By Julika Prifti
Last year ( 2020) was so extraordinary, I felt that listing the events month by month in a card to friends and family was the right thing to do. Covid -19 disrupted life as we knew it. Most of us worked from home, celebrated holidays at home, canceled or didn’t make plans to travel, didn’t go to theater shows, concert halls, sports events. For me, the pandemic time meant no trips to Albania, no Carnegie Hall, no Metropolitan Opera, no museums.
I imagined myself to be an astronaut forced to live in a spaceship and confined to doing only certain things: read, write, watch TV, cook and eat, look outside the windows the empty street, the trees on the board walk and the people or cars here and there in city so quiet and lifeless.
It helped for a while. But the confinements and restrictions related to Covid-19 stretched and surpassed the time frame of my expectations. Still, life went on with some things worth remembering and others worth forgetting.
Within the first week of January 2021, the images of the Capitol riot revealed the deep divisions that have been brewing in American politics. I was glued to the TV in disbelief. Democracy cannot be taken for granted, I remember thinking.
In February, schools reopened and I went back to work having gotten both vaccines. It felt good to think I was protected and to resume teaching in person and remotely.
In March, dad’s birthday was different from previous celebrations. He turned 89. That meant that the second digit was higher and that the trick of switching them off, as he has done jokingly to reduce years,was no longer effective. His sense of humor prevailed once more. He turned the second candle upside down and put it in front of the eight. How about that! 68! One candle’s wick could not be lit but that was a small price to pay.
In April, I found joy in a purchasing a new Air Conditioner unit that doesn’t block of the living room window. It might sound trivial but for me was a “great invention” that gave me enough joy to earn itself an entry into this card.
In May, it appeared that countries all across the world were getting the upper hand in combating Covid and that all the measures were paying off. Hope was in the air. And with that even outlines of plans to travel abroad.
School year ended in June. Among other readings, I finished the book “Vlera të Rishfaqura” by Tomor Plangarica. It carried a special significance because we were college friends at the University of Tirana and because I thought he was gifted as a student and a human being. The book brought me back to Albania and to his hometown of Elbasan, renowned for its rich culture, traditions and outstanding contributions to Albanian history.
In July, my youngest sister’s birthday was markedly unique since it was celebrated at the famed Boathouse in Central Park. Under mostly blue skies, the live music in the background, the gondolas that floated by in the pond were pleasures that were coming back to us eager to experience them as we had done before the virus made its way into every part of our lives.
August was generous in events and trips. In its first week, it was my nephew’s birthday party. The venue was a Mexican Restaurant in Astoria. A huge board cutout picture of “the birthday boy” standing by the table was a big surprise for my nephew. It did provide entertainment and attraction to by passers who remarked that he must be a famous person. There was a mix of nostalgia of times we used to sing at family gatherings back home and in New York. In particular, the repertoire of Spanish-language and Latin American songs brought memories of our dear late friend, Barry Farber. A celebration that included the right ingredients like good food, great drinks and singing and dancing La Bamba ( our favorite verses ” Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan, soy capitan…”) with live band.
The next day I embarked on a much anticipated trip to Vermont. One of the highlights: Ben and Jerry’s Ice-cream Flavor Cemetery with funny poems in each tomb. Lake Chamberlain was another good experience but Lake George stood out the most for its blue color and the surrounding summer houses. There I saw the Fort William Henry that I had seen in my imagination while reading in Albania The Last of the Mohicans. Waiting for the boat ride I happened to see a statue. At its base, it read Song Of Hiawatha/ Minne-ha-ha/Native American. It evoked strong emotions as it took me all the way back to my childhood years when I listened to my dad reciting the poem of Hiawatha. Longfellow is an American poet and author who is so endeared to me because of the wonderful poem he wrote for the Albanian national hero Skanderbeg.
In Lake Geneva, with part of the family, we enjoyed each other’s company and the pleasantries of vacationing by the water, This time, my niece Rea was assigned the duties of motor boat captain by our wonderful host.
Later in the month, I visited the City Field stadium for the first time and saw the Mets game. They lost again but I got one of the ball that flew in our direction.
There was some sad news too. Zef Rakacolli, father of my closest friend and neighbor in Tirana passed away. I was close to the family who lived a floor above our apartment. He made drawing for us (his three children and me) and we had to find our what it was. We played that game for hours. It was from him that I learned that the waters of lakes that Albania shared with Yugoslavia were dividend in a particular way. As a little girl, I spent many nights thinking how could you put a border on the water?
My dad remembered an episode when Zef asked to borrow Camus “La Peste”. “I thought you don’t know French” – my father said while lending the book. “I will read it as if is Italian and I will understand it,” was his response. What a great idea and good lesson.
My dad and I thought of this episode when I suggested he translate Cuervos Inteligentes from Spanish which he doesn’t speak.
-You speak Italian, French and Latin,- I said, remembering our dear friend Zef.
The images of August brought back memories of a long drawn war as I watched planes leaving Kabul with people still on the tarmac, with dwindling hope to escape a country in ruins through no fault of their own.
In September. I watched US Open matches and saw the number one player Djokovic poised to make tennis history, lose three set to none.
School had started with all students in person. I was very glad.
In October, Carnegie Hall opened its doors with a big Gala Concert. It felt like going back to an old life with some adjustments like standing in line to show proof of vaccination and ID and get in our wrists a ribbon with the date of the concert. A sign of the times!
On Halloween, I visited the Bronx Botanical Garden to renew my membership but most of all to see the exhibition of Kusama, the Japanese artist famous for her polka dots of different sizes and her bright colors, compelling you to see nature in another way. Looking at her pieces of art makes you happy and hopeful. Most of all I liked her dancing yellow pumpkin with black polka dots and stripes.
To see the fall colors and enjoy our stay at Von Trapp Lodge, we revisited Vermont in November. The sunrises and dawns were breathtaking. The fresh air of the mountain made you feel your lungs as you rarely do in the city. I saw the blue sky full of stars and constellations that I haven’t seen in years. I have trouble remembering their names and their positions… I don’t remembers when I have seen a sky with stars on it. It made me nostalgic for Tirana’s sky and the boulevard strolls some 30 years ago.
The school program “Meet the Author” game me an opportunity to enjoy the talk of Raj Haldar, an American rapper, record producer, and co-author of many books. Raj said that many people know him as Lushlife. One day he started to write books for children. The first book ”P Is for Pterodactyl the Worst Alphabet Book Ever” that was illustrated by Chris Carpenter, was rejected 18 times from different publishing houses. The 19th said YES. The book got published and stayed in the New York Times bestseller list for 18 weeks. Then Raj wrote “Word Travelers and the Taj Mahal Mystery” where he explores etymology and world cultures. From his talk, I learned that the word pajamas came from hindu, pa = legs jama = shirt. And the word tufan -a type of storm- comes from Hindi language. Since it has made its way into Albanian, it made me think that we are connected with other cultures through languages and other ways. Humans have migrated for millennia. We belong to a world that is more interconnected that we think or are willing to accept.
I saw the exhibition The Great Jack O, Lantern Blaze in Hudson Valley, New York, with more than 7,000 glowing carved pumpkins was breathtaking. The Manhattan skyline with Empire State Building, The Brooklyn Bridge, The Wind Mill and the field of tulips made out of carved pumpkins were terrific. The imagination of the people that carved the pumpkins went as far as to reproduce copies of famous paintings such as Mona Lisa, Frida Kahlo, The Stary Night. I don’t know which “Stary Night” to put in the first place, the one that I saw in Van Gogh’s digital exhibition in Manhattan or the one made out of carved pumpkins.
Thanksgiving 2021 brought more family members together in one room for the first time in a long time. My understanding of the first celebration 400 years ago has evolved. Now the story created by the European settlers is incomplete without the historic facts of the native people.
December came with some expectations and new disappointments. The new Omicron variant of the virus impacted and curtailed the celebrations around the globe and here. There is unsettling news coming from Albania as the opposition party has been weakened by internal infighting. It started in spring with the US government designating as persona non-Grata, Sali Berisha, Albania’s former prime minister and one of the founders of the opposition in the early 1990s. He has denied the corruption allegations and is leading the charge calling for a revolution on January 5, 2022. We are leaving behind a year of political turmoil, civil unrest and increased awareness of disparity as we go into 2022. The people we loved and lost this year were dear old friends and acquaintances I knew through work and social circles. I know that their lives and work made the world a better place for all of us.
I say Farewell to 2021 holding hope in my heart for 2022!
In the photo above: Naum Prifti, with his wife and the three daughters Rafaela, Loreta, and Julika (author of the article).