:: RETROSCOPE ::
Retroscope is a regular series that mines the past for literary travel writing gems.
Mad enthusiasm, blue milkiness, interlinear translations, strange monosyllables, bigwig communists, convulsive laughter, hominy with a hint of burnt rubber & Elbasan.
N ew York poet Ron Padgett took part in a cultural-exchange visit to Albania just a few years after the Balkan state emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, a fledgling democracy. The group was hosted by Bujar Hudhri, whose new publishing company was “born of the democracy movement and the new freedom of speech,” wrote Padgett in his 1999 account of the trip, Albanian Diary.
The delegation of American writers, teachers and editors, headed by Tracy Cabanis, included Edmund Keeley, Christopher Merrill, Brad Leithauser and Alan Ravage. They were headquartered in the city of Elbasan, but their weeklong visit included field trips to other cities, seasides and farms; meetings with local writers; a national television interview; a book party; and continual copious meals. Forty years of communist rule under dictator Enver Hoxa were never far from sight, with, for instance, around 175,000 concrete bunkers dotting the countryside.
The Americans were met with warm hospitality and curiosity at every turn. Padgett befriended a young poet named Flutura Açka, who worked at Hudhri’s publishing company and whose second book of poetry was being celebrated. Padgett’s self-taught Italian came in handy, since it was the country’s second language. Albanians learned it largely from radio and television—in some spots, Italy is visible across the Adriatic from Albania—and from Italy’s occupation of the country from 1939 to 1943.
The Albanian Diary passages included here set the scene with the book’s preface and then jump to a single day in the middle of the trip.
In addition to his poetry, Padgett is known for his translations, biographies, fiction, essays and teaching. He has written accounts of his travels to the Caribbean, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and China, and of his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Early in 1995 I received a phone call from a woman who identified herself as Tracy Cabanis of Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher. She wanted to know if I would like to go to Albania.
The previous year she had hosted a group of Eastern European publishers, and now one of them was going to host a group of American writers, publishers, and teachers. Under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency, we would spend a week in Albania.
“Isn’t the USIA a CIA front?” I asked.
“Not any more.”
One also sees disfigured people, such as the little boy with a mutilated nose at the restaurant last night, or at the livestock market the young man with eerily milky eyes and splotches on a face that had been rearranged in some indefinable way.
“But I know almost nothing about Albania. I don’t speak Albanian, I don’t know precisely where it is, and I can’t name a single Albanian writer.”
“You’re perfect!” she laughed.
It struck me that I wouldn’t mind traveling with the person who gave that response. But Albania?
“Count me in.”
In the following months I learned that the country had been run for more than four decades by the adamantly communistic dictator Enver Hoxa and that the per capita income was the lowest in Europe. I also picked up a few Albanian words and phrases (Edward Lear, whose Albanian diary I read only after my trip, described the language as “the clatter of strange monosyllables—dort beer, dort bloo, dort hitch, hitch beer, blue beer, beer chak, dort gatch”) and discovered that in Albania you nod your head to indicate no and shake it to say yes. And I read two novels by the most renowned Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, both rather grim. When I told friends that I was going to Albania, they looked perplexed:
“What’s in Albany?”
On June 22, 1995, the day before our departure, I began a tape-recorded diary: “For these past several months my trip to Albania has been so unreal, almost a joke. But tomorrow for real I’m going out to Kennedy to get on a jet and go to Rome and get on another jet and go to Tirana. It’s like having talked about how someday you’re going to jump off the high dive and then abruptly finding yourself at the foot of the ladder. Of course you don’t want to!”
Tuesday, June 27
I’m up at the bright and shaky hour of 7 o’clock, though woken up around 5 by the noise outside. And I was kept up late last night by my own mad enthusiasm and maybe the white wine I’ve been drinking, not to mention my cold. The sun is way up, people are out moving around and beeping. Today’s agenda: a trip to Kruja to see Skanderbeg’s castle, a great historic spot in Albania, and then a rendezvous in Tirana with Mr. Edmund Keeley.
Drying my face off, I notice a smell on the towel, the same smell as in people’s homes here, from a soap perhaps, something like hominy with a hint of burnt rubber. Not actually unpleasant, exactly.
Another thing: the urchins. Some of them are ragamuffin gypsies, easy to identify. Others are just poor kids. The boys, seven to ten years old, are slightly dirty, with large, buzzcut heads, skinny little bodies, and old faces. They remind me of photographs of children in concentration camps. They walk alongside us in the street or say “Hallo!” in English, exuding a weird naïveté, but the oldness of their faces is scary.
One also sees disfigured people, such as the little boy with a mutilated nose at the restaurant last night, or at the livestock market the young man with eerily milky eyes and splotches on a face that had been rearranged in some indefinable way. Most people, though, are intact, looking somewhat Yugoslavian, somewhat Greek, somewhat Italian, or somewhat Arab, with a surprising number of blonds.
In the dining room now, I’m having my usual breakfast of bread, tea, peach juice, and Griqani fizzy water, bottled here in Elbasan. The sociable hotel barber comes in and sits down for a chat (in Italian). He talks about the political and religious factions around the Balkans. An Orthodox Christian, he’s the first person here I’ve heard say anything negative about Muslims. According to him, many problems in Albania are caused by religious differences, but everyone else tells me that this is not the case. Across the room the boombox is playing “I’m Saving All My Love for You.”After breakfast I take a little walk into the old walled city. Parts of the wall are missing, but inside it feels like a quiet village, with an occasional table or stand where someone is offering for sale a mishmash of fruit juice, chewing gum, soap, and trinkets. One table is staffed by a decently dressed middle-aged man in sunglasses, just sitting there in the middle of nowhere with no customers. I feel embarrassed for him.
Edward Lear, visiting Elbasan in 1848, had quite a different experience in the walled city. He set about sketching from the top of the then massive ramparts, and soon a crowd of around 100 curious spectators formed around him. When he had just about completed a sketch of the principal buildings, the crowd erupted with shouts of “Shaitán!” (Devil!) and furious whistling. The absurdity of the situation struck Lear with such force that he went into convulsive laughter, which caused the crowd to shriek with delight. But then a dervish stepped forth and began screaming, “Shaitán scroo!” (The Devil is drawing!) right in Lear’s ear, seizing his sketchbook, slamming it shut, and pointing to the heavens. Immediately the entire crowd picked up the chant of “Shaitán!” and showered him with stones, at which he beat a hasty retreat.
Inside the walls I take two photographs, one of an irresistible arrangement of bottles in a shop window, and another of a typical lane.
Now at 8:27 I’m back in my room. I have to be downstairs in three minutes to meet the others and hit the road to Tirana.
In the van on the way I suggest to Flutura that we write a poem together (A Nest of Ninnies Goes to Albania). She thinks it’s a good idea, so I write a first line and hand her the notebook. She thinks and thinks and thinks, and then closes it. Obviously this is not the way she writes. Instead she begins to scribble some interlinear Italian translations of the poems in her new book, so I can read them. I retrieve the notebook and write four more lines, in Italian, leaving spaces between them so she can fill them in later, if she wishes. (I doubt that she will.) Beautiful hills and mountains float past.
After a drive through Tirana’s ritzy district, past the university center, the library, and the neighborhood where the bigwig communists lived (the “nicer” part of town), we find ourselves standing in the middle of a downtown street with a multitude of cars and bicycles and people honking, beeping, and pointing. 11:30. Tirana is really busy.
At a newsstand I score about forty postcards, so drab they’re great. I notice the small selection of books, from escapist fiction to Baudelaire to Dr. Zhivago to John Updike.
Bujar points out a highly ornate white building with red embellishments. Built by Italians, it eventually became the Cuban Embassy and is now the Vatican Embassy. It looks like a giant toy that fell out of a children’s book.
We drive out to visit Bujar’s brother Ferid, who is the director of the Academy of Art and Humanities, located in a long, one-storey building off the beaten track. In another wing is the Academy of Science’s Seismological Center, directed by poet and translator Betim Muço. The building feels like an abandoned school. Through an interpreter, Ferid tells us that the Academy conducts research on Albanian culture, then disseminates the results. One example is his book on visual representations of Albania in western art. Now he’s overseeing a study of the history of the theater and cinema in Albania.
We take a highway out of town, but soon we’re stopped at a police checkpoint, and our driver gets out and walks back to the cops. What gives? Bujar explains that the driver is bribing the police to let us continue down the road. It is quite normal.
When the driver returns, he says, “Ah, for lala or for Sala.” Bujar explains the meaning of this common Albanian expression: you pay the bribe or you pay a much more expensive “speeding” ticket. Of course we weren’t speeding.
“Hai pagato quanta?” I ask. (How much did you pay?)
He answers, “Deux dollars.”
Which, it turns out, is the daily wage of an Albanian policeman.
How can anyone survive on that? Ah, with “lala.”
2:30 p.m. We reach the small town of Kruja, immediately above which is Skanderbeg’s castle. From it the view of the plain far below is magnificent. It was here, in the fifteenth century, that Skanderbeg heroically resisted the Turks. His real name was George Kastroita, but he was called Skanderbeg, a combination of the Albanian equivalent of Alexander and the Turkish word for great: hence, Alexander the Great. Not so great is the fact that the castle, now a museum, is closed during the middle of the day. But the view is enough.
However, I could do without the two boys about fourteen who are hawking postcards, fake rings, and other junk, pestering us nonstop in five languages. When I say “Never!” to them in Albanian, they totally forget about commerce and patiently correct my pronunciation of the word: Kúrrë. Then they revert to pestering.
On the path back down, Flutura and I notice a little cave. We hunch down and waddle inside. It is three or four feet high at its apex, sloping down to two feet, a tiny shrine to some Muslim holy man. In it are an empty plastic bottle, some burnt-out votive candles, a match, a threadbare sheepskin rug, a beat-up pillow, a rancid towel hanging from the wall, and a superbly tasteless rug depicting a mariachi band.
Ron: Vuole dire qualcosa a America? (Do you want to say something to America?)
Flutura: Non ho visto mai una casa piu piccola che questa! (I’ve never seen such a small house as this one!)
Ron: Ne anch’io. (Me neither.) Kúrrë.
Flutura (laughing): Kúrrë!
Down in Kruja, Bujar declares the shops overpriced. He refuses to allow us to buy anything here, Albania’s closest thing to a tourist trap. Down the street, a new hotel is under construction, though no workers are in sight. I notice that two donkeys are standing in the unfinished entrance, seeking shelter from the mid-day heat.
We drive back to Tirana and straight to the American Center and its library, a relatively new structure, to meet Cynthia Caples, the cultural liaison of the American Embassy. Brad tells her about a woman writer who is crushed when she visits her hometown library and finds none of her own books there, but how there is no danger of that happening to us here. Then he and I happily create this possibility by donating copies of our poetry books to the library.
We also present Cynthia with the dilemma of how to reimburse Bujar. She promises to think about it and give us a diplomatic solution tomorrow.
I also picked up a few Albanian words and phrases (Edward Lear, whose Albanian diary I read only after my trip, described the language as “the clatter of strange monosyllables—dort beer, dort bloo, dort hitch, hitch beer, blue beer, beer chak, dort gatch”) and discovered that in Albania you nod your head to indicate no and shake it to say yes.
Edmund Keeley, the final member of our party, emerges from an office. He has just come from Greece. Given his eminence as a translator of Modern Greek poetry, his emeritus status at Princeton, and his past presidency of PEN America, I’m a little intimidated by the thought of meeting him. But he is disarmingly informal and even jolly, asking us to call him Mike.
From the American Center we drive to Petrela Castle, between Tirana and Elbasan. Actually we drive and then take a steep hike up a hill to the castle. It’s 5:35 and I’m panting. I know nothing about this castle. Even Bujar has never been here. The place has very few visitors—there are no guides, pamphlets, signs, souvenir vendors, or safety features.
As usual, the view is fantastic, a spectacular panorama resembling a combination of mountainous pre-Alps and the hills of Umbria. It’s made even more delightful by a late afternoon breeze, clear sky with patchy clouds, a little hazy, like Umbria can be, around Perugia, and a blue milkiness in the distance. Patches of cultivated land in the valleys lead up to steep hills, and off in one direction I see rolling countryside with more hills, some houses, and even factories, but basically it’s just spectacular landscape.
Back down at the small settlement below the castle, six little girls are lined up on an embankment, giggling and posing for pictures. They are adorable, and Alan is quite taken with them.
We go into the only restaurant. Everyone inside is local, keeping out of the heat, watching TV. We sit down and consume a large and terrific dinner, which includes a nice yogurt dish with olive oil and cheese, called giiz. 7 P.M. Bujar consults his watch and announces that we must go. We have to be at one of his relative’s houses by 9…for dinner!
Everyone laughs, but Tracy and I are seized by hysteria.
Ron: We’ve got to leave the restaurant! To go to dinner!
Our convulsions continue. We can’t stop!
We stagger outside, where I start laughing again and barely manage to say, clutching my abdomen, “This is better than doing sit-ups!”
Built by Italians, it eventually became the Cuban Embassy and is now the Vatican Embassy. It looks like a giant toy that fell out of a children’s book.
Alan is taking yet another picture of the irresistible children.
“Flutura, che cosa hai fatto?” I ask. (What have you done?)
She has been translating more of her poems into Italian so I can read them.
The group gets into the van and heads back to Elbasan. On the way, Chris and I have a long talk about André Breton, Charles Simic, Poets in the Schools in Ohio, Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York, and Peter Sears in Oregon: we seem to know a lot of people in common.
I’m now back in my room at 8:40, with Albanian music broadcasted from the hotel into the square, where people are strolling around in the gloaming. They look terrific down there: families and kids and people. It’s getting darker, nice and blue. The music has a way of insinuating itself into you.
Alan Bernheimer’s latest collection of poetry is From Nature. Born and raised in Manhattan, he has lived in the Bay Area since the 1970s. He produces a portrait gallery of poets reading on flickr. His translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, was published by City Lights in 2016.
Lead and inline images: Ron Padgett
Except from: Albanian Diary (The Figures, Great Barrington, 1999), copyright 1999 by Ron Padgett