For our next Life is War blog 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.