Decameron Day 10. A friend in need.

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.
Source
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”.
Not Albania.
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.
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42 Responses to Decameron Day 10. A friend in need.

  1. We spent some time traveling around Albania and the people we met were generous, kind and quite low key. I can see they are showing their true nature in the COVID times. When this is over, I hope you can visit—the south is particularly beautiful and of course there is simple, fresh Mediterranean food everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anna says:

    I forgot his name it was so long ago, but I had a bit of a pash with a young Albanian fellow up against the wall of the duomo in Milan back in 2006. we couldn’t communicate but hey, it worked at the time! 😂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. lexklein says:

    A beautiful end to your ten days of stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a lovely tribute to both Albania and these times. Thank you for this post. I was wondering if after many centuries the Decameron would gain popularity now…I know many people are returning to reading Camus’ “The Plague,” and other ‘end-times’ historical works.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This one gave me goosebumps. In troubled times it’s the kindness of others (especially when they’ve been vilified) that moves me. And it had me looking at a map and day-dreaming of a slow-travel trip from Prague through Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, B&H, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and all the way to Greece. It’s a part of the world I’ve not seen and would love to.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful story to end with. No light at the end of the tunnel, but a story of hope. I know almost nothing about Albania. Some time in future, I would love to travel there.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. These are wonderful pieces — I’ll be going back to read installments I missed. Thank you.
    I worked for UNICEF in Croatia during the war – and once flew to Skopje from Zagreb and for some reason, we flew to Albania to pick up passengers in Tirana. The landscape was gorgeous – empty beaches, absolutely nothing built along the coast but bunker after bunker. In 95 lived briefly in Brindisi where nights on the beach we could hear – but not see, small motorboats zipping back and forth across the water. So mysterious. I think things are much changed by now. I’d like to visit too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Ah, the famous Brindisi “scafisti”! I was thinking whether to add them or not (the guys using Zodiacs and powerful engines to outrun the Guardia di Finanza and smuggle in people, cigarettes and drugs) but in the end decided to leave them… What an interesting career, Tricia, would love to read more about it if it’s on your blog.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly! I didn’t know that’s what they were called! For awhile I tried to flog my memoir to agents but lost energy for that and just published it chapter by chapter here – so you can read the whole (messy!) thing if you search back. (Or just skip to the Italy chapters!) Stay well!

        Liked by 1 person

      • awtytravels says:

        Ah, will do. Thanks Tricia!

        Like

  8. I loved this series, Fabrizio. It was good to meander through a variety of emotions. I hope you had as much fun writing them, as I had reading them. Take care!

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      It was super good fun indeed and now I’m feeling a bit at a loss… what now!?

      Like

      • Mmmmmm. What about a book of travel tales? Sounds like the perfect time to go big, Fabrizio.

        Liked by 1 person

      • awtytravels says:

        Funny you say that Jolandi. I’ve got one! It’s out for review at a literary consultancy, and once I’m done I’ll most probably publish it on Jeff’s big online retail shop as no agent I asked seemed interested in it.

        Like

      • Fantastic, Fabrizio. I’m so glad to hear that you have a book. It seems that traditional publishing is becoming much harder to break into and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with good or bad writing. So good for you that you plan to self-publish. I hope you will have a big launch on your blog, I will definitely stand in line for a virtual book signing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • awtytravels says:

        Ha, a virtual book signing… that’s funny!
        Yes, the more I read into the world of publishing and the more it feels opaque, riddled with obstacles and not exactly author-friendly. Sure, it’s probable that a lot of the stuff that gets pitched to publishers (including, undoubtedly, my manuscript) isn’t great value but… it could be made a lot slicker.

        Like

      • That’s the idea I get too from what I’ve read. I guess it is a business and they need to make sure that they will make some money. Self-publishing definitely puts the author in the driving seat, although for those who are introverted and not keen on marketing it can be daunting. Whichever way you choose to go, I am convinced your book will be worth reading. Wishing you luck with this venture.

        Liked by 1 person

      • awtytravels says:

        Thank you so much!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Bama says:

    This is a beautiful way to end your tribute to the Decameron. Albania has for long intrigued me, because it’s predominantly Muslim but the people don’t seem to care so much about religion, because its neighbors seem to attract more tourists than itself, because its original name Shqiperia sounds like the name of a land in an epic fantasy, but above everything else because there is so little thing that I’ve read about this country. When the pandemic is over, I will look up information on how to get there, and when I am there I will certainly remember this post of yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dave Ply says:

    Some of your comments about how some Italians looked upon Albanians remind me of the attitude of certain Americans towards Mexicans. On the other hand, those who interact instead of indulging in manufactured fear find them worthy neighbors. (Well, most of them. Hard to root for the drug cartels.) Maybe some Americans fear the Mexicans because they seem willing to work harder than the Americans want to.

    I was once (1980) relatively close to Albania, taking a ferry between Italy and Greece. Back then it was part of “The Great Satan”, the communist empire Regan was warning us about so the view of the coast had an ominous feel. Hopefully, I have a more worldly perspective now.

    Thank you for the series. It was interesting, and brought more of your character to the fore.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. J.D. Riso says:

    Just beautiful. Albania is one of the very few European countries that I didn’t make it to. I tried but it just didn’t come to pass. I do hope to make it there one day. Bravo on all of these posts. An impressive feat! Happy Easter to you and OH!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I must admit my ignorance to the mass influx of Albanians to Italy in 1991 (blame it on self-absorbed youthfulness). Your beautifully written account and that incredible photo of the ship/pier are emotionally powerful. There is no doubt in my mind that people’s true character comes out in times of crisis.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Lignum Draco says:

    Being half way across the world, Albania/Albanians seem to have a bad reputation, at least through the eyes of Hollywood. It’s heartening to hear the real life truth. A friend, indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. equinoxio21 says:

    Yes, the worst virus is actually not the corona, but the (supposedly eradicated) explosion of human stupidity and mediocrity. Just about everywhere. The exceptions are well worth mentioning.
    Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. equinoxio21 says:

    Just listened to the speech. I think I understood most of it. A great lesson in humanity.

    Liked by 1 person

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