My Albanian Journey

2012-09-09 05.22.29

“Il mare non dice niente! The sea doesn’t say anything,” those were my father’s words whenever I took him to have lunch at our favorite restaurant in Virginia Beach. We would sit on the covered pier and order a glass of Pinot Grigio, to go along with our seafood luncheon and enjoy the salty air breezing in from the Chesapeake Bay. “I love the beach” was always my answer “How can you not love the sea?” “The mountains…now they have something to say…they speak to you. The sea…it just lingers, faceless, waiting….I don’t understand its fascination” he would reply.

That was an ongoing argument because to me the sea and the ocean meant lounging on a beach chair, reading my favorite novel while digging my feet in the hot sand soaking up the sun, or frolicking in the water and jumping the waves. I love the beach! I love everything about it… the salty air…the crabs burrowing in the sand…the aroma of sunscreen, everything. I am married to a wonderful man for thirty-two years, we have spent most of our life traveling the world while he served in the US Navy. Upon his retirement in 1997 we made Virginia Beach our home. I couldn’t be happier; we had a beautiful home, two loving doggies, Mimi and Toby, and lived by the beach! My father would come down from New York during the summer, starting in 2004. For six years he spent a couple of months at our house during in the hot months and one of our big outings was lunch at our favorite seafood restaurant on the pier. It was here that I would always hear him tell me, while gazing out at the Chesapeake Bay “Il mare non dice niente.”

My father, Ndue Gjomarkaj, was Albanian and his family has a long, prominent history in the country, a history that until 2010 I was in quasi-denial about, concentrating more on my Italian half, my mother’s. I was born in Rome, Italy, and although I was raised in both cultures I always felt a bit more Italian knowing the language… the food… the music… it was only natural that I would feel that way. By the time I was 12 years old we immigrated to New York City, where my father’s network of Albanian friends and his brother lived. It was in New York that we were exposed to the Albanian culture more frequently. We had Albanian friends visit often, and yes I always played the dutiful daughter by bringing out the “meze”, a traditional Albanian appetizer and served it to our guests along with espresso and some raki. We attended Albanian functions, weddings and other celebrations, and yet, I only knew the superficial Albania. I wasn’t really aware of what the country was like because throughout my life, up to this point, Albania was hidden beyond a world of secrecy called communism. There wasn’t any information coming out of the country while I was growing up. They were in a world by themselves, suffering under a horrible regime that would last until 1991. When the curtain of communism finally fell, the country was in turmoil for another few years, recovering from corruption, ponzi schemes and trying to establish a democracy, therefore it was not advisable to visit. But, in 1994, after a fifty year absence, my father returned to Albania for a visit, he was now eighty years old but still spry enough to make the trip.

At that time I was living in California with my husband so once again it was not an opportune time for me to visit. After my father’s return, along with my younger sister who went there to escort him back to the US, my thoughts began to turn toward Albania. What were my aunts and uncle like? My father was one of ten children and aside from him and my uncle in New York, there were four more living in Albania, the rest had since passed away. What was our family home like? I’d heard so much about the family’s home in the city of Shkoder, but never saw any photographs, and my thoughts wandered to what it was like. Everyone said it was like a castle, referring to it as the “Kulla Marka Gjoni”, my grandfather’s “kulla”, the tower that overlooked the whole city. I could only imagine it, but never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the reality of it after seeing it for the first time. It is a wonder…the biggest private domicile within the city limits, a true wonder! Except for one thing.

During the regime the house was occupied by the government who turned it into a school, among other things prior. They also built a one story, communist style, grey cinder block building on the property, adjacent to the main house, to utilize as their offices. Upon the fall of the regime the occupants did as much damage to its interior as humanly possible before abandoning the property. They tore up floors, knocked down walls and ceilings, destroyed any remnants of the beautiful painted ceilings, ripped up floor boards, you name it, they did it. When the rest of my family was released from their respective internment camps, they immediately returned to the house and took possession so as not to let squatters settle in and jeopardize their ownership. They lived in squalor for years, without running water or electricity, while slowly partially repairing some of the rooms. They rebuilt the kitchen and bathroom, and slowly but surely they made half the house livable enough so that they could function comfortably. Until another blow hit them! My cousin Gjon whom they raised while in the camps, who had moved into the house with them and spearheaded the renovations, who got married in the house in 1993 and who had finally found some happiness and comfort, died in 2003 from cancer. This blow set them back another ten years. They would not make any more significant improvements to the house. They would just live. After my cousin died, my older aunt, Marta, soon followed. Now there were three left, my aunt Bardha, my Uncle Deda and my cousin’s wife, Gjilda. Gjon and Gjilda were never blessed with children but she decided to remain in the house and care for them as though they were her own parents.

After my sister came back from her second trip there, in 2010, I decided it was time for me to make my journey. My sister had purchased them a laptop as a gift and downloaded Skype. From May, 2010 we Skyped every night. I got to know them better and they were ecstatic at the prospect of meeting my husband Vince, who doesn’t speak either Italian or Albanian and was suddenly faced with quickly learning rudimentary Italian. Since they all speak Italian, that is our language of choice until I master Albanian and it wasn’t long before we committed to flying over that September and so began my journey, which would become a turning point in my life.

We landed at Rinas, Tirana airport on September 2, 2010 and all I saw were mountains, the Albanian Alps. I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were, surrounding everything within sight. We were picked up at the airport and once in the car, driving to our destination, Shkoder, about one and a half hours north of the Airport, one just could not get away from the mountains. As we were driving toward Shkoder from the airport, I couldn’t help but feel the words of my father. I played his words in my mind over and over again “Il mare non dice niente.” Was it possible that he was right? In looking at the mountains that sprung up in front of me like peaks on a lemon meringue pie, I was overcome with a feeling of pride. I was Albanian after all, these were my mountains, yes I love the sea and still do, but I could not deny the splendor of the majestic peaks lurking all around me. Their jagged edges, their uneven silhouettes, their dotted snow peaks, their rocky facades. My father was right after all “The mountains…now, they have something to say…they speak to you!” And so it was with an open mind and heart that I finally met my uncle and aunt and all my cousins. Now I knew what my father meant! After meeting my family in Shkoder and visiting the home of my father’s youth, I understood all that he was trying to tell me, not just about the mountains, but about Albania in general, her people, her culture and her allure.

Albania is a hidden jewel and so are her people. After having Skyped with my aunt and uncle for over four months I was finally meeting them in person. I was a little nervous to say the least. What if they didn’t like me or my husband? What if I didn’t like them? All that worrying dissipated the minute I set my eyes on my aunt. She picked us up at the airport with a friend. She was sitting in the passenger seat of an Isuzu. We had expected them to be inside the terminal anxiously waiting for us as we exited customs but there was nobody there waiting. I thought “Oh no…they forgot about us”, but nothing could be farther from the truth, they had just gotten stuck in traffic. As we were standing outside the terminal looking out for them, my husband recognized my aunt, “Isn’t that your aunt?” I looked over and there she was, this minute 84 year old lady, hanging on for dear life on the door strap of the Isuzu, wearing the biggest sunglasses ever. She saw us and made the driver stop the car. We immediately went over and helped her out. All she could do was hug us and look at us, really look at us. She was in awe of my husband, who towered over her at 6’3”, she couldn’t say enough about how wonderful it was to meet him, how great he looked, compliment after compliment, while I just stood there smiling. I realize this a patriarchal society, but I am your niece! Then she turned to me, cupped my face in her hands and gave me the biggest, teary smile I ever did see and told me “I am so happy to finally meet you!” Needless to say I got all teary eyed and hugged her and reciprocated the compliment. We all got back into the car and started driving home…to Shkoder. The mountains all around, calling us home.

Once we arrived we pulled up to a big gray steel solid gate, surrounded by high walls. I knew this was the house but you cannot see it from the street, which left me wondering, like an anxious child waiting to open a birthday present, what I would find behind the wall? As soon as the gate was opened I was in awe. This wasn’t just a house, it was a villa, a small palace, a bastion with a tower! It was unbelievable! From the gate to the end of the property, beyond the house, it’s about 150ft. It was a longish walk to the stairs that lead up and into the foyer, and there, standing at the top of the stairs was my 89 year old uncle Deda. As I approached the stairs all he could do was just smile. He had been anxiously awaiting our arrival and the time had finally come to meet us, meet me, his brother’s daughter, his father’s granddaughter. He took one look at me and said “You’re beautiful! Welcome home.”

The house!

We spent the next ten days in a haze, meeting cousin after cousin, eating deliciously prepared meals by my cousin Gjlda. As it so happened my birthday fell during our visit, which was just another excuse for celebration. When I finally took a tour of the house and went up in the tower, at the very top you can see the city from its windows, practically all of it since it’s octagonal, with those mountains in the background, calling out to you. It was a magical experience and one that I have been repeating every year since. It was then I heard my father’s voice “The mountains…now, they have something to say… they speak to you!” Yes, indeed!!

View from the top of the tower.
View from the top of the tower.
Me with aunt Bardha and uncle Deda.

Footnote: Since writing this article last year we moved to Shkoder and live in the house of my father. We renovated a wing of the house and are occupying it with our two doggies. We came here in November 2012 and spent 4 wonderful months with my dear aunt Bardha. She succumbed to a stroke on March 19th and we miss her dearly. We still love Shkoder and are enjoying my uncle’s companionship as well as slowly getting to know all my cousins. We plan on staying here for as long as we can, enjoy the country and do some traveling.

To read more on my family please visit my page at Gjomarkaj Family History.


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