Albania was stuck in a time warp for 45 years under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha and only emerged a couple of decades ago. Today it is rushing to catch up with the rest of the world and while some women are easily making the transition to modern times, others continue to live much like they have for centuries.
Anastasi Jorghi is 92 years old but she looks 20 years younger as she spryly clambers up a hill. She’s been tending her olive trees, after all, just as she’s always done. A stranger’s arrival at her son’s foodstall is all the excitement she needs to stop working and scuttle over. “My back hurts and I’m getting old, but I still work every day.” Like many Albanian mothers, she has a daughter in Italy, one of the preferred immigration countries. In fact, it’s so close about half of Albanian adults speak Italian, either from watching television or from having been there.
Tana Bashalli is handing me a piece of homemade lasagne, or what will turn into this delicious dish when she feeds her family of five through the cold Albanian winter. It’s summer now along the gentle shores of Lake Ohrid and her fisherman husband brings in plenty of food but when the weather inevitably slows him down, she’ll be ready. It’s easy to make: prepare the dough with flour, dry it in the sun, and then store it in lightweight cotton sheets in a dark place until winter comes. She’ll eventually turn it into lasagna or cut it into small strips of pasta and cook it with chicken or meat.
Albanians have long been emigrants and one of their favorite countries is Greece, just over the border to the south. For years prospects in Greece were bright, with good salaries paid in Euros and flashy cars to be acquired and shown off to family back home. Now Albanians are returning as the Greek financial crisis cuts their salaries in half. Rebeka Zoto loved living in Athens – it can’t compare to the lovely but small town of Pogradec along Lake Ohrid, not at all. No hustle or bustle, and not very cosmopolitan. Come this autumn Rebeka will head to university in Tirana, where she hopes an education will eventually help her find a job. Meantime, she helps out in her parents’ restaurant along the lovely River Vjosa. Lovely, but a far cry from the bright lights of the Greek capital.
Tina Poist didn’t emigrate to Boston USA – her mother did, from the city of Korça in Eastern Albania. Born Athina Limoni, Tina hasn’t forgotten her roots. Each year she returns and has cemented her relationship with her origins by donating funds to the city’s beautiful Orthodox Church. The money will be used to paint an icon on the church ceiling, although at her age, she’d like things to move a bit more quickly. She returns each year but still the icon isn’t ready…
While Xhbane Qerimaj (left) spends most of her time farming up in her village of Gegyhsen, her sister Sose lives on a farm down in the valley, no more than 30km away. It might as well be another world. The road is difficult if not impassable at times, although the farmers here are hardy and think nothing of a few hours’ walk down – and back up – their mountain. It may be preferable to the ride along a ridge so narrow two tires are often nearly over the edge. Xhbane’s life is a traditional one of tending cattle, planting corn, raising chickens and producing raki, the local alcoholic drink. Yet when an unannounced guest shows up, it takes less than an hour to rustle up a feast. Years of practice, I’d say, and a hospitality that’s hard to match.
Sose’s farm has an unusual neighbour – she’s Catherine Bohne, a former bookstore owner from Brooklyn, and although she isn’t Albanian, her heart most certainly is. Catherine fell in love with the Albanian Alps (and one of its inhabitants) and moved here. Now she helps Alfred and his family manage Rilindja, a mountain eco-resort, and works to protect the northern wilderness from overdevelopment through her website, Journey to Valbona. Some have styled her the Edith Durham of the 21st century, in memory of the original Edith, who did so much to publicize Albania’s cause in the pre-WWII years. Catherine’s battles wouldn’t be easy if she were Albanian but as a foreigner, she has her work cut out for her. And she does it all in Albanian.
While Catherine fine-tunes her Albanian, 26-year-old Gerta Çorati tweaks her English, which she speaks like a native – not that she’s been to school anywhere English is spoken but because she is self-taught. She took lessons in school, but we all know how little we learn in that setting so it’s to her credit that as a child she opted for Disney in the original. Gerta is the modern face of Albania, one in which collective farms are barely a dim memory and the future lies in science, technology and art. Will she continue working once she gets married? “Of course I will!”
Faces like Gerta’s are common in the cities, young, professional women who have no memory of bad times and whose entire future lies facing Europe and the world. In the countryside, you might as well be in another era as women prepare food and drink for their men as they’ve done for centuries.
That’s not to say all urban Albanian society is egalitarian, not at all. There’s still a strongman element here, even among the more sophisticated. Many men keep well-trained attack dogs as pets, there’s plenty of aggressive macho driving and the strong belief persists just below the surface that some things are “women’s things.”
In a diverse society like this one, however, some modern educated men are taking steps towards reasserting the gender equality that was perhaps one of the few good things anyone can find to say about “the difficult times” when Communist Albania was isolated from the world.