Antonella Bogdani (pictured on the left) was born and raised in the lovely mountain town of Korce, Albania. She works as a traveling English teacher to students in the surrounding villages, some of which are quite remote. She lives with her parents and her younger sister Kristina, who works as a radio host for a local Christian radio station. Both are devout evangelical believers, a small minority in a nation of often nominal Orthodox and Muslim believers.
It’s not the first time Antonella and I have gotten coffee together, but it is our first time at this place. It’s only a couple years old and is located a bit up in the hills near my neighborhood, bordering Birra Korce. We sit under umbrellas on the most spacious terrace in town, feeling the warmth of late July even in this relative haven in the mountains.
The first time we met for coffee, back in the winter, I remember her telling me that her father remembers having to wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to get ready to stand in line outside the bakery for food. Enver Hoxha’s paranoid communist dictatorship ended in Albania at the same time the USSR fell, around 1991. I marvel to think how Antonella and I are almost the same age but grew up in such different circumstances.
The coffees arrive (cold ones, in this heat!) and I open my laptop to begin typing. She knows how to pause frequently enough to allow me to get it all down.
[The following has been edited for grammar.]
What was it like growing up in Albania in the 90s?
I was born in 1992, and as my mom says to me, it was quite difficult to raise a child with all things that a baby needs. For example, it was quite difficult to find pampers for me, and she used some pieces of cloth that she washed by hand to be clean for her daughter. For food, it was difficult to find the best quality of food. If I compare with my sister born in 1998, the food was quite different. My sister had a lot of fruits in her diet, and milk and eggs; for me it was not everyday.
Also about toys, again if I compare my childhood with my sister, I haven’t [toys]. I played with simple toys that my mother made fo rme. I played with old plastic things, which all children had the same [toys]. After Kristina was born, after about age 10 I started to have some toys because my aunts immigrated to Greece. And then we had the most beautiful toys in the neighborhood, and we always shared them with our friends, always. Kristina and I would bring them out without thinking twice whether they were ours.
If you didn’t have fruits and milk and eggs, what kinds of things did you eat?
For example, my mom has said to me that my grandma prepared something with flour, I don’t know the name and I haven’t tasted it anymore, I don’t know how it tastes anymore.
What did your parents tell you about life under the dictatorship?
One of the most things that my father has suffered a lot is that they were afraid to speak freely and share their ideas freely. Also it was forbidden for them to listen to foreign radio stations and television channels, the government had put something to not let the frequency of other channels enter into that nation. And also they couldn’t watch movies from other countries, sometimes Macedonia and things from China and Russia.
Also, for example, during the young age of my father he wanted to have another style of wearing [clothes], but it wasn’t allowed. All the guys should have the same style of wearing; the government gave them some limits and they should respect them. Also for hair, my father told me that he liked to have long hair, but it wasn’t allowed.
The family of my father, they worked rugs, and my father’s grandmother made them. During communism it wasn’t allowed to have private jobs, only to work in the jobs of government. My father told me that they put the [rug-making] equipment in a room where people could not hear or see, because maybe the neighbors would go to the government and spy. But food, it was like the size of food according to the members of the family [rations]. It was called tallona. It’s a measure of food for the members of the family. For them it was a problem, for both families. My mother was grown in a village and they worked in a garden but not their own garden, it was forbidden. It was for the nation and they got paid. Both my grandmothers were very hardworking women and knew how to raise their children and how to secure and each single mealtime to have food on their tables.
One of the stories that my aunt has told me is that she was at the hospital giving birth – she was a nurse there – and she said to me that new moms, after giving birth to their child, would be given something special like an apple or a package of coffee. My aunt has told me that they would save it and use it only for special people that came to them, to respect them and to treat them honestly. For guests. My grandmother on my mom’s side told me that real coffee was really expensive, and even if you had the money to buy [it], it wasn’t in the shops. It was only for people with really good job positions or workers in the government. My grandma used barley for coffee.
Also something else my uncle’s wife has told me, was that when she came to our house as a new bride, it was a tradition that the mother of the groom should have the new bride cook. And it was difficult to find flour. They had some pasta in their house and put it into the water during the night, and in the morning it was like dough. And they cooked a pie. They find ways to cook. Interesting. Now we laugh, but for them it was terrible, I think, to be a new bride and not know how to cook.