The olive trees on the mountain slopes overlooking Elbasan are revealed by the early east european sunrise.
The angry cock is spreading the word and the hound is commenting profusely at 4 am.
Lili enjoys being up before everybody else at the Kafe that carries his name.
He leaves his wife in bed, checks his newborn baby and goes to open the café.
He made a good move exchanging that large piece of land for a smaller area next to the main road. One day Albania was no longer communist. Bureaucrats invented private property and handed out land to the citizens with rules made up by no one in particular. Artan wanted land for tomatoes. He believed tomatoes were the future. Lili, more of the urban kind, dreaming of an “italian style” bar, exchanged his large piece in the country for Artan’s, just next to the main road.
The first “Bar-Kafe” of town was founded in ‘93. A couple of years later tomatoes became cheap, too cheap, and half of the country’s businesses became restaurants or cafés. Lili’s bar was the best one for miles. A billiard and two screens -by now flat-, a good sound system and an italian coffee machine that can make real cappuccino. Artan emigrated to Greece leaving no news of his whereabouts.
The wind is blowing from the east, driving cold air on the valley around Elbasan, and with it the smoke from the cement factory, part of the run down ex communist kombinat.
On days like that Lili lights up the stove in the middle of the big room facing the bar.
He makes himself a personal coffee with a drop of raki, trying to forget the stories told about the wind.
Stories of bicephalous animals born from the calves and sheep when the eastern wind blows. Stories of the highest authorities -perhaps even the americans- concealing information on the issue. Some locals swear they know mothers who never saw their baby, taken away from them at birth by masked nurses from the north.
Lili is has a thin build, but nervous. When he has bad thoughts his Adam’s apple moves hastily up and down. He looks into his cup and tries to catch the last drop of liquor mixed with some rest of sugar.
As the stove gently lights up the wise men enter and gather in a circle of chairs and coffee is served.
The fabrication of myth, one of the many dimensions of reality, begins.
Ulli was silent while Skelqim commented on the low temperature and humidity.
“Is Berti around?” enquired Skelqim. “nuk eddi” -I don’t know- answered Lili dishing out expresso and raki.
“Last night they were working on the kiln with the italian” said Ylli. “I wonder why they are going through so much trouble”
“Why do you say that?”
– pak raki më kafe?- Mä pak! te lutem! Faleminderit!”.
“it’s never going to work, he should stick to bricks and tiles, nothing the foreigners start ever works here.”
“Islami is going to help, he is a master”
“Islami is crazy”
“Because he works at the psychiatric hospital doesn’t mean he’s crazy”
“He was mad even before that, anyway I know he has applied for the american visa lottery, so he might leave anytime”
Arben joined in rubbing his hands “ftot po?” -cold yes?-
“Just went by at Berti’s, Për zoti! he wasn’t happy. I thought he was going to cry”
“Berti is not that kind of man” said Fatos, coming out of the toilets “Lili, akoma nje raki!”
“Remember that dutch man…what’s his name again? Hei Kujtim what was that man’s name from the dutch organisation? The one who cried that day: Pjetri, Pitti, Nilsi…nuk eddi” said Fatos trying to catch something wandering in his brain like flies over a mule’s head.
“Nils Dieterman-said Kujtim- letting his weight fall on the chair.
“In front of all those women” chuckled Skelqim “left Albania a week later-how could they send a man like that to Albania?”
“They have no idea- if I had all that money they have I would…”
“You have no idea, I tell what I would do” boasted Fatos, by now wobbling on his flimsy plastic stool “if I had made to Greece in ‘96…”
“Leave us alone with your story about Greece, you didn’t even make it to Korça with all the raki you had in you!”
“They say that every Albanian cries the first time he goes to Paris” said Kujtim trying as usual to calm down the conversation.
“Did you see that in Top Channel ? Should get out more, you get funny ideas at home, anyway does this place look like Paris?”
The meeting of wise men was heating up, Lili turned a radio on with traditional music and served some cheese and pickled peppers. A couple of women and students gathered along the street waiting for the first buses and furgonat-minivans- for Elbasan.
“Mir?”-good? inquired Niko
“Keiq” -bad, answered Berti sitting on the free chair next to the stove, and swallowed a piece of cheese.
“Keiq” he repeated- bad “Djegur” -burnt.
“Where’s the italian?”
Berti was proud of his kiln. “Konceptioni Hoffmani, Gjermani!” He often boasted to visitors.
He had built it with Mondi, his second son, before he left for Greece, following Landi, his older brother. Nardi’s turn, the youngest of the three, came soon enough.
Vaulted roof, with a small combustion chamber. Made specially for the large traditional vases Isami turned on his days off from his job at the Hospital in Elbasan.
Berti had been one of the first to take over a state run brick factory after the collectivist economy disappeared. He was one of the rare Albanians to have made some money with the pyramid schemes. Invested a lump sum in his large house on the road to Elbasan before the crack brought the whole nation to chaos. The social unrest that followed carried his business with it. Partners left, clients disappeared and money was no longer coming in.
His business shrunk to nothing till his sons left. Islami and Marku, the man who lost his mind as child when he was run over by a car, were the last remnants of a lost dream.
Some foreigners had come to see him, but fortune was not coming his way. Piero had come along from Tuscany to make rustic bricks, but decided to work with Astrit , an un-experienced young man living in a village ten miles East of his village, for no apparent reason. Even bought him a gas kiln.
Now Astrit was doing well and he was still struggling with Marku.
One day Islami came with this crowd from Paris, a woman with Paramilitary boots, a young italian man, and the boy from Tirana. There was even a camera man.
Nardi hadn’t left yet for the Peloponese. They had spent the afternoon exploring techniques to apply some design on the clay, tiring exchanges in a language for the dumb.
The man seemed happy enough.
Cafe and Raki for that late summer afternoon and even if it seemed unrealistic, fortune was at least giving him a chance to play around.
The man wanted to glaze his plates.
It had been years since Islami had glazed a piece, and only with transparent glaze, full of lead.
These people had rules made to make life complicated. No lead, no transparent glaze.
Berti knew it would never work with his kiln, but he was tired, and let himself believe in a miracle. Nothing to lose he told himself.
After weeks of hard work they loaded the smaller kiln carefully with Islami who had taken a week off to supervise this firing with the special american glaze.
Marku lit the fire at ten am.
He walled the combustion chamber at 6 pm. Berti knew how to read the temperature of the fire by checking the colour of the pieces. But it was easier at night. In full sunlight he wasn’t sure.
It had been a terrible night. Hardly slept at all.
At three am the next day he was sitting in front of the cooling kiln, waiting for the right moment to start taking the pieces out.
The young man came at 5, smiling as usual. His light-heartedness was close to being an insult to his present state of mind.
He felt anxious, feeling older than ever before, like a fat old man in love with a belly dancer, suddenly realizing that destiny had decided that some things were simply over.
The kiln was cooling. They started unloading it as early as possible with thick gloves, till they got down to the glazed pieces.
The young man took pictures and pictures like he was at the Olympic games.
Just one small piece was well glazed.
One fragment, in the middle of a disaster. One small piece and the rest was deformed by an excessive heat.
He walked to Kafe Lili slowly, with anger against his naive hope and resentment towards the young man who had the time to dream he was no longer entitled to.
“Merri nje cigare” said Niku after having killed the piece of cheese.
Lili din’t like this. He knew Fatos will soon start with his story about Greece and lost opportunities. The visit from a foreigner was a moment to comment the world news, keep up with reality and build a new piece of myth. Fatos could only hand over broken dreams. Before his wife would wake up he wanted a good atmosphere.
He picked up the remote control and lit the flat screen.
Bulgarian singers started shaking their half naked bodies dancing some turbo folk. Top volume of course so the barber would finally wake up and open his tiny store in front of the café.
The men lifted their eyes towards the magic screen.
Even myth needs a pause.
Lili’s wife came through behind the bar with the baby.
Her older daughter ran to her father, kissed his cheek and left for school.
Another day. When children are around the men are happy, everyone is better, even if Fatos is by now dancing around the stove like and Red Indian chief.
Then there is a roar from outside. The sound of a powerful engine.
It is the TIrana boy. the driver, coming to pick up the Italian.
Then the Italian comes in and Berti gets his eyes off the flat screen.
“Berti, I must go, a plane to catch” says the Italian, hoping someone will translate.
“Berti, don’t worry we will find a solution- he insists trying to look at the older man in the eyes- we have come a long way and I won’t give up”
The way this man is speaking you would think he is some kind of communist leader, thinks Berti “and who ever believed them?”
Endri, the driver, rushes in, he knows he is not welcome, a boy from the capital city and with a BMW in a small village and only the elders present. Not the right crowd to show off fast cars.
Usual greeting ritual, but the heart isn’t there. A coffee and they’re off on the road.
The italian suddenly says: “You know, I thought he was about to cry, I really hope he perseveres”
“An Albanian man does not cries”
“You know what I mean”
“No I don’t” says the driver, and goes on “I am 24, my father worked in the national museum, then one day there is no more museum, we are hungry. Then he opens a shop selling screws and bolts, my father, a professor. Then in 97 everyone goes crazy, we walled our windows for fear of getting shot down by some crazy peasant.”
He puts the 4th gear and waits for the curve to end “Berti si 50, he’s seen much more, and gone through it all as a father, do you think you can make him cry for a couple of plates?”
The engine is roaring as they overtake the bus.
“You people from abroad, you don’t understand. An Albanian man can’t cry”
Fifth gear and he slips a Cd in the player. “Rruga” by Vlashent Sata.
Just a couple of plates and some bowls.