Friday, September 4, 2015

Part Three, Three Years Later

Here is Saranda Part I 
And here is Saranda Part II

Welcome to off season

We came down out of the mountains to find Saranda flatly deserted. That a beach town would be tranquil in late October is no surprise, but it was more than that- it felt vacated.

After passing the end of the short boardwalk we found ourselves in the land of forgotten real estate dreams- a boulevard of multi-story buildings in various stages of construction. Some had been abandoned as soon as the frame had been raised, naked concrete skeletons showing the general idea of what was meant to be, complete with staircases dutifully zig-zagging between the floors filled with nothing but bright sky. Half painted walls and gravel- littered first floors merged into impossibly steep dirt driveways jutting up towards yet another level of interrupted construction. Power lines wove in and out of the open floors before sliding down the outer walls, ending anti-climatically in frazzled ends swinging in the breeze, pointless and empty. This went on for a stretch of about 3 miles- a silent parade of potential businesses, homes, and hotels, all of which seemed to have been left in a fit of collective regret that the projects had ever been started. There was no traffic, and we saw perhaps three people walking down the sidewalk or standing in front of shops.

Ksamil, where we were told to look for the best beach in Saranda, was easily found on the edge of town; the seaside paradise we were expecting was not. There was one sign that pointed to the direction of water and hinted at access, but it was misleading. After driving back and forth a few times we finally just took the first turn that went in the direction of the beach. This led us down a narrow strip lined with muted off season night clubs and darkened restaurants, until the road stopped abruptly for no reason and without any warning in a grassy field.

It seemed like as good a place as any to park the car so we got out and started our way along a stone promenade which, like the road, abruptly ended in the field. The promenade was pock marked by broken tiles and pot holes. Weeds cropped up along the cracks, and ornate lamp posts suffered from chipped paint and broken lights. Despite this, it was still beautiful in an end of the world kind of way. We were alone with the coast and the sky, with no plan other than “keep heading towards the water”.  That in itself made it special for a traveler.

Soon enough we found ourselves in a little cove, the coastline dotted inconspicuously with one or two wooden restaurants perched right on the water’s edge. And it was here, in that moment, that we received what had been promised- this was why we had come to Saranda. Everything slid into focus, sharpened, slowed down. Yes. This was it. We all felt it at the same time, turning and grinning, standing in one spot and making slow circles to take it all in.

 I’m absolutely certain that there are more beautiful beaches, or more isolated beaches, or more peculiar and exotic beaches, but Ksamili is gorgeous and on top of that, it was absolutely empty of tourists. We were alone save two other people- a man working further downshore, watching over a little boy playing with a boat. When we asked the man if we could swim, he just shrugged his shoulders as if to say “Why are you even asking?” and then promptly ignored us.

All of the creature comforts of vacation spots were there, but just barely- there were no over the top, gleaming beach chairs, or swanky docks, just a simple wooden platform with thatched umbrellas and a few tables. A pebbly beach gave way to a cove ringed by rocks on one side, with water so clear you could walk out to the end of the dock and look far down and still make out the landscape on the bottom. It was like a playground for adults, and that turned us into giddy children.  

There are moments in my life that  make me think that when I’m an old woman, I’m going to look back on them and remember being young and healthy, feeling an experience go through my body and knit itself into permanent pieces of me,  parts that age and time don’t touch. That afternoon was a moment knit, created for nostalgia. We piled our things on the dock and leapt off the end over and over. When we had our fill of swimming we floated to another dock down shore and pulled up onto the warm wood to stretch and talk. Sun on our bellies and faces, we took naps and pictures and long moments to sit in silence or wander off by ourselves. It was decadent that we should have so much all to ourselves to enjoy, and it was doubly enjoyable because we weren’t expecting it- we just stumbled upon it, looked around, and made it ours for the day. So it was.

As the sun wound itself down I slid into the sea to have one last slice of that isolated afternoon before we left. I could feel, as I so often did in those days, the persistence of guilt I had when I was somewhere enjoying myself, when I would forget, for a moment, the sorrow of my sister, who had so recently left us. I went into the water to be alone with her.

I stretched out on my back, the entire world replaced by nothing but sky and the sound of my heartbeat as the water rushed into my ears. The air, my blood, the sea -three fine lines of being- and my body the intersection of the whole of it. I was enmeshed, held in the salt, washed in the last flickers of the day. I thought of my sister there with me. I imagined her as the water, in my blood, falling on me as a beam of light, coursing through my lungs. It was yet another place where I slowly unraveled a length of tangled grief and let it fall away. I left a part of that pain on the bottom of the sea in Saranda, and when I pulled myself out, I had a new space inside of me. The memory of my sister and I in the water together rushed in to fill it. I experienced again, as I had many times before, and as I have many times since, the peculiar grafting of emotion that is the patchwork process of mourning.

I moved to Albania only a month after my sister died, and I cannot even count all the times I mourned her, physically, to the point where I could feel that grafting, the pain of it, and the release and the replacement. The ashes of my grief for my sister are scattered all over that country, and it took them, over and over again, in the most beautiful and unlikely of places. I said goodbye to her there so I could receive all the joy of our shared memories, our sisterhood, our lives together. I had a year of laying my sister to rest, and I had a year of rediscovering all the things about her that would never leave me. I was startled to find that in remembering her in those places we made new memories together. It took that year to show me, in a way I could never deny, that I take her with me wherever I go. 

maggie and milly and molly and may
E. E. Cummings, 1894 - 1962

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

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