In 2007, Australian author & journalist Stephanie Dale joined her son Ben for the middle leg of his pilgrimage from Canterbury, in England, to Jerusalem. Her newly released travel memoir, My Pilgrim’s Heart, is the story of their adventures.
EXTRACT – ALBANIA: We are the children who run to greet the strangers
The roadsigns are now bilingual, we presume Albanian and Crna Goran. More women wear loose white headscarves. Hay carts loaded to the sky roll on by. Come to think of it, it’s been quite a few days since we last heard a church bell.
According to my map, Albania to its own is Shqiperia. Imagine that – Hrvatska, Crna Gora, Shqiperia: Croatia, Montenegro, Albania.
An old woman with a headscarf brings life to the lines on her face when she meets my eyes, a most wonderful greeting that lights my heart as I pass. Old men shake our hands. The closer we get to the border, the more pleased people are to see us. ‘Albanija?’ they call. ‘Albanija!’ We nod and smile, yes we are going to Albania. They are delighted. We realise these are the people our newspapers might describe as ‘ethnic Albanians’, the ones whose lives are drawn on the other side of the line in the sand.
Just before the border crossing, a small child runs to the gate when he sees us, his scarfbound mother and grandmother laughing shyly from the verandah, urging him to greet the turtleback strangers. This touches me so deeply I begin to cry.
This morning, the politics of our times sheltered my heart from theirs, the shrouded ones for whom I will make a stand in my own country, but among whom, face to face on their own territory, the politics of fear unsettles me nonetheless . . . a young man with a dark beard and jagged features drives by in a rattly old red car and the reality of where I am startles the blood in my veins . . . my eyes meet those of a robed woman raking leaves and I wonder, who does she see?
There was a time I might have visited this country and the women and I may have found each other curious, and interesting. Now we meet with mistrust.
Once again, in the great circling wheel we call history, we must learn to meet beyond politics.
Before long I understand – not just academically, but right through to my bones – the terrible, terrible injustice world leaders commit when they use fear to fortify their worldview and justify the unjustifiable.
And even if I lose my life doing this, it doesn’t make world leaders right.
This pilgrimage is a journey of reckoning for me, reconciling the unnamed tensions I hold in my bones with the staged and somewhat noble realities I hold to be true in my mind . . . who I am, rather than who I want people to see . . . who I am, rather than who people want me to be.
By allowing ‘unacceptable’ fears to surface, the ones I have put on a brave and compassionate face to conceal, I am able to release the hold others have on my life, socially and politically.
And so I allow deeper truths to bypass my mind and sink into my bones. It’s not a matter of what he is or who she is, but that collectively the reality is they are not. We are not. That.
We. Are. Not. That.
We are the old men with laughing eyes.
We are the old women with smiling hearts.
We are the children who run to greet the strangers.
Available from Amazon.com
“You won’t find Stephanie Dale in My Pilgrim’s Heart, you will find yourself.”
Leasher Robinson, Talk the Talk Ladies Book Club