Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fan Noli Anecdotes

I was pleased to participate in the recent Fan Noli Symposium at Boston University where I presented the following anecdotes about Fan Noli:

In remembrance of the 45th anniversary of his passing, Noli will be recalled through the memories of his contemporaries and from archival documents.

April 26, 2010
Sargent College, 635 Commonwealth Avenue, Rom 102

Van Christo, Frosina Information Network
Good Afternoon. I want to present to you, three personal anecdotes about Fan Noli that occurred at different times in my life. They offer remarkable glimpses into a man who is one of the most important figures in our shared ethnic Albanian history.
It is my pleasure to share with you these now memorable experiences in my life.
An early memory of Fan Noli.

I was acquainted with Fan Noli from my early childhood primarily because my cousin Llambi Misho was a Founding Member of Saint George Church when it was located on Emerald Street where he served as a psallt (chanter) and where his brother, Koli, was Treasurer. Since Llambi’s father and my grandfather were brothers, we were closely related cousins, so my father, Spiro, was frequently invited to Llambi's home whenever Fan Noli was going to be a guest there.

One of my earliest memories of Fan Noli took place when I was about 8 years old at Llambi’s family home in Brookline, Massachusetts. I always looked forward to those visits because Llambi's son, Jimmy, and his brother, Tony, had an electric train set complete with railroad tracks that they set up on their bedroom floor and let me operate after I arrived.

Fan Noli's visits to Brookline usually took place after church services when he was invited for Sunday dinner. There was a sun parlor in Llambi's home where the men always congregated: Llambi, his father Kosma, his brother Koli, my father Spiro, my two uncles Llazi and Ligor, Nuni Prifti, Luki Stoia, and a few others.
Fan Noli was, of course, the special guest and the center of the conversation. I would stand just outside the parlor door and peek in so I could hear Fan Noli’s stories that he acted out by low and high voice changes and sweeping gestures. Then would come Noli’s robust laughter, and as soon as he had finished one story, he went immediately to another to the pleasure and laughing approval of the men who listened to him. He could truly be characterized as an accomplished raconteur.
There wasn’t always laughter at Llambi's Sunday dinners and on one occasion, I heard and saw what seemed to be wildly differing opinions followed by a loud argument concerning Faik Konitza. What astonished me was that I heard, in front of Fan Noli, one man shout angrily to another , "Budalla!” –stupid!. However, Fan Noli didn’t seem at all concerned.

As the men carried on their conversions, a woman, or two, would quietly enter the sun parlor to serve some liquid refreshments along with tasty tidbits before dinner was served. My young cousins and I spent time in the kitchen where the women were preparing the dinner meal because we ate at the kitchen table, as we were not allowed to sit in the dining room with the men. I remember that as one of the women was preparing a bowl of fruit, Llambi's wife, Mary, cautioned her not to place the red grapes in the bowl because Fan NoIi preferred white grapes. Moreover, Mary was careful to remind everyone not to place any meat dish before Fan Noli because he was a vegetarian. It was impressive to me that much attention was taken to prepare just the right meal for Fan Noli and that those specially prepared dishes were carefully set aside.

I had never heard the word "vegetarian" before, and when Llambi’s wife, Mary, explained that it represented someone who would not eat meat of any kind, I thought that was very strange because, to me, no one could possibly pass up feasting on mouth-watering roast lamb seasoned with aromatic garlic!
But, as we had finished eating in the kitchen, I observed that only the men were seated and being served in the dining room as the women would eat later. I was somewhat surprised to note the dishes that were placed in front of Fan Noli were merely a moderate serving of spinach, string beans, and boiled - not roasted - potatoes with a side dish of lettuce and tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil and vinegar. As the men were eating, Fan Noli continued to be the center of attention as he held forth on topics that were certainly beyond my comprehension. After dinner, when the delicious desserts were served - baklava, Kurabias and rice pudding - I noticed that just a small dish with white raisins was placed before Fan Noli that he seemed to eat with some relish.

After their dinner was completd, the menreturned to the sun parlor and seemed to resume their discussion at exactly the same point where they had left off before dinner, and where, once again, we could hear Fan Noli’s robust laughter and smell the pungent odor of cigar smoke.

The Prime Minister

Another encounter with Fan Noli that I remember very vividly occurred much later, when I was a student at the College of Liberal Arts at Boston University. It includes my closest friend, at the time, Doug Richardson. He and I had first met in the 7th grade class at the Mary Curley Junior High School in Jamaica Plain and quickly became best buddies. We had both entered Boston University at the same time where I was studying English Literature, and Doug was a Government major, and because of that, he eagerly sought opportunities to voice his opinions about the current political parties in America and about world events, in general. However, I, as an English major, was more familiar with Byron, Shelley and Keats, consequently, I wanted to find ways to be more of a participant in his discussions.
I remembered that Fan Noli, the Archbishop and Head of the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese in America headquartered at Saint George Cathedral in South Boston, had also once been the Prime Minister of Albania. In my effort to impress Doug, I informed him that I was acquainted with the former Prime Minister of Albania and I asked him if he'd like to meet Fan Noli. Doug was very quick to reply “yes” and that he would consider it an honor to meet him.

At that point, I knew I needed, somehow, to land an meeting with Fan Noli! When I telephoned for an appointment, I was pleased that he immediately came on the line. After I introduced myself and reminded Fan Noli that I was a cousin of Llambi Misho, one of the psallts - chanters - at Saint George church, he was very welcoming and we set a date for the meeting.

At that time, Fan Noli lived on Blagden Street just behind the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. On the appointed day of our visit, I remember that Doug and I were all suited up - shirt and tie - as we prepared to visit Fan Noli, the former Prime Minister of Albania. Back then, Blagden Street was a short, narrow street mostly comprised of 3-decker houses. As I recall it, Fan Noli lived in an apartment on the second floor.

I knocked on Fan Noli's front door and as he opened it with a big smile, he motioned for us to enter into his apartment. Fan Noli wore a white shirt opened at the collar, a worn green sweater, dark trousers, and slippers. He looked very much like one of our professors! I immediately noticed how sparse and simple Fan Noli's apartment was with very little furniture or furnishings, and no carpets on the wooden floor. However, there were books everywhere - in bookcases, on tables, on another chair, and even some stacked neatly on the floor. Fan Noli pointed to a sofa and asked us to be seated while he pulled up a hard chair, and sat facing us.
I introduced Doug to Fan Noli and informed him that Doug was a Government major at Boston University who was interested in world politics, and was thrilled to meet the former Prime Minister of Albania. Doug immediately began asking Fan Noli questions: When was he the Prime Minister of Albania? How did he come to that important top governmental office of Albania? Was he a priest at that time? What were his accomplishments during that period? and Why was he now an Albanian archbishop in Boston?

Fan Noli listened patiently while Doug asked and completed his many questions. And, then, in a quiet but firm voice, Fan Noli informed us - but always looking at Doug - how he became the Prime Minister during the time of King Zog who had been the Interior Minister and then President of Albania before he assumed the role of king, and what he, Fan Noli, had hoped to accomplish especially in land reform because Doug had learned - in anticipation of our visit - that much of Albania's land was owned by feudal leaders and was, therefore, one of the major reasons for Albania’s poverty and backward state.

It became quickly apparent that Doug was impressed by the depth of Fan Noli's responses especially when Fan Noli began reciting facts and statistics about Albania's literacy rate, the low number and poor quality of schools and hospitals in Albania, the lack of political parties, agrarian reform, and an effective legal system especially for poor people. Then Doug asked Fan Noli about world events especially about China which was one of Doug's areas of special interest at BU. As Fan Noli responded to Doug's inquiries, it was immediately apparent, the depth of his knowledge of the United Nations, American foreign policy, the Cold War, and some of the positions held by various world leaders including Stalin and the Chinese Prime Minister, Chou En Lai, whom Fan Noli regarded as extremely intelligent, a cut above the rest, and quite personable.

Although I had remained silent during the discussions between Fan Noli and Doug, I was, nonetheless, full of admiration and pride with Fan Noli's articulate comnmand of the English language, and the eloquent and expressive manner in which he presented both sides of current world power positions. Fan Noli's voice gradually became stronger, and he became animated as he stated with conviction the positions held by world powers especially between East and West. At that time, Fan Noli became, in my eyes, a man of all seasons, making me so proud of him and proud of the fact that I, like Fan Noli, was an Albanian. It was an inspiring and thought-provoking afternoon, and I learned a great deal from Fan Noli's informative responses to Doug's probing and carefully prepared questions!

Our meeting with Fan Noli lasted for about 2 hours, and, I believe that Doug could have stayed much longer, but I didn’t want to impose on Fan Noli’s generosity, so I nudged Doug that it was time to go. As we were getting ready to leave, I was flattered when Fan Noli, with a big smile touched each of us on the shoulder and warmly invited us to visit him again very soon.

As the years have gone by, I remember more than any other thing, Fan Noli’s unopinionated, even- handed presentation of different views on political, philosophical and religious matters. It dawned on me slowly as I grew in my own education, that Fan Noli had a strikingly sophisticated intellect, unhampered by bias or dogma. He was a man ahead of his time, certainly in the Albanian American community in those days, but also in any community. Although he was short in stature, I did then and I do now consiser Fan Noli a giant of a man.

An Invitation from Fan Noli

And finally, a couple of years later, I was walking through Boston Common one summer afternoon when I thought I saw Bishop Fan Noli approaching from a short distance away. At first, I didn't quite recognize him because he wasn't wearing the usual priest's garb, black suit, with a black front with turned-around white collar. Instead, to my surprise, he was dressed in a pale yellow jacket, white shirt unbuttoned at the throat, dark trousers, and as he drew nearer, I could see that he was wearing sandals. I had known Fan Noli, of course, because I had seen him officiating many times at Saint George Cathedral in South Boston, where one of my close relatives, Llambi Misho, served as a psallt (chanter). However, I had also seen Fan Noli socially on several occasions at cousin Llambi Misho's home in Brookline. And, a couple of years earlier, I paid a visit to him at his Apartment on Blagdon Street.

As Fan Noli drew near, I extended my right hand and quickly introduced myself because I wasn't sure he'd know me. However, if he didn’t remember me, he didn’t let on and after greeting me with a welcoming smile, he motioned for us to sit on a nearby bench where he began to question me: "Where did I live? Where was I a student (after seeing books that I was carrying)? What was I studying? and what were my plans after graduation from college?" I was delighted that he took such interest in me, but although English was, clearly, my first language, during responses to Fan Noli's questions, I'd occasionally throw in a few Albanian phrases because I wanted to be respectful and I also wanted to impress upon him that I knew some words in that language.

I was very flattered by Fan Noli's attention since I knew that he was the head of the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese in America, and, equally impressive to me, was the fact that, in 1924, Fan Noli had been the Prime Minister of Albania. As Fan Noli continued his inquiries about my education, he seemed pleased as I informed him that I was majoring in English Literature and Creative Writing at Boston University hoping to become either a journalist or a teacher after I graduated. In addition, after I informed Fan Noli that I had served on a Destroyer-Escort in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during Word War II, he was curious about my military service and asked me to describe some of my experiences during the war. He fell silent as I related that my ship had been torpedoed - but not sunk - by a Japanese Betty bomber during the invasion of Lingayen Gulf, Luzon. He praised me for my service and quietly my hand again.

We had been chatting for some 30 minutes or so, at which point, Fan Noli suddenly became animated, and grabbing my left hand, urged me in Albanian B (Come, let's make you a priest!)" Startled by Fan Noli's sudden invitation, I managed to reply in the Albanian language, "Jo, Imzot, sepse i pelqej vajzet, shume i pelqej vajzet! (No, your Grace, because I like the girls, I like them a lot!" At that, Fan Noli waved away my response with a sweeping gesture of his left hand, and laughing heartily, he threw his head back, and insisted most assuredly, "Po, s'ka gje! (It's OK, that doesn't matter!) "

I'm pleased by this opportunity to present my Fan Noli anecdotes. A few years ago I was invited to relate some anecdotes about Fan Noli during a program organized by Father Liolin at St. George Cathedral. Other speakers spoke about Fan Noli in the Albanian language but, I made my remarks in English since it is my first language.
A week or so later, I received a phone call from Alfred Lela, the editor of Fletore who asked if he could translate the anecdotes into the Albanian language for publication. I was flattered by his request and readily agreed. Much to my astonishment, the Albanian translations were also published in Albania in several other publications.
Because I was curious, I asked Alfred why my Fan Noli anecdotes appeared in so many Albanian newspapers. He was quick to inform me that the Albanian public was eager to hear personal information about Fan Noli simply because there wasn’t much available. While Fan Noli's name is revered in Albania as an important cleric, statesman, and author, newspaper editors were eager to publish personal experiences about Fan Noli describing the "every day" man. At that time I felt honored, as I do today that my simple anecdotes have entered the general body of information about Fan Noli.

Thank you.


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