East European Experiments


Leaving Home, Returning
Art of Losing Things
Ladi's Story
Media Vultures

Albania map

About this project
Vlora Tourism Information
II. The Art of Losing Things
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First semester finals were coming, and so was the February 5 deadline when Gjallica promised to distribute its money. I remember when I first heard it; I was talking to the English department head about a final exam when yells came from outside, and a mass of rowdy-looking men were marching towards the university square. A good hundred police were escorting them. They went inside the square, and what did they do? Yell chants and jeer at the police; it was not a political meeting but a pep rally devoid of messages. No banners, no speeeches, no symbols of protests, just singing and swearing and shoving. About a hundred students and teachers were still inside the school building staring in amazement. And after 20 or so minutes, the mass of people started to walk back into town. Most of the onlookers inside resumed their usual business, but at the sound of scuffling noises, I glanced out the window again. Many men were throwing rocks at the policemen, and soon after the police started firing---right in front of my window!--people were scattering around, students were crowded around the windows watching the action outside although this clearly seemed to be the dumbest thing to be doing. I went into a room with all my first year English students. They were scared and excited and nervous. One girl, a 19 year old named Orgis looked over at me, smiling. "Do you ever have this kind of thing in America?"

As the days went by, the demonstrations continued every afternoon. The first demonstration might have been an anomaly, because each succeeding one seemed to be less threatening than the first. It was something you learned to detour around. I was reminded of journalist Thomas Friedman's description of downtown Beirut, where street shootings were so commonplace that the radio stations announced it every morning along with the traffic reports. Students had classes at a school away from the main drag. I bought my groceries earlier in the morning and took my afternoon nap earlier than usual. The Vefa supermarket (which was operated by one of the investment companies) closed down, so I had to shop elsewhere.

breaking rocks
Below the apartment where I stayed, men were breaking rocks on the sidewalk in order to hurl them at police.  

That Sunday morning, I woke up earlier than usual to do my morning shopping. I walked down the main street , intending to stop by another volunteer's house. As I walked along, I could see a small mass of people gathering together for another street demonstration. Before I knew it, the group had grown larger and were walking in the opposite direction towards a barricade of 20 or so riot police. The demonstrators (a rowdier group than the families that marched during the week), started throwing stones, and the riot police stayed crouched behind their shields, enduring the abuse. I scurried up to the 5th floor apartment of my friend Stuart. The first words to come out of his mouth when he opened the door was, "Why the hell are you here? Are you crazy?" We stayed in his apartment glancing out the window as the police were gradually outnumbered and started firing at protesters. But too many people were throwing rocks. Underneath our apartment balcony, middle-aged men were throwing down rocks to break them into smaller more throwable pieces. The riot police--20 against 300--had no choice but to retreat into a restaurant. The crowd followed them, breaking windows, trashing plastic furniture on the balcony and ultimately taking the riot gear, guns and clothes from the policemen inside. The crowd set a few things on fire and watched it burn, while I crept to the apartment balcony to take pictures. 30 minutes later the crowd had dispersed (I later heard that the policemen were escorted naked to another place), and the main street returned to its usual hectic pace. The memory of what had just taken place had seemed to evaporate. Even Stuart, rattled by the whole thing, asked me not to tell everything that had happened to Peace Corps. Because if I did, they're going to send us out of Vlore for good.

Little did we know that some journalist with a camera had caught almost everything on film. By afternoon, images of this event had been transmitted all over the world. But half an hour after it was over, I felt safe enough to walk 20 minutes to my apartment. The streets and sidewalks were busy with people--friends, neighbors and coworkers. At an intersection I ran into some shopkeepers who were neighbors. The crisis mentality had infected their spirits. I said hello, asked them how they were, told them what I had seen. "Sali Berisha eshte gomar" (Berisha is an ass) and hajdut (a thief). The people demanded the money that the government stole from them. When I tried to say that it was the pyramid schemes, not the government, that had stolen their money, the men--my friends--started arguing fierily that Berisha was a thief. More people were walking towards me to participate in the discussion. For once, I didn't feel safe. What was I doing trying to have a political discussion 500 meters from a riot area?

A teacher must personally put a student's grade into a libreze, a small red book which the female students clutch to as vigilantly as their virginity...  

The next day I arrived at the university to give students their grades for their final exam. Albanian universities have a system where a teacher must personally put a student's grade into a libreze, a small red book which the female students clutch to as vigilantly as their virginity, and in a hushed ceremony, each student's name is called and must witness while standing the verdict being etched indeliably into the book. It is almost as nerve-wracking for the teacher as the student. The students usually smile and thank you regardless of the grade; some show visible joy or disappointment; some cry or make some angry remark. Whatever the grade, the student always went and showed the new addition in the libreze to her friends. There was no privacy among university students. In this case, the grades I gave were lower than usual. (I was normally a pushover regarding grades). It was for a literary theory course, and although I'd done a particularly good job for the class, a contract dispute with the Albanian dispute caused the foreign teachers to miss classes for two months (a long story I'd prefer not to go into). I hadn't a chance to take any grades except the final grades, and I had only 2 hours to grade the essay exams (in accordance with university regulations prohibiting the exams from being graded at home or over a period of several days). And then, my grades had to be averaged with those of another teacher who substituted for me in the last week of my absence. These were my second year English majors, my best students and my favorite ones. I felt bad and almost apologetic about the unfairness of the grading system. Each student came up, picked up their copy book and libreze with a smile that masked disappointment. And then one, Marcela, starting sobbing in her desk about her grade (approximately a B-) that I had given her. Later, after all the grades were given, Marcela went up to me and asked in a tearful voice to explain why she received such a low grade. I knew Marcela well. She was a dark-eyed girl with strikingly beautiful black hair, the daughter of the city's district attorney. And although her English wasn't fantastic, she knew how to argue and did everything to ensure high marks. This wasn't the first time she was unhappy with her grades. She wasn't consciously manipulative, but her tears were hard to argue with, and this time I can't remember what I hadn't liked about her essay. I quickly scanned the test and tried to read my scrawls on the test, but Marcela had already left the room in tears. Fifteen minutes later Peace Corps told me to leave Vlore for the capital city, Tirana. I return to class and announce the news hesitantly to my students. I didn't know when I would return, and I certainly didn't expect that I wouldn't return again.

As I left the classroom I saw Marcela again, still red-eyed, with her tears dried away. I talked to her in the hallway, looking at her copy book more carefully and trying to fathom the reason for the grade. I tried to be patient with her. I think I found some explanation which really wasn't adequate. But what could I say? I couldn't change the world or the past or the inherent unfairness of the shitty grading system. And besides, I would be out of the city in half an hour. What could I do?

I still think about that hallway meeting with Marcela. How strange that in the midsts of a vortex of political violence that would oversweep her town over the coming weeks, this girl's preoccupation was her grades. And yet how normal! A recent letter from Elton, an Albanian student in Bulgaria, lamented not the fate of his country but a girl who rejected his romantic advances. Communist leaders made the mistake of thinking that individuals actually care about larger social and political issues. But the individual's first concern is himself and the world he inhabits. Frank Kafka, for instance, barely mentions in his diaries the war taking place in his country. We may criticize this blindness, but self-absorption is perhaps the first privilege taken away during times of crisis. It takes real courage to cling to it.

Next Section: Ladi's Story