Ushering Spring in the city of flowers and festivities.
Starting today, the day begins to match the long hours of the night, and then gradually surpass it. It is the Spring Equinox, and the Northern Hemisphere will be celebrating the heralding of Spring in quiet delight.
Not so in Albania; Definitely not quiet.
Last Saturday (March 14th), was Albania’s celebration of Spring’s arrival. Appropriately enough, I spent last weekend in Albania’s navel city of Elbasan known for its historical celebration of “Summer’s Day,” as it is known here. A pagan, Dionysian holiday full of sweets, music, singing and dancing.
By Friday evening, locals had already rolled out their Ballokume- the traditional, round, corn-flower baked pastry to usher in the day – on sidewalks and shops. Flower shops had stocked up for the following day – the official celebration.
I was invited to visit my elderly aunt who lives in Elbasan, in its Kalaja (Castle) neighborhood; A very coveted and exclusive neighborhood surrounded on four sides by tall Byzantine fortress walls. There is a huge arched opening to enter it from the main boulevard although there are entrances on all 4 sides. I entered from its West wall and walked on its stoned alleyways that zigzag much like a labyrinth. Many of the 200+ year old homes stand inside tall gates and here and there one can see a balcony or a rooftop. It feels like you’re inside a city within a city. In the evening, when the antique, 19th century street lamps were lit, lighting up the maze of narrow alleyways and the windows covered by traditional hand sewn embroidered white curtains, it felt like a small French hamlet. A very Medieval hamlet.
Outside the castle walls, the party had started. There was a stage set up between Elbasan’s park and the castle wall, blaring traditional folk music. And I must stop here to mention that Elbasan is not only an historical town, but a fun town. It is just as much known for its history as it is for its legacy of traditional songs. Elbasan is also a festive town. Known for its flower beds, its bountiful valleys and surrounding hills, its famed Summer’s Day celebration, its original sweets, and its songs which continue to be sung as far north as Gjakova in Kosovo, due to many Gjakovars having finished their schooling in Elbasan.
Yes, Elbasan is also the town of the first training school for teachers. Students from all over Albania and Kosovo came to train here.
But Elbasan holds a very special place in my heart. It is were part of my familial legacy begins. It was in Elbasan that the then well-off Muzhaqi household gave shelter to my renegade great great grandfather, who with his band of rebels had escaped the town of Struga, (In today’s Macedonia) in an effort to evade capture by the Serb police and escape persecution. He had been in conflict with the Sllav authorities (Mostly over property belonging to his clan) for years and before the Muzhaqis offered him shelter, had been hiding out in the mountains between Struga and Elbasan, fighting off the approaching Serb forces dispatched to capture him and his crew. There is even an old song still sang by the elderly of Elbasan detailing the strugle and the legend.
The then self-proclaimed Albanian King Zog, in a concerted effort with the Serbs who had played a key role in bringing him to power in Albania, had issued a warrant for his arrest. He was now wanted in Serbia/Macedonia and in Albania, where he thought, as an Albanian, he would find shelter.
The Muzhaqi family offered him shelter as was the custom in Albania: to offer shelter to those in need, without question, and to treat the guest with the highest regard. For a while, he stayed with them, until a local peasant, seduced by the sacks of gold to be rewarded to whomever would find him, turned him in. He was arrested and trial was to be held not too long after. During trial he was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
My dear aunt recalled the whole story, relayed to her by my grandfather when she was young. I got goosebumps when she recalled the hanging scene. It was the brave man’s code not to fall into enemy hands, or at least, not to die by his hands. And so on the day of his hanging they asked my great great grandfather if he had a last word, and he asked for a comb. He calmly and with great valor combed his hair, with rope round his neck, standing on a stool, and calmly handed it back, shouting “Ja q… majken Zogut!” (F…Zog’s mother), kicking off the stool, and thus hanging by his own hands, not his enemy’s.
But back to the celebration of Summer’s Day. I walked down the main boulevard with my cousin, sight-seeing and listening to the music blaring behind us. Elbasan is a lovely small town full of small parks, flower beds, fountains, flower shops, book stores, cafes and young University students. We had a quick bite and then went to Hotel Skampa for a drink where I spotted a pop singer and some media personalities. Apparently everybody was in town for the morning procession and celebrations.
Celebrations outside fortress walls/neighborhood
Understandably, I went to bed late, after many hours of discussions and storytelling. I slept in a 200 year old home with its old architecture still in tact. My bed was next to a window overlooking an atrium full of Ivies and assorted trees. The kids were still partying outside, but inside Kala there was absolute quietness and peace; Inside the maze was a peace I had never felt before and up in the dark sky, stars sparkled, offering calm sleep to us inside the castle and lively light to those outside celebrating the coming of Spring.
And of course I had my traditional Summer’s Day red and white string bracelet on. Red for health and beauty, white for pure luck. It is said that girls in particular will have a healthy and beautiful year if after the festivities they hang their bracelets on rose or other flower branches.
The City of Flowers, I love you! Happy Summer’s Day/Spring Equinox!