There is a dreadful saying from Albania’s traditional Kanun of rules determining communal life that “woman is a sack to be well-used”. But here, the wiry women in their demure headscarves and long black plaits were the ones well-using the sacks, hefting them into the bus and around their persons. Next to me, a woman had a carrier bag swelling yeastily with half a dozen large loaves of simple white bread fresh from a bakery. In front of her was the woman I heard arguing with the driver beforehand over stowing a huge fragrant bedsheet knotted around a billowing mass of stalks and flowers, some of which were littering the floor of the minibus.
Luckily for my curiosity, a woman – who later introduced herself simply as “Naim’s wife”, in an indicator of the area’s lingering traditional views towards women – was keen to tell the whole minibus about just what was in that pillowy pile of herbage she was bringing back home from Kukës.
“Without the stalks, they said! Last year they were happy to have the stalks! But now apparently, it’s not acceptable. So, the whole lot has to come home again. I’ll probably just feed it to the sheep.”
It turned out she was talking about cowslips, one of the many medicinal plants that are wild harvested in Albania. Her bundle was denied because she had picked the stalks instead of just the flowers, apparently a new, unforeseen rule at the market where she’s come to sell her flowers.
“So, do you go out collecting the flowers?” I asked.
The whole minibus answered me: “yes!”
Once my interest had become clear, the journey became an illustrated lecture. For example, cowslips – Naim’s wife scattered some dried yellow flowers into my hand – are known locally as finger flowers. “Look at the way the flowers cluster like a hand,” she said.
The man in front of me pointed out of the window. “Elderflower. One euro per kilo.”
Someone else joined in: “And hawthorn flower – collecting that one’s tough on the hands.”
I was learning a new way to parse the countryside.