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.ย 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]ย 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 …ย ) 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.

Friday Gratitude: March Forth

Someone once told me that she likes her birthday, March fourth, because it is a sentence: March forth!

After a mild winter with almost no snow in my village, on Monday I awoke to a large accumulation with snow still falling. It kept falling. We got Wednesday – Friday off school!

kosovo snow.JPG
End-of-February, so cruel

Want to know something funny? My most widely-read blog post, by far, is Jennifer the Unicorn. Sometimes I can see the Internet search terms that lead people to my site. I was curious to know what this resent Cyrillic search term meant, so I Google translated it and …

unicorn crochet

Hahaha! People love crocheted unicorns, I guess.

Media consumption this week …

  • I FINALLY finished reading the 800-page behemoth that had overtaken my life: The Revolution of Marina M. by Janet Fitch. I was determined to finish it because Fitch wrote my favorite novel of all time, White Oleander. “Marina” had none of the poetry of “Oleander.” I didn’t like the main character, found much of the history confusing (it is set during the Russian revolution), and the ending takes a bizarre turn. It also isn’t much of an ending, as Fitch is apparently working on a sequel. UGH. (Are you ever glad when a book is out of your life? That’s how I felt about this one.)
  • I watched a documentary titled The Search for General Tso, which goes into who the man was and how the famous chicken dish came to be named for him. Watching this was pure torture because the food looked delicious (and there is no Chinese food to be found in Kosovo). ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Still, this was a quick, informative film.

Speaking of food, I invented a salad. (Being a poor Peace Corps volunteer forces one to think creatively.) I bought a package of frozen broccoli, warmed it with water from my electric kettle, strained it, and added a can of tuna salad from a care package my parents sent me and crushed some crackers on top.

broccoli tuna salad crackers
Food porn alert!

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I looked at a few other people’s blogs and always wondered why their care package wishlists included food. Now I TOTALLY get it. I use my care package food to supplement my often poor diet. Also … it wasn’t until I joined the Peace Corps that I realized so many Americans are crazy about peanut butter. I’ve always had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the stuff, but lately, I’ve been scarfing peanut butter like nobody’s business. My body is like EAT. MORE. PROTEIN.

This week, I bought plane tickets, much to the dismay of my battered and bruised bank account. A childhood friend is traveling from L.A. to meet me in Ireland for my spring break. I realized this will probably be the last time I will be on an airplane until I fly back to the United States for good. It is a strange feeling. I have become so accustomed to European travel being inexpensive and quick. But soon, European travel will once again become expensive and time consuming.

I am so grateful for all the travel I’ve been able to do recently. Traveling was always a goal of mine, but I didn’t take my first international trip until I was 31.

Another volunteer commented that I seem to take a lot of weekend trips and asked how I’ve budgetedย my vacation time. I told her my longest trip was my first Christmas break (9? days in Paris). My only other longish trips were spring break last year and a week I spent in the U.S. last summer. Aside from that, I didn’t travel at all in the summer. I was afraid of blowing through all my money at once. It was hard at the time, sitting in my boiling-hot bedroom with a fan pointed at me while many of my friends were off traveling. But taking shorter, more frequent trips this fall and winter have done a lot for my mental health.

Since last summer, I have spent 2 nights in Sweden, 4 nights in London with my parents, took a bus trip to Serbia, and spent a long weekend in Amsterdamย at my friend’s place.

Now that my time serving in the Peace Corps is starting to wind down, it is hard to think about all the places I didn’t get to see while I was in Europe. But, I don’t have unlimited time or money (who does?). I am happy with the places I’ve been able to go and to be able to spend time with my family and friends.

Let me know if you have any food/fun suggestions for my Ireland trip! Talk to you on Monday. I read an interesting book about the Balkans and will be sharing more about that. ๐Ÿ™‚

Amsterdam: the Fun Side

Here I am in Amsterdam!

April in Amsterdam
“A” is for “April” … and also Amsterdam ๐Ÿ™‚

One of my missions while in Amsterdam was to eat at Dunkin Donuts. I was surprised to see how fancy the donuts are.

dunkin donuts amsterdam
Cookie Monster and smiley faces … whaaaat?! So fancy!

We went to a place called the Cheese Museum, where you can freely sample all different kinds of cheeses. It was heaven.

colored cheese

My friend took me on the commuter ferry at night so I could see a different view of the city. ๐Ÿ™‚ It was lovely.

night ferry amsterdam
Amsterdam at night

My friend claims I made her walk through the red light district twelve times a day. (She is exaggerating somewhat.) In my defense, the red light district is centrally located and we had to cut through it to get to other places. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Riiiiight …

Wild nights. #amsterdam

A post shared by April Gardner (@hellofromkosovo) on

condoms amsterdam
Who says safe sex can’t be fun?
magic mushrooms
I did not go in here …
sex palace amsterdam

Thoughts and observations about Amsterdam …

  • Like Sweden, bikes are EVERYWHERE! Be careful when you are crossing the street.
  • Getting to the city center from the airport is super easy via train and only costs around 5 Euro.
  • The Anne Frank Museum (see: Monday’s post) sells out weeks in advance, so plan way ahead if you want to visit.

Side note: I visited both the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum, but found myself wanting to just absorb everything and not be concerned with taking photos. I think I saw most of Van Gogh, but the Rijksmuseum is huge! I could return and see things I didn’t on my first trip.

Amsterdam: the Serious Side

I spent last weekend in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and wanted to share some highlights of my trip with all of you. Rather than break my trip into chronological order, I decided to show the serious side and then the fun side of the city. I did not want to post my photos of my visit to the Anne Frank house alongside my photos of Amsterdam’s red light district.

So, on the serious side … (Some of my observations may seem kind of obvious, but I really did not know much about the city or country before I visited.)

My friend and I took a guided canal boat tour around Amsterdam on my first afternoon there. I may have fallen asleep for part of it (I’d had an early flight, and the boat was so soothing!) but I did manage to learn a good deal about the city.

house boat amsterdam
House boat

If this hadn’t been pointed out on the tour I’m not sure I would have noticed it on my own, but many buildings in Amsterdam are pitched forward or crooked. That’s because the city was built on filled-in swamp land, and the houses rest on sand (and they shift). Once I learned this, I could not stop seeing crooked buildings everywhere!

leaning building amsterdam
Notice how the red-roofed building leans forward from its neighbor.

Houses in Amsterdam tend to be tall and steep, and many buildings have hooks hanging from the roofs to help move furniture up through the windows.

Amsterdam moving hook
Moving hook

I also learned that the Neterlands is the world’s largest exporter of petrol, even though they don’t produce petrol.

Furthermore, I learned that Amsterdam is below sea level. Gates have been constructed out in the water to keep the North Sea from flooding the city.

amsterdam canal
A canal at night


“Most parents don’t know, really, their children.” — Otto Frank

My friend and I visited the Anne Frank House the next day. As you might know from reading her story, the annex where she and her family and four other Jews hid was raided after two years and they were split up and sent to different concentration camps. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived. The picture that moved me most was of Otto Frank as an older man and was taken when he went back to see the annex many years later (around 1979?). I will never forget the image of him standing in profile, looking at the empty attic where his family had hidden.

anne frank
Anne Frank House Museum
anne frank photos
Anne Frank
bookcase anne frank
Bookcase that hid the annex

The museum’s final exhibit is a video montage of different public figures talking about what Anne Frank’s story has meant to them. As actress Emma Thompson said: “Her would-haves are our real possibilities.”

Belgrade, Serbia

I was able to spend part of my time off school traveling to Belgrade, Serbia. Three major highlights were the Nikola Tesla museum, the Church of St. Sava, and the Belgrade fortress.

Belgrade 1
Tromp L’oeil
Belgrade 4
Pretty morning light
Belgrade 2
Republic Square, Belgrade
Belgrade 3
Republic Square, evening

“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone; that is the secret of invention. Be alone; that is when ideas are born.” — Nikola Tesla

Tesla 4
Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade
Tesla 1
Nikola Tesla
Tesla 5
Tesla’s belongings
tesla 6
More of Tesla’s belongings
Tesla 2
Energy demonstration
Tesla 3
Coil, Tesla Museum
Sava 3
St. Sava Cathedral description
Sava 1
St. Sava Cathedral
Sava 2
St. Sava Cathedral
fortress 1
Belgrade fortress
fortress 2
Belgrade Fortress

I greatly enjoyed my time in Belgrade, despite suffering from a massive cold. I hope I am able to go back and visit again before I leave the Balkans.

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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:ย 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).