A Trip to Northern Albania, 1993

This is a Ferry A (2)letter from 1993.   I pulled it out of my digital files because an Albanian friend posted pictures from this area on Facebook.  I got into a Facebook conversation with several Albanian friends about the pictures and this trip.  I decided to post it on a “Throwback Thursday.” Here is the letter.  Since I first posted this I have found more of the pictures of this trip, so this is a rebuilt page.  I also have pictures taken a few miles away, across the border in Montenegro.  You can see them by clicking here.

November 23, 1993

trip north 2- Kevin in pilot houseThis weekend we took another field trip.  Anila, a driver who works for the Radio Director General, and the three of us set off in the Director General’s 4 wheel drive Mercedes Benz for Northern Albania.  We left 5:30 on Friday morning and drove almost four hours to a dam on the Drini River.  From there we took a rusty river ferry to Bajram Curri.  The weekend before several Fulbright scholars made the trip and told us the boat was cold. It may have been, but Anila is fearless.  She suggested we go to “the driver place.”  She walked onto the heated bridge, and told the captain that she was a journalist and I was an American and we should, of course, ride with him.  I’m not sure if the captain was amused, charmed or intimidated, but we rode on the bridge.  We had fun pushing buttons on the engine room telegraph and blowing the whistle.  The “boat chauffeur” must have liked us because he invited us on the bridge for the return trip.

trip north 4At one point car drivers went to their vehicles and started their engines.  I thought we must be getting to Bajram Curri early, but we were about to head through the narrowest part of the canyon and drivers wanted to sound their horns to let them reverberate against the rock walls.

We got to Bajram Curri in about 3 hours where we thought we’d stay in the hotel.  The Fulbrighters warned us that the hotel had no heat in the rooms.  It was worse than that: there was no glass in the windows.  Anila decided to use her Radio Tirana contacts.  Invoking the Director General’s Mercedes Benz, we ended up staying in a Government guesthouse with heat (at least on the first night) and hot water in the shower.ferry trip north 6

That evening we visited a doctor’s home.  He lives with his parents, wife and three children.  We talked about health care problems.  I asked if they had problems with alcohol abuse in this remote community.

“No we are Moslem, and don’t drink.  My father here hates drink.”  He nodded at his father, who was wearing a traditional men’s white skull cap. “Tobacco is the health problem but we don’t smoke.”  Ten minutes later he offered me raki.  I said “but this is a Moslem home, won’t it offend your father?”  The Doctor smiled and said “we are Moslem, but we are also intellectuals.”  We started the rounds of toasts.  Soon the Doctor’s mother, a women with a wonderfully expressive face and flashing black eyes framed by a white head scarf, picked up a glass and was toasting with us.  Finally the father took off his skull cap, picked up a glass, looked at his son, lit a cigarette, and proposed a toast, “May you live 100 years?”

Valbona (3)The next day it was snowing on the 26 Kilometer mountain road to Valbona, framed by 8500 foot mountains.  These are the “Accursed Mountains” in Albanian.  (Note, a decade later, working in Montenegro they were translated into English by a Serbian translator as “those Damned Mountains.”)   Our 4 wheel drive cut through a foot of fresh snow, passing farmers taking their goats to lower elevations in search of grass and donkeys carrying firewood up the mountain roads.  We also passed border guards on patrol.  We were within 6 miles of what was left of Yugoslavia.  It took us an hour and a half to make the 17 miles.

Valbona (2)This area is ruled by the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, an ancient law that sets up rules of hierarchy, hospitality and order.   It is best known for setting the rules the vendetta killings that have begun to plague the area after a 50 year communist interruption, but it is much more than that.  Most people tell you that they do something because of the Kanun, but many have not read it.  More than a written code of law, which it is, it is also an oral code and tradition and, in this area it is honored more in that way than in its written form.

ferry trip north 12 snow in ValbonaI was the senior male, and according to the Kanun, the honored guest.  Wherever I walked, I was accompanied by a man carrying an umbrella over my head to keep the snow off.  Suzi, Kevin, Bajram (the driver) and Anila could get wet, but I was escorted like the Ali Pasha of Tepelina leading the parade from house to house, the snow sliding off the umbrella and melting down my back.

We started at a one room house where three generations of one family, 10 in all, lived.  With the snow falling outside the wood fire felt good.  I, of course, was given the seat by the stove, and was received by the oldest male, who was 97.  He wore the traditional Kosova skull cap.  (This is an area separated from its neighbors by a line drawn in London in 1912.)  One of his grandsons wore an “office max” baseball cap.  The home reminded me of the cottages from the 1850’s I saw in an Irish Folk Museum.  The family is building a second room for the men.  The women and children will get the older room.  They were impoverished during the Hoxha regime.  The government took their goats and livestock for the collective and they lived on cornbread.  Now they have more than 30 goats, a cow, and two horses.   During Communism the farmers kept track of the communal livestock as if they owned it and were able to divide it up after the fall of the Communist government.  They farm their own small parcel of land but are not sure they can feed their goats through the winter.  As we left the old man told me that he had a hard life, and would not see anything better for himself, but he had hope for his grandchildren.  He wished Kevin 100 years.

ferry trip north 17 Valbona shrineThe next house we stopped at was more prosperous.  It had several rooms and a television, although there is no television reception possible in the region.  There was a small shrine with a picture of a mosque, and old photograph of a man in traditional Albanian costume, some script in Arabic, and a stuffed Santa Claus in one corner.  The host said it was dedicated to his father.  He has never forgiven the communist government for not allowing him to have a goat from the cooperative to serve to visitors at his father’s wake, a serious violation of the Kanun.

I was seated on a goat skin on the floor next to the fire.  The host remained standing during the entire two hours of the visit, saying it was a matter of respect to the guest under the Kanun.  There were several women of the house, but only one came into our room, and that was to serve the men, and the “honorary men,” Suzi and Anila.  She said nothing.  The other women stood out in the snow, in flop flops.  Inside we ate cheese, yoghferry trip north 14urt, a curdled milk and butter dish (which was delicious), goat liver, roasted chestnuts, apples, plum jam, brown bread cabbage and drank raki.  Anila enjoyed the food.  It was exotic for her and she said that it made her feel abroad, but by the time we left she was clearly disturbed.  The ride back was colder and quieter than the snow muffled road we were traveling.  Finally Anila spat out “I had read about this place, and the way the women are treated, but I always thought it something romantic, It is not.  I feel abroad perhaps because I don’t want to feel like this is Albania, and you, Rich, treated like the Ali Pasha.”

Women wait out in the snow.We arrived in Bajram Curri and went to a bar and disco.  On the wall was a mural of men sitting on goatskins being served by a woman.  Anila said “romantic — not.”  It started with 4 of us but by the end of the evening nine of us were seated at a table for 10.  An electric space heater occupied the 10th chair to my right.  The music was provided by a boom box.  The bartender served as DJ going back and forth between cassettes.  He was playing The Beatles Rubber Soul cassette when we came in.  We drank hot chocolate with orange liquor.  The bar tender got bored playing DJ, decided to track Elvis’s “GI Blues” and joined us.  We were the only patrons.

Suzi was talking to a man who, in Tirana two weeks earlier, had presented us with a series of lists of things that had been denied him under communism and that he now wanted to experience.  He had lost so much, intellectually, and with limited time, wanted to catch up — systematically.  He asked Suzi about whether he should add L. Ron Hubbard to the alphabetical philosophers list after Freud and before Jung.  He asked who was greater “Hubbard or Kant.”  That started the inevitable Albanian discussion of Religion.  Elvis was singing “Hut two three four.”  Suzi’s friend was into the music and called across the table at me and asked me who was the greater “Elvis or Frank Sinatra.”  I didn’t answer but said that I was a member of the Great Land for Elvis Fan Club.  Anila asked me if a fan club was a kind of religion.  I said it must be because a friend of ours was married on the Church of Elvis in Las Vegas.  Anila asked “how d
o you worship Elvis?”

ferry trip north 10, Anila and BairamSomeone asked how the Elvis religion treated women, “was it better than the Moslems in the highlands?”   Anila said, “You Americans really take your culture seriously.”  I leaned back trying to process it all, my senses dulled by the alcoholic hot chocolate.  I was mildly hypnotized by the one blue disco light.  Elvis sang “Do the Clam.”  The bartender resumed his post at the boom box and played Michael Jackson alternating with 80s Yugoslav rock.  The music speed was slightly wrong, was it the boom box, the power brown out or the hot chocolate?  Kevin leaned over the heater and said “A penny for your thoughts.” All I could say was “Fellini lives.”

Take Care,



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