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Monday, November 30, 2009

Albania 22: Ode to Italy

[NOTE: This blog/diary of Mykel's Italian-Albanian trip starts several entries before this one. Due to the oddities of Blogging, the entries appear in reverse order. Because much of the reportage is based on the previous days, I recommend reading from the start, at the entry ALBANIA 1. Also, because this computer lacks search capabilities, and my brain needs a RAM boost, I fear I may repeat some tales better told previously... repeat some tales better told previously. Let me know if that happens.]

"We must remember that we are vulnerable to the repetition of our insights so that they tend to come to us not as confirmation of something we already know but as genuine discoveries each and every time.” – E.L. Doctorow

So, I got little sleep in Naples. On the floor in the bedroom of an office with a roommate near death's door with some kind of contagious glandular disease... He sleeps constantly-- when he's not rasping for some drug or other. I can never do anything in that room for fear of disturbing him. I can't even turn on the lights.

I try to stay away all day. Museums, castles, the myriad bookstores and bookstalls of Naples. But I feel like I'm walking in circles. I even call my dentist to schedule an appointment to reattach my gold inlay. Remember? It pulled loose the third night in Albania. I put it in an empty Zyrtec case, and stuffed it between the condoms in my wallet. It sure as hell won't be disturbed there.

I want to go out at night. I've got a couch-surfing host, Fabio, who took me out my first night in town. We went to bars, clubs, met people. Since then, I've hardly seen him. He's not even my official host. He's the friend of my host, Maurizio, who I saw on that first night and haven't seen since. That guy never answers his phone, and when I text him, he calls Fabio instead of me.

Tomorrow I'm going to have to move to a hostel. A girl is coming to stay and she has priority. I wonder if Fabio will put my roommate's moribund body on the street. It's been raining on and off (mostly on) since I got here, fitting weather for my mood in this country.

Is that tingle in my throat psychosomatic or the start of an even more fitting end to fucking Italy?

[NOTE: I do not want to disparage Fabio. He is as good as the circumstances permitted. He tries hard. It's just not in the cards.]

Ah well, I have my backpack protector chain link with cable, so a move to a hostel won't be so bad. As it turns out, (the ONLY (good) luck I have in Italy) the expected girl-guest calls to tell Fabio that she'll be a day late. I can stay another night in the deadly disease ward.

Maybe I can go out with my new friends. Meet that sexy Luxembourg girl again. Go drinking in the bars for my last night in Naples. Yeah right.

Fabio is visiting Mom and I'm on my own. But before I leave, he's gonna call this American girl, Jeanne, who is also traveling to Rome tomorrow. That way, I'll have company.

He gives her a call and turns the phone over to me. I usually keep away from Americans when I travel, but since I've made NO friends here in Italy... even an American is better than nothing. We agree to meet at the train station, in front of the ticket booth, 45 minutes before the train leaves. She tells me she'll be wearing a black leather jacket (always a good sign!). I tell her I look like Dick Tracy.

[NOTE 2: Lately I usually use “Inspector Gadget” rather than Dick Tracy. Seem like more people know who he is these days. But Jeane seems to me like a Dick Tracy kinda girl.]

That night, before I lay down the mattress on the floor of the leper's room, I look one last time at the gold bit of dentistry in my wallet.

It is gone.


That's at least a thousand dollars. Poof.

Impossible. Never touched. Even if it fell out of my wallet, it couldn't be missed. It's just disappeared in the morass that is Italy. I know it's unfair to blame the country for the disappearance, but I do.

The next morning, Fabio comes early to make me coffee and say good-bye. Then I'm off to the subway and the train station. It takes me a full quarter hour to navigate the labyrinthine station asking several times for biglietti, and getting a different answer each time. I reach the ticket window about 10 minutes late. It doesn't matter, because Jeanne is half an hour later.

So we meet, buy tickets, run for the train. We make it. Are we on time? No. But the train is even later than we are.

I chain my bags to the seat and sit opposite Jeanne. There are two seats on each side of the aisle. Jeanne and I face each other with a table in the middle. Next to each of us is an Italian female. Both pretty. One completely is lost in her cellphone texting, the other in her iPod.

Jeanne and I talk. I ask her how she knows Fabio. She tells me she's a couch-surfer who originally stayed there, but left because the man had roaming hands.

“I thought I was beyond that stage,” she says. “I figured men would just see me like a mother. Which I am... did I tell you my daughter lives in New York?... But he was just... Italian. I don't know. But I couldn't stay there.”

I tsk-tsk properly. Then change the subject slightly.

“I don't know where I'll be staying in Rome,” I tell her. “I contacted several couch surfers there, but I got form rejections... or no answers at all.”

[Note 3: Rome is where I first ran into the STROKE ME couch-surfers. This is a group of people who want poor couch-surfing travelers to read through their profiles carefully, and refer to something in it, before sending a request to stay on the couch. They want to be stroked.

Gee, you're a 60 year old punk rocker who's written two books? What a coincidence. So am I!

I can only imagine these egotists have never had to contact dozens of hosts themselves. Sometimes, you have to send out scores of requests for one positive answer. Can you imagine having to read each profile before writing and then being rejected? It could take hours! It's easier to find a hostel!

And in Rome, it seems like all the hosts are males. All the guests leaving RAVE reviews for those hosts, are females.]

“I'm staying at a hostel,” Jeanne tells me. “It's called THE BEEHIVE. It's fifteen euros a night in the dorm room. Maybe they'll have space for you.”

“Sure,” I tell her. “I can stay in a dorm one night. My bag locks with a steel cable.”

She laughs.

When we get out of the train, she follows some computer directions to the dorm. We find it quite easily. They have space for me, they say. But not in a dorm room. I have to take a private room with two beds. I have to pay for both beds. 70€ a night.

That's more than I paid the kidnapper in Albania! And this room doesn't even have a toilet or shower. Just a sink to piss in.

Fuck it! It's one night. My last in this fuckin' country. I'll take it.

I set my phone to wake me up at 6 AM to catch the train to the plane. I go to bed at 9, wake up mysteriously at 12:30, then switch beds to get my money's worth. Then, I get up at 6, piss in the sink, and head for the airport.

Ok, it's time to go through security, my least favorite activity in one of my least favorite locations (an airport) in one of my least favorite countries (except Torino).

I take off my coat, my shoes, empty my pockets, take the computer out of its bag, take off my belt, heft my steel cable-protected bag onto the x-ray conveyor. I walk through the metal detector. It beeps.

“Spread your arms and legs,” says the uniformed man on the other end. He runs the electronic paddle over my body finding the gold inlay in my back pocket. Yeah right.

Actually, it's a one lek coin, left over from the Albanian part of this trip.

From the x-ray machine, I go through immigration. They stamp my passport; then on to a final customs inspection. Uh oh, I get the female.

MYKEL'S TRAVEL LAW NUMBER 431: Female customs officers are always trouble.

She's looking at my bag. She holds the metal that protects it. With obvious pride, she calls over an older male colleague. She points to the cable and then motions to her neck, like she was hanging herself. (I only wish she had.) The man nods and she turns to me

“You cannot take this,” she says. “You have to send this bag.”

Send? I think. How the fuck can I send it? This is just too much. I hate Italy. I hate Italy. I hate Italy.

I find myself saying it out loud. Feeling the rage bubble up inside. I fish for the key. Unlock the cable. Pull it off the protector and its cable.

“Take it!” I say. “I'll leave it here. Just take it! I only want to get out of here.”

I throw it onto her desk. She talks with the inspector and tells him I'm leaving the cable here. He seems surprised. Then the woman gets out her gunpowder testing kit, rubs some on a pad, rubs my bag with the pad, and feeds it to the testing machine. Much to her annoyance, it comes back negative.

I'm at the gate, waiting, an hour early. Every 5 minutes the public address system announces another gate change. It seems as if no planes ever leave from their scheduled locations. Mine is no exception. Before changing gates, I go to the restaurant counter for my last Italian meal. It is one of those pressed sandwiches. This one is slightly warm on the outside. Inside, it's as cold as the refrigerator it was kept in.

It doesn't matter if the plane leaves late. I have a five hour layover in Amsterdam. It does matter that, at the gate, there's another security check. Temper (barely) in check, I go through the gate and board the plane.

  While flying to Holland, I compose bad poetry:

Ah Italy, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

I hate thee for thy

Train waiting room passport checks

Phone calls not returned

Lying ticket agents

Luggage security stolen by airport security

Seventy Euro hostel rooms with no toilets

Cars that don't stop at crosswalks

Drive-by shaving-cream attacks

Penises of Pompeii without signs to them

Grilled cheese and a Fanta for 10 Euros

Being the place I discovered my gold inlay went missing

Rooming with a leper

Having more tourists than natives

Having beggars who, when you give them something, ask for more

Closed ticket windows with use machine  signs, next to machines that give error messages see clerk at ticket window

Roman couch surfers who want to be individually stroked

Male couch-surfing hosts whose guests are only females

Airport change-of-gate announcements every 5 minutes

Airport and plane waiting rooms without electrical sockets

Africans afraid of being photographed

Citizens who ignore calls of Help! Police!

Pressed sandwiches, ice cold on the inside

Promises of nights out on the town, beer and bars... only promises

Vesuvius, what are you waiting for?


NOTES:  Below are some notes from this trip that I forgot to include in the original posts

  -->I'm guessing the cellphone quality is really bad in Albania, though Jim Ballushi does a commercial for, EAGLE, one of their cellphone companies.

People yell into the phones as if their voices have to carry directly to the listener, without the intermediary of microwaves. Or maybe, as if the receiver lived in on the top floor of the building on the other side of the street from the phone, and the caller had to speak directly to him, from the street.

  --> In the bus from Berati to Tirana, my window is fogged... it looks permanent. I can only make out impressionistic views of the countryside. For the passengers in front of me, the glass is perfect. The glass is always cleaner on the other side of the seat.

-->Unused first line for something I haven't written yet: I think the trouble started when Plato refused to have sex with Socrates.

  -->“A computer is not an instrument.” --Andi in Tirana

-> De të të vras o të qifsha nonën! (Albanian for: I want to kill you you mother fucker.)

  -->When you travel, you always see foreign versions of people you know, or famous people. I've already seen the Albanian version of my sister. Today, I saw the Albanian Jack Nicholson. Too bad it's dangerous to just pull out a camera and shoot. I learned that lesson in Italy.

  -->Fancy restaurants in Albania do not have Albanian beer, though they might have Budweiser. The usual choice is Heiniken, Becks, or Stella.

  --> I don't see people pissing in the streets in Albania. Despite all the coffee... despite all the bars... despite the high numbers of … er... older gentlemen...despite the crazies. I haven't seen one street pisser... or even smelled the remains of one (other than me).

  -->I really like the way Albanian adolescent guys show friendship. The casually walk with their arms around each other's shoulders. They'll touch each other in conversation. They'll even walk arm-in-arm. In individuality America, they'd be asking for a homo-baiting. But here, it's as natural as kicking a rock.

--> Tired of the child beggars, in Italy, I finally see an old woman to give change to. I give her 30 cents. That's more than I give the bums in New York. She asks for still more. It triggers THE RAGE.

I want my money back! You ungrateful bitch!

The reason you give money is to feel good. To get thank yous!! Asking for more spoils the whole thing. What's the matter with you!

--> Albanian and Italian souvlakis have french fries and mayonnaise in them. It's part of the dish. The locals expect it. Weird, huh?


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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Albania 21: Naples and Pompeii

[NOTE: This blog/diary of Mykel's Italian-Albanian trip starts several entries before this one. Due to the oddities of Blogging, the entries appear in reverse order. Because much of the reportage is based on the previous days, I recommend reading from the start, at the entry ALBANIA 1. Also, because this computer lacks search capabilities, and my brain needs a RAM boost, I fear I may repeat some tales better told previously... repeat some tales better told previously. Let me know if that happens.]

"That's what moving about, traveling, is; it's this inexorable glimpse of existence as it really is during those few lucid hours, so exceptional in the span of human time, when you are leaving the customs of the last country behind you and the other new ones have not yet got their hold on you.” --Celine

I'm writing this, in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Right now, I've got 2 hours until boarding time. I expect there will be a last minute gate change... they're continually announcing them. The gate change will make me late for the flight, even though I've been here 5 hours, already. Through the public address system, I hear a new gate announcement every few seconds. I'm waiting for mine...


It's now an hour after the flight should have left. There's no action at the gate. (Yes, it was changed.) The curse did not remain in Italy. It follows me to the end of the trip. What will yet happen at the NEXT security check? Customs? I expect to get home at two or three in the morning. I'm sure there'll be no ground transportation. Maybe I can get a SuperShuttle. That's probably best. Naw, they won't be running at that hour. Will my key work in my apartment door?

I'm losing computer battery power, and there are no sockets here. I don't understand how my fellow passengers can take it so well. I guess they didn't start at 6 in the morning... from Rome.


Backtrack: I'm in Bari, waiting to get on the train to Naples (not Naples, exactly... There is no train from Bari to Naples. The guy at the train station sold me a ticket to Benevento. From there, I need to get out of the train and buy another ticket to Naples. I have an hour wait in Benevento, said the ticket seller. Plenty of time to buy another ticket. He lied.)

Now, on the train, I text Maurizio, not the Tirana one, but the Italian couch-surfer who responded maybe to my request to stay at his place in Naples. He wrote: Even if I can't host you I can help you find a place and see something of this crazy town.

I text him that I'll be in Naples around 5:30 and ask him if he's free. I actually talked to him once. Texted, several times. Called several times. No answers to texts. One answer to the call. Since then, nothing. Still, I figure it's better to try. Even though things won't work out.

The train arrives in Benevento at 4:10. Only ten minutes after the scheduled time. In Italy, that's on time-- or maybe early. So I leave the train and run to the ticket office. There are half a dozen windows, all over them closed. There is a sign in one of them. It says something in Italian. Under that, it says, in English, Windows closed. Use machine. <-------

There is a small line at the machine. While waiting, I look at the schedule to confirm the leaving times. Next train to Naples: 4:25. Next after that: 7:30. Where's the 5:00 train the ticket seller told me about. Oh, there it is. It doesn't run on Sundays. Today is Sunday.

I get to the machine at 4:15. I can still make it. It looks pretty advanced. It even has an UNION JACK flag that you touch and it gives you (a kind of) English.

I tell it that I want to leave on the next train. (I still have 5 minutes.) It asks how many passengers. I press ONE. It asks if I want to buy the ticket. I press YES. It flashes TRANSACTION NOT AVAILABLE. PLEASE SEE AGENT AT WINDOW.

Ok, I pressed a wrong button somewhere. I hear the train pull into the station. I push the Union Jack. I push the Naples. I push the number one. I push the YES! It flashes TRANSACTION NOT AVAILABLE. PLEASE SEE AGENT AT WINDOW.

“You fucker!” I yell at it. “I'm only using you because I CAN'T see the agent at the window!”

The line has grown rather large by now. I ask the guy behind me if he speaks English.

“Un po,” he says.

I explain the problem. He says he'll try in for me. He does it in Italian and gets the same mystery message. He shakes his head. Tries again and then shrugs.

“You should go to the café there,” he says pointing. “You can buy a ticket there.”

Of course. Why didn't I think of that? The window signs say USE THE MACHINE, WINDOW CLOSED. And the machine says SEE WINDOW AGENT. All you have to do is see the cashier by the espresso machine. How could I be so stupid and not have guessed that?

The train pulls out of the station.

I buy my ticket from the lady selling water and croissants. While waiting, I sit down and text Maurizio: Train trouble, will be there around 8.

After a long wait, I get on the train, arrive in Naples, switch to the subway as Maurizio explained, go one stop. And there at the station is Maurizio waiting for me. Yeah, right.

Actually, though, it's only a few minutes. In the middle of another text message, he shows up with his friend, Fabio. We shake hands.

“Mykel,” says Fabio, “welcome to Naples. You can stay right near here. In my office... like an office... for two nights. Then, I have another guest coming. But we found a hostel for you. Sixteen Euros.”

That's okay. I can stay in a hostel for one night. I've got my trusty steel cable bag guard, so my computer and the rest will be safe. “That's fine,” I say. “Gracie.”

So we go to “the office.” It's like an apartment that's been converted into an office. There's a bathroom, with a bathtub, toilet, sink... and bidet, with a single dingleberry hanging on to the edge by a hair ...a kitchen, and a bedroom. The bedroom has a double bed in it. In the middle of the double bed is a long black lump, like a huge dog turd.

“You will sleep here,” says Fabio. “You can either share that large bed, or we can put a mattress on the floor....

He looks at the lump on the bed.

“That's Jonathan,” says Fabio. “He's an English couch surfer, who suddenly became sick. He hasn't left this room in days. He's just too ill.”

“I'll take the floor,” I say.

So, I'm be sharing a sickroom with a leper... or at least a swine flu victim. Just what I deserve, huh?

That first night in Naples, though, is fun. We go for pizza (of course). We go bar-hopping. I meet Oli, a boistrous young woman and my first person from Luxembourg. The guys promise to go out with me again the next two nights. More bars. It'll be a great team, me, Maurizio, and Fabio. Finally, some spice in my Italian life. Yeah, right.

That first night. That's it. That's all there is.

Maurizio doesn't want to come out in the rain the next night. Fabio takes me for fried pizza (not bad), and then leaves me with a take-home box for breakfast. The next day, I text Maurizio: Yo! I hope we can meet up before I leave tomorrow. Call Fabio.

He calls. He can't go out. He has to stay home with his mom. Fabio also is gonna see his mom. Sorry, Mykel, you're on your own.

I go out to an experimental film festival. I picked up a brochure about it at the Italian tourist bureau. Ah, Italian experimental film. There'll be some naked bodies in those, I bet. The Italians like naked bodies.

The festival is in the back of an alley near Piazza Dante. It's on the second floor of an art gallery, probably in the ninth circle, someplace. Admission is free and there are about 30 seats. The “films” are actually projected video, but I guess they all are these days.

The first one is animation. There is a woman's body attached to some tubes. Some dots move along the tubes. Electronic music plays in the background. That's the film.

The next film is a close-up of a young woman with a bad complexion. Just her face, balancing a sugar cube on her nose. When the cube falls, she tries to catch it in her mouth. She misses. This happens five times. Finally she catches it, and eats it. That's the film.

Next, we see a naked foot. It rests on a linoleum floor. Slowly, the foot rises, the arch flattens, the foot rises higher until it stands on its toes. That's the film.

The next movie is a close-up (waist to mid-thigh) of a woman wearing a somewhat shlubby blouse and loose black skirt. She sits down. Then the film jerks to a stop. DISC ERROR it says on the screen. The message stays for a few seconds. Then we see a naked foot. It begins to rise. DISC ERROR. We see a black skirt. It sits down. DISC ERROR.

Next movie: a guy and a girl, both 20-something, not particularly attractive, run in the snow. They are wearing clothes. Lots of them. Ski gear, without the skis. They slide around and drag each other across the ice. That's the end of the show.

I leave the theater. It's raining out, as it often is when you leave a theater.

I go back to Fabio's. Steven is up. He rests on one arm in bed. His face is eerily lit by the screen of his Apple notebook.

“Myyyykeeeeeeeel,” he gasps, horse as Mr. Ed. “Did you see a pharmacy out there?”

“I saw many,” I tell him.

“Could you get me some ibuprofen and some declemarinka” (That's not really the name of the drug, but I can't remember what it was. Something extremely pharmaceutical-sounding.) He speaks in a hoarse painful whisper.

Then, he writes down the drug names on a slip of paper and fishes ten euros out of his pocket.

I'm reluctant to touch that money, fearing I'll be next when that ferryboat driver comes to bring him across the river Stix. Finally though, I take it and walk out into the rain.

Few people are about. One woman hurries past me, running, like the shaving-cream terrorists who attacked me yesterday, before I can ask her anything. A fat man with an umbrella comes toward me. I corral him.

Farmacia. Farmacia. Dove?” I ask.

No capisco,” he says, shaking his head. Then he gets it. Farmacia! Farmacia!

“Si si,” I say.

He points straight ahead; then moves his hand back and forth like it's miles.

I walk about a half a mile. During that time I ask again... and again. It's always straight ahead... or some answer I don't understand. I walk another half a mile. Then I give up. Soaked and cold, I walk back. Empty handed and drenched, it won't be long now before I need some declemarinka myself.

“Sorry,” I say when I get back, shaking myself like the wet dog I am. “I walked a mile. Couldn't find a pharmacy...” I fumble through my knapsack. “Here,” I say, pulling out some of the pills I bought in Albania. “Have some aspirin.”

“I called my girlfriend,” whispers Jonathan. “She says not to take aspirin and ibuprofen together.”

Then he shuts the lights out.

I get up at 7 AM the next day. I decided the night before that if the weather is nice, I'll go to Pompeii. Even though I hate Italy, I shouldn't be cutting off my balls to spite my dick. Pompeii is one of those places you have to go to in your life. I didn't even know it was close to Naples until I saw all the books about it in the tourist shops, and local bookstores.

[Note: I have to give Naples credit. They have bookstores. Book stalls. Book booths. They have places to buy books like Albania has places to buy coffee. Every third shop is a bookstore. I bought a book for one Euro. I have no idea what it is, but it looks cool.]

Yesterday, I saw Mount Vesuvius... from yet another castle. I stopped for lunch on the way. A half-size can of Fanta (not as good as Albanian), and a thin grilled cheese sandwich. Ten Euros!! Ah, it's the gringo tax. Pisses me off, but that's travel biz-- everywhere.

Anyway, the castle (called the Egg Castle for some reason), houses some offices, and art galleries. It's strange. You walk into this ancient building, and there are guys at work, wearing ties, pushing paper around.

In the distance, is a cloud-covered mountain, that looks like it could be steaming. That is, it could be making the clouds that are covering it.

That must be Vesuvius, I think and take a picture.

Later, Fabio confirms I'm right.

[Oh yeah, I should mention a nice visit to the local synagogue, a Sephardic shule. Fabio brought me there. I would have never found it... tucked away in a courtyard in the rich part of town, by the castle.

Fabio says, “Of course it's here. Jews are rich.”

I ask him for my cut. He doesn't get it.

The caretaker, the only person here, gives me the tour. He tells me it's the only synagogue in Southern Italy. They have about 180 members: mostly old people, without so much money. The synagogue was founded by the Rothschilds. They had money.

My guide tells me that now, most of the money for the place comes from the Italian government which gives financial support to various religions. Not a very American idea... though, unfortunately, that is changing here.

He tells me lots of interesting things about the Italian Jewish community. One of them is about the city of Trani (Wow! Could you imagine living in a city called Trani? Could you imagine going out with a Trani tranny?) That city has is a community of Jews that has festivals, a monthly magazine, a regular active community. There are 18 Jews in the city. There are no synagogues.

“How come there aren't 19 synagogues?” I don't ask. “One for the religious variations of each Jew, and one that none of them would ever set foot in again if you paid me!”

(Sorry, it's old joke that the goyim won't get, I'm afraid.)

Anyway, I got a copy of the Trani Jews magazine, a few leaflets about Jews in Italy, and a nice calender. I was never asked for money. So much for the Jews and money myth.]

Back to today: If it's nice, I'll go to Pompeii. If it's raining, I'll hit the museums. Weather report is rain. But at 7AM, it's a beautiful day.

So I'm off to Pompeii. Fabio gave me directions. It's a Metro to the main station. Then a regular train to Pompeii. From track three... It's easy. Yeah, right.

Track three is deserted, except for a young American couple who must've just started their European journey. All-American looking. Clean cut, the guy looks like a young Dave Matthews. The girl is slightly more exotic, with a touch of henna in her bobbed hair.

They're lovey dovey. They talk to me, then stop to gaze longingly in each other's eyes. It's a good thing I haven't eaten yet.

“We're from San Diego,” they tell me. “I heard the Pompeii train leaves from here.”

“I heard that too,” I tell them. “I can can't find it on the timetable though.”

The young guy does. We're on the wrong track.

We've got three minutes to catch the train on track one.

We race up the stairs, over to Track One, just as the train is pulling into the station. The guy and his girlfriend are ready to board, but I've been in Italy long enough to know better. (Almost two and a half days, by now.)

“Wait,” I tell them, walking over to the engine and speaking to the guy sitting in it.

“Pompeii?” I ask.

He says something that I don't understand. But it's definitely NOT Pompeii. We don't get on the train.

In about 10 minutes, the train pulls out. Another comes into the station. For some reason, the Americans seem shy about asking if it's the right train. I don't get it. It's not like you need to speak Italian to say Pompeii.

I ask.

The second train goes to somewhere else I don't understand. But it's not Pompeii. The third train doesn't go there either. The fourth does... I think. At least the engineer nods when I say Pompeii? I hope he's not Albanian. (Remember? In Albania a nod means NO!)

We get on the train.

During the trip, we talk jobs. I tell him I'm a teacher, writer, the usual. The guy says he's a musician, in a band.

“We sound like Dave Matthews,” he tells me.

We talk travel. They're on some cruise. This is a port of call. All they do is eat, they say.

“We call it THE FAT CAMP,” says the girl.

We talk about Italy. They say it's their first trip to the country. I say the last time I was here before this trip was 1998.

“I was in elementary school,” says the girl.

“Yeah, well....” says I.

When we get to Pompeii, we share a cab to the old ruins. After the cab-ride, before entering the ruins, we stop at a food stand. They buy some water. Me, I'm hungry. I order a melted cheese sandwich.

“We'll meet you by the entrance,” says the guy.

It takes awhile for the cheese to melt. When I finally get the sandwich and pay my 11 Euros to get in, I realize I've been ditched.

So I'm on my own in the ruins of Pompeii. It's a huge place. After all, it used to be a city.

There are several gates in what used to be the city walls. As I step through the one closest to the ticket booth, it begins to rain.

Already worried about my health (rooming with the leper, out in the rain in the cold last night), I find myself depressed. Besides, I'm walking through a city where everybody was killed in the Mount Vesuvius eruption. not really cheery.

The guidebook that comes with admission tells me a few things. There is an ancient BEWARE OF THE DOG “welcome mat” floor tile mosaic.

There's a snack bar.

  There are a few well-preserved corpses. My favorite is one where the lower half of the face is preserved in lava dust, but the upper half has disintegrated, revealing the skull.

It's interesting enough... but I'm wet, and how many walls and empty rooms can you look at? About an hour and a half's worth, it turns out. I head for the exit and just past the point of no return, there's THE SOUVENIR shop.

They've got postcard pix and ceramic re-creations of all the good stuff. It's pornographic. Penis upon penis. Where was all that? I can't believe I spent money for a train, a cab, entrance fee, walking in the rain, and I MISSED THE PORN! Now I feel even worse! I don't even want to buy a postcard!

I take the train back to Naples and walk to Fabio's office. It's about 3 in the afternoon.

Fabio is at work with some others in the large office.

I head right for the bedroom. Maybe I can take a nap.

The room is pitch dark. The windows are shuttered tight. On the bed, I can just make out a long lump, wrapped in a blanket.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Albania 20: Return to Italy

[NOTE: This blog/diary of Mykel's Italian-Albanian trip starts several entries before this one. Due to the oddities of Blogging, the entries appear in reverse order. Because much of the reportage is based on the previous days, I recommend reading from the start, at the entry ALBANIA 1. Also, because this computer lacks search capabilities, and my brain needs a RAM boost, I fear I may repeat some tales better told previously... repeat some tales better told previously. Let me know if that happens.]

"There's no tyrant like one's own brain.” Louis Ferdinand Celine

Back in Italy: I start writing this in the train, just leaving Bari... heading for Benevento... then on to Napoli (Naples) for 3 days... then Rome for 1 more... then back to NY (with a 5 hour stopover in Amsterdam). In a week, it'll be like I never left.

There are no direct trains from Bari to Naples, so I have to get out of this train in Benevento and buy another ticket from there to Naples. You'll read about that in the next installment.

So far, I've been in Italy about 8 hours and already there are tales to be told.

Right now, a single beer, drunk at 12:15 PM [I never drink before noon] has forced its way down to my bladder and is not sitting peacefully there. It wants release. But I want it to wait until the conductor punches my ticket.

Here was the plan: Maurizio... a different one... was the only response to my inquiries from couch surfers in Naples.

Call me when you get to Italy. Even if I can't host you, I can at least show you a bit of this crazy town.

Sounds good to me. And would be too, if he answered his subsequent emails, text messages or the phone.

[Note: Folks in Italy and Albania... maybe all over Europe... don't have voicemail. I can't leave a message for someone to say they didn't get. I can only leave email for people to blame an errant spam filter.]


Back in Italy for half an hour. The 7 hour ferry from Albania behind me in the water. I just passed customs.

I walk, bag laden, a full kilometer the wrong way, trying to leave the port. I'm following signs to an exit that turns out to be closed... locked up tight. Not an exit at all.

Then, I try to take a cab from the port to the train station. A local (of which there are very few in the port at 8AM on a Sunday morning) says it would save me a 40 minute walk and only cost 5€.

I hike back to the main port building. The same one I left half an hour and a 2km round-trip before. In front are a bunch of cabs. Around the first cab are, what look like a bunch of cab drivers. I walk up to them. One of them, a beefy guy, looking like a cab driver, takes my hat off my head, spits into it and puts in back on my head.

Taxi? he asks.

Estacione, I say.

Vente (20) Euros, he says.

Cinque (5) Euros, I say.

Ok, he says. Then someone else exits from the station and speaks to him.

OK, he says, You go together. I forget the Italian. In English it means: Ten Euros from him. Ten Euros from you.

Not knowing how to say fuck you in Italian, I wave him off and walk back into the main port building to ask about a bus. The woman at the ticket window says, in English, I should take Bus Twenty- Slash.

Where can I get Bus Twenty-Slash? I ask.

There, just outside, she says pointing over her shoulder.

I walk out, in the direction she pointed. There is nothing but a fenced-in concrete platform. No bus stop. Not even a way for buses to enter.

I walk some more.

About 40 minutes later (a lot of asking, a lot of pointing, a bit of being ignored), I arrive at the train station. I ask for a ticket to Naples. The guy behind the window tells me I can't get there from Bari.

Actually, I have to take a train to Benevento. Then I get out, and buy another ticket to Naples.

“How much time do I have in Benevento?” I ask the ticket man.

“The train arrives at 4PM,” he says. “The train to Napoli leaves at 5.”

OK, I think, that gives me an hour to change trains. Easily enough time. Yeah, right.

After I buy the ticket to Benevento, I head for the waiting area, a dingy room with metal benches along the walls.

What a collection of characters! It's like a Greyhound bus station in the U.S. You got the nodding out junkie on crutches, the bag lady, the old guy with eight suitcases, the screaming looney. Then come the cops, or maybe it's the army. I donno. There's one older guy in a blue uniform. With him are two younger guys.. barely in their twenties.

The younger guys wear green uniforms. They also wear army boots, and these floppy maroon hats that looks like a fez crossed with one of those Jamaican rasta hats. It sits on the back of their head where a pony tail would be if they had pony tails. I don't know how it stays on, unless it hides official Italian army dreadlocks. At the tip of the hat is a long blue tassel that hangs just about to mid-back.

The man in blue asks everyone for papers and train tickets. There are a few people who don't have everything in order. The young guys in green write some information in an official-looking notebook. One old guy, apparently illegally selling cigarettes or phone cards or something, is booted out. I pass the inspection. In my three weeks in Albania, I was never stopped for ID. Two hours in Italy, and already I've been passported. Ah Italy, you really deserve a black spot on my map... except Torino.

[Note: As I type this in the street bar, at 5:30 in Naples, a bunch of kids run past me. One of them sprays me with shaving cream. My face, my computer, my hat, my jacket. They laugh as they run and turn the corner. An old man offers me a tissue to clean off. The kids had no reason, just malice, the fun of children nailing a cat to a tree. But that's Italy to me. Only three more days here. I hope I don't return. But now, I will return to my narrative.]

Right now, I have three and a half hours until the train leaves. I'm hungry.

I find my way to the train station restaurant. A ham sandwich for breakfast. That's about right for this trip. Now that the dollar is so low against the Euro, I can figure U.S. prices by doubling what I pay in Euros. OK, a $6 ham and cheese on a roll. Sounds like New York prices.

I sit by myself at a table next to some guy with a long red beard and his Little-Mary-Sunshine braided-hair girlfriend who crosses both her arms and legs when she speaks to him. Maybe they've been having an argument. They speak English with American accents. I'm tempted, but I don't speak to them.

In the corner is a young Italian. About 20, a handsome guy. I watch him take something from his pocket that looks like a lipstick tube. He touches the end to his finger and then rubs the finger on the side of his neck. He does this a couple times. Then returns to just sitting.

In the corner, closer to him, is what looks like an Italian family. Some hefty females and slightly less bulky males. The young guy motions to them to watch his bags. Then he makes a smoking sign. Two fingers to his lips. I guess he plans to go out for a smoke and wants that crew to watch his bags. He looks at me too. I move two fingers to my eyes then direct them toward his bags.

I'll watch 'em. Is what I want to say.

Once outside, he keeps looking in to check the bags. I guess he knows what Bari is like, and wants to make sure his stuff is safe. I take my Charles Dickens book and move to his table. When he comes back, he thanks me with a gracie.

Then he takes note of the book I'm reading.

“English?” he says. “You like English?”

He opens his bag and pulls out a couple beginning English readers. One is a Bram Stoker short story anthology (rewritten for beginning readers). The other is what looks like a children's book by someone I've never hear of.

Wow, a friendly Italian. A nice guy. I wonder what he wants.

“That's nice,” I say. “Are you learning English?”

“Yes,” he says. “I love English. Are you learning English too?”

“I'm American,” I tell him.

“You are from the U.S?” he asks.

I shake my head, then remember I've left Albania. I nod.

“You are my first American,” he says, shaking my hand.

“You live here?” I ask.

“I live in Torino,” he says.

I shudda known. The only decent Italians are from Torino.

“But I am not Italian,” he continues. “I speak French, Italian, Spanish, English and Arabic. I am from Morocco.”

Figures, not only is he from Torino, but he's not Italian. So much for my idea of finding a nice Italian.

“You want some water?” he says.

“Sure,” I say reaching in my pocket for half a Euro.

“No,” he says, “I pay.”

When he returns with the water, we talk. We talk about English. We talk about life in Italy.

“I'm here with my uncle,” he tells me. “But I don't like Italy.”

“That makes two of us,” I don't say.

“ The people here are stupid,” he continues. “They know only Italian. You speak English. They don't know. You speak French. They don't know.”

“Most Americans only speak one language,” I tell him in weak defense of people I don't like very much.

“America is big,” he says. “You travel. It's still America. In Italy, you travel it's someplace else. How do you live?”

“You mean my job?” I ask. “I'm a teacher. I teach English.”

“A teacher? You teach me.” he says, leaning back in his chair and waiting for some bon mots. I have none to offer except a smile.

“My name is Hachim,” he says ruffling through his bag. “Here is a notebook,” he says pulling out a notebook. “I write my feelings. In English. I read to you.”

I wish I could have recorded it. It's part unintelligible, part French, part Italian. Lots of “I want my life. I need to live my life. I know what happens is Allah's will. I think Allah will provide. Allah will help. But I cannot live this life here. I need to be free...”

“Do you want a beer?” he asks.

Hmmm, must be reform Muslim.

And that's never a question I can answer with the shake of a head.

He goes to the bar. Due birre he says.

 The bartender gives him two bottles of Becks beer and tells him some amount. He reaches into his pocket and begins to count coins. I can see he doesn't have enough money. I hand him a five. He takes it with an apology.

“I want you to keep my English books to remember me,” he says. “And here is a picture.”

He fumbles through his wallet and finds what look like two passport pictures. He separates them and hands one to me.

“So you will remember me,” he says.

He looks at his watch and tells me, “I have to go now. My train his coming.”

I look at my cellphone. I still have an hour.

“I'll walk with you.” I say.

On the track, when the train pulls in, we hug good-bye like parting siblings.

“Don't forget me,” he says. “I won't forget you.”

“Don't worry,” I promise him. “I won't forget you. I have your picture.”

He waves as the train pulls out.

A tear nearly wells up from it's ducted depths. But I realize how ridiculous that is. And besides, now I have to gird myself for my new reality. Now I have to face ITALY.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Albania 19: Good bye Albania

[NOTE: This blog/diary of Mykel's Italian-Albanian trip starts several entries before this one. Due to the oddities of Blogging, the entries appear in reverse order. Because much of the reportage is based on the previous days, I recommend reading from the start, at the entry ALBANIA 1. Also, because this computer lacks search capabilities, and my brain needs a RAM boost, I fear I may repeat some tales better told previously... repeat some tales better told previously. Let me know if that happens.]

"It isn't shopping, or the arts, that makes a community but that duty we all owe to each other as neighbors." J.G. Ballard

I start to write this, my last blog entry from Albania, in one of the scores (hundreds?) of coffee shops in Durres. I sit overlooking the plastic debris on a narrow stoney beach

Out in the Adriatic, the water color changes sharply. From dark to light, in a tipped rounded M, like a sideways McDonald's arch. As I type, the light water expands slowly to the North and East.

To my left, three ships are visible in the distance. One looks like a ferry. One is a container cargo ship, its crane down, pointing like a gun, at the Durres harbor. The other is too far away to make out clearly. Further in the distance is land. I don't think it's Italy. That's too far. My guess: the other side of the Durresi Bay.

I am not the only one here.

Of the thirty or so tables, about half a dozen are manned. Actually three are manned. Three other tables are womanned. None are mixed.

This is my last full day in Albania. I have a few minor errands to run. Then it's over. I have lots of free time, but I'm bored. I cannot shake the need for stimulation. I need people. I need laughter, arguments, adventure.

Peace... the time to write... sitting at the seaside... watching the boats... I SHOULD need these things, but I don't.

[Suddenly a loud disco bass thumps from somewhere behind me. I have to be careful what I wish for.... Speaking of which, last night. In bed in the Durres closed... shuttered. There was some time, five minutes? An hour? I donno. But there was silence. Absolute silence. Silence like all there was was the disco thump of my heart and the high whine of my nervous system. No sound outside of me. A wonderful new experience, like skydiving, I imagine. But like skydiving, I might want to visit, but certainly not live there.

Now the thump of the disco distracts me. How can I be so sensitive to noise and live in New York City? (Note to self: BUY NOISE CANCELING HEADPHONES or at least bring earplugs next trip. Unfortunately, they'll be much more useful than condoms.)]

There are a lot of characters here in Albania. Many of them street crazies. One walks the streets shouting fake reportage of a soccer match... AND HE KICKS, MISSES, AND PASSES THE BALL TO... Not that I understand it, but a local translates for me. There's more tolerance of characters here than in New York. This is a pretty tolerant country. Maybe it has to be. It's been through a lot.

Example: Except for hotel registration-- and not always then-- I have been asked for my ID a grand total of zero times since I passed through customs. I've had to open my bags zero times for inspection by store clerks, building staff, transportation officials, police or anyone else.

Once, I had to leave my bags (actually a book!) in a locker to go shopping. I was royally pissed off at that. But it happens every day in New York. Here, I feel neither watched nor controlled. Maybe that's the way it is most places.

Next day: I'm pissed. I was just now sitting outside at the awful Continental Bar-Restaurant here in Durres. The bar reeks of snobbery and xenophobia, but it takes me awhile to smell it.

I thought they forgot me because I was on the wrong side of the sidewalk, or each waiter thought the other took my order. Nope. A proper little Albanian family walks in after me. Sits at the next table. The waiter is right there. What can I get you? Not one waiter has approached me. It's been half an hour.

Ah the joys of the Internet, and-- if not revenge-- the feeling of revenge. Trip Adviser Dot Com, how do I love thee?

Right now, melancholy is my main emotion. I try to distract myself with worries about my plane to New York, accommodations in Italy, my fallen out gold inlay (in my wallet). But the melancholy returns. That's what happens at the end of a trip, any trip.

It's mostly about leaving behind. I left a pair of jeans... worn beyond repair, in my hotel room. I left innumerable pairs of sunglasses in innumerable cafés around the country. I left thoughts, feelings casual acquaintances who I wanted to be friends... and real friends (Andi, Harold, Maurizio). All these I leave behind. They'll fade from my life like the shore will fade as that ferry pulls out this evening... STOP! This is getting maudlin.

I have a list, now up to twenty-five things, I have to do when I get back to New York. A haircut, trimmed nails, fix that tooth, visit Dad, commiserate with my sister who flew all the way to the tip of South America for a cruise to Antarctica... and the boat breaks down... a cruise ship... luxury line... breaks down. That doesn't happen in real life. Things like that happen to me all the time, but I do not lead a real life.

Now, I write lying in on the bottom bunk of my cabin in the boat back to Bari. I'm slightly soused (2 beers on an empty stomach). The ship has no bank, so I I'll be stuck with the 1800 lek I have in my wallet. Not too bad, actually. About $18... not so much of a loss.

I do have a few Euros, they only thing they take on board. I don't want to spend them on the crappy food and drink in a ferry. MAYBE I'll get some breakfast tomorrow. Usually, I like ferries. I meet people... hang out with a beer... but now I'm in no mood. I've already hit my head twice on the upper bunk. I nearly tore the bed apart in end-of trip rage after the last time.

It's an isolated ignominious way to end the real part of the trip. My Italian couch-surfing contact has not answered his phone or CS email (what a surprise!). I'll call again when I get to Bari, but I don't have much hope. (Why don't Europeans have voicemail?)

I dread returning to Italy. The country is expensive and unfriendly. I'm not in a hurry to get home. I just want to get out of Italy.

Ah, but what about Albania? What last words about a country so filled with history that it piles it on itself in layers. Car-loving capitalists on Communists on Turks on Byzantines on Romans on Greeks. A country where Christian religious icons show mosques. A country where the hotel concierge wants you to say hi to his son in New York. A country of high foreheads and high pollution levels. A safe country filled with child beggars. A country that talks about the American dream, but refuses to serve us in their fancy restaurants. A country where if you speak three words of their language, they compliment you. Four words, they laugh. A country where everyone drinks. Everyone smokes. And no one eats.

What about Albania? A country with thousands of concrete bunkers and as many sidewalk cafés. A country where the women are neck-breakingly beautiful, and the men... er... are with these beautiful women. A country of awful Cochos and wonderful Andis. A country with a Jesus Christ Café and a Synagogue-Basilica.

A country where, right now, I watch a woman in tight jeans and super high heels drag a baby carriage over a gravel street.

What can you say about such a country?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Albania 18: Last Tango in Tirana

[NOTE: This blog/diary of Mykel's Italian-Albanian trip starts several entries before this one. Due to the oddities of Blogging, the entries appear in reverse order. Because much of the reportage is based on the previous days, I recommend reading from the start, at the entry ALBANIA 1. Also, because this computer lacks search capabilities, and my brain needs a RAM boost, I fear I may repeat some tales better told previously... repeat some tales better told previously. Let me know if that happens.]

 "Unknown towns are fun. That's when and where it's possible to imagine that everybody you meet is nice.” -- Louis Ferdinand Celine

 “Sometimes, there are towns when and where everybody you meet IS nice!” --Mykel Board

Monday: The plan is to meet my couchsurfing host at the hostel at 9AM. Check-out, move in with him, and let him show me the town. Albanians are punctual people. They tell me that, and up to now I've seen that. So at nine, I'm waiting in the lobby. At nine fifteen, I go back to my room, take out the computer and begin to write. At 9:20 comes a knock on my door. It's Freddy's father... I think.

He motions to me and I walk out into the lobby. A tall blondish guy, about 30, is standing there.

“Christoph?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “I thought we would meet at nine. I was waiting outside.” The guy has a weird accent. More German, than Albanian.

“I was waiting inside,” I tell him. “Sorry for the problem. Should we go now?”

“I'm sorry, Mykel,” he says. “My roommate returned unexpectedly. He absolutely refuses to allow couch surfers here. I cannot host you.”

“What a surprise!” I don't say. “Something goes wrong.”

“Let's at least have breakfast,” he says. “I know a place that serves seven different kinds of breakfast.”

“Fine,” I say. “as long as it's not a breakfast pizza.”

“What's a breakfast pizza?” he asks.

So, I finally get real eggs. Christoph just orders toast and jam.

It turns out he is German, not Albanian. He's here teaching German. He shares quarters with an old guy... more than fifty years...The guy is set in his ways and he won't allow couch-surfers. It's a pity, he says, he usually has people almost every day.

“In Tirana?” I ask. “In Tirana you get guests every day, from where?”

“America, Australia, Italy, everywhere,” he tells me.

Damn, isn't there anywhere I can go where Americans haven't beat me to it? How 'bout Nuk? It's worth going there just for the name!

After breakfast, we hike way up hill to catch a cable car (the hanging kind like to Roosevelt Island, not the dragging kind like in San Francisco). There's a famous 15 minute cable car ride up the largest mountain in the Tirana area. I love those kind of areal trams. Just over tree level... you feel like a bird, ready to lose the ability to fly every second. Fun and slightly scary. Knowing the karmic debt I must be paying (is there a Jack-the-Ripper in the woodpile?), you probably figure that after arriving at the cable car entrance, we find out that it isn't running today. You figure correctly.

The hike back down does bring a nice break for a decent pizza, great cheap ice cream, and FANTA. I never drink soda in the U.S. But the Fanta here is delicious. Something real, tasty. Christoph says all his American visitors say the same thing. (That hurts. I hate being like all the American visitors... I even hate that there are all the American visitors.) He thinks it's because they use real sugar in the soda-- not high fructose mono-glyceride corn-derived benzical. He may be right.

One positive adventure was finding one of those bunkers... right near the base of the cable car. Christoph says there are 70,000 of them in the country. I saw at least 200 of them on the trip between Gjirokastra and here. But I never got a chance to see one up close. Here it is. I just need to push through the weeds and climb on top of it. Do I do it?

After the hike back, the soda and ice cream. We split. I go back to the hostel, sweaty (It's warm again.), ready for a shower. I can do that in comfort, it's 2 in the afternoon. No one stays in their hotel room at 2 in the afternoon. My Italian roommate will at least be gone for enough time to bathe, and towel off in naked comfort, right? Yeah, right.

Why is he here? In the middle of the day. Playing on his computer.

Ok, if you've got a lemon... So we go out, hit a coffee stand or two, look at the perfect gluteal fullness of Albanian women. Then we go to dinner.

Young Albanian women almost always wear high heels. I think that pushed-up butt is the real attraction of high heels on women. Some people think it's something phallic. You see fetish mags where some guy is sucking a high heal. Doesn't attract me... I figure it tastes like dirt. But those heels, push up the whole leg. The wonderfully rounded lower-back-connection-points bulge out like the top of a turkey drumstick... Mmmm, just as tasty.)

After a bit of jean-tailed warbler watching, we go for some dinner We do not go to 24 Non

Stop Rina.

After dinner, we stop in at the TIRANA ROCK. We're the only two customers-- and it was packed yesterday.

We sit out on the balcony, overlooking the city. It would be romantic with other company (sorry Maurizio, but I sure you understand), but in any case it is fun and an interesting exchange of philosophy:

I think Tirana could be the next Prague which was the next Paris. Maurizio thinks before that happens, it needs some infrastructure and a bit of pollution reduction.

[Note: The air in Tirana and Durress is really polluted. Why not smoke? The air is certainly no worse than what comes out of a cigarette. Every morning, I blow the soot from my nose... car exhausts, coal produced electricity, general dust I have to scrape out what doesn't flow easily. It's mostly from cars. Old cars. New cars. Mostly Mercedes, for some reason. I find myself with the constant cough I attributed to universal smoking. It's universal breathing.

I don't hate the pollution, though. I feel about it like I feel about crime in New York. Without it, the ugly rich move in and take over everything. You could never live there. Pollution keeps out the creeps.]

Being Italian, Maurizio prefers wine to beer. Since we're drinking beer, he stops at two. I have an extra for the road back to Freddys. Maybe it'll help me sleep better.

It doesn't.

The next day, I meet Andi for lunch at THE LAKE. It's a little hike to the lake, and I see that Andi is still limping from the soccer injury. Of course the way is Uphill. Everything in this country is uphill.

On the walk, we talk about some of my observations about the country. For example, though you can usually find an Albanian yelling at other Albanians, you never see them fight. This whole month, I never saw one thrown punch. What's up widdat?

“If you are fighting,” says Andi, “the police come and beat both sides. They don't ask questions. You know, if you get into a fight, the police will beat you. So, you don't get into a fight.”

Interesting alternative to New York's shoot the blackguy method of problem solving.

We reach The Lake. Andi tells me it's a man-made construction at the edge of Tirana. It's where the locals go to relax. There may even be some fish in it. I see a skinny guy nursing three fishing poles. He didn't seem to have caught anything.

Andi buys some Albanian sausage cooked on a homemade grill. He talks to the large square-shaped cook who is being helped by a boy, about 10. I guess the kid is his son. It's Sunday, so there's no school. I wonder if Dad pays him a few lek for his help, or if it's just part of his duties as a kid.

[Note for non-American readers: In the U.S. there are two philosophies about kids' allowance. That is, the weekly sum they receive from their parents for their own discretionary spending.

One group of parents pays the kids for jobs done. You was the dishes, you get two dollars. You mow the lawn, five more dollars.

Other parents pay a fixed amount, say $10 a week, to their kids. This money is just for being a part of the family. The kids mow the lawn and wash the dishes because they're family members. It's all part of the same deal.

As you might have guessed, I favor the second way. The first encourages that awful work ethic. It also turns humans into economic machines. You do something, you get money. Your boss, your father. No difference.]

Andi and I sit by the lake and talk like old friends. I hope, now, we are old friends. I really like the guy and am sorry it was so late in the trip that we met.

Ah, we'll meet again in New York. That's an advantage (the only?) of THE CITY. Almost everyone you're likely to meet will someday get there.

After the lake, we part ways to meet after dinner. Andi has family obligations. He's been away from his family for four years in Paris. Now, they can't get enough of him. I understand.

So, after a short rest, I'm off for dinner again with Maurizio. We do not go to NON-STOP BAR RINA.

Instead we go to ERA, one of the oldest restaurants on the rejuvenated Blocku. Recommended by Andi. It's easy to find. Just walk around asking people Era? Era? Everyone knows and points with a long detailed explanation, none of which I can understand except drait (straight ahead).

Still, it's not long before we find it. It looks a little fancy.

Mostly, it's a closed in area, built out onto the sidewalk in front of the wall of the building. White table cloths. Of course, Maurizio wants wine. I give in, though I need water to quench my thirst.

The menu is several pages long. We order some bread, some yogurt dish, some meat dishes. The food is excellent, and the price much less than at Rina 24 Non-Stop.

Andi meets us at the end of dinner. He has his guitar with him. He sits with us for a bit and off we go. Back to Silver (or is it Steel) Wings. We meet Harold there, and it's not long before the two of them take the stage. My camera card runs out before I can get a whole song. But I did get part, and after I get back to New York, it'll be on You Tube. If you don't see it by the middle of November, remind me and I'll post it.

They play Another Brick in The Wall. They do not play Sonic Reducer or Anarchy in the U.K., so I do not join it on the stage.

I take pictures, Mauri watcheS and drinks. I sing Sweet Home Alabama when they play Hotel California. We all get a little soused. What a great night! What a great gang!

I make the mistake of leaving for Durress a day early. There's no hot water at Freddy's and it had been days since I had a shower. I was longing to lose the smell of myself, and to sit and write a bit without an adventure. Too late now. Durress is as boring as a cricket game. Nice, oceanic, but boring. Tirana was something else.

Ah well, better to have Tirana-ed for such a short time than never to have Tirana-ed at all. Thanks guys. I won't forget you.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Albania 17: To Tirana!

[NOTE: This blog/diary of Mykel's Italian-Albanian trip starts several entries before this one. Due to the oddities of Blogging, the entries appear in reverse order. Because much of the reportage is based on the previous days, I recommend reading from the start, at the entry ALBANIA 1. Also, because this computer lacks search capabilities, and my brain needs a RAM boost, I fear I may repeat some tales better told previously... repeat some tales better told previously. Let me know if that happens.]

In the 1960s, James Lovelock proposed his Gaia hypothesis. He described the earth as behaving like a super-organism, its soil, atmosphere, and oceans composing a circulatory system regulated by its resident flora and fauna. He now fears that the living planet is suffering a high fever, and that we (human beings) are the virus. --Alan Weisman, The World Without Us

[A note on place names: Albanian is a case language. That means that nouns have several forms depending on whether they're the subject, direct object, object of a preposition, etc. If I say, the menu is here. I use the word menu. It's the subject. If I say, bring me the menu, I use the word menuin. Because menu is the object and has a different form.

So it is with cities. Maps, street signs, guidebooks, all use different forms of the city names. It's tough to look things up. So if I sometimes write Tirana, and sometimes Tirane, and sometimes Berat and sometimes Berati, you'll know why.]

Some random notes:

--> Written in Himana, on the short respite from my kidnapper, Co-ocho:

Lots of the guys here look like mafia. Dark sunglasses, dressed in black suits. Expensive cars. Expensive-looking girlfriends.

It's 10 AM, and one of the girls is wearing a black skirt, slit up the side, earrings, snazzy high heels. In another country, I'd say she's a working girl, but here she's a moll-- I'm sure of it.

-->In front of a pass from the mountaintop to a narrow beach is a carved sign. It's a kind of arch with only the narrow path entering and leaving below it. The sign says: ALOHA.

--> I think my tiredness, lack of energy, weird sleep was from lack of protein. Finally, I got a little meat into me. Just that generic meat with rice. Even better with biftek! I feel great. More human. Less nauseous. I don't know how vegetarians get out of bed in the morning.

-->If I didn't have so many adventures... If I just stayed on the balcony of my $25 a night hotel, Albania could be a good place to write a book. I got nature, no tourists, fresh air, what else do I need? (Well, in Tirana, I lack the fresh air.)

-->Unlike everywhere else in the world, here, in restaurants, the food comes out first, before the drinks. This awful pizza's been here for a quarter hour, and I still don't have anything to drink. Not even water.

-->All the blonde women in this country must be bottle blondes. There are no blond men. Whoops, this was written before my visit to Tirana. Here, in the capital, are a lot of blond... or at least light haired... men. I guess the natural blond girls visit the capital every once in awhile... or their moms did.

-->Tirana is a weird city, but what did I expect? The Time Square area is dominated by a huge equestrian statue. It's Skanderbeg, the 15th century hero of Albanian independence. Around he and his horse is a large rectangle called Skanderbeg Square. (Wadja think?) This is a good reference point and, it turns out, a good meeting place. Meet me at the horse. It's easy. Like the Grand Central Station information booth. I'm meeting my internet friend here later.

--> I now write this lying in bed at Freddy's Hostel in Tirana, the place I've been warned about. (Tirana, not Freddy's). And-- get this-- I'm nursing a new coldsore... on the other side of my mouth.

I've got a roommate here. I decided to live more lower class in the big city. Like in capital cities everywhere, things are more expensive here. So I go for the backpacker-priced hostel. Freddy's, it's called, and it is indeed run by a guy named Freddy.

(Add Freddy to the Albanian names list: Denis, Andi, and Freddy. Albania or Kansas City?).

I go for the 15€-a-night price. That gets me a roommate. in an otherwise private room. Something like a college dorm.

The hostel has free wifi and a “croissant” breakfast. (The croissant turns out to be something like a chocolate-filled twinkie.)

My roommate is not here when I enter. But his stuff is. All over. The first thing I notice is a hairbrush. Then pointy fashion-like Italian shoes. And what's that black book on top of everything. Is it a Bible?? Uh oh, this is scary.

It's not long before he arrives. A nice surprise. He's Maurizio, an Italian guy who is moving to Tirana to study tourism. Lived in Paris and London for awhile. He speaks good English, though my Albanian is better than his. (I don't think he can say faleminderit yet. )The only problem, I later find out: he snores. Not a little girly-like kakakakaka snore, but a manly brutal HHHRRROOOOO-HHHRRRROOOOO- HHHRRRROOOOO snore.

Meeting, we exchange the usual vital statistics.

“You're sixty?” he says. “I thought you were forty-one or forty-two and just didn't take care of yourself.”

With the roommate, I'm paying as much per night here as I did for a fancier hotel room in Berati. But hell, I'd pay more for a dump hotel in New York than a hoity toidy one in Spokane. That's the way it works... all over the world.

Yesterday, I finally got through to Andi in Tirana. The plan is to meet at 5 today. At 4:45, I leave Maurizio at Freddy's to meet Andi at The Horse.

Andi has a pick-up soccer game. He asks if I wants to come along. I say sure, as long as it doesn't require me to kick anything. Andi laughs and says no, I can just watch.

His friend Harold (another one of those Albanian names) drives us to the soccer “field.” The quotes are because the place is inside, underground. There are four or five mini-fields (each about the size of a city basketball court), separated by cyclone fences. They are covered in something closer to green carpet than astroturf.

Most interesting is that the players change from street clothes to game clothes on “the field.” Take off the street pants, dance around in (mostly) tighty whiteys, and then slip into soccer shorts and special soccer shoes. In America, they'd be arrested.

I turn a plastic garbage can over to use it for my personal grandstand. It collapses under me. I stand. The game is interesting, though Andi and Harold's team seem to be getting the worst of it. Then, there is an injury. Player on the ground. In pain. Can you guess who?

Flash Ahead to the evening: I have to meet Andi for my late night exploration, so Maurizio and I look for an eating place that's fast and interesting. We come to:

Here was the plan: Have dinner with Maurizio. Then meet Andi and Harold at the horse. Then, go out for a Saturday night on the town. I'm supposed to meet the natives at 9. It's only 7:30 now. Maurizio and I can have a quick bite. I can return to the hotel, pick up my me-gifts for Andi (a Mykel Board t-shirt, an ARTLESS CD, and some promo-postcards for my books) then go to the horse.

I tell Maurizio I want to eat at someplace close. Maurizio says he knows a place so we walk. During the walk, we converse about our experience in Albania. Since he's only been here 3 days, I'm the veteran. We both agree the girls are beautiful, people are generally friendly, and, with exceptions, there's much less exploit-the-tourist mentality here than in either the U.S. or Italy. (That previous sentence is known in literature as foreshadowing.)

The walk drags on, and I begin to complain about my appointment and my lack of time. So we settle on a place just off the main drag. It's called NON STOP BAR KAFE RINA. The prices listed on the outside menu are reasonable: 150-250 lek for a decent entree. Unless, you go to an expensive place with a Guide, food in Albania is usually a bargain.

There are two women inside. They huddle together at a table, running through a few pieces of paper that look like the daily receipts. We walk in.

` One of the two women, a hefty blonde, nearly knocks the table over to greet us.

Mire mbroma,I say to her in my best Albania.

Oh! Sh....... she goes off in Albanian.

Une flac shëm pak shqip. (I speak very little Albanian) I say.

“Lei parle Italiano?” asks Maurizio.

And off she goes in Italian. She and Maurizio have a grand old time. He orders a couple beers, some yogurt and some chicken to share. I add some buka, bread.

In a few seconds, the woman is back with two large cans of Amstel beer.

“Yo!” (No!) I say. Une dua Tirana birré. I want a Tirana beer.

“Tirana no.” she says. “You Amstel. Good. Very much good.”

By this time, she's got both Amstels open and has poured them into our respective glasses.

Soon the food comes, Some chicken, some yogurt dish, some bread. It's okay. Nothing special.

“Italiano,” she says to Maurizio. “Mi amici Italiano.”

She grabs her cellphone and dials a number. There is some conversation and then she turns to Maurizio and speaks Italian. I have no idea what she's talking about. Then she turns to me and says something long and complicated in Italian. I have no idea what she's talking about.

Then she looks at me again. Red Bull, she says, Red Bull.

Then in English, You buy Red Bull for my friend and me? Red Bull, Red Bull.

If she's the owner, she can get her own Red Bull.

If she only works here, she can steal her own Red Bull.

I shake my head no... but then remember. A headshake in Albania is YES!

Too late, she's, Thank you. Thank you. Gracie, Faleminderit.

I never actually see her drink the Red Bull.

About two-thirds through the meal, some guy shows up, wearing a sweater, slacks and Italian shoes. He introduces himself. I forget his name, so we'll call him Luigi. Immediately, he starts speaking to Maurizio in Italian. He sits at our table, but does not eat or drink anything.

It's getting late. I have to leave and meet Andi at the horse.

Maurizio and his new Luigi get up too. They have decided to go out for drinks together.

Maurizio says something to the waitress in Italian. I take out a 500lek bill, figuring the total will be about 300 each. Maurizio also throws down 500.

The waitress scribbles on her pad. Then she brings us the bill: 2300 lek.

“I'm not paying that,” says Maurizio. He gets into a long loud conversation with the fat blonde. Suddenly, the fat blonde completely ignores him.

“You pay,” she says to me... in English. “You pay more this much.”

She shows me the two 500 lek bills. “You pay this again.”

“I won't pay more,” says Maurizio.

I shrug and start to walk out. The woman stands in front of me. A blonde wall.

“You pay. You pay.” she yells.

I look at my cellphone. It's 8:50. I don't have time to argue. I pull a thousand out of my pocket and throw in on the table.

The woman tsks and hrumfs and takes the bills. We get out of there..

I reach the horse at just about 9. In ten minutes, Andi and Harold meet me, and we're off to THE BLOKU (the block).

Background: During Communist times, there was one section of the city closed to everybody except party leaders and a few others in high positions. Andi tells me that all you had to do was step on the wrong side of the street and you'd be shot. Like East LA today.

The whole area was patrolled by army guys in bullet proof vests, carrying machine guns. Like Grand Central Station today.

Things have changed since Commie times. Now, The Bloku is like New York's Soho ... minus the Japanese. It's bars, clubs, fashion shops, It's where young people hang out. It's expensive and fashionable and probably economically excludes people the way the commies did politically. There are no beggars here. I guess the shop owners keep them away, without machine guns.

[A note about beggars: I usually like beggars. It's a noble profession with a long history. Giving money to a beggar is the purest transaction in the world. You do it only because you want to. You come away only with a feeling. No commodity. There's no destruction. No tree was cut for you to buy something. No electricity was used. No one was exploited. Beggars choose their own hours and place of work. They don't need to buy anything to do their jobs. They are harmless.

In New York, I spend maybe five dollars a week on beggars. It's probably the only money I don't mind spending in that city. Some beggars are my friends.

In Albania, most of the beggars are children. And they don't take no. They follow and ask and ask again. They crowd you, pull on your arm, whimper. They're destroying the nobility of the profession. Instead of a pure transaction (you give because it's the right thing to do), they degrade it into sympathy, or worse extortion. You give me money or I won't leave you alone. I hate it.

In Albania, I only give money to old ladies sitting on the side of the street with a little box. I don't give to kids... maybe that's why I attract them.

In any case, in The Blocku, there are no beggars of any kind.]

Our first stop is at the TIRANA ROCK CAFÉ, an obvious knock-off of the Hard Rock Café. It's packed.

[A note here about knock-offs: One of the many things that attracted me to Tirana in the first place was its notoriety as the only capital in Europe without a McDonald's. But that doesn't stop spurious copies who try to play off Mickey D fame. My favorite is KOLONAT Check out their logo. It's quite a feat making a K look like an M. Pretty creative, huh?]

The TR Café is packed. We have to shoulder through to get up the stairs to the third floor. Andi wants to check if there's live music tonight. There isn't. It's rock'n'roll karaoke. We leave.

Next it's Silver Wings (or maybe Iron Wings, I can't remember). It's the Albanian Hell's Angels club with Harley this and Harley that on the walls. There 's a small stage with a drum kit, two mics, two stools. On the stools are two guitar players, playing the hits. From La Bamba to Shake it Up Baby, to Sweet Home Alabama.

(Note: After 1975, I lost touch with mainstream music. I can sing along with the real oldies, but Sweet Home Alabama sounds just like Hotel California to me. And I don't know the words to either.)

Still, the atmosphere of the place is so friendly, and the crowd... well, it rocks. The pure irony of being in a motorcycle club in Tirana Albania only adds to the thrill. I do recognize Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

“Pink Floyd are my favorite,” Andi tells me.

“I saw them in England,” I say. “But after Sid Barret.”

So Andi, Harold and I are drinking these liter glasses of Tirana beer, singing along, joined with the crowd, including a big guy at the next table with the exquisite taste to be wearing a Motorhead t-shirt.

“I saw Motorhead... and The Clash,” I tell him. “And The Rolling Stones and The Doors.”

“Did you see Jimi Hendrix?” asks Harold.

I start to nod, then remember about this head-shaking thing. I shake my head.

“I saw him in New York,” I tell him. “In 1966, before he was Jimi Hendrix, he played under the name Jimi James. I saw him then,”

I can see the wow look in their eyes.

“And Van Halen?” he says. “Did you see Van Halen?”

“You got me on that one,” I tell him. “I never saw Van Halen.”

The duet on stage are rolling into Sweet Home Alabama (or maybe it's Hotel California). And the lights go out. Everything stops.

I've heard about Albanian electrical blackouts before, but that is an infrastructure failure. It's common when private enterprise takes over from government run utilities. (Take Enron. Please.) But this is not an electrical blackout. It is a police blackout.

It seems that the newly rich who've moved into this fashionable neighborhood, complain about the noise. The clubs are too loud. The police have shut some down. They have to be careful. Someone said the cops were on the way. BANG! Lights off.

How long before only the rich will be allowed in THE BLOCKU? How long before it becomes a rich zone, young people and fun prohibited. Like in the old days.

We pay up by candlelight and go off to the next club.

It's a fancy place. A Jazz club with a live band from Italy. It too is packed. The waiter picks up a table from the back of the room, plunks it own next to the stage. Three chairs later, we're seated.

It's hard to say how many people are in the band. The number on stage keeps changing. For sure there is a singer/guitar player, a drummer, a percussionist, a baritone saxophonist and a keyboard player. There might also be another singer and a tenor sax. I can't tell.

Usually, I hate jazz. With the exception of Dixieland and Louis Armstrong belting out When the Saints Go Marchin' In, to me jazz is like teeth on a blackboard. The instruments fight each other. They wail me me me, but they only wail. They don't really say anything. Jazz, like red wine, gives me a headache... but not tonight.

This band is fun. The sax guy smokes... I mean smokes, putting a cigarette in one of those extra holes that saxophones are lucky enough to have. Puffing away and playing at the same time. Amazing.

The percussionist takes a turn at the microphone. Playing bass. Not really playing, but vocalizing, like one of those rap guys, but with perfect stand-up bass sound. He mimes playing, and the bass string-for-string comes out from between his lips. Strange people (mostly with shaved heads) get up from the audience to join the band.

One of the baldies, stands in front, grabs a mic, and the band starts in... when the saints go marchin' in. I shitje not!

The beers keep comin', I'm singin' along in my best Louis Armstrong voice. They guys at the table are right there. I'm drunk and the happiest I've been on this trip.

Oh I want to be, in that numberrrrrr. When the saints come marchin' in!

Somehow, I get back to Freddy's. I stumble into the room at about 2AM. Maurizio's sleeping, and it's quite a feat to sleep through my drunken stumbling.

I tumble into bed, happy and exhausted. Andi and Harold took me out for my best night since my first night in Trinidad!

Now, all I have to do is sleep off the booze and I'll be fit as a fake stand-up bass tomorrow.

At 6:30AM, the snoring starts... in a fury.