By Robert St. John
This yearlong writing assignment has taken me into some pretty strange places.
Last week I was in Albania.
This might seem like a strange stop on a 30-country tour of Europe, but there is rhyme to the reason.
Ferdinant Balla is one of the chefs at our new Italian restaurant, Tabella. He is from Albania, and as soon as he heard we were making this European journey, he began lobbying for a stopover in his country to meet his family. I’m not sure who’s heading the Albanian Tourism Department, but they’d do well to bring Ferdinant Balla back home and give him a job. He is very knowledgeable and proud of his country.
“My mother, father, brother and a friend who can interpret are going to take you to a restaurant,” Ferdinant said. “Then they are going to take you to my mother’s home. She insists.” After a long drive we met his mother, father, brother and the interpreter at a local restaurant in their hometown, Lushjne.
The restaurant was new, and looked like many of the restaurants we had visited in Greece, with a lot of outdoor seating. The Balla family deferred to me as to where we should sit. It made no difference to me, but I soon learned they always defer to the guest as a matter of courtesy.
The Balla family is top-notch. They are kind and sweet people, who love life, love family, and obviously enjoy meeting new people. Without question, I knew, early in the visit, these might be the nicest people we meet on this entire trip.
I apologized for being so late and making them wait. They apologized to me because I was having to apologize. I insisted that I would be paying for the meal, and the interpreter said, “There is no way that will happen. This is the way it is done. You are their guests.”
Once the initial pleasantries had been accomplished, I told the interpreter I wanted to speak to the mother and father. “I want you to know that Ferdinant is very well respected in America. He is happy, and he is friends with everyone he meets and works with.”
As tears literally poured down the mother and father’s cheeks, I said, “He is a hard worker and has a good work ethic. Everyone loves Ferdinant.” I went on about how we worked side by side during the opening of the restaurant, and how I had had a nice lunch with his wife and him and they told me all about Albania.
I wanted them to know he is safe and happy, because that is what I would want to know if one of my children had been gone for four years. From their reaction, I could tell they miss their son and long to meet their grandaughter.
The waiter asked what we would like to eat – “Meat, chicken, fish?” I deferred to the Balla family, but they deferred back to me.
I said, “Chicken,” figuring that would be the safest play with the kids in this restaurant and country.
“No chicken,” the waiter replied through the interpreter.
“Meat?” I said.
“We’ll bring fish,” said the waiter.
We toasted each other, and we toasted Ferdinant. We toasted our journey, and we toasted our families. Every two or three minutes someone toasted something. It was fun.
The food arrived. There was a large platter of linguini with shrimp, mussels, and a light olive-oil based sauce with tomatoes. Tasty. Next the waiter placed two plates of homemade fried potatoes in front of my two children. In the next round he brought two plates of lightly breaded and quick-fried calamari and shrimp. Very tasty.
For the final course he placed eight small plates in front of each guest. Each plate had a whole fish on it. I’m not talking about a salted-covered-and-baked preparation, or the skinned-with-the-head-still-on style, or even the fish-on-the-half-shell type dish. No. This was a fish that had been gutted and roasted.
Fine by me, but I looked at the kids to see their reaction. They maintained their composure without a word from either of their parents. They knew the slightest hint of displeasure on their part would offend our hosts.
As the table chatter and toasting continued, I showed my daughter how to peel the fish’s skin back to expose the meat, and then how to use the fork to flake the meat. She complied, even though the fish was looking back at her the entire time. After a minute, I walked to the end of the table to show my son how to skin a fish and peel it back from the tiny bones.
The toasting, eating and interpreting continued, and after a few minutes, I looked up and both kids had cleaned their plates. Seriously. The boy, the pickier eater of the two, was sitting in front of something that looked like a fully devoured fish skeleton in a cartoon – he was poking his fork in the fish’s eye, but at least he had eaten it all.
The meal turned out to be the best food we have eaten since Bologna, several weeks ago.
At the Balla home, we met the brother’s wife and two children. The kids went outside to play under the grape trellises in the front yard.
The wife began bringing out rounds of more food, each dish spaced about five minutes apart – Turkish Delight, candy, almonds, peanuts, cake and plums. When they saw the kids were eating grapes they had picked off the vines outside, she brought grapes inside for us to eat.
Albanians are like Southerners. They are hospitable, they love their family, and they love food and use it as a social thread that weaves through the conversations.
We all felt as if we had made new best friends.
After an hour we said our goodbyes to the family, thanked them for their hospitality, and the kids exchanged Facebook information. The Ballas then gave us several parting gifts. We thanked them again, apologized that we hadn’t brought any gifts, they – again – apologized to us for having to apologize.
I’ll take a “strange” place like that, any time.
Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.