December 26

Season’s greetings.

December 26 day started out gray, like a vague post-Christmas hangover. It has been wet and dreary all day, with the disconcerting pop-pop of celebratory fireworks that the kids have been firing for the week leading up to Christmas, and that they will continue to shoot off until sometime after New Year’s. Fireworks are a big deal here, especially among the kids. I assumed that they were hoping to shoot down Santa’s sleigh for the loot, but Abby more sensibly noted that they just wanted to capture Rudolph so they could use his nose to light their houses when the power goes out.

In general, Christmas in Tirana is a different affair than it is in the U.S. There are some Christmas decorations, sure, and a gaily lit tree in Skenderbeg Square (along with a electronic sign counting down the days until New Year’s or, more precisely, until December 30, because otherwise it is off by a day), but the streets are not slathered in tinsel and electrified glitter as they are at home. In fact, most of the stores were open yesterday; with the exception of a few “cosmopolitan” stores desperately trying to earn their European bona fides by filling their windows with Christmas displays – and even then, starting only in December rather than immediately after Thanksgiving (or is it Halloween nowadays?) – you wouldn’t have noticed it was our Lord’s birthday unless you happened to have the day off from work. Abby and I celebrated with some friends in the scattered manner of ex-pats who don’t have much to do with the holiday one way or the other but still feel like we all should do something – so we shared a chicken dinner and played Texas hold’em. Merry Christmas to all and to all, a good night.

Modern Art; Corporate Entertainment

Yesterday was a day of cultural whiplash. My evening started at the opening of the annual Onufri exhibition of modern art at the National Gallery of the Arts. Despite the general disrepair of the Gallery, the hall in which the Onufri was held was sparkling – freshly painted, well lit, truly splendid. But the art itself? Some of it was quite good, especially the photographs, some of which displayed a wicked sense of humor (for example, there was one of a copy of the Venus de Milo looking wistfully at a set of marble legs); and there was a video of a block of ice melting, and as it melted you could make out a bear trap in the ice, so as it melted the anticipation welled up inside you until the ice melted enough for the trap to explode shut. But there was also the inevitable nonsense, such as a series of framed pages from a book of art and literature, in which the different pictures had been defaced the way any schoolboy would (and could) do it; a video of a woman kissing her reflection, projected onto a pillow; a plumb line suspended over photos of damaged bricks; and a variety of large simplistic acrylic paintings.

One of the museum’s curators raved to me about how exciting these works were, and while some of them indeed were compelling, in the majority of the cases I think people are just too intimidated by the size and originality of these works to call them out as the inacessible bullsh*t they are. Reinforcing this impression was my experience of the night before, when Abby and I attended the opening of an exhibition at the gallery at the Academy of Arts. The centerpiece was a video of a woman’s naked torso, with a man’s arms coming out from behind her to finger-paint her breasts and stomach. There also was a long cartoon panel involving two Albanian marionettes calling out elliptical phrases to each other and some other video works in which nothing quite seemed to happen. There even was a chart of local rainfall for the past decade. The curator – who is the teacher at the Academy with whom I’m going to be taking lessons, and who also had some large, bold, but peculiar pieces at the Onufri – has offered to explain the exhibit to me; I will have to exercise some remarkable tact.

Yet even with the pretense of modern art on full display, I was enjoying myself at the Gallery with the brilliant white walls, the huge works of baffling creativity, the artists dressed in black, and the rest of Tirana’s artistic milieu, when I got the call that I had to join Abby at the Sheraton Hotel down the street. The American Chamber of Commerce had invited Abby to their holiday party that evening at the same time as the Onufri opening, and as the chief consul she had to go and “represent”. The wife of the head of the AmCham is on the Board of the Special Friends with me and she was at the opening as well, but her husband wanted her to come over and he asked for me as well. We arrived and were faced by a totally different scene: a hotel ballroom, gaily wrapped boxes suspended from the ceiling, jolly presenters at the bandstand assuring the guests of the exciting door prizes on offer for the evening, and tables full of forced corporate gaity. The beer and wine were good, but everything else was phony and awful, and as one of the presenters took up the mike to blatantly lip-synch an Albanian pop song I told Abby (in American Sign Language, to avoid detection) that the AmCham owed me big time.

The band started playing American standards (Kim Carnes, Clearance Clearwater Revival, “My Way”, “New York, New York”) and they were quite good, but only a few couples came out for a half-hearted dance or two before retreating to their plates of antipasto. I commented to Abby that the AmCham had shoehorned their Albanian guests into an American idea of a good time: all the trappings of an American corporate holiday party were there, but no one was actually enjoying themselves. They hadn’t even provided the standard prop for an Albanian party, a bottle of raki, for the benefit of the Albanians. However, just as we’d resigned ourselves to spending the evening listening to undanceable party music, the band started playing some Albanian traditional and pop music, and the guests flooded the dance floor; all gloom and reserve were gone. We joined the dancing for a while, but when the circle dancing started, we left since it was nearly ten o’clock, the second course still hadn’t arrived, and Abby had to work the next day.

Travels around Albania

Some photos from our recent excursions: first, on 28 November, Abby and I took the cable car up to Mount Dajti, which is the mountain that looms over Tirana. We had lunch at one of the many restaurants up there. There’s not a lot to say about Mount Dajti except that it’s a nice place for a walk or a picnic when the weather is nice.

The view from the restaurant; looking down the cable car wires; the ground rushing beneath us; view of the mountains from the cable car.

Then, this past weekend, we went to Pogradec with our friends, two doctors both named Dritan, and their wives. There’s more to say about Pogradec, if only because it is reached by a series of winding mountain roads, and as one of the Dritans said, it was a good thing that we were driving at night because if we could have seen how sharply the road drops off, we would have been terrified.

Pogradec is on Albania’s border with Macedonia and it sits on the shores of Lake Ohrid. Lake Ohrid is one of only two lakes in the world where the koran fish lives (no relation to the Book); koran tastes like salmon, but it is lighter. Our teachers began telling us about the koran on the first day of language class, and having finally tasted it, I can see why. We had it for Friday dinner and Saturday lunch, prepared four differents ways in all, and it was delicious. In fact, generally there isn’t much to do in Pogradec – except that it’s a good town for visiting artists’ studios – so we focused on eating and drinking. In addition to the koran, we had wild rabbit, deer and what we think was pintail duck, washed down with local wines and homemade raki. (In fact, we were there during the local winter wine festival.) We also saw our first snow in Albania, as it began snowing early Saturday morning and continued through the day.

The view from our hotel window; Albana, Abby and Elsa; an arty picture of a boat.

Another arty picture of boats; people dancing around a Christmas tree during the wine festival; a street in the old town after the festival had closed for the night.

Other than that, not much else is new; Abby is working hard, I’m still drawing at the Academy of Arts and working on some ridiculous paintings, and right now the dog is chewing on my arm because he wants to play. Gotta go.

This Charming Man; etc.

Today, Cooper rolled himself in not one, but two disgusting smelly things in the park: something that had once been an animal, and something that had once been inside an animal. After the second rolling, I had no choice but to grab him (carefully), throw him in the cargo section of the car (the part with the washable mat), and take him home and bathe him. My family may remember the one time that we tried to breed our poodle Kemo. We let him out earlier in the day as we usually did, and he came home in time for his date, but – this time only – he was covered in manure; perhaps he wanted to smell good for his date. Cooper smelled about the same today.

Why do dogs roll in crap? One website explains:

Wolves will often roll in decomposing carcasses or the feces of plant eating animals or herbivores. This would mask their own scent and enable them to sneak up on their prey without detection…. This ancient instinct may have carried over to domesticated dogs.

Another school for thought is that dogs may roll in smelly things to ‘advertise’ what they have found to other dogs.

Cooper has been able to sneak up on his Milk Bones without having to change his scent so far, so I have no idea who he was trying to impress. It sure as hell wasn’t me.

As for my non-dog-bathing time, this week, I started figure drawing at the Academy of Arts, the college-level institution for artists and musicians in Tirana. I was hooked up with a professor there who is letting me use one of the studios and the two models (clothed – they’re brother and sister, and both of high-school age) that are there for open session. The models are nice kids, but they’re terrible models – they keep shifting their positions slightly, which throws everything off. It forces you to work quickly.

Next week, we’ll start a more formal arrangement of instruction, but for now it’s helpful just to draw people on my own, since they are a lot more difficult to draw than are oranges and clay jugs. This week I’ve learned that I draw based on what I think something should look like rather than on how it actually appears, and this isn’t always helpful. Good to learn it early. (There’s a rather interesting page on the proportions of the human body for artists here if you’re interested in the science of it.)

Egypt 4: Luxor, next day

First, let me say that despite the fantastic antiquities, and other than the Winter Palace (now the Winter Palace Hotel), Luxor is not a particularly nice place. Unlike Cairo, there’s nothing to do except either be a tourist or cater to one. It’s a major stop on package tours, and our hotel was full of Brits ordering their fish and chips and lager; and when we went for a walk, we passed a row of English-style pubs and restaurants serving British fare. There were even two jewelry stores side by side called (no joke) “Yorkshire Bob’s” and “Lancaster Jimmy’s”. I am an absolute Anglophile but I was reminded of the Monty Python sketch in which the tourist agency customer complains about English tourists:

“I mean I’m fed up going abroad and being treated like a sheep, what’s the point of being carted around in busses, surrounded by sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Boventry in their cloth caps and their cardigans and their transistor radios and their ‘Sunday Mirrors’, complaining about the tea, ‘Oh they don’t make it properly here do they not like at home’ stopping at Majorcan bodegas, selling fish and chips and Watney’s Red Barrel and calamares and two veg and sitting in cotton sun frocks squirting Timothy White’s suncream all over their puffy raw swollen purulent flesh cos they ‘overdid it on the first day’!”

and so on. But I digress.

We went to the Temple of Karnak in the morning and the Temple of Luxor in the afternoon (with a stop at a papyrus “institute” in between. It’s actually fascinating to see how papyrus paper is made – the technology was actually lost until about 27 years ago – but Abby and I had already been treated to the sales job in Cairo). Photographs will describe the Temple of Karnak better than I can:

The main walls, and a ramp in the interior (because the ramp inside the walls was never cleared away, archaeologists were able to understand how the Egyptians built these massive walls); a row of ram-headed sphinxes, representing Amun-Ra; ancient graffiti. When Napoleon’s armies arrived in Egypt, the temple was nearly buried under sand, so the soldiers and subsequent explorers were able to carve their names into the level that is now half-way up the wall.
The columns of the first sanctuary. (The roof is long gone, of course.) The columns are massive – you can park a car on each capital – and decorated all the way to the top. In fact, there was almost no surface in the temple that was not carved or painted.
The colors are still incredibly fresh.

Unavoidably, after the Temple of Karnak, the Temple of Luxor was less grand. It did have some interesting features: it was once connected to the Temple of Karnak by an avenue flanked with sphinxes; Alexander the Great had himself carved into one of the walls as an Egyptian diety; the Copts used it as a church and covered one of the rooms with frescos; and many centuries later, after the temple was covered in sand, a mosque was built on top. Still, it just didn’t compare in terms of scale or color.

An excavated stretch of the Avenue of Sphinxes; columns in the sanctuary; the mosque built atop the Temple; Alexander the Great’s carving; the Coptic frescoes. The story behind the Avenue of the Sphinxes is that during the Sun God festival, the priests would bring a small golden idol of Amun-Ra from the Temple of Karnak up the Nile by boat to the Temple of Luxor, which was his wife’s temple. After he had – presumably – enjoyed his conjugal visit, the common people were allowed to carry him back along the avenue so that they could have their once-a-year view of the god.

After the Temple, we parted ways with Mohammed and Devinia, and went to the nearby Luxor Museum, which is in a modern building and has extensive labeling on the exhibit cases. Well worth a visit.

Our final tourist activity was a ride on a felucca up the Nile River at sunset. Our crew consisted of two young men who gave us the usual tourist patter, offered us some delicious mint tea, and then spent about 3o minutes playing their cell phone ring tones to each other to share the latest downloads. Not quite relaxing, but they stopped right before we were about to snap and chuck their phones into the river. They also tried to get us to alight at “Banana Island” for a half-hour visit to look at a tree-covered island along the route that’s nice for picnics. We had heard three different prices quoted for entry to the island that day (they increased with each quote; I assume that each guide was adding his cut to the base price). We declined and the boat’s pilot didn’t insist, but he spent the next 15 minutes pointedly not insisting that lots of tourists enjoyed visiting the island. However, as the sun began to set, we were able to really settle in and enjoy it:

Abby took these.

From there, it was back to Cairo and a long wait in the airport. As we were waiting, Abby noted that despite Mohamed Ali being an Albanian, only a minority of Egyptians have heard of Albania. “Where are you from?” “Albania.” “Armenia?” “No, Albania.” “Alemania*?” “No, Albania. It’s north of Greece.” “Ah.” Still, it was easier than saying we were from America, since we could then pretend we didn’t know English and ignore the street vendors. And in fact, as we noted sadly to each other on the plane, it’s a rare trip when you’re actually looking forward to getting back to Tirana, but that about sums it up. Kaq.


But is it art?

No, but it beats spending all of my time playing on-line backgammon: I’ve taken up oil painting again after a hiatus of seven years. This is week one’s output:

(I realize that this is the electronic equivalent of putting my work up on the refrigerator, but what the hell.)