Scrunching a newspaper into small twists to prepare the fire, the word ‘Albania’ jumped out of a twist of paper already in the grate.
Operation ‘ untwist’ began immediately !
Discovered that a French Travel agency was allowed , once a year only, to enter Albania!
Read ‘Contact Bristol telephone number for information.’
Did so immediately and booked the last place with a BBC group , granted permission to enter Albania to film a documentary on Co operative Farming.
The year was 1986
The previous year , in Alaska, a pastor in Fairbanks had prayed over me and prophetically declared that the next country I would go to visit would be ‘ the darkest in the world’ which I instinctively knew was Albania.
Albania was declared,notoriously, the first atheistic state in Europe in 1967.
Enver Hoxha’s communist regime, a total Marksist -Leninist regime which had taken over in 1944, was the most brutal in the world, it’s savagery was first manifest against Catholics, especially priests , who bore the brunt of the persecutions, torture, summery executions and prolonged imprisonments, followed by Orthodox and Muslims.
Albania, at this time, is the most hermetically sealed in the world with total repudiation of the outside world, hard to get in and impossible for Albanians to get out. Which prompted my son, Tom, to tender his subtle advice ‘This really is one place you need to keep your big mouth shut, mother….!’
But I was going.
Praying for wisdom and direction, I wrote down the thoughts that came into my mind ” Dare to proclaim my love in the darkness. I will never forsake you. I WILL WATCH OVER YOU AS A MOTHER HEN LOOKS AFTER HER CHICKS. FEEL SECURE UNDER MY WINGS “
I did not know then, that the Albanian flag consisted of the outstretched wi
In the meantime, visa requirements and numerous restrictions needed to be observed, such as, ‘as Albania is officially an atheistic state, Bibles and any other religious literature, whether or not for personal use, are not allowed to be brought into the country. Cameras are permitted but photographs of docks, military establishments, personnel and some buildings are forbidden’
Tom “they mean it, mother!!”
I knew it , having just read Reona Peterson’s book describing her imprisonment , and narrow escape from execution, for wearing a cross in Albania !
No direct flights to Albania. No Airport open!
Fly into Yugoslavia, to delightful Principality of Montenegro ,smallest kingdom in Yugoslavia, once part of Albania. In Titograd, Podgorica we savour remaining traces of Russian and Venetian culture; faded facades of thirteen, long- empty, Embassy’s, tassels and brocades and leather bound books in French, in museum.
But this sense of charm and culture was about to disappear !
As we approached the huge Scoda lake, which separates Montenegro from Albania , we were marched,one by one, along the 500 yards of rickety, gravelled path carrying our passports above our heads in left hands and dragging suitcases in our right hands. A gunned soldier was positioned at each end of the track, while the Albanian Guide welcomed us with the chilling greeting ‘You are very privileged to get into Albania’ I could almost hear Tom, saying ‘ and you will be even more privileged to get out!’
We reached border control, leaving the Pomegranate tree lined track behind, I learned that the fruit , a great symbol of freedom in scripture, were all sour and inedible here.!
One by one we were allowed into the Customs House, signalled on by jerk of gun. Each suitcase emptied and examined while umpteen questions asked and notated, eg Fathers date of birth ?, todays date?, your date of birth? Are you carrying any rifles, ammunition?, washing machines?, or refrigerators? We had been warned that Bibles, bright attire or beards were forbidden and would be removed ! Fortunately all our men in the group were clean shaven.
All seemed to be going well until they discovered a glossy magazine, “House and Gardens’ in my bag. Page by page was scrutinised looking for any religious or pornographic content.When they came to an advert for bath salts with a lady covered in bubbles, with her foot showing on the edge of the bath tub , pandemonium broke out . I was harshly spoken to and a rapid telephone conversation ensued until the offending ‘pornography’ was confiscated.
Several, tedious hours later we were on board a wooden -seated dilapidated, Albtourist bus, under the scrutiny of carefully selected communist Driver and Guide.
To be jolted along heavily potholed road to the town of Shkodra.
Journalist Mary Kenny described the scene we observed from the bus well in an article in ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, ” It is like visiting another world, the world of Thomas Hardy, where the fields are full of labourers , and at sunset the peasants walk home over the long rural roads with their spades and hoes over their shoulders.”
A glimpse into the Ottoman Empire as it had been in Albania for four hundred years; women in Turkish harem trousers, oxen drawing carts full of hay, children astride donkeys with side-packs and then, as we drew past a railway line, a glimpse of a man with a shovel bent in labour, a soldier thrusting his rifle in his back, brought me out of a Breughel painting into the reality of the present cruel regime.
There are no private cars in Albania, only government official, dark windowed ones, and a very strict order of precedence for military personal, Tourists, people, bullock -drawn carts, horses, cows and hens
Fields looking parched as no rain for several months, beautiful mountains covered with political slogans ‘ Enver Hoxha’ at every turn .
Glimpses of pretty dark haired girls and old peasant ladies in white shawls.
Then the bunkers ! Here , there and everywhere ! Ugly concrete pimples, like mushrooms sprouting up in every field, garden, school, street and open space, machine guns poised, reflecting the siege mentality and paranoia fostered from the age of three in nurseries and schools.
Wondering why I was in such a place, I re read the words of a prophecy given in prayer about Albania , several weeks earlier, on the 17th October. It did not make much sense at the time, but would become very clear as the journey continued.
‘ SEARCH NOT FOR HIDDEN MEANINGS IN THOSE THINGS
THAT YOU SEE.
BE CONTENT TO BE MY CHANNEL OF LOVE AND PEACE.
EYES SHALL MEET EYES.
AND MY LOVE WILL MOVE POWERFULLY.
ALL IS PREPARED.
THE SILVER CHANDELIERS WILL NOT FALL IN VAIN.
YOU SHALL SEE MY FACE ON MOUNTAIN SIDES.
YOU WILL FEEL THE ENERGY OF MY LOVE
AND YOU WILL HEAL IN MY NAME.
THERE WILL BE FURS AND FEATHERS IN ATTENDANCE
KNOW THAT THIS IS MY BIDDING.
DO NOT FEAR THE HOSTILITY.
SEEK TO SEE MY FACE.
SEEK TO DRY THE TEARS OF MY MOTHER IN THAT PLACE.
PRAY WITH THE FAITH YOU HAVE FOUND TODAY.
DARE TO PROCLAIM MY LOVE IN THE DARKNESS.
KNOW THAT DARKNESS ABOUNDS.
SPEAK FORTH MY NAME IN THAT PLACE.’
Well, the only face I could see on every mountain side ,so far, was of
Hoxha, and already the hostility was evident.
The tree lined boulevards of Shkroder gave an almost Italian flavour but concrete blocks of flats and an air of dreariness pervaded. Not enhanced by a visit to a copper wire factory where we had to negotiate by jumping over twisting snakes of white hot wire on oily floors. No sign of any health or safety regulations.
Relieved to get out and climb mountain to visit an Illyrian fortress and enjoy fresh air and breathtaking views of rugged mountains and fjords. Such a beautiful country with the sparkling Adriatic Sea and small island of Corfu in the distance, marred only by the political slogans cut into hills and mountains. Yet this had been the area of St Paul’s most active evangelisation
Taken to visit a kindergarten to hear bland- faced toddlers chanting communist slogans. Sad.
The group was made up of a team of BBC researchers gathering material for a documentary on Co operative Farming, a young man writing a book on Lord Byron’s visits to Albania, Two QC’s – Judges, several other Teachers, like me, and a few people who had visited everywhere else ! A very secular group it would appear, except that one woman wore a dove on her lapel. I wondered ?
We were to share a room. Within minutes we were praying together.
I could imagine Tom’s expression!
For the journey to the city of Tirana, declared Capitol in 1920. We were marshalled into a less ramshackle bus, reaching the most ‘plush ‘ Hotel Tirana’ at nine pm. It was spacious and gracious and the loud music of a disco spilled out into the huge centre of Skanderbeg Square, which was dominated by the Palace of Culture, the Ethnographic Museum, the Art gallery and our Hotel. The two fountains in the centre of the massive square , were not playing. There were no people to be seen.
We would be based in Tirana for the next five days with excursions to various towns and factories.
One visit was to a beautiful , old Hunting Lodge built by one of Mussolini’s Henchmen, where we were treated to a superb lunch of smoked Tuna, putrid potatoes and red wine at fifty pence a bottle.
I caused a sensation by wearing a colourful outfit from ‘Monsoon,’ which the locals thought was a wedding outfit and hailed me as a bride who had come to Albania to celebrate. I was given wild flowers and smiles.
Some local youths gathered round us and begged for Biro (ball point) pens, fortunately we had been tipped off that this was a most sought after commodity and had brought lots. As we were not allowed to be in direct contact with locals, I placed several on a stone wall and walked away. Within seconds they disappeared, the boys swooped like eagles, and fought fiercely to get one.
Another, unforgettable, excursion was to a Cotton Mill which was like something out of the Industrial Revolution in the dark and grime of nineteenth century Manchester.We choked in the dust and bad air and were deafened by the noise of hundreds of clattering looms operated by shoeless children some of whom looked no older than eight years. All the machinery, as in the Copper wire factory , was made in China.
What a relief to get out and drive south through the beautiful vineyards and terraced crops of cotton and tobacco along the mountain sides. Frequently passing ruins of churches and graveyards, now destroyed and desecrated. Prayer and silent tears had to be hidden from view , we were being watched.
A sigh of relief from Tom, I imagine.
Much to the delight of our author, Richard Ward, we visited ruins of the town of Tepelene, neat Gjirokaster where Lord Byron, in 1809, escaping his responsibilities in England, at the age of twenty three , was given hospitality by the despotic Ali Pasha, which he describes glowingly in his poem ‘Harold’ . Byron is much revered in Albania,
Climbing back into our wooden seated bus, I wondered if Lord Byron, on horseback, had suffered as many back-side bruises as we were experiencing.
Another well revered , eccentric English woman in Albania is Edith Durham. She was an Artist and traveller at the turn of the twentieth century, and rode on horseback, into the mountains, camping and being entertained by blood thirsty, tribal groups of bandits. She wrote several books describing her adventures in the Balkans. A street in Tirana is named after her. I was asked if I knew her! Did I really look over a hundred years old, I wondered ?
Could well imagine Tom’s amused comment ” Did n’t I tell you, Mother, splashing your face with water from the ‘well of eternal youth’ was a waste of time “
It was becoming obvious that this beautiful , majestic country was also an archeologist’s and geologist’s dream.
We visited three thousand year old ampitheater’s ,second century Temples, saw Roman and Greek sculptures, remains of Byzantine Basilica’s and ornate mosaic second century Baptistries.
Long drives, along Poplar Tree lined roads, our sullen driver honking furiously at people on foot or bicycles and oxen drawn carts, who completely ignored the honks. On board we were bounced and tossed as he negotiated the thousands of potholes.
The stink from the oil fields was suffocating with only few drills and pumps operating, we were told that no glass was being produced in the land. All the technology seemed drab and antiquated, weeds and chaos abounded and the people look thin and undernourished.
Arrived at beautiful small town of Berat in the dark, after dismal meal , by now we were used to finding cockroaches in the soup, and seeing rats in the kitchens, some of us went for a stroll down an umbrella clipped boulevard, and commiserated with each other about lack of loo facilities etc, out of the ears of our ‘watchers’.
Next morning, at dawn we watched , from our veranda’s, hundred of people, young and old , doing their Tai Chi exercises in unison.
Apart from the experience of seeing the breathtaking beauty of this land, and the chilling horror of the regime, I was beginning to wonder what I was doing there.
Perhaps Tom was right, “you are not often wrong , Mother, but you are wrong again !”
As foreigners we are looked at with great curiosity.
Saw noisy group of people gathered outside a Tobacco shop ; men, women, soldiers and policemen all jostling like a rugby scum, eventually saw man emerging with several packets of cigarettes.
Gave packet of chewing gum to a young boy who was begging for it, as they all do, a ‘party Member’ took him by the shoulder and marched him off round the corner, one of the group followed and saw him being beaten’
But, soon, all would be revealed.
When we reached the town of Korce, in the south of Albania bordering Greece, the group persuaded our guide, Illyia, to take us to the Museum of Medieval Art. He and the driver had a heated discussion before agreeing to do so, and we were subjected to a lengthy lecture from
the Guide, demonstrating that this was not, in any way, a religious museum. It was simply a record of obsolete art.
Entering this large museum I was amazed to see several , free standing, glass display cases, containing silver chalices, liturgical vestments, bells
and holy objects. However what really quickened my heart beat and brought a delighted smile to my lips ( sorry Tom!) was the sight of the most beautiful Ikons adorning every wall.
I had been learning to paint, or more correctly, ‘write’ ikons for many years, discipled to a Benedictine nun from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. So to be confronted, so unexpectedly, with so many beautiful ones, was overwhelming.
As I stood in front of an Ikon of Our Lady of Tenderness
holding the Child Jesus towards me, one of the BBC crew came alongside and made a few disparaging remarks about the genre
” Cant stand such miserable art, so dismal to look at “,
” Actually, one does not ‘look’ at an Ikon, but rather allows the Ikon to look at you,” I suggested gently.
“OK “, she scoffed, “I will let her look at me. She looks rather hard hearted to me though”
” Could she be reflecting your own heart, perhaps?”
After a few moments this tough, worldly, highly accomplished business woman, had tears pouring down her cheeks.
As she moved away, one of her colleagues took her place in order to ridicule and ‘have a go’. Soon, she too was touched and white faced.
Inwardly rejoicing, and far too happy at the work of the Holy Spirit, to notice the approach of the Guide until he touched my arm and asked, “How do you know about Ikons ?”
Could almost hear Tom’s voice, “Now you really have ‘cooked your goose’ Mother”
Muttering something about being an Artist and very. interested in History, I awaited his response. “Monsieur le Curetor, would like to escort you , Madame, round the museum”
Briefly wondering if I would be ‘ escorted’ in handcuffs, and to where, when an elderly , grey haired man came over and courteously bowed before me.
For the next half hour he and I conversed, in French, ostensibly about the Ikons and the Albanian painters of them from early centuries. Especially Onuphre, a sixteenth century, exquisitely holy painter, by whom I was over awed.
But so very much more precious was the unspoken rapport which passed from one spirit to the other.
Illyia, the guide, who had been watching us closely,(fortunately the driver had stayed outside smoking) came over and said that Monsieur wanted to present me with a gift. As I thanked him for the beautiful book ‘Ikon d’Albanie’ we joined hands together and looked deeply into each others eyes and hearts, and saw The Christ.
The words of the prophecy; ‘ BE CONTENT TO BE MY CHANNEL OF LOVE AND PEACE, EYES SHALL MEET EYES
AND MY LOVE WILL MOVE POWERFULLY’. had just been fulfilled !
The Cat was out of the bag.
Up to now, only my room- mate Dorothy knew that I was a fellow Christian. We prayed together each night and after showing her the prophecy which included the injunction ;’ DARE TO PROCLAIM MY LOVE IN THE DARKNESS, KNOW THAT DARKNESS ABOUNDS’
She and I had waded into the sea while staying in the town of Durres, in the darkness of night, and prayed earnestly for Albania together.( Glad Tom never knew )
Dorothy had bought a book in the hotel , of Albanian short stories with a picture of local Albanians dressed in furs and feathers. She was very excited to read again the prophecy ; “THERE WILL BE FURS AND FEATHERS IN ATTENDANCE…..” We felt so blessed to have each other’s companionship.
But now people in the group had observed my ill concealed enthusiasm and, even more dangerous, so had the specially selected Stasi Guide who could report me.
“What did I tell you, Mother”
While in Durres we were taken to visit remains of a second century Amphitheatre, with Polychromatic mosaics, many beautiful Illyrian statues and Busts and waxed terracotta vases.The Archeologist showed us round with vigorous enthusiasm.
As usual we were surrounded by begging children and were glad to have Biro pens to give them. A mother came out of her house to ask for one, and on being given it, proceeded to hug and kiss me continuously.
Apart from such brief encounters, we had no contact with the locals. In cafe’s and restaurants we were put in separate rooms, and fed so much better food, which embarrassed me.
The food was almost inedible, all the meat looked like liver but often turned out to be fish or schnitzel. The bunker mentality pervaded
the menu, rice was served in bunker shapes as was bread and cakes.
As we continued our journey we became increasingly aware of the drab poverty everywhere; skeletal cows, muffled grey sheep and absence of any birds.
Yet the symbol of Albania is of a mother eagle, with her two protecting wings, extended towards North and South Albania. I felt a deep love for this beautiful land and sensed the tears of Mother Mary, remembering the line of the prophecy ; ‘SEEK TO DRY THE TEARS OF MY MOTHER IN THAT PLACE, PRAY WITH FAITH.’ So I did.
We were now moving towards the end of our visit. In the light of my indiscretion in the Museum, I couldn’t wait to get out of the country before I might be challenged.
The driver became sick and was replaced by another unpleasant man to accompany the Guide ,Illyia.
When we reached our hotel in Tirana, our second driver became sick and took to his bed. We hung around the hotel until the doctor and his assistant, who looked sicker than the driver, arrived .We awaited our third guard- cum- driver.
We were, eventually, bussed to the mountains for our final photo shots.
The lurching and jerking of the ride was difficult for those who were suffering from the tummy bug which had invaded the group.
The deepest ache I was experiencing was not being able to receive the Eucharist on this difficult journey, but, remembering that my best friend, Viv Sewell, had promised that she would pray for me at Mass every day, eased my sadness.
As we spread out from the bus , each looking for a good view to snap, I wandered quite a distance from the group, enchanted by the majestic scenery and silently praising the Creator of it all. The Guide, Illya, who had watched me , so carefully, in the Museum, was by my side.
“You are a Christian?”he enquired quietly.
For a split second , I envisagd Tom ‘s urgent advice “mother, say No ! you will be forgiven as Peter was ” At the same instant the desire to witness powerfully, diminished, and instead, a thin, weak, croak of ‘yes’ almost choked me. Knees knocking loudly in time with heart beat.
“Joan, please pray for us.”
Saw deep pain and fear in his blue eyes.
In the next few moments I learned that there was no underground church, no celebration of Christmas nor Easter but only a relentless and merciless persecution of anyone suspected of any religious faith. Truly the darkest country on earth.
Before he quickly moved away to avoid suspicion, I had told him why I had come and promised to pray everyday of my life for Albania.
I also promised that when Albania’s ‘tears had turned to joy ‘I would return.
Next day as we drove to the border, into freedom, a feeling of profound sadness was overwhelming for those still locked into the cruel, Godless regime.
Little did I imagine then in 1986, that in 1993 I would come back bringing ten thousand pairs of spectacles.
But that is the next story. !