Albania’s Mountain Queen

“Extreme hospitality overwhelms me.” — Edith Durham, speaking about her time in Albania

My awesome friend Val bought me the book “Albania’s Mountain Queen” by Marcus Tanner because she knew I wanted to read it. I never read history books, except for the very occasional historical fiction novel. I am someone who prefers to experience history rather than read about it in books. I’d rather visit Gettysburg than read a book about Gettysburg, for example.

However, after living in the Balkans for nearly two years, I have grown very interested in the history here. Tanner writes about the life of Edith Durham, an Englishwoman who became a passionate crusader for Albanian rights. Durham was born to an upper-middle class English family. While her younger siblings went on to fantastic careers, Durham was something of a late bloomer. She was stuck in England caring for her ailing mother. She hated her life and decided to set out on an adventure, visiting the Balkans in the early 1900s. She went on to become a writer and reporter, urging British politicians to take notice of what was happening in the Balkans. (And so much was going on at the time … the Ottoman Empire was collapsing and different countries were trying to invade each other. I was having a hard time keeping it all straight).

As Winston Churchill once said: “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”

Tanner gives an unflinching look at Durham’s life and influence in the Balkans. At times, I get the feeling he didn’t like her much, though of course he never met her and was writing about her after her death.

Despite not liking history books in general and at times being overwhelmed by the amount of information, I greatly enjoyed this book and learned so much about the history here. It gave me a greater insight into much of my own observations of Kosovo and Albanian culture.

I highlighted a good deal of the book as I was reading. I’d like to share some quotes I found especially note-worthy. Please note that anything in quotes are the words of Marcus Tanner, the book’s author.

On the Albanian language:

“Language … also isolated Albanians from the outside world … the Albanians inhibited a linguistic island and spoke a language that had no close relationship to any Indo-European tongue. Albanian was also split into two very different, usually mutually unintelligible, dialects: Tosk in the south and Geg in the north. Very little was written in the language.”

On religion (April’s note: I found this particularly interesting because I live in a Catholic minority village):

“In 1468 … the Ottomans completed their conquest and most of the population [of Albania] converted to Islam. In the mountains of the north … the Catholic church retained a foothold. The clergy were a poor asset … some were beggars … most did not teach, or appear to know, elementary Christian dogmas.”

On women:

The poet Byron visited Albania and said of the people, “Their women are sometimes handsome also, but they are treated like slaves.” Byron’s companion, Hobhouse, further remarked that “Albanians … treated their women like animals.”

“None of the Albanians [Durham] had met had objected to the choice of wife that had been made for them because they considered all women the same — put on earth only to work and breed.”

On Kosovo:

“Of all the Ottoman vilayets [provinces] in Europe, Kosovo was reckoned the most lawless and dangerous. The Serbs regarded Kosovo with longing as their ancestral homeland, and the feeling of longing was increased by the fact that Kosovo was out of reach, under the thumb of the Ottomans. They wanted it back.”

“Crossing the lawless providence of Kosovo all the way to Peja and Decan in order to gain a more complete picture of Serbian life was a feat of a different order. Peja was one of the few places in the Balkans where Durham ever confessed to having felt afraid.”

(April’s note: I have visited the monastery in Peja.)

On Macedonia:

“[Durham’s landlady in Macedonia] got on Durham’s nerves, creating a fuss when she needed a wash and took a bowl of water up to her room. The Macedonians observed this with suspicion. They rarely washed, and when they did so, conducted the ritual outdoors and with solemn ceremony, one woman pouring a little trickle of water over the hands and face of the other. The women of Macedonia did not remove any of their heavy and elaborate garments for this infrequent event and were alarmed by reports of the action involving bowls of water that was said to be going on in Durham’s bedroom. An even bigger scandal followed when her landlady discovered she slept in a nightgown. Macedonian women slept in the same gear they had worn all day and that they had probably worn all year. The idea of lying in bed, semi-naked, in a flimsy shift, horrified them.”

“The Macedonians’ passive resistance to learning or trying almost anything new got on her nerves. When Durham decided to vaccinate as many of the refugees as possible against smallpox, the refugees wanted nothing to do with it. As she had found out earlier with the affair of the indoor washing bowl, Macedonian women considered it indecent to remove any of their cumbersome drapes, and would not even bare their arms for any inducement.”

Some things never change …

“[Durham] had to avoid the packs of wild dogs that roamed everywhere, attacked strangers and fought until 4 a.m. every night.”

On differences between Albania and Serbia

“Overwhelmingly illiterate, possessing only a handful of schools, without roads that anyone could use in winter, the Albanians were divided along almost every conceivable line.”

“The comparison between Albania and Serbia, which had liberated itself from the Ottomans in the 1830s, spoke for itself … Serbian towns now had electric lighting, decent roads and trams, and were linked by railways, while everywhere phalanxes of uniformed school children were to be seen marching off to school.”

On Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled Albania from 1944 to 1985

“Hoxha had a cosmopolitan background. Born in 1908 to a Muslim family of land-owners and cloth merchants … [he was educated in France, and traveled Europe surviving on family money]. He was also intellectually superior to most of his Eastern European comrades. His belief in his own superior knowledge fixed in him a determination to become the Soviet bloc’s ultimate pedagogue. This was a task he never laid down and in the pursuit of which he created the most paranoid and xenophobic regime in Eastern Europe.”

“Hoxha’s goal was … to extirpate religious belief and practice … Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheist state. Not even China had gone that far.”

“In April 1985, Eastern Europe’s longest serving leader [Hoxha] died of diabetes.” The book notes the positives Hoxha’s leadership brought, including increasing the literacy rate, creating railroads, providing electricity even in remote villages, and a rise in overall life expectancy. But … “the population paid a high price …” There were labor camps, the death penalty could be handed down for 34 different offenses, and whole families were punished for the crime of one member.

In reference to Albania during the Cold War years: “The west … all but ignored the country. Occasional reports referred in a semi-jokey fashion to a ‘hermit kingdom,’ as if it were some kind of Shangri-La, not a boot camp. The Albanians of Kosovo and Macedonia were preoccupied by their own struggles inside Yugoslavia, and some romanticized the situation in Albania. When the Albanians of Yugoslavia were finally able to cross the border, many were shocked by what they found there.”

enver hoxha house tirana albania
Enver Hoxha’s former residence in Tirana, Albania, as it looks today

On Durham’s life and legacy

“Edith Durham never returned to Albania, or to anywhere else in the Balkans. She was only in her late fifties but her health had been damaged beyond repair by years spent in Albania in all weathers. Now lame and in constant pain from sciatica, she found travel difficult. Almost a quarter-century of life lay ahead of her, but for the rest of it she was often housebound.”

“Over the border in Kosovo, Durham’s name and likeness made an equally sudden reappearance. She was less associated with Kosovo than northern Albania. After all, she had been Queen of the Mountains, not Queen of the Kosovo plain.” (April’s note: Funny to hear Kosovo referred to as a “plain.” This Midwesterner thinks of Kosovo as being mountainous. But anyway … ) Her denunciations of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo in the 1920s ensured that she had a following there, too … as power finally passed into the hands of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.”

edith durham street pristina kosovo
Edith Durham street in Pristina, Kosovo. Photo courtesy of Chester Eng.

On the region today

“[Durham] had not wanted Albania to remain a fossil and she had not idealized the traditional Albanian way of life. She had always been appalled by the poverty, dirt and disease, and by the stupider superstitions. She had condemned the custom of taking child brides and perpetuating blood feuds, and she had deplored the lack of education. What she did not care for in the new Albania was … a tendency in certain traditional societies to lose their equilibrium and ape the cheapest aspects of western society.”

“Whether Durham would recognize much of today’s Albania, or Kosovo, is another question. Pristina [Kosovo’s capital] and Tirana [Albania’s capital] are alike in their embrace of flashy modernity and apparent indifference to history. ”

I disagree with Tanner’s statement here. While it is true that Pristina and Tirana are westernized cities, anyone traveling to one of Kosovo or Albania’s villages (or anyone living in a village, like me) will notice many customs and traditions that are stuck in the past. Even Tanner himself notes that: “Many men still expect to marry virgins, and there are still a few ‘sworn virgins‘ around. The code of blood vengeance lingers on in the form of honor killings.”

(I once had a Kosovar man tell me he wanted to marry a woman who hadn’t had a previous boyfriend, even if she was still a virgin. Good luck with that, buddy!)

A take-away

I have visited Tirana, Albania a number of times and I love the beauty of Albania and the richness of its capital city. It is shocking to remember that as little as thirty years ago, no one was able to cross its border, either going out or coming in. Albania has long been a remote part of the world, first because of its inaccessibility due to its mountains and poor roads, and later due to Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship. I feel lucky I have been able to visit there.

Market in Tirana, Albania

I took these photos a while ago but never got around to posting them. I visited a farmer’s market the last time I was in Albania. Fruits and vegetables abounded, but I was also surprised to see other goods for sale. I really wanted to buy an antique clock (isn’t the one with the owl cute?), but the 30 Euro price tag was too steep.

vintage clocks Tirana market
Antique clocks

goods for sale tirana market

Though sheep’s head soup is a delicacy, I have never seen it or had it served to me (though my host family eats mutton). I was surprised to see sheep’s heads roasting on a spit (bottom row).

roasting sheep heads Tirana Albania

I’ve had chicken cooked in a clay pot (see below) in Kosovo, and it is really good!

earthenware Tirana Albania
Clay pots for sale
orange tree Tirana market
Orange (?) tree

I am not someone who visits farmer’s markets with any regularity, but Tirana’s is small, clean, not at all crowded, and had a variety of foods and goods for sale. I will definitely be back!

National History Museum, Tirana, Albania

This past weekend, I visited the National History Museum in Tirana, Albania.

National History Museum Tirana Albania 1
Front entrance
National History Museum Tirana Albania 2
Rendition of an Albanian home
National History Museum Tirana Albania 3
Front hallway
National History Museum Tirana Albania 4
Statues depicting gods
National History Museum Tirana Albania 5
Fortress
National History Museum Tirana Albania 6
Weapons
National History Museum Tirana Albania 7
Fresque mural by Fatmir Haxhiu
National History Museum Tirana Albania 8
“The stamp and the flag of the Albanian association”
National History Museum Tirana Albania 9
Onufri room

My friend was telling my about the artist Onufri, who is thought to be from what is now Berat, Albania. He is famous for the color pink. According to Wikipedia, “He was the first to introduce the colour pink into icon painting. The secret of this color was not passed on and died with him.”

Friday Gratitude: More Travel

This weekend, I am going to Tirana, Albania to attend a wedding. I am traveling with a bunch of Peace Corps friends, as it is a mutual friend who is getting married. While I’ve only been to three Balkan capital cities (including Pristina, Kosovo and Skopje, Macedonia), Tirana is my favorite. I flew out of the Tirana airport back in April, but I haven’t been to the city center since this time last year.

Again, I am so glad I was able to travel to Sweden this past weekend. It was a lot of travel packed into a short amount of time, but it was worth it to see Jose Gonzalez in concert. If you’d like to learn more about him, here’s a performance/interview I really like:

I am fascinated to read about the creative processes of my favorite artists, so I also really enjoyed this interview The Telegraph did with Jose Gonzalez.

When I was leaving Sweden last Saturday morning, I saw this bus go by. I was amused by the name. (This bus is “angered.”) 🙂

angered bus in Sweden

Also, I am glad to have some point of reference for Sweden beyond just Ikea and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Visiting did little to dispel my idea that it is utopia, though. Gothenburg is a beautiful, clean, bike-friendly city full of beautiful, friendly people.

Sweden was the ninth country I have been to this year. I hadn’t done much international travel before joining the Peace Corps, and I am so grateful I’m able to do so now.

On another note, my parents are on their care package game! I got this in the mail this week. 🙂 Thank you, Mom and Dad!

peace corps care package

Media consumption (a combo from the last few weeks):

  • My friend, Lisa, suggested I read Eleanor and Park. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year. It is a teenage love story, which is not something I’d normally read. However, the characters were believable and likable. The story was great.
  • When news of a Billy Idol autobiography came out a few years ago, I got really excited. Then I forgot to read the book. I finally did! It was an interesting, honest account of his life and musical journey. He really does not pull any punches.

Okay, I am off to Tirana! If you’d like to read more about my previous trip there, you can read these posts:

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My friend, Val, and me in Tirana last November

 

Notes on Traveling Through Tirana

When doing research on flying to Rome, I discovered it was going to be much cheaper for me to leave from Tirana, Albania than Pristina.

At first, I considered renting an airbnb in Tirana the night before my flight. But then I would have to spend time/money getting back out to the Tirana airport (which is 18 kilometers outside the city center). Also, the bus from Pristina to Tirana stops at the airport on its way into downtown Tirana.

I had United Airline miles that were set to expire soon, so I decided to use them to book a room at the Hotel Airport Tirana. My cost for the room was only 16 Euro, after I used my miles.

***

As my bus crossed the border from Kosovo into Albania, I looked out the window and thought, “Albania is so beautiful.” A second later, someone coughed on me.

***

There isn’t much to do by the Tirana airport. I bought some snacks and spent the afternoon reading on my balcony (a fine way to begin a vacation, by the way). When I got hungry, I debated ordering room service. I’m not keen on eating in restaurants alone when I don’t have to, but room service is generally expensive. I’ve only ever taken one business trip (to Nashville, TN), and that was the last time I ordered room service. The fee was something like $16. Sixteen dollars is an obscene amount of money to order a mediocre cheeseburger, even if someone else is paying for it.

I called the front desk, and learned that the fee for room service at the Hotel Airport Tirana is 1.50 Euro.

WHAT?! SEND IT UP!

I ended up getting two room service meals during my stay, and the total cost for food + fees was 11 Euro. (Oh, Eastern Europe, how I love thee!) I got to eat dinner in my pajamas! In bed! 🙂

So, my total cost for traveling through Tirana, Albania was 10 Euro for the bus, 16 Euro for the hotel, 11 Euro for room service, and probably 3 or so Euro for snacks. (Free breakfast was included in the price of my room.) The 40 Euro I spent (plus my 70 Euro flight) was still significantly cheaper than flying to Rome from Pristina.

tirana airport
The airport view from my balcony

The Tirana airport is across the street from the hotel, which makes this the only time in my life I have ever walked to catch a flight. 🙂

Fun Links (Kosovo and Albania)

Below are some links to articles I’ve enjoyed about Kosovo (and Albania).

  • Makeup is a big deal in Kosovo. Women, especially in the larger cities, tend to be much more made up than what I think is typical in the States. I got a kick out of Blonde Gypsy’s look at beauty routines in Pristina.

    the-blonde-gypsy-arbresha-shala-studio-prishtina-kosovo-768x576
    Photo credit: Blonde Gypsy
  • Heart My Backpack posted some gorgeous photos of Pristina during her trip to Kosovo. It was also fun to read someone else’s take on the city.

    heartmybackpackkosovo
    Photo credit: Heart My Backpack
  • This great post captures 23 “Day in the Life” photos of Kosovo from around the country.

    Musliman u vremenu
    Photo credit: Admir Idrizi via rferl.org
  • I loved visiting Tirana, Albania’s capital city. It’s got a mild, Mediterranean climate, a varied history, and a gorgeous public park. (I previously wrote about its nature, history, and the city today.) So I was super excited when this article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. It’s a great, one-day itinerary for visiting Tirana.

    one-day-in-tirana-albania-itinerary2
    Photo Credit: One Day Itinerary
  • I don’t cook much in Kosovo, for many reasons. 1) I think it would be rude not to eat with my host family. 2) I don’t like to cook often. 3) My village doesn’t have a grocery store. 4) My host family owns a wood-burning stove, and I have no idea how to use it. However, many of my friends like to cook, so I wanted to link to another recipe for traditional food. (I previously posted some good recipe links in this post.) In the One Day Itinerary article above, Oda was suggested as a good traditional dining spot in Tirana. I ate at Oda during my trip to Tirana and loved it. Fasule, a popular bean dish, was one of the dishes I ordered. I found this blog post (written by a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Albania) that lists a simple fasule recipe (in English).

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    Photo Credit: Albania Adventure

Friday Gratitude: Tirana, Albania

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April and Val, outside the National Art Gallery of Albania

This week, I am so grateful I had the opportunity to visit Tirana, Albania. I am grateful to my friend, Val, for suggesting we visit (and for putting up with me for 3 days straight).

I feel especially fortunate I was able to explore with someone who has a connection to the city, and who was every bit as excited to be there as I was. Thank you, Val. 🙂

tirana

Val took me to a traditional Albanian restaurant (we ended up eating there twice). I’m not a food pornographer so I didn’t take any pictures of my meal, but we had eggplant, beans, lamb, bread, and rice-stuffed peppers. If you ever find yourself in Tirana, look for a restaurant called Oda.

traditional-albanian-restaurant

Like I said in an earlier post, Albania is a huge mix of influences … Mediterranean, Islamic, communist, western … and there’s a pyramid in the middle of everything. I can honestly say Tirana is the most thought-provoking place I have ever visited. I am still processing everything I learned on my trip.

This coming week, I am heading into Pristina for a 4-day Peace Corps conference. It will be the first time since our swearing in ceremony that my cohort will be together. Another friend and I were laughing about this: Why are we so excited for what is, essentially, a business trip? Welcome to life in the Peace Corps, where every little thing becomes exciting …