Pellumba Caves

The Hash on 25 August was to the Pellumba Caves, in the mountains on the way to Elbasan. &nbspThe day was broiling hot – in the high 30’s celsius, which puts it in the 90’s fahrenheit – and a correspondingly smaller number of hashers came out for the event.

The drive was relatively quick, despite the winding nature of the road, and soon we were at the base of the mountain. &nbspAfter some instructions on how to get there, we were off. &nbspI’d worn light hiking boots instead of running shoes and, while this was a good decision for the conditions higher up, the weight made the running more difficult. &nbspHowever, since we started on an immediate uphill grade, and the heat became worse as we climbed, this might not have been just due to the shoes.

The views were stunning but the path became more difficult as we went up. &nbspAt one point, we were rock-climbing, not hiking, and crossing over narrow paths where there had been rockslides. &nbspAt one particularly narrow and rocky bit, one of the Albanian guys looked over the rocks and into the valley and said to me “One false step and you’ll be dead”, and he was right.

So I was cursing Victor, the hash leader, all the way up the mountain (especially after I ran out of water), but suddenly we hit the cave entrance. &nbspA rush of cool air was flowing from the cave mouth, and we could see a small candle that someone had placed at the end of the entrance, right before the bend. &nbspAs soon as we had a critical mass, we began exploring, plodding through mud and bat guano (and disturbing the occasional bat guano producer) as we pushed deeper into the cave, and suddenly the painful climb was worth it. &nbspOf course, the descent – me hungry, thirsty and tired, the mountain still rocky and steep – was painful in its own way, and it damn near killed me.

The National Gallery

This past Thursday, I went to the National Gallery of Art with an Albanian friend. Some of the internal galleries were closed – hopefully just for renovation, since there were a number of works I’d seen in my Albanian art book that weren’t on display – and the works that they did have on display were not, as a whole, competent but not spectacular. Albania does have some fine artists, like Vangjush Mio, but it does not have the artistic heritage of, say, France, or its own stylistic vision like American impressionism; and forty-odd years of “socialist realism” and cultural isolation stamped out any post-war development that might have taken place. (Apparently, there is a body of work by the Albanian diaspora that is reasonably good, but none of that was on display at the Gallery.)

The first gallery we visited was a sculpture room. There were various statues and busts in stone and wood of archetypical Albanians, from ancient Illyrians to national figures to partisans. They were scattered throughout the room – on stands, on the floor, in an arrangement that looked more like an outdoor garden sculpture store on Route 1 in Norwood, MA. Pieces were presented without context or explanation – there was only one collection of small, genuinely funny, satirical busts (perhaps of bourgeoisie and foreigners; there was no information given beyond the artist’s name) that seemed at all thematic, and this was tucked away in a corner.

Petro Kokushta,
At the Metallurgic Complex

Vilson Halimi,
Comrades-in arms,

Next, we went into a gallery of mostly Communist-era art, with a few post-1991 pieces added in. While some of the painting was crude, some of it was quite accomplished, but almost all of it was propagandistic – handsome partisans rallying the villagers, cheerful peasant women preparing for a winter morning’s work, that sort of thing. (I did not take any photographs at the Gallery – although there were no signs up prohibiting the taking of photographs, I didn’t want to take my chances – so the photos that I’m including here come from a book, Albania Through Art, by Ferid Hudri, ISBN 99927-53-67-6. It’s worth a look.)

Then we came to the Icon room. Albania has as fine a history of iconography as any other Balkan country, but they aren’t displayed particularly well in the Gallery. It was here, in fact, that I saw the water-damaged walls and noticed the general dinginess of the place. Juxtaposed with the icons were plexiglass encased architectural models of the Tirana of the future – with parks, shiny glass towers, modern train station, etc. None of these had labels, or even a plaque explaining why they were in the museum, in the icon room particularly, or when they were put there.

Vangjush Mio,
Alley in Korça

Andrea Kushi,
Portrait of Girl

Finally, we entered the pre-Communist room. Here the works were of normal people, street scenes, and still lifes, i.e., the more “classical” art. A good number of pieces stood out and a good number didn’t, I suppose is the best way of putting it. Hopefully, they’ll finish whatever renovations they’re doing, and they can put more pre-Communist works on display.

Kala Petrela

Last Friday, we met a college friend of Abby’s who came to Albania as a missionary in 1991 and is now developing residential real estate (God apparently doesn’t pay very well). &nbspHe took us out toward Elbasan, and we came to Kala Petrela which at one point had been part of the local defensive structure and now, with the later addition of a wooden structure, is a restaurant. &nbspAlthough he and Abby already knew each other well, I knew we had something in common too (besides the Penn connection) when we arrived at the base of the castle and both took out our cell phones to start snapping pictures. &nbspWe ate very well – peppers and cheese, salad, goat stew cooked in a clay pot, pork fillets, and cold beer.

The castle

View from the walls

View into the valley

More on the same

My mother asks in an e-mail whether the dog has stopped “piddling” in the house. Despite our best efforts, we still find the occasional yellow puddle (sometimes fresh, sometimes dried) near one of the balcony doors. (I’ve had to start keeping the pantry door shut; it has one of the balcony doors, and the sun warms the floor up to a comfortable temperature …). I try to leave the back door open to the yard, but Cooper doesn’t always realize that he can outside by himself. And if the door is closed, he might sometimes whine to announce his intentions, at which point I’ll let him out; but other times he just thinks, “oh, fuck it” and he lets go.

The internet odyssey continues; despite the so-called technical difficulties that the ADAnet guys cite, I can pick up the neighbors’ wireless signal from our kitchen. In some respects, problem solved, but eventually I’ll have to move to the study, so we will need our own system. In the same e-mail, my mother also suggested that the internet guys might respond to a little bakshish. I’m not interested in doing that, if for no other reason than it sets up the next Americans for the same treatment. Plus, there’s no polite way of saying “By the way, would a bribe help?”

Our last shipment of household goods – “unaccompanied air baggage” in the State Department parlance – arrived yesterday. I’ve been going through these boxes, along with the 40+ boxes that carried our household effects shipment. Moving to Albania has given me the opportunity to do an inventory of what we own (partially; more is in storage and will stay there), and it has highlighted the problem of two people getting married and combining houses in adulthood. Even after provisioning our own bedroom and the three guest bedrooms, we have 10 extra pillows, three irons, two Britas, countless lamps, enough bathroom towels to keep Christo busy for years, and simply lots of other crap that I keep tripping over.

Albania Time

A quick post: Still no internet at my house. &nbspThe engineer from the company we want to use was scheduled to come yesterday. &nbspHe showed up at 4:45, looked at where the satellite dish would go, and then announced that there was some kind of problem connecting with the antenna located in the mountains – the same mountains, mind you, that you can see in the photographs from the previous blog entry. &nbspAnd the same antenna that services the satellite dish located exactly at the house next door, from where I’m writing at the moment. &nbspSo theoretically they are working on a “technical solution” which they hope to have by the end of the week. &nbspThen today, I was supposed to bring the dog to the veterinarian for his next shot. &nbspWe didn’t have a time scheduled, so I called in the morning to set something up. &nbspThe doctor was out, supposed to be back at 2:00, so I called then; at that point, he was supposed to be back at 4:00. &nbspIt’s 3:00 now; the jury’s still out.

Meanwhile, I’m unpacking our household effects, which arrived last week. &nbspI have lost count of the boxes that I’ve opened, and I’ve developed a new appreciation for living simply with as few possessions as possible. &nbspUnfortunately, it would take a comet falling on the house to launch us into such a state of existence.

Hashing and Cooper

This is the view from our balcony … On Saturday, Abby agreed to watch the dog while I went to the Hash. The Hash was on a beach south of Durres, Albania’s main port. The trip was a funny thing: there’s a major beach road that runs south through Durres, from which you can see the ocean to the right between all the buildings that have sprung up in the last seven years; then the road turns inward, or perhaps the coast turns outward, and you lose sight of the water, but it still feels like you’re on a beachfront road. A few kilometers later, we made a right turn toward the Plazhi Gjeneralit (the public beach) and five minutes later, instead of hitting the beach, we were heading up. And further up. And further up still, past farmers’ houses and abandoned sheds. At this point, I began taking photos with the camera in my new telephone (00355 68 407 0129, in case you need to know).

The hills were pretty dramatic. Still, all the going up had us confused. But then the ocean appeared, and we started going down. We passed an incongruous deserted military base and then we came out upon a wide beach with a brilliant blue ocean under a blazing sun. We all convened, and started the Hash by immediately turning around and running back up the hill we’d just bounced down in the 4×4.

The trail was tough, and especially so because the first turn was so poorly marked that about 8 of us – including one of the hares (the people who mark the trail the day before) got lost. We spent about 20 minutes running up higher than we had to, dashing back and forth across the hilltops before we picked up the trail further down. From there, the markings led us to the Beer Stop. Unfortunately, I hadn’t carried my phone with me on the run, so I’ll have to describe it for you: we came out of the dunes and saw a beach with an outcropping of big rocks. At the water’s edge atop a set of rocks concrete hut with a crudely tented concrete platform perched over the water; the platform was set with plastic chairs and tables. We scrambled onto the platform up and began ordering beers, and toasted each other as the waves broke over our feet. Blue sky above, sapphire sea to our backs, beach to the left and right, and rocky, scrub-covered hills ahead. As we watched, a herd of cows came from around a bend on the beach and began disrupting one family’s picnic. (As the old cartoon goes, “That’s not something you see every day, Chauncy.” “What’s that, Edgar?” “A herd of cows, interrupting a picnic.” “Oh, I don’t know, Edgar, they have some pretty big ants in Albania.”)

After the beer break, we continued running and then hit a cliff wall that we had to traverse in order to reach the end. It would have been a little better to have done the cliff before the beer, but that wasn’t an option. From there, we ran to the finish, and dove into the bath-tub warm water. Afterward, a few of us had lunch at the beachside restaurant while the others went back into town. I was with two administrators from the International School who’ve had long and varied careers – Norway, Dubai, and other places that now I don’t recall. One of the guys and I shared plates of fresh grilled fish – levrek and koc. If any of you come to visit (we have room for four – and after January, the door is open!), we’ll have to take you to Durres for grilled koc. The flavor is brilliant, and paired with a fine beer (a Tirana 2007, for example) and some fresh bread, there is no finer meal.

On Sunday, we took Cooper over to Alwyn and Viki’s for a playdate. Viki is a vice-consul; her husband Alwyn (who writes is passionate about dogs. They have three street dogs that they keep in their yard; we figured that Cooper needs to socialize with other dogs. Unfortunately, I cannot post the video of them playing, but here are the photos of our dog:

Day 10

It’s been 10 days. &nbspIt seems that the 10 months of Albanian training were highly useful; I’ve been able to converse with people that I’ve met, and I’ve understood about 85 percent of what I’ve heard. &nbspOf course, it is the 15 percent that you don’t understand that gets you into trouble, but that’s where Unë nuk flas shqip mirë, me ngadal&euml, ju lutem comes in handy. &nbsp(I don’t speak Albanian well, more slowly, please.) &nbspThe blackouts continue daily, but our generator works well.

Cooper has calmed down considerably after five days, and he has responded well to some training. &nbspHe is my job; I get about three hours out of the house (he stays in the yard) but otherwise, I spend my time playing, training, trying to take him on walks – he gets spooked by the street dogs – and otherwise keeping him entertained and out of trouble. &nbspIt is amazing to me that I can spend so much emotional energy on someone whose only thought is “As soon as he turns his back, I’m going for his shoes.”

Other news: we had our first “diplomatic reception” on Wednesday, a going-away for one of the younger Austrian consuls at a local bar/restaurant. &nbspWine bar, buffet, throngs of people. &nbspWe chatted with some of Abby’s homologut from other embassies and saw people we know from the Hash, and it was quite pleasant, but a long way away from the starched napkin diplomatic dinners of imagination. &nbspI’m still trying to arrange for home internet access, but the company wants 100 euros per month for a subscription. &nbspOur neighbors pay 40 euros. &nbspAlbania is known for it’s flexible pricing.


We got a dog on Saturday. &nbspAs early as our ride in from the airport on Tuesday, Paula and Wakie told us about a puppy that their neighbors on the Ridge had rescued. (“The Ridge” is Rilindja Ridge, and embassy-housing compound. &nbspIt looks like a well-done Virginia subdivision, and many of the embassy families with children live there.) &nbspOther embassy personnel sang his praises as well. &nbspWe met the puppy on Friday, took him home Saturday night, and renamed him Cooper.

I’ll post a photo once I have internet access from home, but to describe him, he has short dark gray and white fur, with a mottled nose and a circle around one eye; he may have a little bull terrier in him. &nbspHe came to us mostly housebroken, but he nips a lot; my hands are covered in scratches, and I’ve been working on showing him who the alpha dog is. &nbsp(Clearly, the jury is still out.) &nbspWe have started the training, however, and fortunately, despite his taste for human flesh, he has been good with the neighborhood children. &nbspAnd, as my family will understand, he has a hake.

Next Day

We woke up early. &nbspAbby headed off to work at 7:30 AM, and I left the house around 8:30 AM. &nbspThe plan had been to buy a newspaper, spend an hour or so sipping an espresso at one of the kafes, and make my way leisurely to the Embassy to check e-mail and otherwise see what was going on. &nbspThen I wouldthink of something else to do (all of our books and other household goods still being in transit, I don’t have a lot of options). &nbspAnd after 6 hours of walking the streets of Tirana and sitting in cafes, I realized something very important: there is a big difference between leisure and indolence, and if I don’t find regular work soon, I’m going to go out of my mind.