A strange day in our history

What happened to our country? I am not a political pundit. But I will say a few words about what happened on Wed. Jan. 6, 2021. I turn on the TV and see a mad mob storming the capital ready to do “God knows what”. And I learn the mob was doing the president’s bidding; Our president’s bidding! Not the bidding of a president of an enemy country… As I was watching in real time, I felt stressed out and even traumatized. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, it is undeniable that this was a malicious act.

What deeper lessons are we to learn here, besides politics? The most important one is words have power; they are converted into deeds. Good words inspire good deeds. Bad words inspire bad deeds. Mr. Trump, through bad words, brought out the worst in his followers; anger, hostility, and hate. They took these negative emotions and ran with them straight to Congress, and in their gestures: punching, kicking, screaming, his followers revealed what they felt deep down inside: anger, hate and hostility. At the whole world! They were suffering and they sought relief in violence against their enemies, the public officials who prevented their leader from his perceived rightful position in society: president.

Trump made his followers suffer his pain. His rioters were under his spell of hate. The truth is hate only hurts him who feels it. What his followers really needed was a message of kindness. They also needed to be taught about tolerance; tolerance of defeat, tolerance of one’s political opponents and of opposite points of view, tolerance of those who are of a different race, color, or creed. Trump’s people had been consuming the wrong message far too long far too fervently.

Where does the country go from here? Well, now we have a “normal president.” Mr. Biden is well past his prime, perhaps too old for the job, not charismatic like Trump, nor an idiot savant, but he appears to espouse the right values: Kindness, tolerance, gentleness. Perhaps that is what the country needs at this point in time. Maybe it’s good to have a boring president because politics should be boring, if it is done right. Trump was an entertainer… while he did some good things, his style was too exciting to be good. He espoused the wrong values. Now it’s somebody else’s turn…

Albania: Feudalism of the Middle Ages

The feudal system of the Middle Ages that we associate with western Europe from about the 9th to the 15th century, was also a part of Albanian society. Although Albania was part of a larger empire, the Byzantine Empire, owing to wars and invasions, the power Constantinople had over Albania was not absolute. The local governors had to have their own armies for protection. Invasion was a constant threat. The commoners had to seek protection from these governors who exploited their power. They took the property of the poor either through unfair rates, or force and turned the peasants into serfs on their large estates. Thus a new aristocracy was born.

Although the emperors from Constantinople attempted to thwart this new societal development, history was not on their side. Moreover, sometimes emperors such as those of the Comneni dynasty supported feudalism, so long as the landlords agreed to go to war for the empire. With time the landlords refused even that, and they were aided by certain events, such as the capture of Constantinople in the fourth crusade (AD 1203). This crusade weakened a crumbling empire, and made it possible for a foreign invader, the Ottoman Turks, to capture Constantinople permanently in the 15th century.


They feudal lords called themselves Dukes, Princes, or Despots, and married only among their own rank; sooner marrying outside their nationality, than outside their caste. They built castles to live in and ran organized societies with their own military, city councils, or even money. Their serfs supplied them with goods as well as money. Peasant life was tough; not only did they suffer hard labor but also tyranny; and this moved them to revolt, from time to time. One revolt in 1336 first brought Turkish soldiers to Albania who were hired to crush it by Emperor, and crush it they did. At that time, peasants were freer on the mountains, as the mountains were inaccessible to the feudal landlords. These communities bred animals and were most independent. But by the same token, owing to isolation, they were less civilized.

Although Albania was often made part of larger empires, often led by outsiders, such as the Byzantine Empire, or the Bulgarian Empire, or short lived empires liked the Serbian Empire, Albanian towns always had some degree of self governance. After the 12th century, major towns like Durres, Shkodra, and Lezha became largely independent. These free cities sooner had to struggle against the feudal princes nearby than against the emperor in Constantinople. These princes waged a heavy tribute tax on these tows. But as tyrannous and miserly as the feudal princes were, it was even worse when independence was lost altogether to a foreign power, like Venice, and soon after the Ottoman Empire.

Source:
Tajar Zavalani, History of Albania

Motivational Quotes 12/18/20

Good decisions are made in good times; bad decisions are made in bad times

Timing is the source of luck; both of the good and the bad

Luck is another word for fate; they’re opposite sides of the same coin

Every face is a mirror and reflects you your own, in a way no other can

The eyes like a familiar face since long absent

Beauty eases pain

Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall -Shakespeare

How often have the good suffered only because they were within the scope of influence of the bad…

We often dislike those we’ve hurt -Gretchen Rubin

To be good is to be happy; he who is good is happy, and he who is happy is good

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: Durres history


With a history as old as Europe, Durres is Albania’s most ancient city. The fame of Durres rose with the Greek Colony. It was here by the Adriatic Sea, on the land of the Illyrian tribe of the Taulanti, that they would settle in the 627 BC. They came from Corinth and Corcyra and would stay for over 300 years; until the city was captured in 312 BC by the Illyrian King Glaucus. Appian Alexandrinius, a writer of the 2nd century BC tells us the founder of Durres was called Epidamnos and named the town after himself. His nephew was called Dyrrachion and built a pier on a bay near the city which he named after himself. Later Strabo, the Greek geographer, writes Dyrrachion took its name from the peninsula on which Durres was founded.

The Greeks set a foundation for a city that would stand the test of time. For several centuries, when part of the Roman Empire, Durres became the greatest city on the Adriatic. In the first two centuries of Roman power, an amphitheater, a library, public baths, an aqueduct, and many luxurious villas were built. It was at its port that the Via Ignatia, the Military Highway of the Balkans, began and led to the east past other major cities of the time like Manscio Scampa (Elbasan) and Thessaloniki to Byzantium. Durres’ ancient port, the largest of Illyricum, has survived over 2000 years, and is still Albania’s largest port today. The city became a center of trade and gave and took goods from other major cities of the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and the Italian Peninsula.


Durres like the rest of Albania has been invaded often through the ages. Perhaps, even more so, owing to the fact it is susceptible to invasion by sea. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Bulgars, Serbs, Normans, Achaeans (Greeks), Venetians, Sicilians, Turks, Nazi Germans, Italians, and the like have all passed through Durres. Some stayed a very long time. The ancient Greeks spent over 300 years here; the Romans over 400; the Byzantine Empire held Durres for 800 years, the longest of all, with periodic interruptions from Albanian families or invaders, which lasted for years to decades to even centuries. After the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire held Durres for over 400 years.


Of all eras, a little to a lot of evidence can still be found today. Greek artifacts abound. Numerous historical sights worthy of recognition stand today. The Romans built the 1500 seat amphitheater, the second largest in the Balkans. The Roman era also gave Durres a castle, a small part of which still stands. The Byzantine Empire which held Durres the longest time, built a church in the 9th Century. The Venetians built a tower in the 1500’s, which still stands and in good shape, although as a cafe. While the Turks who would hold Durres for four centuries converted the population to Islam and built mosques. Later in the early 20th century, the Italians built roads and government buildings.


Important personages have noted Durres. Aristotle wrote of its constitution. Cicero wrote “I came to Durres because this is a free city and loyal to me,” and may well have lectured here, perhaps at the amphitheater itself. Julius Caesar came here probably during Rome’s fight with Pompey, which happened on the Adriatic coast. Durres captures the imagination for its ancient storied past, in particular for its classic Greco Roman civilization. While today it has been outshined by Tirana, it was in fact declared modern Albania’s first capital in 1912, and remains Albania’s second largest city. Though Durres may be thought of as second best, and a “has been,” its history is old as Europe itself.


Sources:


Hoti, Afrim. Epidamnos-Dyrrhachion Durres. Cetis. Tirana, 2006.


http://www.britannica.com/place/Durres


http://albania.al/destinations/durres/

Photo:

Venetian Tower https://wherefoodtakesus.com/tirana-day-trip-what-to-do-in-durres/

Motivational Quotes 11/20/20

The world is a poem composed by God.

The artist has to earn his audience.

Ain’t gonna waste this life*

Believe it the world has changed in a whole new way*

You can cheat death but you can’t cheat fate

What you can’t perceive can’t hurt you

To each his equal, as determined by place

We don’t know who we are but in each other’s eyes.

There is intelligence in a glance; which vanishes once the mouth opens and the conversation becomes dumbed down to an unsophisticated level.

The body carries mind; every limb carries soul, and feels.

We never know how lucky we have been, until it’s over…

Only what is mine is any good, for the good thing that is not mine, I could never enjoy…

*the Offspring

Albania: Invasions of the Middle Ages


In 395, after the division of the Roman Empire into East and West, the Illyrian lands of Moesia (Serbia) Dardania (Kosovo) and Epirus (Albania) fell to the east. The east, the Byzantine Empire, called their political units themes, large states led by a deputy to the emperor, with several provences such as Vlora, and Lezha, in central Albania or Praevlitania, in the northern Albania, or Moesia in modern Serbia; each were ruled by nobles. On a larger level, there were four prateorian prefectures, which were divided into dioceses.


Emperor Justinian, 527 to 565, built many fortifications to defend the Empire. Eventually, the invaders would come, and great as defence was, the wave could not be stopped. Though he built 26 forts in Illyria, his home, IIlyria itself would be most affected by invasion. The first invaders came from central Europe from the Germanic peoples. The Goths, and the Iranian Sarmatians, swept through Balkan regions such as Thrace (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Dardania, Epirus. etc. Though they wrought great violence and suffering, they left no trace on the people and place. The Huns came from the east in 441 followed by the Avars, to further ruin Dardania and Macedonia. Ostragoths from the north would follow in 459.


These periodic invasions however would only increase in the 500s and 600s. The new wave would begin from the East where the Bulgars, a Turkic people, would defeat an Illyrian army in Thrace and settle the land. Constant wars would weaken the Byzantine army and its capacity to defend the empire, which only led to further invasion, and finally permanent settlement. The waves of settlers would come from the north and east, from the Slavic peoples; these people, who were numerous and particularly ruthless, would ravage the empire, killing, expelling or assimilating the natives. So bold and unstoppable were these invaders that they attempted to capture Constantinople itself; in this ambitious campaign, however, they were defeated. But they would forever change the ethnic composition of the Balkans. Today their descendants live in the modern countries of Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria.


Illyria would loose Moesia to the Serbs and all territory north of modern Albania; though today there exists an Albanian minority in neighboring Slavic countries, like Monte Negro, as well as Macedonia, which is 25 percent Albanian. Ancient Dardania, modern Kosovo, would have centuries of conflict with the Serbs, until it gained independence as its own country in 1999.


From the east came further invasion into central Albania, this time from the Bulgars, who themselves now had been overrun by the more numerous Slavs. The Bulgarian Slavs were to build a kingdom in 851 whose zenith would be in the 10th century, and whose reach would extend through Macedonia, northern Greece, and central Albania. Though it would last for close to two centuries, until 1018, it would have no permanent impact on Albania, other than some Slavic place names or words.


From the west, Albania and the Balkans would have yet more invasion, this time from the Normans, an adventurous Viking people, who are most known for conquering England in the year 1066. In 1081, the Normans invaded Vlora and proceeded to Durres without much resistance. Meanwhile Emperor Alexius called on Venice for support. On the sea, the Normans would loose to the Venetian force, but not on land; all of Albania and Thessaly (Northern Greece) would be occupied until 1085, when Alexius raised another army and routed the invaders. Yet the Normans would return once more in 1107, this time without success. So weak was their campaign in Durres that their leader Bohemond instead of conquering, joined the Empire as a governor in Asia Minor.


Sources:
Zavalani, Tajar. (1903-1966) Histori e Shqipnis, 1957, Tirana. History of Albania. London, 1963. Reprinted, 2015 Robert Elsie and Bejtullah Destani, editors.


Elsie, Robert. (1950-2017) Albania in a Nutshell, 2015.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov 1881

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.

Motivational Quotes 9/25/20

After a certain age, the race feels over and every year is a victory lap!

Those at the beginning long to be at the end; those at the end long to be at the beginning

To allow the current to take control, instead of resisting its waves, is to relinquish your destiny; to assert your will is to find your way back home.

What is, is meant to be; what never was, was never meant to be

Carry life on happily

Turn your weakness into your strength.

If you can’t beat the fear, do it while scared! -Will Smith

The self is perceived in meditation; but it is seen more clearly when reflected from another.

Life itself is always one’s greatest accomplishment.

Just as every story needs a happy ending, life must end in heaven.

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.