Gjirokastra: the fairy tale city

I have been to Gjirokastra four times since my emigration from Albania. My most memorable visit came in 2004 on my first visit back to the country. The bus dropped my mom and I off at the side of the road. I was tired and certainly not in the best of spirits. A relative of mom’s was sent to pick us up. He took us to a clothing shop that he and his family owned. I was still not impressed, though the atmosphere inside the store was pleasant. Afterwards, his wife and us went to a cafe, and sat on its balcony on the second floor of a  building overlooking the main street. Beneath I could see a lot of life; people coming and going, running errands, or just standing and talking to friends. I also couldn’t help but notice how many pretty girls there were; I was young back in those days, only 21… And as I was sitting there in that balcony cafe, something strange happened; I was overcome by an unexpected feeling of traveler’s bliss. The atmosphere of the town was awesome. It was small, cute, warm, and it’s fair to say, I fell in love with Gjirokastra.

After the cafe, we were to go over to another relative’s house which was in the old town in one of Gjirokastra’s several boroughs that climb up the mountainside. If the modern town kindled my love for this place, the old town sealed it. These 19th century villas are nothing short of astonishing. I was amazed by their beauty and looking over them outside on the balcony I was overcome by a feeling of wellbeing that was utterly unique to me at that time. This is the most wonderful place on earth, thought I. It’s like a fairy tale. I spent the remainder of the evening in conversation with our relatives ranging in age from the elderly to a  young kid. This particular family sprang from my grandpa’s sister who was still alive. She and her daughter in law cooked dinner for us that evening and even the food was spectacular! Why can’t I get food half that good at the most expensive restaurant in my town? These feelings are those that can only grow from your home.

Gjirokastra gets it right in every way shape or form; more so than any other city in Albania. However, perhaps one may accuse me of over-exaggeration. And it is true that on my subsequent visits to Gjirokastra the magical spell was never quite recreated. But every time I visit, I am struck by Gjirokastra’s beauty. It makes you understand firsthand of the highest possibility of travel: completely unexpectedly running into a part of the world that you did not know about and being overcome by feelings of happiness at your novel surroundings. Personally, Gjirokastra has a special meaning for me because it’s also the home of my family. My mom grew up in one of those historic houses while my dad grew up in a nearby village. Though I grew up in the capital, Tirana, I am not a big fan of Tirana. When I visit, I find it hectic, chaotic and even rude. Gjirokastra is charming and sweet. Though I have never lived there a single day, when there, it feels as if I am home.

I tried out for AGT!

My favorite TV show of the summer is America’s Got Talent. Tonight it starts up again, and you bet I’m going to watch. I love AGT; in fact, I love it so much that once upon a time I tried out for it…

It was the 23rd of January 2015, and the day of my big trip had finally arrived. I had been looking forward to it all winter long, my chance at the big time. Yes, I knew I would be a star! Or at least, so Nick Cannon assured me, as he does all of America each summer, that we are all stars! All we have to do is try out for the show, and who knows, we just might end up on TV, being lavished with ego boosting praise from the beautiful Heidi Klum, the spicy Mel B, creepy Howard Stern, and last but not least the bald headed eagle, Howie Mandel. Wait, why was I so mean to Howie and Howard? There’s no time! There’s no time! I have to carry on with my narrative.

Usually, I don’t bite at Nick Cannon’s alluring bait, but this year I bit! I believed I had a shot. I marked my calendar, bought my plane ticket, and signed a form I never even read that assured the God of reality TV contests, Simon Cowell, I would never sue his ridiculous television production company, Syco Entertainment. Or maybe he’ll sue me after reading this? Bring it on Simon! I love a good fight and, I think I’ll hire the best talent judge in all of England and America combined, the honorable Piers Morgan. We’ll film the trial and cast it live on all three major TV networks, NBC, ABC, and Telemundo.

 Day of the Audition

          So where is Heidi Klum? Where is Mel B? Where are Howard and Howie? I’ll tell you where they are: down in the Caribbean, somewhere on a beautiful beach, enjoying life a thousand miles away from the McCormick Center, the site of today’s auditions. Secret time, folks: the judges don’t show up at the “open call” auditions. You could call this a pre-screening, where you are judged by producers, who are no more important and have a no more glamorous job than minimum wage McDonald’s employees. These producers work all day long from morning till night, viewing all kinds of acts, music, dance, acrobatics, magic, comedy, you name it. And their job is “not to pass judgment.” That’s right, they do nothing! The camera is rolling, you go up in the middle of a large room, stand and introduce yourself; then you go into your act. If you can’t tell, already, my act was comedy. I am a standup comic. And here’s everything I said, as far as my ailing memory will allow me to remember.

Hi, my name is George Shetuni. I am a standup comic from Columbus. I have done a few open mic nights around town, and I am here because I wanted to go for the big time. I am almost 32 years old. (Great I had their attention! Now I went into my routine.)

“Why do people go with the gut? The gut doesn’t think. Do you know what the gut does? It digests! There is no thought in the gut. So next time your buddy tells you to go with the gut, tell him, “Are you nuts? Do you want me to make a mistake?”

Why do people say “I’m as happy as a clam?” A clam is shelled in. You can’t see anything in there. It could be depressed! That’s why from now on, I am going to say I am as happy as a sea lions. Sea lions are happy. I saw a sea lion on TV today, it was full of emotion!

What’s the deal with number two pencils? Isn’t it about time we call them number one pencils! They’ve clearly out shined and beaten the “so called” number one pencil? Besides, who has ever seen a number one pencil? Whenever we used to take tests the teacher used to say “Get out your number two pencils class” Why do we still call them number 2? Can’t we just call them pencils?”

Nobody laughed! Maybe it was my delivery or maybe they perceived it was their job to be impartial but nobody laughed! Let me rewind a little bit. By the time I got my shot it was 9:00 PM. I arrived at the auditions at about 3:30. Of course I couldn’t give my best performance! I was so tired I had lost my sense of humor. Of course the producers wouldn’t laugh. They had been there for ten or more hours. They also had lost their sense of humor. All we wanted to do was go home. The waiting was the hardest part.

They had thrown us all in a holding pen and all we did was talk to one another to pass the time. A few kids, dance groups, would go in the middle of the room and show off their chops, to entertain the rest of us who were bored to death. And then you had these producers who were even lower on the food chain. They would sign you in when you came and tell you to move closer together towards the end of the night so they could tidy up the pen. These guys weren’t supposed to be nice to the talent. If they were nice, they were so out of the kindness of their heart. Most were indifferent, with one or two jerks. The bottom line: everybody was happy in the beginning, the holding room had a good almost magical atmosphere, but everyone was very tired and bent out of shape at the end.

“You’ll hear back in a month” was what the lady told us four comics in the room. But I had read in the rules, that it takes three months to get a response. How wrong I was! You get no response whatsoever. The big time is an impenetrable fortress. The acts that made it through to the first round were a mere “leak in the barrel.” But the barrel is big, really big! We are talking about 85,000 to 100,000 hopefuls. But of course, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Howard Stern, and Mel B neither have the time nor the patience for even a mere handful of that. About 500 acts make it onto the first round. Thus, although reality shows like American Idol, the Voice and America’s Got Talent give the perception that anyone can be a star, this is not true at all. It is just as difficult to be a star going through a televised talent search as it is to do it behind closed doors, breaking your neck, going to audition after audition for years on end.

Nevertheless, I was naïve. For three months I believed. From late January to late April, I kept hoping that they would pick me, and I would get to spend a beautiful summer in New York, performing on stage, and partying with Heidi Klum. Day after day I marked my calendar. I counted down the days. I wrote myself notes of encouragement. Boy it was a lesson in patience! Towards the end of April, it became apparent to me that I had not made it. My audition had most likely been thrown away, one minute after I left the McCormick Center, along with thousands and thousands of other nameless, faceless hopefuls. I was a number. We were numbers.

As I got ready to accept defeat, I wrote on the official Facebook page for America’s Got Talent: “I did not make it. But my advice to anyone who wants to try out for any talent show or anything in life is to always do it. Here’s why, When you try you win. When you don’t, you lose. Always try! Look forward to catching the show on TV this summer.” I went out nobly, and did not spew off any hate. But I will not lie to you. I was upset! I was angry! I wanted to have a great summer. I wanted to kiss Heidi Klum on the mouth! But I accepted my fate. In a sense, I did win. To try is to win. But going on to the real show would not be for me. I would have to settle for watching it on TV at home, just like you.