The Albanian Elvis

Note: In May 2015 I visited Albania to experience a week-long, once-every-half-decade folk festival held in the southern town of Gjirokastër.  The festival was terrific, and the journey to it held pleasant surprises aplenty.  Here’s an account of those encountered on Friday, May 8th.

“Someone told me, `I guess Albania’s OK, if you want to eat roots.’ We eat more bloody roots in England than they do in Albania!”  The speaker was a senior English gent, sharing his observation with a younger man with pronounced sideburns.  The three of us and a handful more sat in a waiting room on a dock in Corfu, intent on boarding the ferry across the Ionian Sea to Sarandë, Albania.  I eavesdropped long enough to determine both had made the journey before, so I asked, “Are there buses near the ferry that take you into Sarandë?”

“You see that boat there?”  The Englishman pointed to a cruise ship.  “The whole of Sarandë’s not that big!”  I discovered that was an exaggeration, though Sarandë hugs the shore in an agreeably walkable manner.  The English gent offered to show me the way once we landed, and so I came into the company of Dave the Gardener, affable Yorkshireman, and Orestes, the sole Elvis imitator in all of Albania!

After we boarded the ferry and were gliding across the Ionian, Orestes treated Dave to family photos on his phone.  He was keenly proud of his three year-old daughter who’d become expert at mimicking some of Dad’s stagecraft, specifically the song-closer pose, Elvis’s karate stance.  “I should put her on YouTube!”  Dave announced that Orestes was a celebrity to Brits frequenting Corfu and had been cited in a Guardian piece found online.  “Is that still up?” Orestes asked.  “That was a long time ago!” In it, Orestes tells the reporter: “Under the Albanian communists I had to listen to Elvis secretly. Elvis was not allowed. But it was my dream, so I swam from Albania to Greece to be an Elvis impersonator.”

Dave later told me that, when not playing Elvis in Greece, Orestes helps his mother run her café in Sarandë.  (You’ll find pictures of both Elvis Presley and Orestes as Elvis displayed on the wall at Café Mila.)  When Orestes learned I was American, he kindly offered insight into our shared history.  “Did you know that George Washington’s mother was Albanian?” he asked.  “It’s true!  Her name was Mala.” (It doesn’t check out, but legends bear weight.)  “So George Washington felt bad for the Albanians (then under the Ottoman yoke).  He wished he could help the Albanians, but what could he do?  So it took many generations, but another American President would come to help Kosovo, Bill Clinton.”  Thus I learned that (A) the mother of the father of my country was Albanian, and (B) Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans acted to fulfill Washington’s long-ago wish (a longing, not a prophecy, but remarkable anyway).  On a more immediate note, I learned that Sarandë was hosting a mussel festival that very night, and that Orestes was among the featured entertainers.

All afternoon, Sarandë’s seaside promenade was sleepy and largely deserted.  But it was heaving with people that night: there’s nothing like a mussel festival to wake a town up.  Teaming crowds happily noshed mussels steamed, scalded, fried, skewered, and in all ways delicious.  There were opportunities as well to imbibe superb local olive oil (the olive oil-infused ice cream was a hit) and Italian wine, all free!  The performance stage presented the world’s only Elvis imitator with the Albanian eagle boldly emblazoned on his white spangled jump suit.  Pre-teen girls dressed as ballerinas with angel wings excitedly leapt around Orestes as he offered Sarandë a fast-paced medley of Elvis hits.  The lamentation of one `itchin’ like a man on a fuzzy tree’ (All Shook Up) wafted dolefully across the azure blue Ionian Sea.

About Mark Humphrey

Join Mark Humphrey the 4th Saturday of most months for a mix of music on KPFK’s Roots Music & Beyond, Saturdays 6-8 a.m. 90.7 fm. The show is archived for two weeks after broadcast at KPFK’s website.

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