Eagles, cigarettes and cauliflowers

by Silvia Muci (Italy)

Making a local connection Albania


I began staring at the cloud of smoke that, along with the alcoholic content of the raki, was making the colorful contours of the room blurrier and blurrier. There were mirrors and mosaics all around me, as well as old paintings hanging randomly on the walls. Old Balkan style. I was actually thrilled we could have a cigarette inside a restaurant, without having to leave the table full of bread and garlic mayo: in Italy all that had long been forbidden; it wasn’t in Albania. I had already noticed this detail during the journey from Southern Italy to Durres, before arriving at Tirana. On the ship I had seen a bunch of people who had no money for a seating position, so that they were sitting in a circle on the floor. I remember them smoking quietly in an overcrowded corridor without windows, but nobody seemed annoyed by that. The smoke was simply swallowed by the ‘90s sober, angular, dark décor around them. Some old women had their head covered with a simple scarf, tied with a knot under the chin. For twenty years Albania had been the only country in the world that was atheist by Constitution, and yet religious traditions survived, resurfacing after Communism: today Muslims and Christians coexist peacefully in the so-called land of eagles. It only took one word to interrupt my flow: ‘CAULIFLOWER’. He said it in Italian, CAVOLFIORE. How the hell did he know that word? Aldi, the young Albanian man we met in the afternoon and invited for dinner, was speaking about food with the rest of the group. ‘How can you speak Italian so well?’ I interrupted him. He glanced over my head, dispersing his thoughts in the smoke. ‘I guess thanks to the TV programs I saw in childhood..’.He had never studied Italian, but he was able to speak it with no interruption for an hour. Like most Albanians. While fiddling with the breadcrumbs on the table, he explained how Italian Television had represented their only window on the world up until 1990, when one of the most isolationist Communist regimes in history collapsed. People secretly intercepted Italian TV signals, falling in love with the lies about Western life commercials were spreading: anything was better than that dictatorship. And so, in the early 90s, their exodus to my country started. That night I said goodbye to Aldi with a full stomach, smoky hair and a strange feeling spreading through my body. Who knows if Albanians were disappointed once they arrived in their promised land…Dare to dream, they say: the rest is life.