Rovena, where are we going today?” – is a question that’s becoming common among us. Often the answer is: “Today we’re going to my home village.” But she says that every day, so it’s more of a ritual than a ritual serious request for information, but today she is serious because she tries several times to call her family and announce us.
I ask her the name of her place and she answers “Gjerbës”. I type it into my navigation and learn that it’s not far. Rovena agrees that it’s only an hour away. So far, it has been very reliably wrong for all time and distance specifications.
We start the journey and quickly leave the treacherous asphalt to get onto a solid gravel road.
We feel ourselves invading no man’s land, the Albanian hinterland. When researching the country, I read about the kanun, Albanian customary law. Since many areas of the country are still far cut off from the rest of the world, local law and local traditions have largely survived in some places. This common law regulates disputes, marriages and property.
This kanun also includes customs that are very medieval. Never approaching women is part of it, as is paying a debt with one’s own blood or that of one’s family – the notorious vendetta.
I’m curious to see if we experience it ourselves.
The road winds and even if the pictures tell otherwise, the underground is deceptive. Here, too, there are more and more potholes. The switchbacks don’t want to end and it’s exhausting to be locked in this small car with five people. But when you step out of the car, you get scorched in the heat.
There is no traffic on this street. Only once does a rather old and dusty Mercedes come towards us.
Even with some altitude we gain it doesn’t get any cooler.
On the horizon we notice smoke from forest fires and hope that they are only small fires and do not set the whole area on fire. Often such fires are set intentionally to create arable land. But as hot as it is, we can hardly imagine that these fires can be stopped.
Rovena tells us something about her religion. She describes herself as Bektashi, which is a form of Islam. However, with the center of faith in Albania. A mountain not far from Rovena’s home town is a particularly sacred place, to which many Bektashi make pilgrimages. Some monasteries (tekkes) are home to dervishes of this religion, which was banned under the Hoxha communist regime. A great feast had just passed.
After a few hours we pass some strange ruins and want to explore them.
Rovena explains to us that the round buildings are old kolkhozes that were built during the communist era as central collection points for all farmers in the area. Now they expire.
We enjoy the peace and rest under a tree. It’s still hot, but it’s nice in the shade and the air is good.
Finally we reach the estate of Rovena’s family. Her parents and sister live here in a beautiful house in the countryside on the outskirts of the village.
The family welcomes us warmly and we can make an impression with our few words of Albanian. Except for Rovena, no one speaks anything but Albanian, so she constantly has to speak for
Apparently our friend didn’t share a lot of information with her family, because now the parents are impressed when Rovena tells us that we are from both Germany and the USA. You can tell that the father’s chest is expanding with pride, because the village probably doesn’t have that many international guests and Albanian hospitality is sacred.
Rovena’s father pours everyone his self-distilled rakya as a welcome. Then we follow him around the house because he wants to show us his property and his garden.
He leads us past the cherry tree from whose fruit he wins the rakya. He shows us more fruit trees, quinces, apples, peaches and apricots. He also grows his own vines and keeps a large vegetable garden that thrives on zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines.
We learn nothing of any medieval customs of the kanun. The fact that her daughter spends days driving around the country with strangers from abroad doesn’t seem to bother her.
Only one thing stands out: as soon as Rovena’s mother prepares dinner, Rovena and Gaby are drawn into the kitchen in a friendly but determined manner.
Uwe, Chris and I remain together with Rovena’s father. Since Rovena is missing, we don’t have a translator anymore and the conversation starts to falter.
But that’s not a problem either. As soon as there is a certain silence, the father grabs the bottle and pours each of us a new glass of Rakya, which disappears into our throats after a unanimous “gesua“.
This ritual repeats and repeats and repeats. We are happy when the food is ready and have a bit of trouble grasping a fork properly.
The food is fantastic. There is bread and meat in a spicy sauce, plus plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers and goat’s cheese. And of course more rakya. Gesua!
After the meal we want to get out, despite our advanced intoxication. It is now pleasantly warm outside and Rovena invites us to walk through the village. We don’t take long to ask and accompany you.
We reach a couple of buildings that are believed to have been built during the Soviet era and have not been repaired since. Rovena shows us her old school and the sports field in front of it. A volleyball net hangs invitingly over the field and there is also a ball.
We start playing each other over the net. It doesn’t take long for the village youth to show up and be happy to have guests. In no time at all, around twenty young people are on the field and hitting and smashing the balls around their ears until it gets so dark that you can no longer see a ball rushing towards it. However, only boys showed up. We didn’t see a single girl.
We return home to find Rovena’s father, grinning, waiting for us with a fresh bottle of rakya.
At night we move into the living room, where mother has prepared three sofas for us. The father turns on the television for entertainment in the background. There is a Champions League football game going on. He keeps pouring rakya.
During the night I wake up to an enormous noise near me. I turn on the light and see that the sofa has collapsed under Uwe. We have to laugh, put the sofa back together and go back to sleep.