We stood by the car on the side of a desolate dirt road in Southern Albania, snow-covered mountains all around us. I held Sophia in my arms, and Nicholas huddled between his father and me to keep warm; his ears red, the Red Sox baseball hat on his head instead of the woolen cap I had told him to wear.
In the hazy distance, I noticed a village, its houses scattered on the side of a cliff as if the heavens had tossed them there like pebbles. “What’s that village?”
“That’s Longo. Behind Longo is Kosiovitsa, Yiayia’s village. Don’t you remember?” mother asked, her head peeking out of her parka.
How could I remember? We escaped through these mountains, thirty-five years ago, when I was a young child, and this was my first time back.
We were on our way to visit our village Sotira; located at the end of this dirt road, but a large bolder from a rockslide blocked the way.
My heart sank in disappointment. After all these years of waiting I still wouldn’t be able to see my beloved home.
Sotira, a Greek-speaking village, among dozens of other villages and towns, was tossed to Albania years ago when the borders between Greece and Albania were redrawn by Europe’s early twentieth century powers. The borders had opened in 1991, after the fall of Albania’s brutal and repressive communist regime. Anarchy and terror reigned for a couple of years afterwards, and no one dared visit Albania, until recently, when the first democratically elected government of President Sali Berisha imposed some order.
It was now 1996; my husband Jon, our two young children and I, travelled from the U.S.A. to visit my parents for the Christmas holidays. They lived in Ioannina, a provincial city near the Albanian/Greek border. They reassured us it was now safe to travel to Albania.
So one morning, we packed lunch and, undeterred by a dusting of snow on the ground, drove to the border, an hour away. Cars, buses, and trucks idled at the border crossing, in two disorganized lines, one toward Albania and the other toward Greece. Our car touched the fender of the car in front of us, not allowing any cars to cut in. The waiting could be long, my parents warned, so we were relieved when an hour later our turn came.
It was disquieting to see so many burley soldiers dressed in their woolen khaki coats with ready guns in their arms. My father held our passports in his hands and the expected bribe in his pocket to ease our way across the border. I felt a jab of fear when a soldier ushered him inside the concrete building.