Monday, June 14, 2010

How Does It Feel?

I get a lot of questions about living in Albania.  People ask me "Is it safe?" "What do you eat?" "How does it feel?"   There's a question.   How does it feel?  I never thought of that.  Smells.  Tastes. Sounds.  All of those lend themselves to description and we Westerners deal largely in the visual and provide a little variety by focusing on the tastes every now and then.  Albania is half Western, half Eastern.  The sensual Orient intrudes despite Western logic and perception.  How does it feel?

My eyes were opened recently by a talented photographer who travelled around with me shooting the sights of this fascinating, ancient land.  He took the mandatory scenery shots and historical shots and quirky "only in Albania" shots. It was his fascination with texture that opened my eyes to the "feel" of the country.  I'll let his photos answer the question:  "How does Albania feel?"

It feels ancient.  Layer upon layer of stone.  Rough cut at first; later more refined.  Touch the strength, the permanence and ponder your own fleeting presence.  Time has a texture when measured in stone.

It feels of geology and erosion and tectonics.  The land shapes the civilization, the people, the culture....

... and the people return the favor.  They shape the land, the stone.  First by their mastery of masonry to build the cobbled way.  Then by their ceaseless passage.  The feet of traders, hooves of mules, wheels of Gypsy carts whittle away at geometric shapes.  How many toiling laborers bore their burdens over these stones?  What small changes wrought by courting couples' tentative footfalls?

Albania feels like forests.  In the hinterlands it needs only a blessed winter of ceaseless rainfall to dress the hills in a cloak of greens.

It feels like olives.  The dusty grey of groves plaster terraced hillsides.  From a distance they feel ethereal, ghostly...

Up close you feel something else.  Wisdom, telling of the vital link between man and nature.  The intertwining of a culture and a tree; each comes to depend on the other and the condition of one gives clues to the health of the other. Scarred by time, conflict, neglect - you feel the history of Albania as you explore the twisted trunks of centuries-old groves.

The sensation of  intertwining of man and nature extends to the table, in the velvety smoothness of a traditional breakfast of pace koke in Leskovik.  The olive oil, the rice, and the earthy flavor of lamb meat.  Earlier a frolicking part of the landscape, now sustenance, shared family joy.

No mistake.. Albania feels hard.  Like stones on a wave-tossed beach.  Demanding, but rewarding if you can steel yourself to its elemental side.   Albania rewards with textures as clear-cut as diamonds and as soft as...

... morning sheep.  Bathed in the forgiving light of a new dawn, they feel new, shaggy, and resilient.  Alive with possiblity. They feel like Albania...
and I feel privileged to cling to these timeless textures, struggling to survive and comprehend.  And I feel alive.

Friday, May 21, 2010


In the early 1960's, David McNeil Doren penned a line in his book The Winds of Crete that resonates with me today in Albania:

"I believe that all human beings are inconsistent, that contradiction and paradox are inherent in our nature.  In reality you find generosity and meanness in the same person; brutality and tenderness cheek by jowl; bravery and cowardice commingled."

This inconsistency, this condradictariness, is evident not just in individuals, but in the culture itself.  It surfaces in the language, the traditions, and in the very fabric of Albanian life.  On one hand the language allows for tactful conversation about subjects which may cause embarrassment.  On the other, it provides no alternative other than an expression we Westerners would consider forward or insulting.    The American concept of "political correctness" does not translate into Albanian.

Where an American would refer to a disabled person as 'hearing impaired" or as having a "speech impediment," Albanians call a spade a spade.  Someone who can't hear is shurdh, deaf.  Someone who stutters or stammers is memec.  This term in particular grates on my American sensibilities as it is the onomatopoetic rendition of the sound made by someone with this condition. " ts..ts..ts..ts..m.m.m ...ts..ts..ts."  And it's not just the ignorant masses who use the term and find it funny to mock a disability.  The satellite TV provider Albsat produced a TV commercial where a guy halts before entering the Albsat shop and rehearses his order; "Albsat Gold Card, please."  He enters the shop and draws up short in front of the very attractive salesgirl and starts stuttering and stammering before dashing back outside to rehearse again.  He re-enters and goes through the whole routine once more, "" and dashes out again.  The whole time the salesgirl smiles and laughs like he's the funniest thing she has ever seen. 

The same goes for someone who has a handicap which makes walking difficult.  Whether the result of an accident, birth defect, or disease, one who has an irregular gait is topall - a gimp. Visually disadvantaged people are corr - blind.  The sensitive Western phrase "learning diabled" is rendered as me te meta mendore, literally "missing something mentally."   To add insult to injury it is considered bad luck to see a topall as you walk down the street.  If you do, you must swipe your hand on your friend's shoulder and say "pas topallin" to take away the bad luck.  If you're alone, you make the same swiping motion to the pavement.

The best jokes in Albania are always about sex, handicapped people, or policemen.  While Americans are on board with the first and last categories, the cultural disconnect on the second category is immense.  Not so long ago in Washington, D.C., a well-known Albanian comedian launched into a famous joke about a topall, a memec, and a shurdh.  The Albanians in the audience howled with laughter while the Americans reacted as if Hitler had just told his favorite Jewish joke. 

Yet the same culture that accepts these comments has strict taboos on things most Americans will laugh at.  Just try to make a fart joke in Albania.  Goes over like a lead balloon.  Any discussion of bathroom activity is rigorously avoided.  Even in the confines of all-male environments there is no mention of bodily functions or crude bathroom humor.  If, heaven forbid, an Albanian must relate the details of their medical condition and it requires describing any emission or secretion from the body, they will talk around it or beg your forgiveness before saying the offending term:  "The trip over Qafe Krrabe was so twisty that I eventually.. pardon me for saying this .. vomited."  The sense of shame in having to enunciate the word "vomit" is palpable.  Americans readily relate this activity in graphic detail and the language has a multitude of terms which we use with abandon. "Hurl", "ralph," "blow chow," "yak"  and many more carry no social penalty.  Try describing Stephen Hawking as a "gimp" however, and it's a whole different ball game.

There is no such restriction in Albania on addressing the medical condition of others, particularly in the area of weight.  Complete strangers will remark on it.  The plumber who comes to your house to fix the plumbing will eye you up and down and suggest you need to hit the gym before getting to work on your faucet.  Everyone feels entitled to comment on your weight and give advice.  "Drink lots of vinegar in the morning."  "Buy that Chinese tea that gives you hear palipitations and insomnia." "Start smoking."

In other instances, the linguistic and cultural norms swing to the other extreme.  An Albanian won't come straight out and ask for something they need.  If you hear them say "I'm thirsty," they really mean "Bring me some water."  The rhetorical question, "I wonder what time it is?" means "Tell me the time."  These indirect expression call for immediate action on your part and if you don't deliver, you are being rude and selfish.

This contradiction between hyper-sensitivity to giving offense in some areas and being so blunt in other areas continues to amuse and amaze me.  We truly are a mass of contradictions.  I've learned to temper my reaction to "offensive" remarks by trying to understand what the term used means to them, not what my culture judges it to mean.  I've also cut back drastically on my fart jokes.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Great news today!  The road to Thethi has finally been opened. An unbelievable winter of snow has kept the village and valley of Thethi blocked up tighter than a ham sandwich in Mama Cass' windpipe. Newspapers across Albania have heralded the tidings that the valley is now open for tourists to explore this pristine corner of the Albanian Alps.  Yes!  We can finally gain access to all those Alpine peaks of unparalleld grandeur and Heidi-ish beauty.  Joy overwhelms the adventurous mountaineers of southeast Europe.

Yet, further south, small tears trickle down the faces of the "other" peaks of Albania.  How sad.  Remember how you felt when your big brother or sister monopolized the familial limelight with their superlatives?  "Oh look, Johnny has his first adult tooth!"  "Jenny got straight A's this semester!"  All the while your younger heart thought "Whoop-de-doo... what about me?"

I imagine that's the same way the mountains of southern Albania must feel about now.  The local press trumpets the opening of the Accursed Mountains like the second coming of Christ, but the southern peaks have been there all along.  Just as rugged.  Just as awe-inspiring.  But somehow neglected. 

In an effort to correct this monstrous injustice, I present the "Hirushjat (Cinderellas)" of Albanian peaks.  Often overshadowed by their more renowned siblings up north, these proud mountains deserve a little more respect and investigation. 

We begin with Tomorri. How could anyone overlook this majestic massif?  It sits in central Albania, to the east of Berat.  Rising out of the foothills and plateaus in glorious solitude.  No other peaks nearby to distract the eye.  Not part of a chain or a lesser peak on a sprawling ridge.  Tomorri stands proud more than 2000 meters higher than any other hill in the visible vicinity.  Majestic is the only way to describe it. 
          "Yes, I am all that."

Not only is Tomorri an impressive pile of dirt, it is a holy mountain.  A Bektashi teqqe sits on the southern shoulder of the massif which is the site of a pilgrimage at the end of August.  When I say pilgrimage, you probably have visions of the Hajj with devout Muslims circling the Kaaba or Lourdes with droves of crippled believers struggling up to find salvation and a cure.  On Tomorri, not so much.  During a one-week period, over 50,000 Bektashi believers ascend to the teqqe of Helvetive and conduct the proscribed rituals.  I've never been, but I have seen pictures and heard stories and as far as I know, these rituals involve killing and roasting a huge flock of lambs while drinking every last drop of raki in the vicinity. 
                                                Like this, only in vast quantities.

So it's tall, holy, easy on the eyes.  What else?  Well, it has its own myth.  Seems that eons ago, there were two giants who lived in the area: Tomorr and Shpirag.  They both fell desperately in love with a local maiden from Berat and began to quarrel over her.  (As you do)  Shpirag plucked boulders from the earth and heaved them at Tomorri while Tomorri slashed at Shpirag with his sword. 

You want some of this, Shpirag?

Tomorri's wounds were huge holes and Shpirag sustained deep slashes along his flanks. The two killed one another, fell to the ground and became the mountains that bear their names. The maiden, slightly upset that her suitors were now dead, cried herself to death and her tears became the river Osumi which flows to this day between Tomorri and Shpirag.  Ah, what a typically Albanian tale.  Love, conflict, and eventually everyone dies.  
                                                Damn! Shpirag, you been cut!

To add insult to injury, Enver Hoxha decided to have his name emblazoned on the hillside above Berat and chose Shpirag as the likely place as the "sword cuts" divided the mountain into equally spaced sections. 
                                             Like salt in the wounds.
The mayor of Berat pointed this graffiti out to the American Ambassador in 2000 and lamented that the government had tried everything to erase the hated name of Enver.  They covered the whitewashed stones with dirt, planted grass over the area, and even bombed the hillside with napalm.  To no avail.  Sadly, the mayor concluded, "We thought about changing the name of our city and adding a 'D' to the mountain so we could explain that the sign was the name of our town ... Denver!"

Further south, there is a peak which not only has to live under the shadow of its famous relative up north, it has to suffer the indignity of being overshadowed by a mere road.  Mali Cikes is nearly 2000 meters tall, rising on one side directly from the Ionian sea.  Its imposing ramparts were the first sight to greet Julius Caeser when he landed at Palassa in pursuit of Pompey during the Roman civil war. 
 You WILL remember me!

Does anyone care today?  No, they are too busy marvelling at the road which ascends Qafe Llogara and trying not to blow chow from the twisty ascent of this remarkable pass. They remember the five switchbacks.  They remember the flag pine.  They remember the paidhaqe.  The peak above?  What peak?
Hey!  Up here! I'm up here!

Finally, tucked away in the deep south of Albania is Mali Nemercke.  South of Permet and just north of the border with Greece, you can find the third highest peak in the country.  And what a peak it is!  From the west, it seems to be just another bump in the range of mountains across the valley from Gjirokaster - tall and snowcapped, but nothing special. 
                                                What a cute, tiny, snowcapped mountain.

Only when you travel to the other side in the valley of Permet do you realize what a treasure the peak is.  Why waste words when a picture says it all. 
                                                     Climb me.  You know you want to.

So, when you find your road to the Dinaric Alps blocked by snow, or if you want to get off the beaten track and see a little more of Albania, give pause to the neglected little sisters of Mali Jerzeces.  These peaks are easier to get to, are surrounded by history and architecture that spans the ages, and are just as impressive as their more famous elder siblings.  Like all younger brothers and sisters, they'll appreciate the unexpected attention and reward you with unforgettable memories.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Health Care Reform

From the perspective of an expat, the current furore in the U.S. over health care reform has a somewhat surreal appearance.  I've lived in lots of countries, all of them democratic (more or less) allies (to one extent or another) of the United States.  All of them had one thing in common:  a public health system intended to provide some level of access to health care.  Sometimes the services on offer stretched the definiton of "health care" like matter being sucked into a black hole, but there was always something.

Albania is no different.  There is universal state-funded health care.  Everyone pays.  Everyone can benefit.  This system was introduced by the communist regime in the 1940s as one element of their plan to drag the country kicking and screaming into the 19th century.  Education, medicine, and electricity were made available to nearly every village in the country, regardless how remote.  Imagine the impact those efforts must have had!  In a village where sunset dictated the end of all productive activity and literacy was virtually unknown, suddenly the pine torch was replaced by electric lights which made it a whole lot easier to learn to read and write. Modern medicine arrived to displace traditional folk cures. 

It's still trying to this day.

Just as the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Serbs, Venetians, Turks, Italians, and Germans all learned, you can impose change on Albania fairly easily.  Getting Albanians to accept the change is a whole other tenxhere of grosh.  No matter how much the people seem to have adopted the poltics, science, or religion brought in from foreign lands, they still cling tightly to their cultural heritage. A cautionary tale for today's health care providers, environmentalists, and evangelical missionaries.  Mormons, I'm looking at you!

Really, how can modern medicine win against raki? According to many a gyshja, this fiery distillation can cure so many ailments.  Teething pain?  Upper respiratory infection? Angina?  Just rub a little raki on the area in question and let the healing begin.  You don't necessarily have to rub it on the affected area.  Heart problems call for a dab on the inside of the left wrist. Usually followed with a stiff belt of internal oral application.  Just to be sure, of course! 

"Raki - The cure for, and cause of, most of Albania's  ills."

Influenza also calls for the raki cure, among others.  Nowhere in the world have I seen such a level of concern as flu season approaches.  Right about the end of August the paranoia starts to build and every discussion is laced with apprehension about the coming gripe pandemic.  Heaven forbid you sneeze in late August or early September.  Each "achoo!" is met with concern, advice, admonition for not dressing warmly enough, and the offer of a shot of raki.  It's but a short journey from allergies to alcoholism here!

Cold and flu sometimes requires more drastic intervention.  If the raki isn't working and no amount of wrapping up in endless layers does the trick, you gotta bring out the kupa (cups).  More precisely, glasses.  The patient lies on his stomach, bare back exposed.  A series of small drinking glasses are heated by flaming balls of cotton dipped in rubbing alcohol (or even better, flaming raki!).  The hot glasses are placed strategically on the "patient's" back. While he writhes in agony, the sickness is drawn out.  Once he has enough red circles branded on his back, he's wrapped up, given a shot of raki, and sent to bed.  Another successful operation is done.

Garlic and olive oil have their own curative powers, especially in the company of raki.  Drinking a glass of milk with a heaping teaspoon of baking soda stirred in cures coughs and blood pressure issues.  Mixing lule basani (St. John's Wort) with olive oil (or raki!) is a general cure-all for skin conditions, scalp problems, ulcers, and hemorrhoids.  Rubbing salt and onion on a contusion prevents bruising.  Yogurt and olive oil will calm a bad sunburn and prevent peeling.  Medical treatments sound so much like recipes for marinating  meat I  suspect the doctors and chefs attended the same college!

Not all of the cures fall into the category of ancient homeopathic treatment.  Albanians have embraced modern pharmaceuticals with gusto:  The formal medical system of prescriptions and quality control?  Not so much.  Pharmacies spring up in Tirana almost as fast as electronic gaming bars pompously calling themselves "casinos." 

"It was either this or a casino."

You can buy antibiotics, statins, analgesics, mild narcotics, and just about any other pill, potion, or pomade with no prescription.  Pharmacists will listen to symptoms and offer their solution and Albanians will take them at their word.  "If this helped your cousin get over a headache, then it's going to help me," they reason.  "Anyway, the pharmacist is burre i mire (a good man) so I trust him."  Never mind that he has no medical training and learned everything he knows about drugs from watching dubbed episodes of House and from reading the pamphlets that come with the cheap samples his distributor is pushing on him.  Oh, and he may neglect to tell you his cousin had a headache from falling down the steps which may or may not be relevant to your migrane.

Such blind trust is nowhere to be found when it comes to doctors.  State doctors and nurses are overworked, short of supplies,  and very poorly paid.  The inevitably bribery  that springs from these conditions does nothing to improve the doctor-patient rapport.  The doctor eyes the patient as a sheep to be fleeced.  The patient just wants to get through the process with the malfunctioning organ removed and all the others left intact.  The quality of care you receive depends entirely on who you know, how much you are willing to slip under the table, and how diligently you watch every step of the way.  If you don't demand to see the appendix, how do you know it was really taken out?

Doctors in private practice aren't necessarily any better.  Their facilities are newer and they showcase some of the most modern equipment to be found.  Unfortunately, what is often lacking is the ability to interpret the results of the tests or use those results to come up with a reasonable diagnosis.  The TV show Fiks Fare recently did a segment where their journalist took a jar of "urine" in for private lab testing.  The yellow stuff in the cup was actually a soft drink, but that didn't stop the vast majority from returning the results of the "urine" test complete with data and graphs.  That says something... either about the competence of the lab technicians or the recipe for a certain popular fizzy drink!  Only one lab returned the sample and admitted they didn't know what the hell it was. 

"Is that pronounced 'Ivi' or "Wee Wee'?"
Despite the drawbacks of conditions here, people still have babies, get sick, have surgery, get in accidents, and recover.  The state health clinics provide cheap preventive care even after you factor in the baksheesh.  Children register with a primary care center and they get reminders to come in for vaccinations like clockwork.  Costs of medecine is much lower here than in the U.S. and most of those drugs are subsidised by the national health plan.  A course of antibiotics that would cost $100-300 in the States goes for about $50 here.  Before subsidy.  Dental care?  Cheap.  Doctors still make housecalls and that costs you about $30, including two follow-up visits.  I was chargd $100 for an MRI of my spine and probably paid more because I am a foreigner.  If you did the same thing in the States you'd be out almost a grand. 

So the argument goes on.  Socialized medicine or private care?  Cost versus service availability?  Recission? Medicare donought holes? Pre-existing conditions? Mandates?  Death panels? Bending the cost curve?  Who's right?  What's best?

Who am I to say.  I'm tempted to cast my vote with the school of medical thought that suggests curing colic in babies through the application of hashish, follwed by a stiff shot of raki for the parents!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

...Not That There Is Anything Wrong With It.

I'm always pleased to see Albania crop up in the news, especially when the coverage is positive and highlights either a unique aspect of the country or shows how the situation in the country is progressing.  New roads, increased tourism, less crime, upgrades at the airport, you get the idea.  Even if I don't have a great personal interest in the latest improvement, I like to take time to highlight the event and comment on its uniquely Albanian aspects.

Today, I'm a little challenged.  The news is full of the latest advance in Albania's development: the adoption of a law protecting the rights of the LGBT community.  That's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-gendered for those of you who thought it might be a distant relative of the bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich.  Not only has the parliament passed a law prohibiting discrimination against anyone based on sexual orientation, but a participant on an extremely popular reality show has come out. 

In the States, coming out has an impact on family, friends, and those who share a vested interest in the LGBT agenda.  On a national scale, it's not that big of a deal unless you are a Hollywood personality or a Republican congresscritter.  It's not that rare. 

Here, it is that rare.  There has been exactly.... one.  As you can imagine, there has been quite a reaction.  A hundred or so young men from Lezhe have protested on several occasions.  They aren't protesting against a gay guy coming out.  They are protesting against the fact that he identifies with their city and is gay.  In truth, the gentleman in question left Albania years ago, lived in Italy, and has returned for the TV show.  In Albanian fashion, he refers to himself as being from Lezhe.  The protesters don't like that.  "Don't associate Skanderbeg's final resting place with ..... that!"

I'm tempted to try to find some historically relevant causal relationship that explains this deep-seated homophobia, but I just don't have the energy.  So, I'll close with snark.  I think it's part of the whole effort to differentiate themselves from the Greeks! 

"We hate the most in others what we fear the most in ourselves."


When people ask me what it is that draws me to the disorderly chaos that is life in Albania, I normally end up falling back on my favorite catch-phrase: "In chaos lies opportunity."  Usually, that's true.  Sometimes, chaos holds nothing but chaos and the very real possibility of death or dismemberment.  I was reminded of this fact today as I sat on the terrace with a cold Birra Korca and was witness to the spectacle of Albanian tree-doctoring.

The tree in question is a 70-year old eucalyptus that towers over the former Bank of Rome apartment building.  Originally built by the Italians to house the employees of - you guessed it - the Bank of Rome in the early 1930's, the building suffers from lack of maintenance and uncontrolled home improvements.  One of the less attractive additions was the little bar built in the former front garden.  The owner decided he needed to build a sidewalk raki/beer/qofte joint and was not about to let the presence of a massive tree deter him.  His establishment was built around the trunk of the tree.  The tree has suffered for almost 20 years, putting up with nails driven into its bark, a continuous cloud of cigarette smoke, and endless discussions of politics and soccer.  It's no wonder it has developed problems.

The topmost portion had started to deform and lean menacingly over the street. Normally this is no cause for concern as Albanians are accustomed to living under the sword of Damocles; one eyeblink from catastrophe.  However, last year another old eucalyptus dropped a branch from far above down on a new Mercedes SL.  The trendy showoffs who park along this particular section of the Blloku were not about to let their precious rides suffer the same fate.  The end result was a classic example of civic planning, risk mitigation, and hazard abatement as understood in this little corner of the Balkans.  I imagine the planning session went a little like this:

"When's the best time to cut this sucker down?"
"How about Saturday evening on the day of the first decent weather in months?
"What about all the cars parked (nay, double-parked) on the street?"
"Eh, once we start dropping branches, they'll move!"
"What about traffic control?"
"Shut up! Let's ride!"

Just about the time the nightly cruise kicks off on the Blloku, the tree doctors moved in.  The "cherry-picker" truck double parked in front of the ramshackle bar and the shouting commenced.  The owner, who evidently anticipated the event, started tearing down his umbrellas and suggesting his clients might want to move someplace less prone to cranial fractures from falling logs.  One by one the owners of the Mercedes, Audis, and a Hummer arrived to swear at anyone within swearing distance before reluctantly moving off to find another place to flaunt their mobile status symbols. Those few who weren't sitting in local bars were less fortunate.  The city cops arrived with a flatbed tow truck and proceed to yank the last few cars out of harms way.  There's no sound like a Mercedes being winched sideways onto a truck with its alarm blaring and its tires protesting every centimeter of the way.

As the preliminaries were underway, the cast of primary actors assembled.  Cherry-picker operator guy, chainsaw guy, city cops, national cops, drunk guy with very impressive beer belly, gypsy beggar kids.  All present and accounted for. To ensure success, the owner of the bar offered most of the players a tumbler of raki and most of them accepted.    Nothing like a stiff belt before firing up the old McCulloch.  More like a Shanghai Industries Super Power Arm Render, but  a chainsaw is a chainsaw. 

Sufficiently lubricated, chainsaw and operator mount the cherry-picker basket and ascend treeward. Before the main cut is made, underbrush must be cleared.  Brrrrrappp!  Brrrrraaap! The saw is coaxed to life and the obstacles to ascension are cleared.  "Farewell linden branches!"  "Be gone, dangling wisteria vine!"  "Oops, you didn't need internet anway!"

Once they reached the prime target, the limb-lopping begins in earnest.  As each severed branch falls, the crowd of onlookers grows.  The "Vogue Lounge" crowd has stopped admiring themselves in their own sunglasses and anxiously awaits a crushed car or amputated limb.  The cops eventually decide they should divert traffic around the area instead of trying to sychronize circulation with chainsaw guy's cigarette breaks.  The Blloku become eerily empty of cars.

Where once the slow parade of luxury vehicles ruled, the shouting kibbitzer now holds sway.  Chainsaw guy is pelted with advice from amateur forestry experts.  "Oh Petrit!  Cut that one over that way first."  "What are you doing? Don't worry, it will fall like I say it will."  I gotta admit the pressure on chainsaw guy was unrelenting.  How did he deal with it?  Smoking, of course.  During refeuling of the saw!  "What?  Dying in a gasoline vapor explosion can't be any worse than falling 60 feet from the wobbly cherry-picker.  It'll all work out, inshallah."

In the end it was magnificent. A groaning crack.  The swish of descending branches.  The percussive crash of many tons of eucalyptus wood on the pavement elicited some polite applause and little pang of guilt from me.  How many koalas could have been fed from that branch? 

Once the threat of impending doom was neutralized, attitudes changed.  Bystanders who "oohed" and "aahed" at each buzzing cut of the saw now started to complain about the dust.  The police, who minutes before were the heroic guardians of the lives of unsuspecting pedestrians, began to harass the cleanup crew.  "Get this stuff out of the way.  We got cars that want to drive in circles around the Blloku to show off!"  Chainsaw guy realized his 15 minutes were up and zipped up the top his jumpsuit, which previously flaunted his copious chest hair in a testosterone-fueled dispaly of derring-do.  Only drunken beer-belly guy continued to revel in the moment, gazing vacantly skyward in hopes of another epic branch fall. 

This time we were lucky.  Chaos claimed no victims, unless you count koalas with rumbly tummies.  Indeed, this little drama gave me the opportunity to enjoy a few cold Korca beers.  "In chaos there is opportunity!"

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Saranda Again?

I suppose it's only natural that the resort town closest to Corfu has become the "it" destination for brave foreigners venturing into Albania for the first time.  Only 30-90 minutes away by ferry.  Marketed to bored Brits lounging on the beaches, looking for something to break up the routine.  "Day trip to Saranda and Butrint in the lawless wilds of Albania, mate?"  Hell, I'd plunk down a few bucks for that myself.

So it continues.  More and more tourists are plucking up their courage and taking the plunge.  The latest item to crop up on my screen came from the good folks at the LA Times. A very nice article.  If folks from LA like your beaches, you must be doing something right! 

The government seems to have gotten the message here and is in the process of moving all the commercial shipping traffic away from the tourist ferry terminal to the former Navy base on the north side of the peninsula.  Once that's gone, the pier will be extended 100 meters and the harbor dredged to allow cruise ships to dock directly on the quay.  Not soon enough!  I look forward to reading more articles from folks who have discovered this southern gateway to Albania.

Monday, February 1, 2010


One nice thing about living in a country that has a history of isolation and a geography that makes exploration problematic is the frequency of "new stuff."  Just when you think you are beginning to transition from outsider to seasoned local, somebody or something comes along to expose a new facet of the country that makes you do a mental double-take.  Discovering Byllis was the first of many of these moments for me.  It happened again last week.

Cruising, as I do, through the digital back alleys of Google-dom, I came across a story on sea turtle research that has been ongoing for a few years here.  Not only did I not know the research was in progress, I didn't know sea turtles even took the time to wander ashore in Albania.  Turns out over 250 of the little amphibians (reptile!) have been captured, tagged,  and logged.  Three of our lucky contestants were named and tracked via GPS.  Shpresa (Hope) stayed local.  The same goes for Guximtari (The Brave One) who couldn't muster the courage to paddle more than a few kilometers from his capture site.  The only turtle with real cojones was little Patok (named after the place he was tagged) who is currently kicking it in Corfu.  Probably talking smack to some Scandanavian tourist-turtle: "You are schweeeet!  Turtally, dude."

The other revelation from Albanian news was the discovery of some slightly slower-moving residents.  Glacially slow, in fact. A team of persistent "mountainologists" found four undiscovered glaciers in the northern reaches of the country.  None were named or tagged as you really don't need GPS to keep track of their wanderings.  The group from the University of Manchester was surprised to find these glaciers so far south in Europe and were quoted as saying, "I got your global warming right here, Al Gore!" 

Seriously.  Turtles.  Glaciers.  What next?  A missing link?  A Japanese solider who never got the message that WWII is over?  Lately, I wouldn't be surprised at all.  The more you unfold the creases of this country, the more it keeps suprising you.  I can hardly wait!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Animal Rights?

The recent flooding in Northern Albania has sparked a lot of thought and discussion.  "Did the government cause the disaster unintentionally as a consequence of  a scheme to skim money on the import of electricy?"  "Why has the drainage infrastructure been allowed to decay so badly?"  "Is it an act of god or man?" For me, the burning question is: "Would they eat a hippo?"  You might think this doesn't make much sense, but be patient. We'll get there.  But first I have to do some backing up. 

I confess I am not much of an animal rights activist.  Raised in the western U.S. among ranchers, I grew up in an environment that clearly defined "Us" and "Them."  People and Animals, that is.  We loved our dogs but didn't shy away from giving them the "Old Yeller" treatment if they needed it.  We took care of cattle or sheep because of their economic value and had no qualms about plinking at jack-rabbits for fun.  Hunting deer or antelope was a sacred rite which warranted a school holiday.  Seriously, if you scored a buck tag, no teacher would think about penalizing you for unauthorized absence as you spent the better part of a school week freezing your ass off in the slim hope of actually getting to plug Bambi.

From this background I ventured out into the world to discover there were lots of people who never "met their meat," so to speak.  Those who ate meat got it from the grocery store wrapped in plastic with little evidence that it was once a living animal.  Then there were the vegetarians, vegans, ovo-lacto-vegetarians, cat-lovers, dog-lovers, PETA members, and many more who held a starkly different view on the Us/Them relationship.  I listened, learned, and generally held my tongue among these folks.

When I came to Albania, I was back in my element.  The luxury of imbuing animals with human characteristics was not affordable here.  Animals had their work to do or their place on the table.  Period.  In fact, Albanians challenged my comfort level.  It's a common sight here to see a kasapi in a kiosk on the side of the road hacking away at the carcass of a lamb while three more line up for their turn.  Blood runs into the gutter while customers haggle over the choicest morsels.  Absolutely no squeamishness. 

As I learned more about Albania, I heard stories about families who kept a turkey in the bathroom in the run-up to New Years Eve.  That's like Thanksgiving here.  A real turkey bloodbath.  Family members would fend off the turkey while taking their morning constitutional, knowing it was a small price to pay for the feast of gjell deti and pershesh which awaited them.  The slaughtering also occured in the bathroom. 

And it wasn't just food animals.  At three in the morning on a cold January night I awoke to the sounds of a pitched battle outside my apartment in Tirana.  The sounds of gunfire were unmistakable and prolonged.  "What they hell are they shooting at," I wondered.  Turns out, it was dogs.  The mayor's office had a bounty of 500 lek for every tail collected in order to control the stray dog population.  The local hunter's clubs joined the game with gusto.  The most disturbing thing is this hunt was repeated every six month with no shortage of targets. Where are the spay and neuter folks when you need them?

The purest distillation of this experience happened when I went to a distant cousin's 40th birthday celebration in their ancestral village.  Twenty-six kilometers and two hours from the paved road landed me 200 years back in time.  The village of Zhej lies hard in the mountains of southern Albania. Normal vehicles stop a few klicks out of town to let mules take over.  The stoutest of 4x4's get you within 500 meters of the village.  Once there, the hospitality is unequaled.  Despite the fact that they just met me and I was only very distantly related to them by marriage, I was welcomed into the family and pampered.  The culmination of the celebration was the roasting of a young goat. 

A farmer from the neighboring village arrived with the kid slung over his mule.  Pleasantries were exchanged and the serious haggling began.  The goat was weighed, prodded, examined and assessed.  An elderly gentleman delighted in pointing out the subterfuge of the farmer. "Look at his stomach," the old man whispered.  "It's full of water.  This mashtruese has been forcing it to drink water all morning so it weighs more at sale."  A counter-tactic of delay was employed until the kid answered the call of nature in a huge way and resumed a more reasonable weight!  Once bought, the goat stayed in the garden with a crowd of children feeding it choice leaves until its final appointment with the cook. 

The end came quickly and without much ceremony.  The kid was led out behind the cookshed and dispatched swiftly with a sharp knife.  As I watched I gained a new appreciation of the rituals adopted by Islam or American Indians to offer up a prayer of thanks to the animal.  Despite ones outlook on the carnivore lifestyle, you can't deny that while we are "interested" in the process, the animal is "committed."  The cook quickly got to work preparing the carcass.   He started with the upper lip and began to peel the skin back until the entire head was bare.  Then he switched his attention to the rear legs and made a small incision near what would be the Achilles tendon on a person.  Into this cut, he rammed a stick, separating the hide from the meat.  Once the initial opening was made, he pressed his lips to the hole and blew furiously.  The hide came away cleanly and the rest was simple butchery.

Nothing was wasted.  The whole kid, including the head, was rubbed with salt and oregano and roasted over an open fire.  All of the men took turns keeping the spit rotating between sessions of raki drinking and story telling.  The innards were cleaned, spiced, and impaled on a long skewer. The whole thing was wrapped with small intestine and roasted over the coals to make an  incomparable kukurec. As I licked the grease off my fingers I wondered, "What would PETA think of this?"  Then I thought, "Who cares.. this is delicious!"

With this in mind, I had to chuckle when I read this article from the Southeastern European Times about a hippopotamus in Montenegro that escaped from its pen during the recent flooding.  The locals worried it was a dangerous beast threatening their children.  The owner swore it was a gentle lady who wouldn't hurt anyone because "she loves mud more than life itself."  According to him, the only danger was standing too close when she thrashed her tail while defecating to spread her scent around.  Local officials worried about creating an international incident if the hippo swam across Shkoder Lake into Albania.  Knowing what I do about Albanians and their relationship with animals, I know the real potential for a diplomatic brouhaha lies in the very real possibility of the Montenegrins being offered a steaming dish of hippo kukurec