20 years ago this fall my family was in Albania. “The place to be in ’93” was the tag from VOA Europe, the radio station which helpfully provided a soundtrack to our visit. You could hear VOA Europe from cafes and bars, along with mix tapes that included Ace of Base “All That She Wants” or “Happy Nation,” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Tirana was an amazing cacophony of noise and sound. Car horns, radios, friends yelling, and construction work, Western music, it never got quiet.
After a month of living in Tirana, we took bus to Vlora for the weekend to see Anila’s hometown. The bus ran out of gas before we got there. Unfazed passengers with better language skills flagged down passing cars and were on their way; we opted to wait for the next bus. It was a beautiful night. For the first time since getting to Albania, things were quiet.
There was a full moon that shown down orange and red on the fields. The moonlight reflected off of a few of the bunkers that littered the countryside, remnants of a mad dictator who ran the most isolated country in Europe. 700,000 bunkers that served to remind Albanians daily of the control he had over their lives.
We were picked up by a second bus that brought us to Vlora. Over the weekend, Anila’s family shared with us friendship, food, stories, and a polyphonic music that predated and outlasted the madman. A music of a people who were more than their government, no matter how oppressive it may be.
Once I knew what to listen for, I heard echoes of that music all over the place; sounds that made Albania different. Back in Tirana the noise was still the same. Nothing about the city had changed while we were gone over the weekend. How I listened made all the difference. The cacophony became a fusion. VOA Europe was not the soundtrack to the city, it was a very small part of a much larger and richer soundscape. It was simply the part that I had been trained to hear.
One of the many things that Albania taught me is that you hear what you listen for. You find what you seek. Sometimes, you need to question whether your question is preventing you from hearing what is really there.