“What’s your name?”
The goatherd’s chocolate eyes register confusion.
It’s high-noon hot on a forsaken beach in Dhermi, Albania. A friend and I are trying to strike up a conversation with the only other soul around. But he doesn’t understand my question. I point to myself and bleat Jaaaannn. Then to my friend. Maaaah-ni-ka.
The goatherd’s face lights up like a slot machine. He puts a finger on his furry, toast-brown chest and produces something like Ewlee, puckering his crusty lips for the “Ew” and blowing it out the front of his mouth, French-style. With a flourish, he writes his name large in the pebbly sand: YLLI.
“Ah,” Monica says, “Ulysses! My God, he looks like the real deal.”
That’s for damn sure. He’s all sinew and bone and muscle, wild and woolly-headed. Hardscrabble.
“How many?” Monica says, counting on her fingers and indicating his herd of jet-black goats at the water’s edge.
He says something in Albanian, then bends down again and draws in the sand: 260. He motions toward the rocky range rearing up behind us. His pastoral village, apparently, roosts up there somewhere. He and his goats have made the long trek down to the beach, where the cool waters of the Adriatic meet the warmth of the Ionian Sea.
Ylli mugs for our cameras, cavorting with the goats, squinting at the sun, hoisting his baggy trousers up at the waist, flexing his biceps. Looking back now through my slides, I see I’ve captured him against the limpid sea, all foamy at the edges, with Corfu rising dreamily in the distance. One shot shows a sun-haloed Ylli. Another captures everything in sharp vertical – Ylli posing soldier stiff between two cypresses with the craggy cliff at his back.
The Cika range rises breathtakingly to over two thousand meters. A milky mist hangs on the peaks like thick nostalgia, whispering solitude, secrecy. There are no tourists here, or for that matter anyplace we’ve been in Albania. Though our beach feels like terra incognita, it’s soaked in history. The Byzantines, Ottomans, and Venetians have come and gone. Philip V of Macedon was here in 214 BC, and Julius Caesar during the Roman civil wars. The ghost of Enver Hoxha hovers, too, inside the concrete bunkers plonked on the shore.
Ylli gestures for us to sit. He draws a knife from his duffel bag, along with three ripe pomegranates. He slices the top off each fruit, makes six clean incisions, and peels back the hard leathery skin so the seeds pop out for the plucking. We pry the bright pink pearls from their honeycombs and pop them onto our tongues, where they explode with a sweet-sour zing. Ylli digs deeper into his bag and unearths handfuls of whole walnuts. He centers each nut on a smooth flat stone and delivers a sharp blow with a rock, cracking the shells wide open. He offers them up, a gentle and generous gift wrapped in chapped hands. Our host refuses to eat himself, following the rules of mikpriste – the Albanian code of Homeric hospitality. Mikpriste has enveloped us like armor in Albania, sapping the strength from the Embassy’s warnings against independent travel for women.
The herd’s headlong rush down the beach interrupts our idyll. Ylli barks a curse and lobs a few fat stones – threats that make the goats whine and skitter in reverse. Then he darts off, dives into his herd, and scoops up a small black kid. He drops it at our feet. We fawn and coo. The kid’s hair is long, soft, rank. Ylli nuzzles him with his stubbly cheek. The kid lunges for the half-eaten pomegranate in my hand, licks it greedily with a pink tongue, then bites into it. Ylli lets out a big belly laugh, charmed by his high-spirited kid.
We smell our skin burning. Time to go. Rummaging around our backpacks, we unearth a Tootsie Roll and a psychedelic purple flashlight, the only booty we’ve got other than passports, cash, and lipstick. Ylli unwraps the candy and inspects its dark, gummy surface. “Droga?” he laughs. He’s more intrigued by the Long-Life flashlight, turning it on and off, around and around, searching for a battery compartment. But it’s batteryless, and we can’t explain this because we have no idea what makes it run. The three of us look at each other, shrug, and laugh. Ylli taps his heart lightly, an Albanian gesture of deep appreciation. We do the same.
“Mirupafshim, Bye Bye!” we shout over our shoulders on our way to inspect a bunker. It’s the dark heart of Albania – dank and chill and pissoir-pungent. Through the narrow gun slit, I see a mass of black at the water’s edge. Ylli has shed his trousers for hot pink bathing trunks and is lunging past his goats toward the blue sea, arms spinning like madcap windmills. As he plunges in, the bunker echoes with his unbridled whoops and shrieks.
He has nearly vanished into Poseidon’s realm as we leave the beach. Only his corkscrew curls bob on the frothy waves.
“Do you ever fantasize about a man like that?” Monica asks, shooting me a glance. The question makes us giggle, but we know that the enchantment is not physical. It’s magical. We have escaped the twenty-first century and crossed a long bridge back in time to lotus land – to a place where Helios spread his warmth, Triton romped in the sea, and languages were one.
Jann Huizenga is at work on a memoir, Kissing Sicilians: My Life in Ragusa, Sicily. Her website is www.jannhuizenga.com.