5.30 pm

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A cup of boiling coffee by my side, my Albanian language notebook close to the eye, I’m lying down on the carpet at the background sounds of the Albanian-speaking volunteers sitting in front of me in the hostel hall of Don Bosco, Tirana, Albania. This place has managed to become, in less a month, a sort of home, to me: I suddenly realized it yesterday evening, coming back from a weekend-lasting tour in Montenegro (which was amazing beyond any expectations, by the way) and had the clear and neat impression, bright as an epiphany, that I had missed Tirana in those three days of travel. It made me pretty upset, in a certain way: how is it possible to feel nostalgic for a place that you don’t even know well yet, as if you were already intimately connected with it, to feel a subtle homely, pleasant sensation when stepping on the shady paths that lead you back to a place which, actually, is still new and alien? The first time I walked back alone from the city centre to the hostel – I was coming back from a nicely odd Sunday excursion in the Daiti mountains – it was already dark and I was freezing because of all the cold absorbed up on the cliffs. I could not remember the way – I have serious difficulties with roads – so I just kept on asking everybody the right direction to Don Bosco; when I finally recognized some landmarks and felt that I was close, I started asking for the name of the hostel – or at least that which I thought was its name, MyHostel – to men sitting outside the bars: they did not know. Nobody seemed to know, actually. It made me feel so proudly corageous to walk through the winding alleys of the neighbourhood, in the capital suburbs of a country that people ignorantly judge as sinister and dangerous (as often repeated in the volunteers’ witnesses posted on this blog, too) with no means of communication with the world outside other than my poor two-sentence-vast Albanian repertoire; in the end I managed to find the door I had been looking for so desperately – I am not that complete disaster at reaching destinations safe and sound, after all – but the point I wanted to stress out is not the feeling of warmth and protection that invaded me once I arrived: it is the huge difference between what I felt then – the strangeness, the foreignness of the avenues, the fear at every road-crossing, with plenty of threatening cars apparently blind to red streetlights – and the sense of familiarity and domesticity that I feel now, when walking through main streets and shortcuts, or taking the bus to work, or eavesdropping the turbo-folk speakers reverberating out of the cars’ windows and the intercity van drivers’ loud “SHKODER!” and “DURES!”, or asking the woman in the cafè round the corner for a cafè e madhe and grasping the cup with a smiling faleminderit, chatting in an extemporary new slang, half-italian half-albanian, with the old cappuccino-drinker sitting at the nearby table, whose sport seemingly is that of filling the coffers of national tobacconists by dint of smoking, or hearing the taximen yelling at passers-by…or many more things that I usually spend my time doing here and which have already become precious ritual moments to me. This is not a all-good-and beautiful experience, of course. There are conflicts and even fights from time to time (it is not easy for everyone to spend twenty four hours per day in a shared environment) and the work is tough. Kids at school are hard to handle. Many of them seem simply non-responding to any type of stimulation, others are actually responding, but in nervous and aggressive ways. There are some who stand or sit alone on the class benches, with swinging heads, as if the entire world was an uncontrollable bubble which it is better to ignore, and you, new and inexperienced volunteer, with no clues at all on how to cope with mental disabilities, are there still, initially unable to do a movement without wondering “What th f*** am I doing here?”, tense and nervous and stiff as hell, because you feel so wrong and useless. It may happen to be hit by a heavy ball strongly kicked by some teenager directly on your forehead, leaving a two-week-lasting mark, on the first day of your arrival – as it personally occurred to me – or to assist to unexpected clashes among the same kids you naively thought to be flawless, disembodied angels; you may happen to watch, still and astonished, a girl casually laughing after being violently hit by a ball on her teeth, as if she could not feel any pain, or perhaps anything at all. It feels bad, then. It feels unfair, unacceptable. Too much pain, too much void. It feels impossible, unreal, you yourself start feeling someway unreal ‘cause you’re stuck there, talking your couple of basic phrases and trying to involve kids in dances and games and at the same time holding the tears which threaten to flow out from your eyelids at any moment. But after the first couple of days, you start recognizing faces and remembering names. You start feeling a soft sunshine spreading inside your chest when a kid spells your name or hugs you so close that blood circulation is temporarily blocked. You even have moments of pure amusement, dancing disco hits – ‘cause Penguin Dance mp3 file doesn’t work – with excited teenagers in shiny sunglasses, repeating “I am boss” with ghetto-style hand jestures and adorable confident grins, or playing football in totally disorganized teams, or clapping hands in front of an histrionic child who keeps on banging Turkish Marshallas with his stentorian voice and comparing you to Aurella Goça in response to your shameful singing efforts. I don’t really know how to express what’s that which happens here. Too many things, so brand new to become potentially disturbing soon, occur at the same time, too many impressions stain the same paper sheet and you find yourself constantly amazed and sensitive as if your soul was enveloped in crystal skin. Then, as always, the ways in which moments are experiences vary according to personal factors; there are some of us definitely escaping something they need to stay far from, at least for the moment; there are those who are in confusion about so many things that Tirana’ chaos seems peaceful in comparison; there are those who don’t know what to do with themselves and have just grabbed this occasion to be put in a ruled context with responsibilities to face and instructions to respect, because if they hadn’t them they would be as lost as ships in a flash-green thunderstorm – please forgive the poor metaphor. There is me, here, with such messy rumours in my head from which a lullaby’s sweetly emerging, rocking me, softening the beats, licking my hair as a mommy cat, making me rest, peaceful, anew.IMG_0784

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