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November 2021 Issue [Readings]

Dance Dance Revolution

From Free, a memoir of life in Albania, which was published last month in the United Kingdom by Penguin.

In 1995, my father began to practice his English with “the poor man,” initially known as the Crocodile. His name was Vincent van de Berg. He was born in The Hague but had lived abroad most of his life. He was a missionary of sorts. He worked for the World Bank and had moved to Albania to advise the government on various privatization projects. Vincent was an expert on societies in transition. He also lived in his own kind of transition, always on the move from one society to the next. He had been a resident of so many different countries that he was unable to recall them when asked: “Oh, many, many countries. In Africa, in South America. In Eastern Europe. Now in the Balkans. Everywhere. I’m a citizen of the world.”

Vincent was largely bald and wore short-sleeve shirts resembling those of the U.S. Marines, except that in place of the pocket was a tiny crocodile. The crocodile was made of cloth, always stared in the same direction, and had a wide-open mouth with sharp teeth. Vincent wore a different colored shirt every day, but the crocodile was a fixture.

The dinner to welcome him to our neighborhood was a happy occasion at first. We laid out tables and chairs in the Papas’ garden, just as we used to in the old days. Children ran back and forth to fetch cutlery and plates, dogs rummaged under the tables, and music played from loudspeakers. My neighbor Flamur assumed the role of DJ, tirelessly swapping cassettes to satisfy all tastes. The dance floor remained full throughout the evening: some stood up to join the traditional line dancing, others emerged in couples for “The Blue Danube.” And when people didn’t dance, they sang, from “Ochi Chyornye” to “Let It Be.”

Vincent sat at a table in the center of the garden, in the place that would have been reserved for the bride and groom if this had been a wedding. He did not sing or dance but seemed content as he tapped on the table, humming the songs he knew. It reminded him of parties in Ghana, he said. The men took turns introducing themselves, vigorously shaking hands and patting him on the back. “Welcome, Vincent! One more shot of raki! I made this one,” someone would say. “This round is for your health!” And again: “Here, Vincent! Long live the World Bank!”

Later, the women took over. “Vincent, did you try the meat and onion byrek?” “It’s lovely,” he replied. “I’ve had samosa before, but that was spicier.” “Have some meatballs with the tomato sauce; Leushka, go and fetch the pestle and mortar, we forgot to grind pepper.” Halfway through the meal, Vincent looked tired. He tapped less on the table and held his stomach with his hand as if he were in pain. People continued to ask him where he had lived, how he found his work in Albania. A frown had formed on his forehead and he smiled less, but nobody seemed to notice.

He stood up and asked for directions to the bathroom. A group of men accompanied him inside the house, then accompanied him back out when he was finished. “Vincent,” asked Donika, who was hosting the dinner, when he returned to his seat, “you’re not married, you said? How come? You’re not very old. Don’t worry, maybe you’ll meet a lovely Albanian girl. Here, have some baklava, I made the pastry myself.” Vincent declined. “I am full, thank you.” “Full? You’re not full! A big man like you! Maybe you’re hot? Shpresa will be upset if you don’t try her kadaifi.”

Flamur put on the traditional dance of the Napoloni, raising the volume. Upon hearing the first notes, everyone hurried to the dance floor with the kind of urgency associated with the need to find shelter during a natural disaster. Some remembered that Vincent had been left at the table. A delegation of two men was sent back. They waved their handkerchiefs and shouted in his ear: “Vincent, we have to dance, it’s the Napoloni!”

Vincent made a gesture to indicate that he wasn’t too keen on dancing. The men pulled his chair and shouted again: “Don’t be shy, it’s the Napoloni, you must dance!” Van de Berg made a movement with his shoulders to release himself from their hold. “I can’t dance,” he said. “I enjoy watching. The Napoloni looks a bit like Zorba’s dance.” The men, slightly irritated that they might miss out, urged him more emphatically.

“Vincent!” the younger of the two men shouted, almost with despair. “Quickly, it’s almost finished. Everyone can dance the Napoloni; look, you hold the handkerchief like this, wave it in the air, and keep your arms open like an airplane.”

To demonstrate what a dancing airplane looked like, one man grabbed Vincent’s left arm, and the other his right. Vincent turned bright red. Small drops of sweat dripped from his forehead. He shoved both men out of his way and, just as the music was coming to a stop, banged his fist on the table, causing a glass of raki to spill to the ground. “I am free!” he shouted, beside himself with rage. “Do you understand? I am free!”

Everyone on the dance floor froze. They turned toward the tables. Vincent regained control of his nerves, gathered his things, stood up from his chair, and said: “I apologize. I must go. I’m very tired. Thank you for the lovely dinner.” There was a murmur in the room as people returned to their tables. “He did say he was full,” Shpresa commented after Vincent had left, “but I thought he wanted to save us food and was worried about our expenses. The poor man.” “The poor man,” Donika confirmed. “It’s probably the mosquitoes. Or the heat. These tourists, they just can’t take it.” “I am free!” repeated the two men who had tried to teach him to dance the Napoloni. They rolled their eyes and shrugged. “What does that even mean? We’re all free here. If you don’t want to dance, fine. No need to bang your fist. The poor man. He must have been so hot.”

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November 2021

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