The Smell of Sun Cream: Glimpses of the Outside World from Communist Albania

Lea Ypi on Growing Up Within an Isolated Country

I still associate all our efforts to learn from the outside world with Dajti, the name of the isolated mountain range that surrounded our capital and dominated its landscape as if it had captured it and was holding it hostage. Dajti was physically remote but always with us. I never visited it. I still don’t know what “receiving from Dajti” meant—​who received what, from whom, or how. I suspect there was a satellite or TV receiver up there. Dajti was in every house, in every conversation, in everyone’s thoughts. “I saw it last night through Dajti” meant: “I was alive” or “I broke a law” or “I was thinking.” For five minutes. For an hour. For a whole day. For however long Dajti would be there.

When my father became frustrated with the programs on Albanian television he would declare, “I am going to see if we can get Dajti.” He would then climb up onto the roof, twist our antenna this way and that, and shout through the window, “How is it now, is it better?” To which I would answer, “Same as before.” A couple of minutes later, he would shout again: “What about now?” And I would shout back, “Gone! It’s completely gone! It was better before.” Then I would hear him swear, followed by metallic sounds that suggested he was still fiddling with the antenna. The more impatient he became, the less likely the signal was to return.

In the summer the situation improved, at least in theory. With good weather, we had two options: Dajti and Direkti. Direkti, the direct signal, could be picked up from Italy, thanks to our proximity to the Adriatic. In my mind, Dajti was the god of the mountains and Direkti was the god of the sea. But Direkti was much more whimsical than Dajti. With Dajti, once you got the antenna right, you knew that the signal would be lost only at the time of the telegiornale, the Italian news program. Direkti was deceptive. When things worked out, even the telegiornale was accessible, from beginning to end. On other days, Direkti went from being “a looking-​glass,” as my father called it to indicate his satisfaction with the visibility, to absolutely nothing, a grey screen occupied by shaking spiderwebs.

This meant that when there were important football matches on television, such as Juventus playing at the end of the Serie A season, my father had to face a dilemma: either go with Dajti and expect the signal to be reliable but not ideal or take his chances with the fickle “looking-​glass” of Direkti. He often fell for the latter, but having to own the consequences of a potentially misleading decision made him extremely anxious. On such days, he climbed the roof with sadness, like someone about to confront an adversary whose superiority was known. “I’m going up to look at the antenna,” he would say, with resignation in his voice and occasionally a touch of despair. On the relation between my father and the antenna—​the psychological dramas, the dynamic of attraction and repulsion they fostered, the subtle balance between triumph and defeat—​depended every vital piece of information from abroad that my family received, from the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II to rumors of a break-​up between Al Bano and Romina Power after the latest Sanremo festival.

Without Dajti and Direkti, there was little to watch on television. On weekdays, the six p.m. story time and the animated film that followed were both a struggle. They coincided with Yugoslav basketball, and the only form of compromise with my father was to switch channels every five minutes. There was more on Sundays: puppet theatre at ten a.m., with a children’s film immediately after, then Maya the Bee on Macedonian TV. Then you just had to accept whatever luck brought: a program of folk songs and dances from different regions of the country, a report about cooperatives that had exceeded the five-​year-​plan target, a swimming tournament, the weather forecast.

We wondered why, if people could purchase food anytime they wanted, they chose to stockpile it.

Things got better when Foreign Languages at Home began to be broadcast at five p.m. The program played daily on Albanian television and was therefore immune to the arbitrary power the antenna exercised on our lives. In addition to English, there was French, Italian, and also “Gymnastics Under Home Conditions.” I never tried the latter. We had plenty of exercise every morning at the start of classes, when the whole cohort of teachers and pupils gathered in the schoolyard to practice toe touching, arm rotations, and quad stretches, followed by swearing loyalty to the Party. But I followed all the language program with great enthusiasm, especially the Italian one. Imagine how much more I would enjoy the cartoons on Rai Uno, I told myself, if I could figure out what they were about.

Foreign Languages at Home was the subject of intense discussion in the playground. There was always something to learn, not only about foreign languages but also about foreign cultures. I remember an intense discussion about shopping in England, as revealed in a supermarket scene where a mother read out a grocery list and her children had to identify the matching items on the shelves. Pasta, check. Bread, check. Toothpaste, check. Soft drinks, check. Beer, check.

And so we discovered that there was no need to queue. That anyone could choose any food they liked. That the shelves were overflowing with goods, but customers in the shop bought so much they could not even carry it. That people presented no food vouchers and seemed to have no limits on what they could buy, and in what quantity. We wondered why, if people could purchase food anytime they wanted, they chose to stockpile it.

Most puzzling of all was how each food item had its own label. Instead of displaying a generic name, like “toothpaste,” “pasta,” or “beer,” it contained what looked like the name or surname of a person: Barilla pasta, Heineken beer, or Colgate toothpaste. This also seemed to apply to the supermarket itself. Why couldn’t a shop simply be called Bread Shop, Meat Shop, Clothes Shop, or Coffee Shop?

“Imagine,” Besa said, “having a shop called Ypi’s Meat or Marsida’s Coffee or Besa’s Bread.”

“Probably the names of the people who made them,” I pointed out. “You know, like we have plastic produced by the First of May brigade.”

Others contested that interpretation. Teacher Nora explained that outside Albania, people never knew the names of those who made things, the names of the workers. She told us that in the West one knew only the names of the factories where they were made, the people who owned them, their children, and their children’s children. Like Dombey and Son.

The next perplexing topic was the function of shopping trolleys.

“The trolley was to carry children,” I said.

“Food,” Marsida corrected me.

“Children,” I insisted.

“Well, it was clearly used for both,” Besa said. “Did you see what the children smuggled into the shopping trolley?” she added, with the air of someone who can distinguish the relevant from the trivial detail. “The mother only discovered it at the end, when she had to pay. I think it was a Coca-​Cola can.”

“Yes, it was,” Marsida said. “She still went ahead and bought it for the children. They said they were thirsty. Maybe the shop didn’t have any water. Maybe they don’t have everything after all.”

“I think it’s a drink,” I almost whispered, as if I were revealing a secret. “Those cans you sometimes see on top of people’s shelves, they’re to hold drinks.”

Then Flamur, who was feeding left-​over bones to his favorite dog, Pelé, interrupted us. “Blah blah blah,” he mocked. “Of course Coca-​Cola is a drink—​everyone knows it. I’ve tasted it before. I once saw a tourist kid drop a can in the bin, and I collected it. It was still half full, so I tried it. It’s a bit like the red aranxhata they sell on the beach, but for tourists.”

Everyone looked at him with suspicion.

“Then he saw me. He looked at me with angry, flashing eyes,” Flamur continued. He slightly raised his voice, the same way he did when he started a story about his dad fighting the Ottomans. “He was angry. Very angry,” Flamur repeated. “But he didn’t hit me. Instead, he started crying, and I returned the can, I returned it immediately. He cried even more, kicked it, jumped on it, and ruined it. I left it there. It was useless, wouldn’t even stand on a shelf.”

We wondered if it had really happened. Teacher Nora had said that most of the tourist children who visited Albania were from the bourgeois class. They were famously nasty, so nasty that the nastiness of Flamur, and even Arian, paled beside it. Who knew what they were capable of doing to a can?

“Do you think Flamur really took a can from a tourist child?” Marsida asked after Flamur had left.

“It’s hard to say,” Besa replied. “He does spend a lot of time rummaging in bins to find leftovers for his dogs. He didn’t steal it. The child had dropped it in the bin.”

“I don’t think it’s a true story,” I said. “I’ve never met any tourist children.”

In school we were told not to interact with people who did not look like us. We were advised to change our route if we stumbled on tourists, and to never, under any circumstances, accept anything they might offer, especially chewing-​gum. “Above all, beware of the tourist carrying chewing-​gum,” teacher Nora insisted.

Sometimes, from a distance, we saw the tourist children who visited the beach in summer, next to the Adriatik, the hotel for foreigners. A long trench in the sand separated the local beach from the foreigners’ one, but there were no trenches in the water. On those occasions, my cousins and I would swim near the tourist beach and practice diving or water jumps or somersaults to grab their attention. Sometimes we would sing an English nursery rhyme we knew, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”: “Ban ban backship, eni eni you.” They would stare back, with a look between confused and frightened, and my cousins would then urge me to say hello in French. I refused, at first. I refused not because teacher Nora had told us not to speak to tourists—​I didn’t think the restriction applied in shallow water, where no chewing-​gum could be traded—​but because I still hated speaking French. If it was so great to speak French, I thought, I shouldn’t be teased for it. I shouldn’t be asked to speak it only when tourists were involved.

In school we were told not to interact with people who did not look like us. We were advised to change our route if we stumbled on tourists, and to never, under any circumstances, accept anything they might offer.

“I don’t want to say hello,” I protested. “We don’t know them. They’re not going to answer. Plus, how do you know they speak French? They could speak something else.” But my cousins called me a wimp and a coward, and to show them I was not a coward I said a reluctant “Ça va?” The tourist children kept staring. I changed to: “Ciao!” They rolled their eyes. I added the only sentence I knew in German: “Woher kommen sie?” Where do you come from? I should have said, “Where are you going?” because that was the point at which they left. My cousins then said, “See, you scared them. You should have smiled.” “Please come back,” I muttered to myself, seeing the children disappear behind large multicolored towels. I hated to see them disappear. I hated them for not answering. The only thing I hated more was that I had succumbed to the pressure.

The tourist children had bright, unusual toys that looked so different from ours that we sometimes wondered if they were toys at all. They splashed around on floating mattresses displaying characters we had never seen, had strangely shaped buckets and spades and exotic plastic material we had no word for. They smelled different, a smell that was enticing in an addictive way, one that made you want to follow them, to go and hug them so you could smell it some more. We always knew when there were tourist children nearby because the beach smelled weird, a hybrid of flowers and butter.

I asked my grandmother what it was. She explained that they smelled of sun cream, a thick white liquid used to protect people from the sun. “We don’t have it,” she said. “We use olive oil. It’s healthier.”

From that day on, I had a name for the smell. “They smell of sun cream,” I said to my cousins one day at the beach.

“I can smell it now,” one of them replied. “I can smell sun cream. They went that way. Let’s go. Let’s follow them.”

We followed them until they disappeared with their parents, onto a tour bus or into a restaurant we had no permission to enter. Then only questions were left. What do they read? Do they enjoy Alice in Wonderland, Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver, or The Adventures of Cipollino? Do they also have to collect chamomile flowers to help factories make medical herbs? Do they challenge each other on who knows more names of Greek gods? On who can remember more sites of ancient Roman battles? Are they inspired by Spartacus? Do they compete in Maths Olympiads? Do they want to conquer space? Do they like baklava?

I thought about foreign children with curiosity, occasionally envy, but often also pity. I felt especially sorry for them on Children’s Day, 1 June, when I received presents from my parents and we went to eat ice cream by the beach and to visit the funfair. On that occasion, they also gave me a yearly subscription to several children’s magazines. It was through these magazines that I learned about the fate of other children around the world. The magazine Little Stars was for children from six to eight years old, and on Children’s Day it ran a cartoon called “Our 1 June and Theirs.” On one side there was a fat capitalist wearing a fat top hat buying ice cream for his fat son, and on the floor next to the shop’s entrance two ragged children and a caption: “1 June never comes for us.” On the other side, there were Socialist flags, happy children carrying flowers and presents, holding their parents’ hands, waiting to buy ice cream in front of a shop. “We love 1 June,” their caption read. The queue was very short.

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Excerpted from Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi. Copyright Ⓒ 2022 by Lea Ypi. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Lea Ypi
Lea Ypi
Lea Ypi is professor of political theory at London School of Economics, and adjunct associate professor of philosophy at the Australian National University, with expertise in Marxism and critical theory. She lives and works in London.





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