Don's diary

May 2, 1997

Thursday

With a day's leave to hand I visit the Paula Rego exhibition at the Liverpool Tate gallery. I am stunned by the quality and range of her work. In the afternoon I go to the Alma Tadema exhibition at the Walker. Feel that this is a furtive pleasure: should I admit that I enjoy these paintings? A good day: but really I should have been in Albania.

Friday

A holiday. It should have been the first day of the seminar I had helped to organise in Tirana. I am worried about my many Albanian friends. I last saw them in January when I was completing a course development project at the University of Tirana. I looked forward to seeing them again at Easter. How are they coping? I imagine them in their apartments and hope that they have got enough to eat and that the power and water supplies are still reliable - which they are not at the best of times.

They won't be going out and yet they are people whose social life revolves around the great central squares and boulevards of the city and the pavement bars and cafes that line them. Conversation is still possible. So, it is permissible to be an intellectual.

Saturday

The second day of the cancelled seminar. I have been involved with Albania for two years now. When I first went there (by road from Skopje) I was overwhelmed by the impression of a country quite different from any I had worked in before. I dreamed about Albania when I returned. We should pay attention to our dreams: what was it about Albania which affected me so directly? Everywhere in Europe is much the same as everywhere else. Albania is not.

Sunday

Another holiday. I do some serious gardening. Today the seminar (on British studies in the Balkans) would have broken up. Colleagues would have been returning to various neighbouring countries, some to the UK. I was going to stay on for an extra day. I was in Tirana on the first day of the rioting which has now escalated out of control. People were walking the streets, arm-in-arm as usual, and carrying large bunches of the bright yellow mimosa which blooms throughout the city at this time of year. How many of the same people are now carrying AK-47s? Start my dinner with a glass of northern Albanian raki and end it with excellent Skander-berg konjak.

Monday

More serious gardening. Can I really coax Mediterranean plants to grow beside the Irish Sea? I should have spent the day in the mountains north of Tirana before catching my flight home. This has been a strange, ghostly weekend and yet my friends in Albania are still there and having to live through a time in which their hopes for their country are being strangled. We have never really seen Albania as a western country but it is. We should do whatever we can to help prevent its past from returning to its future. We must, at least, show the Albanians that we have not forgotten them again.

Tuesday

The last day of the holiday and the last spasms of gardening. Begin to prepare my papers for the visit I am making next week to Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

Next Friday I will be in Podgorice giving a lecture on animal rights in relation to British cultural studies. Across the border will be Albania. Only nine weeks ago I was on the other side of the same border looking into Montenegro. Will I ever be able to return? The news from Albania is not good, although the worst of the violence seems to have died down. The Italians are certainly doing their best and Europe should support them in addressing the practical problems of the refugees.

Wednesday

Back to work for a day of catching up and correspondence. Am delighted to get a letter from an Albanian friend who was out of the country when the violence started and who has been unable to return. It is a sad letter and speaks of confusion and resignation. Am able to phone her and discover that she will be able to get back home in a couple of weeks.

She also has news from Tirana which allays some fears for particular colleagues. I am pleased she is going back: Albania cannot afford to lose its best people.

Six years ago the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare wrote: "Today, at the century's end, the orphaned nation which has long borne a heavy cross is knocking at the gates of Europe - at the gates of her mother, who has always treated her as a stepchild, and who, despite her claims of Christian charity, has not been kind to the waif." This was never more true.

JOHN SIMONS

Head of the School of Humanities and Arts, Edge Hill University College.

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