It was the first time tears had come to his eyes today, but it wouldn’t be the last. Petrit, well, he’s a big man. In my pop-culture infused world, if I didn’t know him, my mind would have passed him off as an Albanian gangster. Under-stated dress, expensive watch, dark shades. Superb beard. Not a high roller, but a class act all round. It took about twenty minutes of being with Petrit, to realise he’s a model citizen not only for his small village home of Tushemisht, Albania, but for the entire world.
During my days of travelling, the tough questions just keep coming. In Pogradec, Albania – a growing city sitting on UNESCO listed millions of years old Lake Ohrid, complete with a backdrop of snow capped mountains – I saw the central beach strewn with litter. I wrote about the sights and smells of a dead dog, laying in front of a cluster of new multi-story hotels, right in the middle of town. Although Alexander the Great once toured this area, the potential for modern day tourism, and for bringing revenue into a city that really could use it, is obvious but unrealised. Why is that?
Another tough question. Through the Balkans and around the world, communities and entire nations are divided by religion, often to the point of bloodshed. Why is that? Initially, pure incredulousness at the thought of a theoretically peaceful religion causing such divisions, turns to a realisation that these problems have been ongoing for centuries. And maybe, the issues are more complex than would first appear. But no, they’re not. It’s only as complex as individuals want to make it.
“He says it’s like a law here. One Rakija, one cigarette, and one coffee – it’s a gift for first time visitors”. Rakija (pronounced Rah-ki-yah) is strong stuff. Similar to Italian grappa, it’s a small, tasty, some say healthy glass of 50% strength local spirits. I was sitting in the lake front restaurant owned by Petrit, having been bought here across the border by Atso – a professional fireman from Ohrid, Macedonia – and his wife. Our friendship began over Rakija, sitting outside his wife’s tailoring business whilst Phillipa waited for some adjustments. I knew we would be friends within minutes, and thought about our first meeting from a few days before.
“Have you tried Macedonian Rakija? It’s not like Serbian plum Rakija – we use grapes”. He looked at me, and then at Phillipa. She had the smirk that may have been saying – oh dear, here we go. Atso was quick off the mark with a smiling and disarming “What? It’s after 12 o’clock?”. It was about five past twelve. Not that Phillipa needs disarming, like myself, she knows that sitting on miniature wooden stools outside a tailor in a small Macedonian town with a local fireman drinking Rakija at lunchtime, is an opportunity too special to refuse.
And so, a few days later we find ourselves relaxing at Petrit’s restaurant in Albania for a morning coffee, cigarette, and Rakija. This may not be the breakfast of champions, but as they say – when in Tushemisht. Petrit offered to show us around his village. We headed into Tushemisht, with Fireman Atso on translation duties. He had been here many times before. What I was expecting was a dead dog. What I got, I will never forget.
Tushemisht is like a mini version of Venice. Natural springs, the same springs that feed Lake Ohrid, are in and around the village. There’s no tourists here. None, even though the village is just a few minutes drive from the main city of Pogradec. Indeed, countless tourists from Ohrid must have driven along the dusty, pot hole filled road without realising what lies just metres away. Last week, I had passed this exact spot, and was oblivious to the unique and authentic beauty.
Inside Tushemisht, canals of spring water pass around, under, and through the houses. Most of the houses here have access to natural spring water, carefully channeled through the village. Petrit bent down and drank from a spring next to the front door of one house. Some of the channels are large, some small. There is more than one spring -some are big enough to go for a boat ride, or even hold a fish farm.
Petrit took us to the top of the hill, where the 180 year old church is located. Albanians, living through a communist era that only ended in 1992, had a multi-decade period where religion was outlawed. Religious teachers or practitioners were jailed, and even killed. I noticed a man up on a ladder. Petrit explained via translation from Atso that the church was now being painted white, for the upcoming Orthodox Easter celebration. The young guy on the ladder came down to greet us. We shook hands, and exchanged greetings in three different languages.
“He’s says, this man, he is a Muslim.” A Muslim, painting a Christian church, for Easter. I had never come across anything like this before. Petrit stopped talking. His face quivered. He put his sunglasses back on. Atso looked at me. “He is putting his sunglasses back on, because he starts to cry”. I had already noticed that tears were coming to Petrit’s eyes, as he continued to speak in Albanian. “He says that this Muslim man, he has worked many, many hours, to paint the church for Easter. And…” There was a pause in the translation, as we waited for Petrit to gather, and finish his sentence.
“He’s doing this not for any money. Just for… the community”.
It’s hard to explain in words the impact that moment had on me.
In an unknown beautiful Albanian village, I was shown how the entire world should be working.
We carried on, to the next stop in Tushemisht.
At the front of a house, sounds of gushing water were coming from behind the door. I peered through a window. Petrit appeared from behind, with a key to unlock the door. We stepped inside, and onto a indoor jetty. The entire foundation of the house had completely gone. Now, there was only spring water. A few feet deep. Inside the house. Under one of the walls was a small, but rapidly flowing waterfall. On another wall, the remains of a fireplace – the base now sitting just above the clear water.
Petrit owned the house, and was renting it to a friend who soon bought us all a glass of home made Chardonnay. After leaving the indoor spring room, we sat on his porch and chatted for a while, enjoying the wine. When we left, Petrit left his tenant some money. I guessed it was for the wine. As we walked away from the house he started to speak, and I looked at Atso for a translation. “He says he doesn’t normally pay, but he wants him to see the potential for tourism. He wants him to understand that he can use this special place, to provide a good experience for tourists”.
We left Petrit, and went in to Pogradec whilst lunch was prepared for us back at Petrit’s restaurant. We returned, had the best meal I have had in the Balkans yet, and then chatted with Petrit some more. I spoke about the litter problem in Pogradec, and how I noticed that the beach surrounding Petrit’s restaurant was spotless. He smiled, and began to tell a story. I could barely wait for the translation, but allowed him to complete the whole story whilst Atso took it all in. When the story ended, Atso began the translation.
“He cleans the beach, every day. This restaurant, it wasn’t always like this nice building. When he started here, 18 years ago, it was just a small bar, on the beach. He made some money selling drinks to young people from Pogradec. He spoke to a restaurant owner in Ohrid, and told him his plans – to build a restaurant where his bar is. The guy told him that “the nature” was not good there, it was not a good location for a restaurant. That he shouldn’t do it here. That he couldn’t have restaurant here.”
“When the wind comes from the North, all of the… the….. ” “Debris?” (I offered a word here and there). “Yes. The Debris, the litter. When the wind comes from the North, the litter is very bad, it fills the beach. One time, there was a bad storm, with winds from the North. Petrit said even if the storm lasted for three days – he would get up at three am every morning, and clean the beach. And then again at night.”
“On the fourth day, when the winds were still coming strong from the North, he said even if this storm lasts for seven days, he will keep cleaning this beach every day. At seven days, he said he would go for ten days. At ten days, he said he would go for twenty days if he had to. At twenty days, and then thirty days, he said he would go forty days if he had to. The winds kept going, and he kept cleaning the beach.”
“For fifty days, the winds from the North were blowing. For fifty days, he got up at 3am, and cleaned the beach around his restaurant, with his hands, and again at night. The man in Ohrid said he couldn’t make this restaurant. And now look at it. He built it, to show that it is possible.”
“And he cleans the beach himself, to show the community what is possible.”
“He asked his Grandmother, what is the biggest storm she has seen on this lake. She told him the waves can be one metre high. So he built his restaurant, one metre above the highest tide-line. Other restaurants have been washed away – you can see, look – but his survives for 18 years.”
Petrit got up from the table, and put his shades back on.
What I didn’t mention about lunch, was when I asked Petrit which type of fish we should eat, he made his recommendation based upon the sustainability of the particular species within Lake Ohrid. He recommended the cheaper option.
He also explained that for Albania, Communism wasn’t good. He works hard now, just to help Albania get to the point it was at before suffering during decades of communism. In other countries, people work to get ahead. In Albania, people need to work to bring the country back the point it was at decades ago.
Then, they can work to get ahead.
Albania was a Communist nation, but it was never part of Yugoslavia like the other Balkan nations. It had its own special brand of communism, and the country is still in a transitional phase. As recently as 1997, Albania was in a temporary state of semi-anarchy, with 5000 people killed during a period of mob-rule, due to the life savings of many of the citizens being swindled by elaborate Ponzi schemes. Which the government may or may not have had a hand in allowing to happen.
Now, things are finally getting back to “normal”. And the potential for tourism is boundless. Albania has lakes, Oceans, mountains, and archaeological history. At it’s closest point, it’s just 70 kilometres from Italy, and it shares a border with Greece – both hugely popular tourist nations.
And, Albania has Petrit.