Monday, January 31, 2011


I've heard it often from friends and strangers, "You sure are taking a big risk living in Albania!"  The can't imagine giving up the comforts of American society with all its law and order and cleanliness.  Sometimes I take the time to give them a more realistic idea of what my life is really like here.  Other times I let them persist in their perception of me as a modern-day Byron or a cross-dressing Edith Durham, braving the hardships and insecurity of inscrutable Albania.

The truth is I live in central Tirana, have a decent apartment, drive a nice car, and have the luxury of  choosing when to expose myself to the more remote areas of the country.  I'm firmly connected to the expat community and am financially secure.  Living in Albania requires no more heroic commitment from me than living in Albany might.  I would probably suffer more in upstate NY as it is a heck of a lot colder there.

There are occasionally people here who demonstrate real commitment to immersing themselves in Albanian culture and society.  The Peace Corps volunteers, for example.  Granted, they are supported by the U.S. government and have a "bail-out" lifeline if things get too tough.  Former Peace Corps volunteers who stick around after their assignment is over form the next level of commitment.  They liked it so much and became so attached to the people or places they served that they choose to stay.  I've met them in Tirana, Elbasan, and even Gjirokaster with no official lifeline, only their informal contacts with the Embassy and their own initiative.

Then there are people like Catherine Bohne.  I came across her article today and was floored by what she was doing.  Read the whole article because my account will not do justice to her writing.  She's ditched everything to live in the Tropoja region, starting in the middle of winter: 

I have given away my business, sold my apartment for break-even, and moved with a few suitcases of random possessions to Albania -- specifically to Northern Albania, the District of Tropoja, to this point possibly one of the most backwards, impoverished and forgotten regions of Europe. To absolutely damn the impracticality of my decision, I should add that I have no income, no plans for any income and no clear thoughts about what my future looks like.

 I'm caught between scoffing at her recklessness and jumping up and applauding her willingness to jump in at the deep end.  This, I will tell my friends, is what commitment looks like.  Comparing my commitment to hers reminds me of the old saw, "The chicken is involved with making omelets; the egg is committed."  

I hope she continues to write with such keen observations and moving prose.  I'll risk tiptoeing over the line into copyright violation to entice you to read the whole article, in case you have clicked the link yet:

On the television, we watch as a handful of men mill around the side gate to the Kryeministri. Suddenly -- the video has no distinguishable sound -- one man falls silently to the ground. He has been shot by one of the snipers on the roof of the government building. The old man nearest him looks down, as if to say, "What are you playing at?" Then realizes. He moves to stand over the body, his arms thrown out at his sides as he cries and calls for help. Others rush in to carry the body to safety. Do you see what I see? Nobody ran away. They didn't run from bullets. They ran in, to help.

 Just before we leave Kamenica, I am sitting in the snow on the edge of the wall surrounding the entrance to the house. One of the daughters of the house crouches beside me. Together we gaze out at the snow-covered hills, absolutely silent and gloriously empty. An enormous mockingbird plays in a frozen fruit tree, knocking lumps of snow to the ground. "You like Albania?" she asks. "Oh yes," I say, "I love it." I turn and we look into each others eyes, smiling happily "You?" I ask. I watch her as she returns watching the mountains. "Oh yes," she says, still smiling. "Yes."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


In high school I used to hang out with a guy who thought he was quite the comedian.  Let's call him Lenny.  We took turns doing what Ashton Kutcher would later term "punking" one another for our own amusement and the entertainment of those around us.  What the nuns would have referred to as "acting the fool."  I was reminded of one of his stunts after posting the previous article.

Lenny and his co-conspirators stood clumped in the hallway when I arrived.  Their furtive glances and subdued chortles piqued my interest so I took the bait.

"What's up?"

"Oh, man!  We just heard about Tony's brother!"

"What about him?"  I should add that Tony was a jock.  Varsity football, wrestled, thought of himself as an all around tough guy.

"We heard his older brother has been taking ballet lessons! Can you believe it?  "Super stud's brother in a tutu! We've been giving him grief about it all morning."

After a few minutes of chuckling over the rumored sissy-link to Tony I decided to join in the tormenting. I walked over to his locker and smirked, "Hey, man!  How's your brother's ballet lessons going?"

Tony turned with tears in his eyes and his lower lip trembling as he choked out the words, "My brother lost both his legs in Vietnam."

I stood gaping, caught between my sophomoric effort to embarrass him and the enormity of the tragedy that clearly was breaking his heart.  The best I could manage was, "Uh.... mmm...uuuuh" as all the smart-assery melted away and I edged closer to tears myself. Lenny's shrieks of laughter were the first clue that I'd been had.  Tony soon joined in and I knew I'd been set up as the whole hallway showed their appreciation for my discomfort with chuckles and jeers.

"Good one, guys.   Ha,ha, very funny.  Eat me!"

I never forgot that feeling of realizing I had violated a solemn taboo in search of a cheap laugh.  Last Friday, after publishing my entry about the unrest in Tirana I got the same feeling.  Three of the protesters had been shot dead and many more had been injured, both protesters and police.  My jokes didn't seem so clever any more.  Unlike the high school prank, there's no laughter from the crowd, only the grief for wasted lives and the dread of worse to come. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Wake-Up Call

More than half a year has passed since I last felt motivated to pen an entry about the goings on in my temporary homeland.  The routine of work to home to work sets in and gets hold of you.  August holidays, school starting in September, the bi-cultural holiday season captures you: Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Liberation Day, Bajram, Christmas, New Years, MLK Day... sometimes the burden of celebrating two countries significant dates can be overwhelming.  A quick trip to Italy for Burger King on a miltary installation kept me focused on things other than writing.  I needed something exciting to kick me out of my doldrums.

Enter, stage left, Albanian political protests!  You can always rely on them to shake things up every now and then.  To tell the truth, the last couple of rounds of protesting left me vaguely unsatisified.  A hunger strike in which most of the participants looked suspiciously well-fed folded peacefully.  Later there were huge, organized marches demanding opening of the ballot boxes from June 2009.  Thousands of people in the street peacefully petitioning their government for change.  Boringly similar to the Tea Party in the States, except with fewer mis-spelled signs and better fashion sense. 

Pro-government rallies followed to celebrate visa-free travel, Mother Teresa Day, and the anniversary of the founding of one of the political parties.  Nothing more upsetting than hideously loud, inappropriate music occured.  Really? Who decided that the best way to commemorate the life and charitable works of "The Angel of Calcutta" was blaring Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" in Mother Teresa Square?  Tacky, annoying, and poorly attended but not much excitement to be found.  When will they realize the sidewalks in front of the Prime Minister's Office are cobbled with fist-sized stones for a reason?

Today is my lucky day.  After accusations of corruption were aired on a TV news broadcast, the opposition scheduled protests that lived up to the reputation Albanians have established through the long years of turmoil.  Police lined up around the Prime Minister's office.  Protesters met at 8 points around the city and slowly wended there way to Skenderbeg Square to get fired up.  Once their confrontational juices were flowing, the mass surged down the main boulevard to confront their nemesis.

Now I was expecting more of the same lame shouting, speeches, and then off to the coffee bar to rehash the day's events.  When the first police officer got beaned in the noggin with a brick-sized missile I sat up.  "What's this?  Could it be?  A real Albanian protest?"  Six injured cops and ten or more torched cars later I had to admit that this was not your run-of-the-mill shout-fest. 

They're still out there as I type.  Police shooting in the air... tear gas... several square meters of sidewalk cobbles fulfilling their prime directive... That's what I call protest!  OK, I walked my son home from school and passed within two blocks of the melee and heard and saw nothing.  Life in Tirana proceeding apace with less traffic chaos than normal, but the TV never lies: they are a-protestin'.

The long hiatus between 1997 and now seems to have taken its toll on the protesters skills.  I could swear I saw several of the cobble tossers nursing torn rotator cuffs after just a few half-hearted heaves.  The police behaved magnificiently, refraining from opening fire after their comrades went down.  They formed up in a group with interlocked riot shields creating a multi-legged plexiglass turtle.  Hey, that's going to be the name of my next indie grunge band... The Plexiglass Turtles. 

The saddest moment came when the protesters broke open the vehicle entrance gates to the PM's office block.  A clapped-out Mercedes was brought up to ram its way through the vehicle barrier. With the assistance of several enthusiastic orc-wannabes this modern day Grond accelerated toward it's target.  As the protesters pushed from behind, the driver gunned it and crashed into the barrier.  Didn't try to knock over a section of fence on the side or open a hole in the low wall around the garden.  Oh, no.  No half-measures for this guy.  Rammed straight into the hydraulically-activated vehicle barrier (which, incidentally, is designed to stop a vehicle intent on ramming something more vulnerable).  The impact of the car with barrier was mildly amusing. The impact of frenzied pusher's noses with the back of the car was much more satisifying.  You go, guys!

The protesting goes on.  I hope no one gets badly hurt as none of the issues are worth shedding blood over.  The forecast is for heavy rain which I hope will dampen the protester's ardor like hosepipe directed at a pair of furiously mating dogs.  Regardless, I have to thank these dedicated protesters for breaking me out of my stupor and reminding me there is magic out there if you only listen.