Incomincia la decima e ultima, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Panfilo, si ragiona di chi liberalmente o vero magnificamente alcuna cosa operasse intorno à fatti d’amore o d’altra cosa.
It’s in time of crisis that the true character of people comes to light. One of the greatest lessons of my life, so far, has been to find out who, in the moment of greatest need, stuck around no matter what and who, instead, was just a fairweather friend (or relative). The same could be said of countries and this, indeed, is the topic of my last story in this Decameron. It’s a story of liberality, generosity and, yes, friendship.
Tucked on the side of the Balkan Peninsula as an afterthought, tiny Albania has just given the world – those who bothered caring, at least – a lesson in magnanimity that larger, richer, more “important” countries ought to, should to, learn from.
Less than 80 kilometres separate the heel of Italy from the coast of Albania. Not enough to act as an insurmountable barrier, even during the harshest years of Enver Hoxha’s lunacy. We’ve always been close, locked in a relationship where, more often than not, Italy wore the clothes of the abusive partner.
We occupied Albania twice in recent history: a fleeting invasion at the tail end of the Great War and a more concerted effort in 1939, when Mussolini decided to show his pal Adolf that he, too, could be big and macho and do stuff. We then proceeded to employ Albanians as reluctant cannon fodder in the beleaguered invasion of Greece, an enterprise of such imbecile slapdashness that Mussolini’s fateful words on the eve of the campaign – “Spezzeremo le reni alla Grecia” are still used to mock ill-conceived enterprises bound to fail miserably.
Then the Iron curtain fell, separating Europe from Stettin to Trieste but also the Adriatic, us on one side and Albania on the other. Contacts were prohibited as Enver’s regime descended into criminal paranoia and madness. Still, no one could stop airwaves: on bootleg TVs Albanians synched on Rai Uno and liked what they saw. We’ll never be able to apologise enough for that.
Eventually, it came to the long hot summer of 1991. The first Gulf War quickly forgotten, Italians descended to the beaches as history, on the other side of the Otranto channel, happened. Hoxha had died in 1985 but only then were walls falling down. The Albanians, hemmed in for over half a century, finally had a window to the world, and that window looked directly out to us.
I wasn’t yet six but I do remember the footage on the news. I remember the grey walls of the ship, the yellow cranes, the writing “VLORA – DURRES” painted on the stern. But, more importantly, the people. The pier of Bari port, the bridges of the ship, everything was carpeted with people. Twenty thousand of them, twenty thousand desperate Albanians arriving on a single ship in a country that, up to that moment, had less than half a million foreigners over a population of 55 million. All whilst everyone – government included – was flipping like a pancake on the beach.
Albanians were the forefront of Italy’s demographic revolution. They led the change that turned a country of emigration into a country where more than 10% of residents are foreign-born. They spread into every city, every province, weaving into the society and, before long, it felt as if they’d always been there. I remember noticing the soft, musical accent of the baker near home: when my mother told me she was from Tirana I asked her in which region it was.
With time, the Albanian community grew to just shy of half a million. They worked in Italy’s factories, shops, farms and offices. They opened up businesses, sent kids to school, paid taxes. They brought in questionable fashion (leather jackets), an unwavering love for Mercedes sedans and, in Kledi Kadiu, the first sex symbol for a generation of schoolgirls. In doing so, Albanians lifted the cover on our parochialism and prejudice. Fostered by centuries of deep hate of their neighbour, of wars with the city on the other side of the river, Italians – especially us northerners – discovered xenophobia.
“Terroni and Albanians should all be thrown to whatever gutter they came from” was a comment I remember being said by an adult outside the oratory on a Sunday, post-Mass, perpetuating the marriage between Catholicism and hypocrisy and that lasted for millennia.
Spurred by a media frenzy that depicted Albanians as responsible for every crime committed in Italy, from robberies in the North to pimping everywhere, a nasty equivalence – Albanians = criminals – took hold and cemented in the back of everyone’s minds. Until others arrived, that is. Meanwhile, away from the headlines and into reality, Italians and Albanians kept on discovering each other and, in the process, discovered long-lost cousins. I shared a house with Erion, a brickie, and found out that we shared a great deal many moments of pop history: Anna Oxa at Sanremo? He’d seen her. Del Piero’s 1994 goal at Fiorentina? He’d seen that too.
As years passed Albania grew richer and richer, despite an influx of the most criminally rapacious Italian “entrepreneurs”. Young people began returning home – including some of my university friends – to build a better country and, hot on their heels, we began travelling there. I, too, made more than one attempt to get there.
Then Covid-19 struck. It rampaged like wildfire in the industrial heartland of Lombardy and Veneto, raking victims in the factories and farms where a generation of Albanians, amongst others, found work and fortune. Long-time European partners turned a cold shoulder; a Dutch minister who shall remain nameless blurted out a speech that could’ve passed for Brennus’ “Vae Victis”.
On a cloudy day in March a small crowd gathered in Tirana. Amongst them the nation’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, and thirty figures clad in white: doctors and nurses. Shortly before they boarded the plane, bound for Italy’s hospitals to join the fight against the coronavirus, Rama gave a short speech in Italian. Barely looking at his notes, in the soft accent that is quintessentially Albanian, he said that even though immensely rich countries have turned their back on others, Albania didn’t, for they weren’t without memory and they’re not the ones to leave a friend, a friend who helped them in the moment of need, without support.
This is it. This is the last story in this modest tribute to the Decameron; I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to read and Other Half who meticulously combed through each post, intercepting all my typos. The lockdown goes on, the impact on our society and economy is still very much unknown, but it won’t last forever. And when it finally stops, I’ll have to visit Albania, to say thank you to our friends.
E come il nuovo giorno apparve, […] dietro alla guida del discreto re verso Firenze si ritornarono.