Birth of a chair

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The experienced traveler always knows where to stop for a drink. On a journey in a land of unknown dangers, he would sit and order his refreshment in a casual manner, knowing he’s got it right again.

I sipped the coffee in the bar in the “Egjiptian” settlement, letting my mind wonder back to childhood as Albanians have an immense talent for expresso.

The experienced traveler never would have settled down in that bar.

A man sitting on a damaged chair at the flimsy plastic table asked a question in Albanian to no one in particular. I had been chatting with the owner’s son in German. Back home after the end of a story of love and passion with a woman in a Bavarian village, he had picked up a few essential words that could enable us to communicate about coffee and other simple topics while I waited for my supplier.

I had noticed the man as I came in. His bushy eyebrows had achieved the struggle to join in the middle of a low forehead creating a dramatic effect that called for respect. A heavy hand was enveloping a tiny glass with a transparent liquid, as if preparing to squash a deadly spider.

He repeated his question and my friend translated: “how long have you lived here?”  I managed to explain I had been in his beautiful country only for a few days. He was not happy with my answer. Tension was visibly rising as my previous conversation partner suddenly concentrated on drying a glass looking the other way.

There are moments when you know you have learned something. Right now it was clear that I needed to review my standards for the choice of cafés where I set my meetings with the new suppliers.

Luckily, my “rendez-vous” came through the door apologizing for the delay. He had been busy solving some unexpected problem with a delivery of an important order. He invited me to come to join his lads so we could go and choose the barrels for the new chair we had planned to make together.

I was glad to get away from a sticky situation and jumped in a white Mercedes on the quest for steel drum barrels on a crisp Sunday morning in November.

“Egjiptian” they call themselves, but they are more often called “Jevg” or “Megjoup” generally derogatory terms.


They have been in Albania for the past 500 years, enough for them to feel part of the Albanian people. They first came with the Turkish army, talking care of their horses and eventually settled around the castles that are still visible in the country today. They speak only Albanian but have a darker skin than the average Albanian. There is no real “egyptian” community even if they can be confused with the Roma, also present in Albania. They nevertheless have different origins and traditions and, unlike the Roma, are not nomadic. The only obvious fact is that they have been marginalized for centuries and even though some have made fortune in the new free economy, they often live in the poor neighborhoods.

We drove out of town, passed a railroad and soon arrived in a small forest full of crosses and grids.

We were stopping by at the cemetery to catch up with the truck and other members of the team who were “delivering” the order.


The place was silent and peacefull. Egjiptians are a happy crowd. Contact with death makes them uneasy.  The group assembled around a tomb, applied the last coat of paint on the grid they had built, sold and delivered, took their hats off and muttered a few words respectfully lowering their eyes to the ground. It was fast but deep enough for me to think there was something true. Back on the truck Neritan, one of the lads, turned on the radio and some crazy music gave a new energy to our mission.

A few minutes later we were loading the barrels found sitting on the roof of an isolated drugstore and headed back to the workshop.DSC03027

The project consisted in making the prototype of some kind of Scandinavian chair in the most unexpected place with an unexpected material and see what happened.

It was all going perfectly as we scribbled our ideas enthusiastically on a piece of loose paper.

The space between thought and action is virtually absent in this country. Barely a minute later, was the machine cutting through the steel making a show of sparks and sounds. It felt like a feast, it could have been some kind of religious sacrifice. We worked hard but lightheartedly. We only stopped the noise in respect of the “baba” from the Rufai community who came round as Neritan invited him in to meet me.

Rufai are a mystical religious group of the Islamic universe with rituals involving trance and needles. They have followers and leaders in theEgjiptian community. Neritan had been touched by my curiosity on religious topics and was glad to show off his piety as a devout follower. Once the “baba” had left, h e lit another cigarette and resumed flattering comments on the passing girls as the construction of the chair went on. It was his way to make me feel at home.

We finished the seat quite late, cold and tired but proud of the job. We agreed to meet in the morning to settle all details of the leg with the boss. Neritan was having a concert in a place hefelt appropriate not to invite me and insisted that I take a photo of him sitting on the new chair as he had dressed upnicely for the evening.



The next morning I spoke with the boss about making this a development project aiming at re-qualifying youth in the shattered Egjiptian village, visibly suffering from the various social problems that come with poverty and under-employment. A local Ngo had helped make the contact and was interested in my project with design and recycling. We never managed to share our views on development and how to get round to having a long lasting relation. He loved the chairs, even his father ordered one for his sitting room.

This was the beginning of a fairy tale. We had time for those boring details. They could wait.

Having agreed on a price, I inquired about the man with the bushy eyebrows and why he seemed so touchy on harmless topics. Our communication was difficult as my interpreter could hardly understand his dialect so we needed him to repeat the answer several times. The man had suspected me of being a spy, possibly working for the Americans, asking too many questions, speaking too many languages…

It took some time before I said another word after we separated, brooding on how things sometimes don’t just seem what they are, and on how the experienced traveler would have avoided this kind of situation.

In the end the order for the chairs was never completed. Only a few managed to leave that workshop and ended up in an elegant shop in London. Our supplier had stocked the barrels in his father’s garden, crushing the gardenias and creating havoc in the neighborhood by burning the barrels between the houses to get rid of residual content.

I revised my strategy with the Egjiptian community and ended having the chair produced in a small tidy workshop in the capital where the experienced traveler would have gone in the first place. We still work with the Egjiptians occasionally and are developing new projects for scrap metal lamp shades for we keep a nice memory of Neritan and the pulse of life that could be felt anywhere in the neighborhood.

Po paris

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