Full Circle..With An Upgrade

It is hard to imagine that I would ever need to be back at this 5-star hotel that was my saving grace, but I am here to fill a gap. My stay had ended at the last Airbnb I had booked, as of today (7 May). I leave for my fly fishing trip in the Albanian Alps on Tuesday (10 May). I was trying to figure out a decent place to stay for the three night gap and this hotel sent me a Booking.com invite as a “treasured guest”. I was asked to write a review of this hotel after my “taxi-cab hijacking” event and since my review was so glowing – they rewarded me. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. On the exchange (euro/dollar) it came out to less than $47/night. I checked in at 3, after dragging all of my stuff on more time. From here on in, I move by car…easy-peasey. I took my second swim in the Adriatic and then showered off and took a dip in their indoor pool. I hit the sauna, showered here in my room, and had a hamburger in the dining room. I it is the first time in at least a couple of months that I have had red meat. It was delicious!

I had to have the a/c on in my room as the temp soared to near 27C (80F). It has begun to cloud up now and I have my windows open to catch the cool breeze off the Adriatic. The excitement level for me is back up again. I have finalized all of the arrangements for my trip to the Albanian Alps. I connected with Elton on the phone yesterday. Elton and Alda run “Albanian Trip”. They are a young tour business, and I will be their first fly fishing customer. I will have a driver, not a fishing guide. I will be going into unchartered territory for Elton, giving feedback, along with tips , and suggestions on how things should work. I have “guided” friends out West on our blue ribbon trout streams, so there is no reason why I can’t help Elton and Alda get their business going in the right direction…I hope.

We will leave here early Tuesday morning headed for Valbon, at nearly the border with Montenegro. The river, Valbone i Lumi is a wild, un-dammed river, and has Speckled Trout, along with Rainbow Trout, and a variety of smaller game fish. I am also hoping that the lodges we are staying in will have wifi. I would be tempted to send out a few photos and maybe a video here on my blog. Please stay tuned.

I have to add, that I had a wonderful time meeting a couple from Abu Dhabi. Malcolm is a schoolteacher and Liz is the school’s “Secondary Librarian”. We had three night of the best dinners and conversation. Klejdi (Claydee) my fave waiter at Hemera, was serving them and told them that I was an American from Slovakia. He was a little hesitant after the “Dutch Couple Fiasco”, but I assured him it was ok. Liz was from Alberta, and Malcolm was South African. They decided that the Western world was crazy for “working themselves to death” and sold their home in Calgary, took the jobs at the Canadian International School in Abu Dhabi, and now with their kids, they have seen almost every continent on the planet. They were even staying in my building, unbeknownst to all of us. Thursday morning Liz rang my phone/intercom (I was in Apt. 1…it happened alot) and said that she had forgotten the number for the keypad entrance.She didn’t know that it was my place. I buzzed her in and we had a laugh. I wrote it on the back of her hand, and she still had this morning when we said our goodbyes. It is a shame that we didn’t swap email addresses, because they were definitely a very cool pair of human beings. Kathleen, their 7 year-old daughter was very bright and well behaved. Their son Austin, was an unbelievable 2 year-old. He was very calm, and did not challenge his Mom and Dad; I haven’t seen kids like that in quite some time.

I didn’t expect to write this much. I merely wanted to bring you all up to date. After 2 months on the beach, I am looking for a change of pace. I really don’t care about my residency visa anymore, as I have no control over any of it. As a matter of fact, when I return from my trip to the mountains, and I have a long 2 weeks in Tirana, I may set about thinking about a “Plan B”.

To all of the Mothers out their, I wish you a sincere Happy Mother’s Day. From my heart to yours, and you know who you are; you represent the best in us. I love you and your kids…you’ve done a great job. I thank all of you for following me, and I will give an update as soon as I have something good to tell you…hopefully mid-week/next. Goodbye for now.

From The Sea And Up To The Peaks

I must apologize for posting in such a sporadic fashion. It would seem that I am at a place that I hadn’t foreseen. In the past few weeks I have “allowed” myself to dwell in a state of ennui. I have eschewed a live-in-the-moment approach to this venture. There has been no word from the Slovaks regarding my residency visa, and the prospect of having to return to the US, is not one that I relish. The other option is picking up in September and going somewhere else for 90 days…again. My intention was to come to Slovakia, and establish a sort of base camp, and trip off for a week (or so) at a time and see some of Europe. Adding the bonus of getting to see my family now that COVID has relented, and so too have the restrictions on travel, I would have everything I was hoping for in my retirement. I feel like I’m too old to return to the vagabondism of my youth.

In exactly 2 weeks I will leave for my fly fishing trip up to the Albanian Alps. Perhaps that will help to “re-align” my sense of being. Life here in Durres has been somewhat different. After the fiasco of the Dutch couple, I am happy to be alone, chatting with the young wait-staff here at Hemera. The weather is slowly beginning to turn warmer (72F today), and the breeze off the water keeps it from not getting too warm….yet. I really enjoy being out of my apartment and sitting under either the tiki umbrellas or cabana, and reading/writing. Sitting on my balcony is ok, but having the vista of the Adriatic has a bit of a freeing aspect to it. I’ve grown accustomed to the Albanian hip-hop that pumps out of the speakers. Sometimes, a little later, when I’m having dinner the music will change to Euro-versions of light-rock from the US. The good new is everything is very inexpensive; the money I have saved is going to where else?…the IRS! My cup of Macchiato costs $1.35, and dinner rarely costs me more than $10. This a much more affordable option than Scotland, where costs are tripled.

I’m pretty close to having explored nearly all that Durres has to offer in the way of history. The Museum of Archeology might be a possibility for one more visit. The one thing I have to say about Albania in general, is that it really doesn’t have anything in common with the Slavs who circle it entirely from the North and Northeast. To the South, the Greeks, who some contend are Slavic, share some similarities in culture, but the Albanians are a hybrid of mostly Mediterranean, Turkic, and Central Asian going for them. Genetically the Albanians are closer to the Greeks or even the Cypriots. The mixture of past cultures and religions is fascinating. There are mosques right next Christian churches, and Synagogues. As modern as it can feel here, there is still a sense off the Old World in the manner of their behavior. The children are well-behaved and the teen-agers seem hesitant to do anything that would embarrass themselves or their families. There is not a shred of “punky-ness” to any of the young people I have met and observed. I’m not sure I would come back. If I am not able to secure a residency visa, I don’t see traveling to another non-EU country next fall.

For the time being, I am going to relax, let all things happen the way they are going to happen, and roll with it. I believe it would be counter to what I have been practicing for the twenty-some years for me to start worrying about events and entities I can’t control. In a sense, I am admitting to fretting about the outcome of this latest application for a visa. I don’t like the fact that it got in the way of this trip. I have pledged to do better. I allowed the Dutch couple to get in my head, and I let it affect the way I treat people. It is all in the past now. I will enjoy the next two weeks here and welcome the change when it comes.

I’m particularly grateful that my dearest Ana has been hired at a law firm to do conflict analysis. It has been a tough row for her to hoe and she is doing very well now; I’m very proud of her for doing the work to get to this point in her life. My son Cezar and my future daughter-in-law continue to plan their wedding; date unkown as yet, but it will be a destination wedding. As a father, those two are always my concern, and especially now that I am not geographically close to them, I have to let them develop their own lives and traditions. I’m very proud of both of them; as proud as a father can be.

In the end, I think I have allowed myself to miss people that mean the most to me. It wasn’t this bad until a few weeks ago…when the “ennui cloud” gathered. It would appear that my European honeymoon is over and the realization has set in that I may have self-imposed an exile that I wasn’t mentally ready for. Spiritually it has been a challenge as well. In order to get past this, I’ll have to practice what I preach. In the future I will get a post out every Sunday, at the least. I appreciate you letting me think out loud. I am also very grateful to have you follow and send me your comments. Again, many thanks for reading…

Paradise Lost…For A Moment

It has been a few weeks since I posted last. I moved last Friday, April 8th, and the whole tenor of my trip has changed. I moved “up” the beach, to the North toward Durres. I am on the 1st floor in this apartment, and I have become more engaged in the beach-life and its goings-on. This end of the beach is a world away from where I was. I could see that much when I walked up here from my last apartment on the 9th floor. There is a vast array of “resto-cafes”, and they are busy from dawn past dusk. I have tried the bulk of them and have settled into a place named Hemera. It is a few meters from my apartment, and seems to be the place for foreigners to gravitate to. The staff, all younger men and women, speak English, Italian – among other languages. The biggest plus is that the wifi at this cafe is strong out to the cabanas on the beach.

I had only been here for a couple days last week, when I was talking to my friend Vlad from the above-photographed spot. After I had hung up, a lady and gentleman approached and asked if I was from the US, and I said yes. They said they were sitting nearby and heard me speaking English and wondered if they might join me. I assented, and introduced myself to Aneta and Ambroos. They are a retired couple from Rotterdam, The Netherlands. They are driving to Istanbul, Turkey for a long summer holiday. Up to this point, my conversation was with the young wait-staff – brief snippets of who we are and what we are doing. As of last Wednesday, we started meeting for coffee at 8am and dinner at 7pm. It was very nice to have this interaction with people my age. On Thursday last, we were joined by Elaina, a retired school-teacher from Greece. Elaina was staying only a few days on her way up to Slovenia to see her sister for Easter. We had topical conversations about our home countries, and I think that I peeved Aneta because I wasn’t quite into talking about it as she was. Ambroos and I shared many musical groups and enjoyed roughly the same spectrum. As our evening progressed, and they would continue to ingest a great deal of wine and beer, I would excuse myself…only to be berated by Aneta. She tried to be comic about it, and even with Ambroos trying to defray the situation, I felt like this wasn’t what it started out to be. Elaina joined me in departure, and said that she didn’t like the “personal nature” of Aneta’s barbs toward me. Elaina was in the next building down from me, so it was a no-brainer to make sure she got home safely.

In the 22 years of my sobriety, I’ve lost the “judgement factor” and pay very little attention to the way people drink, or even behave. At coffee on Friday morning, Elaina said she had some suspicions that the Dutch couple were hiding something. I demurely told her it was all in her head. We had a great conversation about what kids should be learning in this day and age; we waited for Aneta and Ambroos to appear for coffee and were not surprised that almost 2 hours had gone by when they happened to show up. We ordered more coffee and I could see that they were clearly hungover. I made no reference to the previous night, but did mention that it would be Elaina’s last night with us and that we should have a farewell dinner to see her off. Aneta, shaking and fidgeting said that she will mind her manners at this dinner and that she was foolish for her behavior toward me. Ambroos was mostly silent as he drank his espresso, and I thought it odd. Elaina and I bid them goodbye until later; she said that she would text me when she was on her way. She would stop at my building and we could go together. I really enjoyed her, as she was a 72 year-old fountain of knowledge; she knew her art and history. She loved country and western music and that was it. We got along well because we didn’t watch tv and hardly read the news. I like her civilized manner and calm demeanor.

Elaina was explaining why she never read American Literature as we were coming down the boardwalk (it is now brick pavers – but the locals call it “the boardwalk”). I looked down toward Hemera and saw a couple of policeman, and 2 people in handcuffs. I never averted my eyes as it looked like Aneta and Ambroos. They were starting to take them away and I waved at one of the policemen. He approached me and asked if I knew them. I said that we had been having coffee and dinner the last few nights…they seemed like good people. He said they were arrested for drug use, and possession. Elaina and I looked at each other in disbelief. She asked if I wouldn’t mind going into Durres for dinner. She didn’t want to sit in our place. She drove her car and talked about her son who had overdosed many years ago. He was her only child, and her foundation after she had divorced his father. “I understood why you didn’t drink with us at dinner, and I felt like I should have said something to Aneta when she was giving you a hard time”, Elaina’s vioce cracked, as we ordered another round of sodas. I told her I had become used to it, that I let people say what they want, and I let it go. I made some reference to her “intuition” as woman, about another woman, and maybe she was right. We finished dinner, at Aragosta – where I had lunch with Peter the Ambassador – and decided to end the evening with dessert at Hemera…on me.

Our last coffee together as Elaina would be leaving early on Saturday morning. “My waiter”, Kejdi, smiled and asked what he could get for us. He nodded and then told us what had happened with the Dutch couple. “They were here at around 16/16:30 and drank three bottles of wine and a few beers.” I told Klejdi that we were scheduled for a 19:00 dinner, and that’s when we saw the police. “Yes, at around 18:30 the lady started yelling at me and calling for my boss to make me bring more to drink…my boss asked her nicely to keep her voice down.” Klejdi is older than his 17 years, he graduates from high school one year early and will begin med-school. He works 7 days a week; from 3:30 to midnight on school days. He was a little embarrassed, but we pushed him to continue; Elaina said something to him in Greek, he laughed and responded in Greek…lost on me. “My boss told the lady that if she didn’t calm down, he would ask her to leave…she spit on him and called him bad names.” “When she started yelling at other customers, the boss called the police, and they had to fight them both to arrest them.” Klejdi’s face was red as he blushed to tell us that he doesn’t like violence. I told him it was all over now. “I saw you both talking to police, and then you left…I am glad you came back; the police came back after searching their room and told us they had hero -ine.” I re-pronounced heroin for him…as Elaina and I looked at each and almost fell off of our seats.

I walked Elaina over to her building, and with a kiss on both cheeks I bid her a safe trip. We exchanged email addresses and hope to stay in touch. “Thank god”, Elaina said while doing the sign-of-the-cross, “at least you were the one sane thing that happened while I was here”. I smiled and said something about how life works…whether we are at home or abroad.

Yesterday (Saturday), Klejdi came and sat for a moment in silence as he was still trying to sort out what had taken place the night before. “You know Klejdi, there isn’t anyway you could have known that last night was going to turn out that way…me neither.” I know he was still scared that they would have been more violent towards him. He reached out and shook my hand; “large cafe…crema no sheqer, I am getting it.”

It’s Easter Sunday now, and I have been fortunate enough to be on this end of the beach. I am far less isolated that the last place. I have had some nice meet-ups with very cool people, and I’ve met some people that teach me that I still have to watch how much of myself to reveal to them. Bledi, the owner of Hemera, said that the police are still going through the hotel room of the couple that were arrested and found more items that may put them in Albanian jail for quite some time. Bledi is the same age as my son, and equally as ambitious. He is a very nice kid. I will continue to sit and read and write there…a cup of coffee costs roughly $1.75, and I’m talking very good/high end coffee. I have Seafood Risotto that I can’t finish and costs $9. Most mornings after meditation and chant, I walk the length of the beach (6km round trip), and end up at Hemera for coffee. Back home for a light breakfast, and usually on the bus by 10:30 for a trip into Durres for a walk around (about 2/3 hrs.) and then back to the beach for a reading session in a cabana.

I wish all those observing Easter a blessed day. I thank all of you for following me. I will earnestly try to post more, but it has been pretty quiet, outside of the drama last week, things are very groovy here in the Balkans.

A Jump Ahead In Time, And Seaside Musings

It’s Sunday, 7 March, and we have “sprung ahead” here in Albania. Europe is behind the US, and has been since WWII. Albeit, they too have wrestled with the benefits and the ultimate scrapping of it, Europeans have polled overall to get rid off it. It hasn’t mattered to me one bit. I was still awake at 6:00am, my “internal clock” has clung to my usual work setting. For what seems like a countless age I had been arising at 3:50/4am every morning to chant and meditate before getting dressed and going off to work. “Sleeping in” on the weekends was limited to 5/5:30am, as I didn’t want to lose my edge, nor get “lazy”. The early morning would allow for peace and quiet before the rest of the house awakened on the weekend; it would grant me time to let the dogs out for the morning and greet the day outside of the house. Standing in the backyard of my former house, I was alone with the trees and the wind. That yard was a natural elixir to cure any ailment, and I garnered an immense joy from just standing, or sitting in it. As a matter of fact, I sat for the last time on December 5th, before leaving for the airport. My eyes lingered on every tree and bush, scanning everything in my surroundings like a sort of “mental MRI”. I shall not forget all of the memories made in that place. In coming posts, I may indulge myself and recall some of those memories, sweet or otherwise.

I was out onto the beach this morning at 7:30am. I strolled up the beach toward Durres for about a half hour, and found a seat on an unused hotel patio. The sand was all but deserted, and the sea was nearly glass: the waves came in low, lapping like soup in a bowl, and virtually noiseless. Normally by now there would be a steady stream of foot traffic, and this quiet may have been a result of the time change. At the time I returned on way back to my apartment, people were flowing onto the beach from the walkways that feed the shoreline. These small groups came down the wide gutters of the cobblestone path like ants being washed by rain onto the sand. I made breakfast and repaired to my ballkon to read and write, hence, this short dispatch.

The day has started out cloudy and somewhat cooler than previous. As I sit now it is 15C (59/60F) and won’t get much warmer. Without the sun, it will be like being in the Midwest during Spring. With my old fingers getting cold, I will take my cup of coffee back indoors and finish this note from there. Once inside, I recieved a call from my friend Ahni, and his timing is impeccable. We will go to a cafe to have dinner and watch the F1 race, as we had done last week. I was bouyant wtih a Ferrari 1 -2, and the food , along with his company, was excellent! Ahni and I had coffee at his place last evening, and got into a converstion about individualism, boomarked the discussion on a quiote from Nietzsche – “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. Our talk arose from his remark about the Chinese and their attempt at it (individualism). He had spent 10 years in China, working for a dot com corporation there. Aside from being fluent in Mandarin, he speaks 4 other languages…Albanian not counted. I spend most of my time by myself and to have the conversation with Ahni, and most mornings with Leo at the grocery store… it is nice to hear another human voice. I fell asleep last night with our conversation bouncing around in my head.

Sitting this morning and watching the cool water lap at the shoreline, I remebered my conversation last night with Ahni and the things we said as we cited various works we loved. I remembered my favorite quote: “The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events. He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him. In consequence he exists in a certain freshness which seems, if I may so, very desirable.” I first read this in 1979/80. I bought Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism” sometime during my during my first trip to work on Captiva Island and my first term at University of Georgia. I still have it, and it is in one of boxes stored in my apartment in Bratislava. The themes of the book have been (and continues to be) a guidepost for me.

Looking back at those moments growing up in Blue Island; my Father’s alcoholism, my Mother’s determination, and the near-rancor between my siblings and I… there was a deep need in me to find out why “this was happening to me”. I believed that I was a narcissist, and when I saw the title in a book store, I had to see what was what. In the end, it didn’t reveal any answers toward my own percieved “narcissism”, but it did put my inner compass on a stronger setting. I thought it would be “cool” to be this Marivaudian being. In practice it was nearly impossible, but I tried nonetheless. I tried throwing off my roots, and reconditioned myself to my working-class upbringing. Since the passing of my Grandfather Niles Errft in high school, I seceded from reilgion, thinking no “just god” would take away the man that meant the most to me. I held my own Father in contempt for his shortcomings, only to find in time that I would yield to my own inner demons and failings.

I would sputter and fall to earth, after nearly 20 years of my own alcohol and addiction-fueled refusal to recognize my connection to everyone around me. Now 22 years removed from that mental and spiritual face-plant, I am once agiain Poulet’s “pastless, futureless man”, in the mildest and least romantic sense. I find myself still connected to my past; those that I love and care about keep me tethered to it, and I do not pull on that gossamer thread. On this particular journey, there is an element of that “condition of breathlessness and dazzlement” that surrounds my awakening and discovery of this world beyond my known comforts. In relating this to Ahni last night, he thought it brilliant, which I shrugged off. It is imperative to remain on my “middle path”, practice humility, and gratitude. I am still beholden to Lasch for the greater awakening regarding my political and cultural awareness. As for now, it is in the role of observation and not adjuducator that feels best. I have finally come to this point: where I’m comfortable in my own skin; it’s okay to be alone, and to discover for myself what is being revealed to me about this existence of mine that seems to trouble, and challenge me at times.

On a last and more earthly note: I recieved news from a friend at Holy Sephulcre Cemetery, that one of our co-workers had passed on after an accident in the cemetery. Our friend Ralph was someone who is easy to eulogize. He was my mentor when I joined Catholic Cemeteries after retirement from George J. Roll. He showed me the ropes and showed me how to do many of the jobs there. He was a Navy vet, a father, grandfather, and a devoted husband…he was also active in his church and his VFW as well. I considered him one of the last “old school” guys. Ralph was a musician also, and we shared much in that respect. He and his wife Susan came to The Last Waltz in my backyard…one of many from the cemetery that came to see our band The Dharmic Wheels, play for the last time together. He fell out of a moving vehicle, and remained in a coma for some days. I have been asking for he and his family and friends. The world will be a different place without Ralph texting me his corny jokes, and photos of this season’s crew cleaning up for Spring. For once again, I am devastated, and find solace in the fact that Ralph was truly a unique man, who touched my life and helped me when I needed it most.

I appreciate you who allow me to indulge these moments of scattered notions. I am grateful for those that reply with comments, and I am always grateful for the texts and calls. I will write a more pointed post in the upcoming days…these are just my thoughs today, from the seaside. Please take care of each other. Thank you

Morning Session Above The Sea….Albania

It is Thursday 24 March, 2022. I have been here in Durres, Albania for almost 3 weeks. As with any new place, it took a bit of time to acclimate to the surroundings and the culture. I can say now with total conviction that I am glad I chose Albania. Aside from the near high-jacking I experienced on my ride from the airport, everyone I have come in contact with has been nothing short of warm, kind, and friendly. It is almost 11am here now, and since I have had my meditation/chant, a walk down the beach, and my 2nd cup of coffee…I will spend the rest of my day on my ballkon (Albanian for balcony..ok, you’ve got it). I want to dedicate this post to get some of my friends that aren’t quite familiar with where I am exactly. Albania, much like Slovakia, is not on everyone’s lips, and hasn’t been in the news for anything outstanding.

Albania,in relation to the Balkan Peninsula

As you can see, Albania rests NW of Greece, and directly across from the “bootheel” of Italy. It has a population of almost 3 million. It’s about the size of Maryland in the US. Albania’s biggest exports are footwear products, followed by crude oil, and ferroallys ( iron ore with other metals mixed in). The main trading partner is Italy, followed by Spain, Germany. and Greece. On some days, I can see as many as 5 or 6 ships come into the port of Durres from my ballkon here on the 9th floor. Durres is pronounced : Du-ruhs.

I have a fly-fishing rip planned for mid-May that will take me to the Northwest of the country near Montenegro… A six hour ride to Valbohne, into the Albanian Alps. We will then come back down Southwest into the Central Highlands and end up in Tirana. I will stay in Tirana for the rest of my trip as I will be leaving on june 5th/6th to fly back to Bratislava. By that date, I will have been out of the EU for 93/94 days. Staying in Tirana for my last week or so, will give me a good chance to see Peter, my friend the Slovak Ambassador to Albania.

Durres is the oldest city in what is now Albania. It was established by Corinthians from Corfu. They pushed the Illyrians out in 623 B.C.E.. The Illyrians would then push other tribes out and settle the inland regions of the Balkans. Their area would range from the coast of modern-day Croatia and east to Serbia. They would constitute what would become the Albanians of today. I have stated in previous posts about the tumultuous nature of this particular region. Durres itself would be ruled by (in order)…the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and the Ottomans. “Prior to the Ottoman conquest of Albania in the 15th century, the Albanian resistance to Ottoman expansion into Europe led by Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg won them acclaim over most of Europe. Albania remained under Ottoman rule for nearly five centuries, during which many Albanians (known as Arnauts) attained high-ranking offices in the empire, especially in the Southern Balkans and Egypt. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, cultural developments, widely attributed to Albanians having gathered both spiritual and intellectual strength, conclusively led to the Albanian Renaissance. After the defeat of the Ottomans in the Balkan Wars, the modern nation state of Albania declared independence in 1912.” [ taken from “A History Of The Balkan Cultures] I superimposed that last bit to save time.

As things sit now for Albania, they are next in line to join the EU. I for one, would applaud it. I think with an infusion of EU money, this country could be a force on the world stage. The Albanians I have come in contact with are independent and faithful to the idea that their country could overcome the past. It is a bit poor on the edges and they would benefit from involvement in the EU, if for the funding and not the overall politics. I had some trepidation about coming here for the reason that I thought “it was just another poor Balkan country with nothing to offer”; I have been astonished by what I have seen. Somehow they have kept the “old world” feel while becoming modern in many ways. I would happily return, if I my visa doesn’t come through this summer.

Although I have never though of myself as a “beach guy”, I am starting to dig the lifestyle. It is strange to sit in the sun on a 18C (64F) day and get absolutely scorched. The wind has been consistently out of the North, Northwest, and West; it is the only thing keeping me out of the water, which is still quite cold. I can’t imagine what it will be like here in there summer, although I am moving up the beach (north-ish, toward town) on April 8th and will be there until May 7th. I will be able to see what spring will foreshadow for early summer. The sun is beginning to come around to cover my ballkon and I will head in for a change of clothing. T-shirt and shorts will suit me better in this sun. I hope I cleared up any misconceptions about where I am. I thank you all for following me on this journey. I wish you well. Please, take care of each other

A Perfect Cup Of Coffee, Ruins, & Taxes

….On the balcony for morning coffee

Starting out the day yesterday, Saturday March 19th, I had a perfect cup of coffee. Little did I know that my trip into Durres would include a packed bus…both ways. I sat and read for a bit in the 50F weather. I think because the air is relatively “dry” here, the cool doesn’t go straight to my bones as in the Midwest. I had a small breakfast, and headed the block and a half to the bus stop. In the direct sunlight of the stop, I could feel the power of the sun.. I yanked off my fleece pullover and felt instantly better. I waited about 10 minutes for the bus, people-watching while sitting. It never ceases to amaze me the many different looks of the faces. I have mentioned this before, and I always see the constant change in this part of the Balkans. I see the old Slavic grandmas with their scarfs, waddling along with a three or four plastic bags hanging off of boths hands. I see people that look swarthy and wrinkled, ancestors of Greeks and Turks, having spent countless millenia in this unforgiving sun. In the end, I see many “European” Slavs, sporting lighter complexions and brown/blonde hair. All are the people that crammed onto the empty bus I boarded. I got on and payed my .40 leke to the “conductor”.

As we continued down Rruga Paravesia, the main street that runs from here to the centrum of Duress proper, we stopped at stations that had more people than room on the bus. Each stop fed more “sardines” into this tin-can-with-windows. I could feel the sweat rolling down my arm, as I clung to the strap above me. 15 minutes later we disgorged from the bus at the terminus – the centrum. Not one person got off between the last stop and our end in the centrum. I felt like my feet weren’t touching the floor of the bus, until I alit on the sidewalk and felt the cool breeze coming off the Adraitic. My round trip cost .80 leke, which on the exchange appears as .01 of a Euro. 1,000 lek (the Albanian currency) equals 8.10 Euro. The leke is their coinage. Speaking of money, I headed to an atm near the Roman Amphitheatre and withdrew…get this, 50,000LEK. That is 405Euro. The fee was 250LEK, 2.03Euro. I am really liking this choice. Albania has allowed me to save in leaps and bounds. Even with a planned fly-fishing trip in May. I am doing a little better than in Slovakia.

I turned from the atm and looked across the square and saw this wall that I had seen earlier on my travel to the Amphitheater. A policeman was standing nearby and I took a chance. He smiled as I approached him, his arms casually behind his back. I asked if he spoke English, and he said through his smile, “yes, of course”. I asked him what he knew about this part of the wall. I explained what I knew, and he replied that there wasn’t much add. “You know as much me”, he said still grinning. He asked where I was from, and when I told him Slovakia, he laughed and said that I had a strange accent for a Slovak. He nodded when I told him I am originally from the US. He tipped his hat and slowly walked away. I stood and marveled at the fact that this wall was even still in existence. It was standard for the early Bulgars, and later the Turks, to flatten everything in their path. Somehow, these walls were left to provide cover for their respective empires.

The one reason for this trip to town, beside money, was to find the Venetian Tower. I did; it was completely wrapped in scaffold and screening. A walk back into and through the wall pushed me to find the Byzantine Forum and the Roman Baths. The Baths were also wrapped in screening and scaffolds. Winding my way on senescent cobblestone, I found the Byzantine Forum.

The forum was built at the end of the 6th century. It is also known as the ” Market of Byzantium”. It was grand and there is speculation that it was never used as a marketplace, but set aside for the most formal and highest of ceremonies. It was built along with the harbor fortifications, during the reign of Emperor Anastasios (481-518). This was the portion of the Roman Empire that was known as the “Eastern Orthodox Church”. In late Rome, the church split in two. This section would be the basis for the church in the land of the “Eastern Slavs”, lasting another 1,000 years beyond the Western Church. This forum and the Amphitheater are some of the most intact and largest of the Roman antiquity in the Balkans.

On my travels back to the bus stop, I sat down at a cafe and had a biscuit and coffee. The street had quite a mixture of small kiosk-like stores right next to more modern-looking glass and steel shops. There was a Coach purse shop between two small newspaper/tobacco stands. Just one small window and a scad of items hanging on the front, and to the next, glass and chrome with designer clothing. People watching is the most pleasing; the “melting-pot’ aura is apparent and overwhelming.

I psyched myself up for the ride back to Rruga Brindisi, the street that leads to Rruga Venecia…my street. The bus stops right there, and is very convenient. As I was on at the beginning, I decided to take a seat. Again, after two or three stops, the bus was seeminly filled to capacity. Somehow the “sardines” packed in, with their shopping bags and luggage. I was relieved to slither through the crowd, four feet to the door, and land on Rruga Brindisi. I stopped at Market Shkodra, and picked up some food for the weekend, as I am planning on being home until at least Monday. I have lunch planned with Peter on Tuesday in Duress. I am sitting to do my taxes today (Sunday 20 March), and won’t go any further than the beach, or to see Leo and Thume’ at the grocery store.

Now, just sitting and waiting for the sun to come around and heat up my balcony, I’ll sit out here and do my taxes. It will be the first tme in my life that I have to physically do them. Either Romaine did them, or they were sent to an accountant friend. Dan Fogelberg is singing “Illinois” out of my bluetooth speaker, and a short wave of homesickness washes over me…now it’s gone. I am starting to feel much more comfortable in this skin that I have chosen. The more I see, the more open I become to the world that I live in. For all of it’s unkindness, brutality, and rancor – I feel the warmth of a people that I coouldn’t have concieved of meeting…even two years ago. I’m buoyed by the sight of this sea in front of me, always in a different color, or mood…but always an expanse of open emotion. I have to chuckle now as “There’s A Place In The World For A Gambler” is playing now. Fogelberg has always been good for my soul. I have taken a big gamble by leaving the comfort of my family and dear friends. Having played a few hands, I’ve lost a couple, and won a couple. I will continue to play and hope to learn more. I thank you all for following this travel of mine, and I wish you well. It’s tax time and I am going to get this out of my way. Please take of each other, and we will talk soon.

Thume’ and Ahni…New Friends and Past Thoughts

Today is 17 March, 2022. The 22nd anniversary of my sobriety. I had a notable meditation and chant this morning, and when I had finished, I reflected on where I was all those years ago…metaphorically speaking. I was tired of running, from myself and my lying. The sun and breeze here on the balcony bathed me in a newer sense of self…. with each day’s meditation, I am reworked into a sliver of a different person. I began to think about the growth, from those early days of sobriety, when I was still a child, and having matured into who I had become after 5 or 6 years. I certainly wouldn’t be here in this geographical location, had I not remained sober. Still flawed, and a little boy, in a few respects…it’s alright. I realized that I miss my friends and family, the connections that I made on cleaner – truer ground. A had become the person that I had been “mis-aiming” for. Without any steadfast guidance, I would revert back to that little boy who didn’t want to see what he had become. I am extremely grateful for those that supported me, my sponsor “Big Gare”, and the many “true” friends that I learned how to stay sober from.

On Wednesday past, I rode into Durres again and walked through the Old Town. This place, among countless others, is where our Western civilization incubated. The Greeks from Corinth colonized this flat plain on the Adriatic around the 7th century BCE. The port then was further developed by the Romans, and Durres became an integral and eesential part of the Empire. They even continued the Via Appia into the interior of the Balkan Peninsula – Via Egnatia; leading to Constantinople in the east. As a reult of where it is (as mentioned in an earlier blog), rhis city was was fought over by the Bulgarian, Venetian, and Ottoman conquerors. My niece Laura pointed out that a few more photos would be nice, and I will do my best to include the Venetian Towers, and other landmarks of the past.

Most mornings, I head down to Leo Grocery. It is a small beach store, that caters to the droves of tourists during season. It is still sparsely stocked, but that’s fine. I get small thngs from Leo and just up the street I go to Shkodra Market for meat,cheese, veggies, and fruit. Leo is a young guy that runs the store for his parents, and he has become a friend. He is quick to let me know how to navigate the area, what to look for, and how to blend in. He makes the best cup of Turkish coffee. To boot, he has indenialbly, the best cat around. Thume’ (Too-may) is a cat that thinks he’s a dog. While having conversation, and coffee, Thume’ either lays in my lap, or sits at the top of the steps. He know when I’m about to finish my coffee, and gets the last licks on the cup. He leans into me and purrs like a diesel engine. There are quite a few of loose dogs here in the neighborhood, but they don’t come too near the corner where the store is. Thume’ is a “certified bad-ass” in my book.

After coffee with Leo, and anyone that happens by, I head down to the beach. It is really about 20 meters (20/22 yards) and very close. I usually sit on an elevated patio that juts out onto the beach – unused as yet. I like to sit for a little while and watch the sea, the people, and then I will get up and walk for a half hour or so. I will stop again, and get a different perspective on the sea. It always looks blue, shimmering, and enchanting. Thume’ will come along, or show up a little after I get there. I will pet him and talk to him, while he purrs seemingly through a 100-watt amp. He will come around in front of me and lay on the sand at my feet, slowly going into another of his many cat-naps. The best thing to observe is the way the dogs behave when they see him. As I mentioned, there are many dogs that run loose around here, no threat – just the culture. As the dogs approach me, big or little doesn’t matter; they spot Thume’ and instantly veer off. Leo says that Thume’ means “small nail”. I suggested that his name should be “small hammer”. It is very cool the see the respect (or fear) that he commands from the bigger canines.

While we were having coffee yesterday, a fellow came to shop and sat with us on the porch for coffee. He was a gregarious, and happy fellow. His name is Ahni. It turns out that he lives in the building that I am staying in. He is back in Albania after nearly 10 years in China. He speaks Mandarin, among 4/5 other languages. We will all meet today for coffee in a little bit (it’s 9:30 here now…3:30 in Chicago/US). We don’t swing to Daylight Savings until the end of March. I have no idea why, so for now I’m only 6 hours ahead of you all back home (at least the Midwest). Tomorrow I will move to the “big apartment” that I originally rented. Due to a scheduling mix-up I ended in this studio that I am currently occupying. I really like it here, now that it is warm enough to be out on my balcony, even though I can hardly see the water…on the backside of the building. So then I will be on the sea-side and will have better photos to share. I promised Laura more photos.

I walked through this gate a few times, because I’m a history geek that way, and because it felt somewhat symbolic for me. It is important to me to connect with my history on this foray into a world unkown to me. “My history” is a history observed as a human being. I’ve said in the past that “we are spiritual beings having a human experience..not the other way around”. I believe that statement to be true, and I often cite my dear friend Sean O’keefe for putting that mantra in my head. There has been a greater development in my study of the past, as I have become more of a Macro-historian than a study in any specific period or movement in time. I am becoming more aware of the “folly of being human”; complete with our character flaws and also the built-in strengths of the human species. It is odd that I started out on this trip to “kill some time” and now have become active in seeking the history around me. There is an obelisk, or statue to see nearby. I will maybe walk out and find it today. I had a nice Whatsapp-facetime with my friend Peter S., the Slovak Ambassador the other night. I will join him for lunch next Tuesday in Durres. The hotel he chose seems a tad out of my milieu, I’m still not quite hoi-polloi yet; given some time it could change…just “hoi” is ok with me. Until my next post, sometime this weekend, I am thankful for those who are following me and wish you well. Please take of each other.

Out and About…Discovery (Self & Otherwise)

It’s Monday, 14/March and I finally ventured past my “little world” here on RRuga Venecia. I have, until today, only walked the beach North to the end. I have also walked parallel up the RRuga Pavaresia, the “main street” that connects into the city centrum of Durres. I paid the equivalent of .01 of Euro for the round trip bus ride. The cost came out to be .40 leke one way… it doesn’t even show up on the exchange rate. At .80 leke, the exchange is .01 Euro. It becomes even more apparent how de-valued the Lek is when I eat dinner out. I have only done it a couple times. I had a full dinner, with Calamari, soup, salad, and bread, with sparkling water. The total cost was 10 Euro! My waiter, Franck, would not take a tip, it is included in the VAT (Value Added Tax). The hardest aspect of going from “American” to “European” is the fact that tipping is frowned upon. Franck told me that it is a nice gesture, but unnecessary. His service is second to none, and I am driven to give extra.

The bus ride was a total trip. I believe it’s Spring Break because the whole area is jammed with kids of all ages. The weather has a good deal to do with this too. Today was nearly 16C (60F) and it felt much warmer. I had my jacket off and I was still warm in a fleece pullover. I think once we get into the 70’s (F), it will be outstanding. I can feel the heat of the sun through the cool breeze coming off the Adriatik. Here it is spelled with a “k” at the end.

Looking at the faces on the bus, and on the street in Durres, I can see the mix of this “Balkan Crossroad”, Some people had features that were expressly Turkic, some appeared even darker…in a classic Greek/Italian look, and yet others, were fair-skinned and had light-brown or blonde hair. As I understand it, nearly 60% are Islamic in belief, 17% identify as Christian, and 24% are undeclared/no religion. As I walked past the mosque in town on my way to the Amphitheatre, it didn’t seem like there were many women in hijabs. I am not sure what the fundamental population is, but it seems very laid back here.

Asking for directions, everyone was eager to speak English. I stopped at a cafe and had schnitzel (really a hot dog) and was content to just sit and people watch for a bit. This land has changed hands many, many times over the course of its history, and it can be seen and heard; I could make out Italian, and Greek spoken…along with Albanian. The kids are very well-behaved, and some that I talked to were funny, but not overly silly. I found it refreshing. Overall, I spent about 3 1/2 hours walking around Durres, actually in search of some chewing tobacco. I stumbled upon a tabacchino shop in a pretty ritzy section, nearest to the high-end international hotels. The ladies there were excited to speak English, and had what I had been searching for. We spoke for quite a bit; I was invited to a cup of Turkish Coffee. They were of Serbian descent and grew up here, taking over the store from their father after he passed. When asked what I was here for, they thought I was making the right decision to live in Europe. The sisters have been to the US and think that the quality of life here is much better. They are happy with the prospect of Albania joining the EU. As I called out all 7 of the civilisations that overcame Albania, they couldn’t believe that an American would know these facts. I laughed and told them that I became bored with 3/400 years of US history and looked to Europe when I was very young. For the record: 1) Illyrians, 2) Thracians, 3) Greeks, 4) Romans, 5) Byzantines, 6) Venetians, and 7) The Ottomans.

As I walked away from the oldest part of Durres, I realized how easy it was to get here. The weather will be much the same tomorrow, and I am coming back. I will get off the bus earlier and walk the length of the beach back to my neighborhood. I’m sitting on my patio now, watching the night fall. Listening to a little Roxy Music, and having my last coffee for the day. For someone like me to be as close as I am to history, real history….it is just beyond fascinating. My experience with US history has always pushed to me to see where it came from. All history is circular, and what we live through now, is no more than the same play with different actors. There is very little talk here of Ukraine, but those that I talk to are feeling for the Ukrainians. Thirty years ago these very same people were faced with an unknown future. Now, they see that with Ukraine. It was able to throw off the Soviet past and lift theeir chins to the sky. The Albanians are determined to have that chance (admittance to the EU), and not let anyone take it away from them. I enjoyed talking to the ladies in the shop, and thought about how happy these faces were as I passed them on the street.

My step was sure yet light as I got off the bus. There is familiarity here at my stop. I am still always looking, and careful to not get too complacent. I am still a stranger in a strange land. It is the exact sense of self I had when I left the US. This is all still new, and not quite comfortable, and that’s okay. When I got on the plane at O’Hare on the 6th of December, I knew there wasn’t going to be a real “comfort zone” for some time to come…and that was all right with me. Looking out at the snow-capped mountains from my balcony, I have to look at the “constants”. Those “constants” will always be to accept, be open, and learn as much as I can. Bratislava was steady, and I inherently knew what was next; here I have to create that “next”. I send you all my love, thank you deeply for following me, and hope to see you soon. I’ll post again when I have something to share…until then – take care of each other.

Zero Isn’t “That Bad”….In The Sunshine

I had to meet my friend Leo this morning, and since he was late opening his shop, I decided to sit on the beach. Looking out from here the Adriatic is placid compared to the last week; storms seemed to bellow directly from the West and the surf was fierce. At the time (9am) it is 0C (32F), but with no wind for the first day in a week – it was perfect. The air is crisp, but the sun is warm. Tomorrow will be the same – 11C (51F) in the end. By Weds/Thurs we will be edging into the high teens, and will reach almost 70F (20C). I wanted to post so that everyone knew that I was still ok. This will be a short note, to shore up my absence last week.

Leo has explained what bus to take, and where to go. After my experience last Saturday with the cab driver, I have been taking my time getting to know people. Ohan is a musician that lives below me in the building on Rruga Venecia. We chat lightly when we see each other. I am taking my time getting to know Leo, he seems like a sincere fellow. He is beginning to outfit his store for the beach season that will begin in May. I came down the street to meet him at 9am to see what time he was going into the city center. After ribbing him about getting up on time, we talked about time for a trip into Durres. Even though he doesn’t have everything I need, I would rather go to his market for the necessities. As he nears the season, he will begin to carry the full deli, and produce that carries him through the late Spring, Summer, and early Fall.

I am very surprised by the fact that nearly everyone I have spoken to speaks English in return. I have to believe that it is due to this being a resort town. Leo says that a lot of his customers, and guests that occupy the surrounding hotels and houses, are in fact Italians. I guess it is cheaper for them here than at their own seaside resorts. Leo speaks fluent Italian, Greek and English, besides Albanian. I’ve been working on my Slovak during this downtime keeping me indoors, beside working on my own paper.

The mountains in the surrounding area have snow on them for most of the winter and they seem to be shedding it now. I’m happy to be on my patio. Although it’s on the back of the building, I can feel the warmth of the sun. On Friday, I will move to the front of the building, facing the Adriatic. Now that the weather has turned for the better, I am going to strike out to find the combined histories of the Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans…along with a host of others. I wasn’t surprised to know that almost 60% of Albanians identify as Muslim, and nearly 20% identify as Christian. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I haven’t seen any overt signs of fundamentalism. The vast majority of elderly men and women I have encountered on my short walks smile and nod as we walk past. At this point in my travel, I have written off my initial experience of nearly getting hijacked, for a better experience overall. I know that it happened because I wasn’t paying attention, it is a good thing I realized what was happening and got out of that situation. I have moved on and I have to say that Albania has been a good choice so far. I am currently working with a service to fly fish in the northern and central mountains. It is very affordable, and will allow me a chance to see the “natural” aspect of Albania, before I head to Tirana and spend some time with Petr. I will have the whole of April here in Durres, and will most likely do my fishing trip in May.

I will send another post tomorrow, after a hike down the beach into the city center…either that or a bus ride into town. I battled a vicious head cold and feel 100% better. I think the sunshine and fresh air will help put me over the top. It’s almost Noon, and I’ll have a little bite to eat and head back out. This is much easier than being cooped up from the driving rain and wind-tunnel blasts from the Adriatic. Until then, thank you for following me, please be well, and take care of each other.

A Hard Landing, A Bounce, And A Lesson Well-Learned

When I closed the door behind me, and started down Grosslingova, I thought to myself, “well, into the great unknown”. Little did I know that all the “due diligence” I did in the weeks leading up to this trip to Albania really didn’t prepare me for an error due to my nature. I waddled over to Nivy, a shiny new shopping mall that I go to, as it is only a 3-4 block walk. Underneath Nivy the Slovaks built a shiny, new bus station. I made the wise decision to walk over on Friday and buy my ticket for my trip to Vienna airport on Saturday. I was sitting and waiting to board the bus and the people in line, including some Ukrainians (I could tell by the Blue and Gold clothing) were turned away. The seats were sold out. The trip was easy, ..always. The bus was stopped on a pull-out and Austrian Soldiers and Polizei were checking passports. No problems, and we continued on.

The airport was another complete story. I reminded myself to not ever fly on the weekend again. Added to the mad crush was what is going on to the East. I managed to get my bag checked in and realized the long lines were for people going to Germany, Spain, Italy, and France. The airline counters for their respective airlines were hardly visible for all the bodies lined up to go West. I sat at my gate reading a New York Times, the first English-language paper I’d been able to find since my arrival in early December. I was nearly giddy with excitement at being able to do a crossword puzzle on paper. The waiting area around the gate looked like a pre-school. I knew what to expect on the plane. I was hoping we would have a very quick flight to Tirana. I returned to the paper and didn’t give it another thought.

Our flight left Vienna on time. I don’t know what it is with some Eastern Europeans; they just don’t like to follow the rules. A few people were talking loudly on the phone, and our stewardesses were giving the speech about “all elctronic devices off”…these people had to be threatened with being kicked off the flight in order to comply. As we bolted down the runway, the toddlers started crying and fussing. That ignited the fire. I don’t think there was an under-4 year-old that was quiet. I just kept meditiating through it. This was not about me; maybe their ears were affected by the change in altitude.. mine were. After a while, they seemed to engage in some kind of bawling relay-race. a few would stop, and another couple would take up the baton and weep another lap. It was mixed in with the same people yelling into their phones. I turned to look at the young man next to me and he rolled his eyes. He asked what brought me to this “flying Hades”. I could tell by his accent he might have been French. I told him I was heading to Albania to cool my heels for 90 days…per the EU. He was heading to North Macedonia from Tirana, to help with the refugees from the Middle East. He was with Croix-Rouge Francais – the French Red Cross. He said that this flight was nothing. On a flight from Africa (he didn’t say where), there were two fights, babies screaming, people on their phones fro start to finish, and general unruliness. He is going to do his time in North Macedonia and go back to Normandy and work for his father. He has had enough of “seeing the world”. He was 28 and had been doing this since he graduated from University at 21. I told him a bit of my story, he applauded me, wished me good luck, and then somehow dozed off to sleep with the full infant symphony raging at “11”.

Coming down through the clouds into Albania and a steady rain was pretty underwhelming. Looking out of the window, I saw a rocky, muddy, and water-logged land below. I don’t think the pilot had planned on it, but he landed with a fair bit of jolt. He came on the PA and apologized, made the staff aware to check up on us as we taxied to the tiniest “International Airport” I think I may possibly see. A steady, driving rain kept up as we went from the buses on the tarmac (no jetways in most of Europe) to passport control. I was asked two questions, answered politely, and got the stamp without the sentry even looking any more than to see my face when I pulled down my mask. The atms were out, so I headed for the exchange desk, expecting to get fleeced on the remaing 50 Euro I had. I was given 6,000 Albanian Lek for the 50 Euro. 10 Euro equals a little more than 1,200 Lek. I had enough to at least take the bus to Durres..one way – 2,000 Lek/17 Euro.

I asked where to find the bus to Durres and was told to the right outside the sliding doors. Exiting the airport and turning to my right, I saw 5/6 buses, and of course the bus for Duress was the only bus with a line to the door…right in front of me. I relaxed and thought that I was still ok; I knew where to take the bus to to get to my apartment, all I had to do was get on the bus. Just then, a short, older man comes up and asks where I’m going. “Durres” was my reply. “I can take you there, no problem…bus is no good” I asked him how much. “35 Lek” was his response. I looked at him and said that “35 Lek is not much”. He replyed that he was headed that way and would gladly take me for “35 Lek”.

I waited as he pulled up in a muddy Mercedes wagon, lifted the back hatch and I threw my bag inside. We headed out of the airport and after passing police directing traffic, he declared that masks were no longer necessary. We talked for a bit and I told him the address. “Ok..I know where”. “Cool”, I thought..this was easy, but I was still not quite good with his motives. Driving on into Durres was eye-opening, to say the least. I put away any “Western pretensions” about how others lived, what was “normal”, and the obviious difference in cultures. The “main street” was a bumpy, muddy flat area. To call it a street would be an affront to paved streets anywhere in the world. Although, the glaring difference was in the buildings. There were some that shone like South Beach Art Deco treasures, while (in most cases) right next door were two or three naked hulls of buildings. Either a state of dilapidation, or development would be the best way to describe it.

Along the way, my driver would excuse himself and get out to ask directions; looking around, I didn’t see any street-signs or addresses on buildings. At this point, I was beginning to get a little on edge…added to the fact that I still wasn’t able to get in touch with my host. My European phone wasn’t getting through to him and I decided to turn on my iPhone and pay through the nose for data. Still nothing. As we winded through neighborhoods that looked fresh from the Balkan Wars, I was becoming a bit more anxious; everytime my driver stopped for directions, he would announce that I was American from Slovakia and no judgement, some of the characters looked a bit…unsavory. With each direction stop (5 up to this point) we headed in a different direction. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a big beautiful hotel. “Go there!”, I told the driver. He turned into the driveway, and as we approached the guardhouse, I told him to tell the guard I had a room there for the night.

We pulled up to a grand staircase, and standing there was Ali. Head to toe, he looked imposing with sharp black and white outfit. I jumped out and he saw the stress on my face. “Good afternoon Sir, how can I help?” I asked if he had a room, and he walked past me and took my duffel bag out of the back, and after waving the driver off asked me to follow him. I turned and gave the driver 3,000 Lek, I knew to be about 25 Euro…not the “35” we agreed on. He had a befuddled and distracted look on his face. Entering behind Ali (he introduced himself as he pointed to his nametag), the young ladies at the desk stood and asked if I had a reservation. Ali said something to them in Albanian, and they told me that they would take care of me right away. I looked to Ali and thanked him, noticing that the driver was still behind me. I turned and said, “Thank you”. He said something to Ali, who was not happy with him. Pulling money out of his pocket, Ali gave him a 10 Euro note, and sent him away with a curt Albanian wave.

I had landed in a 5-star hotel and it was beautiful. The room cost me 68 euro, plus the 10 that I owed Ali. I thanked the girls profusely and Ali bade me to follow him to the elevator. He slung my 80 pound duffel over his shoulder like a bad loaf of bread. In the elevator he sked me twice if I was alright. I assured him that NOW I was. “I am sorry…this man does not represent the best that Albania has to offer. It was smart that you came here.” “Ali you are a good man”, was all I could muster after telling him what had happened. “Opening the door to my room and turning on the lights, he allowed me to walk by, and he closed the door a little behind him. “I hope you will have a better trip from here on in”, reaching into his vest pocket, he handed me his card. “I am at your disposal, even after your stay here is finished..I work the second shift, he said calmly. I told him that I owed him at least a couple beers on his off-time. “You’ve paid me back already, I am glad to help.” He left and I fell on the bed after getting out of my shoes. I thought about how lucky I was and that from here on in, I was going to work against myself, and be a little less trusting – following my gut.

I was able to contact my host, Bledar; he was extremely apologetic and wanted to pay me back for the hotel room…I refused. As it turned out I was only about 50 meters (50 yards) away from my apartment. Yesterday morning I walked down the beach, met Bledar’s Sister and she showed me the building. We would have never found it on Saturday. There are no addresses, only building names. My building is still under construction, hence the low cost of my stay. Once inside the building, it was a different story…polished marble and sleek, clean lines. My apartment is beautiful. I will move around to the sea-facing side (it was rented when I booked), and I will be here until the middle of April. All in all it has been an adventure. I still consider myself very lucky. I’m looking forward to the weather improving (pouring rain now/ 41F), and possibly a fly fishing trip to the mountains in the Northern mountains. Until my next post, please take care of each other. Thank you for following me.