I just had my best sleep in a long time. My dreams were elaborate, meaning my harried mind finally had a chance to iron out, at least partially, a few kinks. In one dream, I was asked to review some miserable literary text, with a few footnotes in French. As I fudged and botched this unwelcomed task, a crowing rooster saved my ass. I woke up.
I’m paying \$10 a night in Librazhd, a mountain town of 6,937 people. When I got on the mini-bus in Tirana, the driver thought I had done so by mistake. Looking alarmed, he asked where I was going? Foreigners don’t come here.
My room has an air conditioner that doesn’t work. There is hot water. My bathroom is the size of a shower stall, which is perfect, because it also functions, in its entirety, as a shower stall. A shower hose snakes from the puny, “Euro Standard” sink, and there’s a drain on the floor. At least there’s no courtesy comb with lots of hair from previous guests. I have a tiny balcony to dry my handwashed clothing, so technically, I can stay here forever. What else do I need?
Cicadas buzzing overlays a gurgling stream. White or yellow butterflies weave, stagger and dip among the shrubs, weeds and wild white flowers. Birds chirp, frogs croak and stray dogs bark. Looking down, I see grapevines and two cans of Coke, the only trash. In the distance, finger-sized humans walk back and forth, fending off death. Among tenements lurks the shape of an Orthodox church, with its three-bell tower. There’s a basketball court that’s always empty, but the daily high has been around 100 degrees, 10 more than usual, for two weeks already. On the horizon, mountains have arranged themselves rather dramatically, for my sole benefit, I’m sure. Knowing I was coming, they hurried, with girlish giddiness, into place.
Across the hallway, there’s an old guy maybe five steps away from the morgue. Through his thin door, I can hear him hacking. Unlike me, he must use the shared bathroom. With no common language, we can only wave at each other.
This morning, one of the crowing roosters sounded like an infant crying, which tore me up. Even in the most idyllic setting, there’s tremendous suffering, of course, one room over or maybe even in one’s bed, but what do I know, I just got here. Fully clothed in awful hand-me-downs, we suddenly tumble in, and in clownish rags, if that, we shall book, trailing curses.
Librazhd is distinguished by a rather macabre, black stone monument to two murdered poets, Vilson Blloshmi and Genc Leka. In the middle of a rectangular fountain lie two decapitated heads, one with its eyes wide open. Poetic fragments crawl up the side of a head.
What a concept, to be killed for one’s poetry, but this savagery can only occur in a society that’s still civilized, where the most meticulously calibrated language still matters, where there are still verbal shades, hues and textures, not just single words to trigger constantly enraged idiots, as in present-day America! There, poets are too irrelevant to be murdered. It’d be like raping a corpse.
(Even in Philadelphia, there’s only one statue of a poet. A modest bust of Whitman is on out-of-the-way Oregon Avenue, in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts. Granted, there’s the elegant Walt Whitman Bridge, but that was built in 1957.)
Arriving in Librazhd, I headed straight to the center to get my bearings, and also to find a hotel. Like in the rest of Albania, there were cafés everywhere. At the fanciest, there was a panoramic photo of Dresden, that tragic city, jewel of Germany, barbarically destroyed. Shunning all the chichi ones, I eased into a spartan, half obscured joint, away from the main promenade.
At an outside table sat a wiry, leathery man in a polyester polo shirt and beige track pants, on their last legs. Between gulps of raki, he rolled a cigarette with gnarly fingers. Unlike my lame, overly brainy ass, he clearly knew how to swing a hoe without chopping his toes off.
I ordered a large Korca from a boy waiter. Maybe 14, he was brazenly growing his first moustache. Transitioning into a man is no easy challenge, with many, if not most, failing repeatedly until death. Cemeteries worldwide should be filled with this generic epitaph, “I’M SORRY. I FAILED TO BECOME A MAN.”
Hanging laundry on a second-floor balcony, a woman accidentally dropped a chunk of wood onto the pavement. Glancing down, she saw no writhing or dead body, so leisurely returned to her chore. Walking by, an old man in a knitted fez noticed me and smiled. Smiling back, I mumbled and nodded.
After my first swig of Korca, I leaned back, stretched out my legs and felt almost too comfortable, for everything around me was perfectly normal. People talked and laughed. Although open, frank conversations are dear to life, they’re too often denied. If you’re too distracted or censored from engaging in such, you’re in hell.
Bringing me my second Korca, the kid waiter volunteered in crisp English, “Do you need help with anything?”
“Actually, I’m looking for a hotel. Is there one near here?”
It’s not a question he had ever encountered, apparently, for he had to consult the next table for a good minute before answering me.
His directions, though, were very fluent and precise, “You go to that corner and turn right. You will then see a bridge, a concrete bridge. There’s also a wooden bridge, but don’t cross that! About twenty meters after this concrete bridge, there’s a gas station. Ask the people there. They’ll show you where the hotel is.” Now, you try that in whatever Spanish, French or German you can still dredge up from your high school or college days.
English instructions in small town Albania must be fairly good, for I’ve encountered similarly impressive young people elsewhere.
In Peshkopi, population 13,251, I talked to a 19-year-old for nearly an hour, and he had no problems following me.
“Man, your English is very good!”
“I was one of the best in my school,” he smiled. “We had an essay contest in English. I won it two years in a row!”
“Wow! What did you win?”
“Just a piece of chocolate!” He laughed. “For writing this long essay in English, they gave me a fuckin’ piece of chocolate!”
“We had an American teacher. He was a volunteer. He’s gone now.”
“So what can you do with your English skills?”
“Nothing, really. I was a waiter at this café. Next month, I’m going to Italy to pick fruits. I will be there for three months, at least. It will be hard work, but at least I’ll make money. Here, I can do the same and make no money.”
(Most interestingly, he said Albania would be better off if still a part of Turkey, but even as you cringe, remember that it’s only natural for a tiny nation to rely on a protector. Unlike this young man, most Albanians think the US will shield them from the wrath or logic of the Serbs, Greeks or whoever. Now, that’s madness! An Albanian in his 70’s told me, “If the US goes down one meter, we’ll go down 100!”)
With us at the table was another 19-year-old. Studying to be an electrician, he was hoping to land a job in Germany.
Although larger than Librazhd, Peshkopi is further inland and higher up, so more remote. There, many people, especially kids, really gave me a double take. As I sat at City Coffee, three little girls, none older than seven, walked by me five times. Although they tried to be discreet, one couldn’t help but turn back each time, to prolong her scrutiny. It was easy to pick her out, for she had on an “I WAS BORN A UNICORN” sweatshirt. Once, this mythical being even broke into a bright smile, so delighted was she to encounter such an exotic.
Inexorably drawn into an empty Peshkopi café, I found the middle-aged owner sleeping on a cot in the back. Startled awake, he blurted, “Thank you!” and that’s the extent of his English. When I tried Italian on him, he could only pick out a word here and there.
After bringing me a \$1 bottle of Tirana Beer, he took out some pungent, semi-hard white cheese from his ancient fridge, cut it into five pieces and served them, free of charge. Appreciating this gesture, I’d tip him a buck upon leaving, but it was clear he didn’t expect it. There was no angling.
As we slouched at the same table, two kids pressed their noses against the café door, to stare at the alien. From his mishmash of Albanian and Italian, I understood he had come from a village south of Peshkopi, but that was all. Mirroring each other, we sat in silence, mostly. Each exhausted in his own way, we stared at the sunset-lit concrete or bare-brick buildings outside his forlorn café.
Passing his business two days later on my way out of town, I noticed someone sitting in the dark. Standing up, he moved into the light to wave goodbye.
Peshkopi once boasted an Obama Café and Hotel, but unlike Barack, it’s history. In Kruje, there’s a George Bush Bar, a George Bush Bakery and even a George Bush Statue. Near miniscule Kokreve, George Washington’s face is painted onto the side of a café. Everywhere, there are Old Glories and Statues of Liberty. Tragically, Albanians have more faith in the US than Americans themselves.
In five months in Albania, I have been overcharged maybe four times, and all but once very slightly. That is outstanding. When my glasses needed a new screw inserted, an old man in Tirana asked for just 10 cents. I paid him a buck.
Even with too many young people working in Greece, Italy or Germany, etc., the Albanian family is still reasonably intact and healthy. I constantly see parents with children in public, and the kids are happy and confident.
In Berat, three little boys approached me. One asked, “Where are you from?”
“We’re from Albania!”
No shit, kid. It was beautiful.
In Gramsh, population 8,440, two girls walked up to me. The older one, about seven, asked, “Hi, where are you from?”
“Vietnam.” As she considered this odd fact, I added, “It’s close to China.”
Satisfied, she intoned, “It’s nice to meet you,” then they marched away, smiling.
I’ve seen kids playing hide and seek, chasing each other around, or climbing up something, unattended, because it’s perfectly safe here. I saw a boy waving a piece of cardboard just for fun, and why not? Since most Albanians only buy used clothing, they’re not likely to purchase smart phones for their kids. That’s a hidden blessing. Those who must be plugged in nonstop are lost.
Since my Librazhd hotel has no Wi-Fi, I wouldn’t know of any fresh global disaster, on top of our orchestrated economic collapse and weather gone berserk. I also don’t know if Shohei Ohtani has hit more home runs? Seeing American baseball stadiums on TV, you’d think everything is still normal in that gone apeshit society.
The loonier America becomes, the more vehemently its inmates will cling to its media, for at least a travesty of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As your city burns, you can still be soothed by some matronly drag queen or another Satanic song. Commercial jingles reassure.
As just an ordinary town, Librazhd is no more, or less, of a paradise than anywhere else, if only normalcy is allowed to flower. These days in most places, that’s like asking for a moon landing.
It’s commonly said that boredom is the great curse of small towns. Few have summed this up more memorably than the Spanish painter Antonio Ribas, as recounted by Norman Lewis:
“Here,” said Ribas, “the sickness from which all people suffer is boredom. There is nothing in their heads. They bring up a single child, then they settle to await death. In uneventful lives they will go to any extreme to create an incident. The husband murders a stranger. The wife seduces the priest.” He shook his head. “Fourteen black petticoats hide the most sensual of all bodies.”
I’d posit that boredom-induced vices are even more common in cities, however. Ample entertainment and dining options don’t slake one’s appetite, but increase it, to the point of frenzy. It’s like watching 500 cable channels or endless porn. With your head or heart hollow, all places are boring.
Plus, your craving to be properly seen and heard is very stingily met, if at all, for there are just so many of you, with a dozen better looking ones right in this subway car. If the city is a vast buffet, and it is visually exhilarating, you’re one of its least items, just a pea, kernel of corn or macaroni, stuck to the hot plate.
A typical cosmopolitan averages twelve masturbations a day, all scientists agree.
Of course, there are great museums, though they bore you to death, and Nepalese, Kurdish, Uzbek and Congolese restaurants, which you haven’t tried, not to mention the Iblis, Gehena, Beelzebub and Yama’s Court nightclubs, which you can’t afford, but with your next payday loan, you’ll head straight for the world famous Bottomless Pit, with its hundreds of barely-legal girls pole dancing simultaneously.
Although it’s nearly 5PM, I haven’t even had lunch, so I’ll walk three minutes to this ordinarily charming place to chow, for just \$2.50, on pilaf with pork chop, or spaghetti with beef cubes and a hunk of feta cheese. After I polished off my plate yesterday, the lady asked, “A ishte e mire?” I gave her the thumbs up.
Albanians aren’t big on sauces, herbs or sophisticated seasonings, but simply salt and pepper are more than enough, if done with love.
Normal is enough.