Albania: Memories of Durres

During this visit i had a most unremarkable time in Durres; being so near Tirana, less than one hour away, my company and I drove there haphazardly one Sunday, coupling it with a visit to the Bay of Lalzi; a secluded beach that in my view outdoes the one at Durres. At Lalzi, we parked our car, walked past the woods and to my pleasant surprise were met with a white sand beach strewn with cute wooden umbrellas the kind of which I’d never seen before. The only catch was it was a cool, cloudy and somber day and not a soul was around. We strolled a bit, jumped back in the car and zigzagged through a suburban neighborhood of nice, gated houses; a concept that didn’t even exist back when I was growing up here. We only stayed in Durres for lunch, eating in the restaurant of a random hotel. The food was average, the weather dreary and rainy…

I prefer to remember the Durres of my youth. Back then, Durres was a popular beach destination. Being on the Adriatic coast not too far from Tirana, though back in those times one took the train, it was the default destination for middleclass Albanian families of all nearby towns. We went there every summer, for one or maybe two weeks.

One particular vacation to Durres that comes to mind is 1990. I know this because it was a World Cup year, and being a young Albanian kid, I was mad about soccer. I was only seven but I understood the game and I loved watching it and playing with my friends outside on the dusty asphalt of our apartment building. Today, except for the World Cup, you can’t pay me to watch your soccer! I prefer football but back in that time and place I was a fanatic, like my brother and our friends. All the men in the country were soccer heads. All the women never watched a single game! But now times have changed there and girls and women participate in athletics.

That year a friend and colleague of my dad’s was also vacationing with his family in Durres. This guy had a kind of gift at getting ahead in life under communism. He always found a way to make friends with those in power and in turn secure advancement for himself and his family under the most meagre of material circumstances. Well, in Durres, he did it again! He had pulled some strings, and booked a room for his family in the fanciest hotel in town, reserved at that time for western tourists and the political elite only. We would visit them daily and live the high life which to me today seems standard, but back in that day when material possessions were so very lacking, everything this hotel had was a big deal.

It was the at that very hotel that I first became exposed to color television. At home, all throughout my life we only had black and white TV. Seeing this new color TV set in the lobby of the hotel was a huge deal. It was a new thing for us. Moreover, it was absolutely awesome because that World Cup I mentioned was taking place at this time. We could watch games on color TV! Boy oh boy, I have seen one of the wildest soccer games of my life on that TV. It went into overtime and then into penalties. We were loving every second of it, only as a fanatic can!

Another incident that took place at this hotel was more comical. It was here that I tasted Coca Cola for the first time in my life. But not in the usual way, where one buys a drink and enjoys it. No, we weren’t staying at the hotel so I suppose we weren’t allowed to buy anything. Besides we didn’t know what coke was. Anyhow, my mom, my brother and I, and her friend and her two sons went up to an empty table spontaneously on a patio cafe where the privileged westerners had just leisured and left all their pop cans. Well, we saw the remains of a dark fizzed drink at the bottom of their glasses. Out of curiosity to know what it was, and perhaps to see what the fancy tourists were having, we picked up their cans and had a taste. It was awesome! It was Coca Cola. It was also pathetic that our country’s economy could not even provide us that…

Albania: A Visit to Elbasan

After getting my fill of Tirana, I decided it was time to go off and see some other relatives. First up, was my first cousin Leda who lives in Elbasan. Elbasan is a city in central Albania, about one hour drive south of Tirana, but even closer now that the roads are better. It is the third largest city, but like every other Albanian city, it pales in comparison to Tirana, having only about 75,000 residents in the city proper. Occupied by Illyrians, in ancient times, the via Ignatia, the ancient military road from the Adriatic coast to Constantinople went through this area. Back then it was just a trading post called Mansio Scampa. Mansio Scampa grew into a city of 2000 by the 3rd century and was an early center of Christianity. However, once Rome fell, so did ancient Mansio Scampa.
The Ottomans set up a huge fortress here in the 15th century, that they called il-Basan, it’s namesake, meaning simply the Fortress. For the next four and a half centuries Elbasan stayed in Ottoman control and understandably turned Muslim. At the beginning of the 20th century the population had grown to 15000. During Communism the city became an industrial center enabling population growth. Recently, in 2014 it became the host city of the national football team, a surprise to me, considering Tirana is the capital.

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My aunt, on my dad’s side, and her family lived in Elbasan. My grandma used to take my brother and I there as kids. I don’t have any outstanding childhood memories, though I do remember that she and her husband lived in a house, something utterly unusual for an Albanian city, as apartments are always the norm.  I have been to Elbasan twice since my family immigrated, once in 2004, on my first visit back to Albania. Back then my aunt and my grandma were still alive. We had a drink inside the castle, though it was “gutted” as I heard a recent tourist put it. This time, I sat alone one morning, outside facing this fortress, having a drink on the piazza, and truly felt an American on tour.

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I have never been drawn to Elbasan. It has an industrial feeling, no doubt due to the decades it spent as a town with iron works and other factories. Someway, somehow, as happens to people, its trade became incorporated into its look, giving it a gritty feel. It is not a tourist destination and has no standing historical sites other than the Ottoman castle, which is large but does not impress. The social life of the city centers around this fortress, which also has restaurants, and houses.

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My aunt was gone. What drew me back to Elbasan was her daughter, who though a decade older, I am good friends with. We had kept in touch through Facebook, enough so to warrant an in-person visit, if the opportunity should arise. This was a calm visit. Not a lot happened, but she and her young teenage daughter were gracious hosts to me. We chatted and caught up as cousins might, when reuniting after a few years. I was long lost American convert, who could still relate to my Albanians counterparts. We get along well. Unfortunately, she had me housed in her father’s house-you know the spacious commodity so unusual for Albanian cities, that I remembered from my youth-well, as soon as she went to work on Monday morning, her father, secretly rushed me off to the bus station and sent me back to Tirana! Poor Leda, she was upset when she found out…I spared her the fact that her father kicked me out.

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But what a scene that bus station was! That was one of those “only in Albania” moments I witnessed. It was outside the fortress, so there was a lot of people watching, something I personally like. My “gracious” host and I were standing amidst a large gathering of people. “You wait here,” he told me. “There are no empty seats unless you rush in.” Fine, thought I,  there’s no way I can hussle my way into an overcrowded Balkan bus. I come from America, the place where buses go empty. So I stood there, people watching, and my eye caught this girl. She had curled hair, your typical brunette Albanian complexion, and was wearing stylish jeans. She had the aura of Albania, slightly yet unmistakably different from American girls. She was pretty but she was preoccupied, no doubt worrying about shoving her way into an overcrowded bus.

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Then the bus came, and I can tell you, all of the people huddled in the station gathered around the door, but before they could enter, the people on the bus had to exit. You see it was already full! Only  a few seats opened, and it was a mad scramble for them. I never could have gotten one. I entered the bus with a delay, and took the seat my host had got for me. Give the man credit, he was good at saving a seat, though his motive was questionable… Only about half the people did not get on. I don’t know what became of my bus station beauty.

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The ride went without incident. But I will remark here that I did witness a special moment. It was a sunny day and our bus now came near upon a mountain. In the olden days, when I was a kid, this route would zigzag around every bend. But today Albania had drilled a tunnel right through the mountain. My small country has progressed! Now you’ll say, big deal George, America has been drilling tunnels since Albania was under the Ottoman yoke. True! But never have I seen a tunnel as picturesque as that one. The traffic lights, the entryway, the sun’s light hitting the mountainside; it was a moment where Albania shined.

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.