Arrival

We arrived in Tirana at about 11:30 AM Tuesday after an uneventful flight out of Dulles International Airport. &nbspAfter collecting our luggage, we were met by our sponsors from the embassy, Paula and Wakie (Political Officer and Management Officer, respectively), who brought us to our house. &nbspThe house is furnished, and there was a welcome kit with towels, dishes, etc., and Paula and Wakie had done some basic food shopping for us, so we were well-enough situated to start.

After looking around, Abby and I set out into the heat and dust of Tirana to look for some lunch. &nbspWe discovered quickly enough that the bar-kafes that line the streets only serve alcohol and coffee; they aren’t cafes. &nbspAfter walking for about 20 minutes, we ducked into the first sit-down restaurant we found that was open and looked decent, and shared a kebab with marinated cucumber. &nbspThen we walked back, and took a short nap – we were exhausted.

At 7:00, Paula and Wakie picked us up and we went to the Presidential Hotel for dinner. &nbspThe temperature had cooled down, so we ate on the rooftop. &nbspWe enjoyed the lights of Tirana until the black-out – KESH, the electric company, has been imposing 6-7 hour black-outs daily. Between the dependence on hyrdroelectric power, the heat, the drought, the increased load from air conditioners (which Albania did not have in abundance even a few years ago), and the faulty infrastructure, the system cannot support the load. &nbspThe government had promised that there would be full electricity available in 2007, but there has been little progress on this front. &nbspI’ll probably write more about this later. &nbspAt any rate, the major hotels and restaurants (and the embassy houses, fortunately) have generators, so we were able to finish our meal in ease and then drive home, and serenaded by the hum of the generators, we went to bed.

Immersion Trip: Day 9-10

Today, a group of us went to Berat, a castle built between the 13th and 15th centuries.  It reflects the culture of the time insofar as it includes both a mosque (now ruined) and a church, the Church of St. Mary, which includes many famous Albanian icons.  The town of Berat is known for having thousands of “one over another” windows, as the photos attest; it also turns out (I just learned while checking out the Wikipedia entry) that Shabbatai Zevi, the 16th century Turkish Jew who declared himself to be the messiah and led a mass movement before being forced to recant, is buried there.

We then stopped in the Gobo Winery on the way home to sample wine and walnut raki. &nbspThe wine wasn’t bad, but the walnut raki was a clear reminder that walnuts contain iodine. &nbspI suppose it cures what it doesn’t kill.

Day 10 was essentially a continuation of Day 9, since we never went to bed – we watched television until 3:30 when the cab came and took us to the airport. &nbspThe airport was fairly busy at 4:00 AM, since the flight to Vienna is popular and there aren’t many options for getting out of the country. &nbspWe got through security easily enough, although strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the airport security did not identify the oversized bottle of saline solution that I had accidentally packed in my carry-on luggage. &nbspHowever, they did confiscate the bottle of wine Abby had purchased at the Gobo Winery. &nbspOur teacher, who had met us there along with her 85 year-old mother-in-law, urged Abby to go back and get the bottle of wine, and we’d drink it there.  We passed on the offer.

Immersion Trip: Day 8

Today we went on the Hash. The Hash House Harriers is an international running club, organized primarily wherever there are English-speaking ex-pats, although there are many non-English-speaking adherents. The point is to follow a trail laid out earlier in the day by the “hares”. The trail is marked in chalk or flour (D.C.’s clubs discontinued their use of flour after the anthrax scares post-9/11) and it includes false trails, turnarounds, and such.

We set out early on Saturday morning and took the Durres Road out. Today’s group was impressively multinational – represented were Albania, Australia, China, Egypt, France, the Netherlands and the U.S. The traffic was a mess – the two roundabouts were jammed as was the highway itself. Rruga Durresit, one of the major roads out of Tirana, is intersected with another major roadway a few kilometers out of town. (Notice how I use the European system of distance? As if I could estimate a kilometer …) Thus, traffic is nearly at a standstill, and people will drive on the sidewalks, the opposing lanes, whatever, in order to get to where they need to go. It’s entertaining. (The situation is not helped by the politics: at one point, the national DP/local SP – I forget which – built an overpass to clear up the rotary traffic; the local SP/national DP tore it down.

Eventually we escaped the traffic and drove off the highway and into the hills above Tirana. The scenery is truly splended (Abby took the photos). After the preliminaries, we were off, running and bounding along the mountain trail (and perilously close to the edge at some points), jumping roots and rocks and looking for the flour markers. Then we ran down the mountain face and into a green valley, across a stream, and then up the next mountain … or, to be more honest, many of us began walking up the next mountain (besides those who were smart enough to start at hiking pace). S’është lehte fare. I eventually got separated from the lead group and then joined another group, and we talked as we made our way down the mountain, and past a herd of goats grazing in the valley. I was half-expecting to see Heidi, or Julie Andrews with a guitar.

The day ended with a visit to the Chicken Shack for lots of cold beer and freshly killed, roasted chickens.

Immersion Trip: Day 7

Good Lord, I am the worst blogger ever … today’s June 3 and I’m still on April 20.

Today we visited two outdoor markets. &nbspThe second market is the village market (Treg Fshatari) where they had the most amazing food – gorgeous fruits and vegetables, and fresh meat. &nbspYou know the meat is fresh because the butcher puts the skinned head of the unlucky donor on the counter … &nbspNote the old-fashioned scale in the second photo.

I spent the rest of the day meeting people, and then went to the Marine House for happy hour where I met more people. &nbspThe night ended with dinner at King’s House, this time with all sorts of ex-pats. &nbspThis is a weekly event. &nbspIn addition to us, there were people from Bulgaria, Finland, England, and probably some other countries, but we didn’t meet everyone, and after the raki I probably wouldn’t have remembered anyway.

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, http://www.ourmanintirana.blogspot.com, 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.

Immersion Trip: Day 2

Today involved touring the city and eating. Food in Tirana is cheap – last night’s dinner was $9 for two pizzas and $12 for a bottle of decent wine. This morning we started with espresso, which Albania has in abundance. Then we met our teacher for a walk around some of the sights. A few notable sights included the Polytechnic University (to the right) and the Academy of Arts, which look forlorn and run-down. These sit in Mother Teresa Square, and despite the reverence that Albanians have for Mother Teresa (who was Albanian), the only marker in the square is “Nena Teresa” spelled by the bushes in front of the Polytechnic. Similarly, there is no marker in Woodrow Wilson Square (the traffic circle in front of the blue building). Albania is the most pro-American country in Europe because Wilson prevented Albania from being carved up between Serbia and Greece in 1913, and he is a national hero of sorts. Yet there isn’t even a sign. In fact, there are almost no street signs at all in Tirana.

Another interesting feature of navigating Tirana streets is that you have to watch out for missing utility hole covers in the sidewalks and roadways. The Roma steal these and sell them for scrap metal. The holes can snap an axle (or ankle).

A story about the Academy of Arts and Albanian politics. The Academy used to have a privately-run café attached to it. The café was operated by a supported of the Socialist Party. When the Democratic Party came into power, they ordered the café to be torn down. This is emblematic of the past 16 years of Albanian politics. The SP and DP have alternated control of the government – the SP, led by Fatos Nano initially and now by Edi Rama, and the DP, led by Sali Berisha. Both Nano and Berisha were former Albanian Party of Labor (Communist) Party members, and they are paired in the public mind as two sides of a not particularly effective coin. National leadership often seems to use “kazmën në vend të plugut” – a pickax instead of a plough.

So back to food: we lunched at King House, which is owned by our teacher’s husband’s business partner. Every Friday night, it’s ex-pat central. (More on this later.) We had some amazing Albanian dishes including a green pepper/cheese/tomato casserole and meatballs baked with tomatoes and onions, and then finished off the meal with raki, which is an Albanian grappa. It’s killer stuff – we went for a nap after the meal, and when I woke up, I had no idea who the woman in bed with me was but I knew that Abby was around there somewhere …

After we reassembled our heads, we visited the Regency Casino. Tirana has legalized gambling. Most of the gambling houses are small clubs with roulette tables and video poker or slots, and with bouncers who look like they could chew through a Plymouth. However, the Regency is a larger (although still small by American standards) casino with blackjack, three-card poker, and good lighting – very much like a casino you’d find in London. We won $150 at blackjack, which just about covered our meals for the week. On the way back to the King House for another raki, I began to take serious note of the fashions. Some writers have mocked Albania’s youth for their lack of fashion sense, and there is some truth to the matter: the girls’ blouse cloth is a little too shiny, or the kids will wear anything that has an English phrase on it even if the phrase makes absolutely no sense. But there’s something very sincere about the whole look.

Immersion Trip – Tirana: Day 1

(By way of introduction – I’d started a blog on Xanga.com in September, with thoughts about learning Albanian, but it’s hard to manipulate photographs on Xanga.com, so those brilliant blog entries are lost to posterity. Tough. So we pick up here, 30-odd weeks into language training:)

Abby and I went to Tirana on a language immersion trip from April 13 – April 23. I’ll try to capture the 10 days in a few readable (i.e., short) blog entries.

We flew in via Vienna and passed over the northern part of Albania. The scenery was fantastic – rugged mountain ridges and hills criss-crossed with small paths, and then a sudden swoop down into flat green fields with the Adriatic Sea beyond them as we approached the airport. Albania’s new airport, named for Mother Teresa, looked like Dulles International Airport when we saw the news of its opening on VOA’s Albanian-language service. In real life, it still looks like Dulles International Airport – shrunk to about 1/10 of the size. It’s also in the middle of a pasture, and after whisking through immigration and out of the car park, we immediately passed herds of sheep. On the road into Tirana, we also saw one half-built building after another – basically concrete floors and pillars. It seems to be some combination of a non-existent mortgage system that allows people to build only until they run out of money; illegal construction stopped midway through; and an outlet for money-laundering.

We were staying in our teacher’s rental apartment in Tirana, which she and her husband graciously lent us. It’s in the middle of the Block (Blloku), which during the Communist era was reserved for Party officials but now is full of apartment buildings, shops, restaurants, clubs and coffee houses. It’s about as close to Greenwich Village as Tirana gets, and it’s a lively place. Here are some examples of the architecture in the Block, and a shot of the park:

Generally speaking, Tirana is a city of architectural contrasts. In addition to the shiny new buildings of the Block, there are the Italianate government buildings and also a new European-style shopping center, but many of the old apartment buildings remain. Edi Rama, head of the Socialist Party and mayor of Tirana, had many of the old buildings painted to brighten up the grey of the Communist era with some success:

The image to the right is Skenderbeg Square, with the statue of George Kastrioti (Skenderbeg), Albania’s national hero, a small clock tower (whose faces show different times) and the chief mosque in Tirana. An amazing thing about Albania is that although the country is 70% Muslim, the national hero is a Catholic prince who defended the country from the Ottomans. We walked through Skenderbeg Square on our first day – in fact, we walked a great deal on our first day. We ended up back in the Square that night because we saw on Albanian television that there was going to be a rally/concert in the Square to protest Prime Minister Berisha’s attempts to clamp down on the media. (The PM had accused various media interests of having ties to the mafia. Accusing the opposition – political or media – of corruption and mafia ties seems to be a staple part of Albanian politics.) The rally was sponsored by MJAFT!, a civic organization whose name means “Enough!”, and was supported by Top Channel, which runs a number of popular television programs, including “Fiks Fare”, a satirical program that occasionally uncovers political scandals, and “Portokalli” (Orange), which Abby describes as the Albanian version of “Sabado Gigante.”

The protest showcased some of Albania’s biggest musical acts, as well as some political speeches and comedy from Portokalli and Fiks Fare. The musical groups seem to fall into three categories: legitimate rock, American Idol-styled pop, and Albanian hip-hop. The Albanian language is actually great for rhyming, since nouns are formed/declined and verbs are conjugated in set patterns, but the sight of Albanian guys gesturing like 50 Cent is just too hard to handle. Kind of like Vanilla Ice … There also was the whole Ashlee Simpson thing going on in that you could hear the performers singing whether the microphone was anywhere close to their faces or not. Still, it was a great night of entertainment and the (uniformed) security presence was pretty low key. Here are some scenes from the protest:

Days 2-10 to follow.