by Jann Huizenga
They built Albania’s socialist state and were made to feel special—then they grew up and tore it down.
“I built that block of flats,” says Lule, pointing past a disemboweled Fiat to a boxy tenement where litter has drifted into hillocks around the entryway. We’re just off Skanderbeg Square in the crumbly center of Tirana.
“What do you mean, you built that?” I try to picture this professor, a freckle-faced sprite of a woman, on a construction crew.
Lule peers up at me through thick lenses that magnify the crow’s feet spreading from her brown eyes, and I get a whiff of lemony perfume. “When I was a student. You know, we were all volunteers for the Albanian People’s Democracy.”
“I know about the roads and hillside terraces, but high-rises?”
“Yes, of course,” she titters, as if she too finds the idea bizarre. “University students built all the flats for professors. I hauled bricks. Not just to the site, but up to each new floor. I mixed cement. And laid the bricks.”
Which explains why more than a few buildings in Tirana have mortar oozing from their cockeyed bricks like jelly from a child’s sandwich. The lopsided buildings were one of the first things that struck me when I arrived in Albania for the first time to work in the schools, along with the white plastic bags snagged by every tree branch and snapping in the wind.
I turn to Arta, a decade younger than Lule. “And you, my dear, what did you volunteer?”
She narrows her eyes and sets her strong jaw. “I fertilized the fields and terraces,” she barks, “to grow the food for our Democratic People’s Republic.” Then she clicks her heels and salutes. Arta has the peculiar habit of kowtowing and sloganeering whenever the Hoxha era is brought up, mocking her former brainwashed self.
Sweat runs down my calves. We pass a wall covered in graffiti—bright red swastikas and washed-out blue paint that reads “Fuck Hoxha.” A drunk smashes a bottle nearby. An old woman sits on the ground selling bars of blue soap and a car battery. In the middle of a major intersection, a pack of dogs fights over a bone, scattering only when an overloaded bus barrels down on them. The imprint of Hoxha—even a decade after his gilded statue was smashed in Skanderbeg Square in 1991—is everywhere.
We clutch each other until we’re safely across the intersection. Crosswalks haven’t yet arrived in Albania.
“Me?” Daphne stalls. She sweeps away the hennaed hair from her broad cheek and blushes, her own little habit, before wading into the cloudy waters of the English language. “Well,” she says carefully, “my parents . . . they built the railroad between here and Durresi. Me . . . I cut the trees through the forest . . . and built the roads.”
I picture long-limbed Daphne wielding the axe of proletarian revolution, blazing a trail under the harsh Albanian sun, while the foppish Enver Hoxha—who idealized manual labor—sips a minty iced tea in his fancy topcoat and patent-leather shoes. While I cruise around in my boyfriend’s MG convertible and shop for prom dresses.
“So you see,” exclaims Arta with a sweeping gesture. “We built the Socialist State, and we destroyed it. And now we are trying to build a democracy. But I’m tired. I don’t want to build anything else. That’s why I want to go to America.”
All the dreams they held dear, all the body-bruising sacrifices of their youth—all exposed as worthless, tossed upon the slagheap of history.
But Arta has just won the U.S. green card lottery. To judge from her elation as she revealed the news last week, it’s as if she’s bagged the Golden Fleece. Albanians storm their post offices each October to mail off visa applications to some New Hampshire address that, like a collective mantra, they’ve all committed to memory. Arta sent her application from Greece to circumvent the evil Albanian postal workers who—in her imagination at least—discard New Hampshire-bound mail, upping their own chances of winning a ticket to paradise.
“Keep your eyes on the ground,” Lule scolds. She’s noticed me tripping on the sidewalk that pitches and swells like surf. “We never look ahead while we walk.”
“What else did student volunteers do?”
“We destroyed mosques,” Lule mutters, as if hoping I won’t hear.
I perk up. “You did?”
“Well, Hoxha ordered students to do so. We were afraid to disobey.”
I’d heard that Hoxha, mimicking Mao, had whipped up impressionable youth to do his dirty work. But mild-mannered Lule seems such an unlikely zealot.
“You smashed mosques?”
“Well, uh, not exactly,” she says, suddenly guarded. “But we went to villages and told people that religion was bad. I suppose we incited them to violence.”
“Religion!” snorts Arta. “Opium for the people!”
“So you felt obliged to carry out Hoxha’s orders?” I worry that I may be hitting a nerve, but curiosity gets the better of me.
Lule pauses a moment before shaking her head yes, a side-to-side gesture that looks like our “no.”
I remember reading that antireligious fervor peaked in 1967, when Hoxha declared, “the only religion of Albanians is Albanianism.” Clergy were executed or imprisoned; churches and mosques were gutted or turned into youth centers.
Daphne breathes in my other ear that she’d never do anything like that, “no matter what Hoxha wanted.”
It makes me stop and wonder: how would I have behaved? The knot in my stomach tightens.
We pass a dusty sidewalk piled high with clothes. Bras dangle from trees. “I often shop here,” Daphne says. “I still can’t get used to such quantities!”
I bend down to rifle through the castoffs and pull out a Penn State T-shirt, shoddy used Reeboks, a stained second-hand nightgown.
“I gained weight after my baby,” Daphne says, “but there were no clothes in our shops—not even bras! I took old sweaters and unraveled them so I could knit new ones. For ten years I knit so many sweaters that my fingers became useless. Look!”
She holds her splayed fingers out for me. They’re swollen and gnarled. I think of the closetful of sweaters I’ve acquired so casually.
“You can’t imagine what we’ve suffered.”
This is a refrain I keep hearing in Albania. I know what she says is true. It’s not that pain and suffering have passed me by, that as an American I’m immune. But mine are personal sorrows: lost loves, career setbacks, the long, slow death of my mother—stains of sadness on an otherwise bright canvas. In my mind’s eye, I imagine Daphne’s canvas unrelentingly gray.
We arrive at a scruffy, sticky-tabled café, sit down, and order Cokes from a flat-eyed man with dull teeth.
“Oh!” Lule says excitedly, “Do you want to know what else I did? In 1972—I clearly remember the year—I was obliged to censor books in the university library. For a few years we had been allowed to read the writers of the Lost Generation—Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But one fine day Hoxha decided they were dangerous. I remember we had to write a big ‘R’ on the books, which meant ‘restricted,’ and then we moved them to a special room available only to a select few.”
The dull-toothed man brings us warm Cokes. An entrepreneur weaves through the café tables with a shiny new bathroom scale. Do we want to be weighed for three leke—about a nickel—a pop?
Lule rakes her fingers through her lush mane of hair, exposing the gray at her temples. “That was the trouble with Hoxha. He let something go on for a while, and then out of the blue he decided the thing was risky. When he pulled back the reins, it was brutal. People were thrown into prison for things that had been legal the day before. We had to remove all Russian books that year, too—in fact any books in any language that even mentioned Russia. We had to skim through every single book in the library.”
We dawdle over our drinks and swat away a cloud of flies. The song pumping from the speakers dredges up memories for my friends. In the 1970s, they explain, singers at a Tirana music festival wagged their hips to a similar beat—a bold act that flew in the face of tradition, as entertainers had heretofore held themselves ramrod-straight. Though their undulations were mild as milk compared to the bump-and-grind contortions in the West, the regime rounded up the singers as well as the director of Albanian Radio Television, Todi Lubonja, and locked them away for ten years.
The conversation drifts to people who were imprisoned for singing foreign songs. My friends disagree about whether you could be arrested for simply listening to a foreign song. Yes, assert Arta and Daphne. No, counters Lule. “You had to tell someone that you had listened to a foreign song.”
“But what if your neighbor didn’t like you and heard the song through your door?”
“Well, yes,” Lule shrugs. “There were spies everywhere, and they could report you. This kind of thing spread hatred and fear among our people. In that way, Hoxha was stupid.”
Why stupid, I ask.
“What good is it to make people hate each other?”
“Isn’t that what he wanted? To increase his own power by sowing fear and distrust?”
Lule considers this a moment. “I don’t know.” The hint of a frown on her face makes me wonder if she’s still a Hoxha devotee in some remote corner of her mind.
“Did you have close friendships then?” I often observe my colleagues whispering together like schoolgirls, straightening one another’s hair or holding hands.
“Oh, yes,” someone says. “Close friendships have always been part of our culture.”
“Did you trust your friends? Could you tell them how you felt about the government?”
“No, never. We never spoke about politics.”
“Did husbands and wives dare to discuss their true feelings?”
“Well, usually. But never brother and sister, mother and son, friend and friend.”
Arta lights up a cigarette, then mashes it out. Her sunny eyes darken, her face crumples. “Talking was dangerous in Albania,” she says in a conspiratorial whisper, as if it still is. “My uncle, an engineer, went to prison in 1972 for fifteen years. He had two offenses. First, he told someone that Albania’s Chinese-made helicopters were outdated. It was true, but he had told the wrong person. And the second reason? He was a fan of the Russian soccer team. After Hoxha broke with Russia, being a fan was outlawed. A friend denounced him.”
Arta has let go of her burlesque self-satire. She knits together black eyebrows that look as if they were finger painted in two swift strokes. “Our suffering was unimaginable,” she murmurs. “We say in Albanian, ‘The tongue goes where the tooth aches.’ That’s why we can’t stop talking about Before.”
I mention a friend’s uncle, jailed for thirty-five years for telling someone Paris was beautiful, for speculating on what Albania might have looked like without Hoxha.
“Yes,” says Lule. “I was very careful after traveling. When I got back from Paris in the 1980s, I couldn’t say anything about it. Not ‘Life is orderly there’ or even ‘People are well-dressed.’ ”
Getting out of xenophobic Albania—especially to a place like Paris—was an insider privilege. I take a sip of my warm Coke, not daring to ask how she wangled the trip.
“In the sixties,” she continues, “I studied in China for three years until the Cultural Revolution drove me out. When I returned to Albania, I couldn’t tell anyone about my experience. I didn’t even dare say ‘China is poor.’ In those years Hoxha held China up as a model for us. How I suffered in China! Bitter cold classrooms and crowded dormitories, but I buttoned my lip and told everyone China was ‘nice’.”
I try to imagine the silence that blanketed Albania all those years. I try to imagine the lives they led while I roamed, chatty and carefree.
“When we look back now, we . . . we cannot imagine how . . . how we endured it,” says Daphne, her voice raw.
“Hoxha hoodwinked us,” Arta says.
“Are you surprised now that he was so successful?”
“It happened so gradually,” Lule says. “Over a long period of time.”
“That’s right,” says Daphne
The sun is casting long shadows.
“Did you love him?”
“No! No!” the troika choruses. “We feared him.”
But in the next breath they’re recalling how seductive he was, a leader long on looks and charm.
“It was a shame, as they say,” Arta muses, “to waste such beauty on a man. But this peacock made us feel special. He told us we were the Red Beacon of Europe.”
Jann Huizenga has lived in Sicily on and off since 2002 and is at work on Kissing Sicilians: My Life in Ragusa, Sicily. This story won the Silver Award for Culture and Ideas in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.