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Twenty years ago an Albanian friend and I were two of the three passengers on a ferry – an old tub called the Kaliopi – leaving Saranda in south-west Albania for Corfu. Two miles out we suddenly saw a rubber zephyr racing towards us. Moments later an arc of Kalashnikov bullets whizzed over our heads and we hit the deck seeking cover. The pirates landed on the ferry, stole a boat we were towing, and sped gleefully off, leaving me numb yet curiously elated to have survived this banditry.

The numbness lasted hours and was memorable but I have always omitted to mention it until now. Why now?

On Friday a group of my dearest friends and family, orchestrated by John Mitchell and John Moreland, supported by AUR’s Chief-of-Staff Maurizia Garzia and the British School at Rome’s director, Christopher Smith sprang a surprise birthday party for me at the British School at Rome. Pirates, of course, they were not, yet the stunning surprise and the extraordinary elation were possibly similar…..

A huge and wholly pleasant surprise...

I had no absolutely inkling and walked into a wall of lights and cameras and clapping, kindly faces to find friends from the American Mid-West, England, all over Italy and Albania. Looking from face to face it was like a dream, connecting so many different people from different adventures in my life.

Speeches followed the surprise. Johnny Mitchell, as ever, spoke with animated excitement as if he’d discovered a new painted prophet, then, John Moreland in his Irish lilt spoke of wonderful shared digging days, followed by AUR’s sparkling and irrepressible dean, Lisa Colletta, and finally there was the cogent and always thoughtfully brilliant, Christopher Smith. Each was captivating. As they spoke, as I grasped the smiles and recognized in the half-light still more friends, I knew I must respond, but the numbness I once had in the Straits of Corfu grasped me. Was it the sheer surprise of an evening beyond my imagination and, together with the book of essays dedicated to me – the festschrift – a summation in smiles and cheers and scholarship of all the pleasures that archaeology has given me?

Encounters, Excavations and Argosies: Essays for Richard Hodges

I managed to respond: in this unique city, from such diverse friends as well as family it was humbling to receive such an unexpected and generous treat and almost impossible to describe, bar the sense of numbness. This time I’ll not only treasure the feeling but express its existence!

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