And then America
You know, my aunt had an affair with one of the best-known Albanian actors back in the 80s. My mum just told me and it was one of the few pieces of information that I enjoy when I talk to her. They say my aunt was a real beauty back in the days, when nobody owned a car in Tirana. When she marched down Myslym Shyri Street, people stopped to stare at her like she was scarce goods from Italy. I always imagine her like Monica Bellucci in Malèna, for there are only two or three opaque black-and-white photos of her from that time. Anyway, she had an affair with this really cool guy. I’m not mentioning his name in order to protect them, but also because obviously nobody here in America knows him. I can only say that it would be like if you found out that your aunt had an affair with Tom Cruise or whoever was hot here in the 80s.
I was two years old when we moved to the US. My mum says ‘we moved’, my dad says ‘we were forced to move’. He wanted to stay in a country governed by turmoil. Now he’s glad he didn’t. Now he sits with his Albanian relatives and friends on our fake-leather couch in the living room, sipping raki and eating byrek, and shakes his head like the wise men of the village. ‘Nothing will ever become of that country’, he says. Everybody agrees. They drink to their health. My mum hates it when he talks like that. According to my oldest brother, she organized everything. My father was constantly crying like a baby because he didn’t want to leave his family and friends, his Tirana cafés with all the gossip about neighbors and politics. In my opinion, though, he never left. He does pretty much the same here. He goes to work, then comes home and watches Albanian TV. On the weekends, my parents invite their Albanian friends over or vice versa. They speak Albanian and eat Albanian and their eyes fill with tears when they hear old Albanian folk songs. They do throw American English words around during the conversation and they have also acquired the skill to follow American Football, but I can say that they are totally different from the parents of my American friends.
The color red follows us like a trail everywhere we go. The color of blood, which covers the Albanian flag. It amazes me that we’ve crossed an ocean to come here and yet the Americans feed the same patriotic feelings to their kids. Albanians are very proud people and so are the Americans. Proud of their country, their flag, their guns. And yet, if you ask any of them about historical occurrences, nobody can give you a correct answer. I’ve never understood this. I’m not proud of any of this. In general it’s hard to be proud of humanity these days.
I love stories. There’s this story my uncle tells us every year on New Year’s Eve on how he used to dream about America when he lived in Tirana as a young man. My uncle is a great storyteller. He’s one of the few people who can narrate the same story over and over again and you will still find it fascinating. Of course he will need some raki and meze to get warm. First, he looks at the shiny, sweaty faces around him; at the women wearing thick makeup and sporting massive hairstyles; at heavy-bellied, hairless men with big moustaches; the small children with dark, Albanian eyes in Ralph Lauren clothes, then he raises his raki glass and shouts to their health. Everybody laughs and drinks, except my middle brother. He hates this ‘kind of vulgar show that is not even displayed like this anymore in Albania’. He wears black and drinks red wine. Every year he says that it’s the last time he will attend this ‘eye-insulting gathering of ancient Albanian fossils’ and yet he doesn’t seem to be able to detach himself from the herd. "I do it for mum”, he mumbles to me every year. "I don’t want her to cry. It’s important for her and I don’t care about one single night in my life.” "Look”, I tell him, "do whatever you want. If you’re not here with us, where would you go?” We live in a small town and my brother isn’t 21 yet. Everybody can drink at Albanian-American parties. Our five-year old cousin had his first alcohol poisoning at the tender age of three. So, after my brother has calmed down, I’m able to listen to my uncle’s story.
"You know”, he starts, spitting raki into the audience, "Kiço knows very well, don’t you Kiço, how Kiço and I used to take Timi’s old pick-up that he used to carry chicken from Kavaja to Tirana, hahahah, you remember, right?” Those who are older than 40 shake their heads in recognition and the men shout ‘Hear, hear!’. My mother smiles because she sat once among a group of ginger chicken on the said pick-up, but that’s another funny story. "So”, my uncle continues, "one day we take the car, hahahahah, and Kiço is driving, but he’s full with raki, you know, and so we crash into the door of a house outside Kavaja. The chicken literally flew away” - he can’t breathe at this point from laughing, his yellow teeth and black holes all disclosed to the spectators, who by that point are hysterical with laughter. The face of my middle brother crumples with disgust, but even he can’t unglue his stare from my uncle’s magnetic teeth. Suddenly uncle gets serious. "God bless Timi”, he adds. Timi passed away in Kavaja a couple of years ago. He had diabetes, but didn’t take it seriously. He loved bread and meat and used to carry salami sticks around with him, in case he got hungry in the middle of something. I’ve seen pictures of my uncle and Timi with a salami stick in his hand. Timi’s sudden death shocked everyone. He was ‘so young and he had never seen a doctor in his life’. Nobody in Kavaja understood how such a lively guy could just disappear, just like that. My uncle also couldn’t believe his eyes. I tried to explain to him that diabetes was a deadly disease if left untreated, but he wouldn’t listen to a then 6 year-old girl. 'Fill me a glass', he answered.
The room fills with cigarette smoke. Uncle looks like a caricature of a temple priest in Ancient Greece. "We got out of the car and entered the house. The moment we saw the people inside we sobered up. One of them was a well-known high government official. He was drinking with some other men and they were listening to Hotel California. I’m telling you, I had never heard a more beautiful song in my life.” Uncle’s glassy, red eyes glare out of the grey smoke and his rough voice delivers the climatic sentence: "This is how I fell in love with America.” Some of my cousins clap their sweaty hands. Most of the boys find him ridiculous, but it never fails to move me, that sentence. How they ate and drank with the guys in that house listening to an Eagles song. My uncle and Kiço went to prison for that evening, which my uncle describes as one of the best days of his life. The government man had an accident. He drowned that night in the sea, near Kavaja. Uncle never tells this part of the story. He wants to make people laugh, not cry.
My brother offers me wine. "A suitable drink for young ladies”, he smiles. I hate him when he plays the older, wiser brother with Harry Potter-glasses. I look over to my mum. She has tears in her eyes. She doesn’t drink. My mother lost her father to alcohol. At those moments I’m glad they have found some peace in America. That they can sit on the couch and eat byrek like in the old times, but without the fear. I just wish they wouldn’t dwell too much in their past, in the chicken stories. Or criticize the modern world, which has gone down the drain with everybody doing what they like, coloring their hair pink and having all kinds of relationships. I mean, my aunt had an affair in the 80s! I don’t know, though, if they define affair like they do here in America. Probably he just wrote her poems.
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