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Slatina, June 10 /Agerpres/ - Culture and sports personalities, politicians, ambassadors, Romanians returning home to visit their hometowns, children and elderly people, women and men alike, who have learned about the braga soft drink prepared by the Memish family after a traditional recipe have stopped over at 'Atletul albanez' (Albanian Athlete's) for some minutes to quench their curiosity and thirst and remember the tastes of their childhood.
The impressions of those who stopped at the 'Atletul albanez' sweetshop are kept by the Memish family in the stories passed down from generation to generation, illustrated by pictures, while some of the memories are written down in a guestbook.
An old notebook, its sides yellowed by time, keeps on its pages dear memories of the Memish family, as Hashim Memish, the storeowner, puts it. The guestbook comprises hundreds of notes of the Slatina visitors that also came to 'Atletul albanez' for refreshment to taste a braga or traditional Albanian sweets.
Although born in 1939, Hashim Memish strongly claims that the inter-war was the time of the 'Atletul albanez' glory, because that is what his parents and an uncle told him. Maybe that is why he is so convincingly speaking of the inter-war atmosphere and the illustrious guests that crossed the store's threshold.
Hashim Memish says famous writers Ion Minulescu and Eugen Ionescu and illustrious historian were among the special guests of the place.
'The inter-war was our extraordinary time, and the extraordinary time of Romania in business terms, from what my father and uncle used to tell me. Our sweetshop would sell all kinds of cakes, sweets and the always-present coffee. There used to be some racks on which the newspapers would be placed and people would come for a coffee. There was a certain charm about going to the Turks' for a coffee, to read the newspapers and comment on the news. Ion Minulescu and Eugen Ionescu both came to us for a Turkish coffee. Even Iorga, the great historian Nicolae Iorga, visited us. That is what my parents told me, and I have proudly kept what they would tell us,' says Hashim Memish.
The braga made in Slatina was tasted even by French President Charles de Gaulle on his visit to Romania in 1968, who, on his way to Craiova passed through Slatina, where an aluminium factory had been built on French technology, using support from French specialists.
'When de Gaulle came to Romania, he had to go to the aluminium factory. Back then, traffic was on Pitesti Street, the route of the official motorcade. In a moment of inspiration, President Ceausescu said ‘let us pass by the Turks,' and that is what they did. When they passed before our store, they slowed down the car. Mom and Pop got out, waved their hands and the other members of the family followed suit. As the motorcade stopped, Ceausescu would allegedly showed Charles de Gaulle that there is private entrepreneurship in Romania as well. They tasted a braga and went away. That is what I was told, as I was not there,' says Hashim Memish.
He also says that any photos, guestbook or other documents of before 1970 attesting to the visit of personalities of the store on former Station Street might have been destroyed with the demolishing of the former Albanian House in 1974.
'Back then we had no guestbook and even if we had, unfortunately the entire archives of the family were housed in the attic of or former house. In 1973 to 1974 they demolished our house and relocated us to this corner, because close to the former location the Communist Party built its county branch and it was not a good thing seeing the only privately-owned company in Romania near the party's county branch,' says Hashim Memish.
About the years of communism, Hashim Memish tells an unforgettable story related to food crisis, the rations imposed by the regime.
'The story has gone down in the history of our family and we cannot forget it. Once, they hardly approved our request for coffee sugar. An entire night, children and grandchildren alike, would tear up small sugar sachets, of 3-5 grams to collect sugar. The sugar ration was very small so we had to buy the remaining amount from a restaurant. Sugar was a problem, as there would be frequent sugar shortages before the 1989 Revolution. We would go to village stores. But we managed: we would line up in large lines and we managed,' he says.
Also under the communists, after the visit of some students that conducted a sociological study Hashim Memish started his guestbook.
'In 1967, I initiated a notebook of impressions, after we were visited by a group of students conducting sociological research into Slatina, together with their professor Virgiliu Constantinescu. They were the first to sign the guestbook and after their first visit they returned, because they feel comfy and they liked it here,' reminiscences Hashim Memish.
Leafing through the guestbook, he smiles and tells the story of him and his brother Djavid mesmerising the ladies that would shop here.
'Look how many memories! I am waiting for the day when I will write again here at Hashim's. The ladies would set their eyes on us, me and Djavid. The girls went crazy. We would speak gently to them, because as traders we had to draw customers in; we would tell them how delicate and beautiful they were. We would make them jealous as we would look at each other. ‘There is something sad in the air like before any farewell from dear friends,' is another impression,' says Hashim Memish his eyes on a page and his mind wandering in time to the times described in those lines.
He says that only ladies would write nice things in the guestbook, but the sweetshop, the refreshments and the family would leave a good impression on gentlemen as well.
'This is the entire FC Arges soccer team, Dobrin included, in their times of glory! Look, their signatures of 1967! Students from the UK, Sweden and Norway in 1968. Here you can see the National Theatre company, with Radu Zamfirescu and Doina Badea, who stopped over at the sweetshop as they were touring the country. And then, there is the Universitatea Craiova soccer team as well,' says Hashim, continuing to leaf through the fragile pages of the family's guestbook.
Written towards the end of the guestbook are impressions put down after 1990. "1997 - Actress Rodica Popescu Bitanescu - 'Great honey nougat and ice cream'. This is where famous pantomime actor Dan Puric once came with his entire troupe, and then repeatedly visited on his own. A Professor from Galati came by train especially to taste our braga and said the trip had been worth it. 'At Memish in Slatina, we had our fill as we desired' - the people just put on paper how they felt. This here is a note by some Albanian students, and this here is a Canadian signing. This guy came to buy something from Craiova and ended up asking me, 'hey, don't you want to come over to Canada to start a joint braga bottling business there?' I refused politely," confesses Hashim Memish.
He says he was honored by the visit of U.S. Ambassador in Romania between 1998 - 2001, James Rosapepe, and the diplomat's signature in the guestbook and photos from his visit are on display in several places in the shop.
"Success to the Memish family! The U.S. Ambassador.' I was here, tending to the daily routine, when I got a call that the American Ambassador wants to visit. When he arrived, I put a Romanian folk song - 'Ciocarlia/Skylark' and next a Luis Armstrong tune. And he said: 'I'm home, I feel so well.' I invited him to the laboratory and offered him some input. He drank braga eagerly, he liked it, and tasted the ice cream too. He asked if he could also take some honey nougat. This was the highest honor that was done to us that year, I tell you this from the bottom of the heart, in all honesty. Can you realize? The U.S. representative," recalls Memish Hashim.
The U.S. Ambassador in Bucharest was not the only foreign diplomat who stepped into the "Atletul albanez" shop to taste braga, ice cream and honey nougat - the so-called 'halvita'. In 2010 Ambassador of Brazil Vitor Gobato signed in the guestbook, mentioning that he had been welcomed with extraordinary hospitality. Other more recent high-profile guests of the confectionery - braga shop, which is known in Slatina as "the Albanians' shop" are Albanian Ambassador to Romania Sami Shiba - 2011, or Macedonian Ambassador to Romania Pande Lazarevski - 2013.
'Atletul albanez' received in 2013 the visit of Prince Nicolae of Romania. Politicians too have come here to quench their thirst with braga. Hashim Memish opens the guestbook at the page where Social Democrat MP Ecaterina Andronescu put her signature, then turns the pages to the notes and impressions scribbled by Bucharest Sector 4 mayor Cristian Popescu Piedone and Craiova mayoress Lia Olguta Vasilescu.
Deputy Prime Minister Liviu Dragnea was also a guest of the Memish family business confectionery shop during a visit to the city this year, on June 1.
Hashim Memish says that the note of a 10-year old from Simleul Silvaniei left a strong impression on him. "I was impressed by a 10-year old from Simleul Silvaniei who was in Slatina before Easter, for an Olympiad. He wrote: 'I ate the best ice cream in the world. I drank lemonade and braga. One day, if you don't know what to do with two lei, come to Slatina's 'Atletul albanez'. I just see him before my eyes, a five-footer, but he just knocked me down," Memish Sr. says.
There were also many other guests to the braga shop who didn't leave written impressions, but whose visit is documented by photographs, like that of actor Amza Pellea.
"These here are impressions from the depth of their soul. And there have been many others, but some did not have the time to write a few words. We used to receive many postcards and letters reading like: 'We felt very good in the sweet shop of the Albanians who took the place of yesteryear Turks'. We call ourselves the 'Albanian athlete' since 1914. Even today they call us Turks or Albanians, but we are also Romanians, Romanian citizens," emphasizes Hashim Memish who is an honorary citizen of Slatina since 2008.
For a long time, "Atletul albanez" was referred to as the "Turks' shop" and Memish explains that the territory of today's Albania has been under Ottoman control until 1912.
"My dad, Daud Memish, completed studies of economics in Thessaloniki and came over to his brothers here, and they tasked him with running the business. He came here in 1912. In 1914 he enrolled as a volunteer in the Romanian army, which had withdrawn to the city of Iasi, in the area of Drinceni. He was taken prisoner before the war, because we came from the Ottoman Empire, our papers had been issued by the Ottomans because back then Albania was under their rule. They took him as a prisoner and took him there. And he asked for permission to report in the roll call assembly to Marshal Averescu and Prince Leopold and he told them 'We - there were another two Albanians there - are Albanians and are improperly called Turks, and I will prove this. We are former Turkish citizens, because we have been under occupation and struggle to become independent.' And then they told them: you are free! But they said 'No! We want you to accept us as volunteers,' and this is how they joined the army. They were offered land and honors and dad said: 'No. We are in the trading business, we don't need land, let the Romanians govern their land until the end of the world. And he came back home to his brothers and carried on with the business," concludes Hashim Memish.
Slatina's confectionery shop 'Atletul albanez' is the oldest Romanian privately-owned business that has not interrupted its activity for more than 90 years, and its braga, lemonade, ice cream and honey nougat recipes are the same all the generations of the Memish family have successfully used.
'Atletul albanez' is an old family shop in a house standing on the corner of the Dinu Lipatti street, in the old city among other historical monuments. The passage of time is visible on the building and inside the braga shop too, but the owner says that the place has its charm just the way it is, familiar to the most of the customers, but according to municipality plans, the façade of the building will be soon revamped concomitantly with several dozens of historical buildings in the area.
The Memish family also owns a sweet shop in Slatina's civic center, a modern and stylish space run by Hashim's nephews, the sons of his brother Enver. Hashim's nephews also run two mobile outlets that sell braga, lemonade and ice cream, and which also stand in the civic center of Slatina. No matter where you buy the braga in Slatina, from the trailers, the new sweet shop or the shop in Slatina's civic center, it has the same unmistakable sweet, slightly tongue-prickling taste, the flavor of the fermented grain it is made of. AGERPRES

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