Kindness is Universal

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On my last trip to Shkoder, in September 2011, my husband and I decided to take a walking tour of the city on our own. I bid my aunt farewell and told her “I may be calling you if I get lost”, she laughed “How can you get lost, the city is one big circle and its not that big”, obviously she didn’t know me very well! Now mind you, it was hot, I’d say about 90 degrees and it would just figure that I would pick the hottest day of our trip to take a walking tour, sans map, “I know the city, it’s not that big, how lost can we get.” We left our home and started our trek north on Boulevard Skanderbeg, turned left onto Rruga Bicikemi and made our first stop at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. This stunning church has seen its share of turmoil through the decades, having survived the Siege of Shkoder and the ravages of communism, it stands today as a reminder that hard as they tried, they could not destroy this magnificent edifice and what it stood for, nor the will of the people to rebuild it. After our obligatory Hail Mary we continued on with our adventure.

We passed a couple of quaint shops, a garage, a school and 15 minutes into our walk I could feel myself melting. Water…I needed water. Of course I didn’t bring any, are you nuts? Why would I carry a bottle of water? We’d be stopping somewhere for a cool lemonade or ice cream for sure, reposing in the shade at a quaint cafe, no need to carry anything! As we kept walking I started to break out in a sweat. My hair was getting limper by the minute and my feet were already swelling. My husband was a few feet in front of me oblivious to my plight, or perhaps just ignoring me as I didn’t listen to his wise advice, once again. I finally made the decision to turn left onto one of the side streets, with hubby leading the way, still ignoring me, nodding to my every command. We passed a few homes and finally I said “I have to have some water or I’m going to pass out!” Well, lo and behold a small grocery store was open and I crawled in asking for “Uje”, water, I needed water. The shop owner looked at me like the crazy American tourist I probably looked like. Red, sweaty, with cool husband in tow. I made for the big water bottle and asked her how much it was. She told me it was a 100 Lek. I took out my wallet and….oh no…..I only had Dollars. I offered her $1.00, she looked at me with that look that said “You Americans, how typical of you to walk around a foreign country with no local currency.” She just shook her head “no”, she didn’t want dollars. I tried to push it on her “really, please take it” “ju lutem merrni atë”, “no”. When Albanians say “no” they mean “NO”. Ok, what was I going to do now? It’s bad enough the people in this country are trying to rebuild and surviving on mediocre incomes, but I REALLY needed that water. She guessed as much by looking at my sorry self, wilting away in front of her, so she pushed the bottle in my hand and said to take it, just take it. I looked at my husband, who by now I could tell would rather be crawling under a rock than be seen on this street, “robbing” a shop owner of a water bottle. I thanked her profusely and walked away with my head in shame. I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t take my dollar and yet I was so thankful to her for giving me the water. Had I not had a drink I really think I would have passed out from a heat stroke. And so we forged on…in shame and silence.

By now we were, or should I say, I was, hopelessly lost, because according to my husband he knew exactly where we were and how to return to the house but I wouldn’t listen, after all, how could he know? He didn’t have a map either, what? he had a built-in gps system? I don’t think so, only I knew how to get back! Not. We came upon a small shopping square. I got my second wind and was admiring the wares displayed on the tables from the street vendors. Bright colored linens and hats, housewares and vegetables, a big mish-mash of items. There was music playing, and people milling all around. We were in a small, colorful neighborhood full of street vendors and shops. At this point I figured I’d better figure out how to get back home because I really couldn’t walk around aimlessly much longer. I approached a gentleman who didn’t speak English or Italian and my Albanian left a lot to be desired. I pulled out my cell phone and called the house. “Gjilda……hey Gjilda, I’m lost”. All I heard next was raucous laughter and busy banter on the other end. Undoubtedly, I was the laughing stock of the household, I would never live it down. I passed the phone to the gentleman patiently waiting by my side and he told my cousin where to pick us up. I thanked him profusely, as my husband was about 20 feet away, incognito, from the crowd that by now had gathered around me, everyone curious as to what this dumb American had gotten herself into. He obviously wanted no part of it, although he stood out like a sore thumb being 6’3″ and blonde, in a sea of dark haired men and women all averaging 5″3-5″8″. I went over to him and and told him we would be picked up shortly by my cousin. He just nodded, “huh huh….”, then proceeded to tell me that we were only a mere 5-10 minutes walk away from the house and if I had just listened to him we could have made our way back easily by taking a left here and a right there, without having to ask for…dare I say it “directions!” At this point all I wanted was to sit in a car and ride home!

Not five minutes later my cousin Albano pulled up in his car, laughing, of course! I’m sure all of Shkoder knew I had gotten lost by now. Whatever, I was just thankful to be riding in a car, even if it was for 5 minutes. All the way back I kept thinking of the kindness of the shop owner who gave me that bottle of water, and how the water save the day, literally. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. When we reached the house I told my aunt about our adventure and she just shook her head and laughed at my idiocy, she couldn’t understand how I could get lost. The city is rather small and round, all the streets pretty much lead back to Boulevard Skanderbeg eventually, and it’s true, all we had to do was make a few turns and we would have been back on the right path, but I just didn’t have it in me to walk another foot. I told her about the water incident all the while knowing I had to go back there and pay the lady for the water. We had a scrumptious lunch that my cousin Gjilda made, rested up a bit, visited with some friends who came by and by 7:00 pm decided to take a short ride with my cousin Albano and his wife Raffaella through the city.

As we were driving around I recounted the story to them and asked Albano to take us back to the grocery store, I wanted to pay the woman for the water, I had to, it was just gnawing at me. Even though I had gotten lost I somehow knew how to find the shop and guided my cousin through the streets, retracing our steps and arriving at the shop. She was standing in the doorway, enjoying the evening breeze. She saw us pull up and as I got out of the back seat I saw a glimpse of recognition in her eyes. She looked at me quizzically. I went up to her and looked at my cousin through the car window and asked him to translate to her that I was returning to pay for the water bottle she so generously gave me that afternoon. I turned to her and handed her 100 Lek. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and shook her hand. Well, I just wasn’t going to take no for an answer, no way. I kept pushing the coin in her hand and nodding my head “Po, po” “Yes take it, faleminerdit, thank you.” She gave me the biggest, teary eyed smile and I knew that all the heat, and stress of the day was worth it in the end just to see that smile and experience the true meaning of kindness and giving. I will definitely stop by her shop again this September and will for sure have some Lek on me!

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