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.
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.