Finding Illyria

12th June 2018

I met a taxi driver yesterday by the name of Qemal. I asked him if he was Iranian, or maybe Turkish? He was neither. 

Getting a sense of him was perplexing. 

He had picked me up in the forgotten little car park between Terminals 1 & 2 at Dublin Airport, the only place where app-ordered taxis can legally meet their passengers. This had given me some confidence. Here was a professional who played by the rules. 

He proceeded to become irate when the bloke ahead of us couldn’t figure out how to raise the barrier to exit the carpark. 

Come on you stupid c*nt!’, he shouted, vaguely acknowledging, but not excusing, his florid language via his driver’s mirror. 

It was a rapid escalation. I resigned myself to a semi-hostile journey of silence – one which happens with some frequency in taxi-land. Like plumbing, this is a profession which welcomes all sorts, with few quality filters. The result is that you’re in the shit before you even smell the shit.

I have a long list of plumbers I never want to see again.  

During the silence as we left the airport towards my requested route to Howth (the N32 is best off-peak), I returned to assessing my driver. He was well dressed, with a large amount of gold jewellery, including a chunky signet ring most familiar to me from campy pirate movies. His car was impeccably clean. And his driving appeared less aggressive than his language. 

Although he had some Dublin-isms as he spoke, his accent rung oddly in my ear, at once familiar and unfamiliar. Overpowered by curiosity, I decided to break my self-imposed silence.

‘It’s a nice day’, I began, not waiting for a reply. ‘Where are you from?’

In Act 1, Scene 2  of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the heroine Viola escapes a shipwreck and is washed up on some unknown shore. ‘What country is this?’ she asks a mariner on the beach. “This is Illyria, lady’, is the response. Those words, referring to the ancient and mythical idyll of south-eastern Europe, was my first introduction to modern-day Albania. 

I was a teen when I last studied Shakespeare. The country most associated with Illyria, lying less than 100kms from the heel of Italy,  has continued to bounce from time to time onto my radar, but never long enough to captivate. 

I have never properly known an Albanian.

The closest I got, on holiday in Greece in 1992, was when a young, sallow-skinned man came up to my friend on the beach and asked her to marry him. She had never met him before. She did not know his name. It was an act of desperation that might make you laugh if you were in your 20s and privileged. But seeing him now, in my mind’s eye, walking the lonely perp-walk of hot sand to her beach towel while preparing splintered words in a foreign language, I am moved by the tragic pathos of it all.

When I lived in Vienna in the mid-1990s, Albania was one of about eight countries for which I was the confectionery marketing guy. It was the smallest market for our business, and our lovely German colleague based there had to fight mighty hard to get any attention at all. I made frequent trips to Bucharest, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia to develop and support the portfolio of brands we had, but never once did I get to Tirana.

Albania was the place to which we sent containers of product from time to time, making sure to get paid before anything was despatched. It was a locus of poverty, corruption and isolation. True, there was no war there – something of an occupational hazard in 1990s Balkans – but nor was there much interest in peace.

As we came on to the N32, he began to speak of his home country. My taxi driver was eloquent, learned, well-travelled – all of which was welcome to me given he’d called a random stranger a c*nt just a few minutes back.

School back then had prepared them poorly. ‘It was banned to learn any language other than Albanian’, he said. He got out when he could, first to Greece, and then to here. Over 20 years he had accommodated to Ireland. He liked it, its ways and its cooling weather, so different from the extremes of the southern Adriatic.  And he spoke with pride about the natural beauty of his country, full of white beaches, fine wines and a delicious cuisine fusing the tastes of Italy, Greece and the Balkans. 

‘The Turks left nothing but their names’, he said, referring to his own. The Ottoman Empire had been kicked from their Balkan territory by The London Conference of 1912. Albania was a country created to appease ethnic yearning, and to deprive Serbia of coastline. It was a political outcome to a geo-political strategy. 

I happened to know something of the London Conference for the most superficial of reasons. In Episode 3 [Season 1] of Downton Abbey, the exotic and charming Mr Pamuk is a Turkish diplomat participating in the Conference negotiations. That is, he participated in them until he ended up drawn to Lady Mary, and wound up dead in her bed. Thus, my interest in the London Conference was driven by the cut of Mr Pamuk’s gib, not my anguish over the fate of 6 million ethnic Albanians.

Arriving at my door in Howth, Qemal turned to me. 

‘If you have time tonight, read a bit about Albania. It’s changed so much. There is wealth. The buildings are new. The wine is good. British Airways flies to Tirana twice a day!’. 

So I did. I spent the evening reading. Because his words made sense to me.

Much in life remains invisibly visible. We bypass people, things, places that do not command our attention. I work in a profession deeply committed to curiosity, yet often am nourished by that which presents as superficially exotic, or that which New Yorkers have decided has merit. All of this, when Illyria lies undiscovered in my own backyard. 

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