Besides, in order to see the United States through Lula’s eyes, I had to know more about the place that she was comparing it with. I needed to eat the food and smell the smells she had known as a child, to watch the play of light and darkness in the sky over her home, to see how her neighbors walked and talked and inhabited their city, to find out how heavily the legacy of their painful history still affected their daily lives.
And so, in May 2009, I spent two weeks in Tirana, the capital of Albania. I made a short trip to Kruja, the site of a historically important castle, and to Berat, a small and very beautiful city. Along the way, I not only observed enough to make Lula a credible character but also recorded all sorts of marvelous details that I was able to use in the novel—and could never have invented. One man told me that a neighbor had been taken by the secret police because her son put a forbidden radio antenna on the roof so he could listen to a chesty Italian pop singer he had a crush on. A young woman explained that when foreign TV, prohibited for so long, was finally permitted, her generation learned English from SpongeBob SquarePants.
I’d read that the dictator, Enver Hoxha, had built 700,000 concrete bunkers, but I hadn’t really understood the role that these structures, resembling indestructible cement cow pies with eyes, played in the landscape and the culture. I passed the George W. Bush café in Kruja, and ate at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Tirana where the only other customers were Methodist missionaries from the United States. I noticed that everyone who could afford it drove a Mercedes of uncertain provenance, the vehicle best designed to survive the lethal potholes and frequent collisions. I crossed the shaggy lawns of the university, with its touchingly neglected science museum, deserted except for the boy who worked there and two friends—guys who could have gone to college with Lula.
I came to love the beauty of the countryside, its stark medieval hill towns, its ancient churches and mosques. I understood why Albanians are so fiercely attached to their native land, and also how its attractions would measure up, in the mind of a restless, unmarried 26-year-old girl, to what she hoped to find in New York City. As much as I adored Albania, I knew, by the time I Ieft, how Lula would answer the question of why she’d moved to New York: “Who would choose Tirana over a city where half-naked fashion models and their stockbroker boyfriends drink mojitos from pitchers decorated with dancing monkeys?”
The trip to Albania gave me everything I required in order to understand my heroine. But one reward of travel (whether the journey is just for fun, or for work of any sort) is that it gives you so much more than what you wanted and needed—more than you ever suspected you desired.
Perhaps I could tell the border guards that: traveling to research a novel is in many ways the same as traveling for pleasure. What stays with you are the surprises, the revelations, the experience of the new, the joy of meeting interesting people and encountering unfamiliar sights and sounds, flavors, and smells—all things that I could never have constructed from the raw material of my imagination.
But that would definitely be more information than any border guard could process. For the present and future, it’s probably better for everyone if I just continue saying, “Vacation! I’m here as a tourist.”
Francine Prose’s novel My New American Life was published in April by HarperCollins.