Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Vladi’s Castle by Nathaniel Morris

Soon after we had set off for Thethi, the driver pressed a phone into my hands.

“Vladi,” he said by way of explanation.

I had no idea what this meant, but one of the three German hikers seated beside me in the van explained that ‘Vladi’ was the young man who had organised their ride. I had randomly encountered the van near the market at six in the morning. Across from the rows of peasant women in white head-kerchiefs and blue dresses already sitting on upturned buckets, piles of soft brown tobacco laid out on sheets in front of them, I had asked a taxi driver about how to get up into the mountains, craggy and desolate, streaked with snow and wreathed with cloud that dominated the horizon. He had pointed out the three foreigners standing next to the van, which was headed for Thethi, gateway to Albania’s Dinaric Alps – the ‘Accursed Mountains’.

And now Vladi wanted to talk to me. A little reluctantly, I put the phone to my ear.

“So,” Vladi asked me in English. “You go up into the mountains? To Thethi?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“You like to go further? I am from mountains, and my parents still there, in place called Pecaj. You want to stay with them?”

“Err, well, what’s it like there?”

“More beautiful than Thethi.”

“Higher up?”

“Yes, even more high. And there is lot of space in my parents’ house. It is like castle, with mountain all around. We used to be noble family,” he added, somewhat mournfully.

“Well.” I paused, thinking. “Okay! It sounds like an adventure!”

“Okay! My mother go there in bus tomorrow. You meet her and go together.”

I passed the phone back to the driver, and everything was sorted. Next morning, in Thethi, I was woken early by the furious honking of a bus. Bleary-eyed and confused, I stumbled out of the house to find the driver drinking a coffee with my previous night’s host. “Toma,” said the driver, pointing to himself.

“What?

“TOMA!” he shouted, as if I hadn’t heard him the first time. He seemed to have adopted the traditional English approach to communication with foreigners.

I stood there, puzzled, trying to work out what he was talking about. And then it clicked.

“Aaaah! Toma is your name!”

Aaaah, ju quheni Naim!” said Toma in Albanian – ‘So your name is Naim!’

“Me? No! Unë jam Nat – I am Nat.”

“Aaaah, okay, Naim Nat!”

We climbed into the bus and Toma announced to the passengers that my name was ‘Naim’.

“Nice to meet you, Naim!” the predominantly elderly mountain folk told me, shaking my hand one after the other. “Mussilman?” they asked. “Do you speak Turkish?” After a failed attempt to explain that I was agnostic at best, I realised that in Albania, a country with one main ethnicity split between four different religions, this meant very little to anyone. I was now saddled with a new identity: Naim the English Muslim. I was the only one there with a beard, after all.

Together we clattered down the mountain road, which dropped away just a few inches from the wheels towards rapids several hundred feet below. After an hour or so we stopped, and the woman in front of me motioned for us to get out. I understood that this must be Vladi’s mother. But where were we? On one side of the road there was a rather nondescript little house. On the other side, a goat track and some trees. I frowned. Had I really come all this way to stay here? We were hardly higher up than Thethi. The views of the mountains were pleasant, but far from stunning. And where was the castle?

I shouldered my bag, while Vladi’s mother, after some complicated manoeuvres with a brightly coloured, hand-woven cord, managed to strap all of her various sacks and packages to her back. I insisted on carrying her cardboard box of tomato plants, and took a step towards the house. She smiled and shook her head, pointed up towards the trees, and, setting a brisk pace, began to walk the almost nonexistent path that zigzagged up the hill and disappeared around a corner several miles up. I smiled. Maybe Vladi hadn’t been exaggerating after all.

The walk up to Pecaj was beautiful. And difficult. At every turn I thought we would come face to face with our destination; and every turn revealed another path leading ever more steeply upwards. Far above us rose the white-capped peaks of the mountains, while the valley-bottom dropped steadily away from us, becoming no more than a thin strip of vibrant green and turquoise. Hundreds of melt-water streamlets ran through pastures speckled with daisies and a yellowy haze of buttercups, feeding gushing waterfalls that we had to cross by hopping from rock to rock to avoid soaking our feet.

And then, after four relentless hours, we came to the still-functioning water-mill that marked the entrance to Pecaj – a village of ten ancient farmhouses, perched on the green lip of the mountain. Beside a three-storey building of whitewashed stone blocks, Vladi’s father, Zef Zakuli Vladaj, a spry, silver-haired old man with a big smile and an impressively aquiline nose, was waiting for us. He took me by the hand, and in an instant I found myself sitting out on a wooden balcony that looked out over a field that quickly fell away into nothingness, and beyond towards granite peaks that shone white above the treeline. Zef vanished for a moment and reappeared with a shot glass and a framed photograph.

The glass was filled with delicious homemade plum brandy, and the sepia-tinged photograph was of a fierce looking old man in a turban, with a huge moustache, a dagger and a pistol on his waist, and a well-stocked cartridge belt slung over one shoulder. “My grandfather – the bajraktar,” he told me proudly. The bajraktar was the valley’s hereditary headman, and the ultimate local authority on the Kanun – the traditional Albanian code of law. Zef was himself now the bajraktar, and was still called on to help resolve the occasional blood feud. But the more positive side of the Kanun – epitomised by the maxim that “the Albanian house is for God and the guest” – was also well in evidence in Pecaj. Never have I felt so welcome in the house of a stranger. Brandy followed brandy, and then came a huge spread of freshly baked bread, homemade cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, a rich stew of fatty lamb cutlets with beans, and plenty of raw onions, which were devoured by Vladi’s parents with a gusto I had never before witnessed.

Later, with darkness falling, we again sat around the little electric stove to eat wonderfully flavoursome hunks of locally reared chicken, washed down with more brandy. And then Zef and his wife bedded down on the floor and ordered that I take their freshly made-up bed. I didn’t argue the point; it would have been a rejection of the hospitality on which this lively old couple so prided themselves. I felt as though, having finally reached these mountains, I had stumbled into some sort of strange pastoral fairy-tale. And I liked it.

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Nathaniel Morris is a London-born, Mexico City-based writer, currently working on turning his doctorate on indigenous participation in the Mexican Revolution into a ‘proper’ book. He’s written about Mexican music, Roma culture and Balkan travels for The Wire, The Isis and The Sarajevo Notebook, as well as various websites.


Judge's Comment: An impromptu trip in the Albanian Alps, filled with quirky cross-cultural misunderstandings... 'I was now saddled with a new identity: Naim the English Muslim...' After a four-hour climb with our writer, an elderly  couple welcome us, total strangers, into their homes and their hearts. '...Zef and his wife bedded down on the floor and ordered that I take their freshly made-up bed.' Such magnanimity.