For our next Life is Warblog post, take a ride with Shannon in a furgon!
“Oh çuni!” the driver waved to me from behind the wheel of the minivan, eager to fill the seats and hit the road before night fell. Çuni, pronounced choo-nee, literally means “boy,” and is used to address young men in Albania. Reading me as such, the driver directed me into the seats at the back of the van. It was a relatively new furgon; it even had seatbelts, though no one would use them.
“Where are you from?” the guy sitting beside me asked. He was about my age.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m a historian. I’m writing about the period of communism in Albania.”
This was a common exchange, and his response was familiar.
“I can tell you about that time,” he said, turning towards me to maintain eye contact. I shook my head, meaning “tell me more,” and he began.
Raised in the area of Lezhe, amongst other families with “bad biographies,” meaning those untrusted by the Party, he had been ostracized at school, as had his father, and his father’s father. This was because his grandfather had fought with the nationalists during WWII and not with the communist partisans, so he had been sent into exile from his home town in the 1950s. Hoxha’s communist regime maintained “the class war” through generations, so teachers and society treated children as somehow embodying a threat to “the people.”
Suddenly the music was too loud to hear each other.
“Hey, turn it down a bit!” my neighbour called to the driver.
“What, you getting romantic about back there huh?” the driver called back, his eyes on the narrow road ahead, winding along the top of the mountain range.
“She is from Australia and we are talking about Albania” my neighbour retorted, stressing the feminine pronoun.
“SHE?” The driver turned to look at me, the women sitting between us shrieked in terror. The driver turned back to glance at the road.
He turned again. The van swerved, the women screamed, the driver turned forward again, and the women berated him. He adjusted the rear vision mirror to meet my eyes there.
“Oh çuni! Why didn’t you say you were a girl?”
“Why would I do that?” I called back
“But why do you look like a çuni?”
The women now all twisted round and tried to look me up and down.
“Just because!” I laughed, shrugging.
“Do you have a husband?”
“No! If I had a man, would I be travelling and working for myself? No! Better to live as a man than to be married to one.”
“And you’re from Australia huh?” the driver continued, the music turned off now.
“How much does meat cost there?”
“I don’t know. I’m vegetarian. I don’t eat meat.”
Again the driver turned around. “WHAT?” he shouted above the screams of the women.
“He doesn’t eat meat? He doesn’t eat meat! How much are tomatoes? How about bread? What does a driver earn there?”
And so it continued, a discussion comparing prices, wages and state infrastructure in Australia and Albania.
My gender was not scandalous in these everyday interactions as an Australian in Albania, and my explanations were easily understood. Sometimes the whole furgon joined in to discuss how gender worked in their families.
After a while, the driver fell silent, and the young man beside me spoke for the rest of the trip about what life had been like for his family under communism. We shook hands when we arrived in Tirana, and I wrote up my notes from our conversation that night.
In public conversations such as these, many people shared stories of hard work, family life, and political persecution in the communist period, and they shared them with me as my queer self. I personally and professionally choose to be open about my gendered and embodied life experiences, and people were unfailingly polite and considerate in interactions, over many years. With working class people of all genders, ages and personal experiences, I believe that this openness on my part created a trusting and safe environment for reflection on embodied reactions to the events of the past. When someone wanted to speak to me about the communist past, or when their life experiences were something I wanted to know more about, then we met to specifically conduct a recorded interview. I met often with some people, and just a few times with others. All participants were given the information about my research, which was approved by the ethics committee of La Trobe University in Melbourne, and then gave me permission to use the information in my historical work about everyday life under communism.
Film of the 50 km journey between Tirana and Elbasan speeded up into 5 minutes.
Be sure to check out details of Life is Wareventstaking place late May/ early June in London, Tirana and Bristol.
In the first ten minutes on the ground in Albania I learnt that the mountain looming over Tirana had a name; Mt Dajti. A sense of dread assailed me. If Romanians and Austrians had loved to walk me and my seaside grown legs all over alpine ranges as anonymous land orms, what hiking horror awaited me in this place where mountains were known as individuals?
‘How often do you climb up Mt Dajti?’ I asked Blendi, who had been sent to collect the Australian from the airport.
‘Walk up there? What for? You can take the cable car up and drink a coffee there if you want.’
Ecstatic with that response, I know Mt Dajti only from the city below.
Tirana, which has changed so fast since the 1990s, was little more than a small town when it was named the capital in 1919.
Even though it grew exponentially as the centre of the socialist regime between World War Two and 1991, population movement and location was entirely controlled by the Party. In post-socialist times, the state no longer controlled population movement or dictated where people could live. Unregulated private cars, building and capitalist trade were allowed for the first time and flourished. People from all over Albania moved to Tirana, and the lack of state regulation and infrastructure continues today, negatively affecting those with least economic and social power the most, especially Romani Albanian communities.
Children play between the towers until new blocks are built. Over and over, families with children and grandparents spill into the dusty spaces between concrete walls, competing with parked cars for the space to kick a ball. People, vegetable stalls, packs of dogs and sometimes horses and donkeys, share makeshift sidewalk space at the edge of the street. As no government has organised waste disposal yet, people carefully pile their rubbish throughout the city. Sometimes the garbage is set aflame, and sometimes it smoulders; plastic melts to lumps. The standard is to affect nonchalance when walking the roads, as if looking tough will convince drivers not to hit you.
Dajti looms, she brings and holds the weather. Her gaze orients the chaotic city, you can see her from anywhere. The sun rises over her shoulder, clouds follow, snow falls, or she basks in the sun. Follow the line of her sight west, and you are facing the Ionian Sea, with Italy across the water. On a hot summer day the light is white, the sky a faded blue, the same light you know from the Greek islands to Albania’s south. All the mountains that have her back are shifting shadows. Sometimes a winding road or a curl of smoke makes you feel you could find your way there, then the sun moves on and it seems the land undulates, waving away the possibility of encroachment.
In winter, electrical storms circle over Tirana. Trapped between the sea and the mountains, pacing a tight circle, the rumbles and stomps of thunder are broken by sharp cracks of lightning. Sometimes the storms arrive suddenly in the afternoon and go all night. They head off over the mountains in the end, or work themselves into exhaustion and dissipate by the next morning. The aftermath requires full attention. Roads are washed away. People, dogs and car all have to negotiate a new geography of lakes and small rivers, pooling and rushing where they must, regardless of the concrete humans put in their way.
Every city in Albania, and each road between cities, has its mountains. They are part of everyone’s everyday stories. Vlach shepherds like Thoma walked the sheep from the southern mountains of Delvina to Mt Tomorr of Berat each spring, sleeping in the shelters called stans, huddled against the hills to protect them from the weather. When Majko was a teacher in the north-eastern mountains, he skied with the students to the top of the mountain in winter, while their parents waited for them to travel safely downhill and home through the forest, worried about the wolves that grew hungrier before the spring. People walked up steep mountain roads to visit their family members in political prisons, weighting their pockets with rocks against the wind. And now, people remember these moments as they travel freely between cities in minivans, the furgons.