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:
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.