[This piece was originally published in November, 2013 online for, now defunct, Travelati. I have not had the good fortune to return to Albania since the early 2000s and recognize that things have likely changed dramatically. That they are remarkably hospitable, however, I’m certain remains the case.]
“Booger!” my colleague Flora exclaimed with a wide grin.
Standing in the oversized, ornate hotel conference room — a resplendent remnant of Russian influence decades prior — I had just said that I’d thought our meeting had gone well and quietly turned to verify her response.
When “Booger!” came out yet again, I widened my eyes, covered my nose and sheepishly asked,
“Booger! Booger! It was perfect!” she replied.
I hear phonetically and when someone shouts “booger” at my Anglophone ears, I become very self-conscious.
Flora explained that what sounded like “booger,” is actually “bukur” in Albanian and it translates roughly to “beautiful.” I was relieved so I smiled, dropped my hand and accepted this strange sounding compliment with gratitude.
Less than a decade after dictator Enver Hoxha finally died in 1992, and along with him, Communist rule since 1944, I was working in Albania as a public health consultant. In the late 1990s, armed conflicts erupted following the economic crisis and life was again precarious. Arriving in 2002, I found a country that was redefining itself following decades of Communist suppression and hardship, and which was taking hesitant steps into democracy and the global arena.
For a time, Flora, along with Albina, another colleague, were my dearest friends. I barely knew these women. We’d only just met a few weeks prior, but based on our first interactions, I trusted them implicitly. Truth is, they were my only friends.
I’d been living overseas for over six years. Originally from California, I’d taken a job with the United Nations that landed me in Geneva, a city and community where I thrived. But after three and a half years, I left Switzerland, got married and moved to Belgium and eventually, began consulting as an HIV specialist. I became a sort of double ex-pat as I left my friends in Geneva and removed myself one step further from my family in the States.
What Flora and Albina didn’t know was that back in Belgium, my husband was a man battling borderline personality disorder and my life had become a nightmare. Each day I wondered if it was the day my life might end, or one when I’d wished it would end, or just be one of the good days when he would disappear and leave me on my own. I was so embarrassed by what my life had become that I confided in no one. Foreigners were not embraced in our tiny town and I lived my life in isolation, fear and shame.
Whenever I was in Albania, I got to reinvent myself and edit the ugly out of my life. I was a happy, successful professional. Not a woman who cowered in her own home and feared riding in a car with her husband after too many near-misses on the freeway due to his road rage.
Flora and Albina and I clicked immediately, and quickly shifted from colleagues to girlfriends, a la Sex and the City — minus the sex, or the city, or the wardrobes of Manhattan babes who brunch.
Most mornings we’d walk along the pot-holed, dusty, one-way street to the café two doors down from the makeshift offices we occupied in an old villa. There, we sat on the outdoor terrace as the rail-thin neighborhood cats would weave between our legs, hoping for sloppy eaters. While they ordered strong Italian coffee, I would order a bottle of water and a salep, a Turkish drink made from orchid stems, reminiscent of white hot-chocolate — a perfect comfort food. The water I ordered as much for the fluid as for the label, which had one of the worst yet most delightful language translations ever. “Bottled at the source” had somehow been contorted into, “Suffled how it gush” and delighted me to no end. Such simple pleasures quenched my soul, which was terribly thirsty.
I filled my senses with the cool blue sky in the sweltering heat and the richness of the crimson, coral and celadon-hued buildings like spices in a Middle Eastern bazaar. I heard the plaintive call from the zumarë, played on their traditional clarinet. I delighted in the oddness of this country and soaked up all of its peculiarities.
The quirkiness of the country is revealed frequently and unexpectedly. The twenty thousand bunkers — one for every 10 citizens and looking like cement mushrooms scattered around the country — became downright commonplace compared to the stories and things one cannot so easily see.
As a direct result of Hoxha’s paranoia that the country would be invaded, there were only crooked roads throughout the country so that nobody could land an airplane. Between forests on flat lands they had even installed a series of gigantic skewer-like spikes intended to impale anyone who might parachute in. This theme of distrust lingers still and, although I never saw one, rumor had it that there is an actual book of retributions where one can look up the appropriate reaction to a given insult. Apparently, “let it slide” wasn’t a notion that came naturally.
Paradoxically, their hospitality was unending. Flora and Albina invited me into their lives as if I was a long lost sister they’d finally welcomed home. They took me to the ballet and to concerts and art galleries and museums. They even gave me a nickname. They mixed “shpirt,” which is an endearment reserved for one’s favorite people with my actual name, Martina, to get “Shpirtina.” To me, it sounded like another word for “ghost,” which was sort of how I felt — like a spirit from another world who drifted in and out of their reality so as to avoid my own.
As they filled me in on the details of their lives I learned that when I was a little girl playing with Barbie dolls, they were playing with the wooden guns issued to each child to prepare them for future mandatory military service to their country. When I was learning math skills so I could balance my checkbook, Flora was learning how to calculate distance and height so she could shoot a plane out of the sky. When I was watching mindless sitcoms on television, Albina was curled up in the corner of her room under a heavy, scratchy blanket to muffle the sound of her contraband radio upon which she occasionally managed to pick up stations from neighboring Montenegro or Greece. When I was collecting shells on the California beaches, they were collecting trash such as Coke bottles, rusted tin cans or crumpled, faded candy wrappers that would wash in from the sea. They studied them and tried to decipher what possible products they could represent.
When they finally saw commercial TV from abroad, which appeared as rapidly as the regime fell, the first transmissions were of Italian game shows replete with prize wheels, clowns and bikini-clad women all spinning to the frenetic music that wound up the crowd. The jaws of Albanians collectively dropped. Silently, they must have thought, “is THIS what we’ve been missing?” Our worlds could not have been further apart.
I had endured some hardships of my own, such as marrying (and blissfully later divorcing) a volatile man, but I never had to make clothes out of grain sacks, shoes from old tires or a week of meals from a handful of potatoes. For fifty years their borders had been closed and diplomatic ties were cut as their minds were drawn into the myopic tunnel of Hoxha’s paranoid delusions.
Until he died, civilians were not allowed to drive unless they were licensed chauffeurs. Cairo and Delhi seem like quiet country roads compared to the bumper-car jumbles on Albania’s pandemonium of streets. On my way home from work I’d often go blocks out of my way to avoid certain intersections. It felt like the old Mercedes sedans — frequently stolen from Europe and remarkably common — were gigantic metal moths and I was the flame.
During one of my visits to hospitals and clinics where health care was being provided by the medical professionals we were training, I was struck by one facility in particular whose emergency room was on the second floor, and because of the regular blackouts, it had no working elevator. Natural triage, I suppose.
On a very few blocks of certain tree-lined streets in Tirana, the capital, one could pass the cafés and newly installed boutiques and be catapulted into the south of France, Italy or even parts of Spain, the Western European influence was so strong. But in the rest of the city and, even more so in the other towns I visited, I felt as if I was in an impoverished developing nation that had suffered famine and the ravages of war. Yet here, neither was the culprit. Neglect and Hoxha’s delusions kept the country destitute and disheveled.
Perhaps the peculiarity of the country matched the peculiarity of my life at the time. Maybe it was just the chance to escape my reality and have time to breathe and reflect. But probably, it was the kindness of these two strangers that gave me the courage to leave my life in Belgium and start a new chapter. They didn’t know it at the time, but the friendship they extended kept me tethered to reality in my tenuous, double ex-pat existence and gave me something to hold on to during one of the loneliest periods of my life. I treasure the glimpses I had into the world of these extraordinary people and my ties to Flora and Albina continue to this day. I still drink salep whenever I get the chance and when I see someone in need of a tissue, I think “beautiful” and smile inside.
This story is dedicated to Flora who, at 45, died of breast cancer in April 2013. Every October 16th I’d send her birthday greetings. This year (11/17/13) I send this instead, in honor of her memory.