Thursday, August 18, 2011

Parrullat (Slogans)

A catch phrase.  An advertising jingle.  A right-wing talking point.  The rote recitation of prayers over worn rosary beads.  All serve the same function of constantly reminding us of what the dominant forces in our societies want us to retain.  To internalize.  To accept without question.  It's a frighteningly effective technique that touches us all. 
Don't agree?  What comes to mind when I say, "You can take Salem out of the country, ...?"  If you are an American of a certain age you most certainly finished the phrase with, "... BUT, you can't take the country out of Salem!"  And you probably put a lot of stress on the "but" part of the jingle, just as it was originally sung back when it was still legal to advertise tobacco on American TV.  Granted, these light-hearted rhymes used to encourage us to buy smokes, or cereal, or B-O-L-O-G-N-A don't seem all that important, and certainly not sinister.  Move to the realm of political or governmental sloganeering and the power of these phrases begins to emerge. 
These Guy's Slogan Must Have Been: "Get Your Sh*t Straight!"
"Uncle Sam Wants YOU!"  "Loose Lips Sink Ships!" Powerful phrases which stir deep emotions even in those of us who weren't alive during WWII.  Governments know the power of slogans and, when they really have nothing else to offer their citizens, they excel in the art.  Albania was a classical example of that under communism.   
There is a great film entitled "Parrullat" (Slogans), made by Gjergj Xhuvani which illustrates the extent to which this obsession with slogans extended to under Hoxha's regime.  A commenter on the IMDB website summed up the movie very well: 

 Slogans' is a wry and entertaining commentary on the excesses of Communist Albania in the early 1970s. Andre, a new biology teacher posted to a school in a remote mountain village, soon finds the staff and students there to be far more concerned about the upkeep of the Communist slogans they have depicted on the surrounding hillsides in large white stones than the Three Rs. Failure to devote one's full time to this endeavour will supposedly earn the wrath of district party officials, although as the film progresses, it quickly becomes clear that the village itself seems far more obsessed with the task than the rarely seen bureaucratic overlords themselves, and failure to uphold the zeal for rearranging the stones becomes ammunition for the true believers to engage in witch hunts against anyone they have personal grievances. Andre and those of the village not fully enraptured with the community's purposeless raison d'etre find themselves forever treading through a minefield of contradictions, paranoia and party dogma that could explode around them at any moment.

The film is an excellent study in farce, and claiming to be based on real events, it is a very welcome and healthy progression for Albanian society to be able to laugh at the absurd, almost Orwellian blind alley they once stumbled down. Indeed, 'Slogans' takes many delighted pot shots at the futility of the locals' single-minded determination to pepper the hills with important-sounding slogans - the meanings of which they are unable to actually explain, such as the declarative 'American Imperialism Is Only A Paper Tiger' and 'Finish Successfully The Campaigns Of Our Harvests And Sowings'. The loss of a generation of children, so tired from spending their days building giant letters for phrases they cannot hope to understand that they have no energy left for actual studies is all the more tragic because of their excited determination and uncomprehending devotion to the task, reminiscent of the first generation of the children who grew up in Mao's China, becoming the most devout party members of all, yet the most ignorant.

'Slogans' also shows the way in which the real world continually steps in to foil the Party's designs and is punished for doing so. The giant letters are continually unearthed by fauna, romances evolve, and children play, all resulting in stiff penalties for the unwitting transgressors. One of the most touching scenes for me features Andre and a dirt-poor, illiterate herdsman, who implores the teacher to help him convince the local government to provide him with better housing. The poor peasant, whose lack of education precludes him from understanding anything of the local politics, is ultimately destined to be condemned for his ignorance, his plight an excellent metaphor for the absurdity and failure of the Communist ideologies, which have been stripped away of every last scrap of meaning and do nothing for the people who actually matter. Ultimately, any such efforts at normality are quashed, and the final message of the film is clearly that the people are slaves to the system they themselves willingly perpetuate, which is ultimately too powerful to resist. Thankfully, history has proved this not to be the case.

The slogans now are mostly gone.  You catch a glimpse of one now and then on a dilapidated factory wall or under the peeling paint of a rural school building.  In fact the farther you get from Tirana, the more likely you are to find slogans that have not been erased or painted over too well.  And you can't get much farther from Tirana than Shistavec. 
South of Kukes, snuggled up against the Kosova border at almost 1,500 meters above sea level, time passes un-noticed in Shistavec.  Life is controlled by the passing of the seasons, the coming of the snow, planting, harvesting.  Things change slowly. The old building still bear their parrullat.

"Socialist Albania Marches On" and "Glory to Marxism and Leninism!"

This one says, " The Seventh Five-Year Plan Is A Work Of The Masses."  Evidently the people were so overwhelmed by this work they were too worn out to re-do the whole slogan every five years.  You can make out under the word "Seventh" the outlines of the word "Sixth."  

The film had a wonderful scene where the district party official was inspecting the route Enver Hoxha was expected to travel through a village and he stops at a one-shack village and demands to meet the "keeper of the slogan" which is prominent on the hillside above the road.  It says "Vietnami do te fitoje", or "Vietnam will be victorious!"  The local leader points out that Vietnam has already won the war against the Americans and the village will be assigned a new slogan which must be ready before Hoxha's visit.  The new slogan is very, very long.  The old man protests that he is the only male left in the village and can't possibly finish the task in time.  The official relents and tells the old man to put up a slogan of his choosing.  During Hoxha's drive-by we see the new slogan "Mbahu Vietnam" created from the old slogan with minimal work.  "Hold On Vietnam!"
These little guys won't have to live through the tyranny of slogans their parents and grandparents did.  With luck, Shishtavec will be spared from the invasion of modern parrullat for some time yet. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It's Not Albania, But You Can See It From Here

Kosova is not technically in Albania, but its population is predominantly Albanian and figures large in the history of preserving ethnic Albanian identity.  It's also a beautiful city within a few hours drive of Tirana thanks to the recently completed 1-billion Euro road/tunnel project.  A sunny day, a quick hop across the border, and here we are! The pictures give a small taste of the city.

A River Runs Through It

Striking Ottoman Architecture

In The Old Hamam, Looking Up

Offered Without Comment

League Of Prizren Museum

Snow-Covered Albania In The Distance

Albania In The Spotlight

Seems this country continues to capture attention in a variety of ways.  Athletically, Albania will soon host the World Mountain Running Association Championships for 2011.  Evidently there are people who have no aversion to running up and down some of the most rugged territory in the world.  Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

On a less sweaty (I hope) front, Eliza Dushku continues her whirlwind tour of Albania,  The petite starlet is of Albanian descent on her father's side and has for several years taken an interest in her dad's native land.  She joins the distinguished list of, well, basically her and Jim Belushi who have received the prodigal son's welcome upon return to Albania.  She one-upped Belushi by getting a two-headed eagle tattooed on the back of her neck a few years back and now has done it again.  She was officially made a ctizen of Albania and presented a passport and identity card by the President of the Republic.  She says she is making a documentary to highlight the history and tourist potential of her adopted country. It remains to be seen if she will go "full Belushi" and make a cheesy commercial for a cell phone company to cash in on her regional fame.

Best of all, from the perspective of showing an authentic face of Albania, we turn to Sundance.  Josh Marston, director of the Academy Award-winning indie film "Maria, Full of Grace," has had his most recent production picked up by Sundance Selects for distribution in the U.S.   This means we may get a chance to see it soon.  The film, "The Forgiveness of Blood," is set in modern-day Northern Albania and tells the story of a family afflicted by an ancient curse: the blood feud. 

Like all things Albanian, I managed to be separated by two degrees from the making of this movie.  I got an e-mail from a production assistant who was looking for a hairdresser for one of the actors or somebody.  She found me via the intertubes and gave me a brief rundown on the production schedule and general theme of the flick.  She mentioned Mr. Marston's name but it did not click at the time who he was and I remember thinking, "Good luck getting your film made."  Over two years later Albania has the good luck to have its story told by a true artist.  I can't wait until we can get a pirated copy of it here in the videoteka!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fool Me Once ...

A few years ago I took a quick trip in August to Theth and have been meaning to get back again to further explore the area.  Alpine scenery, dirt roads winding over high mountain passes, authentic Albanian culture preserved by the remoteness of the valley.  What's not to like?  This year I chose the May Day holiday weekend to make the journey. I reasoned the valley would be even less busy with tourists as schools had not let out and the locals would be even more welcoming of paying visitors after a long winter's isolation.  Heedless of relatives warnings, I packed up the family, convinced some co-workers what a glorious spring outing it would be, and headed north for adventure.
The first clue things might not go my way was when I got lost on the paved portion of the road up from Koplik to Boga.  Usually I have a keen sense of direction and good memory for roads I've traveled before, but something went wrong and we ended up at a dead-end in a village I think might have been Rec but I can't be sure.  The road was newly paved and seemed to be "the way" rather than a little side road.  At least we got to see some cool old military storage tunnels.
Back on the right road I felt a little unnerved by my unplanned detour and this feeling of unease wasn't helped when the road ended in Boga.  I mean, it just ended.  I remembered the end of the paved road from the last trip.  The gravel road into the village seemed like the right one.  Then...... pffft, nothing.  Road dead ends in a creekbed. Map consulted.  Head scratched. Alternatives considered.  Against my best instincts, which now seemed to be sorely lacking, I took advice and drove up what looked like a driveway paved with boulders from hell.  After 200 meters we were back on familiar terrain with the road heading up the valley like I remembered.  Either the road had been recently re-routed or I had "sleep-driven" that section last time around.
Once the ascent started up the steep Qafe Thore road I started to regain confidence.  From here to Thethi there's only one road and it was looking mighty familiar.  The emerald fields of grass before the switchbacks start; check.  Broad views down onto Boga as we crisscrossed the face of the pass; check.  Amusing, yet tragic, roadside monument to a truck driver who lost his life on this perilous road and left one word for his epitaph engraved on a roadside marble slab: "Accidentally"; check.   I was on familiar ground now..... Oh, wait... make that "snow."  Near the top of the pass there was still snow on the ground.  By the time we crested the pass, drifts up to two feet high lined the road.  "It's May, for crying out loud.  This is not supposed to happen!"
The kids loved it, but the prudent adults in our party were starting to doubt my rosy depiction of flower-strewn meadows and sunny afternoons spent basking under the pines.  The lowering grey clouds did little to ease their doubts.  Then it started to rain.  Just a little.  At first.
Dropping into the valley, we began to pass the first of many guesthouses which operate in Thethi.  I knew of four from first-hand experience and had read of many more.  They all had one thing in common: closed, closed, closed.  Evidently the road had been cleared on snowdrifts only the week before and the owners of some of these places had not yet returned to gear up for tourist season.  I kept my hopes up as we finally entered the village of Thethi proper and began to see signs of life. Some people working on the roof of their house.  A truck rumbling down the riverbed, loaded with construction material.  The one sign of life we didn't see was electric light.
Four false starts later we settled on our accomodation for the next two nights.  The other places we visited that were inhabited were just not ready for guests.  They would have accepted us but it would have meant we lived with cement dust everywhere and climbed over piles of stone and wood to get to the bathrooms.  Our default home ended up being the guest house of Ndoc Gjecaj, smack in the "center" of Thethi.  They were eager hosts and soon arranged for our families to occupy two rooms on the second floor with a recently upgraded bathroom right next door.  They even moved a Dutch gentleman to a smaller downstairs room to make room for us.  I don't know which suprised me more; their willingness to accomodate us or the fact that we were not the only guests!
By now it was dark, the rain had started in earnest, and we were hungry.  Our hostess explained that the small hydropower station was out of service so there was no electricity.  Thethi is not connected to the national power grid so when the aging Soviet-built turbine conks out, it's back to the 14th century.  She assured us the village "specialist" was working on it and light was expected soon.  We were joined for a candlelight dinner by the Dutch tourist who was returning for his third trip to Thethi.  His guide, the 10-year old son of the guesthouse owner, spoke good English and helped relieve the kids boredom from being trapped in a dark, cold, wet vacation by their overly-optimistic father.  We rewarded Ronaldo with uniquely American treat of marshmallows roasted over a woodfire.
The lights did eventually come back on but with only enough voltage to push 5 watts of light from a 100 watt bulb.  Depressing.  Better to light a candle than to curse the Russians... or something like that.  As we tucked ourselves under a large pile of blankets and drifted off to sleep my wife snuggled close and whispered in my ear, "We are SO leaving tomorrow morning!"  I agreed but crossed my fingers, hoping for a bright sunny day to lift the gloom and change her mind.
Not so much.  Morning came in exactly as night fell.  A pale dawn and persistent rain.  Quick showers, stuff packed back in the car, and down to breakfast.  The fresh bread, yogurt, and jam warmed us up a little but was not enough to counter the negative effects of the rain and overcast clouds.  We paid our hosts and promised to return when the weather was better.
So, what is the proper reaction when your optimistic forecast for pastoral bliss turns into a nightmare ordeal of disappointment, discomfort, and gloom?  Apologize?  Lick your wounds and retreat tail between legs?  Hell, no!  Double down on the crazy!
"You see," I explained, "the road leading south out of the valley is shorter and stays open all winter.  It's only 40 kilometers and couldn't possibly be worse than the one we came in on.  Plus we'll get to see the storied Shala river valley, the canyons of the Kir river, and the famous bridge at Mesi."  I truly believed these statements (or had talked myself into believing them) and did my best to convince my companions in misery that this route would redeem what was until now a sub-par outing.  You know the old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me?"  We've now replaced that with "I will never travel with you again, idiot!"
Thethi - Not So Bad When It Doesn't Rain
I must say things started out OK.  The rain let up as we visited the church in Theth.  We had nice views of the tower of refuge, one of the finest examples of the defensive architecture used to harbor men who were at risk of revenge killings.  Th road out of town followed the river and was better than the one we arrived on.  The narrow gorge of Grunas was dramatic with the Shala river roaring below and the waterfall of Grunas putting on quite a display due to last night's downpour. 
 We continued without incident down the valley, green fields on each side set against rocky hillsides which rose to meet the still-snowcovered peaks which disappeared into the clouds.  As we passed the turn-off for Nderlysa, I mentioned there was a guesthouse there which might be a nice place to spend our second night.....  aaaand so we continued.
Nderlysa - Maybe Next Time
The Shala river valley is a gem.  Isolated, clean, green, dotted with occasional small farmsteads.  We continued along and spirits rose as we began to enjoy the pleasant drive through this majestic scenery.  OK, it would have been better if we could have seen the tops of the mountains instead of just clouds, but so far, so good.

Shala River In Spate

Just as our spirits began to rise, so did the road.  We crossed the river for the last time and started to climb.  It was as if they countryside had heard my interior dialogue about not seeing the tops of the peaks and decided to remedy the situation.  Evidently, you can see the tops of the peaks, you just have to get above the clouds.  We did that by scrambling up one of the most rugged roads I've crossed since... well since my last trip to Qafe Shtama.  Endless rocky switchbacks led to more switchbacks which led us into the clouds.  At times the views of the cloud draped mountains were fantastic with valleys below shrouded in mist.

This Is One Of Those Times

So Is This
At other times, the fog wrapped our vehicles in a shroud of thick cotton, limiting visibility to a few feet.  This may have been a good thing as on the few occasions when the cloud parted, the view of the road and the sheer drop to the left was terrifying.  When we crossed a bridge over a waterfall as the road clung to the cliffside, I quietly chanted, "Bring back the cloud.  Bring back the cloud!"  Eventually we dragged the bottom of the car over enough boulders to satisfy the road's bloodlust and it brought us down to the Kir river valley where we passed a small group of neatly attired children walking along the road.  We stared at them wondering what they could be doing all dressed up in this place while they stared at us wondering who could be so clueless as to take this road from Thethi to the outside world.  "That would be me."
Kir River In Grykemadhe
We continued punishing our vehicles and kidneys as the road wound through the big gorge known as Grykemadhe. It means 'Big Gorge" in Albanian. By now my fellow travellers were seriously doubting this trip would end. A lapidari on the side of the road graphically demonstrated this gorge had seen the end of many journeys, but not in the good way. The large slab of polished marble was inscribed with the names of 19 unfortunates whose journey ended prematurely in the 1950's when their vehicle plunged into the river. We kept our speed down and our attention up to avoid a similar fate.
Finally the rocky road gave way to new asphalt as we reached Prekal. What relief to be back in civilization! The village center was playing host to a political rally of sorts with a huge speaker blasting out the Democratic Party's theme song "Shqiperia Po Ndryshon" or Albania Is Changing. We smiled and were glad of the change which included asphalted roads..... until it ended at the other side of the village. Seems the pavement only lasted as long as the population density of registered voters! Back to the non-stop vehicular shiatsu massage.
I have vague memories of the rest of the trip as the road paralleled the river which cut a narrow canyon through the white rocks around Ura e Shtrejnte. I think I tried to comment on the unusal nature of these little slot canyons and their resemblance to similar features of southern Utah. The response? Let's just say it can only be described in polite company as "One finger, two words." The bridge at Mesi was as beautiful as the tourist brochures described, but seeing it from the upriver side was a letdown as you could also see the modern bridge just downstream. Or maybe it was a result of having all my motivation beaten from my skull by the road and the oppressive glares of my passengers who just wanted to go home. Still, it's a cool bridge worth seeing.
Please? That's My Bad Side!
Forty kilometers in six hours! Would I do it again?  Of course, but we've already established I'm a glutton for punishment.  The real question you should be asking is, "Should I go?"  And I think you already know my answer!