A Breath of Optimism through Fresh, Foreign Eyes

A Breath of Optimism through Fresh, Foreign Eyes 

Tirana Times - http://tiranatimes.com/

By Alba Çela 

As if the return to my own country had not been challenging enough, Jake, my American friend from graduate school, announced that his visit would be on the same day that my plane was landing in Tirana. I had been in and out of the country for the last 5 years pursuing different schools in different countries and had finally decided to try settling down in the homeland, my homeland, Albania. There are many of us, coming back, out of preference for the lifestyle back home, strong family ties, or sheer lack of alternatives. We are all confused and scared and not brave or as ready to face all the difficulties as someone would like to think. But we are willing to try… 

For me coming back means living close to family and trying to build up a career. I am dimly aware of the many obstacles that I will encounter and quite certain that there will be times that I will regret taking the plane back here. But for the moment all I can feel is the excitement of a new life among new people although this time speaking my native language. 

My friend Jake had planned his Balkan trip long before, when we were studying in Budapest. I imagined he would want to sample as many of the local flavors as he could; that is why I suggested he visit my hometown, Berat, instead of limiting his time to Tirana. With 2500 years of history behind it, beautiful nature and an inspiring collection of timeless religious art I believe it has something simply unique to offer the passing tourist and traveler. I made a wise guess that by the time I arrived, Jake would have already savored that curios mix of chaos and novelty that makes our capital Tirana special. Thus, I set out to plan a short but comprehensive plunge into other local Albanian pleasures. 

First of all, once approaching Berat, Jake would enjoy the sight of Tomorri Mountain, that appears suddenly, surrounded by flat low plains as a king mountain, mystical and powerful in the sunbathed distance. No wonder it is called the Mountain of Gods. Had he had more time we could have gone for an excursion through the canyons of Bogova to enjoy that unspoiled nature that we are blessed with and that we will hopefully have the sense to preserve. For now we would be limited to the town itself. 

I could predict the excitement in my friend’s face when we would reach the castle. The thousand years of history and the different invasions that are now imprinted in the different stone layers would find their way roughly summarized in a short historical account that I would provide. The churches with their beautiful unique religious art displays, the characteristic whitewashed houses with wooden window cases, and the Ottoman style bridge that crosses the town would resemble to my friend a fantastic showcase straight out of a history textbook. He would peek into the warmth of the daily interactions and be fascinated by the spirit of the little town and he would comment on everything. He would not want to know about the power shortages and the bureaucratic scandals that plague the country and I would not blame him. This would be a day of discovery and enjoyment. I wish we could all have a chance to experience it. 

We would top our day with a delicious sampling of local cuisine, abundant in spices and flavors and good old Turkish coffee. In the late afternoon I would definitely make him experience the local evening walk, that typical stroll that fills the locals’ life with that necessary spice of gossip without which life would be well…comfortable but tasteless. That stroll, that daily annoyance to those of us tightly obsessed by our privacy, is simultaneously an interesting feature that testifies to the presence of a community, not an aimless gathering of people that happened to be born here. 

Jake and I never took this delightful, granted semi-utopian, trip due to our different uncoordinated travel plans. But the important thing is that going through this imaginative journey I was shown once again what I am coming back for. Those familiar yet somehow unappreciated tastes and flavors, that warmth, that pride in antiquity and the joy that stems from being part of that beauty. And above all that sense of roots and of belonging to that annoying community, but a Community nevertheless… 

Now I recollect all this, and attribute it to my imagining his transfigured tourist gaze and reconcile it within my inner self. I know daily life is full of problems and it is very easy to forget those few pleasures that we can afford by living here. But that is precisely what I want to remember: to be able to see through fresh eyes and appreciate. And if you out there are just like me, a confused returning student that feels like a foreigner in his own country, take my word for it: There is plenty out there for us to enjoy! Don’t give up.