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: the village

The village is an Aromanian village. I am Aromanian (also called Rremen or Vllah) on my dad’s side. There is no difference in appearance between us and Albanians. We do have our own language, though, which is similar to Romanian. However, we do not come from Romania. We  came from the Roman colonists and assimilated natives of ancient times. The village has three streets dotted by cute small houses, many of which are newly renovated or rebuilt. Strangely many are seasonally empty. Many people of the younger generation have found work in Greece and perhaps the elderly is the largest demographic.  Everybody knows everybody, perhaps for a whole lifetime, and many houses have relatives in other houses. There is one small church without a priest. But the faithful can always light a candle. A small school was in use for several years but now is closed as there are so few children, it’s easier to bus them in to the nearby town of Gjirokastra. I hear the population fluctuates increasing in the summer when emigres from Greece return.


In the village, I was stationed at my cousin Anna’s house, whom I am close with. But she had married recently and gone off to live in Italy. Just my luck. Her younger brother was around but I saw little of him till evening. We were roomies. Anna’s parents showed me great “village hospitality,” which is the only hospitality left. The cities have turned cold. Her mom cooked vegetable rich stews for me every night, often with fresh feta cheese made from milk from their very own goats. Her dad, meanwhile, works various country jobs and in the evenings he took time out to eat dinner with us.


The pace of life in the village is predictably slow. Very little TV, and no internet; truly I had no interest for either. Good conversation is your best bet at passing the time. Thankfully, for interesting conversation, if not a little absurd, I had Papo Nidha, (Grandad Leonard) my dad’s uncle to talk to. He is an old man but still of sound mind and eccentric as ever. Curious and open minded, he had many questions about America as we sat leisurely chatting in the shade of his grape vineyard in his front yard. Yet, Papo Nidha’s ultimate curiosity is not about the west but about the east! But I cannot fault him; when he was in his prime, Albania was allied with China, not the US; and as every old person sticks to the fashions of his youth whether be it in clothing, music, or political ideology, Papo Nidha still maintains an affinity for Communist China.

Strangely, it was not only China. He also likes Japan, “One time, in Tirana,” he spun me a tale the only way he can, “there was a tour group from Japan and this young man saw a young girl that he liked. She was a cashier at a shop. He told her on the spot ‘I like you and I want to marry you.’ She told him, ‘Let me go ask my parents.’ (Papo Nidha emphasized parental approval) She came back soon, with her parents blessing, and accepted his offer. They married, and moved to Japan.” Whether or not this tale is true i have no way of knowing; but i did catch a TV show while in Tirana that mentioned an Albanian woman had intermarried with a Japanese man. Now they were living in Tokyo with their 5 year old son.

I also had chaps my own age to hang with.  Papo Nidha’s grandchildren, Cousins Lambro and Pandi, were visiting from Athens. Pandi was very Hellenized. He doesn’t speak Albanian; but speaks perfect English. Lambro reminded me of my brother and had maintained his Albanian roots. I did meet with cousin Thoma, a warm and welcoming person. However, unwittingly he took me on a rather wild ride, an errand with a bus driver friend of his to buy a new window for the minibus. All that wind blowing in my face from the broken window, however, gave me chills for the rest of the day. His brother Dhimo showed me around Gjirokastra. On tour I was struck by the beauty of the old town with 19th century Ottoman villas and cobblestone streets. Looking on, I felt a pang of regret, knowing I’d leave soon. Dhimo and I settled on the wisdom, “Let us be well off wherever we may be.” I also met cousin Nikos of Greece. He hated Albania, he told me, and generally he was a lovable grump. He smoked, napped, and played dominoes all day. In other words, he was the perfect Greek.

The village is very small and that too slows down life. There are three restaurants but they are usually empty or closed. There is a tiny market; I did go there and have a beer with the owner, a family friend or perhaps a distant relative, as far as I know. One evening, I ran into an old man, a cousin of my grandma. Very nice guy, very happy to see me, and he felt as if I had materialized out of thin air. True, when you expect one to be in another continent, it must be quite a pleasant surprise to see them walking down your street. You know we don’t have villages, in America do we? Not the way they do in Albania. This village is so small, I cannot possibly find a counterpart to it. Of course, one could argue American villages are the suburbs. Suburbs have single family homes with yards. In this view, America is full of villages, more so than Albania. But the suburbs are gigantic, and thus not true villages. An American suburb would be considered a rather large city in Albania. Perhaps one could argue that small rural towns are villages. Maybe, but in my view, villages are distinctly old world.

Albania: The Bus Ride

I was now to go south to a village near Gjirokastra. My grandpa took me to the bus station. By the way, I feel weird saying my grandpa, as if I was 3. I was 30! Anyhow, I took a seat, the sole person in the minibus. As I was sitting,  I saw grandpa chatting up the driver and his assistant, as if to make sure I’d be in good hands, and it occurred to me what a charismatic old gentleman grandpa is. He was full of good humor and cheer, dressed in suit and tie, and even a hat, as if he were going to some fancy downtown office, not to a pot-holed bus lot full of dirty rainwater. Anyway, Grandpa stepped outside, a few people came in, and I waved good bye to him out the window.


The driver was a man with a comically shaped head and his assistant was a lean older man who reminded me of Regis Philbin, though he was not funny like Regis, but rather funny in a sleazy way. The minibus got going, and the driver was exceedingly distracted by everything to the side of the road. He would look for any reason whatever to stop the bus; the most bizarre stop that came to pass was a vegetable stand by the side of the roadway. Can you imagine a professional driver in America stopping a bus full of passengers so that he can, on his own whim, get out and purchase the likes of lettuce and green onions! Absurd. But that is exactly what he did, and us passengers were just sitting there, our journey made slightly longer by the distractions of this buffoon and his sleazy companion. OK, so then the  journey picked up some momentum, for an hour or so, but the driver’s absurd desire to stop was ever present; the pretext being to pick up more passengers, but the real reason I suspect was that he was lazy and always looking for an excuse to not do his job!


Anyhow, we passed a few hours and finally took a scheduled break at a roadside restaurant and shoppe. I walked out, as it’s nice to have a break and stretch, picked up a water and returned on the bus. The bus was nearly empty but there was this nice teenage girl sitting behind me, and so I thought to ask her if she knew whether we were near so-and-so a village. She was of that area and told me were approaching it. Although  I said nothing more, I could tell we were both friends, in a way, and I enjoyed chatting with her simply because she had that youthful charm that I cannot find in adults. Though beyond her, I caught the eye of a shady character in the back who gave me a dirty look simply for speaking…


All the passengers boarded and we were now at full capacity. Yet just as he had done all along, the buffoon kept up his unquenchable thirst for breaking for every single passenger on the road. He picked up one and he picked up another, and yet another, and then a fourth. And where was he putting them? There were no seats open. They were all standing in the aisle! But even that wasn’t enough for him. He had to congest the isle! Only then would his absurd desire find satiety. As the aisle was clogged with standing passengers from the back to the front, the idiot stops yet again. This was too much, and a young man from the back of the bus spoke up: “Where ya gonna stuff ‘em, oh master?” Certainly the voice betrayed sarcasm, concern and incredulity.


When my turn to depart the came, a young fellow near me who was travelling with his  girlfriend turned his head and winked as if to say goodbye. Yet soon enough this warm jest was marred by the crazy driver who suddenly turned his eyes to me in the mirror and made a sharp, hurried gesture as if he couldn’t wait to be rid of me and had been wanting to do so from the moment I got on. The whole way, not once had he looked at me even though his eyes went everywhere. I was rushed off in an unfriendly hurry, though it is true my seat was coveted by long standing passengers. I walked by the side of the bus to pick up my suitcase aware that the young girl’s eyes were on my face. I wish I could have looked happy for her, so as to leave a good impression. Unfortunately, I could not as I was too fatigued.

photo credit: Powers to Travel

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.

***
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.

***
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.

***
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.

***
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.

***
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.

***
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.

Albania: Then and Now

Today, Albania has all material goods that money can buy. What it lacks is not material, but rather spiritual. People don’t care for their neighbor, because the country’s social fabric has been torn. One extreme, communism led to the other, extreme individualism. But I will give credit where credit is due. In many aspects Albania today has made many improvements. Power and water is one big example. In the eighties when I was living there as a kid power and  water outages were a fact of daily life. Today, they are far less frequent. Moreover, as Communism was collapsing, food shortages were also turning commonplace. My grandma stood in line at 6 AM to buy milk and eggs for the day, every day. Today there are no food lines. Back then there were no other goods for purchase. There were very few stores.  Today there are many stores with many goods. Back then, finding something, whether be it clothing, or some other commodity like a home appliance was comically difficult.

***
In Communism,  scarcity was appalling. For example, when one needed a suit or a jacket he couldn’t just go out and buy it. There were no suit or jacket stores. There were a few stores that sold dubious fabrics at certain times of the year. One had to buy the fabric then find a tailor, a friend of a friend, secretly mind you, because private enterprise was illegal and pay him under the table. Home appliances were assigned by the State. Apartments were assigned. Cities were assigned. Universities and majors were assigned. Everyone was a state employee; doctors, lawyers, garbage men… Pay for all workers was the same, seven dollars a month. So nobody worked hard; why try when there is no prospect of upward mobility? People socialized a lot for they were one big state run family; the catch was they could say nothing against Comrade Enver, the dictator, and the regime.

***
Finally, when the system did collage, the populace went mad. It all erupted into a self destructive spree against its own society. Any and all things were looted, vandalized, violated. My school windows were broken. The hanging lamp in my classroom was clipped off at the ceiling. Neighborhood trees were chopped off at the roots. Nights were spent in a state of fear. New European embassies were stormed by throngs of Albanians desperate to leave. Cargo ships were madly boarded by the same crowd of desperate people. With standing room only, they made three or four trips to the nearby Italian coast. Greece, close and reachable by bus or even foot, became the most frequent immigrant destination.  Such was the frightful state of Albania that kicked out my family along with many others in the early 1990’s.

Memories from LA

…Then one time our cousin came down from Monterrey to visit us. His name was Angelo, or Avdul, as he was called in Albania. He was 28 years old and he had immigrated six months prior to us here in the States. He had gone to Monterrey because his uncle, Uncle Mersin, as we called him, who was also a relative, had been living there. A quick background story on Uncle Mersin here; when he was a young man, Mersin decided to flee from Albania. This act was something that could not be done. It was illegal under the dictatorship and dangerous. But Mersin was a brave. He fled the border to Greece at night and the guards shot at him repeatedly. When he told this story to us, you could tell he was in moved at how he survived. From there he immigrated to America. That was forty years ago, but now he did have a glass eye as a result of a shard of debris damaging his left eye on that fateful night. So back to our story, when Angelo came to America, Uncle Mersin naturally he took him in, and he helped him get established.

As for Angelo himself, he proved to be one of the most generous relatives I have. When he visited us, it was like Santa Clause came to town. He had filled the back of his car with presents for us all. They were practical things like plates, and peanut butter, some clothes-things a family starting out anew might need. He even brought me my first bike. It was used and old, but hey it was free, and it did the job. I learned how to ride all in one day, on the grass in our backyard. Angelo kept cheering me on. My brother, Besian had more trouble, and it took him several more days. Well, Angelo stayed with us a couple of days. He and my parents exchanged some good stories about the old country, we ate a lot of good food cooked by my mom, and then he had to take off and we had to go on in our new country…

… But I was good at playing Super Nintendo. Have you ever played Street Fighter II? You know the one, the adaptation, of the great fighting arcade game. We went up to Monterrey to visit some relatives of ours, Uncle Mersin’s family, and that’s the first time I had seen the game. Well, before the night was over, I was beating everyone in the company, Mersin’s son included and he was older than me. He wasn’t mad though. It’s just a game. You don’t want to mess with me in Street Fighter II, buddy! Besjan was the king of John Madden football ‘93. That game is stupid. You can only play it on snowy conditions; otherwise the players don’t seem to move at all.

But my favorite video game of all time is Super Mario World. Both Besian and I spent the whole year in LA trying to beat it. It was such great fun. Super Mario World really was a microcosm for our life in LA. Like in the video game, we started all over in a strange new land. It had good things and fun things, but it had difficulties and hard times too. But with every scary castle that Besian and I beat in that game, it seemed our family had gotten a little stronger, wiser, and more established in our new country. Indeed just as the game was challenging, so was our new life, but we knew we had to go on, we had to keep fighting.

(excerpt from How did I get here? Out of the old Country and into the New World)

Albania: Modern Tirana

Let me describe Tirana a bit. It is Albania’s capital and largest city coming in at over 500000 residents. Locals claim it to be up to 850000. In a country that is only 3.1 million residents this makes Tirana a juggernaut. All other cities pale in comparison. But Tirana is not large in terms of land area. It is rather small, by our sprawling American standards. Tirana is a compact apartment city with meandering alleyways and lean main streets. Many apartments have a minimum of 5 stories. This all means Tirana has crammed a large population into a small area. The place is a beehive! There is a soul on every back alley at all times of the day. Once you enter a main street you become part of a swarm of humanity. 

Everyone loves to walk here; not for pleasure but for transport. City busses are utilized to the very brim; they have standing room only, sometimes breathing room only. That is not to say Albanians don’t drive; they drive Mercedez, almost exclusively. Most are inexpensive and older models, but a few are top of the line, brand new and very pricey. Yet, at the same time, new or old tires often bounce up and down muddy potholes and maneuver on streets without lanes. Traffic is bumper to bumper.  Left turns are negotiated at close range and pedestrians do not get the right of way. Tirana is brimming with energy and it packs a punch. If chaos is your lifeblood, Tirana is your paradise.

Tirana is trendy, vibrant and artsy, but it has the problems of chaos. The sidewalks are broken, sewers are open, litter is rampant.  The mail may sooner cross two continents before it crosses two neighborhoods. What is made today wears out by tomorrow. One year may turn a new cafe into an old cafe. There is no staying power. Makeshift farmer’s markets are as if houses of cards that tumble and vanish with the blowing winds. There is no rising power; construction sites are fenced off ghost towns; years may pass before a single brick is laid.

Tirana is flashy and colorful, but without standards. Apartment blocks built today are often ultra modern, chic and stylish but not without blunders in basic design. It appears looks have been prioritized over quality. A support beam may poke awkwardly beneath a ceiling. Living rooms may be illogically small, balconies illogically large.  Elevators may stop working due to the power failures; you may find yourself walking up several flights of stairs in the dark, lighting your away up the windowless stairwell with your smartphone. The apartments of the old Communist era were no-nonsense, but they had ample room, and were free of anomalies. Be it as it may, today these older buildings have often succumb to decay. There are so many eye sores. But there is one good thing: Eye sores in Albania are not considered bad. They are commonplace.

Albania: My Daily Outings in Tirana

In Tirana, I went out daily, with mixed results. The truth is whenever I went out early in the day by myself, I was hanging by a thread. I found myself walking down a busy boulevard without having anywhere to go or anywhere to be. A tourist is truly a creature out of place. I was completely out of my element. My mission was to pass an hour on my own, out and about, before I returned home for lunch. My first day out, I used my brain; I got creative and went up to a door of a large building with the word “Librari” above it. Inside two women who worked there, saw me, and wondered at my appearance. When I just stood there quietly unsure, they invited me in. The room was rather small and apparently the bookstore of a university. The two ladies welcomed me kindly, perhaps perceiving I was at the moment a tourist lost even unto myself. I shared with them my background and I think they perceived I was a lost soul cruelly ripped away from my dear country at young age by well-meaning but misguided parents and now I was doomed to live in wretched exile for the rest of my life…or something like that. Then they explained to me that the store sold only textbooks and offered no artistic books; the word artistic books struck me as new and I left perhaps a bit more satisfied than I came in. I had done something meaningful.

***
Several days I stopped by a local internet café to check email or facebook. It was just an empty room with a few computers and offered no coffee. Though the term Internet café is European and not in use in America, I think I finally know what it means: a place where people open laptops and connect to wifi. Starbucks is the ultimate internet café, even though in the States it’s just known as a coffee shop. The place where I now sat was dim and dingy. I was the only one there; the only good thing about it was it was in a happening locale, across a small university so as soon as I exited I found myself among students. All the people coming and going made the environment better, especially for a loner, and that’s what Albania offers that America does not: a lot of hubbub, or perhaps chaos, depending on your point of view. But I do like the pedestrian culture that I find there.

***
The operator of Internet café seemed like a nice man; yet I somehow felt I should not disclose my American identity to him and keep it a secret. This happened to me often as if for my own safety it was necessary to not disclose my outsider identity to strangers. It happened on a bus too; I met a very polite country young man, of the sort of decency that Albania was known for prior to the new age, and even though we spoke for a bit and he could probably tell my Albanian was not as sharp as a local, I felt it inappropriate to share my American identity. Part of the reason was I did not feel American; I felt Albanian. Telling strangers I was an outsider would have been a lie. Moreover, I did not trust strangers; one individual, an ill wisher, poked his nose into my background and did attempt to make me feel like a foreigner in my own home, and it hurt.

***
Several times I went shopping for groceries with my grandpa. We bought little as we were on foot so it wouldn’t be wise to buy more than a couple of bags worth but that’s a custom in Albania. There people shop daily at local farmers markets and tiny neighborhood shops. Recently the Western style supermarkets have been introduced but these are seen as fancy and luxurious. My grandparents have not changed their custom. One day Grandpa took me to a friend of his who owned a shoe store. I was not in the mood for shoe shopping and was totally against it but of course gramps would have none of it. That’s Albania; you are not heard unless you shout. Being Americanized I don’t shout; plus I don’t have “home country advantage” and feel all out of my element with a spine composed of boiled spaghetti; needless to say in a battle of wills, I always lose. Well, on this particular day, not getting my way worked to my advantage. Grandpa bought me a very nice pair of blue Italian loafers that you just can’t get in America.

***
Once I stopped by one of the vendors of the farmers market that grandpa had introduced me to. She was a lady with a daughter my age. I truly was hanging by a thread. Here I was clueless how to spend my outing… why else would I stop by at the farmers market without having to buy anything? Or perhaps all tourists are clueless. Well, they treated me kindly, sat me down and fed me apples. I chatted a bit with the daughter and left having survived yet another morning. I must add here that I’m a homebody; staying out does not come naturally to me. I don’t know what to do walking the streets alone; at home I can always find a hobby. Out in the real world I am kind of lost. Some people are natural born adventurers. They go to countries whose language they don’t speak, they cheat death at every turn, and they fear nothing. I think to myself I could do what they do, when I see them, but this is simply not true. Adventure done right is a talent. I sometimes wish to see the world’s great cities. But I am not adventurous. I will have to settle for seeing them on Youtube.

***
Grandpa and I also visited a few museums of earthenware, pots and pans from the Illyrian period. It was mildly amusing seeing the dishes and silverware people had 2000 years ago. We underestimate the past. The man of the past built the Parthenon, the Colosseum, and the Pyramids. True, the man of the past has achieved just as much as today’s man, in the appropriate sense. Sometimes more; the style of the ancients stands the test of time and cannot be replicated. And here I was now looking at their artifacts. Imaginately speaking, these pots had belonged to the likes of Julius Ceasar, Cicero, or St Paul; all great historical figures who have once walked the very earth I was now standing on. Ceaser even sent his nephew to study in nearby Durres while Cicero called it a great and important city. St Paul preached early Christianity here. I was standing on ancient ground; I was just out of time…

Note: Image not taken by me

Albania: My Friends

… The case being what it is, whenever I visit Albania, particularly in Tirana, I do not have any friends my age. I am left to hang out with my grandparents or relatives of their generation. Thankfully their visits are OK, or even entertaining. In fact, one gentleman in particular Mr Fejzi, is indeed interesting, and quite unlike anyone in America. That’s what I like about Albania, finding people with a different point of view from us in America. When you travel, you get that different world view; sometimes you’re going to like it, sometimes you won’t. Being Albanian, of course, I love the Albanian point of view.

My first time back, in 2004, as I bumped into Mr Fejzi outside my grandparents’ apartment building, I immediately recognized him, even though I hadn’t seen him in12 years! In 2008, as mom and I departed his apartment after a visit, he grabbed me by the arm, and said to me “We love George,” and he slapped me on the face. Then he said, “George is a good boy,” and he slapped me again on the other cheek, then another slap, and then another, and it went on and on like that for several slaps. As I walked down the stairs of his apartment building that night, I was overcome by uncontrollable laughter. “Mr. Fejzi just gave me a beating,” I told mom outside in the dusk and I couldn’t stop laughing. She said it’s a way of expressing affection, an apparent cultural difference.

Although I cannot explain what makes Mr Fejzi special, a cup of coffee with him might just be worth a trip to Albania. This time, Gramps, Mr Fejzi and I sat under the terrace of a local neighborhood street side cafe. This joint was very local, perhaps a converted house, and not trendy in the least. But the atmosphere outside was awesome, tons of foot traffic; right through the terrace in front of me, I could do some great people watching. I even saw a couple of gypsies strolling by while playing drums. That’s Albania, for you. The neighborhood was alive! So unlike the suburbs of America, that are spic and span, but devoid of life.

True to their generation, Mr Fejzi, and Gramps wore suits, ties and hats. True to my generation, I wore jeans and a spring jacket. They ordered a traditional Turkish coffee, which is soon being replaced by the modern Italian espresso, I ordered a hot cocoa or kakao which by the way is less sweet and better than American hot chocolate, and we had a conversation for the ages. You cannot get a conversation like that in America. You just can’t. The spirit is lost in translation. We spoke for a very long time, “tall and wide,” as they say in Albanian. We caught up on everything one can possibly catch up on in a conversation for the ages; the essentials, family, friends, my writing career. I gave Mr Fejzi a copy of my latest book, a short novel, a Christmas story, which being in English, served as a kind gesture more than anything.

As I sat there chatting, my mood improved and I was happy. The trip was worth it at that moment. Here I was with Gramps and Mr Fejzi, in my original home, Albania, a country without name, fame or currency, and yet I was happier than in America. There was no reason to rush, get up and go; why rush when you’re enjoying yourself? Besides, people in the Balkans don’t rush as much as we do here. The place is suited to easy living. It’s not like Starbucks in America, where you sit alone, open a laptop and work, or pretend like you are working. No, if you do coffee right in Albania, you bring your friends, talk at leisure, and relax.

Another person I met was a relative called Luli. He’s a bit of a slick and sly character, but perhaps a good talker. He could go on and on with some sense of poetry about anything but at the same time without firm credibility. Nevertheless, he taught me a good saying, “When one is in need and you can help him, help him. But when you cannot help him, leave him alone.” Coincidentally, it was that very day at the city zoo, that he helped out a bear who was all alone! The poor thing was inhumanely trapped in far too small a cage, and all he could do to survive was pace in circles. His excitement grew at seeing us as if we relieved his anguish. He cried out to us in loneliness as we passed his cage, for the zoo was empty and not many visitors cared to see him. Luli showed some mercy and came back to spend a bit more time with him. Luli also praised my initiative for coming to Albania; wise words again.

Photo: That’s the three of us, me, Mr Fejzi (center), and my Grandpa

Albania: Culture Shock

Albania in 2012 was special. In 2014 the lustre of Albania had worn off. It no longer felt wondrous or special. Now it all just felt messy. Moreover, often times I was struck by the sentiment that I hated being a guest. “I wouldn’t wish being a guest on anybody,” thought I. “My relatives go about their lives, and here I am, sitting on the couch, doing nothing, or even worse, watching too much TV.” Part of the problem was this trip came “out of time” My previous visits to Albania had all been spaced four years apart.  I rushed this return home, reappearing on home soil less than a year and a half later. My relatives felt my return too sudden, and did not yet miss me enough, to feel warmly towards me.

I don’t want to sound like sour grapes, but in Tirana, I felt no one welcomed me. Sure, my grandparents loved and welcomed me. But not my aunt and her twin sons. They worked all day, came home late, ate dinner and left early in the morning, without even saying good bye; they were not to be found till Sundays, their day off. I also felt a few other relatives in town made no effort to see me, or even call me. I suppose when one lives so far, for so long, the ties that bind weaken…or apparently break altogether. The mood of the country felt very foreign and cold to me. It wasn’t just “long lost relatives” such as myself that were being forgotten and dismissed. It was everyone!

Today Albania leaves you cold. Nobody cares for family anymore. Everybody was cold and it was the norm to be cold. This fact was true particularly of the new generation, my generation that is. I was not asking my relatives to go out  of their way; all I was asking for was that they acknowledge my visit; even a phone call would have done the trick. When this did not happen, the rejection fell on my mind, and it stung. That being said, even in these hard social times, good people are still good and will always be so under any social order; only the bad turn cold.

Nowadays, the people of the old school, the elderly, are the only warm generation. By nature the elderly are kinder and more loving towards the young. Moreover, they grew up under a different social system. Say what you will of communism economically, but it was a warm and decent society where people upheld their duties and obligations towards one another. In the Albania of Communism, no one could have gotten away with snubbing a relative who is visiting from halfway around the world. In the new Albania, snubbing immigrant, long lost relatives is common practice. Some people perhaps are petty enough to even relish it. In this sense I could not believe what was happening. This is not the Albania I left. It was my experience with culture shock.

But is not every immigrant who returns to his beloved home in for a rude awakening? Faik Konica, the early 20th century Albanian writer and politician when visiting Albania in 1913 was in for a rude awakening:

“I decided to set off for Albania, convinced that I would find as likable and becoming a world as the one I had described to outsiders. My awakening was horribly rude-and laughable. After a few months of strolling among sour and unshaven faces, one morning in the late fall of 1913, I was handed an “official” ticket in Durrës that was strange, and this ticket, still written in Turkish and in a military style, ordered me to, “break your neck and get on the ship heading for Brindisi today because we have no need for your kind” … Such wounds never heal completely and if they close, they leave an eternal scar in the soul. But there’s one good thing about them: They become a lesson for the future.”

Of course, because when one is away for so long his memories of home turn romantic. And he forgets the reality. Moreover, he has evolved into some other being inconsistent with the land that bore him; while his home has also evolved into some other being that knows not. He is naturally impressed by its progress, yet upset by its regress; for both processes happen over time. But he does not want his home to change! He wants his home to stay the same, as he always remembered it, a good and kind place.