Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Beauty and The Beast

Albanian women are beautiful. There's just no other way to put it. I might be a tad biased as I am married to one and live in the center of Tirana. Every morning and afternoon the tide of students going to and from classes washes over my neighborhood in a surge of young men and women. Come nightfall, the area is alive with clubs, bars, and restaurants frequented by the same youth. And the ladies are dressed to kill.

(Before you condemn me as a chauvinist pig and rail against my sexism, hear me out. Just as any honest discussion of crime or pollution in Albania requires a historical and cultural understanding, so does the topic of gender. Please indulge me as you read this post and save the rage until later.)

This opinion of Albanian women is not mine alone. One visitor remarked in 2000, "Man, what was Enver Hoxha doing here for 40 years? Selectively breeding buxom women with size 4 waists? These girls are incredible!" He was a Navy sailor who had ogled his share of beauties in ports around the world, so he was qualified to comment.

As time passed, I came to understand that not only are Albanian women physically attractive, they are smart. Their evident attention to maintaining their beauty was not shallow and vapid as you might initially think. It comes from someplace deeper. It's the same thing that drives them to excel at academics and in the workplace. What is it?

Whatever the source of women's motivation, it sure doesn't apply to the men. I don't want to say Albanian men are unattractive. First off, I'm straight, which limits my ability and inclination to comment on the physical beauty of another man. Let's just say the effort put forth by women to maintain their appearance is not matched by men. Evidence?

May it please the court to examine Exhibit A: A T-shirt rolled up to just below the nipples exposing a hairy, protruding belly on a hot summer day by a middle-aged man slouched at a table swilling beer next to his immaculately dressed, made up, coiffed wife. This is an extreme example, but to a lesser degree the pattern holds true. The women strive while they guys are just phoning it in.

I got a clue to the reason for this double standard the other day when I heard a neighbor using the phrase "Nje kove uje." It means "A bucket of water." She was responding to her friends' distressed description of her youngest sons' latest indiscretion. The boy was evidently a bit mischievous and had been caught in a compromising positon with a young lady. The boys' mother was worried about damage to his reputation when my neighbor dismissed it with, "S'ka gje - Nje kove uje." It's nothing - A bucket of water. The expression encapsulates the cultural standard of forgiving boys misteps as easily as washing the stain away with a single bucket of water.

Girls, on the other hand, are held to a much higher standard. Protecting their reputation is vital. The slightest hint of impropriety threatens to rain "turp" (shame) down on a girl and her family. From the youngest age girls are admonished to behave properly; to present an attractive, civilized appearance. The daily refrain drills it into their psyche. "Don't play rough, it's shameful." "Don't talk like that, it's shameful." "Don't go outside without brushing your hair? Have you no shame?"

So the male-dominated patriarchal model has been inherited from antiquity. Even the communists couldn't completely eradicate the bias, despite their best efforts to improve the status of women. In theory, all citizens were equal under the regime, but in practice the boys still slid by while girls had to overachieve in order to compete. An average grade of 7.5 on a 10-point scale would get a guy into university or a plum position in the government. Girls needed to have an average grade of 9. The good-old-boy network is alive and well in Albania.

It's this unfair, sexist system that produced the women of today in Albania and the men who maintained and "benefitted" from it are learning about the law of unintended consequences. They've produced a generation of Beauties and Beasts. The women are generally better educated, more disciplined, harder working, and more attractive than the men. They understand the politics of power and use the tools available to them to succeed on a vastly unfair playing field. The guys may be the public faces of power in Albania, but the women are the real source of strength.

And with the opening of Albania to all the economic and educational possibilities the West offers, the men are starting to realize how badly their system has handicapped them. The girls are going off to prosper while the boys pay the price for the image they have created and perpetuate. Albanian men are unfairly sterotyped as lazy, dirty criminals by their European neighbors. However, like most stereotypes, it has some basis in truth. After growing up in an environment that spoiled them, didn't demand much of them intellectually, and forgave their transgressions so easily, what could you expect? Many of them live up to the stereotype and all Albanian men get tarred with this brush.

This would be the part where I would congratulate the girls on getting one over on the guys except for one thing: domestic violence.

A lot of men, rather than recognizing they need to get their act together, vent their frustrations on the women closest to them. The news is full of reports of women killed or brutalized at the hands of their husbands, brothers, or fathers. Here, a woman finally goes to the police after 8 years of abuse, her left eye blackened and swollen, her arms covered in bruises. There, an unemployed man wakes his wife, accuses her of infidelity, and murders her with a rock. When asked why he did it, he claims she must have been cheating on him because she went into Tirana every day - this despite the fact she was the sole breadwinner in the family, going to Tirana to sell eggs. Last year three brothers killed their sister and her lover "to protect the family honor."

In the past, much of this crime was ignored by the police as it was considered a family matter. The good news is, if anything about this can be called good, the view of the people and police is changing. More domestic violence is being reported to the police and acted on. A woman who killed her abusive husband is fighting to have her conviction overturned and public opinion is supportive. Small steps to be sure, but they lead down the right track.

I can only hope this track leads to Beauty taming The Beast.

Friday, July 25, 2008


I was sitting in the Sheraton having a drink with an old acquaintance, a journalist I first met in 1999 in Tirana. I'll call him Beni. We were going over all the changes we've seen in Albania and all the problems that still remain despite the buckets of money thrown at the country. The conversation drifted to the theme of international assistance to Albania's transition and my friend sighted wistfully and said,

"The quality of internationals who come here sure has fallen."

I choked on my drink as I tried to stifle the urge to be offended and thought, "Hey, I'm one of those internationals!" I think Beni caught on when the raki I was sipping squirted out my nose. Man, that stings!

"Please, let me explain," said Beni. "I don't mean it as an insult to you or anyone in the diplomatic or NGO community. It's just that things have changed." He continued while I dabbed my eyes with a napkin and tried to ignore the burning in my sinuses.

"When the regime fell in '91 and the first wave of foreigners came here, we were virgin. Most of us had never seen, let alone spoken to a foreigner. We were poor, really poor. The Italian troops of Operation Pelican drove around in vehicles that made our old Russian and Chinese trucks look so antiquated, primitive. We stood by the roadside and gaped, counting ourselves lucky when they threw a pack of gum. We watched in awe as they paid outrageous rents for apartments and villas without batting an eye. We were used to haggling over a few qindarkas on the price of milk and these people handed over our yearly salary for a month's rent."

Now I had to try to suppress both the urge to cry from the raki scalding my nose and the urge to giggle uncontrollably. Qindarka? Really? I had pilot friends who used to criss-cross Europe in the days before the Euro and they had given up on trying to remember what currency was used in what country. They referred to the local currency as "Gazingas." As in "A beer costs 32,500 gazingas in Turkey! What's that in real money?" Now I find out there was a country using coinage even more ridiculously named. Qindarka!

Beni continued. "It wasn't just the economic difference. These foreigners smiled. All the time. To us, a person walking down the street smiling at strangers was either up to no good or an idiot. A serious man needs to show a serious face. But they were above that. Their ambassadors smiled. Their generals smiled. Even James Baker smiled. They could afford to smile because they knew they were serious and didn't have to convince anyone."

As he talked, it thought back to my early experiences. I remembered how deferential senior leaders were to foreigners. It wasn't just the cultural value of hospitality which is a hallmark of Albanians' treatment of guests. It was more. Almost an inferiority complex. If the Italian Police Advisors had told the Minister of Public Order to replace all their batons with grissini, the roads would have been littered with crumbs in a week! Everything foreign was better. Nothing Albanian could compare.

Beni went on. "Remember in '99 how Joe Limprecht ran this country?" Mr. Limprecht was the American Ambassador at the time and I often heard Albanians end political arguments by invoking his name. According to them, everything that happened in Albanian politics originated from, or was approved by, Joe. Other internationals were held in similarly high esteem then. Now, evidently, things were different.

The truth is, things are different, but not in the way Beni expressed it. It's not that the international community here is populated with more slackers and losers. It's the level of Albanian experience and self esteem that is rising. They travel more, their economic conditions have improved, and they're seeing themselves in a different light. As the country continues to attract more visitors and relaxed visa regimes with Europe allow more Albanians to travel, the inferiorty complex will erode even more. The cure for 40 years of isolation is exposure.

Now I need to find a cure for the raki-scalded flesh inside my nose.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tirana Holds The Air

Albanians don't say that something smells. They use the phrase "Mban ere...," - "It holds the air of ...." Apt. The air indeed holds the essence of an odor. It holds the key to memories and it takes only one whiff of a familiar odor to bring back vivid recollection of people, places, and emotions. Sometimes, though, the air holds too much.

Yesterday Tirana sweltered under 35 degrees and oppressive humidity. It's been weeks since the last rain and consistently warm. Not hot in the way that July often is, but warm enough. The lack of rain leaves the dust hanging in the air along with all the smoke and smells of the city. It wraps around your head and dulls your senses. No distinct odors to trigger a memory or impress itself forever in your cortex. Just a fog. A haze. The air holds everything in general and nothing specific. Last night, it changed.

The passage of a cold front with light rain and a drop of 15 degrees swept the air clean. All the soot, smog, and smoke was stripped away leaving this mornings air clear and cool. Like a blank slate, a virgin canvas awaiting the artist. This morning Tirana did indeed "hold the air." Held each smell aloft uncluttered, making me focus on exactly what the smell was and triggering memories.

Tirana held the air of flowers. Even now in the height of summer you catch the scent of blooms. Delicate. Faint. Calling to mind the olfactory orgy of spring with the linden trees in full flower. Remember? How that smell overwhelmed every other scent with the promise of beauty and life. Forget the trash and diesel smoke. Drink deep of the peaceful, hopeful lindens.

Tirana held the air of charcoal smoke from the small kiosk serving qofte. The roasting meat laden with oregano and salt sends up an tendril of "come hither" aroma which can make all but the most committed vegetarian sacrifice their cholesterol count. How many sunny afternoons have passed in the company of family, Birra Korca, and these tasty little meatballs? Sitting beside Grandma, learning the language. Learning the history. Getting the best gossip.

Tirana still held the air of diesel exhaust. Not like the oppressive cloud of yesterday, but something different. An industrial taste like oil and effort. A reminder of the work being done and a warning of the work still to be done. It's the price the city pays for progress - the motive force behind change. A pungent reminder of sitting behind the big machines for hours near Gjirokaster cursing their pollution and inconvenience one year and then marvelling at the wide, smooth road a year later. Like the dinosaurs it sprang from, the smell of diesel hints of it's own impending extinction.

Other smells don't prompt memories, just questions:

Why does the sidewalk in front of the Italian Ambassador's residence alway smell like an open sewer? Do they not notice it every day?

What makes that bakery smell so much better than the others? Is it wood-fired? A special recipe? Or just years of daily baking layering the aroma into the the very fiber of the building?

Oh, yes. Tirana holds the air. On mornings like today she holds it right there in front of you.

More Names

It seems everyone has their favorite Albanian Name Story. Some ended up in the comments sections of this blog. Others have been told to me in person. A few were just too good not to share.

One guy made a comment below about how relieved he was to discover his date, Fatlinda, was not what you might imagine, but rather "born lucky."

On the political side, my attention was drawn to a name which sprang from an excess of communist fervor. Evidently there are a few Albanians named Marenglen, a mash-up of "Marx, Engels, and Lenin." Someone please tell me there are no Americans running around named Wajeffad.

Finally, consider the name Sosa. It originates in the northern areas of Albania where the patriarchal, clan structure was, and remains, strongest. There, the announcement of the birth of a male child is greeted with the exclamation, "Edhe nje pushk!" Another rifle! Boys are lovingly referred to as the "pillar of the house."

Girls, loved and cherished in their own way, are seen through the cultural/economic lens as presenting a challenge. The males of the family must protect her honor, find a suitable husband, and pay for a wedding after which the daughter becomes part of the labor force of another family. The combination of these two factors has led to parents, upon the birth of a third or fourth daughter when a son was anticipated, naming the girl Sosa. "Enough!"

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Qafe Krrabe

(Editors Note: The photos were taken recently, 9 years after the events described)

Traveling in Albania is always an adventure. Part of the reason is geography, part infrastructure, part history, and part culture. All of these reason combine to produce unforgettable moments in Albanian motoring. The most impressive for me was my first time over Qafe Krrabe (Krrabe Pass). It lies on the main road from Tirana to Elbasan and I'm told it was built by the Austrians.

In Nevada, a pass is generally a point on a road where it crosses a mountain range. You go up. You cross over. You go down. So when I was offered the chance to take a quick trip over Qafe Krrabe in 1999, I thought I knew what I was getting into.

We headed south out of Tirana on the Elbasan Road. A narrow, two-lane asphalt road that generally did what roads do; stuck to the riverside, followed the line of least resistance, and passed through several small villages. Cars and trucks jockeyed for position while attempting to avoid villagers, chickens, and cows. All was well ..... at first.

I sensed something might be amiss when we parted ways with the river. It continued south and our road started sidling up the mountain. Small steps at first, then steeper. As we passed the village of Krrabe I was trying to get a picture of a communist statue commemorating some battle or local martyrs when the road went nuts.

No more sidling. This was a direct frontal assault on the mountain which threw up stone ramparts in defense. The road carved a series of switchbacks into the solid, black rock and we twisted our way up. No guardrail, no visibility, and no indication of when it might end. Back and forth. Now facing south, now north. The turns swung through 270 degrees so rapidly I swear at one point I was looking at my own backside. "Oh dear! I need to lose some weight."

We rounded the last turn, past a roadside restaurant with a lamb slowly rotating on a spit outside, into a deep pine forest. Still going up, but more gently, following the contours of the ridge. "Wow! Am I glad that's over." The driver smiled ... and then accelerated.

We were flying up the road looking off to the left down into the valley we just fought our way out of. On the right, trees whipping by in a blur of deep green. Did I really want to know what's on the other side? The driver shot me a quick glance and grinned, "We call this The Sky Road." I learned why.

One minute a comforting barrier of green on the right while the left fell away to the valley floor. Suddenly, bang! My forest is gone, replaced by thin air. At something like a million miles an hour we crested the top and traversed to the other side on a wafer thin ridge. Almost two lanes wide, no shoulder and a near-vertical drop of 300 meters on each side. Through the panic I recall thinking, "Hey, I can see the ocean!" He told me the name of that place later, but I still call it "The Place Where I Nearly Crapped in My Pants." Gross, I know, and it doesn't sound any better in Albanian.

We continued climbing, forested slope to the left now, dizzying void to the right, winding upward along the mountain contours. Where it was particularly precarious there was a guardrail of sorts consisting of a concrete wall just high enough to to trip a small toddler with a series of semi-circular concrete rails mounted on top. Painted white.

We re-crossed the ridge several times before reaching the highest point, and at each crossing the driver glanced over to watch my reaction. Evidently getting a chuckle out of my expression of fear was more important to him than us actually staying on the road. Finally we reached a small village at the highest point called Gracen. It's pronounced "Gratchen" and should be Albanian for vomit. When I got out of the car to stretch and take pictures I noticed little piles of the stuff all around on the pavement. (Have I mentioned Albanians appear to be the people most vulnerable to carsickness in the world? Is it them or the roads? Chicken or Egg?) True to form, as I was taking pictures, a mini-bus pulled off the road behind us and out tumbled four deeply nauseous travellers. We drove away with their retching in our ears: "Grraaaaaatchen."

Heading down toward Elbasan was relatively sedate compared to the ascent. Still up high. Breathtaking views over range after range of mountains marching east and west. In front, the snow-capped massif of Cuka Partizanit shone in the clear winter air. We came to the end of the ridge and dropped into hell.

The road, spiraling off the end the ridge like a coil of tattered clothesline was bad enough, but where it led was surreal. I gazed over a giant derelict industrial complex shrouded in soot and smoke, it's presence violating the natural beauty like a tumor on Angelina Jolie's inner thigh... like a ring of hickeys on a nuns neck, like.... OK, you get it. It was gross.

"Celiku i Partise." "The Steel of The Party." Built during the Hoxha era to process chrome and steel, the gigantic complex sprawled over the valley floor. A Stalinist monstrosity meant to demonstrate the industrial might of the Peoples Repulbic. Unfortunately the communists didn't give a hoot about the environment or the workers. "EPA? What's that?" It sat abandoned and rusting save for one furnace churning out thick, grey smoke. The brilliant decision to put the factory in a narrow valley prevented the wind from clearing the smoke quickly and a thick haze hovered over the plant and the people of Elbasan.

I passed on the chance to descend into the funk. That could wait for another day. I didn't want to smudge the memory of my first exposure to the wild beauty of Albania with what surely awaited me at the other end of Qafe Krrabe.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Signs of Progress

My grandfather dealt with his grandchildrens' many complaints with a standard answer, "You think you have it bad? You should have seen it when I was a kid." As an impatient 7-year old, it used to infuriate me no end. Why should I care what it "used to be like?" " I'm here - I'm now." Many years later I can confidently report Albania is turning me into my grandfather.

I've been living here sporadically for over 8 years now. A lot of coming and going. I get to see the country with fresh eyes each time but still have the reference point to assess the general direction of progress. This is useful to exactly one person - me. I can't count the number of times when hearing a complaint from a "newcomer", I've channeled Grandad's ghost.

"You think the roads are bad? You should have seen it in 1999. Took me 12 hours to drive 250 kilometers to Kukes."

"Construction mess? You call this construction? You should have seen it when the "Twin Towers" were going up on the boulevard."

I know in the back of their heads they're all thinking, "Thanks, Gramps, but that doesn't fix my shock absorbers or make it any less dusty in my apartment. I'm here - I'm now." I feel their pain because I share many of their problems. I lose my temper in traffic and am revolted when I come across a large pile of uncollected trash, but something in me makes me want to try to put it in perspective. The most depressing aspect of living here is thinking people who come here will go home to report there's no hope - no progress - in Albania. It's there. You just have to look and really understand what you're looking at.

It's in the airport. The security fence that goes all the way around the runway and has no holes. That's progress from 2002 when my arriving flight got waved off at the last moment due to cows on the runway. It's in the immigration control area. Lights, AC, computers, CCTV. Nobody just strolls through without being checked. It's the 12 airlines serving the swelling ranks of travellers. It's the 0530 flight to Rome made possible by the increase in security that allows airlines to overnight their planes in Tirana. Prior to 2005 it was an "in-and-out" airport.

A huge monument to progress sits at the Kamez interchange on the Durres road. It's an overpass. No more playing "Albanian Roulette" with the southbound trucks entering the highway. Not completely done yet and drivers are still trying to puzzle out exactly how it works, but it's progress.

It's in the whole road from Elbasan to Qafe Thane. Smooth pavement, sweeping turns, modern bridges, and no "Tunnel of Death." There used to be an L-shaped tunnel on the eastbound lane, about 50 meters long. You entered from the blazing sunshine to a completely unlit, un-signposted tunnel which immediately turned 70 degrees right. No reflective arrow, just blackened stone with the scars left by unsuspecting drivers. It's gone - that's progress.

Progress is also in the faces of the successful Albanian entrepreneurs who are returning from abroad. The giant QTU - Qender Tregtare Univers (Universe Trade Center) - is owned and operated by an Albanian who returned with his family after years in Europe because he saw opportunity here. Or the naturalized U.S. citizen who got his degree in marketing in the States and came back to help expand the tourist industry in Saranda by getting visitors stay longer and see something other than Butrint.

So I continue to try to tread the fine line between being the Albanian equivalent of my grandfather and just another disgrunteld ex-pat. I'm aided in this by my sheer fascination with this place and the words of Kwai Chang Kane's* master: "He who lives in the past robs from the present. He who ignores the past robs from the future."

(*You have been watching your "Kung Fu" reruns, right?)

Friday, July 11, 2008

What's in a Name?

Rember Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction? He's changing clothes in the back of the cab with the Colombian beauty driving after having killed his opponent in the boxing ring. Their conversation goes:

BUTCH: ...Esmarelda Villalobos -- is that Mexican?
ESMARELDA: The name is Spanish, but I'm Colombian.
BUTCH: It's a very pretty name.
ESMARELDA: It means "Esmarelda of the wolves."
BUTCH: That's one hell of a name you got there, sister.
ESMARELDA: Thank you. And what is your name?
BUTCH: Butch.
ESMARELDA: Butch. What does it mean?
BUTCH: I'm an American, our names don't mean shit.

That last line always runs through my mind when I talk about names here in Albania.

When I first arrived, I noticed was how foreign so many of the names appeared. OK, Albanian is as foreign language to me, but I kept being suprised by how strange and unpronounceable the name appeared in print. "Ylli?" How the hell do you say that? What's with all the X's?

Then I started to hear people pronounce the names and was amazed again. "Your Minister of Defense is really a guy named Lou Ann? And a former president (now Prime Minister) is a dude named Sally?"

After a few months of language lessons, it starts to make more sense. And, thankfully, I learn that many of the people with hard to pronounce names go by shorter versions. I meet lots of Beni's, Tani's, Sebi's, and Dini's. I also start to get curious about where the names come from and what they mean since in my country Butch's last line is pretty much accepted truth.

Lots of names come from other cultures: Ismael, Ahmet, Sebahadin and many more were brough by the Turks. Filip, Artur, Stefan, and Gjergj share the same origin as the English Phillip, Arthur, Stephen, and George. Then there's Skender which comes from the Turkish version of the Macedonian Alexander (as in .. the Great). He was half-Albanian according to some historians and Angelina Jolie. Finally, there are those names that drifted in after the country opened up like Wendy, Max, and suprisingly, Elvis.

It's the pure Albanian names that stand out most. So many of them mean something. Mira (the good), Shpresa (hope), Besa (oath), Fatmir (good luck), Fatjon (our luck), Gezim (happiness), Besnik (loyal), Flutura (butterfly), Ilir (free), Drita (light), Lule (flower), Pranvera (spring), Agim (dawn), and Bashkim (unity). "How nice," I thought, "that Albanian parents loved their children so much as to give them names reflecting the most positive aspects of life." It turns out that parental patriotism was not the only reason so many Albanians of a certain age are named Ilir.

During the communist period, there was a list of "acceptable" names at the civil registry. If the name you wanted for your child was not on the list, you had to choose one that was. The communist leadership built up on the tradition of giving meaningful names and used it to tie the people closer to their movement. As a result you can meet today with Perparim (progress), Clirim (liberation), Fitore (victory), Flamur (flag), Lavdrim (glory), and Luftar (warrior). I've heard stories of parents in more rural areas adopting this mindset so intensely that there were children named Shkence (science) and Traktor (.... I guess you can figure that one out!).

Now, as I meet more Albanians, I keep my suprise in check when I hear a new name. I don't giggle when meeting yet another man named Luan (the lion), but it will be hard surpressing the urge to chuckle when I eventually meet Traktor!

Oh, and Ylli? It means "star".

Thursday, July 10, 2008


"Let's go for coffee."

You hear it everywhere in Tirana. At first you take the statement at face value and prepare yourself to go get a cup of java, a quick pick-me-up. Then you find out things aren't always as simple as they seem.

The invitation may be simply to go sit and drink a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, which is an art and science of its own here. Expect to invest a little time. Unlike the Italians who often shoot down an espresso while standing at a counter, Albanians give the coffee the time it deserves. Choose a cafe bar. Pick a table. Take a seat. A waiter, usually young, usually male, come to take your order. History intrudes.

"Should I go for a classic espresso which came over with the Italians?"

"Perhaps a cafe latte in the style of the French soldiers in Korca at the beginning of the century?"

"Or maybe the original Turkish coffee, the first brew introduced to Europe at the point of the Ottoman scimitar?"

Yes, that sounds right. A good "kafe Turk" takes time to brew, fills the air with the aroma of dark, bitter coffee, and arrives at your table accompanied by a glass of water and a sweet. While you wait for the grounds to settle the conversation ebbs and flows. Just conversation - muhabet - with no aim, no pressing need to move to conclusion. A quick toast before the first sip. Cigarettes. Light 'em if you got 'em. Time passes. And that's the point of coffee here. Pass time, make conversation, relax.

But that's just when "coffee" means simply coffee. The same invitation may lead down a different trail. Going for coffee can be the gateway to a large feast, particularly if the invitation is to a private home. Coffee starts with offer of a shot of raki or a chocolate, water, maybe a sweet preserved fruit. The coffee is served, sipped, and enjoyed. More raki, an invitation to "eat a little something", and then dinner begins. Coffee is the gateway to Albanian hospitality. A hook. A teaser. A joy.

Sometimes "going for coffee" doesn't even involve coffee. It's an excuse to meet up for a drink or the first step in the courting process. Whatever the purpose, whatever the drink, going for coffee in Albania is always a pleasure for me.

In the U.S. coffee has become synonymous with Starbucks or one of their clones. Stand in line, order your pretentiously-named version of coffee, and shell out 3-5 bucks. When it's ready you go back up to the counter to retrieve your paper cup (with cardboard liner) and retire to your seat amid the cell-phone-chattering, laptop-pecking, i-pod-cocooned customers. They come together to be isolated.

Real coffee comes in a real cup. It costs between 50-150 lek ($.50-$1.50) and is served by a waiter in black pants and white shirt. With a glass of water. And a biscuit. And time to talk.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


To understand why I’m staying in Albania, I need to look back at how I got here. I won’t bore you with all the details of the events that brought me here. I reserve that particular brand of punishment for unsuspecting people who ask me “The Question.”

I had been working for the government for quite a few years and was getting a little bored with doing the same thing over and over. I needed a change and a change I got. A little exploration brought up an opportunity to work in ….. Africa! Yes! You can’t get much more change than that. I was psyched. I read up on my future home country, prepared to start learning the language, and had one foot in the jungle when the phone rang.

“Look,” they said, “We need someone to work in Albania immediately and we reasoned that if you would volunteer to go to Africa, you would go anywhere.” True enough. Encouraged by the thought of making the change quickly and earning an additional stipend for “dangerous duty”, I signed on. Then I ran down to Borders and tried to find a travelogue with a map so I could figure out where the heck Albania was. The Kosova war had just ended and the news channels were full of reporting about the area, but I didn’t really have a clue where the country was. The sum total of my knowledge about Albania came from The Animaniacs, The Simpsons, and John Belushi.

Fully briefed to expect rampant crime, violence, gunfire, and carjacking, I slinked off the plane ready to make a “Hillary-esque” dash under sniper fire to the terminal. Turns out the only thing I had to worry about was getting a good soaking in the rain as I walked from the plane to the terminal. Reality in Albania was something entirely different from my expectations… and not for the last time.


It's usually the first question.

Seems like the easiest question.

In the end, it's the one you end up asking yourself every day and finding a different answer.

"Why are you living in Albania?" I hear this question all the time from Albanians and from internationals. Depending on who is doing the asking or my mood at the moment, the answer ranges from a standard spiel to a wiseass quip; or, occasionally, a genuine attempt to explain how I ended up here and why I stay. Regardless of how I answer, I usually end up with more questions for myself.

"Is that really why you're here?"

"Do you really believe what you just said or are you just running your mouth?"

In the end, the answer is never complete. This blog is an attempt to capture for me, and share with you, the reasons why I'm here and why I stay. I hope you enjoy it and have the patience to put up with my sporadic tendencies. Like the rain in my home state, my muse visits rarely but when it does arrive, it pours.