All last week I felt a meltdown brewing. The introvert inside is tired of waking up and having to be "ready" in case someone drops by - I clean before the cleaning lady comes, though she does a far better job. With Christmas and New Year's celebrations, kids throw fireworks at each other and passing pedestrians that sound like bombs exploding. I have finally stopped jumping and screaming, but I feel like Ouiser’s dog in Steel Magnolias. I'm losing my hair and my sanity.
I declare Friday a writing day, and determine not to leave the comfort of home. As I’m finding my rhythm around 10:30 I hear a knock on the door. If you can’t see them, they can’t see you, right? I ignore the knocking, but it grows louder with each thumping. Agron, who takes care of the house, stands at the door with my happy runaway Skippy. Agron asks if the gate was open this morning. No, I say, I lock it as always to avoid unexpected guests. (My friends know how to get in with a key or jumping the gate.) Thankfully Agron’s English isn’t great, and he continues his story that he had been down at the market, looked down and saw Skippy, doing a little shopping. Skippy's collar was mysteriously gone, so he used his belt and brought him home.
So now I have to worry about dog-collar thieves as well? The self-induced cloud above my head grows darker. I call to ask Luli where I could buy a dog collar. There is no easy answer, no Petco to run to. We agree I should meet him at his office. I walk in, rosy-cheeked from the walk that didn’t manage to shake my mood off. Elza, Luli’s boss welcomes me with a big smile, I’m just in time for coffee. I take off my layers and gloves and make myself at home, perching on the electric heater. Though I want to say "no, I just want to buy a freakin' dog collar and go back to my cave," I make more pleasant conversation, listen to them speak in Albanian with my practiced look of confusion blended with an occasional knowing smile, and finish my sweet coffee.
Luli and I wind our way through crowds of youth who still stare at me, partly the norm and partly because I am especially tall here. After a brief visit in a shop that sold only gun paraphernalia and made me extremely uncomfortable and a little sweaty, we finally found a hardware shop that had a string of dog collars for sale. I breath easier once I;n home; I find I am easily over-stimulated by the briefest visits to the crowded downtown area.
Luli had been telling me about a visit he had planned to the mining town of Trepca. He has a special place in his heart for the kids and families living in the refugee apartments there, and delivers Christmas bags from his NGO, full of candies and cookies. At 4:30 he texted: we’re going at 5. At 4:31 I felt like crying, feeling out of control of my day, my emotions. I remembered, finally, to breathe deeply and pray for a smidge of sanity and rest.
I find myself more American, more time-oriented than I ever seem to be when I’m in America. My tendency to stay on task and on time is out in full force here, since it isn’t a high priority in the surrounding culture. I arrive back at the office at 5. We find a bag of Christmas decorations and began decking the halls with garland and tinsel. Luli runs to the store to find a bag for his cousin Besim to carry as Santa Claus. I’m looking at the clock and fighting back the urge to strangle everyone with the string of twinkly lights when something in me snaps, in a good way. It’s time to give up my need for timeliness, and relax. Not surprisingly, staying in the present moment makes everything better.
Elza, Luli’s boss, arrives with her daughters, who are nine and eleven. The girls help Besim with his beard and belly, and decide he should wear spectacles like Father Christmas. After a quick search of the office, they find a pair of sunglasses, and ceremoniously place them on Besim’s face, making him a cross between Surfer Santa and The Terminator.
We pile in Luli’s small car: Elza, her girls and me in the backseat, Luli driving Santa in the front. As we drive out of the city, winding our way uphill, we sing "Jingle Bells." My friends only know the first two lines in English and ask me to teach them the rest. What the hell, I’m in for a whole stocking full of fun now. "Dashing through the snow," I sing, slightly off-key. They cringe and reassure me they know the words in Albanian. And with that, we’re off, squished into the car, jingling all the way. The little girls carry the tune in soft soprano, just what I need to find some joy in my dark little heart.
The refugee apartments are cold, dark and dank. The hallways are concrete floors, and swampy with stale puddles of muddy water. We knock on the door and the entire family crowds to see Santa, many times a couple with three or four kids, plus a grandma or grandpa. I can only assume the apartments are two or three small rooms.
A group of kids lead us through the buildings. One boy has a small blue flashlight that gives off an eerie glow in the dark stairwells. The kids ask Besim/Santa why he only sings the words jingle bells and not the rest of the song. Besim only speaks a bit of English, and happily ignores the kids, singing the first two words, over and over.
Our gift-giving done, we pile back into Santa’s sleigh with its rear-wheel drive and a CD player, with which we all sing along to Ben Harper’s “There Will Be A Light.” We have gifts left over, and as we drive back down the hill to town, Luli pulls over whenever he sees kids walking along the dark road. Most give chase, terrified as Besim jumps out of the car in a beard, sunglasses, and an ill-fitting red suit and runs after them with a black plastic trash bag.
It’s hard to process the juxtaposition of the disrepair and depression of the refugee apartments with the smiles of kids and the fun we had. But somewhere in the midst of all of it, without warning, I’m back in the giving spirit. We go to dinner at a restaurant called "No Name," and the girls, confident and funny, practice their English with me. On the way home, we dance in the back seat as we stalk people on the streets, Besim a little less scary now without his beard and sunglasses, tossing out Christmas cheer to all who stand still long enough to receive it.