Posts Tagged 'albania'

Three Odd Interactions With The Men of Gjirokastra

1. Stone/dirt path scramble, muddy Converse and I’m chasing rubble: mad crumbled buildings in this town, falling like trash down the mountainside, and the urban explorer/trespasser in me can’t get enough.

Guy sitting on his stoop—track suit and cheap sunglasses, smoking what smells like weed. Give him a nod, which I can’t tell if he returns.

He watches me as I tromp past, up the hill and he whistles—makes a time-out signal with his hands, which I take to mean, “Don’t go traipsing on my fucking property, girl.” But he does it with a smile, so I smile back, and when I walk past again he says, “You speak Deutsch, American?”

“American.”

He nods. “Nice castle,” and juts his chin towards the stone mass in the distance.

“Very nice,” I reply.

He gestures whatever he’s smoking towards me. I shake my head no. “Have a good day.”

“Goodbye.”

2. Cobbled road in the old town, forty-five degree angle and I’m taking it slow. Pass an old dude I saw down in the new town—has one of the most intense shoe-polish toupees I’ve ever seen, hanging over his forehead like a black awning. I recognize him and he recognizes me—our eyes meet and I smile, nod.

He smiles and asks me something in Albanian.

I shake my head.

He sighs. “Deutsch, Italiana…”

“Ah, ah,” I answer, understanding. “American.”

“Detroit?”

“San Francisco.”

He nods and throws a barrage of Albanian at me. I shake my head again.

He points to his ring finger, then me.

I laugh, wave my hands no.

A woman appears at the window of the meat market we’re standing in front of, her face obscured by the glare on the glass. Our eyes meet and I smile.

3. “Can I sit down?”

I’m scrounging the last sunlight of the day, before it slips behind that mountain and casts everything in a funny pink glow. I look up from my book and nod.

His name is George, he served me my espresso in the sinking light—he asks me where I’m from and if I have friends in Gjirokastra.

“No. But I’ve only been here one day.”

He asks me if I have a mother and father back in the States, brothers and sisters—he asks me if I have a job, and I say no, and he asks why, and I say I quit. I tell him I’m a writer. I don’t think he understands.

“Why you are alone?”

I give him the usual answer: that my friends either don’t have time or don’t have money, so I travel alone. I give this answer regardless of language barriers, because the real answer is harder to explain. Most of time, I don’t think I know the real answer.

We try to chat, but it’s awkward and fails, and then the light is gone. So I smile and nod at my empty espresso cup and ask how much. He shakes his head. “Nothing. Now,” big broken smile, “you have a friend in Gjirokastra,” and points his thumb to his chest.

Pillow Talk, Tirana (Well, Don’t Make Me Beg)

Tirana, I want to lay
my head on your naked chest,
one ear to the heartbeat, hear
the ragged breath,
1000 cars wheezing,
careening,
screaming—
a cough
like smoking meat.

Can we lay like that?—
in the morning,
between the mountains,
sun through no curtain,
this bedroom of a city
and everything that contains us—

You cut a river
through the middle,
build your bridges
likes slits across wrists—
Stare at the soggy trash
they’ve thrown there and say
“It’s a real river in the winter.”

Tell me how you’re better
at 4am,
when the wheezing unrattles itself
and the city falls silent,
each dog a lonesome bark
and we climb to the top
of that tattooed pyramid
and look at it all,
laid out there
blinking
naked
smoldering trash

and the police will chase us up
and cough at the top,
place their hands on their knees,
ask for our documents
and I’ll be too scared—you’ll laugh:
“You were scared, scared.”

Tirana, I want this:
your bone
against my ear,
hearing your organs groan,
black breath rattle
between those mountains,
your breastplate—

where you keep it,
you keep it.

No Prayers in Shkoder

Exercise: 20 minutes of contemporaneous note-taking, cafe in Shkoder.

Click of heels on stones and bass of techno, bicycle chains and conversations. The lamps click on their orange glow, against the minarets and mountains. Two men in business suits behind me, speaking accented English and I have to turn and look, have to stop and snap a photo of the pedestrian walkway—Albanian for picturesque, which means that if you take a picture just of it then it could be Croatia or Montenegro—leave out the tin roofs and rubble, cats in the trash and the smell of something rotting, which you couldn’t photograph anyway. A chill and I check my phone for a text that hasn’t come.

“Runaway Train” comes on the cafe next door, and I think of the “10 year delay,” and wonder if it’s more like 20 years here—remember the dreads and the video, my parents’ living room, thick rug on bare feet and the feeling of being safe.

A dry claw in my throat but I keep smoking—rumble of a motorbike—young girl in a pink parka, sunken eyes—“Somehow neither here nor there.” Women sitting sidesaddle, cross of the ankles and stockings that bunch like that—wrinkles.

Iggy Pop and the lights on the minaret twink on. But it’s dusk and it’s silent and I wonder where the prayers have gone, my own book sitting closed in my purse, haven’t wanted God in any of this (a dry claw, I keep smoking)—listened to my own fable, “see the bright and hollow sky”—which part of my is still in New York?—track suits and tight jeans, spiky hair and lanky grins.

Evening stroll hour, though it’s not like Phnom Penh—the limbs don’t swing but sit tucked into pockets, in the crooks where elbows hinge, old couple, walking into this, through this. Two backpackers walk up, table where the business men have left, stubs still smoking—“Oh here”—hoist bags off and sit.

And the adhan begins to whine and echo, a ghost everyone ignores—but I’ve ignored my own prayers, not forgotten but avoided, God like a lighted tower between the buildings, and I wonder what it takes to become the man who sings out those prayers—what training? And then the Christian church bells chime, 6pm, and the man hits a higher note and holds it, “and I ride and I ride,” and the motorbike engine cuts on and the heels click and I’m still nowhere but here—Albania at dusk.

Notes on Flying Into Albania

At the Bergamo airport outside Milan, and I’m in Albania before I’m in Albania.

Waiting at the gate, last flight of the night and it’s delayed—“ritardo,” which sounds like “retarded” and I laugh and take a picture, and get those sideways glances—“Girl, you’re not from here.”

And I’m not—one of the only people at the gate that isn’t Albanian, clutching a red passport and the clothing suddenly different, so un-Milan, where even the dogs are better groomed that me. At Gate 3, it’s faded loose blazers instead of crisp fitted ones; it’s cheap haircuts and scarves tied over the heads of old women. It’s scuffed low heels and calf-length skirts, thin linen—it’s hard faces, jaws and brows more pronounced, and skin chiseled too, even in the children—chiseled, as though the expressions were carved out of some kind of different living, different reality, and you could never quite assimilate, could you? I think—No.

I’m wrecked tired, stayed up till 5am with the Le Fooding kids, slept maybe 4 broken hours, and I’ve got a bottle of Pelegrino and my headphones cranked up, tapping my foot through a caffeine haze just to stay awake. Glances snag on me—not Italian, not Albanian, what the fuck?

An hour after we’re supposed to leave, and a shuttle bus pulls up to the gate. People push and jostle; a man tears our boarding passes, which look like they were created in MS Word, printed on Xerox paper, glossy-thin. The bus smells like wet and feet, and it lets us off at the stairs to the plane, which bears no markers, no logos, a surface so lumpy it looks like paper-mache. We scurry in through the cool Italian night, breath clouds and blinking lights.

They’ve got the first ten rows blocked off—I remember this from my last Belle Air flight—and I can’t really discern why. People push and prod, they yell instructions to each other over, motion over the heads, and I can’t discern that either. There’s an old woman in my seat, and the seat next to her, and I show her my ticket and she shakes her scarved head as if to say, “No.”

I shrug and the stewardess—dolled up like a retro Pan Am attendant, hair pinned and orange hat tucked jauntily to the side—she shrugs and motions me up to the front of the plane, to the unassigned rows, and I grab an extra seat.

A staticy safety announcement rushed through in 3 languages—sounds like the voice in a fast-food drive-thru—and it’s too quiet for me to hear anyway over the mechanical groans of the plane. There’s nothing identifiably “Belle Air” about the plane, save the cloths on the head rests, and I decide it must be some kind of generic rent-a-plane, which doesn’t make me feel terribly confident, but I close my eyes and wait for take-off—though really, in a lot of ways, all these ways, I’ve already taken off.

We take off, and I watch the lights of Milan dissipate, fade—goodbye Western world. We’re cruising at news-helicopter altitude, it seems, and I feel like I could reach out and touch the little lights, the clouds that snag on the wings and eventually swallow everything, everything.

The cabin lights keep dimming and brightening, like a kid playing with a switch. Outside, the sky crackles a yellow flash, illuminating the shapes of those clouds, and I imagine the static clinging to us like clothes from a dryer, or when a silent electricity is in the air and you don’t know it until you touch something and get that little shock—in the black above the Adriatic, but we’re already in Albania, a rattly, groany little generic bullet of Albania, carrying Albania through the sky.

Lights appear and we start to sink. The scarved woman in my seat stands up—she opens the overhead bin literally as we’re landing, the first bump and rumble, and others follow suit as we taxi, and the stewardesses stare ahead, bored-looking and don’t bother to point out the seat-belt sign or tell us to sit.

Another flight of stairs, another stinky shuttle bus, and a mad rush to the immigration desk. It’s a quarter-size line at the “Foreigner” counter, though I could have sworn I was the only non-Albanian, and a man elbows me to get there first, waves his wife over, and it seems like a monumental rush for nothing, so I just let out a half-laugh and watch.

A faded dim stamp I can barely read, slammed on top of another stamp, and I wonder what the point of it is. Three luggage carousels that all read flights from earlier that day. My backpack finally appears, on its side amid the luggage mummified in neon shrink-wrap.

No buses at midnight, so I grab a taxi, and he drives between the lanes, over the lanes, flashing his high beams like lightning or static or the cabin lights that could never sit still. We cruise into Tirana, and I see familiar sights—the crepe stand I liked, the gaudy shopping mall, the dug-up square beside the national museum, the statue that sits amid the construction like a warrior in a dead battlefield, the broad empty road where the futbol crowds shot off smoke bombs.

It’s like a boy I’d met once, thought I’d really liked and kept on thinking about, retelling the story to myself so that eventually I didn’t know if it were true or not anymore, if I’d made it up or not—but I’m back and it’s still all there and it’s real and I can’t help but smile at that—Tirana, Tirana, sleeping and dark but still as I left it.

The taxi stops at the gate to the hostel and the driver helps me with my bags and I pay him and then he pauses and looks at me, nods and smiles, reaches out to shake my hand—maybe because I’m American and he knows that’s what we do, I’m not sure why. But he shakes my hand and I shake his and he pats me on the back and I ring the bell and now I’m in Albania, really in Albania—I’ve arrived.

Tirana Took Some Piece of Me, Under Seige And Too Far Away

The Pyramid, where protests took place

Sometimes when you travel, a place will steal a piece of you. And sometimes you’ll leave a little piece of yourself in a place—which might be the same thing—some piece of you you hadn’t really known was there, that took the foreign air (smoking chestnuts and car exhaust) to be awakened or realized. And you’re sure you can only ever know that piece or be that piece there—which probably isn’t true but is nonetheless how it feels. Because all it can do is feel, not quite be articulated or explained or rationalized. Which is part of the magic of traveling.

Tirana is one of these places for me—not perfect, far from paradise, but a place I just slid into, like a peg in one of them little holes. I think about my Albanian homies often, and we keep in touch (like everyone else) via Facebook. So I knew when it was snowing there last month, saw pictures of familiar rooftops hazed in a dingy white. I saw pictures from New Year’s, from parties that looked like the ghosts of parties I’d gone to—or rather, parties that had never stopped, kept going, where some piece of me might still be dancing amid the smoke.

And so I knew this morning that shit had gone down. Before I looked at the New York Times or Reuters or listened to NPR, I saw via Facebook. Which made it impossible to detach from, which made it all the more real.

Vincent had been a fellow traveler when I’d been in Tirana, but the lure of the city had inspired him to move there (and helped me to acknowledge that it wasn’t just me being crazy, that the city really does have a kind of special something). He’s been the most vocal of my Tirana friends, though I did get word that everyone I know is okay.

Vincent posted this first-hand account, far more compelling than any news story I read:

I was surprised how well cars can burn, they make hissing and exploding sounds as they slowly die, and usually after two or three minutes, their horns and lights switch on until the circuits are burned through, its like their dying lament.

It’s a funny feeling, I can’t explain it, but I want to be there. For what? To protest? It’s not my fight. To watch shit burn, to run the streets and raise my fist and feel the sting of tear gas? No, that’s not it. To be curled up in someone’s apartment, watching newscasts and hearing the echoes of sirens and shouts and maybe gunfire? Perhaps. To feel that that piece of me I left there, that was so so alive there, is safe?—and that all those people that saw that piece, that shared that piece and maybe even a small piece of themselves, that they’re all safe too?

Because nothing is really safe, and no one is really safe, least of all the parts of you you don’t know, that you’ve littered all over this planet like loose change, like strands of hair, like earring backs and lines from old forgotten poems someone else remembered and reminded you of, when you least expected it, on Twitter of all fucking places—and it sounded like an echo of an ancient sadness and you don’t know what the fuck all this is or means, but just that it doesn’t feel safe, or doesn’t feel like you can save it—which is not at all the same thing, but is all too easy to confuse. And you’ve been confusing it your whole damn life without knowing it.

All of which is to say that you can never predict how this shit will make you feel, what it will bring up. Which is my own way of saying I hope all my Albanian friends—that I love without really knowing, the way I love a part of myself without really knowing it—are safe.

Americanness on the Road, Part II: It Ain’t All Bad

Yes, really: George W Bush Street, in Tirana

“America is the best country for a person with a disability to visit.”

This was Rob, sitting cross-legged on the roof terrace of the Tirana hostel. He continued, “For deaf people, it’s like a dream. It’s like going to Disneyland. Actually,” he ashed his cigarette, “Disneyland is great for people with disabilities too. Wheelchair accessibility and all.”

Chad looked confused. You could see the information smacking up against the wall of prejudice, his brow wincing from the pressure.

Chad didn’t like the US, and Chad was American.

Rob continued on, citing the revolutionary wonders of Civil Rights legislation and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in his English accent. Rob was in Tirana doing NGO work in the deaf community; Zhujeta, Rob’s girlfriend who helped run the hostel, also did work with the same NGO. Rob rattled off the comprehensive services available to deaf people in the US—from resources in public schools to telephone interpreters—vastly different from any other country in the world, including his native England.

Chad nodded, soaking it all in. “Wow,” he said thoughtfully. “I guess that’s one thing we didn’t fuck up.”

It’s easy for Americans to be jaded about our own country. There’s a lot of fucked-up shit going on in it, and we’ve caused a lot of suffering, both abroad and at home. It’s easy to fall into a sort of naive cynicism: our country is completely fucked. As young travelers, little ambassadors on hostel terraces, we feel it our duty to decry our country and lament its shortcomings, its sins, its unforgivable and deplorable acts. And there’s a lot to decry.

But it’s something like the Guilty White Person syndrome, the Bleeding Heart Liberal. This perspective—and God knows I fell prey to it for several years in my early traveling—lacks complexity, nuance. The US isn’t the evil empire, as easy and convenient as it’d be to think that. Just when you want to write it off, there’s something like the ADA to remind you of the revolutionary notion of equality written into the fabric, the very law of the land, that you can’t get away from—that, no matter how far we sway into the other side, keeps showing up and shaking things down.

It was funny to watch that information try to sort itself in the mind of someone who thought they’d neatly washed their hands of the issue: US = bad. Because the fact is, we only have ADA legislation as a product of Civil Rights legislation, and we only have that because of that little blip written into our constitution that declared all the men equal. Sure, it’s not what a bunch of rich white dudes in powdered wigs meant at the time, but too bad. And this is what, in my mind, makes our country such a complex, contradictory and ultimately fascinating place: this space for change, this tension built into it. That, and the incredible cultural cocktail that keep colliding, exploding, bubbling over and making something new.

It was even funnier to watch Chad struggle with the information that Bush Senior was the man who signed the ADA into effect.

Because things as big as people or countries are never that simple, never all one thing (“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes”—when in doubt, always quote Walt Whitman). It reminded me of a Middle Eastern friend of mine, an ethnic minority from Iraq, who told me her mother still thinks of Saddam Hussein as a great man, because he didn’t persecute Assyrians.

And there’s more than the ADA on the list of “things we didn’t fuck up.” But it wasn’t my job to teach or explain that to Chad; he’d have to figure it out for himself. I just sat back and watched the lightbulb turn on, a small flicker of awareness.

Later on, we sat playing music from someone’s iPod. “Welcome to the Jungle” came on, and I indulged in a moment of cheesiness. “To me,” I said, absently, not really thinking about it, “this is the epitome of America. This is what the US sounds like.”

Chad looked slightly taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s rock, good ole’ 80s hard rock. Which came out of rock n roll, which came out of the blues, which is about as fucking American as it gets. It comes from the core, you know, the soul of the country. And I fucking love it,” I added. “American music is my favorite music. In all its permutations—folk, country, soul, hip hop, grunge…”

“I guess I never thought of it that way,” Chad said. “I think of American music as, you know, the corporate Britney Spears shit.”

“Well, yeah, it’s that too. But that’s only a small bit of it.” I lowered my voice and leaned in. “No one can deny it: our music is pretty bad-ass.”

Americanness on the Road, Part I: Letting His Issues Be His Issues

“I hate your country’s politics.”

This was K, and this was the first thing he said to me.

We sat on the dark patio of a Tirana bar, table of ashtrays and beer bottles, the headlights and footsteps of surrounding streets obscured by a criss-cross fence. I’d arrived in the city only hours earlier, and had already found myself chasing fun with the group of people I’d hang with for the next five days.

K had just come in from Kosovo, in town for a gig where important record executives would be. He sang, or he played the guitar, or did both—it wasn’t clear. He had a red Adidas track jacket and the straw Fedora of male insecurity: a little too self-consciously cool.

He sat down at the table, said his hellos to old friends, was introduced to me. He asked where I was from, then crossed his arms, leaned back, eyes narrowed to a challenge, as if to say, “Come on, step to this, I dare you.” He announced his personal aversion to my country’s politics with smug satisfaction.

It was like K was trying to hand me a big bag of his bullshit. And I, in turn, got to firmly but without malice reply, “Actually, this is yours. And I’m just gonna let you hang on it.”

There was a time when I would have had to jump up and down to prove to K that I wasn’t one of those Americans. I would have cited my city of residence, my family’s long history in activism, personal lifestyle choices that reflect my commitment to anti-corporate, anti-imperialist values. I would have lamented the pervasive culture of ignorance and fear that paved the way for predatory politics, and when the bitch/blame-session reached its crescendo of discontent, I’d have thrown my hands up and announced my ultimate goal to marry someone with an EU passport and flee the whole mess.

I would have, in short, run laps to prove who I was to K, to win his validation and approval, this person I had just met, in some sort of attempt to resolve my own insecurity about my nationality.

Instead I shrugged, sighed, “Yeah, join the club, buddy.”

The rest of the tabled groaned at K. “What is that?” Robo asked, shoulders hunched and flicking ash, seeming a little uncomfortable at K’s underhanded assault on me. “That’s the first thing you say to someone?”

“Well, I do hate the US’s politics,” K defended himself.

“Yeah, but as the first thing to say?” Zhujeta cooed in her gentle, loving way. “Not even, ‘Nice to meet you.'” She titled her head in the same way as when she spoke to the begging gypsy kids that cruised past the table, “It’s rude, K.”

“Okay, okay,” K waved his hands as though they were little white flags. “Sorry, nice to meet you.”

I shrugged again. Whatever issue it was—whatever insecurity in K made him want to challenge someone, get them to prove themselves to him—I wasn’t going to get involved. That was between K and himself, not me. Or my Americanness.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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