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Monday, October 12, 2009

Albania 8: You'll Never Drink Alone

[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. As much of the reportage is built on the previous day's, I recommend reading from the start, at the entry ALBANIA 1.]

Give a man a drink, and in an hour he'll be thirsty again. Teach a man how to scam free drinks, and he'll never be thirsty again. --Mykel Board

BARI--> DURRES (Coldsore day 6) or A Guide to Durres

So when last we left me, I was drinking alone in the bar on the ferry from Bari, Italy to Durres, Albania. I finish my beer, depressed after expecting to be invited into an inner circle and then worshiped for being an American. I wasn't.

So I walk out on deck to look at the sea, the harbor, the shrinking of Bari. I have two contacts in Albania. Both in Tirana, I think. Two phone numbers between me and $1500 (at least) in hotel charges.

On the deck, I stand by myself looking at the harbor. A few clusters of people, all Albanian, all men, stand outside.

In the corner is a drunk. A bald guy in his late sixties, skinny as a famine posterboy. He half-sits half lies on a seat, singing at the top of his lungs. There are a few people around him. I hear a shout in something like Italian. There's laughter. As always in a foreign language, I think they're laughing at me. Must be my coldsore... or my GG Allin t-shirt... or my army boots.

Probably, it has nothing to do with me. It's just my paranoia and general depression.

Early in the morning (the boat leaves at 11PM and arrives and 7AM), I return to the deck to watch the ship approach Albania. The drunk is (still?) there. He's surrounded by his little fanclub. They motion for me to come over.

“Italiano,” says the drunk as I approach.

“American,” I say.

They all laugh, welcoming me into their little group. Somehow, they make it understood they thought I was Italian and were making fun of me. They don't like Italians very much. I tell them, neither do I.

They laugh again.

Hmmm, these Albanians are not so bad after all.

I arrive at the port after about 5 hours sleep. I have my two Albanian contacts: Denis and Andi-- not exactly Albanian names, but do I know? At least I have phone numbers.

I'm still jet-lagged, and very tired.

Customs and immigration are as easy as in Italy, though I do have to run my bags through an x-ray machine. Once out of the port building, I see there is nothing. No services. No hotel booking agent, nothing.

It is at this point that I violate two lessons I learned in my 60 years of traveling.

LESSON ONE: Never change money with strangers... especially if you're new in the country and don't know the risks. I change about $40.

LESSON TWO: Never take a taxi from a driver that comes up to you at an air or seaport and offers his services... Especially, if he puts an arm around your shoulder and guides you away from the normal exit.

The taxi driver says he knows the hotels and will take me to a good one. Cheap. He drops me where I violate yet another lesson I've learned the hard way.

LESSON THREE: If a place has to call itself, Good, Wonderful, Tasty, it isn't. I never eat at Yummies, or go to The Wonderful Mall or stay at The Comfort Inn. Inevitably these places are awful. But the cabbie has dropped me off at the Hotel Nais. The receptionist is beautiful, and speaks great English.

“You look like Al Pachino,” she tells me.

Could I NOT stay there?

“Do you have Wifi Internet,” I ask. “And can I pay with a creditcard?”

Yes to both of them.

I'm so here! At 35€ a night.

Before I go to bed, I try to call Andi in Tirana. No luck, the phone just rings.

After that, I sleep well.

The next morning, I try calling Andi, again. No luck, again. I try Denis. He answers on the fifth ring.

“I'm in Durres,” I tell him.

It turns out he is too, and will be over in a few minutes. Ah, my luck is changing, I can feel it. He arrives in about a half hour.

A normal size guy, in his 20s. Broad shoulders, light beard, very masculine. We shake hands.

“Where shall we go?” he asks, in slightly formal school English.

I tell him that everything is new for me, so wherever he wants to go is fine. He takes me to the local sites, first the famous Durres tower, over 1000 years old, and more recently graffitied. Then we go to the acropolis and other ancient ruins.

During the walks, Denis talks cars.

“I used to have a Mercedes,” he says. “I had to get rid of it. It was always needing repairs. I will buy another car. My father has a BMW, S-class. You know S-class?”

I shake my head, then remember that Albanians, like Bulgarians, shake their head when they mean yes.

“No,” I say. “I'm from New York. We don't have cars in New York. We don't need them.”

“That's too bad,” he says. “I love cars. I love motorcycles too. Big expensive Japanese ones.”

He explains that he's a medical student in the Italian college here in Durres. He wants to work in the US when he gets his degree.

“But not in New York,” he says. It's too cold there in the winter. I want someplace like Durres. Los Angeles, I think.”

I tell him that Los Angeles isn't exactly like Durres. But they do like cars there. At least they have a lot of them.

“Is Dures a safe city?” I ask. “Can I walk around anywhere any time of day or night?”

“It's completely safe,” he says. “No problem. The worst than can happen is you'll be shot dead.”

I think he's kidding.

“No really,” he says. “I'm a doctor. I see it all. I was working in ER when this guy came in. I heard the story. It was at a bar. He was giving someone a hard time. Trying to you know... to his girlfriend.”

“Hit on her?” I suggested.

He shakes his head. “Yes, that's right,” he says. “And the owner of the bar throws him out. So he comes back with a gun and starts shooting. So the owner comes out with a shotgun and shoots him. Maybe 3 meters away. There was little left. Just blood and what you call those little pieces of metal?”

“Buckshot,” I say.

“Yeah, buckshot,” he says. “I saw him on the operating table. But we couldn't do anything. It was too late. He died.”

We stop at a mosque for a photo op.

At the mosque, a man in his 70s speaks to us. Thinning grey hair, a big square head, a bulbous mole has anchored itself over his top lip. He talks to Denis about the mosque. I can pick out words. Communist, drugs, alcohol.

He talks a mile a minute. Denis holds up his hand to ask him to wait while he translates.

“He's talking about the Communist times,” says Denis. “He says that when the Communists were here they turned this place into a disco. With dancing, and music and alcohol. All those things that Muslims shouldn't have. He says it was terrible.”

I nod.

The man continues his story. I try to get the gist of it, but doubt that I do. After he's finished, we shake hands all around and walk away from the mosque.

“Are you a Muslim?” Denis asks me.

“No,” I tell him, laughing, “I'm a Jew.”

“I hope you don't take this wrong,” he says, overly apologetic. “But we don't know Jews here. We think Jews only think about money. They're rich. Not like... like...” he gestures in my general direction.

I nod.

“And Mykel,” he continues, “I read about some of your... life... on the internet. I don't know. But I guess I'm safe. We won't know each other that well.”

I smile and shrug.

Then, Denis tells me his family lives in the countryside. “I have to go up there, maybe tomorrow, to kill a wolf. It's bothering the local farmers. Eating a chicken. You want to come with me?”

Here is this guy, I just met and he's inviting me to go wolf-hunting with him. He's already talked about taking me to Tirana tomorrow. Jjust amazing. I think I'm going to like this country. Instant friends, like Thailand or Brazil.

“Where are the strip clubs in town?” I ask.

He laughs. “There are no strip clubs in Albania,” he says. “My brother and I think about opening one. There's so much testosterone in this country. It would be good to have an outlet... and one that could bring in some cash.”

We pass an outdoor café. “That's where the... how you call them... work”

“Whores?” I suggest.

He nods, which I hope means yes.

You shouldn't pay more than two thousand (about twenty dollars),” he says. “If they ask more, they're cheating you.”

I note the location of the café.

For lunch, we go to a great seafood restaurant, right at the harbor. I I order my first local beer, a Tirana.

We then order the fish dinner. Denis insists on inspecting the fish before it's cooked.

“Some of it is, how do you say, raised in a pool,” he says.

“We call that farmed fish,” I tell him.

“Yes,” he says, “farmed fish has no taste. I just want to make sure it's...”

“Wild,” I say, finishing the sentence for him.

The waiter brings us a plate of very fresh, very mean looking fish. The menu price for this stuff is expensive. Like $30 a plate.

“I have to be careful about costs,” I say. “I may be a Jew, but I don't have much money.”

“Don't worry,” he says.

Wow! Not only have I made a friend in three hours, he's buying me a $30 lunch. Why did I ever waste that time in Italy?

The fish arrives, and it's delicious. Maybe the best I've ever had. With real taste... NOT like chicken.

In the middle of the meal, Denis turns to me with a grave look.

“I hate to discuss this, but I guess we have have to...” he says.

I expect he's going to ask more about the Jews. I'm wrong.

“I need to confirm about my fees,” he says.

So, it seems, on the internet he offered his services as “a guide.” He used to work for a tourist agency and got 70€ a day. So, someone on Facebook told him I was looking for a guide. He offered to be that guide. I was speaking about an informal guide, a local friend. Not a paid safari-leader. His face drops.

After I explain the misunderstanding, he accepts it and apologizes... he even sticks with me for a couple more hours, taking me to the castle of KING ZOG, the notorious Albanian ruler kicked out by the Commies.

But my heart isn't in it. My heart is somewhere south of where it should be. Down near my bladder, maybe. This is so depressing. My new friend... yeah right.

I pay for everything for him... the entire day. It's the least I can do for the misunderstanding. It probably cost me $100. It cost a lot more in spirit.

He leaves me at the hotel, where, for the third time that day, I try to call the OTHER number in Tirana. This time, I try from my hotel room. This time I get through, but the connection is so bad, Andi can't hear me.

“I'll call you right back,” I tell him, and race downstairs to use the phone in the lobby.

Already using the phonelines is a Japanese woman with a creditcard problem. I spend another half hour, trying to impress the receptionist with my bad Japanese. What does she know? And it works well enough to get things straightened out. I finally call Andi back. No answer.

So I go out for dinner and a few drinks. I take a seat at a sidewalk table, but the owner is afraid I'll drive off business. He makes me eat alone, inside the restaurant. After that, I go to the café.

I drank alone there, too. There are no, how you call them...

The waitress, a very butch-looking woman in her 40s, asks, in English, if I want another drink.

“Dua te paguij (I want to pay),” I say. “E dua te flas shqip (and I want to speak Albanian).”

“Why?” she asks in English.

for more of Mykel, check out his website:


JIM HAYES said...

i think it's weird the guy didn't mention that he was a "guide" upfront. see if you can find any libraries there-i just wonder what an albanian library has to offer-oh yeah, angels swept the dead sox and the yanks swept the twins-alcs starts tomorrow i think-what kind of sports coverage do they have there-please advise

Beyond Belief said...

Not "GG Allin and the Toilet Rockers"??

You just brought back weird memories of a show in Milwaukee, 1987 or so, involving thrown fecal matter. Small, recycling, world.