Albanians Adjust to Italy, in Unlikeliest of Places

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Oct 3 16:12:07 UTC 2008

October 3, 2008
Tuscany Journal
Albanians Adjust to Italy, in Unlikeliest of Places

CHIUSI, Italy — On a crisp fall morning just after Ramadan, Hysen and
Kimete Murrizi stood side by side in a Tuscan vineyard, snipping fat
bunches of grapes into red plastic buckets. They worked their way
quickly down a sloping hillside, picking grapes for Chianti, after
having spent days selecting smaller grapes for more refined wines. On
the nearby highway, passing truckers honked in a harvest greeting. The
Murrizis are among tens of thousands of Albanians who arrived in Italy
in the 1990s after the collapse of their country's Communist
dictatorship and economy. That they should become skilled vineyard
workers is somewhat incongruous because Mrs. Murrizi is an observant
Muslim who fasted for Ramadan and does not drink alcohol.

She acknowledged the culture clash. "Yes," Mrs. Murrizi said with a
warm smile in fluent Italian. "But that's the way it is. Unfortunately
I have to work. Life is like that."
Mrs. Murrizi, 46, has wavy light brown hair and green eyes. She left
factory work to join her husband in Italy in 1998. Mr. Murrizi, 52, a
former truck driver with a tanned face and close-cropped gray hair,
left Durres, Albania, for Tuscany in 1993. Mr. Murrizi is not so
observant as his wife, and over the years he has become a wine fan.
"Especially the 'vino nobile,' " he said, as a smile lit up his face.
"But also the Chianti." Mrs. Murrizi said: "I tried it once because
Hysen said, 'Come on, you've worked here for so long, try it.' I liked
it." But for religious reasons, she said, she did not plan to make it
a habit.

In the Italian popular imagination, Albanian immigrants are more often
depicted as scofflaws than as upstanding members of society.
Anti-immigrant sentiment runs high, and many Italians blame foreigners
for what they say is a rise in crime. In recent months, there have
been several highly publicized cases of violence against other
immigrant groups.
But amid the turmoil, families like the Murrizis are quietly
integrating into middle-class life in ways that Italy is only
beginning to acknowledge. Like new shoots grafted onto an old vine,
they are fast becoming an essential part of the country's most valued
traditions, including winemaking. The Murrizis work full time for the
Salcheto winery, based in nearby Montepulciano, planting in spring,
pruning in summer, picking in fall and preparing the vines in winter.

They are the new face of Italy, and Italy is slowly recognizing them.
"At first we didn't realize they have different needs," said
Salcheto's owner, Michele Manelli, 33, who has gone out of his way to
help the Murrizis navigate the Italian bureaucracy. "When we'd have
dinner at the end of the harvest, we'd have a normal menu. But little
by little we understood: no pig, no wild boar."  The night before, the
Murrizis had gathered with friends and family to mark the end of
Ramadan, which they celebrated in a public apartment near the
Montepulciano fire station, eating homemade baklava and drinking
Turkish coffee. "In Albania we would have had a bigger party," Mr.
Murrizi said that evening. "But here, we have to work; it's the
'vendemmia,' " or grape harvest.

Their host was Azem Mema, a contractor originally from Kavaje,
Albania, who shares the apartment with his wife, Arta; their
school-age daughters, Francesca and Alessia; and his mother, Kadife, a
stocky woman with a white kerchief on her head and a dark shawl draped
over her shoulders. "I have eight children," the elder Mrs. Mema said
proudly in rudimentary Italian. "Five boys and three girls." Seven
live in or near Montepulciano, she said, and one daughter is still in
Albania. "Sooner or later she'll come here, too," Mr. Murrizi said.

A flat-panel television was tuned to an Albanian music channel,
showing women in long skirts twirling to a Balkan backbeat. A bare
bulb hung from one white wall. "We still have a lot of work to do,"
Mr. Mema said apologetically in fluent Italian.

Every so often the buzzer rang and another branch of the family
arrived. Mr. Mema's sister, Lindita Hoxha, also a vineyard worker,
came in with her bubbly 11-year-old son, Matteo. He said he liked
studying history. "We've done the Romans, the Egyptians, the golden
age of Africa," he said. But not Napoleon. "You don't get to him until
the second year of middle school."

Several years ago, the Murrizis bought a house in Sinalunga, a nearby
town. Their three grown children all work nearby: one is an
electrician, one is a blacksmith and the third has a career in the
hotel industry. Legal residents, the couple have applied for Italian
citizenship and expect to hear back soon.

"At first we thought we'd return" to Albania, Mrs. Murrizi said with a
quiet smile. But that seems increasingly unlikely.

Mr. Mema said, "The older the kids get, the harder it becomes." At
Francesca's middle school, the other children do not know she speaks
Albanian at home, he added.

Arta Mema, hugging Alessia, her younger daughter, said: "They're used
to it here. They were born here and have grown up here."

In Montepulciano, integration is still a work in progress, said the
city's mayor, Massimo Della Giovampaola. "As with all new things,
there's some diffidence," he conceded. "But it's a matter of time. The
kids in school now, when they get older they'll be totally integrated
because they grew up together."
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