Swantje and Thomas’s wedding

The challenge of blogging, at least for me, is the work of sorting out the interesting observations and details from the rest of the mass, which is meaningless to anyone besides me. Unlike a diarist, who records every thought and experience privately for later reflection – with an eye to posterity, or not – the blogger has to write for an audience with different tastes, one that is just a mouse-click away from the stock ticker or YouTube. So rather than go into the details, I’ll just say that it was a beautiful wedding, on a sunny day after two days of clouds, with romantic touches like the arch of long-stem roses that we formed to escort the couple from the church to the afternoon reception; that the black-tie reception that evening was beyond elegant; and that Hamburg is a fantastic city. (More about Hamburg later.) Also that there were so many speeches that the dancing didn’t begin until after midnight, but no one minded at all. If you want more than this, send Abby or me an e-mail.

This leads to another aspect of the weekend, that of being in Germany. Abby has some functional German, so we could get around Hamburg, and most of the guests spoke English, but it really was like having a rug pulled out from under my feet whenever they switched into German. It’s a fascinating language to listen to (except when someone is shouting, in which case I begin to look for police dogs), but not something you can pick up in a weekend.

A Walk in the Park

Abby and I have started taking Cooper to the Parku i Madh, the big park, in town. It’s a bit overgrown, with lots of footpaths and hills and a lake – a great place for the dog to run. (Yesterday we met a few other dog owners, and once we saw them let their dogs of their leashes, we followed suit, and learned that Cooper does come when called.) The one worrying thing is that many wild dogs live in the park, and while most of them are relatively friendly, some aren’t, and one of them bit Cooper today. Fortunately, there was no permanent harm done. Although it might sound harsh, for me this is just another lesson in socialization that Cooper has to learn.

One of the park sections contains the burial grounds of a group of British soldiers killed in Albania during World War II. It was a bit moving, especially on a cold grey morning, and I was surprised to come across it. I then walked a few steps further and found a burial grounds for a group of German soldiers also killed in Albania during World War II. At least neither side feels left out.

Back to the Gallery, and other updates

Abby and I have just come back from Hamburg, Germany, where we attended the wedding of Abby’s childhood friend Swantje. The wedding was beautiful, and it was nice to be in a city where people obey traffic signals and there isn’t dust everywhere. I’ll describe the trip in a subsequent blog entry after I sort through the photos.

In the meantime, right before we left, I attended a meeting of the Special Friends of the National Gallery. The Special Friends group is a support group for the National Gallery, an institution which I described in an August 26th blog entry. The meeting began at 6:30 PM with some wine and crackers, which were followed almost immediately by one of the museum staff having what she thought was a heart attack. Mild panic ensued as we realized that none of us had the proper telephone number for the ambulance and, when we found the emergency number, it was busy. In the end, however, someone reached the ambulance, and shortly thereafter the attack – which may or may not have been heart-related – subsided, the woman’s husband came, and she left (rather than go to the hospital, as we urged).

Everything seemed to turn out okay, so once we let out a collective sigh of relief, we started the meeting. The Special Friends group is dedicated to advancing the interests of the National Gallery and creating more interest in the arts within Tirana, especially among young professionals who are most likely to support the arts. It is not yet a membership organization, rather more of a collection of interested individuals – Americans, Albanians, Italians, as well as some of the museum staff themselves, and while there were 11 of us at the meeting, the number of people on the mailing list is closer to 30. As a loose group, they haven’t formed an actual board. All this is a long way of saying that there is precious little organization in the group. One Albanian is chairwoman, and another is in charge of graphics, and an American woman seems to drive the organization forward on all the other agenda items, but – for those of you who’ll understand the reference – imagine a Hexagon Board meeting with a fair amount of mutual respect but without the titles, delineations of responsibility, experience, or agenda, and you’ll have a good idea of what the meeting was like. Still, the group has a program of six evening events planned for the year – wine tastings, lectures, etc. – and they should be pleasant.

I haven’t found work yet, so I offered to do a lot of organizational work for the group. (With my Hexagon Board experience, I hopefully will know what to avoid.) However, I’ve also started interviewing international organizations in town to learn the lay of the land. So far, I’ve met with the U.N. Development Program and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and from these I have developed a few more leads to pursue. By November, I may have something to do besides watching the dog ignore me when I try to teach him to “heel” and “stay”.

What It’s Like (Part 1)

I see that O.J. Simpson is back in the news. How nice that must be for all of you back in the States. Funnily enough, when I saw the Yahoo! headline Goldmans to Seek Simpson Memorabilia, I assumed they were collecting memorabilia from the movie. Like figurines of Homer or Spiderpig. At any rate, the papers here are filled with stories related to the arrest of the Vice-minister of Transportation and Telecommunications and eight others on charges of fraud, bribery, and misuse of power. I’m pleased to see that major cases of corruption are being reported on, but as the Albanians say, Ma nishtana.

So far, I’ve tried to share with all of you what it is like to be in Tirana. The photos from my earliest postings show you some of the architecture; and if you’ve ever played baseball in the summer in a sun-burned field, you probably know the sensation that we enjoy of hot, still air combined with the smell of dust; but what does being in Tirana sound like? This is the sound of downtown Tirana at 6:00 PM on a weekend:

http://www.youtube.com/get_player&nbsp- or – http://www.youtube.com/get_player.

And the small ones are relatively quiet. When the generators for the houses on our block start up, you could think you were in the truckers’ lot outside a Cracker Barrel.

As I’ve become more familiar with Tirana, I’ve begun to notice more things. For instance, there are grapes everywhere. People make their own raki, which oftentimes is better than anything you’d find in a bar.

Another interesting aspect to Tirana is the mixture, basically, of modern, state-of-the-art housing and shopping with abysmal infrastructure. For example, in the middle row you can see a fairly decent home furnishings shop, fronting an unpaved road and the overflowing garbage cans that serve as the central pick-up point for the neighborhood, and the modern-looking apartment building on an unpaved, trash-strewn street. Equally typical is this entrance to a less-than-modern-looking apartment building in the bottom row, which ironically leads onto a paved street. And, to complete the tableau, here is a less-than-modern neighborhood grocery, too, which is kind of charming, and the new Euromax Express grocery down the street hasn’t put it out of business yet.

By the way, feel free to leave comments.

A Less-Than-Happy Start to the New Year

Wednesday night was erev Rosh Hashanah, and Abby had agreed to host a potluck for what turned out to be 11 guests. Two additional guests had cancelled, which is a good thing, since we were pressed for space around the table as it was. Apart from our friends Mindy and Melissa, the other guests were Israelis – one of them a Jewish Albanian who had moved to Israel, the rest full-on Israelis. (Apparently there are still a few Jews in Albania; I have no idea how they make a minyan.)

The evening began well, but for Abby and me, the evening took a sour turn when one of the guests (I was out of the room at the time, so this is according to Abby) begged Abby to take Cooper out of the room. Cooper had started out being sociable – far more so than I’d expected him to be – but he’d gotten riled up by the attention paid to him by one of the children, and finally the guest became frightened of him. Now, when I’m allergic to a cat at a party, I’m always grateful when the hosts shut the cat away for the evening, but I also take my medicine in advance, or I just don’t show up. We’d warned everyone in advance that we had a puppy, so as a “parent” here, this didn’t sit well with me. But we moved him upstairs, and just kept an eye on him from time to time.

When it was time to sit down, we asked for a volunteer to say the hamotzi over the bread, and no one came forward. Perhaps the Israelis were being gracious – saving the honor for the host – but we asked again, and still no one said anything. So I did it. The irony was lost everyone but Abby.

The meal itself was very good (after a last minute complaint about the lack of salad dressing, made by the woman who’d brought the salad – a situation that Abby quickly remedied using oil, lemon juice and garlic to make a delicious dressing – ed.). However, the Israelis largely spoke Hebrew to each other throughout whole meal and acknowledged us only when we initiated conversation ourselves. Abby and I felt a bit like innkeepers who’d happened to sit down with the paying guests. Fortunately, as soon as the meal was over, they left en masse. In fact, they cleared out so abruptly that one of them didn’t even take his baking dish back with him. You’d have thought we’d suggested putting on some Palestinian folk songs, or at least a Hexagon DVD.

I left shortly thereafter, but only to the bar-cafe down the street because the Albanian football team was playing Holland in the European cup. It turned out to be a bad night for the kuq e zi – the red and black – as well. Albania scored an early point when Holland scored an own goal, but it was called back because of a foul. Then, in the 88th minute of play, one of the Albanian players got ejected for overreacting to a Holland player who himself had just gotten a yellow card for a foul. Four minutes later, Holland scored, and time ran out. Still, Holland had been expected to win, and Albania played far better than was expected. This being neither Detroit nor College Park, MD, no one set anything on fire after the loss. I also saw that McDonald’s was advertising on the sidelines, which is not a good sign.

In the next day’s aftermath of the meal, I emptied the dishwasher, which we’d had to have the Embassy replace because it wasn’t cleaning anything well, and I marveled to Abby about how clean everything was! I’m really becoming a housewife: my next thought was “The dishes are so clean, I have more time to vacuum the drapes!” While I have begun the job search, I’ve had no solid leads so far. I’m not discouraged, but my networking attempts have had some strange results. We met a friend for a coffee yesterday; he is the husband of one of our language instructors, and a travel agent here in Albania. I told him I was looking for work in policy and explained my background. He said that his friend at Albanian Airlines had expressed the need for a manager, and asked us to go up to meet him. This seems to be a very Albanian thing – you need a job, I have a connection, it’s not in your field, but so what? – so to be polite we went along. We all had a nice chat about the airline industry and Albanian work mores (he’s Greek) and picked up some corporate swag, but it was all very silly. Still, if anyone wants an Albanian Airlines key chain, let me know.

Cheap laughs and more expensive laughs

I saw this on the ground while I was walking Cooper today.

Page 6 of today’s Shekulli (Century) carries the headline “Bilanci i qeverisë Berisha asnjë fjalë për krizë energjetike“, which basically translates out to “balance sheet of the government, Berisha with no word about the energy crisis.” Yesterday, Prime Minister Berisha of the Democratic Party delivered an address on the last two years of his government, and he said that there had been nothing but success in many areas, such as the war against organized crime, improvements in national security, reduction in corruption, and increase in investment. He cites the dismantling of 142 criminal groups and organizations; the reduction in duties and taxes, including the 50% reduction in small business taxes; and the 6% increase in the economy. Somehow, the daily electricity blackouts – about 6 hours in Tirana and longer in the countryside – and the lack of safe drinking water didn’t make it into the speech.

(Also not mentioned is the fact that approximately 200,000 households don’t pay their water bills. This makes upkeep of the system a chicken-and-egg thing: you won’t pay your bill if you don’t get drinkable water, but as a result, the utility can’t afford to give you drinkable water, whereupon you don’t pay your bill.)

Another article in the same paper discusses how the government made four illegal awards for the construction of the Rrëshen-Kalimash road, which was supposed to be a $400-600 million road that was to have been completed by now. The road is not yet complete, and the budget has increased by €600 million. (Shades of the Big Dig?)

It turns out that the Minister of Transportation at the time was the current Foreign Minister, the young and energetic Lulëzim Basha, who certainly impressed me when Abby and I heard him speak in Washington DC about Albania’s economic success He has refused the General Prosecutor’s summons twice on the grounds that he is “too busy with work.” Shekulli describes the prosecutor’s file on Basha as documenting his incompetence and “dizzying” misuses of power, which has cost the state €161 million. Par for the course.


When we were at Kala Petrela, we ate something called tavë dheu, which was goat meat cooked in a casserole. It was excellent, so when I saw it on the menu this afternoon at the Oda Restaurant, which serves traditional Albanian cuisine, I ordered it. With the first bite, a conversation that I’d had during the Hash suddenly clicked: that word for goat is “dhiu”, not “dheu”, and that “dheu” refers to mud (e.g., a ceramic baking dish), and that the meat in a tavë dheu can be anything. Although the dish in Petrela was goat, today I was eating kidneys and liver of some unnamed animal in a sauce of soft cheese. And so I have been introduced to truly authentic Albanian cuisine.

Copyright infringement

I wanted to get something to eat before I went on the Hash on Saturday, so I stopped into the nearby Kolonat restaurant. As you can see from the photos, it is a uniquely Albanian institution.

Despite the obvious similarities, the hamburgers are more reminiscent of Wimpy’s, a London-based burger chain than of McDonald’s – i.e., no taste of beef whatsoever. This happens to be the worst case of copyright infringement I’ve come across so far, but there are others that are similarly blatant – for example, there is a “Planet Hollywood” not far from the embassy, and I’ve seen a poster for Tirana’s first “Coyote Ugly” saloon, coming soon. Even so, my favorite instance of copyright infringement comes from Beijing. See if you can tell the difference:

Of course, this also may be one of those curious instances of evolution where two species, separated by thousands of miles of ocean, nonetheless evolve in exactly the same way.

Anyway, the Hash took us back to Petrela, except this time we ran on a neighboring hill. The hill includes some stone walls from approximately 400 BC that the Albanians who were with us said were the remains of Albanopolis, although the Albanian Tourism website lists Albanopolis as being somewhere else entirely. Nonetheless, the walls were there. While the majority of the group ran around the mountain, four of us – Berti, an Albanian, Janet and Abele, from the Dutch embassy, and I – ran over the mountain so we could see the walls up close, and the view from the top.

No balls

I’ve been trying to find a small rubber or plastic ball to use as a model for my drawing class. There are lots of small toy and general merchandise kiosks throughout the shopping areas of Tirana, and although you can find plenty of soccer balls, ping pong balls, tennis balls, even plastic bowling balls (with pins) among the merchandise, you can’t find a simple rubber ball. Perhaps it’s because there is no tradition of baseball or handball here, but it’s just another one of those ways in which Tirana is different from the U.S.