When I asked the kids where they think Albania is, L, A and FK all guessed Europe, which was already a small win. A more detailed examination reveals that even JK is not sure what the neighbouring countries are. I have a joke running in my head about future dictators who keep their countries sealed and no one knows anything about them ‒ neither the country nor the dictator. But the reality can be too cruel for jokes, so I stay quiet.

Enter Albania.

Growing up in Europe, Albania was a sort of mystery. It was a closed country with a reputation for being agricultural, backwards and traditional ‒ a sealed society living in the past. It was like the North Korea of Europe. Very few of us actually travelled to Albania and those who did, found a charming and almost unspoiled land living under a memory of terror and repression.

Albania is situated in Southeastern Europe with a Mediterranean coastline and has Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Greece as its neighbours. Its capital is Tirana and approximately three million people inhabit its lands. Albania lived 40 years under one of the weirdest – and cruellest ‒ authoritarian regimes in the world. As a result of its 1912 independence and loss of territory, combined with the longstanding authoritarian regime (until 1990), there are now more Albanian descendants living outside Albania than in the country itself.

Currently the most famous person of Albanian descent is Dua Lipa, a Grammy-winning pop artist from England (her family is Kosovo Albanians). Here is Dua Lipa speaking Albanian or eating burek ‒ the traditional food of Albania. None of the virtual nomads have a liking for her music but her bio reveals her to be delightfully outspoken and using her celebrity status for all kinds of good deeds.

Other famous people of Albanian descent include Mother Teresa (born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu), Bebe Rexha, Rita Ora (born in Kosovo) and John Belushi. Who knew!

Burek melts in the mouth

There are no Albanian restaurants in Sydney but the Balkan Oven Bakery Café in Rockdale promises an authentic Albanian burek-experience. Again, as with Bamiyan, Internet reviewers love it so after a particularly early school drop off I decide to drive to Rockdale before work. It is a lovely and sunny but chilly winter morning and Rockdale is quite quiet at that time of the day. I find the café quite easily and while I wait for my turn, I admire the golden bureks straight from the oven, shining together with the winter sun. I am served by a wonderfully chatty, large Balkan woman who tells me about an older man who comes to the café every morning, wipes the tables outside and then chooses one to sit at. I ask her how authentic Albanian the burek is and after a look that tells me that I am stupid, she assures me that people in Albania would surely eat it. I leave with the assurance that culinary purity is unnecessary and that the food I am bringing home is Albanian enough.

I heat the burek just before dinner and serve it hot with some salad. FK and I opt for the spinach/feta burek while L and JK choose the meaty one. A is not interested in burek and when given the opportunity to choose, goes for chips.

This is serious winter food. It is rich and oily, and quite heavy. I would not eat it every day but it is yummy. Google and Dua Lipa reassure us that burek is as Albanian as Albanian cuisine can get. Basically it is layered pastry filled with various ingredients. My new Albanian reference, Dua, says on Youtube that the spinach/cheese is the right one.

While we eat, we listen to Albanian music. First we try ‘Albanian hits’ on Spotify which results in standard easy-listening found everywhere, so we switch back to Spotify’s playlist of Albanian folk music. The sounds are folksy as old folk music generally is, with sad undertones of Balkan music. After some time, all the songs start to sound the same to our novice ears.

Bunkers and a crazy dictator

The Albanian trivia was not a great success so it was back to Youtube for some country facts and figures. We watched four videos. Two of them were suitable for both L and A, but two had content that was too heavy for the preadolescent.

A super quick history of Albania by ‘Mr History’ is as its name indicated ‒ super quick. It is a fun introduction for kids to the country they know nothing about. We learn about the constant conquests, the position of Albanian at the crossroads of early eastern and western Christianity, the word ‘Albanians’ being mentioned for the first time in 1079, Progon the founding father of the first independent state of Albania (lasted until the 1200s) and Skanderbeg who fought the Ottomans for 24 years and united the Albanians. Albania was finally conquered by the Ottomans in 1481 and remained “stuck in the medieval era” until the 20th century. In 1912, Albania was declared independent, but the land distribution resulted in 40% of Albanians being left outside the Albanian borders (including in Kosovo). Ahmed Zogu ruled Albania under the groovy name of ‘King Zog’ until Albania was invaded by Italy in 1939. A schoolteacher, Enver Hoxha, led the communist party to run the country after a civil war and then proceeded to carry out a five year purge of suspected enemies. Albania then formed partnerships with such charming figures as Stalin and, after his death, with Mao’s China. Albania also declared itself the world’s first atheist state in 1967 and the communist party stayed in power until 1992. While L is aware of the most famous authoritarian rulers in history, the 40 year Enver Hoxha period comes to her as a surprise. “How did I not know about this?” she asks. Well, not many people do.

Let’s learn more about it.

What was life like in Enver Hoxha’s repressed, closed, poor agricultural country? Certainly not great for the average person. Communist Albania: Enver Hoxha’s land of paranoia by Tales from the Road tells of a paranoid dictator and his 40-year rule of fear and repression in an isolated state. And yes, he ordered the construction of more than 175,000 bunkers around the country to keep enemies away.

Photo: Wikipedia

A legacy of dictatorship examines the methods of persecution of the secret police and the contemporary search for answers for the disappeared. In this document, family members reveal mass graves, provide their DNA in the hope of finding their family members and reflect on their life during the forty years of dictatorship. A technician from the secret police reveals how people were monitored. The document tells us that there are 6000 disappeared people, while more than a 100,000 people went through labour camps and around 25,000 executed. In this document the terror, persecution and loss becomes very real. This is only the second country on our virtual nomad journey, but already human nature is proving difficult to stomach.

To finish on a high note we move to Albania: Mountains and immigrants, which is about an environmental activist promoting sustainable farming in the Albanian countryside.

The Doll

The book from Albania is by Ismael Kadare ‒ the most famous Albanian author and winner of many international literature awards. Kadare is considered one of the leading literary figures of the 20th century and a “voice against totalitarianism”. I have read Kadare extensively before and although I do not recall the plot in detail, Chronicle in Stone impressed me when I was young. But the book I chose this time is unknown to me: The Doll ‒ the story of Kadare’s mother.

While the Afghan book was about sons and fathers, this one is about sons and mothers. It is a story of a young bride in an arranged marriage who moves into a house she doesn’t love to live with her husband’s family ‒ including a mother-in-law who never warms up to her. It is also the setting of Kadare’s story of growing up to be a writer, first in patriarchal, traditional and then authoritarian Albania, ruled with strict moral codes and traditions. He does not always come through the text as a likable character but he talks about his parents with that amused acceptance and affection that people use when talking about parents that belong to a different era.

The Doll is a lovely book, but coming after the Kite Runner it felt underwhelming. It is a lovely book but not thrilling. For me, it is at its best when reflecting the pre-Hoxha society, its strict rules and the oppression and persecution that followed (but this is not much touched upon). It is still a tale of tradition, the narrow places for girls in a society, arranged marriages and a mother who wants to understand more than she does and feels displaced so many times.

Kodare is a clever writer and there are interesting linguistic images. I screenshot some sentences to send to people who would subscribe to the sentiments, including the following (currently does not apply to me):

Father and Godfather

When searching for Albanian movies I know the movie I want to see: Anna, a short film by Kristina Rushiti that has won several awards but it is not available on any platform I have access to. Instead, I watch a five minute short film from possibly the same director, Viktima, which feels like a clumsy student film about online predators ‒ predictable and badly acted. Next I try to find Aga’s House, but I cannot access that either. None of the ‘10 best movies from Albania’ are available so instead I find Father and Godfather on Youtube ‒ an Albanian film from 2007. I am glad that I did. It is hard to explain why I find this film so fascinating. It starts slowly but then I cannot stop watching it. The basic storyline is that of an Albanian village in the 1930s living a very traditional lifestyle, disconnected from the turbulence of the outside world but dictated by rigid moral codes and questions of honour. A young boy is caught between a strict, authoritarian father and liberal, freethinking godfather who lives in America. Women are figurants in the movie. A poignant moment in the movie is when, after a wedding, a stained sheet is put on display for the village to see and we see the look on the very young bride’s face when the boy asks what it means.

The latest news from Albania is that the new president of the country is a top military official, Bajram Begaj, elected by Albania’s parliament after no candidates were nominated in three rounds of voting.

Next stop: Algeria

I take this opportunity to thank my wonderful L for her rearranging and editing the blog page