The flag is up, it’s Po! Paris in New York, 888 Broadway
Thank you Aylin!
There she was, Drande with her smile and blue eyes, the questions I could never understand, and her sharp sense of humour, next to Teresa, the mother, her strong fingers always in the wool, knotting, weaving, the traditional catholic scarf covering her head.
Then Leta, the daughter, who had leaped more than two generations ahead, responsible of the women community center of the area.
Sometimes Ana was there too, Leta’s friend and colleague working for the local Ngo dealing with gender orientated social issues.
No man in sight.
Our meetings always ended in a good laugh, drawings scribbled on a loose piece of paper between two piles of coloured wool. A Turkish coffee, and an innocent hand shake.
I would later find my driver smoking and smiling leaning on his BMW in front of Kafe Vivaldi.
This time it was different. The husband was home. We had to talk lead times for the American order.
I was offered a customary raki with the coffee. I couldn’t understand the details of the long story I was told, sitting on the couch in the kitchen.
It was about a man from Turkey who had been going around taking all the wool from the villages.
I tried to picture the man with a wicked smile and escaping carrying bags and bags of the wool that we needed for the American order.
Casually asking if the problem had been solved, Ana spoke of an alternative solution.
Negotiations were going on with a village in Serbia where a producer was to bring a load full of wool of top quality.
I finished the coffee. Ana grabbed the cup with her usual energy and checked the remaining content on the bottom. « It will be okay, she said » putting it back on the table.
With such solid evidence I emailed America to reassure everyone.
On Easter Monday, I am told the Serb never turned up.
The text message was short but precise : « cannot deliver on time ».
Albania, another one of those moments. One never gets used to it. I simply emailed America again dreading the consequences.
On this last trip Aida, from our office in Tirana, is with me. It is dark and late, an unusual time to pay a call to someone.
We push the gate open and notice the peculiar warm light from the house. Every room is full of piles of orange and red wool, cushions in each corner, four looms under the plum tree, ten ladies of all ages working actively.
And four holes in the ground. The foundations of the future workshop.
Leta comes and greets us. She is tired, anxious. Everybody has been working hard, little sleep. Her husband is there, for moral support. No one wants to be in the way. Cold soup and salad, no time to cook till the order is ready.
« I think we are going to make it for Tuesday », she tells me.
She also shows me the prototypes of the new bags, also developed with Nathalie Lété.
I remembered again why I kept on working with this amazing country. The people are just to good to be true. No life without passion. You got to give them that.
And they love Nathalie’s designs.
These cushions are changing things in the community. Families get together to achieve a common goal, put aside differences, men accept that their wives don’t serve dinner because their work is more important to the household than rules.
The foundations of the new studio are the proof that they believe things can change.
And Po Paris is glad to be part of it.
As we write we know the cushions are on their way to be delivered. Nathalie Leté’s cushions will be on sale in Anthropologie in the United States and the United Kingdom starting from June 2012.
Please enquire for any other retail stores carrying this item in Europe and Australia (yes, Australia)
They came as group, as usual. Looking great, as usual, smiling the smile jet lag makes kind and generous. As usual.The buyers, a typical trade fair phenomenon. They bring fresh air with them, everybody is happy and good humoured when they come by.
He looked at our floor cushions. « Nathalie Lété ? You know we work with her. »
I was happy. The right time to tell the whole story, develop a few details, serve everyone a coffee from our special espresso machine, relax a while, talk about old times…
One of the group, an efficient blonde, spoke before I could, mentioning lead time requirements, packing and labeling. The man added a quantity, distracting me from my line of thought.
« You were about to tell us about them » the other blonde with a shade of red said kindly.
Once the right momentum is lost, inspiration can disappear. « you can send us an email, we would like to communicate on that »
Standing there babbling, my mind was back in Albania at the time of our first trips to the North.
“It’s on the news everyday”. The driver had a gift for multitasking.
He could make a phone call, change gears and overtake a truck on a mountain road, racing at full speed. I was glad we engaged in a conversation, hoping he might slow down.
It seems like a long trip to the North. In our early days in Albania even our driver was uneasy to start the journey after sunset. Nothing better than a conversation to let time pass and relax.
He was from Tirana, proud to be a city boy of the capital of Albania, and very critical with regards to the customs of the people from the mountainous North.
“You don’t believe me do you. It can be dangerous, not much for you perhaps, because you are a foreigner…”
It sounded like a place plagued by clan warfare and revenge over trivial matters. A place where one is careful before speaking.
“Isolated episodes you say?” he wasn’t enjoying this. I could sense he was really trying to make me think “A month ago, a man shot a boy because he stole electricity, my father saw it on TvSh, and then there was that one they found in the ditch up in the mountains, they spoke about that even in Germany because he was a German national- an argument over a girl promised to someone else…”
Exaggeration. Typical of the city boys from Tirana. Something you learn here in Albania. There is truth in every sentence, but not always the relevant truth.
Outside the black night was enveloping the countryside. Lights from a roadside hotel approaching and disappearing in the rear mirror.
It was during our first trip to Shkodra that we had met Alketa on the metal bridge built by the Austrians in the 19th century. She mentioned the possibility of making hand knotted carpets in a certain sector of the city where her organization was starting something.
The city of walls they call it, a « llagja » -neighbourhood in Albanian- sprouted from nothing, built by the families who had come down from the isolated villages in the mountains once they were free to move after the fall of the authoritarian communist regime in 1991.
My driver never enjoyed our trips there, because of the Kanun.
« it’s on the news everyday… »
The “Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit “, the traditional common law coded in the 15th century, regulated justice between clans and individuals in ancient Albania, amongst other things.
According to the Kanun, revenge through the use of violence is a good and straightforward method to pay a moral debt.
The notion of « respect » is essential. You break the rules of respect, your are certain to pay a price. And there is no prescription period as the bill can be settled generations later.
Payment is usually asked to a man, as women play a limited role in the Kanun.
My driver explained that the Kanun had been liberally interpreted after the fall of communism.
In a suddenly fast moving society, modernity and change hit this displaced community very hard with plenty of collateral damage. With unemployment soaring, well organized criminal organizations from east and west made good business with prostitution, child trade and drug dealing. Ancient traditions were seen as the only possible solution to keep the community in one piece. In certain cases extreme measures of violence had been applied to trivial wrongdoings, some of which involving honour.
Each time we drove up to the north I was told in detail about those gruesome episodes, apparently happening at every hour of the day.
That morning walking alone between the high walls in Mark Lulaj, my mind went back to those conversations.
In front of the tall metal gate I felt invisible eyes following me. I avoided turning around, just as I used to in my grand mother’s house’ dark corridor when I was told to go to bed after the evening film. I knocked smiling at my cowardice.
My driver never came when I needed to go and pay a visit to the girls.
He had particularly insisted on the importance hospitality in the Kanun.
Hospitality is a man’s duty. A household without a man cannot welcome another man under it’s roof.
Till relatively recent times, if a family had lost all it’s men, a young girl voluntarily chose to take the masculine role, so that the family could take part in clan’s activities. She abandoned her femininity, took up swearing, smoking and spitting, wore trousers and become some kind of male creature so that the family could avoid isolation.
I was working with women who work at home weaving.
A nice project.
“Sandaletta? Po! Dakkort!”
This was good news. Not that we needed sandals, but energy is always a good sign.
Evidence had lately being piling up that Po! Paris’ development plan had vast hidden costs.
The general feeling now being that the leather bag project was going to set a new record to that pile’s size.
“Shikoni këtu” look here! said Haxhi genially pointing at the pile of rubber on the working table.
Being a cobbler in Albania brings no big money. And being an Albanian foot means your in for a hard life.
Only the wealthy foot wears new leather shoes, made in Italy of course, and spends most of it’s existence in a car. The ordinary foot lives a life of danger and peril on on muddy roads, in second hand shoes chosen from the gipsy markets. He wears leather only on special occasions, such as weddings, funerals or the surprisingly frequent death anniversaries.
Haxhi is a hard worker. He not only repairs shoes, but also makes them from scratch. Out of leather of course, but also out of tractor tyres.
Tractor tyres are known to be waterproof, thick and reinforced with textile instead of metal. The different layers of rubber and textile are separated by hand and used like leather.
Slippers, “babouches” with soles made out of treads are well known in north Africa where truck tyres are also used to make buckets and large jars for water.
Albania is a proud European nation. Haxhi makes European style shoes. Not slippers.
His shoes have laces.
They look good.
There is room for improvement, but the ones made from tyres look like real shoes and are also waterproof.
Perfect for working in a field or milking a cow. Some might also think wearing a pair for their Saturday afternoon stroll at the Champs Elisées would be worth the pain.
Haxhi is obviously a genius in his field. We such craftsmanship, he will certainly be part of the leather bag project.
Before we go, we feel in the mood of dropping that generous kind of advise that costs nothing and sounds great, as any western European usually does in in “poorer” countries: “the village is tourist attraction? Western tourist? Summer? Cobbler? What you need is leather sandals! Typical leather sandals, simple and elegant, crossed or parallel lacing, Ancient Roman style…” The description was then interrupted by Haxhi’s full approval we mentioned earlier.
What we find the next day, entering the workshop on our way to the airport are “sandaletta”. Yes, indeed they are.
Then follows a lively discussion about prices, marketing targets, internet strategy, all in Albanian as I try and find some space for my bag in the now crowded workshop searching for a diversion.
“Surely 10 Euros is a fair price”, I here someone say “or even 8…”
It was obvious that the leather project needed to be radically re-designed, the situation now being very different from what I had imagined, dreaming of saddle makers and ancient traditions revived with modern design brought from young Parisian designers.
Recent events called for a new strategy, defined by one simple catch-phrase, for example: “inspired by myth of luxury, made in Albania”. “How about a bag?” I said hoping to stop the lively marketing think tank.
A couple of trips later, this is what is I find:
Perhaps one day Mrs Birkin will come by at Haxhi’s workshop and set the foundations another myth…
Evening was approaching and everything was perfect.
The last reflections of the blue sky light disappeared between the giant heroes of the revolution stuck in the mosaic on the facade of the Museo Kombëtar in Tirane.
The Italian style aperitivo is tuned to perfection with the rationalistic architecture.
On one side the buildings erected by the Italian fascists when Albania became part of a ridiculous empire, and on the other the severe looking socialist white public buildings.
The noise from traffic slowly shimmers, as people come out for their evening stroll, filling the air with a sweet sound of chatter.
The glass of “crodino analcolico” and its green olives sit on the small table at the cafe of the Teatër Kombëtar (National Theatre) overlooking the piazza.
But Victor is not happy.
He strives the final attack against “turbo folk“, a crazy pop version of traditional Balkan folk music, leaving his conversation partner wondering if some cruel Miss Lizzie, certainly a dancer, is playing around with his heart and feelings.
Victor is a good conversation partner, his knowledge on Albania is virtually complete, spanning from music to politics and ancient history.
Victor is also a pessimist.
Pessimists are a rare and essential feature of the Albanian society.
After the fall of the regime and the collapse of the collectivist economy in 1992, every single person had to re-invent his own present and future in society where new rules were been written all over again.
Head masters became drivers, doctors ministers, primary school teachers ambassadors, painters mayors and simple workers millionaires.
Pessimists alone carry the burden of the collective memory in this fast changing society.
Discreet by nature, pessimists are rarely heard as they avoid going to cafes where opinions and myths are forged everyday.
They can be poets, or indulge in some form of highly refined intellectual activity. Others continue doing what they had learnt to do in the past in an identical manner, ignoring the world of the past has been washed away by the new order.
Hysen is beyond doudt one of the most prominent pessimists around. He also has a rather daunting personnality.
Some designers in Denmark had made flattering compliments to the felt works we had brought back from Hysen’s workshop in Albania.
Covering Hysen with compliments made no difference. “Absolutish yo!” – No definitely no!- He said, counting the beads of his chaplet.
That is the answer when asked if some tiny improvements could be added to the hats he made out of felt, following a tradition dating back to times when the Turcs had not yet come to Albania in the 14th century.
Luckily his son has come to terms with his father’s strong character and developed new shapes. The tradition for felt is as old as time in Albania.
The wool is carefully selected, “opened” with a peculiar instrument, a primitive bow, with a string tied to a branch that shuffles the wool till is becomes fluffy like a cloud.
The wool is then put into shape and washed with cold water and soap till transformation in felt is achieved. At this stage the felt is mounted on a wooden mould, washed again and again and then vigorously pressed till it dries naturally.
The quality of Hysen’s felt is outstanding, thin but firm keeping it’s shape through time. Hysen and his son are one of the rare cases when the new generation takes the burden of perpetuating a traditional craftsmanship that most of the Albanian youth, often stuck in an confused vision of modernity, despises.
Po paris 2011