My youngest son was a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania many years ago. If you don’t know where Albania is, no worries. I didn’t either. But once he was assigned our family became experts on this Eastern European country half a world away. My son served two years and in that time our Skype talks, IMs, and emails were precious, interesting, and, at times, alarming — especially when the vicious winter hit.
Me: Are you warm?
Eric: It’s below freezing. There’s a hole in the wall of my apartment where the chimney for a heating stove is supposed to go, but birds are living there. The landlord doesn’t want to disturb the birds.
Me: Would he rather you freeze to death?
Eric: I put a piece of cardboard over the hole and turn on my cooking stove to keep warm. I moved the couch to the kitchen, and I sleep on it. With my clothes on. And my hat. It’s only a little below freezing.
Me: But are you warm?
At that point the conversation veered away from the topic of how a California boy survived two brutal Albanian winters. He’d always been an adventurer, and he didn’t need mom to remind him to put on his galoshes. He also didn’t want to waste precious time discussing the temperature. When the intermittent electricity and Internet connection allowed, our conversations were peppered with pictures of the scorpions he found in his boots and bed in the summer, the gunfire he hears that no one pays attention to unless someone is hurt, and the cows he chases down the street simply because they are there and he was young and hungry for all experiences. I heard about the ‘grandmothers’ in his town who adopted him, the students who wanted to learn English, and the kindness of people who shared the little they had.
Then there were those personal conversations between my writer son and me. We crossed the miles with talk of family, futures, writing, disappointments, happy times, and revelations. Sometimes words failed us, but that is not unusual for those who make a living writing them. The enormity of a thought is hard to express in pixels or through jerky images on a screen; it needs hands and facial expressions and the intensity of real proximity to make a thought understood. Often words escape us because what we are thinking seems too small to waste precious time on. English, for all its energy, can be limiting; the Albanian language, for all its convolution is not.
Which brings me to the new words I learned: mal and mertiz. In this intricate language that my son conquered - and I tried to - all words have meanings. Mal translates to both nostalgia and mountain. That seemed so right to me. We all have a mountain of nostalgia that has pushed through the ground of our lives and built upon itself. There are crevices where regret is caught and great bold faces become slick with the memories of life-changing events; there are crags and fissures of reminiscences covered with clouds of wistfulness and longing. One day that mountain of memories can be comforting and the next overwhelming – it all depends on the light in which we view it and the place on which we stand at any given moment.
Mertiz is the Albanian word for upset, lonely, and bored. That, too, seemed just right. If we are at odds-and-ends, uncomfortable in our own skin with boredom or loneliness, are we not upset and anxious? It is really kind of neat to tie so much turmoil together in one word. Mertiz is not to be confused with anger or frustration; it is much more subtle than that and infinitely more dramatic.
I am grateful to know that this feeling I harbored in the now ten years since my son went on one adventure and never stopped looking for more, is simply mertiz: a loneliness for my far-away son, a restlessness that he is not here to talk to me about our shared passion for writing, a twinge of disappointment that he is not sitting at my table eating food I made for him. But I see that mertiz leads to mal. If I am upset and anxious that my child is freezing somewhere in the world, if I am bored because I miss the talks late into the night, the hugs he never failed to give when we’re together, that only means my mountain has grown. See that new foothold up near the peak? It is mal for the boy who once needed me to keep him warm and now simply needs me to talk to him in a new vocabulary that really just says we miss one another.
Adventure on, I say. To both my children. To myself. To you.
Eyewitness, was inspired by my trip to a remote village in Albania where my son served. It is a story about the collision of two cultures, two sets of rules, and two visions of justice, and the battleground is Hermosa Beach.