It is a cool evening in late spring, in Valbona.
This is a place where seasons last very long. Winter, while it happens, is a lifetime of long snow, a black and white world of silence and fleeting daylight. There is a daily battle to feed yourself and your animals, to gather firewood, dry it, then burn it and keep warm, and in between long, long hours of sleep. Summer is a riot of lush green-ness, in which one thing no sooner ripens, than it’s replaced by another – strawberries, cherries, rasperries, watermelon, thona, hazelnuts, chestnuts, pumpkins. They are, to paraphrase Anne Sexton, “Too many to eat.” We no sooner go to bed, than we’re up again. And then, suddenly, it’s over. Again. In between, are these sweet and enticing days – Spring and Autumn – when it rains and it rains and it rains, and then suddenly, brilliantly, comes one perfect, un-ripe but promising, day. This day is one of those.
It rained for four days before today, and for four days after today. But today, the day of our first “annual” (we hope – someone once laughed at me for calling something “The First Annual” which they said was by definition an oxymoron) Pastrimi Pranverore – Spring Cleaning – the weather was bell-clear perfect. The sky was blue, the mountains around us were splendid and soaring and the earth was beginning to smell good. The sun was warm, but the breezes were cool. The beautiful blue Valbona River chuckled.
I spent the day with Alfred’s cousin Petrit, and 42 local school children, and assorted teachers and parents. We wandered the valley for four hours, picking up trash. For me, coming from New York, we do not have so much trash here. It is so beautiful. But Alfred tut-tuts about trash, and after picking up bits of candy wrappers, plastic bottles, and finding dumps of baby diapers (oh all hail progress!) neatly bundled with their self-afixing tapes floating in the river in little pustulant herds, I can see his point. Further down the valley, where it opens up and becomes most heart-rendingly beautiful, the road is becoming lined with little impromptu dumps – where people inclined to be tidy have lumped together their undigestible garbage, butane canisters, bits of rugged athletic shoes, indecipherable plastic bags once containing who-knows-what, the odd car carpet and, oddly, a pillow. Well, nevermind, because we were there, to pick it all up, and if we could not conquer the floating diaper caches in their entirity, we did fill 100 bags with trash (more-or-less – some of the children were very little, and their idea of “full” cannot be judged harshly by those of us with more height and years), and for now the Valley is very clean again. We piled it all, some three trucks full, on a sand bank by the river, and came back the next day to douse it in gasoline and set it on fire. Here it would not burn any trees. Of course, here, it also went into the air, and the bits left will be reliably washed away by the river, downstream, to where, for one, we live, but others too. But there. Something has to be done with it.
Today, on the today I began by writing about, it is a cool, late-spring evening in Valbona, and having worked hard all day, the community has come together to celebrate. The children, all 42 of them, are seated, two by two, at a long table of honor. A feast has been prepared, and local musicians are playing traditional music. I, the American, have been dressed in an inherited grab-bag of traditonal clothing, as are several of the children including notably 3 of the boys. Another young girl is in a sort of pink dream of a ball gown. The children are all dancing. Blerta, the English teacher, gets up and does a spirted jig. Admira leads a group of studiously po-faced adults in a circle dance. I join in with my borrowed floating scarves, thick wool skirts, and bright blue socks.
As it happens, there are several tourists at the party, or, as they’re called here, “guests” or “visitors.” When not dancing, I sit at the table with two Americans who are staying with us, and whose pre-stated interest in local culture was in fact a large part of the impetus for this party. Carol is here visiting now with her husband who plays the Kaval, but the week before she was coincidentally in nearby Bajram Curri, working, monitoring the Albanian national elections. I’m in the pale middle ground of ignorance on the elections. For me, the elections mainly meant that Alfred was gone all day. As the “mayor” of something – perhaps our little hamlet? – he was responsible for collecting the voting boxes and delivering them to Bajram Curri. I never knew, before this day, that he was the Mayor of Anything, and anyhow this is an English word that is used here for anyone in charge of anything, so I’m not sure what it means. I only know he was away all day, and long into the (rainy, rainy) night, and I was scurrying to keep the restaurant running, and to send him food, and to be ready for him to come back at night. That the elections happened, I know. That there has been much discussion of them, in grumbling, growling, growing undertones, I know, but I haven’t had all that much time, what with the weather and life, to find out so much, so I’m curious what Carol can tell me.
Thus we begin chatting, on this fine spring evening, with the children dancing around us, and the valley clean and sparkling.
“How was it?” I ask, and Carol says something like “You know, there were a few sloppy protacol mistakes, but on the whole it was pretty well ordered.” And that is good, except . . . . except . . . .I find myself wanting to say: It isn’t during the election that the corruption happens. At least not here. It’s before. It happens when the existing government goes around offering to put people on public assistance in return for their votes. That’s when you should be watching. Of course, when this public assistance amounts to just under 25 dollars per month for a whole family, you could argue that if that price is worth selling your vote for, then probably that money is so needed that they ought to have it . . . but still. It’s not “rregul” or straight. And it’s even less straight when that money isn’t paid to anyone, as it isn’t occasionally, because the local government Head has a better private use for it, and of course no one can complain, because if they do, someone will find out that half of them never should have had it at all. Or, the corruption happens when the people here proposed an alternative candidate for the Democratic Party – an educated young journalist with a track record of good work, against the corrupt and blatantly self-serving incumbant – and the nomination was flat out refused by Albania’s Prime Minister Berisha himself. The man was simply not allowed to run. Take this pig, or no pig, was the message. Except that no pig isn’t even an option, come to think of it. It’s THIS pig or – what will you do about it? It happens when Valbona has unanimously not voted for the corrupt incumbant for the last several elections and is none the lest served with him, and has to live out yet another four-year-long term of punishing neglect at best, and harrasment or theft at worst. The punishment of being law-abiding, when the law is itself against you.
And it happens when 42 very small school children pick up the trash that should have been removed by a functioning municipal government. It happens when the local school teachers and farmers lucky enough to own trucks organize themselves to collect it all, and then don’t know what to do with it – and none of their letters to Komun government or Albanian ministries are answered, so they burn in on the banks of the bluest river in Albania, the bluest river in imagination.
It is a cool and perfect spring evening in Valbona. The cuckoos are calling, and woodpeckers, Qukupiku, are as well. High overhead golden eagles fly. Some crazy beetles climb with enormous
antlers over everything. Climb on my fingers and peer at me. The bears are awake, and the wolves
are present but receding. The flowers are rioting. The children dance. And the cows, for some odd reason, stand and scream at the place where last year, a bridge used to be.