Life is War blog posts: Mrs Shkalla’s Education

In the lead up to the publication of Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania the author, Shannon Woodcock, has written a number of blog posts to introduce readers to the histories, contexts and methods that shaped the book.

Written in the same vivid and observant style that runs throughout Life is War, the first post reflects on the formative moments in Shannon’s Albanian education, courtesy of Mrs Shkalla.

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3D-cover-Life-is-WarIt was Mrs Shkalla in Elbasan who did the hard yards for my Albanian education.  Each week of the university semesters of 2003-2004, I travelled from Tirana to Elbasan to teach. On the nights between my teaching days I stayed at the home of my colleague, Danjela, in the two bedroom apartment she shared with her mother and brother. Walking home from A. Xhuvani University together, we’d stroll through the fifteenth century fortress district, run into friends, and stop for a coffee. Further down the main street, a broken brick step led to a small pathway, past the local bakery, to a dusty courtyard of kids playing ball and Danjela’s apartment block. I loved the clean concrete stairwells of the buildings, cool in summer and freezing in winter, winding past the doors of family homes. I loved arriving at Mrs Shkalla’s home, dropping my bag, swapping my shoes for slippers, hanging up my coat, and settling in for the long conversations and home cooked meals I remember to this day.

Mrs Shkalla worked as a seamstress from home. Danjela and I would carefully move material cut out for a suit or a dress, and then sit on the long couch and chat as Mrs Shkalla sewed on her machine in the centre of the room.  I’d recount what was happening in Tirana, mostly stories of my confusion about the complicated invisible networks that organised all levels of Albanian life and work, and Danjela would translate for her mother. Mrs Shkalla’s reactions were clear without words, and she thus thwarted her own plans to build my vocabulary by teaching me fluent non-verbal Albanian.  A clear sideways shake of the head for agreement – an English “no” means “yes” in Albania – and a sharp nod of the head for no. Beyond this there was a vast range of subtle head angles, clicking noises, and eyebrow twitches to indicate concern, alarm or uncertainty requiring further information. Women came to visit for pleasure and to drop off and collect garments. Their polyphonic conversations moved from serious whispers to raucous laughter, covering relationships, everyday problems and memories, all fuelled by cups of Turkish coffee and bowls of the seasonal fruits. 

When the women spoke amongst themselves, everything moved faster. Movements of hands and eyes communicated commiseration, understanding and fears, the words articulated reassurance and advice. In my own conversations with them, as with my students, I felt painfully aware that even direct translation could not cross the gap between us.

I didn’t speak the embodied experience of complex cultural and historical knowledge that they did, and they didn’t speak mine. And yet we spoke.

In that first year, we often sought ways to speak about the gap, discussing issues to find out what we understood about each other. Reading history books wasn’t helpful– they were primarily about political events, which meant a small group of men who dominated society from above. “The people” appeared in these books as an unspecific mass, hazy, whose reactions were rendered homogenous and inevitable in the retrospect of the authors. Women were rarely mentioned. In real life, I learnt the perimeters of the world for everyday people in Albania from Mrs Shkalla; the labour market, gender and relationships in cultural context, and understanding how to access services in a world where power was connections and no one normal made much money.

Mrs Shkalla and her peers were born into the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. They had done annual military service and had “volunteered” their own labour to build apartment blocks and harvest the crops. They had queued from 4am for milk, children and ration cards in hand, through the long hungry years of Albania’s international isolation in the world after 1978. They survived the shock of the regime confessing they’d run the proletariat paradise to ruin, and then worked to feed their families. The former communists became the new capitalists.  Now these women, just middle aged themselves, were vital in the community as translators between generations; across ideologies and rapidly changing cultural norms. 

When the television was on in the background, only the soap operas garnered close attention. Mrs Shkalla observed men talking politics on TV the way one might watch an unknown street dog wander into a children’s playground; her interest extended only so far as calculating what kind of damage he could do. Sometimes I would catch her looking up from her sewing, her eyes refocusing on some man in a suit talking about himself on the screen, and I wanted to know what she heard there beyond the words and the posturing. I wanted to understand how hard working people lived through “politics” on the ground. Mrs Shkalla, of course, had already shown me the answers, beyond language, in her family home.