Meet Aleks Gole: He fled the violence in Albania, found peace in Great Barrington
Albania’s communist regime was so strict that, looking back, Aleks Gole compares the country of his birth to North Korea.
But, he says: “I was a child. I couldn’t understand the system was so bad. I have very good memories. It was very poor and very simple. Everybody was at the same level. Everybody shared. I enjoyed it and I was happy.”
Now a 35-year-old resident of Great Barrington, he grew up in the village of Saraqinisht: “55 houses, maybe 350 people.”
Greece was close. Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro were other neighbors with strife and civil war in the 1990s after communism collapsed in Eastern Europe.
Albania’s international isolation ended in 1991 when the “socialist people’s republic” became a democracy and ultimately even a NATO-member and American ally, and a candidate member of the European Union. But as in so many countries in that region, it was not a smooth transition.
“In 1997, it was a very chaotic situation,” Gole says.
He’s searching for words to describe how pretty much all civilians armed themselves with weapons and ammunition looted from military depots. Large-scale Ponzi schemes had ruined the financial system and economy. Violence was everywhere.
“Everybody, children, they had every kind of weapon and they kill each other in accidents and, I don’t know, everything …”
Gole was 15 years old.
He packed up his stuff and walked across the border into Greece. His parents stayed behind and still live in Albania. His brother and sisters had left before him and moved to the ancient Greek city of Corinth. Young Aleks couldn’t board with his siblings, so found his own room there.
“Every day I go to what they call in Greece something like ‘the labor coffee corner.’ People come by and take you for different jobs: for construction or work in the forest or the gardens or in a bakery.”
Gole laughs with delight when he’s told that in English that’s called “day labor.”
“Day labor?” he repeats. “I didn’t know that word. OK, so I did day labor, and it was very hard for a child 15 years old.”
From a very young age, he learned to butcher sheep and cattle. Some years later, his childhood butchering experience got him into trade school. He learned to prepare meat Greek style, “like for the souvlaki and the gyro and on the sticks for kebab.”
He had a very nice life in Greece, he says. He had a small house, a car and a motorcycle in sunny, coastal Corinth. But Greece’s devastating economic crisis of 2009 finished that. After three years of unemployment – and three months of compulsory military service, “as a cook, my weapon was very dusty” – he found an opportunity to leave for the United States.
Exactly three years ago, Gole and an army buddy with the same Albanian/Greek background came straight from Greece to Great Barrington to work in the Aegean Breeze restaurant on Stockbridge Road. He moved on to the kitchen of Patisserie Lenox across from where he lives on Great Barrington’s Main Street.
“The first thing I asked when I came here was, ‘Where is the school to learn English?’”
Within days, he found Berkshire Community College’s South County Center down the street. He’s been taking nine to 12 hours a week of instruction there ever since.
“I think the most important thing I did in my life was the school,” he says. “The same mistakes I did the first time, when I went from Albania to Greece, I am not doing this time.”
His army friend returned home a while ago. Aleks Gole is here to stay.
“Look,” he says. “I’m a person who always goes forward. I’m not looking back. I never forget who I am and I have my parents in Albania and my siblings in Greece for vacation. But I have no reason to go back to stay.”
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