A Revolutionary Sleeps On My Floor
(And She Wants to Make Harvard Famous)
My friend's voice twanged tensely over the phone line. I could tell he was panicking. "I can't find a host for this prefrosh and she's coming tomorrow."
"Fine, fine," I said, a bit peeved. "I'll take take her."
I expected a nervous teenager, a Wonderbread good-girl with the right classes and all the conventional credentials, class valedictorian and secretary of her student council.
What I got was Holta Vrioni, secretary-general of the Albanian Youth Democratic Forum.
Taking to Vrioni, I felt like a cow caught on the railroad tracks at night, staring straight into the headlight of an unstoppable train: her eyes are dark and intense, and she never looks away. "I come from a noble family," she says, and she looks like it: high cheekbones, face titled up, smooth white skin with the translucence of a da Vinci portrait.
"I have a grandfather who died in prison. He stayed in prison for 28 years for being from a noble family and an intellectual one."
The Vrioni castles have been destroyed; the Vrioni attitude has not. When the iron curtain cracked in Albania, the last bastion of communism in Eastern Europe, Holta Vrioni acted. "What motivated me was the suffering and the persecution that my family has seen all these years," she remembers. "I had this opportunity, coming from a well-educated family. I would see the difference between the East and the West of Europe. That made me angry because of the reality I was living."
A hint of bitterness steadies her voice. "That gave me force for the future. I had a goal in life: trying to change the reality of my people and my country. When the democratic movements started in Europe, I was absolutely prepared."
Vrioni uses words like "absolutely" a lot.
"All I had to do was put myself into action. Those moments were the most emotional moments I have ever lived. It's absolutely unique. It happens once in centuries." She pauses. "I was 16."
"First of all," she announces, "I started to organize my school--starting to organize the students, going into protests, just screaming, getting out all the pain. More than half the people were absolutely unprepared, because it is a very isolated country."
Soon, Vrioni said, she and other leaders decided to channel the students' rage into a constructive political force. "We found we had to do something with the youth. The youth couldn't just spread out and scream."
So, Vrioni continues excitedly, student leaders "started to print lists, and I was one of them, running all over and collecting signatures." From the lists sprang a new political party. "We had a congress in December of 1992, after the democratic party won the elections. In that congress the chairman was selected, and right after the congress I was selected the secretary-general of the Youth Democratic Forum. The chairman was sort of symbolic, so I was the one who executed everything, so the decisions were absolutely mine."
She smiles with pride, half-embarassed, half-arrogant, and for a second I see the 19-year-old inside the fine, Italian-cut, grown-up clothes: "I had two secretaries working for me, actually... I even had a driver." I decide I like Holta Vrioni.
Albania has had a tumultous adolescence. According to Vrioni, the communists still cling to power. "They still survive. They were 48 years in power which is a hell of a lot of period time." Vrioni says "hell" the way she says "absolutely"--with iron conviction. "We still have difficulties separating them and destroying them. They have spies everywhere. They know everything."
But totalitarianism in her country is dead; Vrioni seems absolutely certain of this. "They had a sunset... I don't know how you call it." She searches for words, then announces firmly, "But they won't have a sunrise."
Vrioni wants a Harvard diploma the way she wants democracy; passionately, desperately, believing the enormous force of her personality will make it happen. She's still waiting to hear from the admissions committee. "I know myself--I can achieve anything in the world that has to do with intellectual stuff. I trust myself," she insists.
A born politician, she is unapologetically opportunistic. "I'm trying to have an education in a significant, remarkable country. I want to give [Albanians] the message of what this remarkable country has gone through. This is a way how can my people break down the isolation they have had for many decades."
She's willing to cut a deal with Harvard. Her goals: "To meet people who plan to have a political career. To use the tradition of Harvard's name. And then to be able to give back to this school what I took once. I promise this school that I will do something in making them remarkable."