My Day Off

May 27th, 2018

It is 2 o’clock in the afternoon, on a Sunday, after what MAY have been one of the most insanely over-committed weeks of my life. Which, if you know me, is really Saying Something.

The sun is strong, enough to make you squint. A few birds – mostly just one – are chirping and twittering in a dogged, as-if-on-principle way. There’s a general summer hum of insects, a whisper, now and then, of breeze in treetop leaves. Someone down in the valley is doing something to a piece of wood, making an intermittent, considered, rapping sort of sound. One chicken, far away, was complaining about something in indignant cackles, but now it’s stopped. There is a rare hum of a car passing far away and below. I was about to say “other than that, it’s silent,” but then Gjyl (General Gjyl) started screaming out orders two backyards away (“Get up! Get that!”), but what would Dojan be without her? Everything else is lazy, on a hot early summer Sunday afternoon, in Dojan.

I am having a day off.

I woke at 4 am. And then again at 4:30, when Ola tapped on my open bedroom door: “Catherine?” Oh? Oh Yes! I speak in a mumble, awake or not. I talk to her retreating shadow. I did wake up.

I throw on a pink sundress, the first thing I see because it is waiting to go into the wash, happily more on-principle than from necessity. The first socks that come to hand are hot pink. I put them on. I stick my feet into the first tennis shoes I meet, thrown across the floor. They are peach colored, and have a hole in the left hand toe. Just the other day, Enver Halilaj took one look at me, and said, as if in prelude to a deep consideration: “Catherine.” “Those shoes need to be washed.” In response to which I explained that there was really no point, since these were the sneakers I was wearing last summer when I was trying – inexpertly – to cut the grass with a hand-scythe, and in a moment of over-enthusiasm stabbed my left foot instead. We both admired the neat, raggedy-edged hole in the left shoe. “And the blood came WELLING up,” I said “right through the shoe!” And Enver and I both giggled.
These are the moments – not infrequent – when I feel certain that I’ve come to live in the right place. Who else would think that slicing a hole in your toes is a subject for mirth? But I DID put the shoes in the washing machine, since then. AND soaked them in bleach.

Over this colorful ensemble, I throw the thick knitted cardigan-coat I keep by my bedside against morning chills. It is blue and white in zig-zag stripes.
I find my glasses, tuck my phone inside the John Le Carre I fell asleep drooling on to save my page, the better to forget both on a desk, which I do, when I’m looking for the car key. I haven’t slept more than 4 hours, more often one or two, for the past week. We race for the car.

Ola and Krzysztof are two people from Poland who have been staying at the house-in-Dojan, while leading a 2-day photography workshop for local people in Tropoja. I’d promised to drive them to the airport in Prishtina to catch a nine am flight. That means leaving at 5am, to be there by eight. By my calculations, this will leave me just enough time to be back in Dojan by 10:00, in order to welcome a Swedish tour group who called last night, asking to stop by so that they can “meet real people and ask about life in Albania.” This is good, and I like this kind of visit, because besides having the opportunity for a good conversation, they have a budget. I suppose it’s categorized as a food expense, but I don’t care. It means that local people have the chance to earn something. Just for being who they are.

Ola, Krzysztof and I set off in the dawn light, and crossed Tropoja, in silence. We negotiated the border to Kosova, still in silence. The car swoops forward. I haven’t been in Kosova for almost 2 months, on account of me forgetting that my passport expired. The lush rich fecund greenness of Kosova makes me happier than I can say, as we thread our way at top speed along a potted asphalt ribbon, lined by horizon-wide fields. The first hay harvest is already cut and drying. A few fields sport denga, bales, already. Far away, on the edge of distance, the surrounding mountains are blue and dreaming

Near Prizren, we switch to highway, and head north. The car growls beneath me, complaining for its dying transmission, but gathers speed and does its best to leap forward.
The sun is now firmly up, and Ola starts a conversation, asking about TOKA, and our resources, organization. This is always a funny starter. She is having a conversation, one NGO to another. And TOKA is an NGO – we have six projects this year! And an office! We must be real! And we are. But what is TOKA? TOKA is Enver Halilaj, doggedly insisting on devoting himself, whether I want him to or not. As long as he is rushing around, delivering things, collecting invoices, sweeping floors and decorating, if that is what needs to be done, then – I think he thinks – we must exist. And for whatever reason, which almost certainly isn’t a ‘normal’ one, Enver Halilaj has decided that it is desperately important that we do exist. TOKA is Dardan and Enerik, beautiful young men, who accept without question that we exist, and that TOKA is theirs. Let me NEVER forget Dardan informing me “This is an organization, but we have no hierarchy, right? We all work together. There are no bosses here. I am not your boss and YOU are NOT my boss.” Yes. Absolutely. Why not? And TOKA is lovely Ina, who everyone falls in love with, and why shouldn’t they, when so much goodness shines out of her? And TOKA is Rea, who sends out fiery press releases and articles, calling, calling, calling on us all to care and do, and be better, make a better world . . . And at 3 o’clock in the morning, when I wake up wondering whether SOMEONE is going to notice soon that TOKA is not really terribly professional, that our offices don’t actually have any furniture, that none of us really know what we’re doing, that we’re incapable of signing official correspondence in any way other than “Hugs!” . . . that we CANNOT find the highlighters I’m certain we bought some months ago – perhaps the dogs took them? TOKA is me too.

I explain it to Ola this way: “We cannot complete projects without staff. We cannot have staff without payment. We cannot have payment without a revenue stream. We cannot have a revenue stream without a physical location. Our physical location is dependent on a project. But we cannot honor the project without staff.” And this is how it goes around and around in my head. “So you’re doing it all at the same time,” she says. Yes. This is the point. THIS is why we are so tired. And messy. And only just-barely organized.

Not that, to be honest, I think we’ll ever be much different. Or, to be REALLY honest, would I want us to be.

Then she starts to tell me what’s happening with her organization. It’s fascinating. Well, to me. Basically, they are a Polish umbrella organization, of 11 environmental NGOs. Mostly they serve a watchdog purpose. This was eminently fundable, when Poland was undergoing EU accession (all those requirements to fulfill!) now it is less clear why anyone should care, or fund them. Which makes sense. And is SUCH a good question to ask ourselves. Why SHOULD anyone care?

In this world, they will only care if there is a profit. Profit can be equated with “benefit” I think, but “benefit” will realistically always have to have an economic profit – at least for someone, otherwise why would they fund us? Which actually leaves us with this very interesting intellectual challenge: To be very sure that this “other world” we are imagining would actually function. Not only ideologically and long-term, but here, and NOW. In our own, currently-loathsome context. But why shouldn’t it?

At any rate, it is in the coils of this discussion, that we arrive at the airport. About two hours earlier than the Poles really thought we would. (I told Krzysztof that it couldn’t possibly take 3 hours to get from Gjakova to Prishtina, but had I insisted, the car would have broken down or something, so I didn’t. Insist.)

I park the panting car (and a Toyota 4×4 doesn’t pant easily – poor dear, she needs a new transmission), throw caution to the wind – remembering guiltily that the SWEDES must be trying to reach me, to arrange their visit, and I have left my phone behind, tucked into the narrative pages of East German defection I was reading this morning – and go in to have a coffee. We talk some more. Krzysztof, as for the whole trip, alternates between being seemingly asleep, and suddenly adding some absolutely to the point comment. It is FUN. And I am suddenly realizing that perhaps, just perhaps, despite my utter abdication from any even basic host behavior, they have NOT had a terrible time, and that it has been a not terrible visit for them, and that we are tentatively friends now, and that this is all terribly exciting. The world it is the old world yet . . . and the generations I happen to be traversing are, as ever, trying to figure it out, to steer it, and isn’t, oh isn’t, that so much more fun than just being along for the ride? (And isn’t that maybe why Enver H is so devoted?).

I tear myself away. I have to get back to the Swedes, who are about to descend on my “lagje” – my micro-community, my neighborhood. Back to the car, which (who) relieved of two bodies, flies down the road at 100s of kilometers per hour. We swoop and fly, we can do anything. Outside of Gjakova we meet a convoy of cars, a wedding. We crawl. I curse them. You are the most cursed wedding in modern history, I tell myself. I hope you crash, I hope all your cars fall off a cliff. I hope, I wish . . . WHY won’t they get out of the way? We get stuck at the border. I almost succeed in passing two of them, and then wave them ahead. It’s their day, after all. I fume. Life is full of contradictions. HA.

I FINALLY arrive home to find POOR INA, who I left sick in bed, with a horrible temperature and all, sitting on the front steps, clutching a phone, saying “the Swedes are coming.” Go Back to Bed – I order her. And call Gjyl – our local general – and Gerta and Erind and Lona – the children of the house next door. They gather. My troops. “There are I-don’t-know-how-many-Swedes arriving any minute now! We have to welcome them!” Ah! Of course! – NO Albanian would ever question the imperative to welcome any guests, no matter how random – only I know that they will offer some payment, and to be honest, only I would care about this. And they all start rushing around. Erind carries carpets and pillows outside, to ‘strew’ the meadow at the top of the hill. Gerta and Gjyl are in charge of “qerasje” – the not-entirely-symbolic gift of welcome which MUST be offered to any guest: at a minimum – a glass of juice (“Do you have any juice?” asks Gerta. “No,” I say. “hm” she says. “It’s very nice water,” I say, “I have a box of Turkish delight . . . “) a caramel (we don’t have any), if possible, a biscuit (“How about we make some cookies?” asks Gerta. “THEY’RE COMING IN 2 MINUTES” I say. “Oh,” she says.), and often, for reasons I’ve never entirely understood, a bar of soap. Well, everyone has some, and it’s always useful (needless to say, we do NOT have 15 bars of soap, nor, do I imagine, would the Swedes particularly want them if we did). “FLORIANA!” bellows Gjyl at her 11 year old daughter “RUN TO THE HOUSE AND BRING THE BISCUITS AND CHOCOLATES!”

My heart is melting, at the generosity of these people: How much did Gjyl’s biscuits and chocolates cost? They will be for sure store-bought, even at the cost of not feeding the family, in order to have SOMETHING on hand to “qerase” guests. To hell with it! She will throw them into the mix, for the pride of our neighborhood, which is like the pride of one big family, that We Can Welcome People. They never question WHY they have to stop everything to welcome these people, empty our combined houses. Only I know that the Swedes will leave a small financial gift. But will it cover the biscuits and chocolates? To hell with it. We rush around some more.
The puppies – don’t even ask why we have puppies – have left two distinct disgusting intestinal messes in the entry corridor. Mops and buckets out! The troops sluice down the whole front of the house. I tackle the worst mess, but leave them to it as I run to the car. I have to drive off to meet the tour bus at the Varreza e Deshomoret – the Graveyard of the Martyrs – as they don’t know how to find the house. Ina has crawled feverish back to her bed and shut the door. Good – she’s safe.

I find the Swedes. I bring them to the house, to the neighborhood. They CANNOT negotiate the steep path to the blanket that’s been laid for them. Instead they gather, standing, before the house. “But we have no furniture,” I say . . . they can’t sit down. “It doesn’t matter,” says the guide. “We don’t have time,” says the Swedish guide, “We’ll just stand and talk.”

And this is where, in my memory, time slows down. 15 Swedes, a tour company, all think it’s somehow worth it, to come and meet us. Me and my friends. Me, yes, but more importantly, my friends, my family, these dear people, who are so much like all the other Albanians, which does not make them less, but makes them MORE. Gerta, 18 years old, so beautiful, so smart. Middle-daughter competent (there’s an older sister in Tirana), which she probably thinks is not interesting, but which leaves me more than a little in awe of her. I have brought the Swedes, but it is Gerta who will know how to “hospitalize” them. Lona, her younger sister, so practical – which might sound less sexy, but it is always Lona who laughingly has the solution, and so she is in fact a bit goddess-like, in my mind. Erind, their brother, shy, beautiful, resentful. He will NOT appear. Don’t even ask him to. But for some reason, Erind and I get on. Possibly that neither of us particularly wants to speak or talk, and we laugh at the same absurd things. Because of this, he would do anything for me. And me for him. And General Gjyl, the same age as me, but worn. In old photographs, she looks like Rita Hayworth. A tough woman. Kind. SO KIND. And her crazy daughter Floriana, smart, young, and irritating-as-hell, because she has all the confidence of intelligence combined with being loved.

The Swedes arrive. Gerta passes with a beautiful tray of offerings, qerasje. They don’t have time or energy to walk up the hill. They won’t even come inside the house. They stand outside, and we talk to them, from the balcony.

The Swedes ask about what it’s like to be young here. Gerta: “To be honest, most young people want to leave, for economic or social reasons. But I want to stay.” What are your dreams? Gerta: “I want to finish my education, at the highest level, and then return to improve Tropoja.” How is the government functioning? Gjyl: “We have no government. We have to decide for ourselves. Investments should improve things, but never damage the nature we have, which is our best resource, our pride and treasure. Investments have to insure that our children can stay, stay here.”

The Swedes have no time, they have to leave. Their Albanian tour guide takes a moment to thank and comment: “This was a very rushed visit, but we’re glad it could happen. Catherine is modest, but she has done so much for Albania . . . “ But all I can say is: “No really . . . “ NO REALLY.

No really. Look around you. Everything I have, I have been given. Just in the small exercise of today, the Swedes could only be welcomed because the whole neighborhood threw themselves into it, for the dear, wonderful, Malesori highlander pride in hospitality – mikpritje. And if you take an even longer view . . . ? I would not be here, I would not be important at all, if these people had not accepted me. My chief importance is that I speak for them, from my own experience. Of their kindness, of their strength, of their generosity and wisdom.
The Swedes leave, leaving something with the families. The families are surprised. I take this chance to tell them: I am NOT stupid. This WILL work.

We relax on the chairs the visitors left. Gerta makes coffee for us. We are laughing.

Some electricians from the electricity company arrive. We hear them coming down the road. Some children race off, to disconnect the illegal connections of their houses. (Gerta: “This is why they are talking on the phone when they come. So we will hear them. So we will know they are coming.”) The electricians come to the house, my house. WHY? I have no idea. (Erind grabs me in the hallway: “Have you paid your electricity bill?” Oh yes, I say – and he relaxes. “It’s the WATER bill I haven’t paid!” and we giggle.) But as we are geared up, we do hospitality. “Come and have a coffee?” oh no, oh why not? So Gerta makes them all coffee, and the three electricians sit at the table on the front balcony, for an hour or more, and fill out papers. I think they are filling out disconnect papers, but as no one else is worried, so I leave them sitting on my balcony. And they are QUITE happy, and so are we. We are fussing over Ina, who is still, let’s not forget, in bed with a raging fever. We make her salt throat gargles. We make her tea with the best honey. The electricians finish their work, and demand to shake my hand, before they leave. I have respected them. I have offered them the hospitality of my house. None of us know what these papers were, they were filling out, but nothing happened to the neighborhood. It is like a small warm glow to know, that as little as I understand it, they will not forget this. They shake my hand, and say “Repsekt” as they leave.
Gjyl drank her coffee, then got up to go. “Don’t forget your biscuits and chocolate,” I say to her, still worried, that the sum total of the day’s generosity will cost her.
“What are you talking about?” she says, “They’re your biscuits and chocolates. I had some unexpected guests a few days ago, and I didn’t have a damn thing in the house. So I sent Floriana up, and Ina sent us the biscuits and chocolates.”

I look at her. And then I start to laugh. And I laugh doubled over until tears come out. We’re all laughing.

Do I believe in a better future, the future these people believe in and ask for? Yes, absolutely. I do.

And maybe THAT is what TOKA is.

In any case. This was my day off. I have enjoyed every moment of it. Thank you, all who were part of it.

Help a Hedgehog!

January 16th, 2018

Hey Catherine!

I thought I’d pop over an email after reading an interesting article on your site about hedgehogs: http://www.journeytovalbona.com/baby-the-hedgehog-alive-and-well/

After nursing a little chap back to health last summer, I recently blogged a massive 3000 word guide on how to look after them. It’s a bit of an animal (excuse the pun)!

Hopefully it generates a bit of awareness, and teaches people how to help if they stumble into your garden!

Feel free to check it out here: https://diygarden.co.uk/wildlife/ultimate-guide-to-hedgehogs/

If you think it’s useful, please do link to it from you post. Hedgehog numbers have plummeted by a third since 2000, so anything that helps spread the word about protecting these little guys would be massively appreciated.

Thanks so much for your help, and have a great day 🙂

Clive

The House in Dojan

January 8th, 2018

Today was the eighth day in a string of oddly perfect days.  Even the weather has been ‘perfect’ – if you don’t mind climate change.  Warm in the sun outside, just a jacket.  Sitting on a blanket on the ‘shpati’ or hill-bank next to my house, with the sheep grazing around me, eyeing the ever-increasing dogs who lounge in the sun and chew each other’s noses thoughtfully, pretending I don’t notice their sidelong, embarrassed glances at the sheep.  Some atavistic urge tickles the dogs, but what they are supposed to do, about these two big wooly not-dogs, they are not sure.  The clouds drift by, and all Tropoja is layed out before me, down in the valley.  Some chickens cackle down among the naked grape vines.  When I read, the ram ‘Bossi’ comes and wuffles his soft black and white nose delicately in my hair.

This is the house in Dojan.

“Dojan!” say Albanians “How . . . nice.”  No one can understand why I would move 20 minutes away from Valbona, to live in an old farmhouse in a small neighborhood village on the outskirts of Bajram Curri.

But this is why.  Eight perfect days, peaceful days, the first days of January, 2018.  I have taken to keeping a calendar, like a lawyer, to write down what I do all day.  In fact, I do a lot of work, too – looking after reservations for the hotels in Valbona, putting together projects for our NGO TOKA to save the world, or at least this corner of it.  Dreaming about how to make life better here – or rather how to make life better for people, so that nothing too much needs to change so that we can all be happy with what we have, if we only had a little bit more.  Because life here, in fact, is good.  At least it seems so, to me.  For me.  Is that selfish I wonder?

Take today, for instance:  Two hours this morning, writing emails, about projects to set up a community council, so local people can have a united voice.  Writing emails about the crazy number of archeological sites scattered around Tropoja – 3000 year old Ilyrian settlements, tombs, vanished Roman roads, the old kullas of the League of Prizren.  History is only buried beneath the thin red soil, peeping out like rocks, waiting to be noticed, waiting to be forgotten.  The hydropowers will flood some old Ilyrian tumulus tombs I realized this morning – “Good!” I think – another chance another reason to stop them.  Emails proposing a project to set locals up to monitor brown bears with camera traps and an annual Bear Poo Festival – why not?  A 1cm square cube of bear poo, dropped into a vial of solution, can be sent to Slovenia, where they will analyze the dna and reveal mysteries of the lives of bears.  Then an hour of taking care of Alfred’s reservations – this is fun too, thinking about other people’s holidays, helping them to discover this place, this place which I am always just myself discovering.

I take a break at some point to eat breakfast.  Thick brown bread, I made myself (Alfred’s mother taught me how).  Oatmeal, with chestnut honey from the trees behind my house.

And there is this other pleasure, a strange and simple, somehow secret pleasure – of doing little things, to take care of life – of doing them before I am exhausted, before I am late, before I should be doing something else.  Rinsing the wooly slipper socks my mother sent me, without a care in the world, without an imperative, and hanging them up to dry.  So simple, so clean, so tidy.  In their own time.  There is time for slipper-socks.  There is time for tasks.  The day is full of little tasks, to take care of the house, to take care of life, to take care of me – so easy, just little tasks – washing the dishes is like a homespun sacrament.  So easy.  Everything has a place, everything is at hand.  Nothing takes very long.  The laundry goes up, the laundry comes down, smelling sweet.  In the evening I iron the thick cotton sheets while listening to Sherlock Holmes – I’ve read them all, a hundred times, so why do I never remember who done it?

At 12:00 o’clock I threw binoculars, a small water bottle, a drawing pad, the gps, my notebook of explorations and a bag of homemade biscuits into the little black back-sack that Rea forgot here, and called the small, black-and-white dog Winnie.  We get in the car and drive to Bujan.  I want to explore the Cherry Tree Hill.  This is a rich red earth hill at the end of the road on the way to Rosuja – the 3000 year old Ilyian settlement almost forgotten on the mountainside above Bujan.  The Cherry Tree Hill is terraced, and in August Jip and I discovered it – covered in ancient twisted broken trees.  “What are they?”  We got out and looked at leaves.  Cherry Trees, I think, I said.  Ever since then, I am waiting for spring, to see the hillside covered in cherry blossoms, to find if there are still cherries.  Alfred says that these were the collective cherry orchards during communism.  I don’t know whose they are now.  I know the trees are alive, as they did have leaves in August.  Now they are bare.  The dog and I park the car, and set off up the goat track.  He is grinning as he runs ahead, stopping dog-like to look back and check and grin and run some more.  THIS is the path, says Winnie.  Did you know?  I know.  Don’t worry.  I’ll show you.  I know these things.  I know paths.  This is one.  Come on!  I plod along behind him.

It has been a quiet day before, but now it becomes a perfect day.  I can’t explain it.  But my eye keeps catching pictures.  A view, some light.  A bare tree framed against the sky.  Some juniper berries.  The houses snuggling-not-tumbling down the far hillside.  The almost-vast expanses of burned umber dead braken carpeting the top of Cherry Tree Hill.  The far ridges of the mountains above Rosuja, iced white in snow, pricked out on the skyline with rows of naked trees, tiny and perfectly vertical, like beard stubble, like fencing, like trees on the horizon.

The dog and I meander back and forth across the hill top.  It must be a sea of waist-high bracken in summer.  The far side of the hill, also terraced as I saw from the height of Rosuja the other day, has no cherry trees, but is steep and covered with a strange kind of junipers, with fat hard mustard colored berries.  Why terrace it for this?  I find some good rocks, round and weathered, facing head on the view of what was once, some thousands of years ago, the Rosuja fortification.  I sit, lean back against a rock, feel the sun and the breeze which is almost a wind and unpack my bag.  I make a sketch of the layout of Rosuja.  It’s relatively hard to get to now, although not long.  But inconvenient.  Why?  I think.  Why live halfway up a mountain, just there?  When there were no lights, no transport – what was it like?  It was supposed to be a city.  Now it is just place-marked by a crown of boulder, almost impossible to scale.  A scrap of dry stone wall – can this be a 3000 year old wall?  My friend Rea and I climbed it the other day, one of the other perfect days.  We were petrified to kick out a stone, a stone chip.  Destroying history.  But so many others must have done this, over the past 1000, 2000 thousand years.   I tried, the other day, to imagine some ancient ancestor, grumbling, wishing the wall was DONE already, thinking about lunch.  Bloody stones.  I tried to imagine him imagining me, 3000 years later, worrying about destroying his work, when everything else around is long since vanished.  Why indeed, says the dog, and curls up to take a nap.  He curls like a pastry, when he naps.

On the way to the Cherry Tree Hill of Rosuja, I passed one car going the opposite way.  There was a man driving, but the woman in the passenger seat was waving.  I saw in the rear mirror the car stop, the woman hop out.  I reversed to meet her.  “Hello!” She says to me “How are you?  Are you tired?  Have you rested?  Where are you living?”  Do I know this woman? I wonder.  I explain about the house in Dojan.  Another tiny old woman, wrinkled and colored like a walnut shell, face framed in a crisp white kerchief joins us: Who do you live with in Dojan?  I think about pointing at the dog, and realize this would probably sound rude.  I live with myself, I say, smiling.  “You were by our house the other day,” the first woman tells me.  She has a necklace of beautiful indigo blue cut glass beads “But we were not home.  That is OUR land, you know, where you were.  It is all ours.  Our land.”  How nice, I say.  At least two other women I met on other days by the two houses you pass on the way to the fortification also informed me that it was all their land.  I wonder why I NEVER seem to meet any men.  Tropoja, I am beginning to think, could be a sort of tired Amazons’ refuge.  The bead woman smiles.  “Are you going there again now?”  She must, I am sure, be eaten up with curiosity.  In a place where one car can park on a grassy bank with not a house in sight for 2 hours one day, and 5 hours the next and everyone knows you were there and somehow who you are, even though you never met them.  Never, I feel quite sure.  It must be, in such a place, an oddity to have someone so determinedly poking around.  Suspicious.  Alarming?   Someone in her car blares the horn.  “Just coming!” she shouts back, then to me “come and have a chat?”  Well, I don’t think so, I said – there was now another car waiting, patiently, and I was blocking the road.

Today, I explain, I’m just going to look at the Cherry Trees.  They must be beautiful in spring.  But the other days, I was looking with a friend for Rosuja.  “It’s so interesting,” I say, “maybe 3000 years old!”  “FIVE thousand years old!” says the walnut, beaming “it’s ours, you know.”  How lucky you are, I say.  I think it’s very special.  “What . . . ?” says the bead woman.  “Oh well, you know,” I say, “You know I helped with tourism, in Valbona?”  “Yes,” says the bead, “what do you want to do here?”  “Oh nothing” I say.  Only I thought that tourists might be interested, I might make a map.  I’m not trying to profit for myself, you know.  “Oh no,” says the bead, “but then what?”  Well, I say, anything, really.  If tourists come, maybe you could give them coffee.  Maybe someone could make a guesthouse?  The horn blares again.  “Just coming!” shouts the bead, “come and have a chat?”

Winnie, who is really a strange little dog, choses this moment to climb on top of my head, and I gesture at him, scrabbling at my neck, at the car waiting, the horn blares again.  Winnie whines, and plants a foot on my ear.  He looks ready to leap from my neck onto the walnut.  “Does he bite?” asks the bead.  Oh no, I say, another of his feet in my eye.  “Perhaps another day?  Soon you can find me in Bajram Curri.  We are making a community office.  By February.”  Or, as Winnie’s ribs brush the top of my head, “You can always ask Alfred how to find me.”  “OH no,” says the bead, appalled, disgusted “we want to talk to you. ONLY to you.”  Well then – they shake my hand, they think about kissing me, but as this would clearly risk getting them tangled all up with Winnie’s feet, they smile and turn away.  I drive past the waiting car, with a small border-collie-ish dog perched jauntily on my head.  The driver smiles and waves.

There at the rock, I make a list of questions.  What are the names of the small rivers to either side of Rosuja?  The GPS has names – Kauri and Dopside – but these are almost always wrong.  Why was the far side terraced?  Who owns that house that has no smoke so must be used only in summer, at the foot of Rosuja?  Could there be biking here?  Where does the water canal go that crosses the hill of Rosuja horizontally?  For who was it made?  What did they use to do with the Cherries?  What do they do now?  Does anyone maintain them?

I imagine myself visiting again, these woman, all these woman, who ALL own this land, and asking these questions.  I imagine sitting in their houses, drinking coffee and raki and eating llokume.  I remember the other lists on other pages of my “exploration notebook” and all the other places I’ve visited, promised to visit, promised to bring tourists.  I sit, with the rocks at my back, and stare around, and think, this is it – I am finally learning – re-learning, the art of my youth, of my childhood.  The art of doing something for no reason at all.  The art of wandering, of meandering, the art of lookin’ about.  The art of poking.  Of being pokey.  I feel no urge to leap up, nor any urge to stay.  I am swimming through the day.  Winnie picks this moment to get up, and fling himself into my lap.  He is, as I have said, a strange little dog.  He throws himself across my lap, buries his head in my arm, and we sit like that, on an ancient hillside, looking up at an ancient mountain, with the weirdly warm January breeze ruffling us.  I run my fingers through his hair, scratching and tickling.  He hugs me.  After a while it is time to go.  Why?  Why not?  The grin returns.  This is a path, did you know?  At least, I don’t think it is really, but I think we can go here.  Oh dear, you’ve slid in the mud.  Are you okay?  Yes, alright.  Come on then, there’s a path down there.

We meander down the hillside.  Passing further to the northern, lower side of the hill, we find more and more ancient cherry trees.  The grandmother of all these trees stands, her black and silver bark bursting with horizontal stretch marks, some limbs blasted and peeled open, some arms look dead.  Some are fat and juicy, and on the eastern side of her trunk there are oozing pits of sap.  I put my hand on her trunk, and look forward to spring.  It’s important to talk to trees, I think.  If only to be polite.

We pass a slightly younger tree.  I touch it.  “And this I suppose is her sister” I explain to Winnie.  “Whatever,” he grins.  Did you happen to see the path?  It’s here, in case you didn’t notice.  I’m on it, and so are you, and if we carry on this way, everything will be just fine.  You’ll see.  (Trees! He clearly thinks, disgusted.)

And we get back to the car.  We go home.  The drive is full of pictures again.  The perfect day continues.

I decide to clean out the sheep.  I spend one hour, shoveling dirty straw out of their manger.  They mill about, looking alternately interested, bored, and disgusted.  Can we PLEASE go out now?  Will you not go out?  I am busy.  It’s quite difficult to break up the dirty hay.  It looked so clean on the surface, but I realize there are 5 cm of compacted sheep poo under the surface.  How did they do this?  They keep it all so clean!  All the doors are open, they could go if they wanted, and occasionally they DO foray out into the neighbor’s front yard.  Oh SHEEP, I say.  Yes?  They say.  Well, if you WOULD do anything interesting, we would follow.  We ARE sheep after all.  And they follow me back in.  “There is STILL,” they say, “nothing new to eat.  But it looks nice.”  They get in the way, and look at what I’m shoveling.  Goodness!  Where did that come from?  Six wheelbarrows later, and the manger is clean.  I have had a wonderful hour in the rich warm smell of barn animals.  It is pure happiness.  I do stop to think “Alfred would hate this” but I don’t see why.  But he would.  But I should try to understand.  Perhaps we are changelings?  It’s important to understand.  I don’t really know how to do this.  I’ve only had the sheep for a month or so.  I put new hay.  Maybe next year I can cut the bracken on Cherry Tree Hill, and put this for them to sleep in.  The sheep bustle back.  They seem to approve.  I give them buckets of corn, and they go into a berserk passion of gluttony.

And then?  I stand and watch them.  I have to chase away a neighbor’s little girl, who never will shut up.  I feel guilty about this, but . . . she doesn’t understand.  The sheer pleasure of standing quietly, for no reason at all, simply looking.  I do this.  I stand.  I lean on the wooden wall of the manger, and watch the sheep.  The ewe, Bardhi, is normally shy.  But – snap – a picture again, an instant of perfect beauty, as she pauses in all her slightly soiled white majesty and tilts her head, and LOOKS at me.  I look at the sheep.  She looks at me.  And she is so beautiful, with limpid eyes, delicate nose, an altogether lovely thing.  Some intelligence, asking – something, as we look at each other.  And then she ducks her head to nose some food, to chew.  She forgets me.  And time – this time of no time – moves on.

I have dutifully filled their bright pink baby bathtub (it was the only big basin I could find) with water every day, I’ve rinsed and refilled it, but I’ve never seen them drink.  Today, with all the time in the world, I lean on the wall and watch them.  And first one, then the other does drink.  They don’t lap, like cats or dogs, but suck, like elephants.  How interesting I think.  That’s something new.  Something I have never seen before, and only seen now because I have slipped somehow, in these perfect days, out of the adult tyranny of time, and back into the useless, happy stream of useless hours, of childhood.

I go in, to take a bath.  There is no electricity on this floor of the house, so it takes two days to heat the water – with a cable, when the house’s heater isn’t on.  And I light candles, as the sun is going down, soon.  So soon.  I think perhaps the days are made perfect, by their brevity.  Perhaps?  The hot water steams out of the shower head, and hits my knees, my calves and ankles.  The rest of me sinks under the rising water of the tub.  I think about what I will write, about these perfect days, this perfect house, in Dojan.  Dismissed, discarded Dojan is paradise, it seems to me.  A paradise of useless moments, precious, for their very innecessity.  Their odd cast of characters.

WHAT is it that should be told about this day, these days?   The pictures.  The sudden stabbing pleasure of the sight of red and white checked curtains in the window of the clean new bathroom, lit by candles in the failing light of the day, with its enormous white tub.  Something simple, but somehow celestial, or on that scale.

To feel hungry, suddenly, all that wind, all those hills.  All that sheep shit! And to cut a piece of good brown bread, and toast it, and spread it with butter, and spread it again with marmite, sent by a good friend in New York (where, no, they don’t eat Marmite normally, but where you can buy anything, for a price).  And how absolutely perfect that slice of toast was.  That is something.  Something so simple.  Something so rare.  Something so – dare one dream – everyday, in Dojan.

My neighbors, you understand, feel sorry for me.  With their drunken husbands (by their account), their children they can’t afford.  They feel sorry for me, because I am alone.

I lie in the bath.  The sun goes down.  The candles gather haloes in the steam from the bath.  The curtains remain bright and cheerful, even if they are buried a little in the candle light, in the gloaming.  I think about what to write.  I get out, before the water cools unbearably.  I get dressed.  I have lost my socks.

I pad through the unheated house, barefoot.  I find the socks where they fell, by the side of the bed.  I sit and pull them on.  Winnie comes in, and jumps onto the bed beside me, watching me put my socks on.  Socks!  Goodness!  Well, as with paths, I know a LOT about socks.  First of all, they are good to catch, better to chew, best to run around with.  He cocks an eyebrow at me: Should I?

It has been a blessed day.  I look at the strange little dog, the weird little creature beside me, patient, loving, eyeing my socks.  “Winnie,” I start to say.  It’s been a good day, I want to say.  Thank you, I want to say.  And then this odd creature, this little black and white imp, does the strangest thing.  He somehow throws out one leg, across my body, and lick-kisses my cheek.  Not a disgusting, wet and slurpy lick, but the closest thing to a kiss-on-the-cheek a creature with no lips can do.  Then he buries his head in my arm, and presses his body against mine.

It was a good day, wasn’t it?  I say to him.  And we sit for a bit, like that.  Then after a while he goes outside to bark at the night, and I sit down to write this.

 

Valbona with Young Children?

May 1st, 2017
I mean, it isn’t compulsory to drag them up mountains, is it?  If you spend a day or two in Valbona first, you can always get a sense of how the kids are doing against some comparable-to-Theth hikes (but don’t leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere if they melt down), you should be careful about the tours you choose, many people may prefer to do the whole trip by themselves, but honestly we think that when you have the support from an agency like Exotic Voyages things will definitely run a lot smoother.  In general, I think it’s probably nice to give small children the chance to experience this area and culture, which in many ways is still classic medieval European (or Heidi-esque).  Some days I feel like I’m fighting a pyrrhic battle to promote tourism, but discourage it from changing.  Also, it’s nice to visit with children up here because Albanians are GA-GA about children, and they’ll cuddle them and get them all to play together and generally be really nice to them.
You have a range of choices with Accommodation, as well.  You could opt for something like Rezidenca http://www.journeytovalbona.com/rezidenca-luxury-rooms-with-traditional-setting/, where you have full comfort and service, and then make little day trips with them, OR you could chose for one of the more pastoral guesthouse/homestays and just let them enjoy running around, playing with the sheep etc.  Some ideas for these kinds of places are listed here: http://www.journeytovalbona.com/about-valbona/all-valbona/  Look at Gjelaj, Kukaj, or Livadhet e Gjarperit.  (I didn’t finish posting the rest yet).
We do sell a map of “Walks and Rambles” for 3euro, which includes 10 hikes from 1 hour to 5-6, which you can do with kids.  I’m attaching an image of the map, the trail notes are on the back provided by bestsunbeds.co.uk.
Because so many people have been asking this year, I’ve ALSO just “bitten the bullet” and starting listing whole tours/itineraries/programs on this page: http://www.journeytovalbona.com/your-journey/tours/ which you can use to either get ideas or actually book something.  I actually only just posted it this morning, but I have a bunch of other itineraries to type up and post, so there will hopefully be added one a day . . . .

A Very Good Question! Where to Stay to Avoid the Hordes?

March 16th, 2017
Dear Catherine,
 
I was looking for information about Albania when I stumbled upon your sweet and inviting website.
We are thinking of visiting Albania in August, and we might want your help in planning our trip.
But first and foremost I would like to know: how busy is the Valbona valley in August? I am asking because crowds really spoil the fun for me. Last year we travelled to Slovakia, thinking we could surely avoid the crowds there, but we ended up hiking in throngs. Same thing the year before in Slovenia. Albania seems like a place no-one would visit (no insult intended; it’s exactly the reason why we WOULD visit it), but when I see the amount of guesthouse in Valbona valley, I start to doubt this belief.
So I would be very grateful if you could give us your honest input on the amount of tourists in August.
And my response:
Ha!  Yes, I understand completely – I came to Valbona in the first place, back in 2009 specifically because there was only ONE guesthouse listed at San Diego near the beach pacific beach real estate which was the best place I have been when I was there!  (Theth already had a bunch, so I didn’t go there!).
In fact, the valley bottom can get really horrendously crowded in summer these days – especially from the Center towards the western/end of the valley.  BUT!  The good news is that once you go up at all, you’re quite unlikely to see anyone else – except the odd shepherd.  Well, except for the Trail to Theth – you always pass some people on there.
To avoid other tourists, I’d recommend staying EITHER with Tahir Avdyli Hysaj in Kukaj – his house is a 20 minute hike up the Maja e Rosit trail, so you eliminate most other people.  OR you could stay in Gjelaj, at Danjels – it’s on the Theth trail, so there will be people passing, but again it’s after a 3km 4×4 track in a mostly abandoned village, so I doubt you’d have too many tourists around?  OR there is Arif Kadris’ stan on Livadhet e Gjarperit.  That’s a little stone house with a woodstove and outhouse – there are other shepherd families around, but only tourists passing on the Maja e Gjarperit trail . . . You can get an idea of where these things are on this page:
I’m in the process of installing – from that page – booking engines for all of them (being that they’re remote, they’re really hard to get in touch with !) – Danjel’s is working now – the other two should be coming soon.
Hope this helps!  Hopefully we’ll have our new information center set up soon, so if you need help with hiking info, keep in touch!
Best,
Catherine

European Wilderness Society

March 14th, 2017

Wilderness in Albania in peril!

“A short glimpse from the outside can create a feeling that finally at least in this country a large piece of real European wilderness can be secured. Several protected areas have been established in the past years to create conditions for longterm protection of biodiversity and natural values of this country. However, a closer look at the situation reveals that only limited interest was expressed to protect the most important heritage of this country – Wilderness.”

We visited in 2014 . . . .

March 7th, 2017

Just as I was thinking I’d better put more cheerful stuff on here, an email arrived from “Niki and Martin”!

“We visited Valbone in October 2014 and had Rilindja all to ourselves one rainy day, at the end of which we chatted to you both while the thunder rumbled around the mountains and the lights flickered. Anyway, we’ve just had an article published that’s all about hiking in Valbone and you guys, so we thought you’d like to know about that. Here’s the link:  Into the Accursed Mountains.”

January 8th, 2017

p1110367It’s winter. And days are long and slow and boring, and silent. And sliced up by sudden changes between sloth and imperatives. When the wind blows, and the snow falls, and various natural things howl, the electricity is prone or likely to go out. In which case, at which time, a small wood stove is all that stands between me and death – I guess. Although even at such times, which I’ve lived through now, more than once, I don’t SLEEP by the stove. Alfred and I did that – one winter or two – in some distant romantic days. I suppose we thought we were being practical. It all seems now like some big adventure, which we should have appreciated more, at the time. As I say, I don’t. Left to myself. Perhaps I should. Maybe I’ll try it. Instead I stalk doggedly (though there are no dogs now – they’ve all left, they didn’t like it here, and I don’t blame them) up to my cabino. There’s no heating, but it’s a place, my place where for once – inside years and years – I got to make . . . something. I climb the ladder, I crawl into the bed. I take off my boots, but leave everything else on – pants and socks (horrendous and repeatedly frozen and sweatsoaked and not realized except on the rare occasion of a thaw, in which case the smell – a sort of rich warm muggy microbe smell gives them away, and my feet get slippery, and stick to the carpet) and sweaters (numerous) and coat, and TWO hats. I pull the blankets (numerous) over my head, and wait for sleep.
That’s sloth. The imperatives are to chop wood, to carry wood, to push the wheelbarrow full of wood though snow. It sticks, I plant my legs and shove. I win. I carry more. I don’t know how long the wood will last. If Alfred were here, there would be an imperative for food. But alone, I don’t really need much, I find. And so much less work.
The imperatives are not to go mad, and not to feel stupid. So I do things. I write. I find my old bird book, and put out muesli and watch the birds. Through binoculars, through the window. I look like a mad old lady, in training if not quite yet in fact. I follow fox tracks in the snow. As if I’ll find them. I try to guess, at lives. At lives, being lived, around me. I let the cat in. I put the cat out. I can’t stand the crying, and I let the cat in, again.
I sit down, I write this, and I think about Robinson Crusoe.