Faith in a Forgotten Place

“Where there are borders, there are bridges.” I’d been researching a cross-border eco-tourism project on the Albanian side of the lake when Myrsini Malakou, director of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, suddenly said this during an interview. Her words crystalized for me a vague idea that I’d been carrying around throughout the time I’d spent in the poor village of Zagradec, a village mostly empty of men from spring until the beginning of winter as they sought agricultural labour in Greece. It was a place where the poorly irrigated fields were tilled by donkey and plough, where eerie communist bunkers perched unnervingly in the landscape. It was a village “forgotten even by God” according to one of its residents. And yet amidst the signs of impoverishment a frail hope could be found, a faith that things could change. A few people on both sides of the border were working together, building bridges for the sake of a forgotten place and community. I had the opportunity to watch the project develop, to see what happened and what the future might hold, over the course of a year. And I met a group of women who were trying to change the place where they lived.

I’m delighted to announce that the third of these tales from around the lakes, that resulted from my experiences in the village of Zagradec, has been chosen as the winner of the 2011 Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize. For readers already familiar with Terrain.org you’ll know that it presents a wonderful range of writing and images relating to our place in the world. And if you’re new to the journal, you’re in for a treat! My essay can be found through its permanent link at ‘Faith in a Forgotten Place’ or on the journal’s homepage at www.terrain.org. The piece is accompanied by a slideshow of photographs from Albania and an audio recording of me reading the piece.

Please feel free to add any thoughts, ideas or comments beneath the essay on the Terrain.org site, or any experiences you might wish to share about borders in your own parts of the world. I’d like to say a big thanks to the many people in both countries without whose help this essay wouldn’t have been possible. Hope you enjoy and thanks for taking the time to read!

22 thoughts on “Faith in a Forgotten Place

  1. It’s a great piece, Hoff; I’m very much looking forward to the publication of ‘The Small Heart of Things’ – when can we expect it to hit the shelves?

    Much love

    Tweet x

    1. Many thanks, Rex! You raise an interesting point about how we perceive different parts of the world. There remains many regions or countries in Europe where poverty is very much a part of life, from Albania and Bulgaria to Moldova and Kosovo. But even within such affluent countries as the United Kingdom there are pockets of great poverty. It’s always a shock, I think, because it upsets our expectations of ‘Europe’ when we assume that poverty is so often only a Third World issue. Thanks for adding this thought, Rex. Much appreciated…

      Best wishes,
      Julian

      1. Yes you’re right Julian. From my – or rather, “our” – perspective, Europe is Old World charm (medieval castles, lush manors and gardens) blending seamlessly with modern cities. Hard to reconcile such affluence with the pockets of poverty you mention; as opposed to here in my country where poverty is part and parcel of the landscape. Sometimes one just simply becomes immune to it because there is just too much of it in the first place.

  2. Your piece on Terrain.org is well deserved of notice. Thank you for opening my eyes and bringing me closer to a place I never would have know about. Maybe that slight glimmer of hope for Zagredec will grow into a bright beacon. (I am a person who often thinks and sees in analogies….the information center seems to be like a small shimmer of gold you see when digging in the dirt…when you tell others about this shimmer, they gather around and help dig…the more of the treasure that is revealed, the faster they dig and the more people gather around etc, etc. until a treasure chest is pulled from the earth. But without showing people that first shimmer, they never would have helped and they never would have believed there was even a treasure there in the dirt.) Maybe now that the people of the town have been shown a small glimmer of what is “buried” they will believe in the treasure and help to “dig” it out.

    Of course I had to googlemap Zagredec. It showed Pogradec, but I couldn’t find Zagradec. Is that a town nearby?

    1. Thanks ever so much for such a wonderful comment, Savvy Sister! I’m delighted that you liked the piece and feel grateful that I had the opportunity to bring some attention to this remarkable place and people. I love your analogy and believe it can be applied to so much in our lives, from the places where we live and visit to the people and ideas we encounter in our lives – that there is treasure to be discovered in the unlikeliest of moments and places.

      I’ll try to clear up the name and map confusion for you as well. Zagradec is originally a Slavic word meaning “behind the town,” which refers to the town of Tren on the other side of the mountain. Although no one in the village is of Slavic origin any longer they, and everyone else in the region, still refer to the place solely as Zagradec. However – and this is true of much in Balkan politics – the Albanian state is not happy with a Slavic name so they officially refer to the village by the Albanian name of Buzeliqen which means “beside the lake.” Other than a sign on the way to the village I’ve never heard anyone use this name, however, you will find the village on Google Maps by searching for Buzeliqen. You can also search for Shuec or Tren and you will get the area. I live on the other side of that lake! Let me know if you have any further problems finding it and I’d be more than happy to help or to try and send a map via email. The city of Pogradec is on the Albanian shores of Great Prespa Lake, rather than Lesser Prespa, but is also interesting to visit.

      Thanks again and hope all is well!

      Julian

  3. Kudos to you Julian. Haven’t read the essay yet as I’m in Blog-reading-catch-up-mode, that comes upon me every few weeks. I always learn so much.

    It is a sad fact that poverty exists in the ‘first’ world too. Here in Canada, it exists on some of our Reservations, where First Nation’s People live in deplorable conditions.

    BTW those bunkers are very spooky looking.

    1. Thanks, Sybil. I go through the same process of catching up with blogs, which is a testament to how much interesting work is out there. Sadly so many indigenous communities throughout the world – from Canada and West Papua to Australia and southern Africa – live in poverty, having been placed in reservations that bear little relationship to their traditional home spaces. The bunkers are quite eerie, especially when shrouded in fog!

      Many thanks for stopping by!

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  4. A terrific piece, as always – visually descriptive both through your photographs and language – that both expands upon and provides more geographic and social context to many of your blog entries as of late. You’ve illuminated well the borders, divisions, and sometimes unexpected overlaps in the cultural and spatial dimensions of the area. There is something hopeful to be found in the connections being made there, from people across nations to the pan-religious faith that can be offered in single small room, even as rebuilding the practicals and intangibles of someplace so fraught with challenges takes time and is ever precarious. Also, thank you for the tipoff on Frank Gohlke – there is indeed a lot I recognize in his photos.

    1. Thanks kindly, Matt, for your generous words and interesting comments. I like what you have to say about the “pan-religious faith that can be offered in a single small room.” Of the many enduring images I have from my time working in Zagradec, the small, cement shrine full of plastic flowers is perhaps the most potent. What it says about the possiblities of a shared space that can absorb difference, that can honour difference remains profoundly moving for me. And you are right – the situation is precarious there; since I wrote the essay there have been continued conflicts and the road ahead is perhaps evening more difficult that it was when I finished my work there. But I believe a spark of co-operation and connection has been brought to the surface, one that will lead to further endeavours and bridge-building. I’ll keep you posted on how things go over time. Many thanks for taking the time to read and glad you liked the images of Gohlke.

      Cheers Matt, and looking forward to your own next work!

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  5. Hi Julian, I think faith grows best in the most hopeless-seeming places, just like wine grapes grow best in thin, acidic soil.

    Your images remind me so much of places I visited in Greece years ago, off the beaten tourist track. I don’t think God forgets anyone, especially these struggling souls.

    Will check out your essay. Congratulations!

    1. Thanks, Amy-Lynn, for the congratulations! Greatly appreciated, and I think you’ve mentioned something of extreme value in how faith can grow in hopeless places. I’m very drawn to your analogy. Where did your journeys take you, if you don’t mind me asking? Hope you enjoy the essay and delighted to hear from you.

      Best wishes,

      Julian

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