View outside our windows

Our apartment is close to the Blloku, the old area in which the Communist leaders lived and was closed off to everyone else.  We’re actually very close to Selman Stermasi soccer stadium in a densely packed area (all of Tirana is densely packed) near the Edith Durham School (named after a British woman from the early 20th c. who did a lot of work recovering Albanian customs and history).  So we get to see kids coming to and from school everyday.  Below us is a dental clinic (there are lots of those here), a nail place and an appliance repair shop.  Those of you who know me well will realize how ironic this is, since I grew up working in my dad’s appliance shop.  It seems a rather middle-class, average neighborhood.  I mention all this so that you’ll see the pictures outside our balcony in context.  Clothes hanging outside people’s apartments is a common site (few dryers here) as are exteriors of buildings in various stages of repair.  The interiors are often quite different and kept in nice shape, I gather.


Polyglot. . .ish

     As I prepared to come to Albania many months ago, I quickly found out how hard it was to find Albanian language (called Shqip) instruction in the States.  There’s apparently  an intensive course you can take in Arizona.  There is one online course that didn’t blow me away.  None of the big courses you can buy offer Shqip.  So  I was stuck with struggling along with whatever I could cobble together from different sources while teaching seven classes at SPC. 

I often found myself thinking how easy it would be if I had been posted to a Francophone nation.  Now I’m not at all fluent in French, but I had two years in high school and two semesters in college and managed to get along during a few days in Paris with it back in 1984.  But Shqip is not related to French.  It’s not related to Spanish, either, which I can muddle along in well enough to order food and beer and can read passibly.  Shqip is also not related to German, of which I learned a few words and phrases from some childhood neighbors, from a ten-day visit to Germany in 1984 and from a German girlfriend I had for one long St. Petersburg summer.  In fact, Shqip is assumed by most scholars to be related to ancient  Illyrian, connected to the tribes that occupied Albania before the  Tuscans ever started making noise  in what is now Italy.   So learning Shqip (just say “ship”) involves learning words that don’t have any relation to the languages I know anything about.  “Thank-you” is faleminderit.  “Good-bye” is mirupafshim.  “One” is nje (say “knee”).  But there are other words in modern Shqip that are closer to things I know.  “Two” sounds like “deux,” “three” sounds like “trey” and four sounds like “quatre.”  So I’m very slowly catching on.  Mire.  (that means good, okay and is also an informal greeting)

However, in the last week or so I’ve had some language experiences here that have made me feel almost European, almost polyglot.  Almost.  The German bakery downstairs, Backman (or Backmann, depending on which sign you look at) usually has a young Albanian lady behind the bread counter and she is kind and patient with our pointing and using one relevant work of Shqip, buke (bread).  But the last time I went in by myself to buy some of these little 100-lek sandwiches, a different woman was behind the counter.  She was a little older than the one who is usually there and had long dark hair.  I prattled along ordering my stuff in Albanian and then noticed when she was counting out the sandwiches to herself that she said “eine, zwei, drei . . . .”   She was speaking German.  “You are Deutsche?” I asked.  “Ja, ja,” she replied and then asked if I was.  We concluded the rest of the transaction in German, which she apparently preferred to Albanian and I certainly spoke better than Albanian.  I returned to the apartment with the three sandwiches and an apfel tart and a thrill from being able to converse somewhat well in a secondary language for the first time in two weeks.

Just this past Monday, I had a similar experience.  After meeting with the head of the foreign language department at the University of Tirana, I headed toward home with an eye out for the AMC (cell phone company) “M-store.”  My cell phone had needed the minutes recharged for some time but the initial purchase of the simm card for the phone had been so confusing that I had some sort of block about returning to the same place.  But I came upon a peaceful and quiet looking M-store near the American embassy with a single young woman sitting at a desk.  My attempts in Albanian and English to purchase a card to recharge minutes did not work well.  When I asked for a card, she held up a simm card.  Finally, she asked “can we speak another language?  Italian?”  I shook my head.  “French?”  My eyes lit up.  “Oui, je peut parle Francais.”  Now my French is rusty but I could now understand about 80% of what she was saying and she was understanding maybe that much of what I said, so we were doing statistically much better with French.  I was surprised how the vocabulary began coming back, as if a long-dormant computer program was slowly being loaded.  Perhaps the young lady was French–she seemed to enjoy speaking the language as much as I did.  And I was once again able to discuss something marginally effectively in a secondary language.  As I walked home from the M-store in a light rain, my phone charged with 500 lek worth of airtime, I felt for a moment the way I imagine savvy Europeans feel–able to change gears and speak in any of five languages, able to access different businesses and different people and to savor the flavors of different languages of the contintent. 

It was only a moment, of course, and then I remembered that I only struggle with a miniscule vocabulary of Shqip, that my German is very limited, that I butcher French  grammar, that few people here speak Spanish and that I know very little of Italian.  I guess I’ll conquer or surrender to that linqua when we visit Florence.

Goodbye, mirupafshtim, au revoir, auf Weidersehen, Ciao

Haircut 300 Leke

Well, I finally managed to get out to get my first haircut here.  We had passed a lot of places called Berber which were inviting and intimate little places amongst other shops, but I’m fussy about barbers and couldn’t make up my mind.  Now, I’m not fussy in the way that I’m expecting some exact sort of haircut or some fantastic sort of style.  No, I just get used to a certain place and that’s where I go.  I needs to be no-nonsense and a place where the barber knows enough of his craft that I don’t really need to tell him what I want.

Most Albanian men keep their hair quite short so I imagine berbers do quite a business here.  Mine had grown out a bit so that it was getting bushy and annoying.  We passed a place hear our apartment that seemed somehow suitable so I tagged that as my eventual barber shop.  When I walked in, a young African American guy was getting his hair cut very short and the young barber doing it was talking with an Albanian guy sitting on the bench where I’d parked myself.  The African American looked somehow familiar and he looked my way a couple of times.  I thought perhaps that I would say hello after we were both done.

The barber working on my hair worked mostly with scissors and made quite a few passes before he got my hair how he wanted it.  Sometimes his scissors seemed to be flying above my hair and other times he took more deliberate cuts.  He was willing to teach me the word for short (which sounds like shkort) and long, which I can’t remember, so I guess I’ll have to keep my hair long.

Before long, the young American who’d been getting his hair cut and the guy who had been sitting on the bench next to me got up and left, with the young guy cheerfully saying “mirupafshtim” (a sort of thankful goodbye).  My barber then said “Marine–at embassy” and we watched the big government SUV pull away and I recognized the Marine from his post at the embassy a week or so ago.  He certainly looks less intimidating in his street clothes than in his semi-dress uniform at the embassy.

My tab for the haircut was 300 Leke.  I had worked on asking how much “se sa eshte” but  didn’t have a chance to use it.  That’s about three dollars.  Instead of guessing how much to tip, I just asked the barber if it was customary to tip.  “No, no,” he waved his hand. I said mirupafshtim and walked into the sunny day.

Poeteka and Ecuadoran music

I was invited to a poetry reading tonight by my embassy contact and was introduced to the reader of the hour, Arian Leka, whose current book won the 2010 all-Albania poetry contest.  Leka is also the head of the Poeteka International Festival of Poetry which has been held in Albania for the last few years.  I’ll miss it this year as it will be held in August or September.  The reading took place in a little bookstore which was clean and well-appointed but also cosy and comfortably crowded.  The reading itself took place in a small sort of patio room with a working wood stove, tile floors and plants.  My friend tried to translate some of the poetry but it was hard going and I let her off the hook when she admitted it was difficult to translate poetry on the fly.  I was surprised she tried at all since it’s a tough job to translate in writing not to mention at the spur of the moment.  I did get an idea of the imagery Leka was using.  One interesting thing is that the post-reading discussion involved at least two professors/critics giving their explanations or views on Leka’s poetry in a rather off-the-cuff manner.  There seemed to be more interest in Leka’s poetry as a subject than we see in readings in the US.  I’m used to seeing people introduce, listen and rah-rah, but not discuss it critically at all.  Of course, there were also the same tired questions poets everywhere must get asked:  “how do you write your poetry?  Where do you get inspiration?”  I can imagine someone asking Homer all those millenia ago “so, do you revise your poems or go with the first draft?  Do you have a special place you like to compose?”  I’m supposed to meet with Leka sometime next week.  I’m a little concerned about what we might talk about.  I feel a little out of my league.  I’ve been a finalist for national prizes (National Poetry Series a couple years ago, for example) but never hit the big time.  Should be interesting to see what happens.

Under the “Didn’t Expect to See This in Tirana:” As I was walking back I came upon two street performers with amped up music, all in Ecuadoran (I guess–something indigenous and South American) dress and playing traditional South American music on some big flutes.  They were getting a lot of tips.  In Elbasan I was told that the State Dept arranged for a mariachi band from the US to tour parts of Albania and was a huge hit.  You never know what might connect between cultures.

Food and Drink #2–Two Beer or Not Two Beer

Well, we found the perfect place for two folks with English degrees–Shakesbeer.  And we answered the question “Two Beer or Not Two Beer” with some finality.  Half liter Korca on draft for $1.50 each.  Man, that’s livin’.  We’ll be back there for sure, whether is nobler to suffer the mugs and gnoshes or order another round and take beers against a sea of trouble . . .

Food and Drink #1

I know you’re probably hoping this posting will delve into the delights of Albanian cuisine such as lakror, a green beans, herbs , tomatoes stuffed into a pancake,  or the meat and cheese dish tave dheu but that will have to wait for another time, after we visit Era or one of the other traditional Albanian restaurants (hopefully soon).

Some of the most wonderful  food we’ve had so far here include the fresh produce from the many produce stands in the city and firre and buke (pastry and bread) from the many little bakeries niched into city blocks everywhere.  My first experience with the little bakeries was while we were still staying at Freddy’s Hostel.  There was a little bakery  a block or so down which was maybe only six feet deep (the part you could see from the street, anyway.  I imagine the bakery part with the ovens went back much further).  No matter how early I rose, there was always a well-coiffed woman in her bakery whites arranging loaves and croissants and tending to her customers as they walked up and asked for whatever they preferred.  I had sidled up to the window  a couple times and tried to make sense of the little menu in the window with its corresponding (cheap) prices but I couldn’t reckon how any of the words looked at all familiar so when I finally got up the gumption to buy something from the place, I merely pointed and indicated how many I wanted:  two of the chocolate croissants and two of the 8-10 inch small loaves.  I think my total was about  200 Leke–$2.  I hauled them back to the hostel where Carly was introduced to the wonders of chocolate croissants like I had told her of from a college visit to Paris.

 In this visit, I had been living in the Eckerd College house on Gower Street in London and had spent a long weekend in Paris in a tourist hotel with my girlfriend of the time.  I imagine I had visions of drinking at the Deux Magots like Hemingway and sporting around Paris with my English driving cap and girlfriend on my arm, drinking good cheap wine, carousing, romantic walks along the Seine.  But this was not to be.  True, I did walk the Champs Elysees (by myself) and drank some good, cheap wine (with another couple), and visited the Louvre and Arc d’Triomph but the romantic part. . . well, don’t go to Paris with a pretty girl who doesn’t like wine and appreciates Wales more than Paris.  Had I not been nineteen, I would have known that.  But the croissants!  The one part of the trip to Paris that I remember with unparalleled joy is tramping downstairs in the little tourist  hotel  in the morning and amongst other grungy and backpack-wielding youngsters to have the croissants and coffee or chocolate that came with the hotel fee.  The coffee was strong and robust and wonderful and the croissants were fresh and chocolately and delicious.  The morning was still fresh as the coffee and pastry and the world and Paris were full of promise and warmth.  Carly’s experience was less complex in the little hostel as she munched on the croissants and worked the chocolate onto her cheeks, but her smile was much the same as mine was some 25 years ago.

The hoagie-sized rolls from the bakery held a surprise:  each hid a slice of some sort of meat inside and it was still warm from the oven.  I still don’t know the name of this pastry but it seems a common, cheap and quick meal.  We’ve since bought our bread (buke) from whatever bakery we might be passing.  Sometimes it seems we get a baguette or a larger sort of French bread.  Last night, on the way home from a movie, we got a big whole wheat loaf.  That would have been good in a toaster, but we don’t have one right now and I don’t know if they’re at all common  here.  We’ve toasted bread, when necessary, but cranking up the broiler in our oven and toasting one side and then another.  Seems to work well enough.

The beer, Linda, Sandy and Robin,  is varied, cheap and good.  Our favorite so far has been an Albanian beer called Korca (say KORsha) which we cannot get at some places because, as waiters say, sometimes Albanians do not want local beer.  So perhaps we’re drinking the equivalent of Old Milwaukee Light, but it’s ubiquitous so we’re not the only ones who like it.  It comes in a pils and a darker version, like Beck’s, but I like the pils better, which has a nice bite to it.  There’s another local beer, Tirana, which is fine but I don’t like it as much.  Of course, German and Italian beers are common.  Birra Moretti is one that’s common and is cheaper than at home.  We bought a plastic 1.5 liter bottle of Stela, which is bottled in Tirana but is perhaps Italian.  I can’t tell by looking at the bottle.  At 180 Leke, it was only 10 Leke cheaper than Carly’s 1.5 liter Fanta Exotic.  Stela’s a good beer, too,  with a light but tart taste a little like a St. Pauli Girl.  (No, I’m not going to make a Tennessee Williams joke about Stela, so you can just forget it, Linda).    Shawna has also found some decent table wine at the Italian grocery Conad.  One liter box of white wine for 150 Leke.  Shoot, you can’t even find BAD wine in the US for $1.50 and this wine was pretty good.  I’m even having some now along with a piece of gouda just to keep up the realism of the blog.  I haven’t bought any liquor so far, which seems to be rather expensive.  I wish I had insisted to our landlords that they leave their liquor cabinet intact.

Water seems to be a big deal here.  Though the local water system seems to be fine and safe, everyone drinks mineral water so we’re doing the same.  There are two kinds—sparkling and natural and you can get local stuff or imported.  We’ve been sticking mostly to Trebeshina, bottled in the Albanian mountains in Permet.  Here’s what the bottle says:  “The TREBESHINA water is bottled with the most advanced German Technology as it flows out from the mountains.  TREBESHINA water attributes have been certified according to the EU standards.”    And on the  other side of the bottle: “The TREBESHINA water with the perfect mineral balance has been analyzed  by the Certified German Analytik Institut Rietzler GmBH Analizat e ujit TREBESHINA/TREBESHINA water analysis” and then there’s the ppm of different minerals.  It’s not about purity here, it’s about how many minerals your water has in it.  Now when you order water in a café (Turkish coffee is always served with water) you can order either uje mineral or uje pas gas.  Order uje pas gas if you don’t want bubbles.  Uje mineral if you want sparkling.  We finally figured out how to pronounce the Albanian word for water.  Shawna had the word down but not the pronunciation when she tried to order it pronounced like “huge” without the “h.”  Turns out (we broke down and just asked a friendly waiter) it’s pronounced rather like oowee.

I’ll write on grocery stores and other food later.  I’m “pas gas” right now.

Protests and Power Outages

This is the first day after we moved into our apartment last night.  Friday, February 04, 2011.  While it’s good to finally be here, it’s an odd day.  For one thing, the Social Party protests are supposed to start in two hours and are supposed to start at four or five different points throughout Tirana.  One of those gathering points is the Dinamo Stadium.  There are two major stadiums in town and I imagine it’s one of those but there is also a soccer stadium very close to here.  Our general approach is to stay away from anything like that, as suggested by the Embassy.  I’m not at all worried that the people at the demonstration would be mean to us.  The real problem is that we would get tangled up in some conflict between the protestors and the police. 

I found an open internet connection last night but that one went away and I haven’t been able to find it again.  Hopefully it will return soon.  Perhaps the owner just turned it off when he or she went to work.  We need to order internet service but I really don’t know how to do that and think that perhaps I’ll ask someone at the Embassy for help.  They say it will cost about $20 a month for wifi and that installing it is quick and easy.  Well, it’s easy if you speak Albanian and know whom to call.

The other odd part of the day is that the power just went off.  That’s not uncommon here, as I’ve heard, and it doesn’t last for too long.  But we can see the AC units in the building opposite  of us running.  Don’t know if that means they have a generator there or if just our building is the one affected.  

(update!  Seems we overloaded the electrical service in our apt by running the AC –for heat–the washing machine and the hot water heater in addition to whatever else was on at the time.  Today we have the washer running again but most everything else is shut off.  Our landlord showed me how to access the main breaker amidst the tangle of wires for the whole building in the big service box downstairs.)

  We were going to get something to make for lunch from the local grocery store, but without the stove, we’re limited to lunchmeat and similar stuff.  We’ve been enjoying buke (bread), gouda cheese (kuq?)  and a Korca beer, which is brewed in Albania and is very good.  I don’t like the dark Korca but the pils is very good.  Pronounced korsha, and the c has one of those squigglies coming out of the bottom that they told us about in French class.  With the power off, the washer can’t finish what it was doing (apparently in the middle of a rinse cycle) so Carly and Shawna have been hanging the laundry out to dry on the lines in the sun room on the porch.  There is no dryer here and most people, apparently, don’t have them.  Balconies are often draped with drying clothes.

I’ve wanted to write some about what it’s like living in a place where there are protests going on and where it seems that the government is in some peril but I think maybe there isn’t much to say.    People on the street seem to agree with the sentiments of both the government and the protestors and, in the end, just want things to work out and for Albania to do well.  Ordinary people seem to be going about their business.  People are walking to work.  Traffic is frantic and busy as usual.  The young women have done their hair and makeup and strut down the street arm-in-arm as if they’re on Sunset Blvd.  There is really no sense (though  I’m not the most connected guy here) that people in groups or as individuals are at each others’ throats.  It’s not like you’ll get mistaken for one group or the other and get beaten up.  It’s more like there’s this political battle happening and most people hope it will all be over with soon so they can get on with their lives.  On the one hand, I admire the Albanians for having the fire and enthusiasm to protest in order to change their government for the better but they’ve also had a tough time pulling this diverse and interesting country together and into the 21st (or even the 20th) century.  The protests here are certainly nothing like those in Egypt (and no one wants them to be) and most Albanians seem to be rejecting any comparison of the current protests to the coup or putsch that happened in Turkey.

Found out something else interesting about Albania.  There’s no drinking age whatsoever here.  Made me think of the Republican agenda to get government out of people’s lives.  I wonder if they’d be interested in abolishing the drinking age to remove that aspect of gov’t from controlling people’s lives?