An Albanian Family’s Journey to Freedom


As you might have guessed, one of the things happening that has caused me many tears is the treatment of the immigrant children arriving in the United States. I’m not going to get into the politics of this, but yesterday it made me remember a story that I’d written eight years ago about a local family’s journey as immigrants to Canada. I wrote it for submission to a magazine that had previously published my immigrant stories, but the editor felt this one wasn’t what he wanted. I’ve never found another fit for it, so I thought I’d share it with my readers here. This is a longer version. Let me know what you think.

An Albanian Family’s Journey to Freedom

On a cold Saturday morning in January the little restaurant is full except for a few vacant seats at the lunch bar. We wait just a few minutes while a woman occupying one of the booths prepares to leave, rather like waiting for a parking spot at the bank, watching for signs that one will become open soon.  We are greeted with the warm welcome by Remzi as if we were part of the family.

 “Good morning.  How are you today?’ he asks with his heavy accent.  By the time we’ve sat down he’s out from behind the bar and standing at our table.  “Two coffees to start?” he asks. 

His wife, Fejzie, passes by on her way to serve plates of the house special.  She smiles too. “How are you today?”

 I sip my coffee and listen to the conversations around us.   It’s as if we’re all seated at the table in a big family home.  Conversations are shared with everyone.  Fejzie & Remzi quip with their customers as if with their children. They remember everyone who has been there before. 

“Did you bring me picture of torch?” says Remzi as he places our plates before us.  At first we don’t catch what he’s saying. Then we remember that the last time we’d been in was the day the Olympic torch was leaving town.  We’d taken some pictures and had shown them to him on the camera screen when we’d gone in for breakfast after the event.  “I want to see the real pictures, not on camera.” We promise that we will print some up for him.

Remzi greets a newcomer at the end of the bar.  Did you know that Pete died? He asks her.  “Who’s Pete?”  “The old man who used to come in and sit right there,” he replies.  “He dropped dead on Wednesday.”

The place is small, maybe a dozen full-sized booths along the wall and one small one.  The tables are arborite, the seats fake leather.  A half dozen round stools, chrome with brown vinyl seats line the white arborite lunch bar, behind which is the grill, toaster, sinks, etc., all within view.  A cook works at the grill and Fejzie & Remzi make toast, pour coffee and tell him the orders.  There is a group too large for a booth.  Fejzie brings out a folding chair from the back and they put it at the end of the table.  Orders are taken with personal questions.  No one is offended.

East City Coffee Shop at end of the day

East City Coffee Shop at end of the day

Fejzie and Remzi run the East City Coffee Shop now, although it’s owned by Fejzie and her son Alban. Soup and sandwiches are available, but the specialty is the All Day Breakfast, which begins at 7 am and ends at 3 pm, when the doors are closed. They work hard, but their roots began in a very different world, one much harder. They both grew up in Albania during the Communist era. When asked about their previous lives in Albania, Fejzie dries her hands on her smudged apron and says, “I could write book! People would be surprised.”

Remzi Sina was born in November of 1945. On February 6th, 1950 Fejzie Talo was born. Before communism took control of Albania, both families were wealthy landowners, but under the Communist Party leader, Enver Hoxha, the rich and powerful in the country were considered enemies of the state. They were stripped of their land, bullied and in many cases beaten or thrown into jail. When Remzi was just six months old, his father was imprisoned and his family was moved into a government controlled house.

Fejzie’s fate was more traumatic.

On September 2nd   1950, soon after he’d been beaten nearly to death, her grandpa, with her father (John Talo) and two uncles, fled the country with the intention of joining western forces to return and overthrow the communist government. Three days after their flight, the police arrived at the door of their home. Seven- month- old Fejzie, her mother Fise, and her grandmother were loaded onto the back of a truck and taken to a concentration camp many miles from their home in Korce. They were crowded into what amounted to a bunk house shared with many other detainees.  Pasta, water and occasionally a few beans were rationed to young and old alike. There wasn’t even any milk for the baby. . Often they got no drinking water because the pro-Communists were given as much as they wanted first, and it was often wasted as wash water.

“If there was any left behind, we got it,” said Fejzie.

Meals were prepared at one central cooking area. At night they huddled together in their allotted one and a half metres square wooden bed.

“Three times a day the police have to check me, my mom and my grandma to see if we’re all there,” Fejzie tells me in her broken English. “There were so many people there.”

The government took all of their land, and possessions. They weren’t permitted to go anywhere without a stamp.  Fejzie says she doesn’t remember much before she was about two or three years old so relies on her mother’s stories up to that time.

Fejzie’s earliest memory was when she was a toddler.

“I remember very good. I go a little bit outside the camp and police see me and throw bomb and I escaped bomb, honest to God!”

Each day Fejzie’s mom tramped through fields to get wood for the police. The rest of her time was spent taking care of her young daughter, and nursing her own ill mother with what resources she could find. Grandma survived. Many others died.

They lived in these concentration camp conditions from 1950 to 1955. Fejzie thinks that her younger uncle, who had been sent to jail for seven years, was better off.

“After five years, things got a little bit better. You were allowed to work to make living, but still under police surveillance. Permission was needed to go outside the work area, which was small. You had to tell police ‘I’m going to see doctor, or wherever’.”

In 1957 they were moved into a small house with one bedroom and a kitchen, no longer in a concentration camp, but they still were not free. They still lined up for their rations of some foods and water, but things such as bread could be bought in a store. Government soldiers watched every move of any anti-communists. If they went to buy bread and it was perceived that they looked at it in a strange way, they were questioned as to why. Food was still rationed, and they had to line up for food, milk and water.  They were allowed 10 eggs/week per family, whether a family of 3 or 10 people.

After another ten years they were allowed a little bit more freedom of movement, but restrictions still applied to them. Fejzie loved school but was allowed only to complete grade seven. No one was allowed to go to high school. When boys turned nineteen, they had to spend two years in the army. An exception was made for anti-Communist families; they had to work the land on the government farms, using only a shovel.

In the meantime, when Remzi’s dad was released from jail after many years, his family moved to an area near the capital city of Tiranë. Theirs was not as bad a situation as Fejzie’s family, but high school was still not an option. After public school Remzi worked as a construction labourer. More people were working for the government and people were more educated. However, their movements were still restricted and permission had to be sought days in advance if they wanted to make a trip out of the area. Pro-Communists and anti-Communists were not permitted to associate.

There was no romantic courting for Fejzie and Remzi. They first met on the day they were married, on August 13th, 1972. Typically their marriage was arranged by their families, who’d lived in the same area before Communism separated them.

After they married, Remzi continued to work as a construction labourer. Fejzie was overjoyed to finally be able to return to school at night. She earned a diploma in agriculture.

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Fejzie and Remzi Remembering Their Past

For the next 18 years she worked on a government farm. They lived on government owned land in a ramshackle house that had neither wiring nor indoor plumbing. It was there that their two boys, Alban and Gerti were born.

Her mother and grandmother lived with her younger uncle, after he got out of jail and had a family. Fejzie remembers that when her Grandma died, it was a tradition to have a last dinner, with good meat, for people to say goodbye, but the government would not allow them any meat. Fejzie’s mother went to live with Fejzie and Remzi after her mother died.

The boys went to elementary school, but, being descendants of affluent families, they weren’t permitted to pursue academic education. They could, however, attend trade school. Alban became a tool-and-die machinist and started working at age sixteen.

During these years, the four men who’d escaped Albania had spent five years in a Greek refugee camp before the UN stepped up to help disperse people. Their hopes of returning to Albania were dashed, so they chose to come to Canada. Together they opened a restaurant in Toronto, but eventually bought The Tops Motel/Restaurant in Peterborough. In time, two brothers each opened their own coffee shops, leaving John with Tops until he sold it in 1978.

In 1990, when the grip of Communism was loosening in Albania, the Sina family were able to obtain visas to Hungary. It happened that John Talo (Fejzie’s dad) was in Hungary at the time, to renew his visa, and he somehow learned of his family’s whereabouts. He helped them start the process to bring them to Canada.  It was easy for Fejzie’s mother to get a visa because she and John were still married, but it was harder for Fejzie and her family. While in Hungary they spent five weeks making daily visits to the Canadian Embassy before they were granted visas to Canada. They arrived in Canada with John on September 2, 1990. After 40 years the family was reunited. Once in Canada they could go to Oshawa to apply for permanent visas. They all lived with John in his house. Life was much better; however, new challenges awaited them.

Gerti and Alban were both enrolled in Grade 9 at the local high school, but Alban found it frustrating not knowing the language and being older than his classmates. He quit after just six months and began working as a dishwasher at the Carousel Restaurant. With his hard work and keenness to learn, he was soon doing the cooking.

Because of the language barrier, finding work was more difficult for their parents. Remzi found construction work in the spring. He knew no English.

“I work on scaffold and Foreman said ‘Go down there and take shovel.’  I go, not take shovel, I take pick,” he recalls with a laugh.

In September Fejzie began working as a housekeeper at The Tops Motel, by then under new ownership. Her years as a housekeeper there and later at The Best Western Hotel didn’t help her much with learning English since she had little contact with other people. A decade later she and Remzi got their start in the restaurant business, when they went to work at The Piccadilly Restaurant as dishwashers.

Gerti finished high school and went to work at Jim’s Pizzeria. Both he and Alban dreamed of one day owning their own restaurant. With that in mind, Gerti later enrolled at Fleming College in Business Administration, but when Alban and Fejzie bought the restaurant on Hunter Street in East City, Gerti gave up on college to join the family business.

“My mom, me, Remzi, Alban and Gerti became Canadian Citizens in 1994,” says Fejzie.

In 2001 Remzi, Fejzie and their two sons, Alban and Gerti bought their own house.

The boys ultimately followed their dreams and opened their European-style restaurant, Gerti’s, in 2005. Alban joined him as the cook, and Fejzie took over East City Coffee Shop. Remzi left The Piccadilly to help her. Immersed in the language of their patrons, they were soon conversing well in English.

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Fejzie and Remzi, happy to be Canadians

Despite their occasional grumbling about being still a long way from retirement, there is always a twinkle in their eyes and a smile on their faces. They are thankful that they were able to come to Canada.

“For Albanians who go to other countries like Greece, Italy, anywhere in Europe, it’s hard to make a living because they won’t give citizenship and they can’t travel to other countries with Albanian passport.”

The last time we stopped into East City Coffee Shop, we were disappointed to find that Remzi and Fejzie were no longer working there. We were concerned until Alban told us that they were retired and caring for Fejzie’s mother. We’re happy for them, but the Coffee Shop just isn’t the same without them.

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Come for a Ride in Peterborough and the Kawarthas


Recently, a young rider relatively new to Peterborough, suggested I do a post about some of our favourite rides around our home area of Peterborough, Ontario. I’ve been debating about the best way to do this. I started out by making a list, always popular, but difficult for my style of writing. Since I have written about many of our tours over the years, some in blog posts, some published in magazines, some still sitting on my computer, I’ve decided to share these with you, in a series.

A version of this first one was published in the June, 2007 issue of Canadian Biker Magazine under the heading Lock to Lake.

Come for a Ride in Peterborough and the Kawarthas

One great thing about Peterborough is that there are lots of great roads to ride.

It was the regular Every-Second-Tuesday Ride Night for the Peterborough Tour Riders. Our small group of six bikes left the parking lot of the Peterborough Zoo on Water Street, the usual meeting place, and then turned right onto Nassau Mills Road, crossing the concrete bridge that spans the Trent Canal. If we’d continued on this road, it would have taken us through Trent University campus, along the scenic Otonabee River, past four historical Trent Canal locks, and into Lakefield for a mandatory ice cream cone at Hamblin’s Ice Cream Parlour. That is one of our favourite shorter trips.

Tour Riders 006

This time, however, we took another right hand turn onto University Road, still part of University property, but as yet undeveloped. It’s a two-lane, tree-lined road with several abandoned houses that have been bought by the University. You have to remember that Peterborough is a small city, and after a five-minute ride we were “in the country” enjoying the quiet roads with their many hills and bends. At county Road 4 we turned left into the tiny town of Warsaw, and then onto Caves Road, which led us past Warsaw Caves Conservation Area (one of many tourist attractions in the area).

Warsaw-02

Warsaw-14

We crossed over the Indian River, a narrow but clear waterway that flows gently under the wooden bridge.

Warsaw-15

A few more turns took us onto County Rd. 6, which later became 44. A sign at the beginning of the road warned us that we’d experience six kilometers of twisty road, and indeed we did.

The road snaked between tall maple trees and past an old log house, now covered in a plastic cocoon. An old man dressed in denim overalls and a plaid shirt sat in a chair by the door. It wasn’t a road that could be traveled in haste, for many turns were so sharp that it was impossible to even glimpse what might be around the bend. Some corners were banked and the shoulders were narrow, all of which added to the excitement of the ride.

At the junction of County Rd. 46, we turned right and headed into Havelock, home of the annual Havelock Country Jamboree, which has been nominated several times as one of the top five County Music Festivals in Canada. County Rd. 46 became County Road 30 and we soon entered another little town, aptly named Trent River, after the river that flows through it. As we crossed the newly reconstructed bridge over the river, the setting sun created splashes of salmon-red in the sky. They hung over the treetops and reflected off the pale blue of the river.

Heading south, just before reaching Campbellford, we took another right hand turn onto County Rd. 35 towards Hastings. Within a few kilometers we discovered the bridge was out and we were forced to take a detour onto Godolphin Rd., which runs along the tops of many eskers. Around us, wheat fields caught in the evening light looked like stretches of golden sand. This scenic road took us into the town of Warkworth. From there we headed north again on County Rd. 25 and then west onto County Rd. 24, which led us into the rustic little hamlet of Dartford.

Jim said,” Watch on your right at the bottom of the hill. There’s a neat old building with an old working water mill.”

When we rounded the bend, we were disappointed to see yellow police tape around the perimeters of the property, and the clapboard house blackened with remnants of a fire.

We traveled on, through the town of Roseneath, locally known for its covered carousel, then south once more onto Hwy 45, through the First Nations Reserve of Alderville.

We then turned west onto County Rd. 18, past a Llama farm, and through Harwood to Gore’s Landing, a popular cottage and fishing resort area. At the top of the hill we turned right onto Lander Rd, which took us along a high cliff overlooking Rice Lake. By now there was just enough light remaining in the sky to cast shimmering shadows over the glassy water. A few more twists and turns brought us onto Cavan Road and into the lakeside community of Bewdley and to the Rhino Roadhouse. Here we indulged in some culinary treats and liquid refreshments, before striking out for home, along a much shorter and more direct route, up Hwy 7A. We’d covered 150 kilometers that night, more than usual, but it was a beautiful night for a ride.

Pickle Ball – The New Senior Rage


If we weren’t quite fit enough for the mountain climbing in Arizona, we should be better when we return this year!

While we were at Mesa Regal RV Resort, we learned the basics of playing Pickle Ball. Yes, Pickle Ball. We get many odd looks and requests for explanation when we mention it.

Pickle ball is best described as a cross between badminton and table tennis. It’s played on a badminton-sized court with a low net and wooden or titanium paddles, similar to table tennis paddles, but a little larger. The game is played in doubles, using a whiffle ball.

Pickle Ball Paddle and Balls

Pickle Ball Paddle and Balls

The story goes that the inventor of the game named it after his dog Pickles, who would chase and retrieve the balls that went too far astray from the court.

When we were at the RV Resort we didn’t have any paddles of our own and there was always a waiting list to get some from the Loan Centre, so we managed to get in only two or three games before we left for home. To our delight, Karen’s family gave us a set upon our return, delayed birthday gifts. But would we have to wait until our return to Arizona to play again? We knew we needed to get active again or it would be a very long summer, so Jim did some searching online. He found a few older abandoned  courts nearby, and then eventually was given the name of someone to call in Peterborough. A new group had recently formed and members were playing three afternoons a week at the Wellness Centre. We were there!

We weren’t sure how we’d be greeted, our skills still very poor. But it turned out that there is a mix of players, some not much more practiced than we, and some who’ve been playing for five years. Most are snow birds who learned the game while wintering in the south. All were very friendly, patient and helpful with instructions. We played hard for two hours and crashed early that night. I needed a long soak in a salt bath before climbing into bed. But we felt revitalized.

Seniors in Action

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Senior Pickle Ball Players

Senior Pickle Ball Players

And so, we’ve become involved in the growth of this organization, sharing in the discussions and decision as to a name. Because there are times when the gym at the Wellness Centre isn’t available, an alternative venue needed to be found. One of the instigators, Greg Anderson managed to acquire permission from the city to use the pad at  Legacy Bowl, a former outdoor hockey rink, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings for two weeks.  He has since been negotiating to make it a permanent site for @PickleBallPtbo.

After six hours a week, for the last week and a half, we’ve learned at lot, and improved our skills and our stamina. It seems to be addictive. Although it is open to anyone who can find the time on a weekday morning or afternoon, so far we are all active seniors, with fifty people signed up. Not all make it out everyday, thank goodness.  Where would they all play?

The Count-down is On!


Only three more sleeps! Getting ready for this adventure has been a lot of work There are so many details to take care of when you plan to be gone for so long: house sitter arranged, check; ownerships, insurance, health cards, credit cards all up-to-date, check; e-tests and safety on both new and old motor home, check; old motor home sold, check; tires checked, backup camera installed, gas tank filled, propane tank filled. The list goes on. Today we’re nearly there. Because of the cold weather, we have to refrain from putting items such as liquid soaps, cooking oils and anything that we don’t want to freeze, into the motor home until the last minute. The same goes for the computers and other electronics.Tonight I’ll do one last laundry and put the clean clothes in. We’re nearly ready!

Today and tomorrow it’s dentist appointments, eye exams and car licence renewal, since it will expire while we’re away. A Christmas party to attend tomorrow night, and then our calendar is clear for take off.

But we’re a little late getting away to avoid the snow. This is what we see out our window this morning!

Snow day

Hope she likes the snow!

Jim had the snow blower out. We still have to find someone to take care of the snow while we’re away, as our house sitter can’t do it.

We’re looking forward to the escape, but I have to admit it is rather pretty in the neighbourhood today.

Winter through a Window

Looking through the window

Red Pashmina Campaign


Instead of traveling writing today, I want to spread the word about the Red Pashmina Campaign that was started here in Peterborough, Ontario three years ago, and has been building ever since. Yesterday, for the first time, I attended the annual campaign launch. I came home with an overwhelming respect for the young women who initiated this program, a longing to do something to assist, and a beautiful new red cashmere pashmina.

red pashmina

The Mission Statement,  “The Red Pashmina Campaign helps people from all walks of life make a lasting impact on the lives of women,” sums up what they’re all about, but how they go about it is inspiring.

Partnering with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan the Red Pashmina Campaign has two aims.

First, to raise funds to help support women in Afghanistan. The sales of the Red Pashminas have so far helped to pay for the staffing of a maternity clinic in Afghanistan, and to facilitate education initiatives for women and girls. The goal for 2014 is to educate the educators, who are lacking in training themselves.

The second aim is to uncover and share the stories of women struggling to improve the quality of their lives and others, in both countries, and to recognize and celebrate their trials, triumphs and accomplishments.

red pashminaVisit the website to learn more and find out where you can get YOUR Red Pashmina! They’d make great gifts for all the women on your list and you’ll be helping other women at the same time.

Bikes, Bikes… and Cars and Lunch!


Last Saturday we rode out to Classy Chassis & Cycle for the 7th Anniversary Bash. It was a sunny and hot day and that brought out loads of people and a parking lot full of bikes to admire and discuss.

Bikes at Classy Chassis

Bikes at Classy Chassis

Motorcycle 1

Nice paint job

Backside

Backside

Motorcycle 2

Another interesting paint job

Orange bike

This one will be seen on the road!

A few daring young stunt riders put on quite a show before lunch.

Motor Bike stunt rider

Motor Bike stunt rider

Look out for that roof!

Look out for that roof!

Motorcycle Stunt Rider

Nose dive

We stood in line at the food trailer for an hour before we were able to enjoy our meal and listen to the band playing on the stage. We strolled through the shop and drooled over some of the used bikes for sale. A couple of smaller ones that were parked near the exit door had me momentarily imagining owning my own again! But the moment passed.

Yesterday there was a British Car Show downtown in the morning and an Antique Car Show in the afternoon.  We had to be other places in the afternoon, but we took in the British cars in the morning. Unfortunately the weather started out rather cloudy and wet so the cars were still slowly arriving when we had to leave, but we saw some beauties and enjoyed the British style band that entertained us with old tunes from the British Invasion. A jolly good time!

MG

MG

Unique bonnet on this MG

TR6

Nice TR6

Triumph

An orange Triumph too

Austin

Note the “car hop tray” mounted on the side window

Before leaving the downtown, we picked up two Shawarma sandwiches from Altona Kebab to take home for lunch. They were delicious and so big that we had one left over for today’s lunch.

Shawarma

Shawarma sandwich from Altona Kebab

The Great Canadian Yard Sale


Gilmour Street in Peterborough, Ontario is a beautiful seven-block-long, tree-lined street of original early 20th century homes that have been well maintained, with groomed yards. On one Saturday in May for the past twenty years, it’s been the host of a bargain seeker’s delight – the Great Canadian Yard Sale.

Gilmour Street

Some of the immaculate homes on Gilmour Street

This year was no exception. The weather was perfect and the adjacent streets were jammed with parked vehicles that brought the throngs to wander the length of Gilmour Street. We spent an hour or more wading through the crowds and taking in the atmosphere, which is that of a relaxed, friendly community where people share a coffee, catch up, support the charities that have tables set up, and enjoy bargains. Amateur musicians and young break dancers entertain; entrepreneurial children sell homemade lemonade and cupcakes.

The traffic

The traffic

The Bargain Hunters

The Bargain Hunters

It’s amazing what you can find there!

Golf Balls

Golf Balls

Appliances

Appliances

Antiques

Antiques

Coat of Armour

Even a Coat of Armour!

Motorcycle

A Motorcycle

Kitchen Sink

And yes, even the kitchen sink