What nationalist nishtgutniks do when they don’t have anything else to do — which is almost always

21 Jan

Albanians have taken to spray painting over the Greek names on signs in southern Albania’s Greek villages like my father’s.


I’m not sure what’s going on and it’s a little worrisome that this article should appear just now.  This has been going on for an eternity.  Because you can be sure that soon some Greek guys will come out one night and spray paint over the Albanian name of the village too.  Then they change the signs.  Then the same thing happens.

I would be a little more glib about it in the past than I am now, but tensions and violence between Albanians and Albania’s Greek minority have started to low-key increase in the past couple of years and it has made people a little more wary, whereas before it was considered part of the regular dodge-ball order of things.  Macron’s recent Western Balkans policy disappointed me, despite my adulation of him, not because I give such a shit about the political economics of Albania and Macedonia, but because I want minority rights to be protected everywhere and I want my landsmen*, who’ve suffered enough, to live in peace and prosperity.

It might be no surprise that the height of this kind of vandalism is Kosovo, where almost every sign has been defaced.  I was a teeny bit nervous going into Kosovo with a friend, but there were only a couple of occasions where we were the objects of even the slightest negativity, and that’s even with the Serbian cross I’ve got tattooed on my forearm.  People are brusque and unsmiling, but that’s par for the course since Albanians don’t really do smiling.  We got stared at a little when I got out of the car to take a photo of a demolished Serbian church.  Otherwise nothing much.


And there was even some joking.  When I was in Naples last (one of my great city-romances for those who don’t know), I said to a friend that it’s clear Naples is the first Middle Eastern city you encounter coming from the West because it’s the first city where there are so many groups of twenty-something young men standing around in the street doing nothing; not by any means a judgement; in fact it’s a stark testimony to endemic unemployment and poverty that angers me.  You see tons of buddy-groups like that in Kosovo.  At one point we were looking for the Serbian village of Djakovica — a fairly large town actually; it’s hard to not know where it is, that should have been my clue — on our way to see the monastery of Dečani We pulled up to just such a bunch of guys who were hanging out by the side of the road: Gheg Albanians, all of them already 6’2″ and with that top-spike haircut that makes them look even more like roosters (“cock” might be more accurate), standing in the contraposto that means manliness in the Balkans.  We asked them how to go to Djakovica.  They all threw their heads back like they didn’t know.  (One serious bond across Jadde land is that the facial gesture for “no” looks like “yes”). “Djakovica?  Nope.  Sorry.”  Noticed a repressed slight grin on one of their faces, but “no… no Djakovica.”

Then I remembered that Djakovica in Albanian is Gjakovë.  And I said: “Gjakovë”?  And in perfect unison they all smiled, threw their heads back and let out a big baritone: “Ah!  Gjakovë!”  Now we’re talking!  And they walked up to the car to show us exactly where to go on the map and saw my American passport on the dashboard, said “Clinton good”, pointed us on our way, patted the roof of the car, we exchanged mutually smiling “fuck-yous” and off we went to Djako… sorry…Gjakovë.

96483_pristina-srpski-putokaz-precrtao_lsThere was only one more such incident and it was cuter more than anything else.  We stopped so I could take this photo, where all the Serbian place-names had been blotted out; we were on our way to Peć, the site of the Serbian Patriarchate (Pejë in Albanian) and in front of the sign was a ten-year-old boy sitting selling strawberries, who flipped me the finger.

Lord, let that be the worst that things in the Balkans ever get again.


* “Landsmen”, if it’s not obvious enough for you etymologically, is Yiddish for someone from the same village or nearby town or general region that you’re from — my “homeboy” — but it’s almost always used only when one or usually both of the two parties are away from that common hometown and it usually has a tone of nostalgia and longing attached to it.  In that sense it has the same emotional feel of Greek ξενιτειά (xeniteia), you’ll see the prefix “xe-“ which has connotations of foreign and other and away and departed.  So landsman is like πατριώτης or χωριανός or κοντοχωριανός for a Greek.   As one of Greece’s perhaps premier emmigrating regions, I’d say one out of three of Epiros’ regional folk song repertoire deals with ξενιτειά (xeniteia), being away from your homeland and village and family.  Rocky, barren, difficult to access, what little arable land available, like my father’s region of the Dropoli valley, worked for Muslim landowners by Christian serfs — or maybe sharecroppers is a better word — it’s easy to see why.  It was pretty much expected that after marriage and a first child, an able-bodied young man would go off to more prosperous regions of the Empire or even beyond and do migrant work or engage in some other kind of enterprise.


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