Reluctant Traveler: Perspectives in Albania

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When I first found out I would be traveling to Albania for work, I had to look it up on a map. When I arrived, I found that everyone I met but two people (who, relevantly or not, went to high school together back in the 80’s) pronounced it “All-BAHN-ya” and not “Al-BANE-eeya” as I have heard it (when I heard it, which is not all that often). When a trip starts with “I don’t know where it is and I don’t know how to say it” I know I’m in unfamiliar territory.

Normally when I travel for work it is for very specific tasks within my area of responsibility. I had a role in the conference I was attending, but a relatively minor one, and many of the sessions were out of my usual area. It gave me a chance to talk to more people, and listen to more people, and learn more things.

My two favorite things about working with an international nonprofit are the fact that I have colleagues all over the world, and the fact that they are all doing work to make their corner of the world a better place. I don’t often get excited about a week of meetings but I was looking forward to spending a few days with a good cross section of the organization. Finding a place where you can bring people from a wide range of countries keeps getting tougher. We would not have been able to have the attendance we had if we had the conference in, say, the U.S. Or England, or France, or most of Western Europe. And so: Albania.

Mostly I knew instead of seeing Albania I would be seeing the inside of the hotel, as usually happens when you go to a conference where the meetings take place in the same hotel where the attendees are staying. I planned one extra day to look around the area, but I didn’t make any specific plans to do anything. When I got there I found that some other people were also staying, either out of interest or due to flight schedules. We mentioned to our host that we would like his recommendation on what to do, and five minutes later he had organized a tour for us.

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So what I wound up doing on my free day was a tour with nine of my colleagues and a tour guide friend of our host. In that group of ten we had four from the U.S. (all different states), two from South Africa, and one each from Haiti, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Australia. As I had experienced all week, every conversation – both work and non-work -generated some piece of unexpected information.

Some of my favorites:

A colleague in Turkey who told us that they were focused on the Syrian refugee crisis because a) there are 2.5 million (MILLION) Syrian refugees in Turkey, and b) it is the LEAST politically hot topic within their areas of focus in their country.

This good humored exchange between three colleagues, one of whom had lived for several years in West Africa:

C1: “You not only had a donkey, you had a donkey driver?”
C2: “Well, I couldn’t beat the donkey – you know, to make it go faster.”
C1: “So you hired someone else to beat the donkey?”
C3: “At the end of the day, the donkey still got beaten.”

This which I will file under “things I never expected to hear myself say,” in a conversation about national sports: “Just so I’m clear – is it the headless body of the goat that they drag from their horses, or the goat head?” (FYI it is the headless body of the goat and the sport is called Buzkashi)

This insight on Albanian agriculture, the parts of which I saw were all fully manual – cutting hay with a scythe, gathering crops into wheelbarrows, or at most into carts pulled by tiny donkeys, but sometimes pulled by the farmer on a bicycle: “The vegetables are all grown organically with no OMG.” (which is probably the right order in Albanian)

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On my one evening plus one day of touring I took a million photos and was dumbstruck by the beauty of the place. But it is the people and the stories that will stay with me, I think.

Most notably our very generous and funny tour guide, when one of our group asked him what it was like to live in Albania under Nver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania from 1944 – 1985.

He spoke eloquently about having a vision at age 9 that Nver Hoxha held all of Albania in the palm of his hand, guiding and protecting them. He asked his father what would happen if Nver Hoxha died, and his father said “Nver Hoxha will never die!” Years later, after the end of communist rule, he asked his father why he said that. His father told him it was because he was afraid for his son, that if he said what he felt (“I wish Nver Hoxha would drop dead tomorrow”) and his son repeated it, in fairly short order he would have a father in jail, or no father at all. It was not at all uncommon for neighbors or even family members to inform on one another.

If you read current tourist reviews of Albania, many people mention that the roads are terrible or that the drivers are crazy. Few if any mention that until 1992, when the communist regime fell, there were no cars that were not state-owned. You did not go where you wanted to go, you went where you were sent. The entire population of Albania has been driving for 8 years fewer than I have had my driver’s license. There are reasons their driving infrastructure is new and not very developed.

It was not until he was in University that our guide first heard the word “dictator” applied to their leader, on a western radio broadcast. He participated in hunger strikes and otherwise became part of the student protests. Many of the communist structures – a strikingly ugly pyramid in the city of Tirana, the well over 150,000 mushroom shaped bunkers strewn throughout the country – are in a state of neglect and disrepair, though they remain standing. Our guide pointed out a huge formation on a mountain in view of Berat Castle. It used to say NVER, spelled out in white rocks. After the end of communism, it was changed to spell NEVER, as in never again.

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He also spoke of the current political climate in Albania, where the two main parties are fighting for fair elections (they reached an agreement while we were there, and there was much rejoicing when the election was finally scheduled). He said that many of the older citizens and politicians are still brainwashed by the 50 years of communist rule, and that “It doesn’t matter what it says on your lapel, if you write democrat there or whatever, if in your head you are still a communist, you are still a communist.”

Even on the tour, I learned a lot from my colleagues. The town of Berat where we visited and had lunch has an Orthodox side and a Muslim side. We were able to tour two mosques on the Muslim side, and having not only our tour guide but two practicing Muslims to explain what we were seeing was just one of many things I consider myself lucky to have experienced.

None of this sounds particularly earth-shattering, but something in me feels broken open in the best way following this trip. I can’t claim that anyone else’s experience of Albania will be anything like mine, but I’m awfully glad I had it.

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My dogs have come into my life at different ages (theirs, not mine, though mine too, as I have acquired them over the course of many years). My first dog was somewhere between two and three when we got her. Our current old dog was a year and a half. I thought he was quite grown up but he was a year younger then than our youngest dog is now, and I think our youngest dog is still a puppy. The youngest dog was a mere eleven weeks when he arrived.

As I have said before, I am not a dog person. I came to dogs later in life, and I hope I have evolved over time into a better dog owner. I was used to cats and a particular level of self sufficiency and independence. Dogs can be self sufficient and independent too, but it’s pretty irresponsible to let them just roam. I knew that in theory, but when my first dog would disappear from the yard for hours on end I didn’t worry about it nearly as much as I should have – enough to stop it from happening again, for instance.

Her wandering led to some amusing stories. The time, for instance, that she came home and had clearly been swimming in the neighbor’s pool one hot summer day. Or the fish filets she used to bring home and eat in the yard. I never did figure out if she was going through someone’s trash or if she was stealing someone’s dinner they had set out to defrost on the deck rail. And then there was the time I had a feeling she had headed to the road so I was walking down the driveway when a car pulled in, the back door opened, and my dog got out.

All of these are a lot like stories from my own younger days: they are funny to relate now, but as a grown up and as a parent, I am mildly horrified even at my own stories. I know some of my children’s stories, and I’m sure there are others they will tell me at some point in the distant future, and others they will never let me know about.

This week is the two year anniversary of the arrival of the youngest dog. Dogs, at least my dogs, seem to be the opposite of children in photograph quantity. Anyone who is a youngest child is familiar with the albums of photos of their siblings, especially the oldest, and the dearth of photos chronicling their own milestones. I have probably one roll of film (remember rolls of film?) of my current old dog in his first two years with us, and approximately 753,000 digital photos of the youngest one. Part of that is due to available technology, and part of it represents the different level of attention I give my dogs now.

This week is also the week my oldest child is moving away from home. My kids also came into my life at different ages (theirs, not mine – unlike the dogs I got all three kids at once). My youngest is now four years older than I was when I first met them. I suppose at this point saying “I’m not a dog person” is a lot like saying “I’m not a mother.” I may not have started out envisioning a life full of dogs and kids, but sometimes you get what you expect and sometimes you get lucky.

There have been a lot of milestones for my kids since the beginning of the dog years. Graduations, engagements, break-ups, marriage, first job, first more-grown-up-than-mine job, house purchases, house sale. They have all moved out of the house. One has moved out of the state. Two have moved back into the house. The oldest is now moving far away.

They get older and they do their own thing and they express themselves and their independence in their own ways. With each new step, I cheer them on and I’m excited for the next chapter in their lives and a part of me thinks “it’s about time” and gives them a little shove out of the nest.

But then there’s this other part. The part that sees the U-Haul my oldest child has rented to move 1,700 miles away sitting in the driveway as he begins to load up his stuff. The part of me that flashes back instantly to the first time I met him, when he was seven years old, telling me in great detail about his math homework, with his bowl haircut and his fashion sense and his extensive vocabulary. It’s the same part of me that spoke at my middle child’s wedding, when all I could remember was him at age three, fearlessly throwing himself at everything life put in his path, but wearing a helmet and knee and elbow pads just in case, because you never know when you might need a little protection. It’s the same part of me that sees my youngest child being more adult than I feel like I will ever be in her job and relationship and living space decisions and yet I hear her deep toddler voice chanting “Hode you mommy hode you mommy hode you mommy” when she wanted to be picked up and carried.

No matter how old or young they are when they take these big steps in their lives, no matter how ready they are, no matter how ready I am, I’m not ready. I still look at the adults they are and see the kids they were and I want to reach out past the U-Haul and snatch them back and make the time I wanted to go faster go just a little more slowly.

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