Reading in Albania, Part 2

In the end, I also brought the Lonely Planet’s 30 pages on Albania. Also the out-of-print 1996 Blue Guide to Albania. I read them on the plane to Rome. The Lonely Planet reassured me that Albania is lovely now, all safe and beautiful, really, very safe, don’t worry, well, of course, except perhaps for Tropoja district, and Bajrum Curri — you might not want to go there. This was of course, exactly where I was headed. For comfort, I turned to the Blue Guide, usually a bastion of ancient history, which informed me in no uncertain terms that women should NOT travel to the north of Albania, and that for pregnant women, it was a death sentence. It said that travelers typically move with dynamite in their luggage to get past the landfalls, and that the only hotel in Bajrum Curri doubles as the mortuary, with dead bodies in the hallway a distinct possibility.

But this guide is from 1996 — the height of a horrendous financial collapse and ensuing trouble in Albania. I decide to ignore it. I am going to the mountains. They called me years ago. I am late.

Travelers typically move with dynamite in their luggage to get past the landfalls, and the only hotel in Bajrum Curri doubles as the mortuary.

I will find this Alfred Selimaj I have read about on the internet, and if I don’t, I have packed a tent. It’s not that I’m so confident. It’s just that I’m sure of my ultimate unimportance. Who would bother to murder me? And anyhow, from Edith Durham, I know the rules of murder in the highlands, and the laws of hospitality. I decide to ignore the travel guides, and travel by what little I know. And anyhow, I have knitting needles.

The end of the story? I shouldn’t have worried. Albania is beautiful, and the Albanian people are the kindest, most tolerant and generous I have ever encountered. The knitting did indeed come in handy. On the second night of my stay with the Selimaj family, Alfred came into the kitchen to find his mother and me sitting happily at the enormous table, both with hands full of knitting, identically posed with yarn wrapped around our necks and fingers. This is knitting, Albanian style, as Sose insisted I do it. I had the grace to blush. And the Edward Lear? One of Alfred’s numerous cousins was a young boy named Mund. It became a game between us that if he found me sitting anywhere, he would pull out my notebook, push a pen into my hand, and demand “Scroo-te!” DRAW. I drew him elephants being chased by mice, a soccer game, a hot air balloon, several tigers, and at least one rabbit skiing downhill. A peacock. And the Kosovar poetry of Azem Shkreli? On my first day, lolling about on a green flat island of tiny alpine flowers between two streams of impossibly blue water, overlooked and guarded by my beautiful mountains, I opened and read:

A day appeared

Not to bring you here

Not to take me away

And settled on my brow.

It arrived secretly

Neither brighter

Nor darker than the others.

It just happened

That simple day

And passed and took root

Somewhere at the end of silence.

Catherine Bohne lives in Brooklyn, and has begun rather doggedly frequenting Albania. She has worked at the Community Bookstore of Park Slope Brooklyn since 1995, and owned said bookstore since 2001. Lots of information is available about her online, accompanied by more than a few regrettable photographs. You can follow her doings at the “Messing About” section of www.communitybookstore.net, or the (coming soon) journal section of www.journeytovalbona.com.

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