that natural resources are not only managed fairly for the benefit of the whole community, but in a way that ensures the continued health of said resources.  In other words, kanun was often about sustainability, and communal decision making.

Here for example, from the Kanun of Lekdukagjin, on the flow of (irrigation) water:

357: “The channel has its course and has produced its bed; the bed has made the place its property; therefore, it must flow, it must run, and it must work.

359: “The channel of both the fields and the mills is for the good of society; it must pass through some place.  When something has a purpose, the Kanun obliges us to support it, regardless of the difficulties involved.

363: “The water does not know that it twists uphill and downhill: if it passes through your property, you may not block it.

379: “Because no one alive now knows how many centuries a channel has had its property, there is neither an Elder nor a law that may cause it to be drained in order to establish a new one.

From which you can see, not only is there a sense of water having history, identity and rights (such a “new” concept! – yes, laugh again), but kanun would have something stiff to say about hydropower development, for example.

If you’ve taken the time to read this far, perhaps you can begin to understand why I tend to fall about laughing when European NGOs come here to ‘teach’ local people about sustainability.  Teach your grandmother! (to suck eggs – you know that expression?)

Of course most people weren’t rushing home to thumb through their (non-existent) copies of the kanun every time they had to think about something.  What is important about kanun is how these principles inform the culture.  I mean:  culture came first.  It got written down later.  And culture, like the water of the canals, continues to function, whether or not anyone is paying attention to the written word.

Communism in many ways adopted the customary law of the land, merely interposing a ‘central authority’ which had always been lacking.  It is only recently, with the arrival of democracy, capitalism and – yes – tourism, that the concept of exploitation seems to be taking hold in Tropoja. 

To me, Tropoja is now a sort of philosophical battleground.  Think of it this way:  The reason it’s so beautiful is not because it was forgotten (it wasn’t, not by the many people who lived here), nor because it was poor (it was arguably – and people do argue this way – only poor in comparison, if you wanted to leap into the world outside).  It is beautiful because up until 15 or 20 years ago, people looked after it and themselves (not seeing any difference between the two) according to the rules of a different system.  

I was visiting the Kulla of Mic Sokollit the other day – a 200 year old tower in Bujan, and got into conversation with the wife of the family that now looks after it – it’s on their land, so it’s their responsibility (self-imposed).  I was asking how old the handmade carpets in the 3rd floor meeting room were, and she said “Oh, my sister-in-law made ALL of those, to replace what was broken.”  She told me how during the late 90s, when everything was chaos and being plundered, her family slept in the tower for 5 years, just to keep it safe.  I was saying to her “So you know this place has value.  It breaks my heart to see old places destroyed, to build new hotels.  I want to find a way of valuing the old places.”  And she said “Yes, but we have to look after the children.  If there is no other way to pay for their schooling, people will destroy the old things. They have no choice, even if they don’t like it.”

If you pass through here, merely taking selfies of yourself against the background of the yet-unspoiled nature (although every selfie is probably a nail in the coffin of that nature), staying in hotels with private bathrooms which sanitize your experience, spending as little as possible and thinking you’re clever to do so, expecting Tropoja to be “just like – as good as – everywhere else,” you are missing the greater part of the potential experience.  Tropoja is not ‘everywhere else.’  There are answers here.  They have nothing to do with plumbing.  What if you dare to “take the red pill” and immerse yourself in the world of Tropoja . . . ? 

Warning:  I came for 11 days, 14 years ago.  I’m still here, with not the least inclination to return to the Anthropocene world. That, I think, is worth travelling to experience.  And that is why we take time from our own amazing lives to help you discover it.