I Want My MAPO*

* If you are younger than 40, ask your parents or an older sibling.

The photography has been coming fast and furious, with this past Friday being my first photo shoot for Mapo magazine, Albania’s answer to Time. My friend, the photographer Roland Tasho, had asked me if I was interested in working for the magazine; I wouldn’t be paid, but of course I jumped at the opportunity, so he introduced me to the assistant editor, Beni, and we arranged for my first trip out with the magazine.

Naimi, an older man with 35 years’ experience as a professional driver, picked me up at 7.30 (being 20 minutes late). I hopped in the backseat of his Mercedes Benz station wagon and realized there were no working seatbelts in the back. The driver and his daughter, who was along for the ride, did have seatbelts up front, but – true to the Albanian style – weren’t using them. This, I decided, was not a good start.

We drove southward, stopping in Lushnje for some excellent byrek at one of these types of places that all the professional drivers know, and then arrived in Berat. Our first story was to write about the houses of Gorica, one of Berat’s three neighborhoods, and the problems that the residents had in maintaining them. Berat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so people cannot make any external repairs without getting a clearance from the museum. The museum pays half the cost, but since the people are quite poor, it’s not clear where they get the money, and many of them simply cannot afford the repairs at all.

The houses of Gorica; one of the neighborhood streets – note the exposed lathing on the alcove;a roof in need of repair.

I took scores of photos, some of which I’ll use for my own artistic purposes, for example (these are unedited):

We finished the interviews and then returned to our driver, who introduced us to a close friend of his; this second driver, Dhurimi, offered to drive Beni and me to our next site, with Naimi and his daughter following in their car. Since we had to taking a winding road through the mountains, and Dhurimi’s car was a comfortable new Mercedes sedan with all its seatbelts in place, I was happy to switch cars.

We drove about an hour until we reached Bogova, where we were going to research an article about water. Bogova is the source of drinking water for the area, with a mountain spring of cold clear water, but it gets polluted as it hits the river. We parked our drivers at a taverna at 2.30 and went out in search of the head of the commune for an interview. He was welcoming but at the same time combative; Beni told me later that the guy had a lot to hide.

The water looks nice until you look more closely upstream; water breaking over a rock.

Beni and I returned to the table at 3.30 and ate our lunch. I had a delicious serving of kid goat meat; Beni had pork chops; there were cheeses, salad and bread, and the others kept eating and talking and drinking wine (Naimi) and raki (Dhurimi) as we finished our meals. Dhurimi – who I discovered was acting as our host – then ordered another plate of meat, this time some sausages on skewers. Beni and Naimi’s daughter explained they were intestines, and suggested that I not even try to figure out what was inside the casing. I cut open one of the skewers that Beni deposited on my plate, and – well – if intestines themselves had intestines, that might approximate what I saw. It didn’t taste unlike liver or kidney, but I can’t say I was sufficiently intrigued to continue past the first mouthful.

I was struggling to follow the conversation and starting to worry as the sun began to escape behind the mountains. Eager to follow its example, at 5.00 I suggested that since we still had a three-hour drive back to Tirana, perhaps we should leave. “In five minutes” they said as Dhurimi poured himself a second and then a third glass of raki and lit another cigarette. Finally at 6.00, after waiting for the taverna owner to return with a package for Naimi, we got up from the table, only to then try to jump-start the owner’s car, the battery of which had died.

Thus it was 6.30 when we left, with (and perhaps my mother should stop reading here) both drivers sufficiently fortified by alcohol. Granted, I was in the car with seatbelts, and the driver was saying something in Albanian to Beni about how much raki he could drink, but curiously I didn’t feel reassured; no doubt, each dead driver for whom we saw a roadside memorial was equally confident that he drove better with a few slugs under his belt. So I was deeply glad when we got back to Berat and I switched back to the other car, seatbelt-less but at least on better roads. Still, we didn’t get away before Dhurimi insisted we have a coffee at his café; and when I first declined to drink anything, Beni made it clear that I was committing a grave offense by refusing Dhurimi’s hospitality. I had had more than enough of his hospitality already and just wanted to get home, but in response to the stricken faces around the table I took a Coke.

Naimi, now sober, drove at a terrific speed to get us back to Tirana before it became too late – again, a mixed blessing, given the lack of seatbelts – but I did make it home in one piece. I subsequently told Beni that when we go out again, I have to get a seatbelt or I’m not going. Meanwhile, if all goes well, the articles will be printed in editions next week and then two weeks after that.


This past Wednesday I began learning how to use a darkroom, and I made my first print. Very cool, and certainly a more physical activity than sitting in front of the computer. It’s also a much more time-consuming activity, since each print takes about 20 minutes – if you get it right the first time. But damn, it’s fun.

Click here for a selection of photographs from Paris.

Back from Paris, Brussels and London

I’m back from London. I did have a root canal after all, but it was fairly painless. The night before, I saw “The Mousetrap”, which also was fairly painless, but that’s not the adjective you usually want to use when describing theater. “The Mousetrap” has been running for 56 years -my visit was performance #23,264 and it felt like it. It’s hard to believe that even the audiences of the 1950s were willing to sit through such a contrived plot. Another first-hand example of the difference between the world view of Americans vs. Europeans was when I held a conversation with a woman who decided she was “sympathetic to Chavez” after seeing a documentary.

I saw a lot of art while we were away. In addition to seeing the brilliant Musee d’Orsay and the Orangerie (Monet’s Water Lilies) in Paris, we visited the Pompideau Center, and I shall rant a bit about the Pompideau Center. While there is a lot of 1950s-1960s modern painting that I find lovely and thought-provoking, there’s also a huge amount of self-indulgent pretentious crap being churned out as well. I can’t even quote some of the descriptions – “obliviating the boundaries between representation and abstraction”, “turning directly to the unconscious to guide the painter’s hand over the canvas”, “refusing to be bound by a profound lack of talent”, that kind of thing – without gagging. Look at, for example, Cy Twombly’s Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus from 1962:

What the hell is this? Yet the actual canvas is about six feet by six feet, so I think the secret of modern painting is: if it’s really big, people will think it has to be good. Hence you can paint a canvas white, paint a blue square on the edge, and as long as the whole thing requires five men to mount it on the wall, it’s art. There are also the installation pieces – big chairs, stacks of pots under a table, etc. At one point my eye was drawn to a cannister with a collection of pipes and hoses suspended from a wall, but it proved to just be fire-fighting equipment in the hallway. But all it needed was better lighting and a label.

There wasn’t much to see in Brussels – not surprisingly, a lot of the work there was influenced by the French, and the collection of moderns works was bad (except for the guy who works in mussel shells), but London’s Tate Modern added to my outrage and bafflement against contemporary art. Again, I’m not knocking the whole collection – there are many modern painters and sculptors whose abstract or crudely-shaped images are weirdly brilliant – but one of the pieces on exhibit is a large, irregularly-shaped paper octagon that is pasted onto a white wall. The artist, Richard Tuttle, has created a whole series of large irregularly-shaped octagons cut out of paper and stuck onto walls, sometimes even when the wall is nearly the same color as the octagon (for added artistic value). Take that, Alex Calder.

So I am baffled by the art world. Yet there are aspects of classical art that also mystify me, albeit for different reasons. Take this piece of information on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum about painting on ivory:

Since it is more difficult to work on ivory than on vellum, miniature painters learned to prepare their watercolours differently. They used more gum arabic to make it stickier. They also discovered that adding ox-gall, the liquid from the gall bladder of a cow or bull, made the watercolour flow more easily. This allowed them greater freedom when using the brush.

How does someone think to look in a cow’s gall bladder for the solution to making paint stick to ivory?

Meanwhile, in the art world here at home, the National Gallery is under renovation. They had an exhibition while we were away in which the creators of Socialist Realist masterpieces reinterpreted their paintings directly onto the walls of the gallery hall where they hung; the Gallery then painted the reinterpretations over, to literally immure them in the gallery walls while at the same time symbolizing the end of Socialist Realist art. Also, Playboy magazine is finally for sale in Albania, thus creating a whole new market for nudes heretofore unrealized.

I’ll post the trip photos eventually, but this is one of my favorites: