Immersion Trip: Day 6

First, I will start by saying that people who can blog faithfully have my full respect.&nbsp It has taken me eight days to get to this next entry, and we’ve been home for three weeks.&nbsp No surprise that I’m behind with my resumés as well …

Today we went to Durres, the major port city of Albania.&nbsp Durres is known for the amphitheater, which was built in the second century B.C.&nbsp Amazingly, the site is only now enjoying a belated attempt at historic preservation, and houses had been built up to and into the amphitheater; the arena level is raised four feet from refuse being dumped into it and then overgrown.&nbsp In fact, as we walked toward the entrance, we saw a woman throwing empty glass jars from her balcony onto the grounds, where they shattered into pieces.

However, they have protected the mosaics, and I must admit that the ability to explore deep into tunnels (due to the lack of fencing) was pretty neat.&nbsp The nearby agora and Roman bath ruins are in better repair: the baths were discovered while grounds were being excavated for a bank, so they are not built over, but they look basically like a ruined Roman bath open to the elements and fenced in beneath a building – no signs, nothing.&nbsp The agora is similarly unadorned. However, we did see that people do commemorate the anniversary of the deaths of their loved ones with posters on kiosks.&nbsp Memories aren’t entirely forgotten in Albania.&nbsp After a great seafood lunch, we took the Albanian equivalent of Route 1 back and we saw some fantastic scenery (including the bunkers – see Day 4).

Immersion Trip: Day 5

Today we started at the Muzeu Kombetar, the National Museum, which has this mosaic above the doorway.&nbsp The museum collection spans from ancient Illyria through the current day.&nbsp We stopped right after WWII, so we didn’t get to the part that shows Hoxha’s excesses.&nbsp That can wait until we return.

After the Museum visit, I went into a bookstore to purchase an Albanian language dictionary and some other books.&nbsp I wanted to see if I could conduct the entire transaction in Albanian, so I carefully explained to the saleswoman that I was an American and that I didn’t speak Albanian well, but that I was interested in such-and-such books.&nbsp She responded by asking me if I was married.&nbsp Apparently, if the wedding ring isn’t gold, it’s not obviously a wedding ring, so I cleared up the confusion and carried on.

Tirana has a stray dog problem.&nbsp There are thousands of strays on the street, many of them ill (but others looking very healthy and adorable).&nbsp The Norwegian ambassador’s wife is heading a project to develop a shelter and a clinic and some sort of adoption infrastructure.&nbsp I’d been tipped off to this by the husband of an FSO (whose blog,, is worth reading), so I arranged to meet with her at the Hotel Rogner.&nbsp I came away with an appreciation of how much work the project still needs to accomplish and how expensive coffee in the international hotels is.

Abby and I finished the afternoon by seeing our house (see the previous blog entry for a few photos; at three stories and 6,000 square feet, with three bathrooms and a total of eight rooms off the main living/dining areas, Abby says she cannot describe the house without using the words “f***ing” and “ginormous”). We then went to Tirana’s only Indian restaurant for a dinner arranged by the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer.&nbsp The restaurant owners are an Indian man and his Albanian wife.&nbsp The food is tasty, although not especially spicy – the Albanian palate is on the mild side – and we met more embassy people and other ex-pats.&nbsp The conversation was great, and we’ve found the embassy community to be very welcoming.&nbsp We left the evening with high hopes for a great three years.

Immersion Trip: Day 4

For some reason, I was awake at 3:00 AM today and there was no going back to sleep, so I listened to the sounds of the Block waking up: someone in the apartment above us, trucks grinding their gears outside, dogs barking, and a truck picking up the garbage – although it being, Tirana, it’s just as likely the sound of a truck dumping garbage on a corner. You never know. This also was the first time I’ve noticed (and smelled) the fine dust covering everything.

A few things I forgot to put into the description of yesterday. First, I heard from my realtor (via a Vonage telephone number that acts as though you’re dialing Maryland instead of Tirana) that she had begun the open house at 1:00 PM and already had three offers. Also, Abby’s wallet grew legs after lunch and vanished. Maybe the waiter at our restaurant leaned over and slipped it out of her bag, maybe Abby dropped it in the minimart, or maybe it was lifted as we walked through the outdoor café Parku i Madh. Whatever: Abby began canceling her cards while I retraced our steps. While I was able to ask after the wallet in Albanian, in many cases the answer I got was a shrug and a grimace, which means the same thing in any language. Even though Abby is a Consular Officer and so is used to helping panicked Americans after they’ve lost their wallets and passports, she was amazingly calm about the whole thing. I’d have been nxjerrë zorrët jashtë në rrugën (throwing up in the street).

Now onto today: we visited Kruja (click on this link for a better history than I’m ever going to write), the mountain castle town where Skenderbeg and then Lek Dukajini defended Albania against the Ottoman invation until 1478. We then went into the “old market,” which is full of tourist shops but looks pretty. It began to rain soon thereafter, making the cobblestones incredibly slippery (how did they get up the mountain before there were 4x4s?) and giving us an excuse to leave. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to be parsimonious on the photos because Blogger only gives me 1GB for pictures. When I’ve set up a separate photo website, I’ll let you know.

We also saw our first bunkers. Enver Hoxha, the Communist Dictator from 1944 to 1985, believed that Albania would be attacked by its enemies (especially the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) and so he caused to be built 600,000 concrete bunkers – some big enough only for a single soldier, others big enough for artillary – and covered the country with them. They lie a few hundred yards from the Adriatic Seashore, on the outskirts of Tirana, in the mountains, in the middle of fields, etc. The words “Enver Hoxha” and “dangerously paranoid” often appear in the same sentence. At the Skenderbeg Museum in Kruja, we saw exhibits showing the people of ancient Illyria and pre-Ottoman Arbenia (as it was known) as a fierce, sophisticated and noble people; you kind of have to wonder what happened that they ended up with Enver Hoxha.

Immersion Trip: Day 3

We had brunch with Mindy and Melissa, who will be our neighbors in the neighborhood of Selitas (assuming that I’m spelling that right; at any rate, we’re living off the Embassy’s housing compound). Photos of our house are to the right. The house has about 6,000 square feet of space with a garden and is ridiculously huge; we’ll be taking visitors once we settle in! We also were joined by Alma, Abby’s incumbent, so a lot of the talk was about Embassy business, but we also covered the general points about Tirana. Parties where people discuss Embassy business are going to be a major part of my life in Tirana.

To get to Selitas, we walked along the river. Just as the clock tower was smaller than we’d expected from our readings in class, the bridges are similarly small – nothing like the P Street bridge over Rock Creek Park, for example. As I noted before, there are no street signs in Tirana, and while people call this this the River Road, none of the ex-pats knew its actual name. However, most people know the way toward our house well, not only because the River Road is a major thoroughfare, but because at the end of the stretch of this road, before you turn on the bridge to get to our house, is the blood feud house, so called because the residents inside are subject to gjakmarrje, and they cannot leave for fear of being killed.

Gjakmarrje (which means “vengeance” in Albanian) has a long history. In the 15th century, a prince named Lekë Dukagjini created the Kanun to establish laws for the people over (according to Wikipedia) “Church, Family, Marriage, House, Livestock and Property, Work, Transfer of Property, Spoken Word, Honor, Damages, Law Regarding Crimes, Judicial Law, and Exemptions and Exceptions.” Out of the Kanun came the practice of gjakmarrje: a male avenges a family member’s death or some other assault on the family by murdering a male from the family of the offender, after obtaining permission from the village elder who governs the Kanun. It is supposed to end there, but somehow, the rules have been changed or misunderstood or manipulated (since the village elder collected a blood tax on the taking of revenge) so that a male from the family that suffered the revenge then kills a male from the family that took revenge, and a male from that family seeks its revenge, and so on. As one of our instructors explained, when a family is under gjakmarrje, it is literally unsafe for the adult males to leave the house, and gjakmarrje can go on for generations.

Despite the havoc, there are precise rules: you cannot shoot someone in his house; that person can invite you in, and you must obey the rules of hospitality; you cannot shoot someone in the back; and if your intended victim asks you to let him leave the house with safe passage for, say, a funeral, you must allow it. Gjakmarrje is not so common in the major cities, but it is practiced in the countryside, and has become stronger since the fall of Communism. Even organized crime honors gjakmarrje (and this is one reason that the traffickers do not kidnap girls whose family can do something about it, as this would be an offense under the Kanun). Yet in this case, in the case of the house by the bridge that leads to our neighborhood, the blood-letting has gotten so bad that even the women are in danger under the gjakmarrje. This is unheard of.

Finally, here are more images from our first few days of walking around Tirana: fallout from the February local elections, a scene from the local park near the University of Tirana and the U.S. Embassy housing compound, and a memorial to Osman Kazazi, former head of the Association of Ex-Political Prisoners. It reads “He devoted his life to the Fatherland”. “With great respect for Osman Kazazi.” Sadly, it’s tucked away on a dusty commercial side street.