This coming Tuesday is primary election day in Alaska. I’m beginning my “Throwback Thursday” posts with my family letter about being a municipal election monitor in Albania. Albania was a new democracy and people took their newly won privileges seriously, including dressing up in their Sunday best to hike an hour to get to a polling place. I wrote this letter on:
Puke (It is pronounced with two syllables) is an ugly town in a beautiful setting. At dawn red alpen glow reflected off the jagged snowy peaks of The Accursed Mountains (Those Damned Mountains as one translator phrased it.) The temperature had dropped below freezing and frost began to form on the trees.
Leaving Puke the pines give way to a deciduous forest with fall colors. There are small fields marked by stone and wood fences with bundled corn stalks and squash. It’s like New England in the Rockies. This is the borderland where Moslem Albania gives way to Roman Catholic Mirdita tribesmen, Albanians who submitted to neither Turk nor Nazi and were only grudgingly ruled by the Communists. Suzi and I are here as election observers.
We wanted to visit polling at a village not on the road so the chairman of the Rappe Commune election commission led us to Breg. We scrambled into a ravine, across a footbridge spanning a fast mountain river and climbed a stony path lined on one side by a fence of rounded pickets protecting corn fields from roaming goats. On our climb we passed a small sawmill with the smell of fresh cut hardwood and on the edge of the village we heard the click of billiard balls. One of the log buildings had been converted into a pool hall. I wondered how they got a heavy slate pool table up here. We entered the voting center in the school. Each commissioner sat on a school bench with a Foster’s Tall Boy, a plate of sausage and a hardboiled egg. Someone had brought them lunch. The commission never expected to see a foreign election observer this far off the road and they looked a little sheepish drinking beer at a polling place. I felt like a junior high Vice Principal walking into a boys’ room. They did the only thing they could do, offer us a beer.
In a lonely polling place in the Luf commune, we found the 9 unhappiest guys in Albania. The election commissioners were the only ones not at the town’s big wedding. The father of the groom took pity and supplied them with a roasted lamb and a lot of raki. The entire election commission was drunk. The secretary wasn’t able to hold his head up and the chairman couldn’t remember whether 230 or 320 people lived in the village. They offered us a drink and begged us to stay because they were bored. No one but the commissioners had voted but they expected a rush when the wedding was over. “But weddings go until 3 AM.” A commissioner assured us that this was a Catholic wedding, “Catholics don’t party as hard as Moslems” so they were sure to be done in time to vote. We decided not to stick around to see if there would be any irregularities if any voters actually showed up. We didn’t want to know.
The next village up the way, also in Luf commune, was the home of the Republican candidate who would ultimately unseat the incumbent Democratic commune chief. They had a high turnout and were most interested in the progress of the wedding down the road. The fewer people who voted in down the road the better the chances of their man.
Voting here was at the village school. There was a pride of teenagers standing around a fire outside the school drinking. The policemen had leaned their assault rifles against the wall and joined the teens warming their hands at the fire. As we got out of the car the cops scrambled to pick up their guns and look alert. The kids called out wisecracks. I asked the polling chief if thought a bunch of drunk kids outside the polling place would discourage voting. He said “No, they’re just OUR kids standing outside the bar.” But it looked like they were standing outside the school. Actually they were doing both. When land was given back to its original owners after the fall of communism, the school presented a problem. The village solved it by giving the original owner of the land a classroom in the school to do with as he wished. He added a door to the outside and turned it into a bar, keeping the door that opened into the school for the convenience of the teachers and older students.
The polling place in Buhod is actually in a bar. This was the loosest precinct we had visited. It was also the smallest. They didn’t check id’s because everyone knew everyone. The whole committee was outside the bar around a big fire keeping warm and passing a bottle of raki. When our car with Tirana plates drove up they ditched the bottle.
An elderly couple came to vote. They didn’t have picture ids but everyone knew them. The chairman told them, in Albanian, to come back in 15 minutes “after the Americans go.” I had a dilemma. I understood Albanian enough to knew what they said. They weren’t really weren’t doing anything wrong, they just weren’t doing it exactly right. The old couple voted.
Probably the most interesting place we visited were the five mountain villages of Gjegjan commune with their strong stone cottages. The people are staunch Mirdita Catholics and the commissioner took us to coffee together in a small coffee shop. He apologized that the shop didn’t have espresso, only Turkish coffee, sweet, strong and hot. In Gjegjan some people have to walk an hour to get to the villages to vote so they dress up for the occasion. The women wore their best traditional costume, starched white skirts and pantaloons with colorful embroidered aprons. They wore crucifixes and elaborate earrings dangled below their head scarves. While Moslem women in Puke wear white scarves Mirdita Catholics wear black, dark threads mingling with lighter hair done up in braids. The scarves are black in mourning for Skanderbeg, who died in 1467.
The precinct with the best turnout was in the jail. Prisoners here don’t lose their civil rights. 100% turnout, voting done by 9 AM.
Around midnight the final results in Puke municipality were in. In this town without a radio station, the commission chair announced the results over the town’s PA system. Men started singing, shotguns went off and cars flying party flags drove from village to village, honking horns, spreading the news.
The Pictures are scans from 18 year old slides. They are faded but give you a little of the color of what we saw. Arrows on the map show places where we visited polling stations.