Tuesday, November 3, 2009

'This Road Don't Go To Aintree'

Several writers have described the incredible hospitality of Albanians who have taken a disoriented foreigner under their wing and led them to their destination, often going well out of their way and losing hours of time in the process.  I admire and respect this generosity, but I suspect their is another force at work.  Albanians are so poor at giving directions that it's easier just to take the lost soul directly to his destination than it is to give directions.  

Hence the title of this entry.

Remember?  Burt Reynolds?  Deliverance?  Trying to get directions from the hillbillies?  I often feel his pain when I try to get directions here in Albania.  Even with my ability to communicate in Albanian, I end up being led like a kurban lamb through the narrow maze of streets.  Albanians just can not give directions.

I suspect many factors have combined to create this effect.  The first is the tribal nature of the people.  In the tightly-knit isolated communities of ancient Albania, everyone knew everyone who was within travelling distance.  No need to describe how to get to Uncle Genci's house because anyone who needed to go there had already been taken there once for a wedding, birth, death, birthday, engagement, or holiday celebration.  The only directions needed were, "Go to Uncle Genci's house". Second, this clannish-ness and isolation made any travellers immediately suspect.  If they asked for directions, it might not be wise to be too precise.  Who knows what this travelling foreigner has in mind?  Much safer to say a lot and tell nothing.   On top of this insularity, the Communist regime spread a creamy frosting of paranoia and secrecy.  Accurate maps were state secrets. If you need to go somewhere, the party will send a driver.  No need for you to clutter your mind with accurate directions.

So today a simple question such as' "How do I get to the Post Office?" will be answered with:
"I'll take your letter for you." (This avoids the need to give directions and provides an opportunity to display hospitality.  Bonus!)
"Come with me. I'll take you." (Ditto)
"Don't make yourself tired.  Get a cab." (Shows concern for your tiredness and allows you to impress with your wealth.)
"Post Office? Don't send things through the post.  They're all thieves and cheaters. The lines are so long because the workers are lazy.  Oh, god! The Post Office?  I tried to pay my phone bill last week and I waited for two hours in line and my knees were killing me... you know how bad my knees are?... Anyway, I wait two hours and this idiot behind the counter tries to tell me ...". Ad infinitum.

If you can pin someone down and insist they provide directions, you run up against linguistics and urban planning.  An American will tell you to go two blocks north, left on Main Street, and then 200 yards along to the Post Office on the right.  This simple procedure will fail here because Albanians don't think in terms of cardinal directions.  They grew up without detailed maps.  Speaking about north,south, east, or west gets you a "stunned mullet" look.

Tirana's layout also makes the term "block" useless.  No regular grid pattern here, thank you very much.  A block is the distance between two streets, but what counts as a street?  Do alleyways wide enough for a donkey but not a car count?  Street names?  Forget it.  They've been renamed more times than Prince!  In a single lifetime a street will have changed from it's original name based on what town it led to,  to an Italian name, to the name of a partisan, to Kruschev Street, then to an Albanian Communist's name after the split with the Soviets, then to it's original name, and then finally to Rruga Xhorxh Bushi in a fit of subservience to the only sitting U.S. President to ever visit Albania.  Street names don't mean shit. So what do you get?

First, they will establish a mutually understood landmark near your destination.  "Do you know the theater/museum/shoe factory?"  Of course you will say "No" because you don't recall ever seeing any of those structures in this part of town despite ten years of wandering around Tirana.  This is because they are referring to what the building used to be under Communism. 

For example, "te eksposita Shqiperia sot"  refers to the building that used to house the Albania Today exposition.  It's a warehouse/gas station now.  "Te pesembidhjete katesh" literally translates to "to the fifteen-story (building)" which everyone knows is the Tirana International Hotel because it was the only building over ten floors in the country for a very long time.  Now it's one of fifty. Likewise, "te xhamlliku" translates as "to the place of glass" meaning a building which was notable for it's modern all-glass facade .... in 1972! Today there's no glass at Xhamlliku but a hundred other modern buildings sport glass facades.  Guess which building they still call Xhamlliku? The ultimate insider's landmark is "te qimi" which refers to building which once housed a restaurant.  Was the restaurant called Qimi?  No, the name of the restaurant is forgotten, but what lingers is the memory of the woolen upholstery on the seats which were long and hairy.  Te qimi means "to the hair".

Once the landmark is clarified and agreed, directions are given from there and language fails.  Commonly used directions are:
me poshte - lower down
me lart - higher up
me tutje - more this way
matane - more on that side
me afer - closer
me larg - farther

A rough translation of the ensuing directions goes like this:
"How do I get to the Post Office?"
"Go to the hair."
"Near the madrassa?"
"Yes. Then continue higher up."
"Up the hill?"
"No, it's flat.  Continue 'up' away from the center of town about ten minutes."
"How far?"
"What do I know? Ten minutes... on the bus."
"All the way to the porcelain factory?"
"No, more this way."
"Which way?"
"Pass the chimney but don't pass the police station."
"Which side of the road is it on?"
"Next to the bakery."
"What bakery?"
"Do you want me to take your letter for you?"

Monday, November 2, 2009

Another Intrepid Blogger

I came across yet another well-written chronicle of travel in Albania to share.  It gives an idea of what things can be like here in the off season.  His name is Mykel Board and his tale of (mis)adventure begins here.  Happy reading!