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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.

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