The Tour Guide by Emma Steer '19
The image I remember most of Albania is a dark-haired girl, triumphantly raising a rifle as she stares past the squatted buildings on the outskirts of the city, a white dress pluming orthodox over her ankles. On the gleaming mosaic tile, she walks in line with the state’s most prized citizens: soldiers, bakers, and militant, agrarian women. Slotted in stone, the group appears as though they could collectively slink through the balm of day, drumming towards the Adriatic Sea.
This was when I met George, under the horse of George Castriot in the main square of Tirana. Shadowed by his namesake, and beaming down at me, George’s hand gripped the iron leg of the horse. He asked, through his textured Balkan enunciation:
“Do you know who this is?”
I searched for a plaque, stepping almost around the monument until I found it.
He laughed at my accent, shoulders raking back in the give of body, and with his whole frame rocked under sunlight, I observed his true features. His nose drew a long face, the tip downturned above pursed lips. Smile lines trimmed deltas through his tan, oiled skin. He was very tall, mapped by gaunt striations which slipped out beneath a white muscle tee. His jeans were stained dark denim but they had the crisp fold and gold stitching at the side of the pant which made them look cheap.
I didn’t find George particularly attractive. He looked to be in his early 40’s, and I was not that type of young woman who finds older men good-looking. For most of my time in college, my friend Nadia had an account on Seeking Arrangements and regularly went on dates with men in their 50’s. They bought her dinner, took her on weekend trips to Las Vegas or Denver, and asked her for tasteful bathing suit photos. She would say they weren’t attractive, but she must have had some type of interest in spending time with them beyond the things they bought for her.
“Skënderbej was a name he was given later. His real name is Gjergj Kastrioti or George Castriot in English. He is Albania’s national hero. My name is George too.”
We shook hands and he leaned against the statue. I asked him where he learned English. He told me both his uncles were fluent, but he began picking up the language in University. He studied abroad for a year in England to learn about the hospitality industry and hotel management, believing that Albania, much like Croatia, would become a tourist hot spot over the next few years. George had become a tour guide and worked as an English tutor occasionally.
A few decades later, he was not wrong. Albania was slowly becoming more popular among a certain crowd of tourists. The hostel where I stayed in Tirana was full of foreign travelers who had flocked to the Balkans for the beautiful scenery and affordability. These were the type of backpackers who had done the entirety of Southeast Asia during a single year—this was not me.
The sole reason I had come to Albania was that it had been the cheapest ferry ticket out of Corfu. When I landed in the port of Sarandë, a beach city mirroring the cloudless Grecian ones I was enamored with, I realized I knew almost nothing about Albanian history or culture. That first day in Albania I spent five hours searching for the coffee shop where the sprinter van I had booked was supposed to be parked outside. The van would take me to Tirana, the capital city of Albania, and four hours from Sarandë.
The van was driven by a Russian couple, a plump woman with thin blonde hair and blue eyeliner, and a similarly sized man with white hair dressed in a snug-fitting bowling shirt. I was the only passenger during the drive between Albania’s two largest cities. The husband loaded my suitcase into the back of the brand-new van.
The hours spent driving passed by comfortably, with the assistance of WiFi and Tropic of Cancer, a book I bought based on the recommendation of a friendly bookstore owner in Athens. I made light conversation with the couple but spent most of the time staring out the window at the Albanian landscape. The plains we drove through were mostly flat with the occasional spout of mountains and buildings, usually cement and chipped on the edges. The domes of communist bunkers also appeared once or twice over every thirty minutes. At one point I had to go to the bathroom. We pulled over and as the man came around the side to slide open the passenger door, I considered how intimately I was trusting this couple with my life. I stumbled behind a bush held up by a copper fence, the perimeter of a cow enclosure, which I turned my back against as I squatted. Between leaves, I saw the wife step out of the van and bend down to touch her ankles. The man rubbed her back and they smiled at each other.
I had arrived at the hostel late in the evening. Behind a dark black gate covered in bright graffiti, the building had open windows and doors, bicycles strapped up to the walls decorated in floral wallpaper, and a large outside area where hammocks were occupied by tan men reading, large, embroidered pillows, lined ratty couches, and a makeshift bar advertised four lek sangrias.
When I checked in, the girl at the front desk of the hostel gave me a map. She circled some galleries, natural sights, and monuments which she encouraged me to visit. There were a few museums, some interesting coffee shops that I could have stopped by later, but I was reluctant to walk too much in the heat, and I was also dealing with chafing between my thighs that made walking painful. The rash had begun with salt pilling on my skin, exacerbated by sweat from hiking around Corfu. With every sore step, I was reminded of the long dips in bloodied cool blue, the soft heat of the island shifting up from Agios Gordios beach, my sweaty thighs wrapping around the Australian as our ATV ran the brush-strapped roads. With George hovering above me, the lack of circles on the map became distressing.
“What about you? Where’s a beautiful girl like you from?”
I ignored his comment. Instead of damning myself to a litany of questions regarding American culture, or politics, I told him I was from Canada. When he asked about why I was traveling, whether I was in school, I stuck to primitive answers. I had dealt with enough impugnation abroad that I tended to stay away from details of my life that would induce any follow-up questions.
“It was really nice meeting you George, but I’m going to start heading over to a museum right now.”
“Where are you going? I can take you there. I’m a tour guide and know the city very well.”
I looked at the map and thought about what to say.
“No, really, it’s OK. Thank you though, I think I can get around.”
“I have the whole day free, let me at least just walk you to where you want to go. No one will steal anything from you if we’re walking together”
I didn’t want to spend my day with George. I’m sure he’d picked up on the fact that I had no idea where I was going. But he seemed invested in helping me. Was I conflating his kindness with flirting?
“No, I think I’m fine. I have a map and my cellphone to help me. But really, it was nice meeting you.”
My cellphone didn’t have any data. When I bought the European plan, I hadn’t realized it wouldn’t include Albania. I smiled up at him, nodding my head, gripping my paper. No one wore shorts here, and I felt the bareness of my legs shining out to the world.
“Where are you going? Let me take you there. I’ll just walk you there and maybe can get you a discount if you’re going to a museum. I bring tour groups in and out all the time.”
I looked at my watch and considered my capacity to rid myself of someone I didn’t want to be with. I almost always gave my number to men who asked for it and just prayed they wouldn’t text me, a consequence of being taught the virtue of politeness.
It seemed likely that I could ditch him at the entrance of the museum, certain that he would be reluctant to entertain me as I viewed historical artifacts. No man, even a tour guide, would finesse that far. I could pare off a fake phone number to him, tell him I would be down to grab a drink later while hiding in my hostel watching Netflix.
“I guess you can walk me there. I’m just going to this place here.” I pointed to the map.
George and I turned our backs to Skanderbeg. The sly fog of early summer hung over Tirana’s main plaza. Bikes skimmed the surface of multi-colored paving stones; a bullish grandmother spanked the inflated backside of a little boy, his socks shrugged over blue sneakers. A vacuous din had been ordered for the post-commuting crowd. The smell of Tirana was the aftermath of jasmine pulling in the wind, the sweat of concrete, and laundry detergent.
We walked only a few minutes outside of the square, talking lightly about his favorite American TV shows, arriving at Bunk’Art 2, a history museum built within a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker.
The outside was a cement dome. Inside, we descended a flight of iron stairs towards the front desk of the museum. As my eyes adjusted in the darkness, smelling the raw fabricants of the structure, George spoke to an older man in Albanian. He pulled out a card, and gestured to me, though I was gazing off, contemplating the possibility of running up the stairs back to the safety of my hostel. The men exchanged laughs, George grinned and walked over to me with a thumbs up. Under a museum poster, he placed his arm around my waist, delicately inclining my reluctant weight into his side.
“I got you in. I have some free time so I guess I can show you around the museum?”
“Oh, please, no. You don’t have to do that. I don’t want to take you away from your day.”
I smiled up at him and shook my head. My worst fear was coming true.
“Anna, it’s fine. You’ll never have a better tour guide than me in Albania. I was nominated last year as the best tour guide in Tirana. I know every detail of Albanian history.”
From my waist, he skimmed his hand up to my shoulder, which would stay there, moist, and heavy, as we walked down the entire length of the empty underground corridor.
The museum occupied the five-story bunker built under the command of Enver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania for over four decades. Despite raising the adult literacy rate of Albania from 5% to 98%, bringing electricity to the country, and providing the foundation for a self-sustaining agriculture economy, Hoxha’s communist regime specialized in the silencing of political rivals. As we walked through the slim hallway, George’s hip jostling against mine with every step, he explained that his grandfather had been persecuted under Hoxha in the late 60s. Punished for the crime of manipulating the satellite of his TV to broadcast non-Albanian channels of communication, George’s grandfather had been sent to Burrel, a forced labor camp in northeastern Albania, where he lived with some prominent inmates. After spending a few years at Burrel, around the time when George was born, his grandfather was sent back to Tirana, under the strict watch of the state’s security and intelligence service, the Sigurimi, and, in particular, a man named Lelo who would bike in his leather past George’s house every day. George told me,
“On his handlebars, he would bring oranges. Every morning I waited for him, and he would peel the fruit for me, pulling out the papers to check that my grandfather was there, that we had no outlawed literature, our TV was playing the hymns of the state.”
The bunker was intended to protect Hoxha (whose portrait at the entrance of the museum showed an older man with a pinched face forcing a noxious smirk) and his administrative comrades from a nuclear attack. The underground space was complete with living quarters, meeting rooms, and an office for the dictator to conduct his business. The black pines of Tirana might be flayed by radioactive decay, and Lana River smudged with white ash, but the dictator could drink his coffee and continue to administer in peace.
As George and I entered the first room on our right, I thought about how the fallout at Chernobyl permitted a resurgence in the boar and elk populations in the city’s zone of exclusion, the explosion having little effect on the health and wellbeing of the animals. If Tirana had a Chernobyl-like incident, I would have been escorted by a solemn brown bear instead of George. The beast’s freighted head would duck at every exposed pipe, the crushed dark body shuttling through the cement pocket of the tunnel.
This first room was dedicated to the authoritarian installation of Hoxha as the head of state in 1944. The walls, deep in a half film of flickering light, had large displays with three or four photos of grim figures, and a curtain of Albanian text with an English translation. A greenish-gray uniform of a Sigurimi officer swung idly from an iron hanger in the middle of the room. I fingered the lapels heavy with medallions as the pants shivered with the crank of AC from behind. I tried to fold away from George with the same lightness of the uniform shifting in the stale air. The exhale of city collapsing into the earth.
Slipping his hands into his pockets, he turned his back on me and began explaining one of the graphics on the wall; two soldiers gripped the linen shoulders of a young man’s shirt. The boy’s face meets the camera, the hunger of desperation shining in his eyes.
I half-listened to George’s speech as I circled the hanging uniform. I was slowly realizing that he was going to take me on a full museum tour, continuing to narrate from room to room, recounting the last 40 years of Albanian history over my shoulder and in each dim corner of the bunker. I didn’t even read most of the words when I went to the museums or art galleries, why would I want someone else to do it for me? Had he coerced other people into being led on this non-consensual tour?
I read the transcript on the opposite wall from where he was standing, deciding how I could proceed in this situation. George placed one of his hands against the wall and gesticulated with the other, unaware I was not listening to him.
“And then in the years, maybe 1946 or 1947, we signed a pact with Yugoslavia, and naturally this was beneficial because of the aid we received for our issues with—Anna, where are you going?”
I was almost around the corner by the time George caught up to me. The weight of his gaze ladling my body from behind was not enough for me to turn around.
I knew gaze and impropriety, I had felt it in the three months I spent traveling in Europe, but even before that. The Safeway by our old house was being renovated into Fresh Street, but before they started stripping down the exterior, the workers began by removing the greyish carpet which surrounded the checkout counters. I remember standing in line with my mom, I was probably around nine or ten, and watching a worker on the floor beside me cut out square after square of the hard carpet with his X-ACTO knife, an instrument my father had warned me to avoid if he was not there to supervise. The beep of the cash register hung in the distance and our large gallons of skim milk floated down the conveyor belt, water droplets slinking from the plastic containers onto the leather below. The old man behind me slid his hand from my waist to my butt. I turned around to look up at him, though he was standing quite a distance back and slightly crouching by the chocolate bars and gum. At the time, I thought he looked very old. His gray hair faded quickly into the dampness of light brown, his beard nearly a third of a way up to his face. The cash machine dinged, and in a single sharp swoop, my mother reached down for her purse lying on the bottom of the shopping cart, jarring the man’s hand away from my butt. He stepped away from our line, walked over the squared-out carpet towards the parking lot. I just waited and stared at his form retreating behind the construction truck and wondered what I was supposed to say to my mother who was trying to drag our shopping cart over the ground, now half tile and half gummy carpet.
“Is something wrong?”
I was standing before a room with a closed door and a sign, “Movie restarts every twenty minutes. Please wait. Thank you.”
“Anna, is something wrong? You just left the room? I just wanted to explain one little thing about my country.” George’s voice rose, not in a panic, but confusion.
I faced him as the door burbled from unkempt screams, rain noises, the laughs of children; this was the moment to say something. Say it now, I thought. Now.
“I appreciate you helping me, but I think I’m fine to explore the rest of the museum.
You’re busy, and you need to work, and you have things to do, I’m sure.”
George’s brow relaxed, mouth rupturing into a smile.
“Well of course I do. I think that it’s nice for us to spend some time together, and you’re so interesting…and from Canada. Wow. I’ve always wanted to go to the part where they speak French.”
“Yeah, Quebec is nice…it’s just I’m not sure what—But George… I think it might be better if I go back to the hostel now. I just realized I told my parents this morning I was going to Facetime them later today.”
George showed no reaction to either piece of news. A young couple walked out from behind the closed door revealing a pulsing red room, gargling with noises of liquid and the loud frenetic tick of a bomb counting down. He grabbed my hand, almost in a deflated way so that his fingers licked around in my palm. He pulled me into the room, and I took a seat on a black cushioned chair up by the film screen and took my hand away from his, as softly and quietly as I could. He sat beside me, smiled, gestured around the red-light room as the first image popped onto the screen, a shot which slowly zoomed out on a boy running with a loaf of bread, his calves plump even from a frontal view.
“Now this, this is what communism feels like.”
George exhaled, and closed his eyes for less than a minute before popping them open again to stare up at the ceiling. On the screen, a red balloon waded into the sky, popping as it glanced in front of a cloud. I sat there for a few minutes watching the parade of images. I felt him looking at me.
“OK, Anna, let’s just move on to the next room. I’ve been here before and it’s very boring.”
My new plan was to just stay there all day until he got tired of watching and left.
“Anna, this isn’t interesting.”
He sounded impatient. His legs were shaking and began rubbing his palms together. Should I wait any longer?
I swiveled in my chair.
“George, I have to go.”
“Well, I thought, maybe after this I would like to have a drink with you and we can take a
walk around the lake?”
In my bag, I searched for money. I pulled out fifteen leks and extended the money to George.
“Here, please take this. It’s for you, for being my tour guide.”
He looked offended.
“No, no, no, please I don’t want your money. No, I’m so sorry. Please. I don’t want it”
He pushed my hand with the money away and leaned towards me.
“Wouldn’t you just rather have me take you around the city? It will be really lovely. Please, Anna.”
“Thank you so much, but I need to go Facetime my parents. They might be getting nervous.”
I stood up and placed the money on the chair below me. George’s body slumped, he seemed hurt and perplexed. If only I could have just been brave enough to walk away from the beginning.
“We still have to see the weapons room though. Anna, please, don’t go.”
I left as the image on the screen showed two inmates playing chess in an orchard. The black and white camera panned over hills resembling folded blankets on the lap of the landscape.
“Wait! Anna! I really like you.”
I exited the red room, walked through the tunnel, double skipped up the stairs until exiting into the Albanian noon. He must have stayed in the bunker.
The worst part of it all was the begging, the pleading, for what I had to offer. I wanted to imagine young George sitting on the steps of his old house, watching intently the process of oranges being peeled, preparing to embrace a different type of Albania to come. A type of Albania where foreign women flowed in and out, where a beautiful day was spent strolling through the city park. And as usual, walking back towards the hostel, I felt bad for leaving so unfairly.