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.

A Walk Around Skopje, Macedonia, Part Two

“If you want to know your future, look at your past.” — Macedonian saying, as told to me by a Macedonian I know

Fun Fact: Macedonia and Kosovo are the only Peace Corps host countries that share a medical unit. This means that, thanks to a persistent ear infection, I have been visiting Macedonia frequently.

Here are some photos I took during walk(s) around the city.

Macedonia ship
Controversial “ship” that might be removed
Macedonia stone bridge
Stone Bridge
Macedonia river
Macedonia Alexander the Great Statue
Expensive and controversial Alexander the Great statue

Macedonia has been undergoing a lot of political change lately. There is talk of removing its controversial statues and other monuments. You can read more about it here.

Here is a previous post I wrote with more pictures of Macedonia:

Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence

So, Macedonia totally gets props for having a museum with the longest name of any museum I have ever visited. 😉

Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence

The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence focuses on Macedonia’s rebellion against the Ottoman Empire (early 1900s) through World Wars I and II until the end of its communist rule in 1991.

Macedonian constitution
Macedonian Constitution

Some interesting things I learned:

  • Ellen Stone was an American missionary living in Macedonia. She was kidnapped and held captive for 6 months by a revolutionary group looking to fund their uprising against the Ottoman Empire. They eventually got the money they wanted and set Ms. Stone free. This is considered to be the first time an American was ever held hostage overseas.
  • During the second world war, Macedonia was not recognized as a country. Macedonians fought with the armies of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece.
  • In 1944, Macedonia was recognized as an independent state and its language was finally recognized.
  • The Macedonian declaration of independence was signed in 1991.
Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence stairway
Front staircase in the entryway: Important figures from Macedonia’s history
museum exhibit 1
1944 — Macedonia was recognized as an independent state
museum exhibit 2
Soldiers + war scene
museum exhibit 3
Photographs hanging above a stairway depict the victims of communism (sorry it is so blurry!)
Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence ceiling
Ceiling to represent the indigenous peoples of Macedonia

A few things to note about The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence:

  • Entrance fee: 300 Denar (about 4.80 Euro)
  • You can only walk through the museum as part of a guided tour.
  • The museum offers tours in English.
  • No photos are allowed inside the museum aside from the entrance hall. I was bad and snuck around the corner to snap three photos inside. Normally I try to respect “no photography” rules but this one just seemed excessive.
  • Mannequins are heavily used in the exhibits.

Note: I took notes as best I could on my phone while I was touring the museum. Apologies if any information is incorrect (though I think what I have posted is accurate).

A Visit to Tvrdina Kale Fortress, Skopje, Macedonia

On a recent visit to Skopje, Macedonia, I took a walk to the fortress in the middle of the city. I had previously posted a photo of the outside of the fortress on a different visit to Skopje:

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You enter the fortress by crossing through a public park. There was a gate with a stop sign, but an older man selling bottles of water by the entrance just waved me through. I’m going to be honest — I was less than impressed by my visit. There were no signs ANYWHERE, so I had no idea what I was looking at. I had hoped to learn some of the fortress’ history. I had also thought maybe there would be … I don’t know … some artifacts or something? It does offer good views of the whole city, though.

From a Google search, I learned that the fortress is from the Byzantine empire and was built in 6th century A.D. Even online info about this place seems pretty scant.

kale skopje 2
Green park
kale skopje 5
Fortress wall
Nice view from the park
kale skopje
Macedonian flag, with the mountains in the distance
kale skopje 3
What’s this? I don’t know!
View of Skopje’s Contemporary Art Museum
filip II sports arena
View of Skopje’s sports arena
kale skopje 4
Crumbling stone

On my walk back to the bus station, I took this picture. I liked the lion statue. 🙂

skopje macedonia


A Walk Around Skopje, Macedonia

I took these photos on a recent visit to Skopje, Macedonia. (You can read about my first visit to Macedonia here.)

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Across the street from the bus station …
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So many flags …
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Fortress/castle from the Ottoman Empire. It’s huge! I hope I get a chance to go back and visit.
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I loved this domed church. So pretty!
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Downtown Skopje, Macedonia

My Favorite Photos from the First Quarter

“And time
goes by
And you’ve got a lot to learn, in your life.” — Future Islands, Tin Man

I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post that I have officially completed my first quarter in the Peace Corps! (Counting method is my own.) I thought I’d take some time and reflect on my favorite moments/photos from the last six months. Some of these photos I have previously posted, while others are new.

I spent over a year thinking about Kosovo before I actually moved here. These are: 1) my very first photo of Kosovo and 2) the first photo of me in Kosovo, taken on the balcony of my hotel room.

I took the following photo at the end of the most terrifying day of my life. Here is a picture of my pre-service training (PST) bedroom:


I love this photo I took of my sitemates Charlie and Sierra. It is funny to think I didn’t know them well back then.

About to watch the soccer match with some fellow Peace Corps trainees. Go, Albania!

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I didn’t know what to expect from my first birthday spent in Kosovo, but I am happy to say, my 35th was a happy one. (I suspect my language teacher was responsible for the cake — such a sweet gesture.)


PST is not without its abject misery and heat. It does have its bright moments, too. Here is a picture of me commuting with my sitemates and my language teacher. I really miss these three, and don’t get to see them as often as I’d like anymore.


The summer did not pass without its hedonistic moments. Here are two of my favorite photos, illustrating that:

Here is a picture of my language group, on the day we (finally) got to explore Pristina for the first time.


I got to attend my first Kosovoar wedding. Here I am with one of my PST host brothers:

One of my host brothers (not the one who got married) and me

Teaching for the first time was an intimidating experience, but it turned out to be more fun than I expected. I really like this photo of my  co-teachers, Chelsea and Chester.

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Our last week of PST was emotionally draining and difficult. But I had fun at the cultural day party/thank you to PST families that Peace Corps hosted.


On my last night with my PST host family, I asked to take a photo with my host parents. My host dad was lying on the couch with a headache, but he got up and put on a dress shirt and nicer pants for the occasion. 🙂


The next day, I swore in as a member of the Peace Corps. I have never been so proud of anything I’ve ever done.


This is the first photo taken of me at my permanent host site, later that same day. It will always remind me that what I had anticipated would be a hard day (I was missing my sister’s wedding back at home) ultimately turned out just fine.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful and holding a puppy

Speca (peppers) have consumed my life.


Here is me on my first day of school!

#Kosovo #howiseepc #firstdayofschool

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I began crocheting a lot.


I really love my fellow volunteers.


I got to visit Skopje, Macedonia:

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I’ve spent several fun afternoons exploring Peja, a beautiful, mountainous city in Kosovo. This shot was taken on a particularly fun day.


And, of course, I just visited Tirana!

April and Val, outside the National Art Gallery of Albania

Thanks for letting me share!

Seen on the Street

I came across this cool public art display by Swedish artist Samuel Nyholm. After doing some internet research, I discovered he recently presented at a graphic design conference in Pristina.

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The one of the man with the moustache is my favorite. It reminds me of my grandfather. I am not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s because he had a funny little moustache when he was younger. And he’s usually dressed well.

You can see more of Samuel Nyholm’s work on his website.

When I visited Skopje, Macedonia, I saw these fun graphic posters on a public notice board.


I was also impressed with this graffiti rendition of the Macedonian flag (too bad someone added more graffiti on top of it).

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