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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have said many times that I am “walking backward” into this chapter of my life. I decided to turn around and to look where I’m going. The photo above is not only precious, but it it typifies the look of wide-eyed innocence that I am wearing. I think it also has a certain “okay…what’s next” feel about it. I was lauded for this move during the pandemic, now I also have a war going on in my front yard. I leave for Albania this coming Saturday, and my friends here are bewildered as to why now. When I try to explain the EU rules, they just shake their heads, they proclaim how foolish it is that I am “forced” to travel during these times. I will remain intrepid in my pursuit of following the rules. My residency visa is in, and my “super sisters” Olinka and Danka are going to do everything to help me remain in Slovakia upon my return. From 5 March, until 5 June, I will have been out of the EU for 92 days – plus/minus a day.
Tonight was my last night at Zlaty Jelen (Golden Deer). Vlado made Goulash with knedlou (a bread-like dumpling). It was out of this world! The meat was Stag flank and it melted in my mouth. The paprika and spices put just enough heat in it that kept my interest on my plate and out of the conversation for a bit.
The conversation of course centered on the event taking place to the East – Vychod. There was every viewpoint on the spectrum; from Putin is crazy, to the US is crazy, and everything in between. When it came to me, they all turned and waited for my perspective. “I don’t care who is right, nor who is wrong – killing is killing, and it should be avoided at all costs”. Once it was translated for the non-English speakers, they raised their glasses and as a group solemnly said, “Boh ti zehnaj” (Bo- tee shu-n-eye)…God bless you. I mentioned in a prior post that there is no easy answer here. Central/Eastern Europe has one of the MOST complicated histories on the planet. World War One did nothing to help by drawing “artificial borders”, attempting to establish territories along ethno-linguistic and cultural similarities. Looking at a map that represents those particular groups with a color, you would swear it was an abstract painting…colors thrown together slap-dash and bric-a-brac; co-mingling, yet highlighting the color(s) in its edges.
I was lucky enough to be sitting next Emilko (eh-milko), a former director of the Slovak National Dance Theatre, and he began to tell me how his Grandmother was actually buried in Ukraine, even though she was a Ruthene from what was considered the “Upper Kingdom” of Hungary, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Ruthenes were spread out along a north-south axis from the Baltic in the North, into the Carpathians to the South. They too are Slavs; originating from the Kievan Rus and other tribes in the area of Belarus, and Ukraine. I shared my story with him about the fluid border between Poland and the North of Slovakia; Orava – where my Grandmother was born. There are no easy answers, only hard questions. I have been absent from the news pages simply because there is very little reliable information based on fact. It’s all spin.
What is fact is that the Ukrainians are here. I waited on my own sidewalk for them to pass. The first gentleman smiled and said “Dobre vecer” (vetch-eer)…which is “good evening”. I smiled as warmly as I could and said “Vitajte” (Vi-tie-teeuh)…”welcome”. It was about 2 dozen people in all, not counting a small gaggle of kids. I felt so glad that these kids made it, and I tried to think of anything else but how it would be for the children, and adults/elderly, who couldn’t get out. There are a great many buildings on Grosslingova here that are used for Airbnb, and I was sure they were going to one of them. Our buildings are full up. My friend Vlad has every apartment rented through the next few weeks. After I leave, so will mine…on Saturday night.
I am looking forward to Albania; I will walking forward with eyes wide open. I received an e-mail from our friend – the Ambassador to Albania and he will still be here in Bratislava when I land in Tirana. He wants me to reach out to him on the 8th or 9th to touch base with him…so he knows where I am. It’s good to have good friends. Without my connections, I believe I would be a “fish out of water” by this point in my stay. I am grateful…and humbled. I could very well be on a plane headed back to the US on Saturday. I am just getting started on my “Plan A”. I am excited about a journey even deeper into history…The Greek, The Romans, The Persians, and The Ottomans. So, like Mason and Penny, my eyes will be forward-facing and I will keep an open mind. I am focused on keeping an innocence about me, and be ready to re-adjust at a moments notice.
This is my last post as I have a full week planned, packing, cleaning my apartment…etc. I thank you all for following these humble missives. Let’s all keep in mind how lucky we are to be comfortable, and well fed…clothed and housed. Be good to each other and I will write you all soon. Please take care of yourselves
Yesterday I was asked several times, out of concern, whether I was ok. I am fine…we are fine here in Slovensko. The actions and paranoia of one man has led to terror, confusion, and lives lost. I am posting this to let everyone know that I will be ok. If I can allow myself any thought to me…it will be that I can fly to Albania next Saturday the 5th of March. I haven’t seen anything on Austrian Airlines website that says they aren’t flying; yet.
I have been reading some of the news from the west, and I want to clear up some confusion. History tells us that this an action by Putin to set up a clear border to the west, against NATO and its functions. Kiyv is the capital of Ukraine, and one of the “cradles of Russia”. It is historically where the Viking Oleg set up Kievan Rus in 882. He united the Slavic and Finnish tribes. It wouldn’t be but another 400 years that the consolidated power that held sway ( and wavered at times) came to an end with the Mongol incursions into the west in the 13th century. Eventually the Kyivan Rus heartland would be supplanted by the strength of the Muscovite (Moscow) boyars (counts) after power had moved from Kyiv to Novgorad and then to Moscow…owing to the boyars “accomodating the Khanate from the east”. There are countless factors that led to the shift in the seat of power. The fact of the matter is that the Ukraine is the birthplace of what was to become the eventual state of Russia.
The country’s struggle against Russian authoritarianism is not new. In fact, Ukraine has been developing a political culture centered around rights and against tyranny for centuries. In the Middle Ages, Kyivan Rus’ was a pluralistic political entity organized around multiple centers of influence of city-states, without a single tyrannical ruler. In the early modern period, the Ukrainian Cossack polity formed a model of republican politics and contractual idea of the state different from the rising Muscovite authoritarianism. In the 19th century, Ukrainian intellectuals developed an idea of bottom-up politics focused on autonomous communities (hromadas), against tsarist autocracy. And in the 20th century, the Ukrainian version of socialism was oriented towards European models of cooperative economics and emancipation of peasants and workers, rather than the Russian model of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Cite: Ukraine’s Past Is Present – Yermolenko
Over the preceding centuries, the Romanovs gained a vast territory, through military conquest, suppression of any opposition, and denial of basic freedoms (sufferage,self-determination…etc). After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the situation with Ukraine became a great issue. I would urge anyone who has even a fleeting interest in what has lead up to this point to look at a source that is an “objective history”, and I don’t suggest you look at any modern media for answers. Look at the history and decide for yourself. There has been a great deal said in the last few days that is patently fals
If you want to understand the zeitgeist of this period, you must look back and see what horrors that have been perpetrated against Ukraininas, like the Holodomor, for instance. Putin is doing what every other iron-fisted dictator has done; he is denying history, succumbing to his own paranoia that his once powerful country (Soviet Union) has become a footnote from the past, and most importantly – he is displaying a lack of sanity. I am happy to see photos of Russians in their streets, protesting against this vile activity by Putin.
I appreciate all of your concerns and don’t mind being inundated with calls and texts. I am posting this to let you know that I am fine..we are fine. The Slovaks seem to think that Putin witll stop at Ukraine and secure his western flank for now…for now. Until then, we are preparing to accept the refugees flowing through our eastern border. I will keep you all posted (no pun intended) and I thank you for your love and support
Today I attended my first Slovak funeral. Pavo Dubcek (Doob-check) passed last Friday, and I didn’t know until Prof. Homza sent an SMS to tell me on Sunday. I hit me a bit harder than I expected, especially when I walked into Zlaty Jelen last night. He wasn’t there. Pavo was one of the first people I was introduced to on my visit to our Tuesday night dinners. He was nothing but warm and welcoming. When I explained to him why I was here, he became very excited. He hugged me and told me that I had to stay here at “home”. He was always very animated and happy to see me, using words like “bratko Amiericansky” (American brother), and “moj najlepsi imigrant” ( my favorite/best immigrant).
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I would learn that he was the son of Alexander Dubcek. I just about dropped where I was standing. Alexander Dubcek was part of the Prague Spring in 1968. He tried to stand up to the Soviets and “put a human face on Socialism”. Needless to say, he was “recalled to Moscow” after Stalinist voices in the party, and the Soviets feared that a free society would move Czechoslovakia away from the Warsaw Pact. The movement was quashed by an invasion of other Warsaw Pact forces. Mr. Dubcek asked that the Czechoslovaks not resist, knowing it would turn into a “senseless bloodbath”. The next day, he and other Communist Party officials were flown to Moscow.
One Pavo came over with glasses and his perfunctory bottle of cognac, sat down, and asked me to tell him what was wrong with the US. I told him that there was not enough time, he replied,”there is more time than liquor…let’s get started”. We both laughted and I had to decline, as I was telling him I was nearly 22-years sober, at which point he drank both glasses and signalled for another mug of Kofola (soda) for me. We had a stream of laughs as I was telling him about how things were going in the US. It was quiet for a moment and I asked about his father and the history surrounding such a big moment in our past. He deflected and said that his father was doing what my dad did. “Your father built bridges of his own free will…my father had to fight to build them”. I could tell that he wanted to talk about anything else, so we changed the subject to how he liked the US when he traveled to it in the early 2000’s. His English was very good, and his descriptions of Pittburgh and Cleveland had me in stitches.
I saw him last, a week ago and we having fun at the sake of Anton. He is a surgeon, like Pavo. Pavo was kidding him and telling him that his surgical work reminds him of his dog’s veteranarian. Anton told Pavo that he would do better in a deli because his hands were so poor. And so it went for the better part of an hour; I was pulled away into another conversation, and when I looked down the table, they are leaning on each other singing.
That was Pavo to me. He was a bright soul and always had a warmth about him that was genuine. I had only known him for nearly 3 months, but he represented the good things about the Slovaks that appealed to me immediately. Since, I have met people in this group who are willing to help me with my visa search, exchanged phone numbers, and routinely call/text to see how I am doing. It is going to be very easy to stay, learn the language, and assimilate into this culture, with friends like the ones that I have. I will always remember the tall (at least 6′ 7″), and smiling figure that started sentences with, “my friend”….Rest in Peace Palo! I have another post planned for the next couple days. Until then, I wish you all well. I encourage you to comment. Above it all, please take care of yourselves
When I walk into the Stare Mesto, my usual entrance is through the Laurinc Gate – or “Strana”. It is also referred as “Laurinska Gate”. At one time there were four gates. Laurinc (East), Michael’s (North), Vydrica (West), and later “Fisherman’s Gate” (South). The first 3 gates were started in the 13th century and the city would have these 3 until the Fisherman’s was added in the 15th century on the South side of the fortificatio. This was a much smaller gate and controlled the entrance from the Danube river. On my walks with martin (Prof. Homza), we are quick to remember how close the river was to this older part of the city. At this point of the Danube, the river runs almost East to West. Bratislava sits on the North (or left) bank. In the following blogs, I will show the others, approximately, as the only remaining gate is the Michael’s.
Although the Michael’s gate has some interesting architecture, my path is always in from the east-most, since I live just to the east. I love this walk in; on most mornings there are no human bodies. It is very quiet and these wonderful “palacs”, or palaces are mine to scour with my eyes.
The palace of the Pallfy family seen in the photos above are numerous, and spread throughout the town. In subsequent posts I will show a few more. They were a very powerful family and garnered many titles, along with property, and castles in the “Upper Kingdom”. There are many names for this portion of the Hungarian territory. It woould become this polity when it was given back to Hungary by Poland in the 12th century. The photo contains just one of the many of these Palffy properties.
I encounter markers like this on all my treks. I will make an effort to get a few more. The best that I can tell, Franz Liszt gave a concert in this building as a nine-year-old. I know also, of another building that Mozart gave a concert as a child; I have to remember where I saw it when I was here in2017. I will find it.
As I walk closer to St. Martin’s Cathedral, the buildings that housed palaces, and apartments of the nobles become more ornate. Between 1563 and 1830, the Gothic/Romanesque church served as the coronation site for Hungarian Kings. Ten kings, one queen, and seven royal wives from the Hapsburg Dynasty were crowned in St. Martin’s. I would really like to include a photo of the spire; it is topped with a gold crown that is really a sight in a sunny day. This gold crown marks the 250+ years of the coronations. The buildings closest to the church are where the nobles of the highest rank stayed during the coronations, celebrations that would take place over many days. The history of the cathedral, and the surrounding western portion of the old town require more time to tell their tales. I will try to divulge their secrets as they become better-known to me. There is a great deal to know in this small space.
In 1775, by order of Maria Theresa, the medeival fortifications and gates were demolished. By the 18th/ early19th century, there was not much left but shards and short-runs of the bastions and redoubts built to hold off all takers….the Ottomans (Turks) would hold on to some of these bastions for quite some time.
The Old Town has done a good job at re-inventing itself. Of course, there are Burger King and Mcdonalds for the tourists, but all in all this space seems to hold on to its past. Unlike the US, there are statues here to conquerers and conquered…subjugators and the emancipated. There is a distinct lack of cancellation to the past. I am reminded of this as I stroll past a statue of a Magyar (Hungarian) soldier on the tips of his toes, bayonet at a thrust and body tense-cast in bronze. Exiting through “my gate”, I walk back into the present, with a John Cale song spinning around my wool-encased noodle. Into the modern world with a cognizant disdain for things we don’t understand. It’s 3pm now and I know that everyone back in the US is just getting up and I anticipate more calls about my safety and “the Ukraine situation”. As I think about all of the things I have to pick up at the store, I smile and realize that my statement last Tuesday night holds true. History is and will remain more complex than science. Nothing about history can be understood with math, data, and/or eequations. It has to be experienced – seen, touched, heard, and felt in the heart. That is THE gate to understanding. Listening to Cale right now and boy is it nice. Until next time…be well and take care of each other.