This was originally written in 2014 when I still lived in Peshkopi.
The most memorable parts of a trip are often unplanned. On a recent return journey from Bulgaria, I heard that trip’s most interesting tale just 30 minutes from my home.
To understand this story you need to know that when I cross the border from Peshkopi into Macedonia, I am still very much in ethnic Albania. The Macedonian city of Debar or “Diber” in Albanian, (the same name of the adjoining region of Albania) is almost entirely ethnically Albanian. Diber in Macedonia and Diber in Albania, were once an organic region but were split by 1913 borders. Today, people travel back forth with some frequency and intermarry.
We met the taxi driver, whose story I will tell, in Macedonia Diber. Taking my usual role as the guy who talks to the driver, I quickly learned our driver’s mother is from Albania proper while his father is from Macedonian Diber. Knowing his age, I quickly realize that this isn’t possible. His parents could not have met in the 1970s, much less conceived a child, when Albania and Yugoslavia were enemies and Albania was pretty much sealed off from the rest of the world.
I ask him how this can be and he reveals an amazing story. In the 1960’s, when his mother was only two, her family escaped over the border to Macedonia which was then part of Yugoslavia. This was quite a feat as the border where they crossed is a river. The family forded the river with their young children, were fired upon by border guards, and successfully escaped one of the most guarded countries in the world.
I cant help but wonder if the guards missed on purpose.
I also wonder why the driver would initially give me information that doesn’t make any sense without such an incredible story. Robert Carver in his book “Accursed Mountains” touches on the Albanian reluctance to share information of all kinds. He attributes it to a lingering Stalinist culture of suspicion and secrecy which may have been true in the 1990’s when he wrote his book. Now some 20 years since the end of communism and Robert carver’s travels, I’m not sure what to attribute this reluctance to. Perhaps in such a tight knit society they are used to everyone who needs to know already knowing. Perhaps for some the shame of “crimes” committed under the old regime is still felt even in a system that does not recognize such crimes.
This story, like many similar ones I’ve heard in the past two years in northern Albania, are typically “hidden in conversational plain sight” behind just one or two questions. The only catch is that to ask the right questions you have to know Albanian history, culture, and language. In some cases you also have to know a person for some time. I often wonder what kind of experience the volunteers who don’t learn the language and/or history of Albania have during their two years here. While the Peace Corps is billed as a cross cultural projection of “soft power,” with some curiosity and do-it-yourself scholarship Peace Corps service can easily serve as a kind of alternative to the Fulbright grant. The intellectual aspects of Peace Corps service can easily be the most personally fulfilling part of service.