I may be sitting in one of the Europe’s most beguiling places, a place that typifies the medieval philosopher Dunas Scotus’s idea of haecietas, or thisness, but I am still deeply lonely.
The ache never goes away. There is always a thread of loneliness or despair when I am not in physical contact with my little family. I may be sitting in one of the Europe’s most beguiling places, a place that typifies the medieval philosopher Dunas Scotus’s idea of haecietas, or thisness, but I am still deeply lonely. I may be basking in the late autumn sun, which warms my bones, sipping mulberry raki and trying to draw the chocolate-box houses which cling so precariously to the hillside or count the fish which swim so lazily in the river Osum, but I still feel incomplete.
Berat, I think, as I cautiously sip raki, could be paradise. Enchanting stone houses and ancient churches cling to the hillside, the river, spanned so elegantly by a magnificently medieval bridge, gurgles seductively whilst children, flushed with youth, flick fishing rods into the chocolaty river and immediately pull out fish large enough to feed a small family.
But not my family, because they are so far away.
The sunlight seems alive and pulsating. It blows away the cobwebs (and quite possibly the trench-foot that I had been developing in Budapest) and bathes the afternoon in a wonderfully luxurious light. I want my heart to soar and my spirit to fly with the here-and-now, but it hangs limply in my chest. At the next table there is a young family. The father clearly adores both his beautiful wife and his impish son. They are a picture of happiness. I watch them enjoy their pizza and this magical day from the corner of my eye and let a tear slide into my raki. Zamir, raises an eyebrow knowingly at me, and continues smoking like his life depends on it.
Zamir and I have been criss-crossing his beautiful country for these last few days and he seems pleased enough to take a break. Most of the roads in Albania are horrifying. Zamir accepts this fact rather stoically and is, without a doubt, the best driver I have ever encountered. At this stage I am merely in awe of his prowess behind the wheel, later when we cross Mount Dajti I will discover that he has taken driving to the highest degree of perfection and knows every rut, pothole, crevice and crater in this beautiful land better than I know the curves of my son’s face. This is an incredible achievement in a place where most of the roads are little better than farm tracks.
Later, I lie in my spartan room listening to the muezzin’s call to prayer. I always find this soothing but today I feel irritable, over-stimulated, exhausted from lack of sleep and pine away for my family. Outside my window the mountains glow in the late afternoon light. The scene is almost Persian in its beauty and as the sun sets it seems that the mountains are draped in badly crumpled sheets – like the sheets after a breathless night of passion. It’s achingly pretty and the part of me that still succumbs to wanderlust wants to stay here for ever. I have, after so many years of travelling, found my own Xanadu.
Albania is everything and nothing. It’s a black-hole on the traveller’s map. It’s a mish-mash of Greece, Brazil, Japan and a thousand other places that I have been bored and lonely in. But Albania most definitely has haecietas. It has it in bucket-loads. The landscape ranges from untouched-beaches, fairy-tales towns, like the one where I am writing this, jagged mountain peaks, deep, clear lakes which are as blue as a newborn baby’s eyes and a deep and complex culture which embraces both hospitality to strangers and terrible blood-feuds. It’s a predominantly Muslim country but has towns with twenty-four crumbling, yet hauntingly beautiful, orthodox churches and where the local villagers are just as likely to invite you in to their house to sample their local moonshine as they are to stand and talk religion or politics on the street with you. It’s a country that once had a king called Zog and sits at one of the most important political cross-roads of Europe. It so enchanting that it makes me want to either burst into song, or cry tears of joy. A good advertising slogan for Albania could read:
Albania: Something for everyone – and then some…
It is a difficult country to understand. Considering its brutal Communist past and the madness surrounding the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes and subsequent implosion of the country in 1997, it’s hard to understand how the people remain so polite and friendly. Unemployment is endemic, wages are miniscule, prospects aren’t good and yet the people seem to be infected with a joie de vivre which is contagious. Perhaps it is the near-perfect Mediterranean climate, the fertile fields which produce cabbages so big that I can barely lift them or leeks the size of telegraph-poles, the abundance of homemade raki or the belief that the worst is past now and things are on the up, which makes the people so welcoming. Travelling in Albania, at this time, is a wonderful, soul-enriching experience. It is everything I have ever hoped to find through travelling.
But, I am still lonely and my thoughts constantly return to family. I wish they were here. Then, when we are old and infirm, we could sit drinks in hand, and enjoy the memory of this moment together.
Later, Zamir and I wander around the town. Everyone is out taking the air. The town has a carnival-like atmosphere. Fairy lights twinkle in the pure night air and every other shop is either a café or a bar. Charcoal briars are set up outside most bars and the pop of roasting corn feels the air. I wonder into the town’s single tourist store, it’s covered in a layer of dust which is both charming and sad. I buy an Albanian football shirt for my son. I know he will love it and each time he wears it I will remember this special country and how lonely I felt this night.
Early the next morning I watch the sun rise from the lofty vantage point of the castle which presides so magisterially over Berat. Below us the first fires of the day are being lit and warm, life-giving light begins to flood the valley. Coils of blue smoke begin to rise from chimney pipes and the call to pray hangs seductively in the air. I have never seen such a beautiful or heart-warming scene.
For a second, just for a second, all my fears and loneliness are gone. So, I pick up my bag, gave a brief pray of thanks, and go to find Zamir and more adventures.