A few mangy chickens cluck around the debris-strewn yard: cardboard and wires and buckets of empty. Broken-teeth rock juts from the earth. It’s the same stone that composes the castle up the hill, in whose shadow the shack is perched, in haphazard vertigo.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Genti says. “Would you look at that?”
He’s pointing to a teepee-type structure made out of wood slats and scrap clothing.
“You reckon it’s an outhouse, or a wee guest cottage?” He giggles, but I can’t quite let myself laugh.
I kick at the ground—four different types of laceless sneakers, all mismatched, poking out of the dirt. I go to take a picture.
“Oh, come on,” Genti tugs at me. “Don’t, man, don’t.”
We look up and an old man has appeared in the yard. He’s got the typical Albanian old-man look: thin weathered blazer, cap, hard face, wrinkles that look they’ve been etched from stone.
He begins talking to Genti—because he’s a guy and because he understands, I suppose. The man waves his arms in agitation, his voice sharpening. He gestures out, to the expanse of green fields, tumbling rock and smoking shacks beneath us, shrouded in a grey mist. Genti nods and says little words that sound like agreement. I stand like an awkward eavesdropper. Genti nods again and waves, I wave too, and we turn back up the path.
Genti throws a grin back over his shoulder at me.
“Like Borat, right?”
He said it, I didn’t, and I don’t answer, except to smile and shrug. It’s the kind of comment you can only make about your hometown, your own country.
The film was originally supposed to be set in Albania. Genti told me this this morning, over coffee at a bass-thumping café where we sipped scalding espresso and ate cheap mini-croissants from a bag and I tried not to smoke but did anyway. “Sacha Baron Cohen decided Albania was too well-known. He wanted somewhere no one had been, so,” he shrugged, “he changed it.”
We’d come to Shkoder, Genti’s Northern Albanian hometown, the night before. He had business there—he’d been trying to sell some property he owns, but the paperwork had been “mental”—took forever, and now he’d be flying back to Brighton in a few days, the property not any closer to being sold.
To call it a “property,” Genti assured me, was a stretch. It’s an uninhabitable slab of half-bombed cement that wouldn’t even constitute proper squatting. He refused to show it to me, aside from a quick point down a side street when we were walking: “It’s down there. But come on,” he steered me away, “let’s get coffee.”
Genti had invited me up for a show he played the night before, in a dingy bar whose framed portraits on the wall included Jim Morrison, Bob Marley, Lemmy and Ghandi. It’d been a solid set. I’d recognized a few of the songs from the year before, when I’d met Genti at shows he played in Tirana—the best of a handful of local bands.
Genti had lived in England since he was a teenager, East London accent and all. He’d been coming back to Albanian a few months every year to try and get an independent music scene started in Tirana. A few years back, he’d won the Albanian version of American Idol, and anything had seemed possible. But in the year since I’d met him, it’d all fallen flat. So he’d decided to cut his losses, stop flying back every few months and get his own shit going back in England. “I mean, do you really wanna be the guy who’s big in Albania?” he’d asked, looking around the smoky dim bar. It’d be one of the last shows he’d play in his country, he said.
Sitting in the bar, I’d watched the way Genti hunched over his guitar, how his ankles bent when he curled his feet under. He reminded me of someone, or a stream of someones, the kind of boys I used to party with when I was a teenager: dirty hair and sharp elbows.
And just then I’d remembered my dream from the night before: an old friend had visited me. It’d been years since I’d last dreamed of him, and I remembered how we’d laughed and hugged and shook our heads—“Shit, it’s you”—and how it had felt real. In the dream he’d been the way he was, not at the end—bloated and dull-eyed—but when we were kids: wiry and mean, junky-punk cool with that hair grease and swagger.
I’d paused, blinked, taken a swig of what wasn’t beer and continued to watch the set.
Before we headed back to Tirana, Genti told me that morning, he wanted to give me the tour of the city. It’d changed a lot since he’d left in 1997, by himself in a boat, headed towards Italy with nothing more than a notebook full of song lyrics in his back pocket. But it’d changed a lot before that too: during the dictatorship, when it was bled of its former glory, having once been Venice’s sister city in shipping and wealth.
You see, he said: there were the church and mosque that faced each other, that sent out competing chimes and adhans that made the crows flutter. Look: if you sat at this certain café and looked exactly this way—away from the trash heap stray dogs were picking through—Shkoder looked almost European. And up there, he pointed his nicotine-stained finger: the castle.
The Rozafa Castle sat on a hill above the city, visible from between the spires and minarets. The legend was that a sacrificed woman was buried in its walls, that milk from her breasts still seeped out of the walls when she heard her ghost baby crying. The castle loomed like a hulk, like a half-crumbled memory that refused to die. We left the café and took a taxi to the bottom of hill the castle stood upon.
“Let me talk,” Genti whispered as we climbed in the taxi. “I always put on the thickest Northern accent, cause otherwise they think I’m a foreigner and charge more.” He’d done the same for my hotel room, for our drinks and dinner the night before.
The walk up the hill to the castle was no joke, a steep incline that left us both panting. Which is why we’d stopped at the shanty, I suppose—not to be voyeurs but to catch our breath.
Genti places his palms on his knees, “I feel sick,” he moans, hanging his head down. “I don’t exercise much.”
I try not to watch how he hobbles towards the castle’s gate. Instead I watch the hazy sunlight scrambling on the old stone surface.
“I haven’t been here since I was a kid,” Genti tells me.
“So what is that, like 15 years?”
“Yeah, probably. I used to cut class, come up here and smoke weed and hang out,” he laughs.
We pass through a stone walkway and the castle grounds open up before us. Long grass sighs in the wind. The place is old, older than Christ, Genti tells me, and in its decrepitude I imagine I can feel every one of those years. Crumbled stonewalls arch along the hill’s spine. The grounds are damn near empty. It feels more like an abandoned lot than a national monument.
Genti looks around, “I thought there’d be loads of tourists.”
“Were there, when you were a kid?”
He shakes his head, gives me a funny look. “No.”
Genti tromps a bit ahead of me, tossing vague historical tidbits over his shoulder. From behind, he looks like he could still be a teenager: torn jeans and shaggy hair, a Kurt-Cobain sweater. His limbs are thin in the way that teenage boys are thin—lean and wiry with those pointy elbows.
But when he turns his head, when he squints or smiles, he’s got the beginnings of that same face the man in the shack down the hill had, the same deep wrinkles you see all over Albanian faces. (“Albanians age fast,” another foreigner had observed a few days earlier. “The cigarettes, or booze, or years of communism—I dunno. But they all look 40 in their mid-20s.”)
We’d sat in a cafe back in Tirana, a hip new one that had hip new art on the walls. There’d been a book of communist-era photography, stark black-and-white photos of barbed wired and bread lines, hands reaching through a chain-link fence. “Look!” Genti had exclaimed, pointing a small, hollow-eyed boy in the crowd. “It’s me!” And I hadn’t known he was joking until he’d nudged me and laughed.
And now Genti’s left Albanian, been gone almost as long as he lived here, but underneath the Brighton grunge he’s got that same Albanian look: boy-body and a man face, like two different people, or two versions of the same person, sewn together—stunted growth and premature aging, in one person.
We pause and he points up to a crumbly castle wall. Two stray dogs perch, silhouetted by a sky smudged gray. They stand like keepers, like watchdogs looking down on us. “Spooky,” I say and snap a photo.
We can glimpse the view, the whole polluted city laid out beneath us. Genti leads me over to the ancient stone wall. He wants me to see the view. “You can drink from that river,” Genti says, pointing. I raise an eyebrow. “No, really—it’s from the mountains, it’s really bloody clean, and the current is massive—you can’t tell, you know, from here, but you can barely swim in it, it’s so strong.”
He keeps leading me closer, to get a picture of the two rivers—“It’s really nice, like.” We move over to a ledge, an old window where maybe cannons or soldiers once perched. He leans over, then gasps, “Bloody hell!”
It’s a straight drop down and there’s nothing, no guardrail or fence or sign—nothing to hold you back from falling over the edge. The city spins beneath us.
“This is mental!” Genti cries. He leans over to look again, then pulls back, white knuckles on gray stone.
When I edge forward, he grabs my shoulder. “Please,” he’s suddenly serious, eyes closed and breathing deep, “just move back.”
I hadn’t been that close to the edge, but I move back anyway. He clutches at his heart, then notices and drops his arm. “I’m just,” he pauses, “I’m a wee bit afraid of heights.”
“Bad place to be then, eh?” I give him a wry smile.
“Look, let’s just… can move over there?” and he points to a clump of rocks that look like a cave.
We tromp through more rubbish, away from the main grounds. Everything’s half-collapsed and ruined, so that it’s hard to imagine it as a castle, as whatever glory it must once have been.
The cave we saw isn’t a cave but a tunnel, which leads to another ominous drop to another view. The tunnel’s covered in graffiti and bottles. We stand in the echoey dim, blinking with our hands in our pockets, not sure what to do. “Looks like the kids still come up here,” I smile.
Genti nods, scratches his hair.
“Is it weird,” I ask, “to be back?”
He shrugs. I imagine old stomping grounds of mine that I’ve gone back to—an alleyway in Downtown Berkeley, for instance, that’s now pert and clean, behind a Kinko’s instead of a show venue. A kid had OD’d there one night, and I remember the flash of the ambulance lights through my own drug-induced haze. I’d gotten inspired to go back one day, for no real reason—stood there confused for a few moments, trying to feel something.
But it’s not the same—getting sober and fleeing your country. It’s not the same to get old, when your childhood is abandoned ancient rubble. “How old were you when you left?” I ask.
“16. 15 half, actually.” He doesn’t say anymore.
It’s just the wind and the sound of our sneakers—“trainers,” Genti corrects me. “Converse,” I correct him, and we laugh, cause from the waist down, we’re the same person: skinny jeans and high tops, the universal uniform of aging rockers.
“I didn’t used to be afraid of heights,” he tells me instead. “I don’t know when it happened.”
I nod. “I didn’t used to be afraid of flying.”
“Bad news for a travel writer, isnit?”
I shrug. “It’s only bad sometimes. Other times it doesn’t bother me.”
We reach the other side of the grounds, lean up against the rock of a ledge. The drop here is less steep, more of a rolling hill, so he feels better here, enough to lie on his belly on the stone. I lay beside him, stretch out my arms.
Gulls move through the air around us. The city spreads out beneath us, half industrial, half pastoral. Smoke chugs, and I’m not sure if the haze we stare through is pollution or clouds or a bit of both.
He tells me about his friend James, a bandmate back in Brighton. He came with Genti once to Albania, took loads of pictures of all the trash and gypsies and second-world insanity. “When we got back to Brighton, he was showing the pictures one night. And everyone was gathering around and laughing—‘Like Borat!’ they all kept saying—and it was strange, cause I could see it, could see how mental it all looked, but I also felt kinda… embarrassed, like.”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing.” A pause and a shrug. “I laughed.”
From where we’re laying, we can see where the two rivers meet, before chugging out to sea. One is clean, from the mountains, like he said, and one has rambled across the whole flat of the country, dirty as hell. I can’t tell which is which.
Genti sees me looking, points out to a bend in one of the rivers. “See there?”
“I almost drown there. When I was a kid, 10 maybe. A taxi driver dove in and got me. My lungs, they were all full of water; I threw up when I tried to drink a glass later that night.”
I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.
“I never found him, the taxi driver.” I consider that, with the stone against my stomach. With the rubble of Genti’s youth beneath me, digging into my flesh, as hard and ancient as everything he won’t talk about.
I think about my dream, my old friend, the alley in Berkeley and the bend of Genti’s ankles.
I wonder if you can really drink the river’s water.
I look over at Genti, to ask him which river it was, and he’s got his eyes closed against what would be the sunlight, if it weren’t for all the haze. For a moment, the lines in his face seem soft, almost gone, and he looks boyish again. He’ll be 30 in a few months, and me just a few more behind him, and in certain lights we both still look young, and in others we look as tired and worn as we feel.
We get up and make our way back out, back down the hill, past the little shack panting smoke. We pass a herd of sheep on the road—twenty-some and dingy, dead-eyed. “Is that shit stuck to their wool?” Genti asks. One starts pissing, and he giggles. There’s no shepherd in sight.
The road back to town is part dirt and part gravel; there seems to be piles of black burning in every direction. It’s a Roma encampment, Genti tells me, and the children are smudged-faced, thin—limbs too sharp, in shirts too big. They run to the edges of the road and stare at us.
“Hello!” he exclaims in a buoyant English, waving. “They think I’m a foreigner,” he whispers to me.
The kids suck their fingers and stare.
It feels like we’re walking through cobwebs—we keep brushing stringy strands from our hair and mouths, though we don’t see anything, can’t tell what we’re walking through. “For fuck’s sake, it’s like no one’s walked down this road for ages.”
I see two chickens picking through trash on the side of the road. Genti begs me not to take a picture.
We’re hungry and we find a restaurant that serves the usual sausage and bread, and Genti orders again, putting on that thick accent that I can’t hear but he swears he still has. Over at the next table, I recognize an aged, worn face from the bus the day before. I wave, and Genti watches me.
“Do you know what that man said?” Genti asks suddenly. “The man at the shack we saw?”
I give him a look like now-how-the-fuck-would-I.
“He said that they’re gonna tear his shack down. They’ve told him he has to leave, that it isn’t his land and he can’t build a house on it. He asked me where he was supposed to go, how he was supposed to live.”
I nod. Genti pauses and chews, stares off a moment at the street. “But, I dunno, can you blame them? You can’t really have people up there living like that, by a national monument.” He takes another bite of sausage. “It looks like shit.”