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from the March 2009 issue

From “A Short Border Handbook”

I woke up the next morning with my head on a stranger's thigh while the head of another stranger was resting on my leg. My entire body was stiff, I was freezing cold and shaking all over. Someone had lit a fire inside the warehouse to get warm. The cold pierced right through your bones. They were taking a risk because if the Greek police spotted it, they would go berserk. I started to move cautiously, trying not to wake either the man above me or the man underneath me. I was partially successful, and moved across to the fire. The men around it seemed to have just arrived and were sleeping in a sitting position. I looked around for a familiar face and eventually spotted Sex Boy. He was awake and told me that he hadn't been able to get any sleep. He had found somewhere to lie down but was complaining bitterly about two men who stank and who weren't just snoring but were braying, so much so according to Sex Boy, that they could have raised the dead, who would have instantly fled to escape the noise. We both agreed that the warehouse resembled a pigsty more than anything else, and if things went on like this, we'd soon be ridden with fleas and disease.

While all of this was going on, I'd woken up with a rather strange idea: I wanted to see what a bookshop in the West looked like. Books were my great passion. I didn't manage to see a bookshop when we were in Igoumenitsa because the rest of the group had other priorities. I confided this ambition to Sex Boy. "Why didn't you mention it yesterday? We were walking around the town for hours!" He finally gave in because he was just as keen as I was to escape the hellish atmosphere of the warehouse and would be hard pressed to find better company than mine.

"The cold outside has to be better than this—at least there won't be any germs," he concluded, so off we went into the village in search of a Western bookshop. As I hadn't the faintest idea where it could be, I asked two young boys in a mixture of Italian and English. They struggled to tell me which general direction I should go in.

Before we started our search, we decided to go into a café to get warm. There were only a few people inside and a waiter who didn't even take the trouble to ask us what we wanted. It looked like he was used to people coming in just to warm up and not order anything. Sex Boy and I talked a bit, in hushed voices, in Albanian, until the waiter came over to us, carrying a tray with two cups of tea on it. He spoke to us in Greek, and pointed across to the other side of the café at an old gentleman. We worked out that the tea was his treat. We thanked him with the traditional gesture, placing the right hand close to the heart. He responded with a sweet smile and returned the gesture. "We and the Greeks belong to the same tribe," said Sex Boy, sipping his tea. Since we had the privilege of drinking tea we fancied ourselves regular customers, and therefore had the right to stay there a little longer, get a little bit warmer, and to give the sun a chance to warm up a bit as well. And that's what we did. We left with a proud "efharisto," which seemed to please the waiter a great deal, and resumed our search, this time in the best of spirits, for the Western bookshop. Eventually Sex Boy and I did come across something like a bookshop, which to me at that moment was something quite sublime.

A Tough Life

Migrant, alien, supplicant: your profession is all these things. Your life is a tough one, because you don't want to go back to where you came from, but you're not wanted here either. It is tough because if you want to find work, you'll have to change your name. It is tough because you'll always be persona non grata. It is tough because when you got sick that day, and were running a fever of 102, and couldn't go to work, your boss sacked you just like that. It is tough because when you ask for a bit more, it's called hubris, but when your employer pays you just one-tenth of the basic wage for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours of working like a dog, he's being kind, he's doing you a favor. It is tough because for you there are three things that are sacrosanct: work, sex, and a residence permit—and you'd happily trade sexual passion for a residence permit. It is tough because the police can catch you whenever they want to, swear at you as much as they want to, and hold you at the station for as long as they want to. Your bitter moniker for the police, the astynomia (civil guard), is astronomia (guards of the stars) because your fate on this earth so often depends on them. A tough life because some of your fellow countrymen commit crimes, and when they do you have to keep out of the way of the Black Marias on Operation Sweep-up, and out of the way of the TV cameras which just love Operation Hatred and Misinformation. One newspaper shouts, "Albanians out!" while another declares, "Albanians are the most disgusting race on earth." It is tough because stealing one watermelon is enough for someone to kill you and enough for them to get away with murder.

It's a tough life because in many cases the police fire warning shots to scare you and somehow manage to get you in the back of your head with uncanny mathematical precision. Afterwards the policeman gets off and nobody loses any sleep over it. It's a tough life because if you want to rent a flat you have to sweat for it much more than the average Olympic gold medalist weightlifter does. You change your name, you watch your accent, give your best linguistic self, and if you still don't make it, you change your nationality and your religion too. You become a Romanian, a Serb, a Russian, because deep down you are all those nationalities and they are all you. It's a tough life because you are young and full of love and when the local girls find out you are Albanian they instantly evaporate and you risk (don't laugh) spending your life without a lover. It's a tough life because they have declared you a modern-day cannibal. The zealous cameras zoom in on the crimes you commit (when they aren't fabricating them that is), but never catch the blatant exploitation which pushed you to crime in the first place, and never notice the benefits you bring to the local economy, and always miss the enormous profits you bring your boss. That's why we hear people talking about you so much, but never saying anything nice about you. It's a tough life because there are so many opportunities for becoming neurotic, miserable, and for being consumed by loneliness every single day. Loneliness, as a poet once said, is not missing other people, but finding yourself in a big crowd, talking and not being understood. There are so many opportunities for becoming suspicious and aggressive towards those you have become convinced don't want you. In this way you slide into the underbelly of society, where there is more than enough darkness, and where the greatest danger of all lurks: that you will give in to this darkness.

I'll stop here because you're tired and need your sleep. Another tough day awaits you. But if I've made you smile at any stage at your own sufferings, you know better than anyone that scapegoat humor is only a temporary gift, on loan from heaven to hell.

Copyright Gazmend Kapplani. From A Short Border Handbook, forthcoming from Portobello Books. Translation copyright by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife. All rights reserved.

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