When people hear that I am from Albania, and that I was raised during a time when Albania was still an isolated, communist country, while finding themselves fascinated, they also find themselves feeling sorry for me, in a way. Perhaps it is assumed that I did not have a normal childhood, or that I witnessed so many atrocities that I am wounded for life.
Of course, there were hard times, and even though my parents kept us safe and did not burden us with the challenges they faced, children always know and understand. I knew that my parents could not afford the latest doll with the eyelids that closed, but I did love my big plastic one whose eyes were painted. I knew that they did not have the money for a khaki trench coat that one of my friends proudly would wear, but I was always warm, loved, and well-fed.
Some of my most vivid memories come from the communist era. Since everything was supposed to be owned by the people, even the neighborhoods, it was customary for adjacent apartment buildings to organize and clean the street and the wide sidewalks lining it. So every other weekend, home-makers would start sweeping and moping the stairs inside the building; they would sweep the sidewalks, pouring water on them, which rinsed out the marks the children left in the form of chalk-drawn squares for a type of hopscotch game. The street would become a bit muddy, but that meant that we had clay to play with, and there was an overall sense of purpose in the community. The neighbors knew me, they knew my parents, and we were like a big family. Of course, as with all families, things were not always perfect. There were gossips, jealousies, and the ever-present fear of the spies among the civilians.
To us children that did not matter. Those sweeping Sundays were the loveliest, second to the best ones, which were the days when school and work was cancelled in order for everyone to go to the surrounding hills to pick chestnuts, cherries, and whatever else was in season.
This all happened in a small town called Poliçan, located in central Albania at the foot of Tomorr mountain. I have not returned there ever since I left in 1991, but I have very fond memories of that little place, and I have childhood friends with whom I am still in touch (thanks to Facebook).
[this picture of Tomorr mountain was taken last year from the city of Berat, about 1 hour away from Poliçan]
That sense of belonging, of well-being, of well-wishing among neighbors, of sharing, loving, playing, caring, that is what I have always wanted Jack to experience. When he was first born three years ago, the World Cup was playing, so I spent many afternoons cradling him, watching the games, perhaps startling him with a sudden “yes!” or “arrrggggh!” but for the most part, those first few months were quiet affairs, no contact with adults, except my husband, and no interaction with other children. I felt isolated and regretted that perhaps Jack would not know the joys of community and friendship, the same joys that made me thrive as a child.
I suppose I was impatient. At 2 months, all my little one did was sleep, eat, cry, repeat. It is true, people lead more isolated lives here in the states, and frankly, I had not baked cookies, or byrek-s, or cooked a nice meal for any of my neighbors. There was a lack of willingness on my part to go out and seek those relationships I needed. Perhaps it was because when we moved to Nacogdoches, we planned for it to be a very brief stay; therefore, I did not allow myself to be invested emotionally in a temporary place.
It was Jack who forced me to tip toe around my neighbors’ yards and say hello while on the daily stroller walk. It was he who pushed me, shyly at first, to introduce myself to people at the university who had kids the same age. It was Jack who said: “Mom, I think you are amazing. I think everybody would love to know you.” [Something that Bryan had tried to tell me for a long time] Although, in not so many words. It was mainly through drooly kisses and sweet giggles.
Here we are now. Three years later, and we have reached our shaking hands to many people around us. We have a larger family. Jack has his wonderful little buddies and it is overwhelming to see the awe they experience together while exploring the backyards for rolly pollys, dirt worms, and other critters, and I love the excitement of their leaps through the drops of water the sprinklers spray lazily in the Texas heat.
This past Saturday we had two parties: a casual get together with some dear friends, which was so much fun, and featured delicious food. I brought some falafels and garlicky yoghurt sauce, and Camilla brought this along with some skewered chicken and tofu marinated in a Moroccan sauce (I forget the name).
Later that day we had our block party. Even though I anticipated food different than hamburgers and hot dogs for the latter, it is Texas, and grill we did. I also made some qofte me salcë kosi (Albanian meatballs with yoghurt sauce), and an herbed potato salad (this is also pretty common in Albania). I failed to take pictures of the meatballs. Too much excitement all around and they did go pretty quickly amidst much praise, but here are some pictures from the parties.
We stayed in our front yards until 11:00PM. As you can see, we had everything we needed: food, people we love, little superheroes in case of emergencies, the back of a truck for viewing a movie projected onto a garage door, lightning bugs a-lighting, june bugs a-buzzing, kids’ hearts a-thumping.
Qofte (Albanian meatballs)
½ medium sweet onion, roughly chopped
5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1/3 cup roughly chopped parsley
1 pound of lean ground beef
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
About 2 cups of canola oil for frying
-Place the onion, garlic, and parsley in a food processor and pulse until minced (do not make a paste, just finely chop)
-Transfer the onion mixture into a mixing bowl. Add the meat, the bread crumbs, the oregano, egg, and salt.
-Knead quickly until well mixed. (Do not over mix as meatballs may toughen)
-Heat the oil in a large skillet.
-Using your hands make little balls about 1 inch in diameter.
-When the oil is hot, place the meatballs in the skillet, and fry until they are browned all around. Use medium high setting for frying.
-When browned on all sides, lift the meatballs from the oil and drain in a platter lined with paper towels.
-Serve immediately with salcë kosi.
Ju bëftë mirë!