Waiting at the gate, last flight of the night and it’s delayed—“ritardo,” which sounds like “retarded” and I laugh and take a picture, and get those sideways glances—“Girl, you’re not from here.”
And I’m not—one of the only people at the gate that isn’t Albanian, clutching a red passport and the clothing suddenly different, so un-Milan, where even the dogs are better groomed that me. At Gate 3, it’s faded loose blazers instead of crisp fitted ones; it’s cheap haircuts and scarves tied over the heads of old women. It’s scuffed low heels and calf-length skirts, thin linen—it’s hard faces, jaws and brows more pronounced, and skin chiseled too, even in the children—chiseled, as though the expressions were carved out of some kind of different living, different reality, and you could never quite assimilate, could you? I think—No.
I’m wrecked tired, stayed up till 5am with the Le Fooding kids, slept maybe 4 broken hours, and I’ve got a bottle of Pelegrino and my headphones cranked up, tapping my foot through a caffeine haze just to stay awake. Glances snag on me—not Italian, not Albanian, what the fuck?
An hour after we’re supposed to leave, and a shuttle bus pulls up to the gate. People push and jostle; a man tears our boarding passes, which look like they were created in MS Word, printed on Xerox paper, glossy-thin. The bus smells like wet and feet, and it lets us off at the stairs to the plane, which bears no markers, no logos, a surface so lumpy it looks like paper-mache. We scurry in through the cool Italian night, breath clouds and blinking lights.
They’ve got the first ten rows blocked off—I remember this from my last Belle Air flight—and I can’t really discern why. People push and prod, they yell instructions to each other over, motion over the heads, and I can’t discern that either. There’s an old woman in my seat, and the seat next to her, and I show her my ticket and she shakes her scarved head as if to say, “No.”
I shrug and the stewardess—dolled up like a retro Pan Am attendant, hair pinned and orange hat tucked jauntily to the side—she shrugs and motions me up to the front of the plane, to the unassigned rows, and I grab an extra seat.
A staticy safety announcement rushed through in 3 languages—sounds like the voice in a fast-food drive-thru—and it’s too quiet for me to hear anyway over the mechanical groans of the plane. There’s nothing identifiably “Belle Air” about the plane, save the cloths on the head rests, and I decide it must be some kind of generic rent-a-plane, which doesn’t make me feel terribly confident, but I close my eyes and wait for take-off—though really, in a lot of ways, all these ways, I’ve already taken off.
We take off, and I watch the lights of Milan dissipate, fade—goodbye Western world. We’re cruising at news-helicopter altitude, it seems, and I feel like I could reach out and touch the little lights, the clouds that snag on the wings and eventually swallow everything, everything.
The cabin lights keep dimming and brightening, like a kid playing with a switch. Outside, the sky crackles a yellow flash, illuminating the shapes of those clouds, and I imagine the static clinging to us like clothes from a dryer, or when a silent electricity is in the air and you don’t know it until you touch something and get that little shock—in the black above the Adriatic, but we’re already in Albania, a rattly, groany little generic bullet of Albania, carrying Albania through the sky.
Lights appear and we start to sink. The scarved woman in my seat stands up—she opens the overhead bin literally as we’re landing, the first bump and rumble, and others follow suit as we taxi, and the stewardesses stare ahead, bored-looking and don’t bother to point out the seat-belt sign or tell us to sit.
Another flight of stairs, another stinky shuttle bus, and a mad rush to the immigration desk. It’s a quarter-size line at the “Foreigner” counter, though I could have sworn I was the only non-Albanian, and a man elbows me to get there first, waves his wife over, and it seems like a monumental rush for nothing, so I just let out a half-laugh and watch.
A faded dim stamp I can barely read, slammed on top of another stamp, and I wonder what the point of it is. Three luggage carousels that all read flights from earlier that day. My backpack finally appears, on its side amid the luggage mummified in neon shrink-wrap.
No buses at midnight, so I grab a taxi, and he drives between the lanes, over the lanes, flashing his high beams like lightning or static or the cabin lights that could never sit still. We cruise into Tirana, and I see familiar sights—the crepe stand I liked, the gaudy shopping mall, the dug-up square beside the national museum, the statue that sits amid the construction like a warrior in a dead battlefield, the broad empty road where the futbol crowds shot off smoke bombs.
It’s like a boy I’d met once, thought I’d really liked and kept on thinking about, retelling the story to myself so that eventually I didn’t know if it were true or not anymore, if I’d made it up or not—but I’m back and it’s still all there and it’s real and I can’t help but smile at that—Tirana, Tirana, sleeping and dark but still as I left it.
The taxi stops at the gate to the hostel and the driver helps me with my bags and I pay him and then he pauses and looks at me, nods and smiles, reaches out to shake my hand—maybe because I’m American and he knows that’s what we do, I’m not sure why. But he shakes my hand and I shake his and he pats me on the back and I ring the bell and now I’m in Albania, really in Albania—I’ve arrived.