Total Pageviews

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.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Albania 16: Onifuro Red

[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 already told... repeat some tales told better the first time.]

Change the setting and the commonplace becomes wondrous. --Mykel Board

It's about here that I should make an obvious but important comment. When traveling, the best stories are the worst experiences in real life. If you almost died, it's exciting. If you sat down and watched some old guys play dominoes, it is not. So even though the second scene is more enjoyable that the first, the first is better to write about.

So it is with Albania. People here are not filled with avarice, or hostility. They are, in fact, friendly. In Vlora, I sat on a bus next to an elderly man with a cough. I was new in the country then, and did not realize that since, everybody here smokes, everybody here has a cough. Then, I was worried. I'm gonna get sick. Swine flu. I'm sure of it

When we pull into town, I'm anxious to get away from him. I also need to find my hotel, booked by the chatty and attractive concierge of the Nais Hotel.

When I leave the bus, I say the name of the hotel Pavareso several times, hoping someone will be able to direct me. Someone does. The old man from the bus. Not only does he direct me, but he gets on the city bus with me, pays my fare, and turns me over to an attractive young woman (he has to get off earlier), who takes me within pointing distance of the hotel.

That's the kind of people Albanians are.

In a restaurant, or on the street, people will call you over for a chat. They'll ask you where you're from, if you're married. What religion you are. (I finally found out how to say JEW in Albanian, Izraelit.) How long you've been in Albania and more. They're curious people, and enjoy your company.

Yesterday, I went from Gjirokastra to Berati. I caught the 7 o'clock (AM) bus. At 6:30 I'm at the bus station-- not the station, exactly, but the holding pen for the buses where they rest overnight.

On the glass doors of one building entrance, it says, Agjensi. There's also a sign that says, Gjirosatra-Ateni.

I figure that's the ticket agency. Strange, because the buses I've taken so far have no tickets. You just get on the bus, tell the conductor the name of the town you're going to, and he makes up a price. Unlike scam-the-tourist rest of the world, the price seems to be the same no matter where you're from.

Inside the agjensi, a bunch of men drink coffee at a bunch of tables.

“Autobussi Berati ërstë ku?” I ask.

“Yo yo yo,” comes the answer.

What is this, the Bronx?

Actually, it means: no no no.

One of the guys drinking coffee makes a motion to follow him. (Very close to the Japanese motion for come here... palm pointed downward, fingers together in an open-close wave.)

“Italiano?” he asks me.

“American,” I say.

“Bene, bene,” he says.

“Non Berati këtu,” he further tells me. “Lushnja, Lushnja, Berati. Ju koptoni?”

“Koptoj,” I tell him meaning I understand. Though I only think I understand: Here to Lushnja. Then change buses to Berati.

We walk around the corner to another café, where even more men drink even more coffee.

Lushnja? Lushshna? the guy asks each of the men. One of them shakes his head to show he's going there.

My caretaker explains that I'm an American and I only speak a little Albanian and can he make sure I get on the right bus. He shakes his head yes, and my caretakers says good-bye walks out.

The new guy (who turns out to be the bus driver), motions for me to sit down, drink some coffee and he'll return at 7 o'clock.

“Yeah right,” I think.

At 7 o'clock, he's back.

He waves me to follow him, picking up one of my bags. I do and sure enough, there's a bus with TIRANA on the front. It's the right direction. Lushnja is on the way.

I watch relatively unworried as he puts my bag in the luggage compartment under the bus. So far, buses have been the only crowded thing on this trip. Otherwise, it's been only me. Buses are full, at least when they start off. They may empty out toward the end of the line.

Not this one.

There is the bus driver, the conductor, one shaved-headed guy who talks continually with the driver and may or may not be a paying customer... and me.

A few times during the trip someone gets on and soon gets off again, but for the most part, it's just us.

Bertati is like a smaller version of Gjirokastra. It's as vertical, but not as high. There's a castle at the top. There's also an ethnographic museum, and lots of ruins.

The most interesting museum is the Onifuro (I'm not sure if I'm spelling the name right) Museum. It's got mostly icon art, but it's named after the most famous Albanian painter. He even has a color named after him: Onifuro Red.

I'm not allowed to take pictures in the museum, which means I have to turn the flash off and do it very quietly. Everything is dark and blury but you can see the red at least

In order to understand what I like best about these icons, you have to come with me back in time, and half-way around the world.

We land in Cuzco, Peru. Cuzco is famous as the stopping off point on the way to Machupichu. It's also famous as being one of the highest cities in the world (I got altitude sickness there. It was like the flu!) Finally, it's famous because the locals, especially the K'chua Indians, eat guinea pig. It's called cuy.

There is a church in Cuzco that has a large renaissance-looking painting of Christ at the last supper. At first, it looks like a run-of-the-mill last supper. JC and the Disciples. But a closer look shows you that on Jesus' plate is... you guessed it... roasted guinea pig.

This is relevant, because it shows how Christian artists bend their versions of history to include something about themselves.

In my previous reports about Albania, I've made comments about the large foreheads the local people have. Massive Frankenstein-like bridges that probably indicate some kind of uber-intellegence. (For some reason, younger people seem to have smaller foreheads than their elders.)

I imagine this is a very old trait. So if you look at the paintings here... especially the iconic apostles, you might be able to guess what you'll find. Yep, apostles with huge foreheads!

Almost as interesting are a series of icons that make Jesus look black.

Some: Arab/North African black, some Negro-black. One of my favorites looks like my pal Bryan from Trinidad.

Here's a bad picture of that icon, but I had to take it on the sly... without a flash.

After the museum, I take a walk up to the castle. It's another vertical trek, not quite as bad as Girokastra. About half-way up, I come across a wall, about nipple high. Flat on top, perfect for a rest and view of the city. Already resting there, is a middle-aged guy with a very big forehead.

He pats the place next to him, motioning for me to sit down. I do.

“Italiano?” he asks.

“American,” I say.

Then he starts talking about the castle, the hillside, the history of the area. He's speaking a weird mix of Albanian, Italian and English. I can understand about ten percent. Then he jumps down from the wall, and motions for me to follow him. He takes me inside. We pass a small café that seems to be part of the castle, like the one in the last castle. Hmm, a good place to stop for a cup-- or a glass-- of something.

“Here is a wall,” he says pointing to a wall.

Then he points to hole in the ground, surrounded by concrete. “Cistern,” he says.

There are concrete steps (railingless as are most staircases in Albania). They lead down to nothing, just three steps down and a drop, 30 feet? more?. At the bottom of the drop, faintly visible in the limited light, is brackish water. All around me is the loud buzzing of insects who know their lunch has just arrived.

“You go first,” I gallantly suggest. “I want to take your picture.”

In a short time, we leave the cistern.

Un dua të shkoj café. (I want to go to the café) I tell the guy, as the first few drops of rain splash against my hat.

“Wait,” he says, “go café soon. Just little more.”

He has me follow him to a hill on the side of the castle. He point to what looks like a giant TV broadcast antenna.

“That is the TV broadcast antenna,” he says.

Then, there is the well, the prison, and the door.

Now we go to a café. Very traditional. Old kind,” he says.

“I want to eat in the castle café,” I tell him.

“It's not open,” he says. “Not open.”

He takes me there to prove he's telling the truth. It is, in fact, closed.

“Now,” he says, “can you give me some money?”

Resigned to the scam, and knowing he probably needs 200Lek more than I do, I give him 200. Delighted, he takes me to a tiny cafe. There are three tables. At one, two guys play dominos. At the other, a single guy sits drinking Raki, Albanian vodka.

At the other table is me.

The bartender, who looks very ownerlike, asks me what I want. I order a coffee, and sit by myself at the table, for a bit.

I watch the guys playing dominoes, and every time I think I have the game figured out, they do something (like putting a FIVE against a FOUR) that totally baffles me.

Un duo te koptoj dominos. (I want to understand dominoes.) I say to the older of the domino players. He looks like a Turkish pasha.

He pulls an empty chair from my table and puts it next to his table. Then he motions for me to sit down.

He asks me where I'm from, how I like Albania, the usual. He's friendly. He does not ask me for money.

I order a raki for myself and ask him if he wants one. He says no.

Then I figure he must be Muslim and regret asking. But he takes it in stride. The rest of the afternoon is just peaceful drinking and watching dominoes. Thoroughly enjoyable to do, not so thrilling to read about.

Now, I sit at a restaurant near the main square in Berati. I'm waiting for my dinner to arrive. I've ordered something I don't know what it is, but is cheap. I read my guidebook while waiting. My chin rests in my hand. I'm careful not to put too much pressure. I might loosen the temporary cement that holds my $600 gold inlay onto the tooth beneath it.

My cheek itches. I move to scratch it, and feel a raised bump, like a tiny scab. I pick at it and it comes off under my fingernail. It's red, but not bleeding. It's too small to see if it's just a mini-scab, or if it's some tiny insect, red with my own blood, just picked from my skin.

Carefully, I set it on a page in my notebook. Exactly at the center of a crosshatch. I'll give it some time. If it moves, I'll know it's alive, and not some kind of effluvia that my body throws onto the skin every once in awhile. It should be easy to see if it moves. It only has to reach a line on either side.

After a minute... two minutes... it's in the same place I put it. Safe! I think.

Flash ahead: I write this in my hotel room in Berati. It's 10PM. I did nothing touristy today. I wrote a bit, called (and got through!) to Andi in Tirana. I went to my local internet café. (They know me by now.) I uploaded Albania 13 to my Blog, and Facebooked a bit. I even checked my long neglected MySpace pages.

(I rarely use MySpace because of its censorship. I can't post a link to my blogspot-blog and I can't link to anything using TinyURL. It “fails the spam filter,” they say. Yeah, right.)

Tomorrow, I get up and leave for Tirana, the city that Masuda felt dai-kirai (I hate it), and the one that Dave, the British tourist mimed a slit throat over. I've got about a dozen days left in this vacation, only about half in Albania.

Then, I return to the dreaded Italy, before returning to the even more dreaded New York to go back to work to pay for this trip.

Downstairs at the hotel, the concierge tells me his name is Lula, the same name as my favorite South American political leader. He's a kindly old gent who tells me his son lives in Queens and works at JFK airport. He can't remember his son's address or phone number, but he gives me his own phone number and I promise to call him and retrieve it. I'll contact his son when I get to New York, tell him I saw his dad, and he's fine.

He promises to walk me to the bus tomorrow, to make sure I get on the right bus to Tirana. I'll be safe if I come with him, he says.

“Sure,” I say.

STOP! If you want to shake me and say, Mykel, stop it. You should have learned your lesson, then you don't get it. The Albanians are nice. They're friendly. They're good people. But just like everywhere. There are monsters.

The next day, Lula does walk me to the bus station and puts me on the right bus. The bus leaves Berati and passes more than a hundred of the 70,000 bunkers that are everywhere in Albania. They're a ubiquitous reminder of the bunker-mentality of the past. You can buy bunker mugs, bunker ashtrays. They're a national symbol. I wish I could see one up close.

Ah well, tomorrow TIRANA! Maybe I'll see one there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Albania 15: Jimmy

[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 already told... repeat some tales told better the first time.]

Change the setting, and the commonplace becomes wondrous. --Mykel Board

Jimmy's Tale

I write sitting in the Cuçi Bar Restorant in Berati. My plan was to sit all day in an outdoor café, drinking a cup of coffee, very Parisian, and just write. But, such are plans.

The outdoor café is louder than a sports bar during the world series. It's right across from a mosque. Pretty setting. But over the general din, the guy at the next table kept shouting. Like he was in an argument about a sports team. But I kept hearing the words iszhrael or something like that. People who know me know I'm not the biggest fan of the country of Israel, though I have Israeli friends. (Hell, I'm not the biggest fan of the country of America, though I also have a couple of American friends.) But I also know Izraelit in Albanian means Jew. And hey, you talkin' about me?

I could be completely wrong. The guy cudda been screaming about something else. The local soccer team for all I know. In one of his movies, Woody Allen talks about how Jews are so sensitive, that they hear Jew in everything. People talking on the street:

“I didn't go. Did you?”

Jew? Jew? Did he say Jew?

So maybe I mis-heard. In any case, the guy is so loud and annoying that I can't stay. So I go for a walk, go down a side street. Find this restaurant and figure, if so many flies like this place, the food must be good. And they have Fanta. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the sugar and not high fructose corn poison. But the Fanta in Albania is really great... And the restaurant doesn't care if I use their electricity to write this entry.

This is my third day in Berati. It's a nice town, somewhat vertical, but not as dramatic as Gjirokastra. It's not about Berati I want to write, though. It's not really about a town at all, but about a person.

In my last entry, I wrote about my climb to the castle. On the return trip, after meeting some Peace Corpsers, I found myself a long way from town, and very high up in the mountain. I knew the way from the Post Office, so I asked a local directions there, figuring the rest would be easy.

I asked an ancient Albanian guy. One tooth in his mouth... and it was gold. Thinning gray hair, and that large Albanian forehead that is so distinctive of the people here.

(Actually, the entire Albanian headshape is distinctive. There's no back to the head. Just a straight line up from the back of the neck to the crown. The face is rectangle, like a brick on end. And that forehead. That high forehead, like a caricature of an intellectual. I don't know much about brain geography. I think intelligence is what's behind the forehead, so maybe Albanians are really smart. I don't know what's at the back, though. That, they're missing.)

The guy told me his name was Jimmy. I told him mine was Mykel.

“I speak Italian, Russian, and French,” he said. “I'm sorry. I don't English. My son, he speak very well English.”

I asked him where the post office was. He told me it was closed. Communication from this point was difficult, but he showed me, I thanked him, and found my way home from there.

I return to the castle the next day. First, I want to go to the information center again... find out about the bus schedule to Tirana. Second, I want to see the Zekate house, a Byzantine house, reconstructed in the original style. Third, I wanted to go to the Ethnographic museum. I had such a good experience at the one in Saranda, I figured I'd see another one, just for the photos and the guides.

As I climb the cobblestone path toward the castle, I hear a voice.

“Mykel! Mykel!”

It's Jimmy.

“Mykel,” he says. “You go to the post office? You mail things?”

I tell him yes and thank him. There's not point in trying to explain again.

He moves to my side.

“I speak Italian, Russian, and French,” he said. “I'm sorry. I don't English. My son, he speak very well English.”

“Une koptoj.” (I understand) I tell him.

“You have a cup of coffee with me?” he asks.

“Sure,” I say.

That's why I travel. I don't travel for buildings, though some, like the Gjirokastra castle, are pretty amazing. I don't travel for scenery, though the Albanian mountains are amazing. I travel for people-- and adventure. If I don't say yes to every invitation, I may be missing something. I'll never know.

So we go to a café on the side of the mountain. I don't know how it stays there. Certainly one wall must be longer than the other. I wonder if they have special chairs, two legs longer on one side, so you can sit outside without falling over.

Jimmy and I both order coffee. He talks to me.

“I taught Russian, but I love democratzia. I love American song: Elvis Presley. Michael Jackson. Gloria Gaynor (?????)...”

I nod. Then remember that I might be saying NO with that nod. Jimmy doesn't seem to notice.

“I speak Italian, Russian, and French,” he says. “I'm sorry. I don't English. My son, he speak very well English.”

“Une koptoj,” I tell him.

“Now I have no work.” He says. “Four years no work. I have son. He in Tirana. He study medicine. I have daughter. She in Italy. She also student.”

Just then the waiter comes out. I ask him to take our pictures. The sun is, for once, so bright, that the shadow from the restaurant awning, divides our faces.

“I'm a teacher too,” I tell him. “I teach English in New York. All my students are Japanese.”

One of the many nice linguistic coincidences is that teacher in Albanian is mësues (pronounced masseuse). It's much sexier sounding to say I'm a masseuse, than a teacher. Though Jimmy is not a guy I particularly want to be sexy with.

We finish our coffee. Jimmy says to me, “I'm sorry Mykel. But I have no change for coffee. You have change? You can pay?”

The total is around 150 lek. I think I can spring for that. But it's a weird culture where people invite you out, then expect you to pay for them. It's like my guide in Durres. Don't worry about the money... you're paying.

“We go to the Zekate House,” says Jimmy. “I show you.”

So up we walk. Up is the only way to walk to see anything in Gjirokastra. Down is the way back.

During our walk, Jimmy talks some more.

“You teach English,” he says. “Everybody use English. I teach Russian. I teached Russian. Little children. I not teach dictatorship. (He pronounces it dictatorship). I teached Democratzia and music: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Gloria Gaynor. But I teached Russian. Now in Albania, no more dictator. No more Russian. I no work four years.”

“That's too bad,” I say, turning to look into his impossibly weary eyes and unavoidably staring at his single gold tooth. Is he eighty? Ninety? I don't know. He's strong enough to take this hike. Straight uphill, it's leaving me breathless. I wish I smoked. Then I'd have an excuse.

He continues talking, but hides his mouth with his hand as he speaks.

“You have lots or little a teacher?” he asks, rubbing his thumb against the other four fingers in a near-universal sign for money.

“Not a lot,” I say, “but I live.”

“I don't live,” he says. “Mykel, I don't live.”

Luckily, about this time we come to the Zekate house. A dog barks at our approach. It's looks like a poodle, or something poodlish. White, fluffy, with a harness instead of a leash. It's pulling against that harness, yapping away. I guess it's a kind of automatic doorbell, informing the occupants of an approaching visitor.

The house itself is an interesting old building: two towers and a stone foundation. The house is so wide and the street so narrow, it's impossible to fit more than one tower at time in the camera lens.

The top, white part, has rectangular windows, very close together. There are long wooden support beams holding up the black roof. In the lower, stone, part, the windows are arched at the top, and rather small compared to the whole wall space.

It's an incredibly impressive building, looking not quite like anything I've seen before.

It is also closed.

“I'm sorry Mykel,” says Jimmy. “It is closed.

I shrug. At least the return is downhill.

“No problem,” I say. “Let me take your picture here, and we'll go to the ethnographic museum.”

He nods.

When we get to the museum, Jimmy says goodbye.

“Here is the museum,” he says. “I will not go in. You go in.”

“Thank you, Jimmy,” I say, shaking his hand. “Faleminderit shum.”

He turns to leave. There is a deep sadness in his walk.

Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. During our conversation, Jimmy tells me how old he is. He's younger than I am.


I enter the museum and am immediately greeted by a photograph of an old Praktica (East German) camera, with a big red X over it.

Okay, that spoils have the fun, since the stuff in the music is stuff you want to remember, and, if you have a brain like a... like a... I can't remember what... like I do, then you need pictures. Just to spite, I take a picture of the no picture-taking sign.

Looks like I'm going to have to take this tour on my own. No host and hostess like last time. That's a shame, but then again, I can take pictures. Who's gonna know?

I walk upstairs. A middle-aged woman is sitting on a couch talking to a much older woman. The younger of the two wears a long dark dress and has dark stockings rolled to mid calf. She wears sunglasses... on top of her head.

(I already wrote that few Albanians wear glasses. Many Albanians, however, wear sunglasses... always. When it's sunny, they wear them over their eyes, looking like mobsters or Secret Service. When it's cloudy or rainy, they wear them on top of their heads. Looking, like tourists in their own country.)

The woman sees me and pulls up her stockings.

“Ju flicni Anglisht?” I ask.

She shakes her head yes.

“You want to see the museum,” she says.

“Po,” I say.

“200 lek,” she says.

I pay her the money. And she takes me to a large room with a window in the ceiling.

“This was the kitchen,” she says.

Then she takes me to another little room. It's all white with a little carved-- or more accurately broken-- space in the floor and wall.

“And this was the bathroom... the toilet,” she says.

Then a room with what looks like red shag carpeting on all the furniture. Everything is on the ground. Just pillows around a round central table. On the table are half a dozen place settings with metal plates, forks, knives and spoons-- all on the same side of the plate.

“And this was the dining room,” she says.

And so it continues, room to room, until we're back where we started.

“And now you have seen the museum,” she says. “Good bye.”

Hmm, a bit different from the last ethnographic museum.

I walk downhill to go back to the hotel, wondering if I should have given Jimmy a thousand lek or something.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Albania 14: The Vertical City

[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 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 already told... repeat some tales already told.]

All generalizations are wrong... including this one. --Mykel Board

1. Albanians don't eat. They drink, especially coffee. Cafés by the dozens are filled with locals, sitting, staring at the passing parade of people. Or in heated conversation, with one person yelling something as if in rage, and the others shaking their heads in agreement. There are restaurants, fast food joints, and pizza parlors galore. It's just that there's no one in these places. Albanians get everything they need to live in liquid-- and inhalant-- form.

2. Albanians smoke. (Tobacco... though once I did smell the good stuff. By the seaside, in Vlora.) They smoke everywhere. On the street. In cafés. In bars. When you sit down at a table to eat or drink, the first thing a waiter does is bring you an ashtray. It's like America in the 50s and 60s. The aroma of tobacco is in everything. It's great.

I realize how much I miss the smells suddenly disappeared from American life. A smokey bar is a real bar. Not the fake TV-watching, music-blaring, meat markets that pass as bars in America in 2009. In this small corner of the world, people appreciate the smell, the sensuality, the toughness of cigarettes. By the way, Albania was one of the first countries in the world to legalize gay marriage. Smoking and gay marriage. I think the two are related. That brings me to...

3. Albanians show affection without it being a sign of conquest-- or even sexuality. Teenage boys walk with their arms around each other. Middle aged men walk arm-in-arm. There's nothing sexual about it, but there is real friendship. Friends, not afraid of showing their friendship-- by touching one another. It's a joy to see, though it makes me sadder to think about what Christianity's hate-the-body/hate-the-touch has taken from us in America.

Now on to Gjirokastra:

Gjirokastra was a steep city, perhaps the steepest in the world, which had broken all the laws of town planning. Certainly this was the only place in the world where, if a passer-by fell, instead of sliding into a roadside ditch, he might end up on the roof of a tall house. This is something which drunkards knew better than anyone. --Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone

Gjirokastra-- coldsore day 13. (Yeah it's still faintly there.)

I sit in my hotel room in Gjirokastra. It was probably the right move to leave this morning, instead of yesterday. It did rain today, but not the torrential Noah's ark rain of yesterday. And, it stopped before the bus left from Saranda.

It's been raining in this town too. It just stopped, but the sky is dark and threatening. It's 1PM, I'll give it half an hour. If it's still not raining, I'll go to the old (vertical) town. Right now, I'm in the new town, not far from the bus stop.

The ride here from Saranda was uneventful. Saranda, by the way, was my favorite town so far. Several people talked to me, asked me where I was from. I didn't make any friends, but this was the closest to friend-making I've had in Albania.

Goni, the hotel owner, managed to joke with me, and tell about his surgery in Michigan... all without English.

(I find that the only way I can remember Albanian names is to relate them to other languages. Goni is FIVE-TWO in Japanese. Just like the evil Co-ocho was TOGETHER (co)-EIGHT in Spanish.)

I even had a glimmer of hope with my cellphone this morning. Playing with the settings got me a few seconds of connectivity. But then it failed, and I haven't been able to get it back since. Ah well, another thing on my todo list when I get back: Complain to t-mobile and see if I can score another phone.

I wish I had a thermometer with me. Not the health kind. It would be too easy to find out I'm sick and then act accordingly. I mean the room kind. It must be 40o F in this room now. I've got on my 200 lek sweatshirt and still I'm cold. My feet too, through my army boots.

Ho ho! Look what I found! A remote control for the heater. I set it to 30oC. (It doesn't go any higher).That's about 90o Fahrenheit. There's no way it'll actually reach that temperature in here, but it may just get warm enough to let me take my shoes off.

Ah, that's better, now onwards and upwards...


It's been a tiring, yet peaceful day. I walked uphill through the old town to the castle. It's a hell of a walk. First through the entire new town. Then practically straight up on a cobblestone street,through the old town.

Then to the top of the mountain.

The city is so steep-- not hilly, just steep-- it makes San Francisco look flat. The castle is at the top, and it's pretty spectacular.

Of course, I'm the only one in the place-- and it's huge. Bigger than Grand Central. It was first a castle in the 1200s. Then a prison from the middle ages through the 1970s.

I take a piss in one of the cells, makes me feel like I'm getting revenge for one of those nameless prisoners who probably died here. Most of the cells are just block rooms, cement cubes almost as small as my New York apartment.

Some have a little raised area in back.

A few are below ground level. These were the punishment cells. When water reaches these cells it stays, ankle deep, puddling the floor, attracting mosquitoes. The punishment was hot water in summer, cold water in winter. You can only imagine.

The castle has it's own café, a stone and wood room, in what looks like a bunker of some kind. The weirdest part of the castle walk, though, is the plane.

The Albanians say it was a U.S. spy plane shot down in the 1950s. At least that's what they used to say. The current sign, near the entrance lists it like this:

U.S. Spyplane???

 The question marks, I guess are post-Communist.

 Why it's in the castle, and what the story is, I don't know. Just coming across it, sitting on the castle grounds, lends the adventure an even greater air of surreality than it already had from the tanks, and the anti-aircraft guns.

The museum of armaments, contained inside the castle is not open. My guidebook says there's not much there anyway. Most of the good stuff was looted during the riots of the late 90s. Those were caused by the collapse of a national pyramid scheme. Like Bernie Madoff.

People in Albania got angrier than Americans did. There were riots all over the country. In this city, they broke into the weapons museum, stole the displays, and used them.

The castle was also used as a storehouse for heavy weapons,

and when you enter you go down a poorly lit, very spooky hall with heavy artillery pointing from both sides. At the end of the hall is an entire tank, along with a giant statue of someone with a gun.

Then comes the prison, then an open field, then the small café, where I have a Turkish coffee, as the only customer, of course. There is a very loud cat, though it doesn't seem to be having coffee.

On the way back down from the castle, I find a tourist information center. I go in.

There are three guys in there, all in their late 20s. Two of them wear glasses.

[Note: very few Albanians wear glasses. It's strange. I haven't figured out if it's because they have good eyesight, or no opticians.]

“Ju flicni anglisht?” I ask the young man behind the counter.

“Pak” he says. He nods toward one of the other guys. “He speaks English,” he says.

“Sure,” says the guy. “You want a map of the town? One Euro. You want one only of the old town. It's free.”

The guy has a perfect American accent.

“How come your English is so good?” I ask him.

“I'm from Cincinnati,” he says. “My friend and I are with the Peace Corps. We're working here in Albania.”

“Ju flisni squip?” I ask them.

The guy behind the counter answers. “With a very bad accent,” he says. “You're Albanian is much better. Maybe you have an Albanian in your blood.”

I figure out what he means and thank him.

The Peace Corps guys walk me to a local restaurant. On the way they tell me today is a national holiday: Mother Theresa Day. Schools and some businesses are closed. The restaurant is not.

I should order the qifqi (pronounced Chief-chi), they advise me. It's a specialty of the area.

I do and it's not bad. It's a fried riceball with various herbs and spices. I also get fried green peppers... and a beer. Cost me 500 lek. Not bad, huh?

I don't really have a good sense of how to get back, except that I need to walk downhill. Way downhill. As long as I get back before nightfall, I can make it to the hotel with no problem. It gets dark around 6, so if I leave by 3, I'll be fine.

Then I check my useless phone. It's 4:30. I'm outta here!

The locals don't seem to be able to read maps. I show them mine and ask where different places are, but they can't relate the places outside to the marking on the map. I've seen it several times in Albania. People can give directions, but they can't read a map.

I know that the post office is a good reference point. I think I can find my way down from there.

I ask a vegetable seller where the post office is. His only customer, a nearly toothless guy with a scruffy bit of white beard and one of those high Frankenstein foreheads, asks me if I'm Italian.

I say no, American.

“I speak Italian, Russian, Greek, Albanian,” he says. “I don't English. I go with. My name is Jimmy.”

“Uh oh,” I think. “Here we go again.” At least this time, I already have a hotel.

“Post office closed,” (he pronounces closed like closet) he says.

“That's okay,” I say. “I only need to find it.”

“You come tomorrow. Open. Open.”

I try unsuccessfully to explain that I don't really need the post office, but am only using it as a landmark to guide me back to my hotel.

“Tomorrow, open. Open,” he says again.

He takes me there anyway... or at least within pointing distance. And... it's all downhill from there.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Albania 13: Noah in Saranda, 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 already told... repeat some tales already told.]

For bounty cheers not his delay, nor there will weary stranger halt. --Lord Byron
Saranda (Coldsore day 11,12 almost disappeared, just an off-color red spot)

I write this at one in the afternoon, lying in bed in my hotel room in Saranda. It's my third day in this town, the only Albanian city I've spent more than 2 nights in. It's not because I like it so much (though it is my favorite city so far), but rather is it uneasiness that keeps me here-- and water.

I feel vaguely sick, and vaguely exhausted. My eyes close even as I type these words. My jaw aches... and that will only get worse. I have a chance to nap, but I feel like I'm missing something if I don't get out and enjoy the few hours of warmth.

FLASHBACK: My escape from Qeparo is relatively easy. After getting on the bus, I just ride. No one speaks to me. No one offers me accommodation. Nothing good, nothing bad. A stop here and there to pick-up or discharge, but we arrived in Saranda with ease. I find a guide-book recommended hotel, and am paying 15€ a night. Less than half than what Co-ocho extorted... Naw, no more about THAT GUY. Let sleeping evil men lie.

[Note: brushing away a bee reminds me to write that there are bees everywhere here. Not just in the countryside, but everywhere around the city. I haven't been stung yet. So, it's good to see them.

In America, they're dying out. Victims of too much insecticide and too much overbuilding. They try to overbuild here, but it doesn't work. They've made a resort, but nobody stays in it. In summer, I guess it's crowded... but not enough to kill the bees.]

After adjusting to the hotel room, I take a walk in town. I need to find a sweater for the cold that has taken over the country. I'm headed to the local tourist information center which has the unfortunate Albanian acronym of ZIT.

Walking around, I see that this town, like others in Albania, is built on the ruins of an older city that was built on the ruins of a still older city, built on the ruins... (imagine the imagination imagining itself-- William Gass) At the corner, near the ruins of a Basilica, built on the ruins of a synagogue, is a bus stop. Waiting at that bus stop is the Japanese girl I helped in Durres... so many days ago. She has her nose buried in a Japanese guidebook.

“Masuda-san!” I call.

She doesn't answer.

“Masuda-san,” I call again.

I guess she's trained herself to block out any sounds from the outside. She certainly doesn't expect anyone to know her or call her name.

Me? I jump at anything that vaguely sounds like Mykel. I'm always expecting to meet a friend or have to quickly run.

I cross the street and walk up to her. She's startled, but then happy to see me. I remember that she speaks no English.

Suddenly, I'm faced with speaking entirely in Japanese. Not only is my Japanese bad to start with, but because my brain switched to Albanian, it's even more of a struggle to remember. But we do manage to communicate.

She tells me she's going to Butrint. It's an ancient city, not far from here. She asks if I want to come along. Company! An Asian female who I can (almost) talk to! I jump on the chance like an old Albanian jumps on an ignorant tourist.

On the bus, she tells me that she's just come from Gjirokastra in the mountains. It's a beautiful city, but even colder than here. I explain that's my next stop. Then on to Tirana.

She makes a face.

“Tirana-wa suki ja nai desuka?” (Don't you like Tirana?) I ask her.

“Tirana-wa dai-kirai,” (I HATE Tirana) she says.

I ask her why, and she explains. I don't understand most of it. Something about getting hit in the back of the head.

Butrint is a U.N. identified World Heritage Site. The shape of the town and amazing ruin layout reminds me of Machupichu, although the architecture is thousands of miles and thousands of years different. Being a WHS means they get money from outside. It also means they can charge an outrageous (for Albania), 500 lek to get in.

(In case you haven't figured it out, one lek equals about one yen equals about one U.S. cent.)

Masuda is bothered by the flies and mosquitoes. She walks through the site waving a handkerchief in front of her face. The flies don't bother me, and the mosquitoes seem to like her more than they like me.

During our walk through the ruins, we stop and take lots of pictures. The ruins date from Greek, pre-Roman times (we are withing spitting distance of Greece), through Roman, through Byzantine, and everything in between. I wish I knew more European history. I could put all this in perspective.

We both take lots of pictures, mainly of each other, with each other's camera. In other words, she takes pictures of me with my camera. I take pictures of her with her camera. I use the self-timer to get one of us together. In an ancient stadium, of course. Everywhere, there are ancient stadia.

As we leave Butrint we run into some British tourists. I recognize them as English-speaking because they carry the same guidebook I do.

Dave and Marge have rented a car in Tirana and driven it this whole way.

“The driver can't look at the scenery,” says Dave. “Just keep an eye on the road.”

“Isn't it just terrifying?” I say, thinking about buses passing each other on the no lane highways.

“It sure is,” he says.

“By the way,” I say, “I haven't been to Tirana yet. What did you think of it.”

He grimaces, and using his thumb, makes the sign of slitting his own throat.

“That good, huh?” I say. “Masuda here agrees with you.”

I translate for her and she nods vigorously.

After returning to Saranda from Butrint, we have dinner at a restaurant Masuda found yesterday. Between us we have a small dish of salad, a bowl of bean soup, and a plate of Pilaf. The latter is just a small pile of white rice with a tablespoon of meatsauce. It's enough.

After dinner: Soshite ima? (And now?) I say, hoping my voice does not betray a wink.

“Umi-wa mimashitaka?” (Have you seen the beach?) she asks.

The rest I'll just translate. It was too much of a struggle the first time.

“No, I haven't,” I answer.

“You should go to the shore,” she says. “I'm going to my hotel. Sayonara.”

We split up. I go for a walk along the beach, have a cup of coffee by myself. Drink a beer by myself. And come back to the hotel, by myself.

I see her very briefly the next day. I had planned on climbing the highest mountain in Saranda to see the castle at the top. On the way, we pass each other. I tell her my plans. She looks at the mountain and says, “Good luck!” in English. That's the last time I see her.

I never make it up the mountaintop. I try. I follow some paths that lead upwards, but they deadend. I retrace my steps and try again. By the third time, I'm so tired, I give up.

The only adventure of the next day is breakfast. It's about 10AM, and I'm out looking for breakfast. Maybe because this is a seaside resort town, people do seem to occasionally eat here. Probably only tourists.

First, I sit outside in a small cafe near the beach. Inside, someone is already drinking coffee. Maybe they have food. I'll ask. I sit down. And wait. And wait some more. I feel like a colored guy trying to get service at a southern sodashop circa 1962.

Ending my private sit-in, I walk across the street to a nicer café, built on a wharf curving out into the sea. The waiter comes up to me.

Un dua te ha ditchka. (I want to eat something.) I say.

“You can't eat here,” he says in English. “You can eat over there.” He points to a pizza restaurant on shore.”

I thank him and head to the restaurant. On the menu are 20 different kinds of pizza and one entry OMELET. That would be the perfect breakfast: just an omelet. Just too perfect. I know it's on the menu, but there's no way in hell they're going to have a real omelet. It's for show. I'm sure.

When the waiter comes I point to OMELET on the menu.

“Nuk kemi.” (We don't have it.) he says. What a surprise!

I order an O SOLO MIO pizza instead. It is to pizza, what a breakfast burrito is to a burrito.

In other words, It is a pizza, but instead of mozzarella, and tomato sauce, it has ham, sausage, cheddar cheese and eggs. A pizza McMuffin. It is really bad. Maybe the worst pizza I've had in my life, though Polish pizza in 1980 comes pretty damn close.

I can't get the taste out of my mouth for the rest of the day. It's one of those tastes.

I go to the Internet café to do a bit of posting and couch-surfing. My computer is agonizingly slow and I've been feeling a headache coming on all day. Now it pounds as I wait for the screen to redraw.

The headache is almost like a migraine, but in three strips. They all start at the bridge of my nose. One goes straight down the middle of my head. The two others travel back on the sides where a part would be, if I had enough hair to part. I feel nauseous, and completely exhausted.

It's the swine flu! I know it.

I pay the internet guy and stagger out of the I-café. I just hope I can make it back without collapsing in the street.

Back at the hotel, I collapse in bed. It's 7:30. I awaken at 11PM, without the headache.

I've still got the taste of breakfast pizza running between my molars. I take out my trusty toothbrush (to be discarded after this trip... coldsores, you know), and Tom's of Maine travel size, and scrub away. Then in a fit of dental responsibility, I floss for the first time this trip... and dislodge a gold inlay on my last molar.

That inlay cost $600 in New York. I did bring emergency dental repair glue. I know what happens. But I've used it before and the stuff only lasts two or three days. What if I swallow the inlay? I'm gonna have to strain my shit. Maybe make impromptu enema, squirt up one of those plastic bottles of water. Shit in the shower, with a window screen over the drain.

Right now, I paste in the gold. I use too much cement and it's too high on my jaw. It makes me bite at an angle. It's gonna give me a another headache, I'm sure.

Besides, I'm a nighttime tooth-grinder. I may even dislodge it at night! I could choke on it. Die! I sleep fitfully.

At six AM, I awaken to the Muslim call to morning prayers. I like these 3 or 4 daily calls to prayers. They're eery melodies, but somehow calming. A great change from the honking and dog barking on the street. As I type this, the 7:30, evening, call is coming over the speakers on the minaret of the local mosque. (I wonder what they did before loud speakers.)

This morning though, in addition to the prayer call is thunder. Big bangs of it. I see lightning flash against the curtain. I count the seconds. One... two... three... four... five... six... seven... eight... nine... ten... eleven... twelve. Then the thunder. Twelve miles away. That could be Greece. I don't know. In any case, it's weird for there to be thunderstorms so early. They should be in the afternoon or evening. I fall back to sleep.

Again lightning wakes me up. It seems like it's been several hours. Thunderstorms don't last several hours. I fall back asleep.

It's nine o'clock and the thunder, lightening and rain continue. Not a normal pitter of rain. But a deluge. A downpour. A torrent. I look out the window. The sky is black. It's raining so hard it sounds like someone has turned a firehose on the hotel.

I walk downstairs. Go into the bar-café.

Without asking, the pretty blonde waitress brings me a double espresso. I am not the only one in the café. At another table sit two men. One speaks loudly into his cellphone. The other jokes with the waitress, then turns to me and makes a NICE BOD shape with his hands. The waitress plays insulted.

He asks me if I'm Italian. “Yo, American” I tell him.

Then he points to his friend on the phone. “America,” he says in English, “Chicago, Boston. You where?”

“New York,” I tell him.

Then he looks outside and says, “Shi!” which I figure means RAIN, and which sounds enough like the Mongolian word “shess” which means “piss,” for me to remember.

(Ironically, the word drink in Albanian is pi, pronounced pee.)

“Madh shi!” (big rain) I say.

I look out the window again. The streets are flooded. So flooded, in fact, that although the hotel is on a hill, water is running the other way. I mean the lower streets are so full of water that it's forced back, running uphill. This is not a river. It is whitewater rapids. And it shows no sign of letting up.

Do I take the bus to Gjirokastra as I had planned? If I do, the way will certainly be treacherous. I won't be able to see THE BLUE EYE, a famous Albanian landmark, and I'll have to wait some time in the rain for the next bus.

On the other hand, if I stay another day and it doesn't stop raining. I'll never be able to leave. How much space in The New York Times will they give to a fatal Albanian flood? Probably won't make it to page 10. It's not like the Thai tsunami, where TV stations grabbed American survivors right and left. Whose even gonna know there was an American in the flood?

I picture myself in my hotel, climbing up to higher and higher floors as the flood rises around me. Even if the rain stops, I won't have food or water. I'll parish here, $600 tooth or not.

I decide to risk the flood and stay in town one more day. I sit in my hotel room and watch the water on the street rise up past the curb.


more on mykel at