My Albania

A postcard of Albania, ca. 1910.

Some people wake up at four in the morning wondering if they’ve left the light on in the kitchen. I wake up in a cold sweat wondering if there’s some country that I’ve forgotten, some place on Earth that’s slipped through my fingers. For many years now, I’ve collected music from the farthest reaches of the planet. I’ve found tapes of music from islands in Indonesia where drummers build their own instruments and eat them after each performance; records of Eskimos who sing into each others’ mouths; forty-fives of South African bands that sound just like the Sir Douglas Quintet; and records of Mongolian houmi singers who can hit three notes simultaneously. When I can’t sleep, I go wading through my collection like Scrooge McDuck swims in his money bin.

And so I panicked when I awoke one night—this was now more than thirty years ago—and realized that I had no Albanian records. Not a one. And I didn’t even know where to look. 

Albania, you may recall, is a small Balkan country bordering on Yugoslavia and Greece. At the time, it was still a communist nation, and I wouldn’t credit it with undue hospitality. An English phrase book from 1958, optimistically titled Albanian for Travelers, calmly notes the nation’s “many strange and curious customs. Outside the cities and towns, no one seems to have told the local populace that it is not a good idea to kill strangers.” The useful phrases offered in Albanian are not much more encouraging: “I am sorry about your father’s nose”; “Why are your sheep looking at me?”; and “Your dog is already dead. Go away.”

The record stores I tried showed no Albanian records in their catalogs, had never heard of any, and simply wanted me to buy CDs of Andreas Vollenweider or Philip Glass and get the hell out. But there’s nothing like a challenge to perk up the day and get the old blood moving again. Checking the New York phone book, I found the Albanian Mission to the United Nations at 184 Lexington Avenue and sauntered over to a dark, barely marked office.

A small man with an even smaller black mustache sat behind a desk that was too big for him and dangled his legs menacingly. Without the energy to be either convincingly hostile or sufficiently confused, he sat in a mild stupor.

I was apparently the first American to come through his door.

“You are on Albanian soil,” he pouted, pointing to the rug. “Who sent you here?”

“No one.”

“No one? How did you find this office?”

“You’re listed in the phone book.”

“Ha.” He turned and checked the phone book, watching me out of the corner of his eye, and then slammed the book shut. “We are listed in the phone book,” he said with such vehemence that I had to agree with him.

“Yes. You are. I’m interested in Albanian music and I can’t seem to find any records or tapes. I thought you might be able to help me.”

“No,” he said sadly. “No one is interested in Albanian music. I myself am not even interested in Albanian music. You are a spy. You are on Albanian soil.” Once again he pointed at the rug. “Get out.”

As I said, there’s nothing like a challenge to perk up the day, and this was clearly a challenge. I’d forgotten the cardinal rule for dealing with bureaucrats: when in doubt, lie, bluff, bully, and gesticulate wildly. Now I no longer wanted just to find Albanian records, I wanted to go to Albania. I telephoned the following day and deepened my voice.

“Yes, hello, good morning, hello. Who am I speaking to, please?”

There was a vague mumble on the other end, like a sofa yawning.

“Yes, this is Brian Zcullman,” I said, “Dr. Bass advised me to call you.” (Dr. Bass, my dentist, is a large and at times fierce-looking man. Judging by what little I’d seen of the Albanian officer’s teeth, he would do well to stand clear of Dr. Bass.) “I am going to be in Yugoslavia this fall, at conferences in Split and Belgrade, and as I am of Albanian heritage, I thought I’d like to visit the country and see if I still have family there. Can you help me with a visa?”

Again there was a mumble on the other end and a request for my phone number. In a little over an hour, he called me back.

“Mr Zcullman?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, I have very good news for you. At this time a visa is out of the question. Simply not possible. However,” and here his vice expanded, bursting with pride, “if you wish to be repatriated and once again be with your people and the people of your father, I think we can help you.”

I put the phone down very slowly. Your dog is already dead. Go away.

Next to the listing for the Albanian Mission in the phone book is the address of Albanian Trimming, a tailor shop in Spanish Harlem. A couple of Cubans sat behind the counter.

“Unh-unh. No Albanians working here. The old owner, funny guy who used to wear slippers all the time, he was Albanian, but he sold the place. One of the younger guys who used to work here, he’s Albanian. Last I knew he was working down the street at Jimmy’s O Sole Mio.”

At Jimmy’s, there were actually two Albanian waiters. I was the only customer, so they sat with me and poured me some Albanian wine that was bitter and smelled of damp fur.

“You like this wine?”

“No.” I am always truthful with waiters.

“It is terrible. Still, it is better than Albanian music.”

“Much better,” said the second waiter.

“Albanian music sounds like someone drowning in his soup.”

“No, it sounds like men with big sticks beating sheep.”

“No, it is more wet, like fish coughing.”

“You really want to find Albanian records, go out to Queens. There’s a Yugoslav record store that advertises on the radio that it has Albanian forty-fives and videocassettes.”

“Videocassettes?”

“Yeah, bootlegged off of TV. Terrible stuff.”

Record Bazaar, at 31-83 Thirty-Third Street in Queens, had jars of sour cherry preserves, copies of Yugoslavian cowboy magazines (Pony WestVajat Erpi, records of Yugoslavian punk bands Azra, Electric Orgazm), and an entire shelf of Albanian forty-fives and videotapes. One videotape showed three morose-looking men in ill-fitting Santa Claus suits sitting around a gaily lit Christmas tree and talking.

“They are telling each other jokes, funny Christmas stories,” the woman in the store explained to me. However, after each joke, the men looked sadder and sadder until finally they slumped in their chairs and stared gloomily at the camera. Then the screen went blank. A Samuel Beckett Christmas.

The forty-fives all have bright, folkloric covers showing people dressed very much like Ukrainian Easter eggs. On one of the covers they are aiming cannons at one another. On another they are brandishing bayonets. On a third they are waving flutes in the air and pointing at a helicopter. On all of the covers the people look cheerful and well-fed, but it’s hard to tell whether anyone on the cover actually appears on the record. They may simply be models. My favorite songs so far are “A Bunch of Sheep Are Going Out to Drink” and “Take a Look at That Mountain.” You should come over and hear them sometime.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in the December 1985 issue of Spin.

Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.

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