Valbona, restaurant owner

Valbona – Bona for those hungry patrons – has a contagious smile and a speed in serving dishes akin to a miracle. Lunchtimes at “Vicent’s” – Milan – are adorned with a marvellously predictable menu, with delicious dishes made on the spot from Bona or Vincent’s mum, the husband, the “Vincent” whose name dresses the bar-trattoria. Whenever I can, I come here for lunch – I come on the latish side to find the least possible people. It’s now 4 o’clock in the afternoon and while waiting for a few latecomers we sit around an empty table and Bona starts telling us her story.

From Albania to Italy. How and why?

I’m the daughter of a communist supervisor, straight as an arrow, having inhaled at home and the neighbourhood of Fier were I grow up and live till the age of 16, an atmosphere lacking in freedom. I actually escape from Albania on the 27th March 1991, when with another fifteen people – all of my own age – I decide to cross the border with Greece. We walk thirty km avoiding police guards who have the order to shoot on sight. In Greece we are well taken care of in a reception centre that helps us in the span of a few months to find a job. I find work with several other people, picking oranges in Xylocastro. I stay there a couple of years to get acclimatised, then I move to Athens to work in a restaurant with friends and family. A restaurant opened 24 hours on Acharnon street. I live with seven other people in a basement, but I have beautiful memories of those years: it’s all freedom- television- music- the end of censorship. They’re beautiful years, all seems great and not much is needed to enjoy oneself. After a couple of years in Athens, I split up in 1996 with my then-boyfriend and decide to quit Athens unable to continue with my previous life. So I decide to leave Greece quite incredibly and I arrive in Milan. What a beauty the station in Milan! Just off the train I say “It’s beautiful” I really fell in love with Milan. For a few months I live outside Milan with a few girlfriends in Redecesio (a fraction of Sgrate n.d.r). Then one evening I meet Vincenzo at the bar L’Unico in the via Bramante, which now no longer exists. After a few months I go to live with him in his house around the Greco neighbourhood. Our daughter Angela is born in October of 1997. After a few years taking care of my daughter, in 2000 I start working in the bar with Vincenzo. And I’m still at it!

Are you nostalgic for Albania?

No, but Vincenzo – my husband sometimes insists we go and open a restaurant over there. As for me, my only regret is that the “dummies” left over there are not much good to Albania. The bright people have left…. I’ve a few relatives over there, my mum is still there. My mother still believes that communism will be back soon, I only remember books of Stalin and Lenin in my house. When i leave Albania in 1991, and call my mother, she reacts pretty badly. Only after Angela’s birth does she start taking things better. I don’t often return to Albania, about once every three years. My mum comes to visit more often, but I don’t really feel the need to go over there much. As a little girl I dream of Italy; I study Italian at school and dream of marrying an Italian man. Well! I’ve found the Italian man, although not as rich! Albania means communism for me, and I always tell the young lads who come to sell the communist papers: “ I’ve lived communism, you haven’t even the faintest idea what it means!”. Sure communism is also work, but I want freedom. In communism I only like the nourishment – little meat and allot of veggies.

And Italians how do they welcome you?

Well, maybe because I don’t seem so foreign. For instance once an elderly couple comes into the bar. Well-to-do people who start to chatter. The lady says (to me!) : ”As if our Italian thieves weren’t enough, now there’s these Albanian ones, the same as us and just as white! How can we recognize them?”. “You’re right” I reply. What else can I say?. And I smile… or another time at the beach when I ask a bunch of people if I may take the chair. They give it to me right away adding: “ Sorry Madam we look like an Albanian camping site….”

Working in the same bar with your husband. What’s it like?

It’s great to work together, except for midday on Thursdays. It’s always hell when having to coat cutlets with breadcrumbs. But we’re entrepreneurs, which means not having bosses and that’s much better. Much better than working under a boss as in Athens….

What has Milan done for you?

Milan equals beauty and freedom for me. I like everything about Milan – the Duomo too, of course. It’s not the city itself, but it’s living the city that’s nice. Milan is the city of fashion. Not sure if I make myself clear. Nevertheless the bureaucracy is terrible also in Milan

What have you done for Milan?

I’ve given the city a daughter: Angela doesn’t feel Albanian, but Italian. Then I give food to many people, about sixty people per day. We treat our customers well.

Which moment in your life you recall with great pleasure? 

The day I got married. It’s a joy to be together. Vincenzo is really good-fun. But above all the day my daughter was born. Every instant of that day. Even the screams during birth.

What’s your favourite dish and drink? 

“Penne alla carbonara”, not with bacon but with cheek-lard. An to drink, anything fizzy because I’m a nondrinker.

What music do you listen too?

A lot of Mango, and recently Chiara. She gives me the thrills as soon as I hear her that little bugger. The one who won x-factor. Chiara Galiazzo. I also like Celentano, although he’s a little too political nowadays. Ho, yes and when I got to Italy I really liked Albano and Romina.

The book you’re reading or just-read?

“Bianca come il latte, rossa come il sangue” (White as milk, red as blood). It made me cry.

A talent or quality pertaining you?

I’m good at shooting because in Albania I did military training against capitalists: three hours a week and one month military training. We did mock war simulations…

A lesson learnt from life?

Never complain. Complaining doesn’t do anything.

Translation by Paolo Witte

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