Korce - steel lid

16 JUL

KORCE-VOSKOP

I was the only one awake in the morning, actually Bashkim was already awake and out of the house.

After stepping out onto the balcony to view Korçë in the morning light for the first time. I pondered about how unreal this all felt. A mental shock caused by being in Australia the morning before, then waking in Korçë.

Aleks came out of his room rubbing sleep from his eyes and told me were going to have breakfast at the hotel next door to his apartmentBashkim was already there enjoying a coffee and cigarette.

The design of Konti Hotel café looked like a set where pair of Sigurimi Spies would meet to trade information. The tea, eggs & olives on fresh barley bread was fresh & deliscious. Though they had no idea how to make toast. They didn’t even have a toaster. When they were asked to toast the bread they essentially just heated it up – a first world problem if I ever saw one. I gave up trying to explain and just enjoyed my breakfast.

The first port of call for the morning was Dion Travel – which is Aleks’ business. He had organized a morning tour with one of his lovely employees named Bruna, a local girl who showed us some amazing sights.

Firstly, the oldest first bank in KorçëThe first cinema in Albania – Cinema MillenniumKorçë library and our lovely tour guide BrunaGuri Madhi Art gallery – which was unfortunately closed for the day. Italian Bomboniere period architecture. First Albanian School.  Anonymous Warrior Monument – Partisan. Various bazaars, shops, cafes, apartments and houses in between specific tour sites we were visiting.

One of the highlights of our tour was the National Museum of Medieval Art, which housed the largest collection in the world. Bruna was a most interesting guide very knowledgeable about Korçës history. No photos were allowed inside, so I purchased a small color booklet for $2AU – scammed! The Museum was setup inside a cathedral. The steeples are no longer there. Like most cathedrals they were destroyed by the Communist Government when religious division was banned.

Parked just next door to the Museum was a pimped out Mercedes Benz Hearse. We continued on with the tour, but rather than a ridged itinerary we started to just meander to our destinations. Sometimes not even getting there, but diverging to other points of interest. 

We headed for the Vangjush Mio Park. The route there was dotted with these Communist period Art Deco sculptures. The locals thought they were eye sores. I believed different. You make up your own mind!

Cobble stone roads that lead to public monuments to Communism were up to 500yo. I thought the icon for this bank was very reminiscent of the Russian Hammer and Sickle. Stopped for Giros, which come with chips inside the cone shape wrapped bread. Well I guess even these guys made it in.

Tour then headed for the oldest Gami (Mosque) in Korçë. It was being renovated. Christianity and Islamic Albanian lived side by side without religious persecution or violence for many years. The tour continued on, we wanted to go off road so to speak, to see the back streets where tourists would normally not venture to. It was with this attitude on this side of the city that we stumbled upon the Old Bazaar, which has been in operation for several hundred years. The shop stall owners were predominantly Egyptian.

It was time to make our way back to Dion Travel as the time was getting on and we had other stuff to do. We said our thanks and goodbyes to Bruna, as well as give her a shining reference to Aleks regarding her knowledge and candor on tour. We were immediately took off to the local Korçë Brewery for lunch and meet cousin Serif. 

After lunch I finally got a mobile sim card from Albtelecom Eagle. $12AU for unlimited data, unlimited calls to other Alb Eagle phones and 400 minutes to all other carriers. Unfortunately the sim did not roam outside of Albania. Which wasn’t a big deal deal until I ventured into Macedonia later on. Signal reception was reasonable.

Apparently Albtelecom is one of the only mobile networks that international security agencies can’t trace you through. In other words I think maybe the Albanian Mafioso probably have something to do with telling the worlds security agencies to get lost – very Albanian think to do!

After sorting out a sim card Serif offered to drive me to Voskop in his new BMW SUV. It was a very exciting moment. Finally after all these years I was on-route to Voskop. Possibly unintentionally, to set the mood, Serif played a CD of traditional Albanian village music as we approached my dads village.

I was quiet & reflective, thinking how my dad may have walked this path for first 15 years of his life. Probably with a donkey in toe. Serif was silent, not a word, I think he picked up on my reflective mood. I finally broke the silence by asking him to let me know when the village is in sight. He immediately respond by pointing to the roof tops just peeking out ahead of us a couple kilometers.

We enters the outskirts of the village, which he described as being much larger and developed than it was even back as early as the 1991’s – the end of Communism. We crossed a small river and headed into the heart of Voskop. Greeted by a concrete pylon which reflected the original history of Voskop during the Communist period.

It was easy to find Gurali’s house as the directions referred to the house being next door to the Gami (Mosque). It was so warming to be greeted with such love and smiles and hugs from people I have never met or even communicated with in my whole life.

It was also quite odd to be greeted in a room full of people, in one little room there was Fezilet, Bora, Mariglen, Stolie, Xhoni, Amirildo, Meco, Ramadan, Milen, Marcella, Gurali and Husen. With Tatjana and (kids) Xhildi and Orjada on a Skype session. I am guessing they set up the Skype session to help me settle in as the whole thing was incredibly overwhelming.

We talked and laughed and joked and even brought to tears with the whole affair. Stolie’s daughter Bora was a godsend as she could speak excellent English, which made communication so much easier. Bora became my official Albanian Voskop translator from that point on.

Eventually Gurali suggested we go for a walk to see the house my dad grew up in. The house was apparently the first house in the village. We stopped at the back gate first. Then walked around to the front of the house. I was quietly excited but, at the same time I was observing how I felt because up until this point in time I had a mental impression of the house for all these years and the real house and impression were about to collide.

Gurali, Bora, Milen, Mariglen and now Vjola, Su Ela and another young girl had joined us out front whilst I was walking around the yard looking for the almond tree that dad took a cutting from and brought to Australia when he visited c1984. Couldn’t find the actual tree in that yard.

It was time to venture inside the house. The kids were all silly and playful. It was interesting how they had no connection to what was happening in my reality, this special moment of connecting to the house dad grew up in. To the kids it was just another moment in time, nothing so special about this moment. Where as I was existing in a fusion between old memories of stories and photos from a time long gone and new experiences in the present moment. I was essentially lacing these new experiences with commentary from the past, neatly placing these new memories into predefined compartments that have been prepared over years.

It was getting very dark by now, no street lights, so I couldn’t really see much inside at all. Couldn’t take any successful photos if I tried. In fact my phone battery died completely just as I (literally) took my first step into the house!

After walking around a dark house and talking for some time whilst the kids were having fun, it was time to head back to Gurali’s house for dinner.

Rice, chicken, salad, fasule (my favorite) & the yummy dessert sheker pare. The tastes of home were waiting for me. I missed my mum very much at this moment!

I was still overwhelmed for the rest of the evening. And over dinner I was excited and eager to get into the minds of all the amazingly warm souls who were on the dinner table with me. Bora was the key to unlock the oral stories of my dad that some of these people held in waiting.

By the time we left the dinner table it was time for bed. Gurali insisted that I sleep in his bed upstairs whilst he slept on the couch downstairs. I tried my hardest to refuse the offer thinking how wrong it is that a 65+yo man sleeps on the couch whilst I get the lord treatment. But his argument was just too bullet proof, I couldn’t refuse any further and resorted to enjoying his humble offer of a warm comfortable bed to sleep on.

A jam packed day filled with non stop new experiences from the moment I woke to the moment I put my head down on the pillow to sleep.