Travel, like life, is searching for those few drops of honey in a pool of vomit. --Mykel Board
ALBANIA 10 Coldsore day 7 (no signs of letting up, I'm resigned to this being a permanent part of my face)
I sit in Vlora, on a bench on the beach, barely able to see the screen in the bright sunlight. The stink of garbage fills the air around me. In front of me, between the bench I sit on and the ocean, a small bulldozer pushes around the plastic debris-- not scattered on the beach, but covering it.
It's 9:30 in the morning. I had planned to go to the southern seaside town of Saranda, but the last bus left much earlier. (Than 9???) My plans change. That's what happens when you travel-- when you live.
From here I'll go about ½ way-- to Himara-- an old city (like all in Albania-- millennia old, pre-Roman-- occupied continually, city built on the ruins of older cities. It's impossible for architects, except when excavating for a new building, then WHOA, look at that! I didn't know those people lived here. In one southern city, they found a floor mosaic with a shofar and menorah depicted in the tiles. It took them forever to figure out what that was.
Not having to worry about being challenged by Africans who think I took their picture (see the Bari-Durres entry), I take lots of pictures. No one seems to mind. You'll see some of them here.
The plans are this: I go back to the hotel at 11. Then eat lunch. Then take a taxi to the bus station (5€, they say... ten minute ride). Then take a bus to Himara. We'll see. [By the time I finish writing this, I already know... I never make it to Himara.]
I haven't eaten breakfast and probably won't. Albanians never eat. There are dozens of coffee shops around town. Some quaint, old style, some very modern and too-brightly lit, some with fast food signs over them and plastic tables and chairs. Usually, they are nearly empty, one or two tables full. A few hours a day, they are packed. People at every table. In the morning, everyone has a small cup of coffee in front of him. (I rarely see women at these places.) In the afternoon and evening, people have glasses of beer... along with cups of coffee. There is no food. No plates. No one eating, or showing signs of ever having eaten. You'd think a place that says Fast Food would have food! But maybe it's different in Albania.
FLASH BACK: Last night, I ate at a Pizza restaurant. It was a nice place. Lots of wood, tables on the street, on a terrace in front, and inside. I ate on the terrace. I had an entire pizza. No one else was eating. I spoke with the owner in what little Albanian I know. Like everybody here, he expected I was Italian, and knew Italian.
[Note: The Albanians divide the world into two parts: Albania and Italy. If you don't speak Albanian, you speak Italian. If you are not Albanian, you are Italian. America? That's somewhere near Sicily, right?]
As far as I can understand, the pizza owner is from Macedonia where he was an electronics engineer. He couldn't find work, so he came to Vlora and opened a pizza parlor. He makes his own Tabasco sauce. He lets me try it on my pizza. Not super spicy, but not bad. Certainly the best Tabasco I've had in Albania.
After the meal, the owner gives me a free glass of Amaretto. He says it will help me digest the pizza. Musa Osmani, his name is. I tell him une quham Mykel. We shake hands. I make notes in a tiny notebook I always carry. I figure I'll email the guidebook company with tips and maybe score a free book in the future. At least I'll get a thank you in the back of the book. I love seeing my name in print.
I go back to the hotel, looking in the windows of the crowded bars, cafés and restaurants along the main street. No one is eating.
FLASH FURTHER BACK: Before the restaurant, I went to one of the few museums so far on this trip. An ethnographic museum housed in the house where the Albanian independence movement was born. The museum is a second choice. First, I go to the Historical Museum, but it's undergoing renovations and temporarily closed. My guidebook says the ethnographic museum is close, so I look for it. It's not where the map says it is.
Unlike others of my gender, I'm brave enough to ask for directions when I need them. People stand, point, gesture right and left. I walk in ever increasing circles, trying to follow the general directions that I didn't understand. I see a sign by an open courtyard. It says something in Albanian and House of Laberia in English. I figure that must be the place... identified only by it's revolutionary history.
I enter the courtyard. It doesn't look very promising. There is a shredded Albanian flag hanging in front of a shack, and what looks like slum housing behind it.
There are no people anywhere.
I walk out of the courtyard, and ask a truck driver.
Museo ershte ku?
He points into the courtyard.
Nuk koptoj. (I don't understand.) I tell him.
He walks to the gate and points to a little white house, around the corner of the slum building. I walk up to the door. An old woman, wearing a babushka, is picking up leaves in the garden.
Museo? I ask.
She motions for me to follow her. We walk through another courtyard, this one with a bunch of what look like headstones, scattered under an olive tree (with olives!). Suddenly she yells something. Not at me, but at the closed door to the house. Nothing happens. She yells again, then turns to me gesturing with her thumb to her ear, pinkie to her lips.
Telefoni, she says, looking toward an upper window.
After one more yell, the door opens. A young woman, answers, first with an annoyed look, then with a sudden brightness.
The old woman says something to her that I don't understand.
“Italiano?” she asks me.
“No,” I say in English, “American.”
[Note on Albanian: Po is yes. Yois no. For some reason, it's really hard to keep this in mind. Linguistic habit returns me to YES and NO. People seem to understand.]
“Ju flisni Anglisht? I ask.
“Yes,” she says, “a little.”
Then someone else shows up. An older man with a pot belly. (Albanian men age into the same shape as their American counterparts.) He looks at me.
“Italiano?” he asks.
The young woman nods her disagreement.
“American,” she says.
The guy speaks to me in Italian anyway. The girl translates. We take a tour of the museum. I'm the only person there. I get the whole treatment. The men's room where men of the house used to live. Their clothes, their weapons, their pottery. Then we go across the hall to the women's room.
The women lived together here. No men were allowed. No men in the women's room and no women in the men's room. When the women made tea for the men, they would bring it to the door and the men would step into the hall to receive it.
I asked if single and married women lived in this house. My personal set of guides assured me they did. They showed me a cradle in the women's room to explain that there were children here as well.
I did not ask the obvious, afraid it might cause some embarrassment. I never did find out, though. If all the men lived in one room and the women in the other, where did the babies come from?
Downstairs is the Albanian patriots' room. There's a wall of heroes-- one of whom looks a fuck of a lot like GW Bush. (Unfortunately, the likeness is lost in my photo of the photos. Can you guess which one it is?)
After I get the patriot spiel, the young woman takes my picture next to the double-headed eagle, symbol of Albania.
At the end of the tour, I ask the older guy if he's the owner of the museum. He laughs and says something in Albanian. The woman translates.
“No, this is not private,” she says. “We are workers... for the government. We get paid by the city. We don't own, we just work.”
FLASH EVEN FURTHER BACK: Before the museum, I take a walking tour of the town. By the beach I find the best bar name I've found in a long time. People often name bars after famous people. It draws in fans... but how far can you go?
You guessed it: the Jesus Christ Bar (and Fish Restaurant). Yowsah!
Unfortunately, the bar was closed. I wonder if it was a wine bar. In any case, it looked pretty derelict.. but then again, so did he.
After the bar, I walk toward to center of town. I find what looks like a flea market, on a small side street off the main drag. Off that street is a network of alleyways, all of which sell stuff. Bananas, some strange-looking fresh-picked herbs, cellphone covers, bootleg DVDs, you name it. I pull out my little notebook and write down the location of the street. I'll send it to the guidebook.
I walk a little deeper into the sidestreet. There's a guy about 40, with a thick mustache and close-cropped hair. He blocks my path. Because we speak a mixture of Albanian, English, Italian, and sign language I can't exactly write down what was said. But here is something close:
“Are you Italian?” he asks.
“American,” I say.
“You were writing,” he says. “In a book... What were you writing? Were you writing about us?”
I notice he has three friends with him. They surround me, preventing my going in any direction.
“What were you writing?” he says.
I reach to show him the notebook.
[Note: The trouble with travel blogs is so much new happens between one paragraph and the next, that you can never catch up. If my fears are correct, this may be my last entry... ever. If I'm over-reacting, another entry will appear in the relatively near future.]