Juliana Kostandini offers a peek into her stories full of lessons learned, forged connections and generations of strong women.
I’ve used my journal to record lessons I’ve learned that have changed my life. I tape objects to the pages that remind me of meaningful stories. I’m not just writing my journals for me, I want to give them to my children and grandchildren so they will know more about me. I want my story to be useful to them. Hopefully, when they look back on me, they will feel some of the things I felt. I know they will have to go through a lot of the same challenges I have. Trials repeat themselves across generations.
These three volumes are real treasures for me that I’ve created over many years. They represent the last eleven years of my life. I have my husband and my beautiful children who’ve grown up during those same years, but as far as material things, my journals are very close to my heart. Because we’ve moved so much - I think we moved seven times in five years at its worst - it was hard to keep things. Having these journals has been a way for me to keep memories when I couldn’t keep other things.
My name is Juliana Kostandini. I was raised by my mother and grandmother in Vlorë, a beautiful city by the sea in the south of Albania. I had a very happy childhood, but I remember that we had to make a lot of sacrifices, especially financially. We were a household of women, two divorcees and a little girl. My mum was pushed into her marriage by a well-meaning family, but she and my dad were not right for each other. And my grandmother also had an arranged marriage, with her family deciding for her who she would marry. Her marriage also did not work out. It was not very common to be a divorcee back then and it was very hard for my mother and grandmother. But they became stronger and were able to make it through the most difficult times.
Growing up, I remember trying to read my mother’s handwriting so I could understand what she was writing in her journal. She expressed deeply personal things in her journal, her worries, her frustrations, and fears. I understood that her journal was her safe place to express those feelings. I was probably nine or ten years old when I too became interested in keeping a journal. My grandmother also wrote, however, she didn’t keep a journal but would rather write on pieces of paper just to get her feelings out and then would through the paper away. During the years, I too have used my journals to express my feelings, emotions, and spiritual lessons I learned through inspiration from God.
My mother and grandmother both grew up during communism. I wish I had more written down from them so I could tell my kids about their lives in a time very different from ours today. I want my children to remember what they went through. For instance, what it was like for them to wait in line for a bottle of milk every day, or how they could only get as much meat and butter as the government decided. If their stories are not written, they will be lost as the generations move forward. Journals help link generations together to create a family chain. With the world ever changing, the stories of past generations will give my kids a different perspective about life, broader than what they see only today.
My daughter sometimes asks me to read to her when she sees me flipping through my journal. She doesn’t care which story, she just wants to listen. She has this great curiosity for my story. I think there is such a value in these stories for her, things I learned line upon line but she gets to read it all as one complete story. I want my daughter to see that I had questions and that I got answers to those questions and then wrote them down. I want her to know she can find answers but that they don’t come right away. They will come line upon line for her just like they did for me. I hope that she will notice from my journal how her story is like a painting. When you look at it closely, you can see the small isolated spots of colour, all the moments where you didn’t know what the big picture was.
I feel blessed that I have a record of my youth that my daughter can reference. She can read about when I was young and was living in the capital city of Tirana. That’s where I decided to join the Church. It made my father and other family members very angry because it wasn’t my family’s religion. They all tried to tell me what I was doing was wrong and tried to convince me to stop going to church. However, I felt the Church was right for me and I continued to stay active for all these years. At the time I was studying economics and I met a boy. We really liked each other but he ended up moving to the US for school, so we dated long-distance for a year and a half until I was able to transfer to Brigham Young University, an American university, so we could be close. I felt so fortunate to be there. My roommates were amazing and I made great friends.
My daughter can also read about how we got married while I was still getting my degree in accounting from Brigham Young University. She was born during my last year of school and her brother was born nineteen months later. I still remember how we only had a bed in our apartment and basically nothing else. The neighbourhood brought us a table and chairs and a couch and taught us so much about serving your community.
It was nice seeing this sense of community in the United States because it has always been important to us to serve our own community back home in Albania. After we had lived in the United States for five years, we decided to move home to Tirana. Our Albanian community is so different here than in America. People struggle to meet their daily needs and that causes a lot of stress and anxiety. Albanians have to work so hard that sometimes we don’t have time to see people around us who need help. I knew it would be like this when we moved back here but we wanted to have our kids grow up close to their family.
I feel like my story has been a story of women. Growing up in a household of women has had a big influence on my life. I hope I can pass that on to my daughter. I think being a woman has shaped my story because my decisions have been based on sensitivities and feelings that are part of being a woman. For instance, despite all the differences that I've had with my father during the years, I was able to forgive and still have a good relationship with him. Another example is when I had a really good job offer and I made the decision to decline and stay with my newborn daughter because that is what I sensed was right for us. I put her before my career. I also believe being a woman shaped my desire to come back to Albania and give back to my country and help my fellow people. Being a woman has been the biggest influence on how I made those decisions.
I love being a woman. I love other women. And every time I have interactions with other women, I always try to look for attributes that I want to develop in myself, things that I am maybe missing and to see things that I can learn from them. There have been some women in my life who I’ve really looked up to. I want to mention one specific friend. Every time I visit her in her home, there is this incredible peace there. I ask myself questions about what she does to create this environment. How does she treat her kids? How does she respond to them? How does she treat her husband? I always leave her home with lessons, and I leave feeling like I am a better woman and a better mum. I value other women so much for these reasons. Of course I relate to and observe all kinds of people, but only with women do I feel I am learning something that directly relates to my own experience.
As a woman in Albania, things are much different now than they used to be in the past. Women were historically seen as less than or not equal to men. They didn’t get the importance they deserved. Thankfully, women are more and more seen in Albanian society nowadays, and it's been interesting for me to witness. For example, in the beginning, only men drove cars. And now, I don't remember when this happened for the first time, but one day I noticed women driving cars, and I thought: there's a woman driving that car! Even in politics here, we are seeing more and more women. It’s so nice to have that representation and to see women get what they deserve. Today, I'm happy to be a woman in Albania. I don't feel restricted. I don't feel like I don't have a place in society. I feel like I have a say when things are being discussed.
My three journals are the objects I have treasured most deeply these last 11 years of my life. I've shared about struggles and difficulties in them. I hope my children will see in them that things somehow worked out, even though those problems seemed like big mountains at the time. We just have to have faith in the moment when we don't see a way out and to always keep moving our feet. I learned this from the women before me. I hope those after me will learn those same lessons from these journals, my treasure chests.
Pre-production: Clare Hamn & Louise Paulsen
Interview: Louise Paulsen
Transcription: Amy Epps
Writing: Paul Jepsen
Editing: Amy Epps
Audio: Emma Reyelts
Photography: Sonja Gjidede and Juliana Kostandini