Russian music with an Albanian conductor in a London church

THE ALBANIAN CONDUCTOR Olsi Qinami, who began studying music in Tirana (Albania), lives in London. He certainly knows how to get the best out of the orchestra he helped to found, the London City Philharmonic. On Saturday the 2nd of October 2021 he conducted the orchestra in a wonderful concert of music by three Russian composers, two of them from the 19th century and the other from the 20th. The musicians performed to a large and enthusiastic audience in the church of St James in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. Many of those present were Albanian speakers and amongst them the Albanian ambassador, Qirjako Qirko.

Olsi Qinami

The church, a fine example of Victorian gothic, was built to satisfy the spiritual requirements of the rapidly growing population of 19th century Paddington. Designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881), the building was completed in 1882 on the site of an earlier, smaller church that was built in the neo-classical style in about 1841. Apart from being a highly successful example of gothic revival, the church is notable for having been that in which the unjustly vilified writer Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884. Despite being a large, spacious building, the church’s acoustics coped well with the orchestral music.

The concert opened with a spirited rendering of the “Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin. This piece holds a special place in my heart, as I will now explain. In the late 1950s, my parents bought or were gifted an LP entitled “Classical Music For People Who Don’t Know Anything About Classical Music”, which I played often in my childhood. Its cover has a sketch of four people in the living room of a very modern looking house, even by today’s standards. A lady, looking pleased with herself or the music or both, stands next to a gramophone player clutching a record cover (sleeve). Behind her, three people are seated in armchairs: one looks puzzled; another looks a bit bored; and the third has fallen asleep with a drinking glass resting on his armrest. One of the tracks on this LP was the “Polovtsian Dances”.

Borodin’s piece was followed by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture”, with which I am less familiar than the “Polovtsian Dances”. Although this brief piece was nicely performed, it is unlikely to enter my list of favourite works by this composer in the near future.

After the interval, we were treated to an exciting and brilliantly performed rendering of the 5th Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. Olsi Qinami and the orchestra handled the constant alternation of the composer’s triumphant sounding sections of the symphony with its comparatively peaceful, lyrical sections with exquisite mastery.

Shostakovitch completed his 5th Symphony in 1937, soon after having been heavily criticised by Stalin for his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, first performed in 1934. Had the Fifth Symphony not been so well received and liked by Stalin, the composer’s future might have become exceedingly grim. As Olsi Qinami pointed out in a brief speech before conducting the symphony, the piece, which was praised by the authorities, contains subtle musical messages expressing the composer’s criticism of the ruling regime. Whether or not one was able to detect these messages did not matter because the performance we heard was exciting, uplifting, and invigorating. In the last minutes of the symphony, I noticed one of the violinists breaking into a wonderful smile, no doubt because she and the rest of the orchestra had so successfully mastered this complex and difficult piece of music.

An odd thought occurred to me whilst listening to the Shostakovich piece. It was composed in 1937, when life for ordinary people in the USSR cannot have been at all easy. Although the situation here in the UK in 2021 is hardly comparable to that distant time in Russia, we are also going through times far more difficult than anyone has experienced since WW2, what with the covid 19 pandemic, Brexit-related problems, and shortages in shops and filling stations. It must have been a source of great solace for Soviet citizens to escape from their daily problems, if only for a few hours, by joining an audience at a concert of fine classical music. Well, that is how Olsi’s joyous concert felt for me as soon as he lifted his baton, and the orchestra began to play.

A lost landmark and a treasured map

EVER SINCE I CAN REMEMBER, I have been fascinated by maps and collected them. I cannot say exactly why I enjoy them, but one reason is that I get satisfaction from aesthetic aspects of cartography. Another reason is that when I look at them, I try to imagine the reality that they represent, a form of virtual travelling. Whatever the underlying cause(s) of my fascination with maps might be, it is irrelevant to what follows because what I want to tell you is about a shop that I used to love to visit. It was Stanford in London’s Long Acre, a street not far from the old Covent Garden Market and Leicester Square.

Founded by Edward Stanford (1827-1904) in the early 1850s, his business was one of the best specialist suppliers of maps in the UK, if not the very best.  His company’s store on Long Acre opened in 1901, having moved there from Charing Cross. When I used to visit the shop to browse the lovely maps on display in the 1960s, there were two floors open to the public. The ground floor was the main showroom with maps of popular destinations that appealed to the majority of customers. The basement was less attractively arranged but far more interesting to serious travellers and map collectors such as me. There were no maps out on display down there. One had to ask a salesman to show you maps of areas that interested you. I believe it was there that I bought a nautical chart of the extremely remote French island of Kerguelen in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, a place that I had no intention of ever visiting.

In about 1966, my interest in Albania was born. I have tried to explain why this happened in my book “Albania on My Mind”, which I published in 2013, 101 years after Albania gained its independence.   In those days, not much was known in the UK about this small country in the western Balkans. Maps of Albania were not available in most shops, probably because few people visited the place, or were even remotely interested in it. So, I took the Underground from my local station, Golders Green, to Leicester Square. Stanford was a few yards from that station. At Stanford, I enquired about detailed maps of Albania, and was sent to the specialist map department in the basement.

The only detailed map of Albania available at Stanford was a 1:200,000 scale map with the information that it was made:

“Auf Grund der Oesterreichischer-Ungarische Kriegsaufnahmen und der im Auftrage der Albanische Regierung Von Dr Herbert Louis gemachten aufnahmen sowie mit Benützung italienischer und franzoesischer Karten” (i.e., ‘On the basis of the Austrian-Hungarian war recordings and the recordings made by Dr Herbert Louis on behalf of the Albanian government, as well as with the use of Italian and French maps’)

The map, which comes as two sheets, was up to date in 1925. A small map alongside the main map shows which parts of the large map were surveyed by whom and when.        Between 1916 and 1918, the surveyors were the armies of Austria-Hungary, France, and Italy. Some information collected by Baron Nopcsa between 1905 and 1909 is included in the map, as well as data collected by Dr H Louis between 1923 and 1924.

Baron Nopcsa was the Hungarian aristocrat and politician Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933; see: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-forgot-rogue-aristocrat-discovered-dinosaurs-died-penniless-180959504/), a founder of paleobiology and a specialist on Albanian studies. This one-time candidate for the throne of Albania created the first geological map of northern Albania. The German Dr Herbert Louis (1900-1985), whose name is prominent on the map, was no stranger to Albania. In 1923, he accompanied the Austrian geologist Ernst Nowack (1891-1946) during his research in the country, and in 1925, he was awarded a doctorate for his studies concerning Albania.

The map looked beautiful, I fell in love with it, and I knew I had to obtain a copy of it, but it was priced at 23/- (23 shillings: £1.15) for the set. That might not sound excessive today in 2021, barely the price of a small bar of chocolate or a cup of tea (in a scruffy café). But in about 1966, it was a huge sum of money for me, many times more than my weekly pocket money. I left Stanford, determined to save up for it and hoping that in the meantime the shop would not run out of copies of it. Eventually, I was able to purchase a set of these maps.

Delicately drawn, covered with contour lines, shaded representations of rocks and mountains, a variety of colours, the map shows how few roads there were in Albania in the 1920s. The tiny black dots, which represented buildings or small groups of them are often shown to be connected by tracks or footpaths, but many of them are a long way from any line of communication marked by the map makers. Most of the names on the map are in Albanian, but a few are also in Italian (e.g., Durazzo [Durres], Valona [Vlora], San Giovanni di Medua [Shengjin], and Santi Quaranta [Saranda]). Some words on the map are also in German.

I treasure this set of maps I bought at Stanford so many years ago and my memory of first being shown them in the basement of the shop. Yesterday, on the 15th of August 2021, first day of the 75th year of India’s independence, we walked along Long Acre, and discovered that although its name on the building is still there, the map shop is not. I had not realised that in 2019 this repository of records of landmarks and one of my favourite childhood haunts had moved from Long Acre to nearby Mercer Walk near The Seven Dials.

Feeling at home in the UK

ALBANIA. BULGARIA, AND YUGOSLAVIA are countries that I visited in the 1970s and 1980s. I visited the former Yugoslavia the most and acquired a smattering of Serbo-Croat, the main language spoken in that fascinating part of the Balkans. My limited knowledge of this language helped me get by in Bulgaria. My poor Serbo-Croat seemed to be well understood in Bulgaria. During my first visit to Albania in 1984, although we were prevented from communicating with the locals, there were plenty of examples of the Albanian language in the form of propaganda posters and political slogans written with numerous pebbles on the sides of mountains.

Until 1990, my vocabulary of words from various Balkan languages was of limited use to me whilst I was practising dentistry in England, first in north Kent then, after 1994, in London.

In the mid-1990s, I began treating patients who were refugees from parts of the then violently disintegrating Yugoslavia. Many of my new patients were from Bosnia and Herzogovina. Some of them had little command of the English language and were grateful that they were being treated by someone who knew ‘where they were coming from’, as the saying goes, and who knew some words of their own language. Sadly, some of them hearing me repeating what little Serbo-Croat I knew, assumed that I was fluent. I attracted a faithful following, some of whom were charming and a small minority, the opposite, On the whole, even the most difficult of my ex-Yugoslav patients were grateful and brought me gifts, often strong home-brewed alcohol sent from Bosnia, as a mark of their gratitude. One dear lady even brought me a pair of earrings that her uncle in Sarajevo had made specially for my wife.

Some years later, I began treating Albanian-speaking refugees from Kosova, a region of the former Yugoslavia that had and still has a population, which is mainly of Albanian heritage. Many of the recent arrivals from that country, who came to my surgery for dental care, had minimal or no English. My knowledge of Albanian was extremely limited. I could greet them with ‘diten e mire’ (‘good day’) or wish them ‘mirupafshim’ (‘good bye’), when they left my surgery, but I could say little else of any practical use. However, if I said ‘rrofte partia socialiste e shqiperise’ (‘long live the Socialist Party of Albania’) or ‘lavde shoku Enver Hoxha’ (praise Comrade Enver Hoxha’), which I had learnt from propaganda posters in Albania back in 1984, this caused many of my Kosovan patients to smile.  

Now that I have been retired for a few years, many of the new arrivals to this country from the troubled Balkans have settled down and contribute positively to life in the UK.  Only today, whilst waiting in the street for take-away coffees, we were joined by three other customers, workmen dressed in overalls. Seeing my furry ex-Soviet Army hat, they struck up a conversation. They were all from Serbia and were delighted that I knew some words of their language, if ‘samo malo’ (‘only a little’). I decided not to show off my knowledge of Serbian swear words that my friends in Belgrade had taught me long ago, and which I shall not share with you.

Just before reaching the café, we had been taking exercise in Holland Park. This park, like many others in London, has wooden benches, often inscribed with words to commemorate lost member(s) of a family. I was idly looking at a row of benches opposite the curious “Annunciation” sculpture, a structure consisting of horns and cogs, when I spotted one with words that are not English:

“Detikuar prinderve  tane  te dashur sabri dhe behije preci”

I recognised this as being in Albanian. Google translates this as:

“Dedicated to our dear parents Sabri and Behije Preci”

Until today, I had not seen a park bench with an Albanian dedication. Seeing this typically British form of memorial made me feel that members of communities that have had to flee from their war-torn homes in the Balkans are beginning to feel that Britain is now also a place they can call ‘home’, whose public amenities they are helping to cherish. 

A bookshop in my memory

I HAVE LOVED BOOKSHOPS ever since I can remember. In my teenage years, I used to haunt the shelves of Foyles, a multi-storey bookshop in Tottenham Court Road. The store is named after its founders William and Gilbert Foyle, who established their business at Station Road in Peckham in 1903. A year later, they moved it to Cecil Court, an alley near Leicester Square, which still contains several bookshops. By 1906, Foyle’s had a branch on Charing Cross Road, which is where I got familiar with it.

BLOG FOYLES by Tarquin Binary

In the second half of the 1960s, Foyles was a very well-stocked bookstore even if it seemed a bit confusing to its customers. There were separate departments specialising in various topics distributed over at least three floors. I discovered soon enough that behind the bookshelves in some of the departments there were yet more shelves, and these contained second-hand and remaindered books often at reasonable prices. It was amongst these hidden shelves that I found a rather useless but picturesque road atlas to Bulgaria, published in Bulgarian, and a wonderful detailed street map of East Berlin, “Haupstadt der DDR”. This map carefully avoided mapping the city’s contiguous West Berlin. It gave the impression that East Berlin bordered the edge of an area of uninhabited desert.

The language department was very interesting. It stocked books on every language from A to Z. It was there that I discovered a copy of “A Short Albanian Grammar” by SE Mann, published in 1932. This hardback book with dark green board covers was priced at 15 shillings (i.e. 75 pence). I was particularly excited to find this volume as my interest in Albania was already becoming quite well-developed. However, 15 shillings was way beyond my budget in 1968. That year, I began studying biology for the A-Level examinations that had to be passed to enter university. It was then that a chance to obtain this book arose.  

During the first year of the A-Level course, I entered the school’s Bodkin Prize biology essay competition. I wrote a long treatise on the life of the woodlouse. This was my first ever bit of serious research. I visited the Science Library, which was then housed in a part of the then disused Whitely’s department store in Queensway. There, I translated a long article written in French about the reproductive system of the woodlouse. From what I can remember, the woodlouse can reproduce asexually, a process known as parthenogenesis.  I was awarded the second prize. The only other contestant was my classmate Timothy Clarke, whose older brother, Charles, was to become Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006. Tim won the first prize.

Thesecond prize was 15 shillings to be spent on books. I asked the school to spend that money on procuring me the copy of the Albanian grammar book in Foyles. To my great annoyance, my choice was turned down and I was asked to choose again, making sure that at least one book was a hardback, because it was to be embossed with the school’s crest. I chose two books. One was a costly paperback on genetics and the other was the cheapest hardback I could find. To this day, I still do not possess a copy of Mann’s book.

Returning to Foyle’s, let me tell you about its payment system, which resembled, so I was told, the system adopted by shops in the Soviet Union. First, you had to find a book you wished to purchase. Then, you took it to a desk in the department where it was shelved. A shop assistant took the book and wrote out a paper bill. Next, you had to take the bill to one of the few cash desks in the shop. After queuing, you parted with the correct amount of money and then the paper slip was stamped. Following this, you returned to the department where your book was being held and queued up again to exchange your stamped paper slip for the book, which you were then free to take away. This laborious payment system survives today in the government run khadi (home-spun materials) shops in India. These old-fashioned shops, often smelling of moth balls, are picturesque to say the least.

Foyles was bewildering to the newcomer stepping off the street. Like the tiny alleyways in Venice, it was a great place to lose your way. However, if a customer was looking for something specific, this was not helpful. So, quite sensibly, there used to be staff standing near the entrance to help customers find what they were seeking. Some of these no doubt poorly paid staff had poor command of the English language. On one occasion I heard the following:

“May I help, Sir?” asked a young lady with a strong Eastern European accent.

“I am looking for choral music.”

The assistant hesitated and then pointed at the escalator while saying:

“Please try the engineering department.”

That was long ago, back in the late 1960s.

Foyles moved out of its home on Charing Cross Road in 2011 and occupied another building a short way from it on the same street. Its current premises occupy part of the former St Martin School of Art, where my mother used to work in the sculpture studios in the 1960s. I no longer shop at Foyle’s but remember it fondly.

 

Picture by Tarquin Binary from Wikipedia

An automobile in Albania

KRUJA small

This is an extract from my book “REDISCOVERING ALBANIA” (ISBN: 978-1326807108). The extract describes a visit to a historic town and problems with a rented car.

“When we have hired cars in the past, we have been presented with a car which is almost new and totally flawless. This was not the case with Enterprise at Tirana’s airport. We had ordered a Tata Indica car – I had chosen it because of the price and also because I had not driven an Indian car since 1994, the first and only time that I ever drove in India. Our Tata was distinctly tatty in appearance. It was covered in scratches and dents, all of which were carefully noted and photographed by the Enterprise representative and me. The upholstery was clean but looked well worn. He told us that the car was “quite new”; it had “…only done about 32,000 kilometres”. Dubious at first, I realised later that this unprepossessing vehicle was just the job for the terrain that we were going to traverse.

I had not driven for two years, the last time being when we hired a car in Palermo (Sicily) in 2014. However, I soon got into the swing of driving. I was pleased that we had not hired the car from an office in Tirana, where traffic is heavy, but from the airport where traffic is light. Soon, we left the main Tirana to Shkodër ‘highway’, and then began winding our way uphill to the small town of Krujë, which is where Albania’s hero Skanderbeg had his headquarters while he was combatting the invasion of the Ottomans.

Skanderbeg, the son of a noble-man called Kastrioti, was taken forcibly by the Turks to Turkey as a young boy (as many Christian youths were in that time). He was converted to Islam, educated as a soldier, and became a good fighter in the Ottoman Army. In 1443, aged 38, Skanderbeg along with several other Albanian soldiers abandoned the Turks. Soon, he took command of the Castle at Krujë, which became his headquarters from where he harassed the Ottomans, who were trying to invade what is now Albania. After many military exploits both in Italy and in Albania, Skanderbeg finally succumbed to malaria in 1468. This is a very brief account of the career of a man who saved Western Europe from becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. Albania did become part of the Empire, but in the words of a guidebook published in 1969 by Albturist, the state tourist agency of Albania:

Although their heroic efforts were not crowned with final victory, the Albanian people did not kneel down. Throughout the centuries that followed, our people continued their resistance against the Ottoman feudal regime.”  

The road became steeper and steeper until we entered the town in which level ground is a rarity. We parked the car on a steeply sloping street and made our way to a café, whose terrace provided a great view of the town’s castle, which overlooked us, and the old bazaar, which was several metres below us. From where we were sitting we saw one or two elderly people wearing what looked to us like traditional costumes, but most people were dressed in modern clothing.

We made our way along the shiny cobbled street that runs between the two lines of shops that make up the old bazaar. This has been extended since I saw it in 1984, but the extension has been made to look as if it were original. As in 1984, all of the shops in the bazaar are selling goods aimed at tourists: everything from tasteless ‘tat’ to some very lovely antiques. One particular shop contained superb examples of traditional Albanian handicrafts, some pieces including some wooden cradles for babies were quite old. Some weeks later in Tirana, we met, quite by chance, the shop owner’s cousin, the daughter-in-law of one of Albania’s foremost artists. Although the bazaar resembles what I remembered from my first visit in 1984, the town is filled with new buildings, including mosques and churches, which might have existed before Enver Hoxha destroyed them, but are now reconstructed or entirely new. Many but not all of the old Ottoman era buildings that made Krujë so attractive to me in 1984 have been demolished to make way for newer mostly less-attractive constructions. Nevertheless, Krujë, nestling in the wooded hills that surround it, is still a lovely place to visit.

After stumbling through the cobbled market, we began climbing the path that leads to the castle complex. On our way we passed an old (Ottoman?) structure that housed what must have once been the outlet for a spring. It was filled with fragments of old carvings including an eight-pointed star, and just above the outlet for the water two animals (lions?) facing each other.  Nearby, two young boys selling small round green plums asked where we were from, and then tried to sell us some of their fruit. Just before we reached the entrance to the castle, we came across a man sitting on a wall selling books. He was the author of the various volumes that he had set out for sale. We said hello to him, and told him that we would have a look at his books after we had visited the castle.

Parts of the vast area of the interior of the castle walls are still inhabited. Much of the space is covered with ruins of what had originally been Skanderbeg’s castle and then later the Ottomans’. These ruins include a solitary watchtower and the base of a large minaret. We had read that there was a Bektashi mosque, the Tekke (‘teqe’ in Albanian) of Dollma, in the grounds. A young man offered to guide us to it. Because the way to it was extremely rough and Lopa had a bad ankle, she decided to wait for me while I went to see the mosque. The young man explained to me (in good English) that he is a Bektashi, a member of a ‘sect’ of Muslims (although many Muslims disclaim them) that is halfway between Shia and Sufi. It is particularly popular in Albania, Bulgaria, and Anatolia. Unemployed as so many Albanian graduates are, he spends his time looking after the tekke and its surroundings. On our way along the path to the tekke, we met a woman, aged about 30, with her small child. She spoke some English, but mainly gossiped in Albanian with my new acquaintance. We stood next to what looked to me like an Ottoman hammam or bathhouse. It was, but it has been heavily restored with bright new roof tiles that detract from its character and beauty. After the woman left, he explained that when she had been orphaned, his family had informally adopted her and brought her up as a daughter.

The 18th century tekke is in good state of preservation. By the way, a tekke is a gathering place for Sufi and Bektashi believers. Its interior walls and ceilings are covered with delicately painted frescos and lines of Arabic or Turkish calligraphy. There are several tombs of dervishes within the mosque, and also some outside it in its grounds. Near the tekke, I saw some old stone fragments that looked as if once they had been part of an earlier structure, maybe a church. My guide introduced me to an elder man who lives in a recently built circular meeting place next to the mosque. The old man, I was told, had spent 12 years in prison during the Communist era simply because he was a Bektashi adherent. Some years ago I showed my friend Bejtulla Destani, an academic from Kosovo, pictures in a book by Albert Mahuzier who visited Albania in the early 1960s, in the years before Enver Hoxha outlawed religion. The book included a photograph of the imam or priest of the tekke in Gjirokastër. Without hesitating, Bejtulla said that it was most likely that that man would have been killed by Hoxha’s people soon after 1967.

The visit to the tekke took rather longer than I had anticipated. As we were making our way back to where I had left Lopa, a security man came rushing towards me shouting: “Mister Adam?” I nodded, and he led me not to where I had left my wife, but instead to the Ethnographic Museum, where Lopa was passing the time and also becoming concerned that I might have been kidnapped or worse. After being reunited, I took a look around the museum which was not only interesting on account of its exhibits, but also because it was housed in a very old Ottoman era building.

Our way back to the castle entrance took us past the impressive but incongruous fortress-like building, built in 1982 by the Communists to house a museum or mausoleum to honour Skanderbeg. I did not enter it in 1984, and not on this visit (because it is closed on Mondays). When we emerged from the castle, we stopped by the man selling books. He introduced himself as Professor Baki Dollma (he was related to the Dollma family after whom the tekke is named), a professor of history. Most of his books are in Albanian. We bought a couple that contained some English and were related to the history of Krujë. When he learnt that I also write books, the professor became very friendly, and kept addressing me as ‘Professor’.

We left the amiable professor, and returned to our car. I turned the ignition key, and nothing happened. I tried several times, and then assumed that we had been given a dud hire car. I rang Enterprise, and explained the situation, and was told that someone would ring me back in a few minutes. When this happened, I was asked if I had used the remote control. I told the person on the ‘phone that I had not the remotest idea of what she was talking about. I was told to look under the driver’s seat where I would find a little box on a cable, and that I should always press a blue button on it before starting the car. It worked. However, it would have been helpful to have known about this security feature when we took possession of the vehicle.”

 

Enjoyed the extract? Then read more!  Buy a copy ofREDISCOVERING ALBANIAby Adam Yamey. It is available from on-line bookstores such as Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and as an e-book on Kindle

Conducted by an Albanian

OLSI 1

 

The Victorian gothic St Stephens Church in Gloucester Road has great acoustics for orchestral music. On the evening of the 15th of June 2019, we attended a wonderful concert of “Symphonic Dances” performed by the London City Philharmonic Orchestra. I have been to several other concerts where this ensemble has played. This time the orchestra had been enlarged so considerably that it only just fitted into the space available for them at the east end of the church. This magnificent collection of first-class musicians was masterfully and sensitively conducted by the Albanian conductor Olsi Qinami, who studied at the Academy of Arts in Tirana and then at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris.

The ambitious programme consisted of three symphonic dance pieces, all composed in the USA. Variations on a Shaker Theme by Aaron Copeland (1900-90), son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, got the concert off to a tuneful start. This was followed by a memorably good rendering of the vibrant Symphonic Dances by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), son of Ukranian Jewish parents. This exciting piece contains familiar tunes from Bernstein’s musical drama West Side Story. After an interval, there was a piece, Symphonic Dances, composed late in the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who emigrated to the USA from Russia in 1918.

The three pieces were all by composers, whose families had ‘roots’ in the former Russian Empire, but each of them was completely different. All three were highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami seemed to be able to get the best out of the orchestra seemingly effortlessly. He stood on his podium calmly without any dramatic gestures and achieved wonders with his large well-disciplined orchestra, which according to the programme notes contains players from all over the world including two with Albanian names (Pranvera Govori, violinist, and Idlir Shytu, cellist).

In summary, I am truly pleased that I did not miss this concert. It was pure joy throughout. Although Olsi’s previous concerts have all been outstanding, “Symphonic Dances” was his best so far. I look forward to the next, which will be in St Stephens Church on Saturday, 5th of October 2019.

Foreign exchange

CAKOR 75 Summit

 

A chance encounter in the former Yugoslavia has stuck in my memory

Sometime in 1975, I travelled from Peć (now in Kosovo) to Titograd (now in Montenegro) by bus. I chose to take the route that went via the wild and difficult Ĉakor Pass that traverses the mountain range shared by northern Albania and Montenegro, where I was heading. We reached the highest point on the pass after driving around a seemingly endless series of tight hairpin bends, and stopped there to give the driver a break.

While I was wandering around the treeless, grassy summit, admiring the views into the valley into which we would be descending, a grubby little boy approached me. He said something to me in a language, which I did not recognise as being Serbo-Croat. It was probably Albanian. Somehow, he made it clear to me that he wanted foreign coins. I thought that he was either a beggar, or more likely, just a curious youngster pleased to have chanced upon a foreigner. I gave him a few British coins, and then he rummaged around in his pocket. After a moment, he handed me a few Yugoslav Dinar coins, and left. He was no beggar, after all, but simply a young fellow with a well-developed sense of fairness.

After leaving the Ĉakor, we wound through the mountains to Andrijevica, a small Montenegrin town, which was enshrouded in rain and mist. Then, we descended gradually via a series of deep wooded canyons towards Titograd. All I saw of the town on that occasion was its bus station.

 

Picture shows view from the summit of  the Ĉakor Pass

Two names, one country

The Albanians now refer to their country as “Shqipëria”. Almost everyone else calls the same country “Albania” or some variant of this.

Here is an interesting article that discusses this difference: http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=133209

Incidentally, the national symbol of Albania is a two headed eagle. This is appropriate for a country known by two names!

Bollywood in Albania

Films from India made in Bombay, the so-called Bollywood productions, are popular all over the world. When we visited post-Communist Albania in 2016, 31 years after the death of its long-time dictator Enver Hoxha, we encountered Albanian Bollywood fans in several places. The following three excerpts from my book “Rediscovering Albania” describe some incidences when we met local lovers of Bollywood.

In the northern town of Pukë:

ALBOLLY 3

“Our shopping expedition continued in a tiny stationery/gift shop, where I bought a notebook. The sales lady wanted to know where we came from. When she learnt that Lopa came from India, she pointed at a small television set hidden under her counter. We saw that she was watching a Bollywood movie with Albanian subtitles. Every afternoon on Albanian television, there is an episode of a Bollywood TV soap opera. Those ‘in the know’ never ring ladies between certain hours in the afternoon so as not to disturb their enjoyment of this addictive show. The inter-continental cultural traffic is not one-way: in 2013, the Albanian actress Denisa Gokovi starred in a film (Phir Mulaquat Ho Na Ho) directed by the Indian Bobby Sheik.”

In the southern city of Korçë:

ALBOLLY 2

“Weary and hot, we tried to retrace our steps back into the centre. Quite by chance, we began walking along a road that led straight to the Mirahorit mosque, which was closed when we arrived. However, some men were gathering outside it, and soon the imam arrived to unlock it for afternoon namaaz (prayers). They were all friendly and welcoming. While we were waiting, we were joined by a German lady, who was keen to see this mosque that dates back to 1496. Restored by a Turkish organisation in 2014, it was worth waiting to enter it. The interior was decorated with attractive frescoes depicting various mosques and Muslim pilgrimage places including the Kaaba.  One of the men who was waiting with us to enter the mosque asked Lopa where she was from. When she said India, he exclaimed “Rye Kapur”, that being his pronunciation of Raj Kapoor, a well-known Bollywood film star. As we had already discovered in Pukë, Bollywood is popular in Albania.”

In the large seaport of Vlorë:

ALBOLLY 1

“This small building of great historic importance was dwarfed by huge cranes and ocean-going freighters in the nearby port area. Its windows had slatted wooden shutters, and there was a balcony projecting over its main entrance. It was from this balcony that Ismail Qemal read the declaration of Albania’s independence in 1912. Vlorë, which was invaded by the Italians in 1914, was the country’s first capital. In 1920, Tirana assumed this role.

We were guided around the museum, and shown photos, documents, and furniture, connected with the historic events that occurred around 1912. Driton kindly translated our lady guide’s interesting commentary into English. Sadly, we were not permitted to stand on the historic balcony because it has become too fragile. As we moved from room to room, I noticed that our guide was becoming more and more interested in Lopa, touching her occasionally. At the end of the tour, she told us that she loves watching the Bollywood films and soap-operas broadcast on Albanian television. It was a pity, she said, that Lopa had not been dressed in a sari. Lopa’s arrival in the museum had meant a great deal to her. It was as if one of the characters in the films, which she enjoyed watching, had stepped out of her television and into her museum. She said that Lopa was the first female Indian visitor to the museum since she began working there eleven years earlier.”  

Prior to 1991, Albanians would not have been able to watch Bollywood or even Hollywood productions. Under the dictatorship created by Enver Hoxha, which lasted from 1944 until late1990, the Albanian population was almost completely isolated from external influences. A few people watched Italian TV at their peril. If discovered, they would have risked dire punishment. Today, everything has changed; Albania is wide open to foreign culture.

 

REDISC ALB cover

REDISCOVERING ALBANIA by Adam Yamey is available from:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, Kindle,

and your local bookshop (will need to be ordered)