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  • Jerome Kocher

41. The Grandchildren of Albania

It’s July 4th and I just landed in Tirana the capital of Albania. Little did I know that I was connected to Albanians before ever leaving the US. It seemed that maybe one out of five people I talked to had some relation to Albania if they weren’t Albanian.

This is not a scientific sampling, but a human anecdotal sampling of how amazingly we are connected. When telling people about my trip I was surprised at the responses. My cousin in rural Northern California reminded me that he had worked for two years in Tirana with a non-governmental human aid agency.

Last Saturday, you guessed it, in rural mid state New York, a friend from Camphill said, “Oh ya, my daughter has an Albanian boyfriend. She loves going to Albania.” Days earlier I was sharing lunch with a British colleague and he surprisingly said he had been to Tirana. Although a musician and conductor, he was there in the capacity of teaching the staff of a prison about substance abuse interventions. He had gone to the Tirana Opera House and sat in a VIP balcony box with the then President of Albania while they actually used live fire on stage for dramatic effect. Yes, so effective, that props were falling apart and burning up just to be stamped out by the cast. This would never happen in the US under OSHA workplace rules, but in Albania after what they went through under the communist dictator Hoxha, a burning stage is the least of your problems.

When I landed in Zurich, Switzerland I wanted to practice my German with an airport staff, a young woman in her 20’s. “Oh yes, my grandfather is Albanian. My parents escaped communism by fleeing through then Yugoslavia. But I have never gone to Albania. I love my home. I’m Swiss.”

Some of the people waiting at my gate were Americans from New York City. They were in their late 20’s or early 30’s and their grandparents were from Albania. These grandchildren were dressed very fashionably in workout attire. But since their roots were from northern Albania in Shkodra, closer to Croatia, they were raised Catholic. The rest of the country is Muslim majority. But I can count on two hands the number of Burka scarves I saw today on the streets of Tirana. Albania has a very liberal version of Islam. In fact during the attempted genocide by Serbia in the 90’s, the Albanians in Kosovo turned down the offer of Middle Eastern Islamic mercenaries to help them fight for independence. Kosovo said “No, thank you.” We know who you are and what you want. Yes, we’re Muslim, but we’re not like you. The largest mosque in the Balkans is in Tirana.

At the airport, another gentleman in his 40’s looked just like Joe Montana, NFL quarterback, with a contagious smile and dimpled chin. I told him what I was thinking. He said he had never played American football, but had played on an Albanian national basketball team, competed and won tournaments in Europe. He was with his mother, his wife and teenage daughter. Living in Boston he was also part of the Albanian diaspora of people who had left or fled their homeland.

On the airplane I was seated next to a 16 year old sophomore in high school who actually was a quarterback on his New York football team. But for July and August he was having to give up his friends, his local gym, and all the fun of a teenager in summer. Why? His grandparents were Albanian. They lived in Shkodra, so he was also Catholic. His older siblings had jobs, so they eluded the mandatory two month visit to their grandparents. Although not his first choice, he was clear this was not only the right thing to do, but the best. It would be two months instead of one because he had two sets of grandparents from both sides of the family. An Albanian version of shared custody.

I was surrounded by grandchildren of all ages and sizes who were returning to Albania to show some love and affection for the part of their family that did not leave. Actually, more Albanians live abroad than in Albania. And like most international family arrangements, if you come from America to visit you need to come bearing gifts, if not cash. Because we have more opportunities here we are expected to share. Another family had a surplus of suitcases because the Albanian grandparents had ordered a ton of stuff on Amazon and had it delivered to the US. This family was now delivering all their Amazon boxes back to the country of origin . . . with love.

And so I landed in Tirana on July 4th, embedded within generations of Albanian hopes and desires. That night when I walked the streets of Blloku there was a lively night culture of cafes and restaurants, people promenading. If I asked a question, very few understood me unless they were under 30, then maybe.

I happened upon an urban street block party. It was closed off. Rock music played that was a little too hard for my tastes. Beer was flowing. But at the intersection several large American flags had been strung over the street. The Red, White and Blue was waving strongly in Tirana. The were celebrating July 4th. They were celebrating our Independence Day. But unlike other countries, these were not ex-pats being patriotic or nostalgic. No, these were Albanians who honored the opportunities and principles that many of their own families had emigrated for. They may have stayed behind, but they also remember US and NATO support from eliminating Albanians in the Kosovo region of Serbia during the 90’s.

I didn’t see any of the grandchildren there that I had met earlier. But there was a connection. For all of us. Test it out yourself. Ask five people you know if they have any connection to Albania. This experiment does not come with a guarantee. But when it does work, it’s shocking. Not because we are all Albanian. But because we are all Human

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Jul 06, 2023

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the travelogue of such a thoughtful, insightful, wonderful storyteller. I look forward to more installments!


BlueFlame NoenDragon
BlueFlame NoenDragon
Jul 06, 2023

Dear Mr.Kocher,

Today was the most inspirational and beautiful part of my day, because not only I felt happiness in my heart...but also a nostalgia feeling of missing your stories, your teachings, and just makes me feel like a student again! (•‿•) I always will cherish these lessons and your words! Just today that I had a quite chaotic day with work, but when I came home finally from my shift....I just had to read your discoveries! And that is more worth than diamonds and gold. I can't forget that my love for learning, traveling, discovery, and for the wise, experienced, and humble people like you always have a place in my heart. Especially to those I am very lo…

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