“A regular roasting afternoon when the sun, having sucked up all the moisture from the general things about, turned his whole attention to ourselves as the last remaining moist objects within range and concentrated his whole attention on tossing us down a the end of the day as parched and brittle as a Bombay duck.”
(Yes, I know what that is like. My first Albanian summer included a day at Lake Shkodra. By lunch time I was red. The sun just seemed to love my “whiter than white” Scottish skin and by afternoon I was trying to find any kind of shelter and avoid the sun at all costs. Then we had to cycle back from Shiroke to Shkoder which took another half an hour…serious sunburn and dehydration!)
“The voyager who dashes from Tirana to Elbasan, along the road through the plains, a four hour ride in a rickety Ford car, and who bravely risks one night at the Hotel Adriatik, does not get the quality of Elbasan. Elbasan is a town to loiter in, though not in the café , to be sure. That is a rather dismal place, decorated by oleographic prints of big-bosomed, wasp waisted, luscious light ladies of forty years agone, occupied by groups of spasmodically barbered Albanians playing cards, dominoes, or backgammon with a nerve racking vehemence. No. Perhaps the best place where to get your Turkish coffee and cigarette and contemplation is in the hairdresser’s shop. Coffee and cigarette we write advisedly, for does not the Albanian proverb say: “Kafa pa duhan si Turku pa iman”( Coffee without tobacco is like a Turk without belief.”
And the barber’s shop, much more gay( in the 1920’s the word “gay” meant “carefree” or “happy”) than the café, was a place of resort for coffee drinkers as well as the unshorn. Or you could go to the silversmith’s and begin a lengthy bargain for a pair of old silver buckles with the baptism of Christ crudely carved upon them, or for a few silver amulets; here, too, you would have got coffee. Then the lawyer’s shop was always open; opposite it was a poorly furnished general store of two brothers who had been in America, who never seemed to make a sale of more than twopence in value. Alternatively you might have sat with the leather worker whom you have commissioned to make a satchel, and he would also have given you coffee; or you could have joined the audience at the tailor’s, where the policeman read the newspaper aloud; or you might sit with the tobacconist while he was selecting the leaves of excellent Elbasan growth, cutting them with minute precision in a primitive apparatus, or have watched his little daughter blowing water from her mouth on to the cut of tobacco to give it proper moisture; or you could have drunk strange scented herbal tea at the tiny teashop of the Moslem priest. In all these places and many more you would have been warming Elbasan in your hands and allowing its flavour to penetrate to your nostrils. Then you might have talked about it.”
In the afternoon we went down to the River Shkumbi and seated near the magnificent old bridge…we watched these dramatic peasants file homewards against the skyline, the men riding, the women trudging patiently behind.
( Funny enough I was down in Elbasan recently and that is the very same impression that I got. I saw on a number of occasions either women carrying heavy loads, or on one occasion, an old man probably in his 70’s walking with a donkey loaded up, and his poor wife behind carry a heavy load!)
If you desire to take a thrill, take a public lorry from Korcha to Permeti. Your life will be in danger at least 6 times and you will see the magnificent scenery. You will also quite possibly be partially deaf for 2 days afterwards.
Page 109 – Permeti
Permeti was remarkable for 2 causes. The first was the numbers of men, the second was the dearth of women. The men…sat about in the cafes or loafed at the street corners from morning to night, talked revolutionary politics ( all the south was, of course, a hotbed of anti-Zogist conspiracies), read the wretched rags of newspapers, played cards or backgammon or else – favourite occupation – sat for hours with blank faces and minds, twirling key chains or rosaries about their fingers. The old genial schoolmaster was the only one we ever saw who read a book and he had to read in Greek, for I believe there are not above two dozen books in all, printed in the Albanian tongue.”
( Again I have a similar experience any time I take a short trip of 17kms to the small town of Koplik. There, the streets are full of men standing around but not so many women, and I think I could count on one hand the times I have seen a women in the café. Although you will see many women on bicycles in Shkoder, I have as yet to see a woman on a bicycle in Koplik)
Please see here for more information on Jan and Cora Gordon.