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  • Jerome Kocher

44. Dominoes with the Master

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

I started out today on a hike with two options. A trail to Maja (mountain) Gjarcarit past some shepherd huts which would be steep or a trail from Cerem which was even steeper. The shepherd trail won my attention but I got lost and never found it. Walking down the main road there were no markers. Maybe it was further so I hitch hiked. Two rides later no one could find it, so I got out at a small village road to Dragobi. I decided that I would seek some conversation in the village rather than hope for shepherds’ goat cheese. And as Robert Frost would say, this fork in the road made all the difference.

I ended up at the only taverna and sat down with four men playing dominoes. I had seen in the streets and parks of Shkodër that dominoes was the game of choice, of course by men with some discretionary cash on the side. But here in Dragobi they were playing for “face” or as we’d say in English, for bragging rights. They didn’t need the cash. Most of them were part of the diaspora and had returned to their family roots this week for a big wedding celebration. One was from Texas, two others from Tirana, and one local was called “the professor, doctor, lawyer, the master” all rolled into one. But he was even bigger than all that. The President of Albania had visited this village and conferred on him the highest national award possible, for he was Deli Metalia, a most famous Albanian traditional dancer.

Deli exuded class. Fresh white collared shirt. A lean body with platinum hair. Gold bracelet. Gold necklace and ring. He commanded respect and of course was the one who wrote down the scores after each match. For them this was more than the Super Bowl. It was a rare coming together to decide the domino pecking order before they returned to different cities, countries, or continents.

Albanians were coming here for a wedding from all over, including America and India. In the summer this village may have 100 plus inhabitants who have family roots there. But in the winter maybe only 5-6 people stay. Deli’s one of them. The winters are too harsh and there is no local economy to support locals outside of guest houses.

Tonight this international wedding party is meeting at a small roadside restaurant called Brizi for dinner and traditional folk dancing. Even the taverna waiter, Eli, studying electrical engineering in Tirana had been a student of Deli. If there was ever a time to go for a drink and vicariously be part of an Albanian wedding party, tonight’s the night.

Outside the taverna, the site of the domino championship, was parked a Mercedes. This was no surprise, as half the cars in Albania are Mercedes Benz. This is not because the people are wealthy. It’s a practical matter. After communism the roads were so bad that the most reliable and trustworthy car was a Mercedes. So many Albanians have an older model that’s affordable. And of course it also becomes a status symbol. But the next time you drive in Albania check out the cars coming towards you. Every other car will be a Mercedes Benz. And if you look at the license plate you will notice that while Albania is not a member of the European Union yet, their license plate is ready for the transition. On the right side is a solid circle, just waiting to become a circle of stars that is the identifier for every EU member country.

In the same village there was construction going on. The workers were from Kosovo and one named Fetah spoke good English since he was a teacher. All three of them commuted everyday for two hours to work in this mountain village in Albania. And because they are Muslim they work tomorrow on Sunday. If the dominoes master was not my destiny in this village, then Fetah was. We are leaving tomorrow for Peja, Kosovo and there are no convenient direct buses. But if we show up before 4pm on Sunday then we have a ride with Fetah into Kosovo, my next stop.

Returning to my guesthouse in the heat of the day was not desirable. So again, I hitch hiked. Two young Albanian men picked me up. I said I had just been in Dragobi at the domino table with the master. “Oh,” they said, “Deli is our uncle.” And of course they had also come back here to family roots to celebrate the wedding. It’s a small world.

I never did hike the elevation to the goat cheese. Instead I climbed the social ladder and sat at the table of the Master. They did not invite me to play. But juice and coffee was my consolation, and for a brief time I rubbed shoulders with the king and his court.

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