Monday March 21 was Bach’s birthday. It was also International Poetry Day, the day we went to the ancient city of Berat in the south of Albania so I could read poetry at the city library. I was invlted by Arian Leka, a famous Albanian poet and head of the Poeteka group which sponsors a Struga-type poetry festival in Albania every year. Riding shotgun was his friend Julien. Both Arian and Julien were kind enough to translate seven of my poems (my poems have been translated!) so that folks in Berat could understand what the heck I was talking about. Carly and Shawna came along, too, though Carly took some convincing and Dramamine after our trip through the mountains to Elbasan earlier in the year included Carly barfing on Albania on one high mountain pass.
Berat is only about 50 miles from Tirana as the crow flies, but in the land of the double-headed eagle, apparently the crow never flies. Roads here are often in bad repair or, more commonly, they are in the midst of being rebuilt and widened. In addition to the winding nature of some of the roads, the need to take the best roads and confronting morning traffic, it took us about three hours to arrive in Berat. Even this, however, didn’t preclude our stopping for coffee at one little cafe along the way. Here we were able to experience “Turkish style” toilets for the first time. More on that in another post but let me say that, yes, they are porcelain and flush but no, you don’t sit but squat. ‘Nuff said.
On arrival in Berat we went straight into the city library. A varied group of 50 or so people were waiting in a nondescript multipurpose room for us. Julien, who also served as my interpreter, myself, Arian and the director of the library sat at a couple tables in front of everyone and there was a guy with a beard who stood at a podium. I was then told that the guy with the beard was the actor who had been (hired? recruited? volunteered?) to read the Shqip (Albanian) version of my poems. I managed to keep my composure and just say “wow, very good, great” but inside I was thinking (“holy crap! They hired an actor to read my poems! How @#$%^&*ing cool is that!”). The director then read all of the bio I had given Arian and then talked about Arian, whose poems are read by schoolchildren here. A local poet and scholar then came up and gave a scholarly introduction to Arian’s poetry. And then there was little ol me.
Arian had me read first and Julien translated anything I said in the form of introductory comments. The mayor and someone else important and official sat right in front of me, next to Carly and Shawna. It was odd reading poems in English. Clearly, a few people in the audience understood English well enough as I could see them responding as I ended a poem, but most of them just applauded politely as I finished. I wouldn’t have blamed them if they just waited until the translation was read. After each poem, The Actor (I never caught his name) would read the translation and he did so very well. I tried to follow along on the translated poem to see how it sounded and to catch the audience’s reaction as The Actor came to certain parts of my work. Overall, it seemed to turn out quite well, though the mayor kept looking at his watch near the end. I ended with “Short Hair,” which is basically a love poem to Shawna and a way to tease her about how she likes to get her hair cut all the time. They liked that one. Arian read only two of his poems and then it was apparently too late for discussion.
We finished around 1:00 p.m. and Shawna, Carly and I would have happily dived into a local cafe for lunch but the plan was to do sightseeing first and then go to lunch. And it’s good that we ended up that way. We headed up the mountain on a steep road behind a red Mercedes carrying the library director, an aged and respected local professor, one tall guy in a sweater and striking jacket whose name I never caught and perhaps someone else. We wound up the little road for only five minutes or so before the citadel of Berat came into view. Especially with the majestic Mount Tomorr in the background, it looked . . . well, historic. Carly was especially blown away by her first opportunity to visit a real castle. The road leading into the citadel itself was paved with large cobblestones that were slippery even though they weren’t wet. Shawna asked “how did those princesses manage to climb up this hill in their fancy shoes and clothes?”
While the museum was closed, the Byzantine church inside the walls of the church was opened to us by the man who was in charge of the castle/museum. We were led through the church with its amazing collection of icons by a hired English student who gave us the background on the church and many of its salient points. Julien emerged as a dark horse at this point, chiming in with detailed explications of parts of the church, icons and Byzantine Christianity in general. Carly was visibly taken back, amazed as we opened the door to the church itself and the iconostasis came into view. As the church is a museum and not a working church, we were allowed to explore all parts of the small church where we wouldn’t be allowed to visit in a working church. My one disappointment was that the artwork on the domes (there were three domes instead of one) was mostly destroyed. Apparently, the Communists had whitewashed it in a fit of antireligious zealotry before realizing that they had artistic merit and then coming back two years later and trying to restore them.
After viewing the church, we came back into the courtyard and wandered around a bit. Our guide pointed out that the castle has been continuously occupied and that there were still people living there. The castle traces its earliest foundations to an Illyrian fortress built some 2400 years ago and then improved upon by successive occupations of Romans, Byzantines, and eventually Ottomans who held Berat until 1912. One of the best parts of the castle being occupied is that it had a cafe, right there among the stones and ruins. Little did we know that this was where we were eating lunch. We were all ushered in and the owner began bringing us drinks (raki to start) and different dishes. There were salads, different vegetable dishes, something with meat, roast lamb chops, wine, a cheese pie, a cheese and spinach pie, and then finally coffee and a dessert called “Milkie” which was something like custard in a crust with honey. The cafe owner didn’t believe Carly when she asked for a coffee, for it was Turkish coffee she was drinking but he eventually brought it to her after he had served everyone else. I don’t know if she liked it but she made sure she sugared it and drank it.
The drive home was less trouble than the one in the morning but I slept most of the way so I can’t really say a whole lot about that. Arian and Julien were very gracious with their time and talents as were the people of Berat. That seems to be a common theme here. Geez, I hope we’re showing Albanians as much hospitality when they come to America, but I doubt that’s so.