Posts Tagged ‘Albania’

The next morning I repeated my ritual, welcoming the sun and the day before, dressing and heading downstairs.  Again I savored my cups of tea as I stared out over the sea.  About partway through my third cup of tea, a dark-haired, tanned man who looked like he could use a shave came over and asked me something in rapid-fire Albanian.  I had recognized only the words “mirёmёngjes,” which means “good morning” and “ju lutem,” which means “please.”  I found myself automatically responding “mё falni, unё nuk ё kupton ose nuk flet Shqip shumё mirё.  Ju flisni Anglisht?”  (Excuse me, I don’t understand or speak Albanian very well.  Do you speak English?)

“Yes!  Wonderful!  I speak English.  I was asking if I could use your ashtray here,” he gestured to my table.

“Oh, me gёzim!” (oh, of course), I said not sure how much English he spoke.

He walked around behind me and sat at the table to my left facing away from the beach and directly at me.  Two other gentlemen joined him, but he ignored them asking “where are you from?”

I told him, and he said he and his wife had lived in New York for seven years (he gestured to the table to my right where three women sat looking like they belonged on the Jersey shore as they stared at me suspiciously).  He was originally from Kosovo, but every year he spent a month or two on the Albanian shores.  They were headed down to Saranda now and advised me “you must go farther South.  The beaches there are more beautiful than anywhere in the world.  And you must see Butrint.  I’ve been going there for four years and still haven’t seen everything.”

The women still stared, but had gone back to eating as he told me my Albanian was very good—“not many Americans try to learn the language,” he said, “but then again, we don’t see many Americans in Albanian.  Of course, Albanians have a special place in their hearts for Americans.”  He told me about how George W. Bush had come over; how “some people” had claimed the Albanians stole Bush’s watch while he was shaking hands, but that George had said to the whole world “The Albanians didn’t steal my watch, they stole my heart.”  He told me how Jay Leno had joked that when George was finished being the American president, he should consider becoming an Albanian president because he’s so loved; how everyone in Albania knew someone in America or aspired to get there themselves; that I was very beautiful and should watch out that the Albanians (or Kosovians) didn’t try to steal my heart; that I looked Albanian.

I thanked him and blushed wondering how much English his wife spoke and whether I should shift in my chair to watch for any toast knives aimed for my back.  But he had already changed to education and told me about his job as an architect, his friend was a university professor and the other was a doctor.  “We are all educated people who value knowledge,” he said, then changed the subject again to American football and baseball.  I told him I was a soccer fan, and we discussed that sport for a while before he abruptly stood and said they must be off.

We shook hands, I wished him a safe journey and said goodbye in Albanian, and watched them go attempting a feeble smile at his wife as she passed.

I headed up to my room and felt an overwhelming impulse to call my mom.  I missed her and wondered what was going on back home.  We talked for a while as I struggled not to cry for the immense homesickness I felt.  When I got off the phone, I let the emotions flow for a good two minutes before pulling myself together.

Then I headed to the beach, selected an umbrella nearest the water and began rubbing in the suntan lotion I’d finally purchased the evening before during my xhiro.  Once again, I wished I weren’t alone as I realized my entire upper back would have to be exposed since I couldn’t reach it.

For a long time I turned in the sun before deciding to cool off in the water.  I made my way in and swam out to the marker, floating there for a while before deciding to return to my lounger.  When I got out, I rinsed off at the shower at the top of the beach steps and noted it didn’t have a turn off valve.  I went back to my spot and began studying the shower for a spigot.

Instead, I found the perfect spot to study the people.  People congregated at the shower, rinsing or cooling off.  Some adults filled water bottles, others rinsed off fruit.  Children covered in sand filled buckets or rinsed off shovels—all their interactions ebbing and flowing like the sea water at their feet.

Whereas the first beach had been primarily inhabited with young adults, and the second beach had been inhabited primarily with sunbathers, this beach was a family beach.  Men stood waist deep in water watching over their children in floaties while women bobbed in the water chatting with one another.  Boys ran and splashed about in near violent play.  Teenage girls batted a beach ball about as if it were a volleyball.  Vendors walked up and down the rows of sunbathers selling everything from corn on the cob to popcorn to fresh fruit.

After several hours, I began to feel tired—and as a direct result, lazy since I’d done nothing but lay about in the sun for most of this trip.  I began to drift in and out of sleep.  This would not do!  I resolved to stand and walk about, so I gathered my things and headed down the beach toward town.  With fewer people on the sidewalks than last night I was better able to study my surroundings.

The far end of Vlore, where I had been beaching was covered with umbrellas advertising everything from Tirana Birra and Coca-Cola to Peroni and Heineken.  Under each umbrella were two lounge chairs that came as a package deal when you rented the umbrella for anywhere from 300 leke to 700 leke for the day.

Along the fence that divided the walkway from the beach hung beach accessories like soccer balls and volleyballs; bikinis, sandals, flip flops and swim trunks; inflatable swans, dinosaurs, rings and wings; and towels advertising Hello Kitty, Thomas the Train, High School Musical, Hannah Montana and Barbie—the last of which I was told was the most popular.

On the other side of the street, palm trees lined both sides of the sidewalk providing shaded cover from the hot afternoon sun.  Beyond the palm trees was a mixture of housing, apartments, hotels and overgrown grassy areas that gave the feeling of tropical forestation being stomped out slowly by creeping construction.  At one street crossing several dozen residents stopped to watch and direct an asphalt truck as it paved the road—men shouting out to the driver while women talked behind their hands to other women about the progress.

As the main road curved toward the port, the grassy areas were replaced by tightly packed shopping centers with everything from pharmacies and barbers to restaurants and souvenir shops; meanwhile the fence stopped dividing the sidewalk from the beach and the umbrellas quit obstructing the view.  Vendors set up corn-toasting stands, or sold popcorn, or spices and teas.  A park with a seemingly endless carnival marked the end of the beach and the beginning of Vlore proper.  Children bounced in inflatable castles and houses while adults sat on park benches sipping coffee or beer.  The smell of sugar and sausage was pervasive, as were the squeals of delight from children at play on swing sets and merry-go-rounds (the kind we had when I was a kid where you ran around in a circle pushing the metal disk before jumping on and letting the momentum spin you until you had to hop off and repeat).

An old government building that had been replaced by a hotel that wasn’t fully built stood abandoned along the final stretch of road before the port.  Gypsies had taken up station along the long yellow wall that marked the had-been-planned hotel resort boundary and were shouting out to people about their shirts and skirts and sundresses and shorts.  “Used clothing,” my friend had told me.  “They come here in the summer and sell their extra clothes to tourists who don’t know better.”

The port marked one end of the main street through the town and was crowded with coffee shops and gelaterias and bars and restaurants.  A traffic circle with two large rusted anchors in the middle separated its entrance from the rest of town.

The main part of town was vibrant and colorful and full of energy regardless of what time you walked there.  People linked arms and chatted gaily as children darted in and out of crowds.  Old women in black dresses and sensible shoes sat on the park benches or low walls talking and eating ice cream while old men sat at tables in front of store entrances playing chess or checkers or dominos or cribbage.

Stores sold everything—cell phones, t-shirts, music, books, ice cream, bread, wedding dresses, shoes, purses, fruit and vegetables, and soccer memorabilia.  But mostly every third or fourth shop sold coffee.

By dinnertime I had met up with my friends and we strolled leisurely through town back toward the beaches.  Part of the way there, my friend suggested stopping at her favorite patisserie to try several of the sweets.  She was on a diet due to her wedding, but since I wasn’t, I was obliged to taste.

And taste I did!  Oranges boiled and soaked in simple syrup, lemon torte, a coconut ball, and a bite of Albanian baklava.  Several other sweets were ordered for me to take with me to taste at another time: an almond butter cookie, a macaroon, several types and forms of chocolate and a powdered roll of gelatinized starch.  Throughout the week they disappeared as I savored each one.

We finally decided on dinner at a restaurant billing itself as The Restaurant Ideal.  “Why not!” my friend said laughing as we admired their modern décor and comfortable alfresco dining area.  Giving it a shot with my friend’s encouragement, I asked for the menu and a wine list in Albanian and then ordered us a greek salad, a bottle of red wine and my dinner of thinly sliced beef with potatoes.  As always, I felt pretty proud of myself, until the waiter asked me questions I didn’t understand.  Sheepishly, I admitted I only spoke and understood a little Albanian and didn’t understand him.

My friend interpreted and he replied to me to tell me he thought I spoke very well and looked Albanian too.  As an afterthought, my friend ordered us American’s a glass of Raki, the national drink.  “Sip it, it’s not a shot,” the waiter instructed us.  It smelled like pure alcohol and tasted about the same as it burned both my throat and my nose hairs with the first sip.  Sipping water afterwards only magnified the burn so I turned to my glass of red wine as a chaser.  This might be a long night, I cautioned myself.

The food arrived and nearly melted in our mouths as we ate.  We lingered over the food and wine talking and watching as two old men shared a quart of Raki in about the time it took me to finish my one glass.  Just as I was finishing, another glass appeared at my elbow.

“From the chef,” said the waiter gesturing to a table behind me.  A medium-sized man with a delightful face and athletic build stood and bowed at us as we thanked him.  “Invite him over,” I suggested to my friend who had the language skills to do so.  As quick as a flash, he was sitting at our table and introductions were going around.

He grew up in Vlore, but went away to culinary school, studying in Greece for a long time before returning to Vlore to set up his restaurant.  He was proud of his place and accepted our compliments with gratitude and humility.  My friend had noticed framed pictures of him with the President of Albania and the American Ambassador to Albania on his wall inside and asked him about it.  With great pride he told us that this restaurant was a favorite of the President’s.  When he was in town, he always ate there and brought all his distinguished guests—especially from America—there.  We suggested taking a picture of our own and he willingly agreed.  Who knows, maybe someday it will be on his wall too!

Conversation continued bright and full of laughter, and pretty soon the stars were out.  Another day was over.

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I awoke early so as to continue my habit of restful start to the day and stretched in front of the open balcony.  The cold tile felt good on my feet and hands as I performed several yoga poses in succession.

Dressing for the beach with a sundress cover, I headed down to breakfast—a plate full of tomatoes and watermelon, a slice of plain omelet and a cup of steaming hot tea.  As I savored the first sip I couldn’t help sighing a deep prayer of gratitude:  “Thank you for tea, and bless the tea plantations and tea growers always!”

I drank another cup whilst down among the other hotel guests and then refilled my cup to take up with me.  I had plenty of time to write out on the balcony before we were to meet up.  Unfortunately, try as I might, the words wouldn’t come.

“Leave her alone,” my host told my friend last night when she asked how I would describe what I’d seen so far, “let the Muses come to her, rather than demand their immediate attention.  You cannot disrespect them.”  I appreciated his understanding, because it’s true!  But truth be told, Gentle Penguin, I had been too busy wracking my brain trying to determine if I had the Albanian vocabulary to even start.  I didn’t.  Later I whispered to my friend, “how do you say ‘beautiful’ and ‘breath taking’ and ‘magnificent?’”  She told me, but even as I asked I felt like they were trite words that I probably wouldn’t use anyway.

And here, the next morning, I still didn’t have a vocabulary it seemed.  I picked up my Nook instead and flipped it on.  Prior to landing in Rome, I had been trying to start Ralph Waldo Emerson’s History essay, but try as I might, I hadn’t been able to read it then either.  So I had opted to reread The Alchemist instead.

Now, I decided that above this view of paradise, I might be able to focus.  How quickly books absorb me—especially Emerson.  I felt my soul come alive with his words.  How befitting my recent visit to Rome and my reread of The Alchemist.  It was one of those moments when the Universe aligns and practically screams with neon signs “THIS IS WHAT I WANT YOU TO LEARN!!!”

I had just finished a particularly compelling thought when I saw my friends walking up the way.  I hurried down to meet them.

We were headed to a different beach today and so we walked back the way they had just come.  How strange distance seems when travelled on foot versus car. What had seemed a long drive from the center of town the night before, proved to be a quick walk along the coast.  The Adriatic looked just as beautiful in her blues and turquoises as she had yesterday, but seemed out of sorts as she crashed somewhat violently against the stairs leading into the water.

“That’s okay,” I told my companions, “I’ll sit this swim out.”  I’m a careful swimmer, with lots of respect for currents and tides.  There was no way I’d be stepping foot in that churn.  Besides the énfianced couple probably would appreciate some private time without their third wheel.

I couldn’t possibly have been tired, but I soon heard myself snoring and found myself immersed in a dream about sailing.  Focusing on the wind direction, I was standing on the deck of a large sailboat surrounded by a crew as we pushed toward a large rock breaking the flat line of the horizon.  We would need to circle it and head straight back the way we had just come, and with three sails behind us, we couldn’t afford a single miss on timing or we would give away our lead.  I checked the wind direction again and the compass heading feeling more confident than I have ever felt.  The fact that there were others close made the adventure more exciting, and I was glad they were there to spur my crew—and me—on to perfection.

I awoke still feeling the sway of the sea under my feet and the spray on my skin.  While the sway was imagined, the spray, I was surprised to discover, wasn’t.  The sky had started to look a little gray, and the waves were now pounding the rocks and deck at my feet splashing up to send its moisture into the wind, which whipped it over my skin.

We opted for some shade and to share a beer, then part ways for the afternoon—they still had wedding arrangements to deal with, and I was hoping the Muses would be ready to inspire.  I walked back up the hill on my own and up to my room where, instead of reaching for my laptop, I found my fingers already engaging Emerson.  For the next three hours I sat on the balcony alternating between watching the ships in port, the gathering storm clouds and reading.  Part of me felt guilty for hiding out in my hotel room, but another part of me whispered “this is where you’re meant to be right now…relax…”

When my three hours were up, I showered, dressed and began walking back down to our agreed meeting location.  The sidewalk, which previously had been silent and solitary, was now full of people of all ages strolling arm in arm, talking and greeting others met along the path.  I had read about this nightly ritual—called xhiro—which acted as part social time, part mating ritual, part community building and part entertainment.  Naively, I had assumed it was an old-fashioned weekend thing for tourists.  My friend assured me, it was a regular habit that was as much a part of daily life here as eating and sleeping.

By the time I met up with everyone, I felt even more like an outsider and fifth wheel as the only single person there.  I commanded myself to pull it together, and so I did, comfortably greeting my hosts in the carefully learned Albanian I’d been practicing.

Dinner was a delight as various seafoods passed around the table and conversation flowed in both languages.  By the time we were finished eating, it was getting dark.  My friends and host needed to attend to some additional wedding business, so I welcomed the opportunity to join the crowd on the xhiro outside.  They begged me to be careful, and I promised I would before setting my sights on crossing the busy road.

It reminded me of my visit to Palermo, Sicily, when it took me nearly 20 minutes to cross the road in front of the dock while old ladies managed to do it as easily as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  I shook off the feelings of chagrin I felt toward the me from a year ago, saw my chance and crossed easily.

As the sky darkened, the lights along the beach brightened, and I began to notice all kinds of combinations of groups.  Men in suits smoking cigarettes watched women of all ages pass by.  Girls in tight tops and high heels pranced as if trying to attract the men’s attention, then giggled at them or waved them off in dismissal once they had it.  Old women clung to older men or young girls and moved slowly while women pushing prams sped through the crowd as if racing.  Everyone was with someone else…except me…and I imagined everyone noticed it as much as I did.

By the time I’d circled the edge of the bay and reached the docks, I was feeling rather nostalgic and lonely.  I watched as young couples holding hands stopped and kissed passionately trying to conjure such a scene starring me.  I couldn’t.  Older men leaned over and caressed the face of the woman with them, and I tried again.  No luck.  I couldn’t even remember the feeling of butterflies while holding the hand of a man I found interesting.

Sighing, I turned around and headed back to my hotel.

I intended to go straight to sleep, but couldn’t.  I reached for Emerson again.  Perhaps my problem was I was already in love with a man who could never share those moments with me.  Perhaps my time had passed for love, or I didn’t really know what love is.  Truth be told, I often wondered these days whether what I had felt for the men of my past was really love or just deep infatuation.  I felt certain I had never been smart about it.  Perhaps that’s why none of them worked out and why a couple of them had left me scarred.  Or perhaps I was just overly sentimental and silly.

Emerson seemed to hear that night and understand.

“A mind might ponder its thought for ages and not gain so much self-knowledge as the passion of new love shall teach it in a day.”

I thought of my girls and felt a heavy wave of homesickness wash over me.  How I wished I was snuggling with them right now, hearing about their day, laughing at their jokes, listening to their squabbles.

I texted them and learned there was a new Muppet Movie coming out soon and both girls were thinking of me.

Savoring that thought, I drifted off to sleep.

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My hotel was located at the far end of Vlore just before the locally legendary tunnel.  Called the New York, my hotel was built about five years ago to provide upscale hotel services to this hopeful tourist town.  Tourism remains the primary goal here, explaining the extreme amount of construction along the beach.  “We welcome people and want them to come enjoy the beauty we have.”

The driver and my friend made a fine team negotiating a rate for my room, which when I found out that’s what they were doing, I felt like a dolt.  “I prepaid,” I said sheepishly.  “It’s already paid for.”  It’s true, Gentle Penguin, using an online booking service, I had booked the room feeling the €70 per day charge for this upscale hotel on the Riviera was a complete bargain!

They both relaxed, and I apologized—not sure why.  Culture lesson #1:  Albanians haggle, and if I wanted cultural immersion, I should learn to do it and be comfortable with it being done around me.

Any stress I had over the check-in process immediately eased the moment I walked into my room.  From the dark wood door, to the ceramic tile floor, the long-thin dark wood desk under an equally long mirror (which also doubled as the television), the matching chifarobe and the Zen-inspired lamps framing the simple white-sheeted double bed with tall, red leather upholstered headboard, the room was simple and elegant a hundred times over.

The best part, though, was the balcony. A sliding glass door led straight out to a view overlooking the sea.  From there I could see straight to the bottom of the cove and straight out to the island of Sazan.  A gentle breeze tousled my hair just as it had a year ago on the Mediterranean, and I felt as if I had just been caressed by a loving guardian and friend.

It took us no time to find our swimsuits and our way down to the beach.  It was Sunday and the beach was packed with families of all ages and sizes, but we found an empty umbrella and set out to properly greet the sea.  The white stone beach had the feeling of polished marble under my feet, but quickly dropped away where it met the water.  A nervous swimmer, I had a temporary moment of panic before I realized that being buoyant was simply a matter of gentle kicking motions, while the rocking of the ever-swaying sea only made me sway gently too.  Not to mention the salt water felt wonderful on my hot, dry skin.  I relaxed and let the water cradle me for what seemed like moments, but in actuality was much longer.

After several hours alternating between swimming and sunbathing, we decided to search for coffee/tea and sunscreen.  We ascended the long flight of stairs on the side of the cliff that marked our beach, and headed up the road.  There were no sidewalks along this stretch of winding road, so it became a joint partnership between the pedestrians and drivers to watch out for one another.  The honk of a passing car simply meant, “here I am and here I come” and with so much honking going on around me, I opted to stay as close to the edge as I dared, stepping gingerly around haphazardly parked cars and pot holes.

As we were waiting for one car to pass, I noticed sunflowers growing on the side of the cliff.  And right next them a beautiful towering cactus.  It seemed a strange combination, but delightful nonetheless.

We descended several flights of stairs to a sunny deck hovering over the sea and ordered our coffee and tea from young men dressed in white with navy bibs over their shoulders.  I ordered in Albanian using the little language I had acquired before arriving and was disappointed to find out tea was not on the menu.  “Oh, ojё natyral,” I said, indicating a water bottle in a nearby cold case.

We sat there enjoying the maestral and easy conversation for a while before realizing how late it was.  Were we expected at dinner?  What time was it?  What is the plan?  “This is the way here,” my friend said simply.  “We don’t make plans.”  Feeling sheepish, I chastised myself silently to respect the culture of the place I was in.  Still, it wasn’t too much longer before we were heading off to our respective rooms to prepare for dinner, where I vowed to be more respectful of this foreign country and culture.

But truthfully, Gentle Penguin, this concept proved to be as foreign a concept as could possibly be.  Here we were, spread out all over the city and intending to share a meal together.  Where would we meet?  What time?  How did I get there?  What was the dress code?  …  I had so many questions.

“Go back to your room, cool down and enjoy your view,” she said sweetly giving me an affectionate squeeze.  “I will call you when we’re ready.”

Part of me still felt worried, but part of me relaxed, pleased with this answer.  I was tired and hot and feeling quite raw from so much sunshine.  So I locked my door and threw open the balcony door to allow in the maestral.  I showered and then perched myself on a chair on the balcony to listen to the Adriatic.  It seemed to be whispering a lullaby to me with its ebb and flow, and I allowed myself to be lulled by it.  Soon I could hear the difference in the waves—the stronger ones clattered the beach stones together as if it were hard raindrops falling on rock; the softer ones whispered the sounds of wind and water.

Meanwhile, the bright white, hot sun was rapidly becoming more orange as it sank behind the island of Sazan while the blue of the sky deepened its hue.

I must have drifted off because the ringing of the hotel phone startled me so much that I jumped, bumping the table and making a terrible racket and briefly panicking that I might have knocked my water glass over the side of the balcony.  Fortunately, it was on the floor.

The driver was waiting for me downstairs said the unpleasant woman from this morning’s check-in.

I hurried downstairs and looked around the lobby, the front steps, the front patio.  I looked around the back of the hotel, but was hesitant to continue farther, so I returned to the lobby to ask.

He had called to say he was here, the attendant at the desk told me in perfect English, but she had not seen him.

I sat down in the lobby and waited, worrying that I was keeping the driver and my hosts waiting.  The thought of my hosts waiting spurred me back to the street where I began peering in cars to see if I recognized anyone.  I didn’t.

I returned to the lobby again and she said she hadn’t received any additional calls or seen anyone.  “Do you have a date?” she asked me rudely.  “No,” I responded taken aback, “I’m supposed to go to dinner with my friend and her family.”  I didn’t like this girl who continued to stare at me, so I went back out to the front of the hotel.  By now, nearly 20 minutes had passed and I decided to go back to my room, figuring they would call me there.

I was anxious and upset.  My brain began to war with itself.  “What if they’re down there, and I had somehow missed them, and they’re still waiting on me?” asked one part of my brain.  “That’s ridiculous,” said another part.  “They would have been looking for you and seen you leave and enter the hotel any number of times.”

I decided to see if I could relax and sat down on the balcony again.

Another 10 minutes or so my phone rang again and this time I had no idea what the speaker said.  They had already hung up before I could ask so I decided it would be better to wait in the lobby.  There stood my friend looking stunning in an electric blue cocktail dress with high-high heels.  “Oh, my gosh!  There you are!” she exclaimed looking relieved and hugging me tightly.  “I was beginning to think you’d been kidnapped!”

I apologized and told her my story.  She, in turn, told me they’d run into traffic and had arrived only to find that the woman at the front desk said I was out and refused to call my room.  A mad search ensued ending only when the woman at the front desk finally agreed to call my room to prove I wasn’t there…which I was.

I hate being at the center of drama—not to mention the fact that my friend looked gorgeous in her cocktail dress compared to my simple sundress.  I felt like crying or crawling under a rock. “I should’ve just stayed in the lobby,” I said controlling my voice so as not to let on I was near crying.  Then, like so many other times, I took a weak stab at humor hoping that would ease the tension, “besides, no one would kidnap me.  I look like I’d fight back.”

My friend was silent and just gave me another hug before rushing me outside to show her mother and the driver who were both still looking for me that I was okay.  She explained to them both what happened ending with my joke about being kidnapped.  The driver looked at me directly and spoke rapid Albanian at me as if scolding a child.

“He said,” my friend translated, “things happen here that you don’t know about.  You must be careful and not assume anything.”

Throughout dinner, I couldn’t help feeling the driver hovering over me as if a bodyguard.  I couldn’t tell if he was angry with me or just protective.  It felt like angry leaving me feeling like a naughty child who had just run into traffic and barely escaped being hit by a bus and now was in trouble.

The restaurant—The Sunset—was owned by my host’s friend and would be the venue for the wedding the following weekend.  Facing the beach and open on three sides, it was the perfect alfresco dining location.  The roof above us was woven canvas through dark wood beams, while the marble tile below us mirrored the creams and tans of the canvas above.  I was proud of my host and his friend for such a beautiful place.

We agreed to share Albanian pizzas.  “Italy isn’t the only one with pizza tradition,” said my friend beaming as she passed out various slices of pizza laden with vegetables, sausages, and even tuna.

By the time we finished eating, I was exhausted, content and ready to sleep

…to be continued…

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