The meandering valley of Berat is cut in half by the river snaking through its middle. The stone houses climb up the sides of the foothills, straining towards the castle, and the whole vista-pungent scene is framed by snow-capped mountains in the distance. Mosques and Orthodox churches dot the landscape of the 2,400 year old town.
I got up early this morning to wander the city before our mid-morning meetings. Winding through the tiny stone passages of the neighborhood-in-the-hill, each turn led to another olive tree garden hanging over the walls or hobbit-sized door. I finally decided to turn around when I was hailed by a smiling Albanian woman who hoped to sell me some of her her jams and wines, all made from her family garden. I held my ground until she held up the bottle of spicy smelling olive oil, the olives picked from their garden and pressed with press that has been in their family for three generations.
Her 31 year old son appeared in the door, hair ruffled from sleep, and began to chat with me in English. “What are you doing here?” he puzzled as I explained that we were visiting different Roma communities. “I am Orthodox, I really believe in God. Do you have a problem with Orthodox?” he asked me.
“I popped into an Orthodox church down in the center this morning, but there were only 5 old ladies there for the service. Where were you?” I responded.
Later that day, N. and I trudged up the hill once more, lured by the promise of authentic Albanian food. When the mother saw me, her face lit up and we were ushered by brothers and niece up to the stone patio next to the garden. The next 3 hours were spent enjoying a sumptuous feast complimented by Turkish coffee and mountain tea. Meanwhile, the family would leave us for some moments in peace and then dart in to check in about the food, ask questions, or tell us a story.
“I follow God because of how I was born,” our new Orthodox friend told us. “My mother and father decided not to have anymore children after my brother, but nine years later my mother got very sick. No one knew what was happening to her even though she was going to different hospitals and doctors. One night, she woke up and there was a woman standing by her bed. She understood the woman was related to God, and she told her that she and her husband must have another child or she would be dead in 3 months. This was the time of Communism, so the mother had no one to ask about the vision, but afterwards they had me and her health was fully restored.”
He mused on his life, recognizing God’s protection as a 16 year old boy joining a small refugee boat to Italy in the hopes of finding some work. The boat dropped them chest deep into the water of the Italian coast before it sped away, and the police were already approaching them when he managed to quickly move through the cold water and run away. Alone and young in Italy, he pointed out occasions were he believe God protected him through an angel.