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.