Travelling here is like finding an unopened bottle of single malt in the back of the cupboard when you are looking for something else – it’s an unalloyed joy.
I roll its three syllables around my mouth like a fine wine. You could travel all your life and never find another place like this. The colours here are extraordinary and the deep deep blue, almost like the blue of my son’s eyes, of the lake is the perfect antidote to the loneliness that has been plaguing me. These last few days I have felt so lonely that I have taken to rubbing my back against the door post of the hotel just to get some sympathetic contact with the world. But now, standing on the shores of Lake Ohrid, drinking down gulps of crisp mountain air on a beautiful Mediterranean afternoon I feel grounded, content and sublimely peaceful. Birds that I can’t identify skim the lake whilst two young boys kick a ball along the shore. A stone’s throw away stands the Macedonian border. It’s poetically beautiful.
Albania, I write in my diary whilst the waiter pours my beer, is like the weedy kid at school who is bullied mercilessly until one day he vanishes. You no longer wince at his suffering and soon his memory becomes little more than an uncomfortable shadow in your mind. However, the next time you see him he has a gorgeous young blonde on his arm and is making a speech accepting his Nobel Prizes – in Physics and Literature. Albania is still waiting patiently in the shadows, perhaps wooing the odd blonde on the sly, but undoubtedly her time will come. Pogradec will explode into a tourist Mecca and this serenity; this self assured calmness; this feeling of composure will be gone for ever.
This, I believe, is called, progress. It will be very good for the country and I will always have these precious memories to cherish.
Later, as an aspirin sun dissolves into the lake, I stop to drink some homemade raki with some local moonshiners. Their still is made from beaten copper panels, breeze blocks and lead piping. It’s heated with…well, I think the polite term is waste animal product, or perhaps just waste animal. The raki they produce is clear and obscenely potent. It seems that mulberry or plums make the best raki but these are in short supply this early in the season. This, they tell me stifling giggles, is a special blend, kept for distinguished visitors and for long-winter nights. I worry that it will send me blind but knock back a couple of shots to be polite. It cauterises my throat as it goes down and sends spasms of pain through my body. I can even feel it in my toes.
As it works its way into my vital organs (and probably begins to liquefy them) the world seems to become more forceful; the colours around me sharpen and swirl; the air seems to vibrate with expectation and I feel a deep sense of adoration for this country and my new drinking buddies. Scarily enough I know that if they ask me to stay here in this village and eke out an existence with them I will be forced to stay. I catch a glimpse of myself, wicker basket in hand, looking for the ripest mulberries or plums, and then trudging off, probably over high mountain passes, to sell my raki at local markets populated by exotically clad women. For a second, but just a second, it’s a deeply attractive idea and it’s only when I stagger out into the last light of the day does the rational part of my brain kick in and I realise that, yet again, that I am being seduced by this exquisite place.
It’s hard not to be led astray by Albania. Travelling here is like finding an unopened bottle of single malt in the back of the cupboard when you are looking for something else – it’s an unalloyed joy; it’s like waking up on Christmas morning and finding that not only has it snowed but the tree is loaded with unexpected presents and everyone is at peace. Its landscape is poetic; its people are sincere and polite; its history is both majestic and tragic; its climate is ideal and its local food is wholesome and filling, and it was once governed by a king called Zog. As long as you keep away from the local raki the days pass in a haze of halcyon bliss. Being there made me feel freer than usual, attuned to the registers of my lower brain and gave me distance from the need to take inspired action, make original judgments and maintain independent principles and convictions. It was almost like being reborn and seeing the world for the first time.
Perhaps, when the tourists flood in, this magic will be gone. Perhaps, in years to come, Pogradec will be little more than a stop off for boozy stag weekends and groups of drunken Germans will dishonour the lake with wild parties and Teutonic beats, but for now, it is my special place, and I hope it stays that way for a very long time indeed.