After his death, his father kept on living in Tirana. No, there’s no mistake, he did.
It was three days ago that he’d arrived in Tirana for the first time. It was an early morning in an unfamiliar city. The bus stopped somewhere downtown, the driver started gesturing and explaining something incomprehensible while the rest of the passengers readied themselves to get off.
“That’s the last stop?” he asks in English. “There’s no bus station?”
“Here. Here.” Probably that’s what the driver was trying to say or at least that’s what he managed to make out of his gesticulations. Eventually he gave up arguing with him and just got off.
He picked up his backpack, slung it over his shoulder and glanced at his watch: it was exactly 5 a.m. What is one supposed to do in a city at 5 o’clock in the morning? It’s still dark, the street lights lengthen the shadows, the city is deserted. The bus doors slid shut and the vehicle drove away; he walked off in the opposite direction. In a while he turned around to see what the other passengers were doing but his eyes found no one. It was as if they had dissipated into the dark. The street was once again deserted.
Welcome to Tirana. He was greeted by TIRANA INTERNATIONAL HOTEL emblazed in neon lights.
He had never dreamed of visiting Tirana. Not that he minded doing it. But it was just an unfamiliar city, it was as if you raised your finger and pointed it at a random location on the world map. Tirana? Yes, so here’s the place where the next dental medicine post-graduates’ meeting was taking place. They were going to have three days to attend lectures, to make a short scientific announcement, to attend two official dinners, a seminar and that was all. Then they would say “¡Adios!”.
It was hard for him to pinpoint exactly where he was at that moment. He took his phone out of his trouser pocket and tried to connect to a mobile network operator. Then he waited for the GPS application to load. An instant later he gave up. He slid the phone back into its place, shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket and took a stroll around the streets of Tirana. He hadn´t done that for years. It had been a year since he last woke up at 5 a.m. Magnolias, palm and olive trees grew across the city. It wasn’t really cold. He got to like Tirana. He was also content he was wearing a backpack so he didn´t have to roll a wheeled suitcase and listen to its moronic clanking echo off the empty streets. Everyone who´s ever travelled with such a suitcase will know what I mean. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! He sent a silent “Thank you!” to his father.
His father was a great man. Everyone said so. He was a geologist, a speleologist, a crazy mountaineer. Try to picture him: a sturdy man with a bushy beard, wide smile and huge teeth. It’s no accident I mention his teeth, but I’ll talk about them later. He was a man with many friends but you couldn’t say father and son shared a strong bond. Perhaps they were too different, cut out for living on different scales. His father was used to working with entities of distinct magnitude: he loved to speak of lofty mountains and great people and to dream of far-off journeys and deep caves. His son, on the other hand, was a dentist.
“Right. Explain to me what´s so curious about the human mouth that it thrills you so much to probe into it? What interesting discovery do you expect to make? A pulpitis? A cavity? A granuloma?”
Let’s say that he could explain. He could at least try to tell his father why an eighteen-year-old boy wanted to become a dentist. The trouble was that his father never listened to him. To him such an explanation simply did not exist. No one could possibly want to probe into people’s mouths with such a magnificent world around them waiting to be discovered.
His father never asked him that question when they were alone. He would always ask him when there were people around: friends, beardy geologists, speleologists, lovers and kids who were already in stitches comparing the five-thousand-meter high peaks and the human mouth, they were all rolling around laughing. Then go explain why you’ve chosen that particular profession.
“Leave the kid alone,” his mother would say in such cases.
That made things even worse. His mother was one of those people who wished for the world to be an orderly place to live in: dentists come here, accountants go there, husbands stay with their wives, and no mountain trotting and world rediscovery fitted into her neat design for life. Why would anyone want to do that when the world had already been discovered and every inch of it had been trod on?
“Can’t you live like ordinary people?” she would ask her husband back in the time when she still harbored some hope that he could be an ordinary human being. But later on she gave up. She had to come to terms with his not being ordinary, with having to share him with the entire world; she may have resented him, or she may not have. In any case she made it her job to show him overtly that the world could be quite a hostile place.
“Dentistry is a great career choice!” she would tell her son.
His father gave him that smile that said: ”Do you really believe that?”
He must have believed it. Otherwise no Head Assistant of Dental Medicine would be roaming the streets of Tirana that morning wondering why his father never posed him the career choice question when they were alone. Perhaps he never really cared what professional path his son would take. People just come into this world meant to be dentists or veterinarians; others become mountain climbers or watchmakers. It all seems so logical. It’s as if those things are predetermined and it’s only chance that brings speleologists and accountants together.
“Don’t act like one of those spoiled brats who wander about cities dragging a wheeled suitcase behind them! What will you do if one of those wheels breaks? Maybe you’ll position yourself at the heart of the central town square fussing around in a state of emergency, huh?” asked his father once right before the boy left for a seaside vacation with some friends.
“Real men wear backpacks. They sling their backpacks over their shoulder and never come to a halt. They can walk for months on end. That’s what the mountain trekkers in the Himalayas do. That’s what real men do. They survive!”
He never became a mountain trekker but he kept on picturing real men that very way: big and sturdy like his father, slinging their fifty-pound backpacks over their shoulder and setting off on their journeys. Maybe that’s why he travels with a backpack when he goes to science conferences. So that, at least in his own eyes, he could be like those men: with disheveled hair, heavy shoes and even heavier backpacks. There was one more thing: real men are good at orienting themselves in all sorts of terrain.
It took him an hour and a half to tour around the most interesting sights in Tirana in the early morning. He felt proud he hadn’t used the GPS on his phone, but it wasn’t hard to find your way around Tirana in any case: there are several main streets, The Opera House, the Et’hem Bey Mosque, the national library, the Clock Tower, the Pyramid of Enver Hoxha, the university and that’s all. There were medlars, orange and palm trees all over. The sun came up, he saw high karstic peaks looming up on the horizon. It crossed his mind that his father would have appreciated the landscape.
It is important to point out that he had no fixation on his father. They hadn’t really been close friends but that’s already clear. They lived in two different worlds, that’s essential. His parents were so disappointed by each other that they made conversation only on official occasions. But great men pay no attention to such trifles. Yet they keep having internal dialogues with their fathers about all those things they didn’t say while the father was still alive.
Two months ago his father passed away after suffering a ridiculous accident in the mountains, an accident that was hardly in his league. He just slipped on the path, took a three-meter fall and hit a rock. Period. Great men do not speak of these things. But they never cease to think of them.
His father was planning on another trip to Alaska, he was mapping out different routes, gathering equipment. He intended to take a trek around some volcanoes in Turkey; the old geologist couldn’t sit still. The dentist, on the other hand, couldn’t fathom that passion. Doesn’t one grow weary in time?
“Can’t you catch the scent of the mountain air? Only in the mountains can one open up one's lungs and breathe freely,” his father used to say.
He couldn’t smell anything. It was just air. There were wafts of pine. So what? He opened up his lungs and took a few deep breaths. There was no difference.
He couldn’t detect any difference even then. There was no traffic in the center of Tirana: the streets were deserted in the early morning, a man was washing the paving stones in front of the newspaper stand, the sun had barely appeared on the horizon, another man was mowing the garden of the Skanderbeg Square and tall mountains were stealing glances down at the city. He stopped for a moment and, yes, he did feel that peculiar tranquility that washes over you when you’re in the right place at the right time. Who’s to know that it would overtake him in Tirana?
He took his backpack off and sat down on a bench. He was in no hurry, the seminar registration was to start in an hour. He stayed like that for a while, still, without thinking, tired and content, as if time had stopped for a moment. Then he took out the paper he was going to present to his foreign colleagues later that day and went through it once more. A thought flashed through his mind: if his father could see him then, he would shoot at him another: “So? Is it worth it travelling to a foreign land on the other side of the world just to dip your nose into papers and read about pulpitis and cavities?”
On the second day, walking through downtown Tirana with his colleagues, he thought he saw his father. The man went past him, just a few feet away, he was wearing his father’s jacket, had the same hasty step and the same build. The younger man had no clue what to do. The other man passed him by and the younger one kept staring after him. Should he try to catch up with him? Should he call his name?
“Hey, wasn’t that my late father?!”
He felt too tired for that. The time difference was taking its toll. He’d travelled for twenty hours to get to Tirana. He was still unable to get into a normal rhythm. He apologized to his colleagues, said he was tired and retreated to his room.
Right before the official dinner, while he was waiting for everyone else to come gather at the lobby, he thought he saw someone leave his father’s backpack on the floor. He couldn’t mistake that backpack. It was unlike any other. His father had travelled half the globe with it, he had attached extra pockets, patched the holes with emblems. We’re now talking about something specific and real, something tangible. No weariness due to a long trip could justify what his eyes were seeing. He could recognize that backpack anywhere.
He takes two steps and finds himself right next to the backpack, lifts it up high and examines it carefully. He was right, it was his father’s backpack. Then he turns to look at the people around. An elderly man approaches him and attempts to get the backpack. The young man refuses to let it go.
“This is my father’s backpack,” he says.
The elderly man doesn’t speak English. He’s a small old fellow who’s waving his arms about explaining something ardently. He’s trying to wrench the backpack from the younger one’s grasp. He probably figures out he won’t be successful so he clutches on to it in despair. People begin to turn towards the two struggling men. The younger one rips the backpack away and the old man nearly falls to the ground. He starts shouting. People cluster around them.
The dentist expects his father to jump out from around the corner any second with his sturdy built, grinning like a Cheshire cat, to say a few words and to make the crowd laugh. He becomes everyone’s favorite in no time.
The old man is still shouting. Minutes later they are broken apart. Someone who speaks English shows up. The two men are seated at a table and the backpack is placed between them. The younger man’s colleagues throng to the scene and observe what follows in silence. Someone approaches them and takes up the translating. The old fellow keeps shouting.
“The elderly gentleman insists that the backpack belongs to him,” says an Albanian professor, one of the most eminent scientists attending the seminar.
The old one is really persistent about something. And he won’t stop waving his arms and shouting. The dentist glances at the bunch of people gathered around. Some of them are laughing.
“That backpack belongs to my father,” he states calmly. “I could never mistake it. See,” he points a finger at a pocket, “my father himself stitched that pocket. Look at this,” he points at another spot, ”He had to sew on this strap for one of his trips to the Alps so that he can fasten the ice-axe to the backpack. You know what an ice-axe is, don’t you?”
Everyone looks at him as if he were insane.
“The ice-axe is a tool used in winter mountaineering for safety and for facilitating climbing up icy terrains. Mountaineers cut footholds in ice with it. Like this.”
He aims a blow with an imaginary ice-axe to show the technique of providing an anchor point with the tool. Everyone’s watching him in silence. No one is laughing anymore. There’s a long pause.
Moments later the old fellow clutches at the backpack again.
“The old gentleman is saying that there is nothing but his dirty overalls in the backpack. The gentleman works in the hotel kitchen, his shift is now over and he was on his way home,” the professor keeps translating.
The old man draws the backpack closer to himself, opens it and empties it on the little varnished baroque table at the hotel lobby, a heap of dirty clothes comes down. Everybody’s eyes are on him. The old man takes the items one by one: a pair of dark blue overalls, a dirty white shirt, a dirty apron, a pair of black socks, probably dirty as well. A bottle of alcohol drops out, too.
Someone in the back is laughing.
”The gentleman says these things belong to him. He has bought the backpack two weeks ago from a shop here in Tirana. It was really cheap.”
That’s the moment when his father should appear and turn it all into a joke. He looks around. His colleagues sit down about him and look at him stunned. The old one shoves the clothes back into the backpack and keeps muttering under his breath. Everyone seems to have figured the situation out.
The dentist stands up. He feels so utterly ashamed he can barely look anyone in the eye. In an attempt to save what is left of his honor, he turns to the professor.
“Could you, please, ask him where he got the backpack from?”
The professor translates the question in Albanian with the same manner in which he read his paper the day before, measured, focused, as if he was announcing the news of some groundbreaking discovery that was about to enter the scientific journals. The old man speaks curtly. The professor translates.
“He says he has bought it form a second-hand shop. That is two blocks away. The shop is easy to recognize. It has large windows. He says there are many more backpacks like it there.”
A thought flits through his mind, maybe they haven’t understood him at all. He’s not interested in other backpacks. He wants to know about one single backpack. About that particular backpack. But he decides not to delve into it any more. The people begin wandering away. The old man throws another murderous look at the dentist and the hotel lobby quiets down.
“Look,” the professor says, “There are many second-hand shops in the city. The standard of living here is not high, you can see that yourself. Second-hand clothes come to the country from all over the world. Maybe your father no longer needed the backpack and someone decided to dispose of the old items. So they ended up here. It happens all the time. Sometimes I get the feeling that this is the very place where the entire world pours out its junk because it cannot throw it away anywhere else. People are poor, you see, so they find a new use for all those things…”
There’s nothing he could say. So he gives a nod of understanding. He goes over to the elevator and presses the button. He can’t find it in himself to go to the official dinner. He just needs to take his time.
Once inside the elevator, he gives his reflection a long stare. A thirty-year-old man with disheveled hair. Is there an air of insanity about him? Or is he simply tired? He realizes just how little he takes after his father: he has nothing of his father’s strut, his wide smile, the ease with which he made new friends, nothing of the desire to discover new worlds.
He doesn’t turn on the lights in his hotel room. He just moves over to the balcony. He needs to breathe in air. He needs air. The scent of pines drifts around him. He smells resin, too. Looked from above, Tirana sparkles with million lights: the street lights, the Mosque’s minaret, the Cathedral’s bell tower, the road traffic. So this is the place where all unnecessary things get piled up. There is an actual place where the world pours out all useless items. Everything that we no longer need and wish to forget.
On his last day in Tirana once again he thinks he sees his father. A man walks past him on the street, he’s in a rush, wearing the same heavy hiking boots with red laces like his father’s. There’s no mistaking them. The man passes by him and continues on his way. It doesn’t even occur to the dentist to try to catch up with the man. He’d better he stay in Tirana. It’s nice here, there are lofty mountains around.
Translated from the Bulgarian by Annie Dancheva
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