Returning to Kosovo every summer meant being able to finally breathe the air of freedom. After nine months of inflexible hours, school, homework, tests and questions, I always had at least a month of pure fun. I spent most of my time in the village where my father was born and raised. There, togethere with my cousin and other boys, I am sure I reached the peak of happiness.
We were a group of six or seven children. I was the youngest. We spent our afternoons playing in the endless meadows of the countryside. They’d take the cows out to pasture, and one always had the ball with him. We’d go and challenge the other children in the village. I used to play football in Italy, I trained twice a week and did everything according to the rules. But there, among them, I looked like a fish out of water. I thought I was playing another game. They were better, faster, stronger. Growing up, I always wondered where they’d get to if somebody gave them a chance.
Those afternoons were beautiful. We didn’t just play football, we stole the cobs and ate them together. We’d divide up our duties. Three went to take the cobs. Two were the field workers, while one was outside to check if the owner arrived. The other three or four stood at the base, which was nothing but the shadow of an oak tree. Down there we prepared the wood and the fire. We grilled the cobs. By looking at our faces, it was like someone had opened us the doors of a starred restaurant. Those weren’t just cobs. It was the organization of a theft, the anxiety of waiting, the adrenaline of those who had to carry out the plan and then the happiness of being able to enjoy them together.
I felt good in their midst, even though I was totally different. I had everything: original shoes, beautiful, clean and ironed clothes. A simple life in Italy and the possibility to think of a rosy future. They had nothing, but I didn’t know that.
How I cried every time I had to go back to Italy. I wanted to stay with them, and I would have given everything just to stay in Kosovo.
They never told me anything, but who knows how they envied me. And I was so stupid to barter my wealthy life for their nothing.
I liked everything about them. Even when they got dirty playing, I had the feeling that their dirt was more beautiful than mine, more original. Even the mud or dust looked good on them. How many times I think back to those moments listening to the beautiful notes of “Il ragazzo della via Gluck“. I get emotionally touched every time.
The memory of the best food I’ve ever eaten is also linked to those moments. No, I’m not talking about grilled cobs.
When we went out to play, our mothers knew we’d be late, and at some point, we’d be hungry. So Mom would always make me a sandwich with sliced tomatoes and a generous amount of salt. A simple sandwich, actually, quite a thin one if I think about it.
It was the end of the world, believe me. When the tomato juice wet the bread, and there was salt in that piece, a mixture came to life that made me literally fly.
God, what happiness.
Mom used to yell at me when I went out too often to play with my friends. She used an expression that can’t be translated into English, Sokak. The word refers to the narrow streets that separate houses in a village or town. But it is the way it is used and all the meaning it is given to create a world of its own. Mom always told me not to stay in Sokak all day. It was like, to try to say it in English, a sort of reminder not to spend the whole day walking around the village wasting time.
She wanted me to study to do my homework, but all I cared about was playing football with my friends. They protected me from that world of unwritten rules, pride and courage. Something far away from the concept of fun that there was in Italy when I played after school in the park with my classmates.
They were all wearing old, ugly, dirty clothes and I wanted them. I dreamed of being like them, but instead, I had much more beautiful stuff. I was ashamed of myself.
One day I realized where they were buying those bad things I liked so much. I also saw that they were really cheap, and I began to understand something of their reality. I was at the market with my parents, which in Albanian we call pazar, from bazaar. You should spend a day in this place, you would understand so much about our people. The manners of the salesmen, the kindness and willingness to give you credit for one, two or three weeks. The atmosphere, the smells and the sounds. Try to ask to buy a single pepper and receive all the crate that will contain at least thirty.
“Oh no, they’re too many. I only need one.”
“But ma’am, you don’t want to buy a single pepper, do you? Come on, one euro and take it all.”
And you can’t say no. And it’s nice that way.
Now it happens, when I come back, less and less, unfortunately, to meet those boys again. They’ve grown, they’ve become men. They’ve started a family, a home and their lives have taken an acceptable path. But it’s as if nothing has changed when they see me. We meet in the most unthinkable places, even if for me every time it is as if someone catapults us on the meadows of our beloved countryside. We talk, discuss the present and how things have changed. They are even kinder than before, and I feel uncomfortable every time. I wonder why I deserved such a blessed life, and they didn’t.
I meet Amir, and I’m reminded of what his reality was like as a child. He lived about 50 yards away from my cousin. We were separated by a hill that people used to take out the garbage. Behind the trash was Amir and his family. One afternoon we went to his place. I don’t remember why. They didn’t have a house, they lived in a shack. The roof was open, and the place was tiny. I don’t remember how many members there were in total, also because every day I discovered a new brother or sister. You should see it now Amir and his two-floor house built with who knows how many sacrifices. He takes me in there proudly and introduces me to his wife Jetmira, who is pregnant.
“It’s a boy,” he tells me excited. There are a lot of photos in the living room. The biggest one is of his father, who left too soon. I’m in one also. That’s us in the group, all together in front of my cousin’s house. I get touched, can barely keep my tears inside. I didn’t expect that picture. It’s an avalanche of emotion that’s hard to handle.
We drink coffee, eat some dessert, and they’re all trying to hold me back for dinner. I tell Amir that I’m already invited for dinner elsewhere. That’s the only reason that convinces him to give up. I greet Jetmira with a handshake and give Amir a big hug. I leave their nest and head towards my cousin, who is waiting for me for dinner.
While walking, I think about the life I have led in Italy and that of my Italian friends. Sometimes I wonder what happened to our childhood if we did nothing but complain about what we missed. The Play-Station game, the branded shoe, the moped, etc…
I grew up among people who were economically well, who could afford everything a human being needs to live well. Still, I realize that they gave me nothing. They taught me how to choose restaurants, how to eat certain dishes and how to dress on certain occasions.
Poor people have given me so much. I always feel comfortable with them, even if I’ve never been poor. They have suffered, they have something to tell you, you can find life in their eyes. And if fate was not too cruel and they still have the strength to laugh; well, in those smiles, you will understand why life is the best thing that could have happened to you. The poor have taught me and shown me the meaning of the word happiness.
I arrive at the gate, and before entering, I take a look around. A lot of things have changed. The houses are all more beautiful now. The colours of the walls are bright, the road has been paved, an acceptable amount of water flows in the river, and there is no longer any sign of war. Despite all these differences, my mind recreates the images of those summer days. I see myself as a child running out of the courtyard to meet the boys in the group. I savour the taste of those sandwiches and hear our happy voices as we chase the ball. I’m reminded of the words at the end of the movie Stand by Me.
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anybody?”
I walk into the courtyard and see my cousin on the balcony smiling at me. He tells me dinner’s ready. In my heart, I hope there are bread, tomatoes and salt.