Apollonian Rhapsody

I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go of small cities no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today, and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.

There are two kinds of roads: Those where you have to wait for goat herds, and those where you don't. Albanian roads are among the former.

No buses or trains go there from the Montenegrin capital, and if you do take a bus that goes through Albania to Greece or some further destination, it will not stop anywhere along the road, but remains sealed as if quarantined. I took a cab from Podgorica up over the hills around Lake Skadar, and walked from the exit station into Albania. A red Mercedes drove up while the guard was checking my passport. A guy got out and handed over his wallet. He talked to the guard, who pointed at me and said, "Shkodra?" I said yes that was where I was headed. The guard pointed me toward the Mercedes.

The driver looked like Robert Forster. His plaid shirt had the sleeves rolled up and half the buttons undone, and he lit a Marlborough and put my bag in the trunk of his car next to some plants while the guard entered the rest of my passport information into an old computer. The man's name was something like Niem, and the only English words he knew were "New York" and "Michigan," so our conversation was pretty short. Not many Albanians speak English, although many speak Italian, which they learn from watching soap operas from across the Adriatic. I relied on the few Spanish phrases I remember from High School and on the universal language of Charades.

Niem chain-smoked and gunned his Mercedes past the horse-drawn carts, skeletal scooters, and 2-cylinder Volkswagen trucks on the rotted, perforated highway around the lake to Shkodra. I also noticed a lot of other decade old Mercedes like Niem's, which seemed strange until I learned that Albanians were notorious for stealing cars from Northern Europe, and that they preferred Mercedes since only a tough steel-framed car could endure Albania's rickety pavement. One time a top ambassador was caught at the Montenegrin border driving a car reported as stolen.

Shkodra looks like a experiment in Soviet reconstructive architecture gone wrong, where everyone takes fashion tips from Saturday Night Fever. Monday I visited the Marubi photo exhibition of two dozen century-ripened pictures of Albanians in ethnic garb and mustachioed Turks with long rifles in their laps, and I walked south through the slums to the Rozafa fortress. On the way back down I gave some lek to a kid who held out one hand and pointed at his stomach with the other, and who then followed me halfway down the hill grabbing at me and whimpering in mosquito-like desperation even though I didn't have anything more to give him. Most locals dismiss such beggars with a vicious blast of shouting, so my polite evasion might as well have been weeping empathy.

In the lobby of my hotel I met a Canadian from Vancouver named Tyrone, who was there with his two brothers, Michael and Chad, who were twins that didn't look anything alike. We went to a café for Kosovan beers and watched Newcastle and Portsmouth fail to score while the sportscasters shouted at them. (The Albanian language is neither Slavic nor Latinate nor Germanic, but a remnant evolution of Illyrian that survived the centuries in a Basque-like case of isolated perseverance. Also, they nod for yes, shake their heads for no.) All the cafés in Skhodra get Sky Sports and show football games constantly.

Pretty soon (at 11:30) we were the only ones left, and the bartender pulled the metal screens down over the windows. He didn't speak any English and only a little Italian, but he came with us when we left and introduced himself as Betsmir. Music and song led us through the empty streets and past the central round-about to a hole in the wall called Von Café.

Shkodra (34)

Every table but one, which we soon occupied, was crowded with balding and toothless Albanians who with boisterous enthusiasm watched the matronly songstress, accompanied by a musician on two electric keyboards, perform old Albanian ballads in the narrow aisle between the tables. She was about five feet tall. The red-gold color of her frazzled hair did not distract from her old age, nor could her short red skirt, black stockings, and black blouse, or even the ruby red slippers diffuse the weariness of her form. Yet the gathered crowd of elders showered her with applause and attentive eyes, and one balding man in a plaid shirt sprinkled 200 lek ($2) bills over her mane. The rude cabaret glow of manly attention smoothed her wrinkled features and greased her joints for carnal gyrations, so if you saw her dancing out of the corner of your eye she almost looked young again.

I was shaken by the profundity of her defiant appearance -- this icon of faded beauty, clinging with misapprehension to the bygone days of her preeminent luster -- and ruminated carefully until interrupted by the arrival of some Albanian sausages. The ingredients in sausages here are of questionable provenance. I don't even know if they are sausages, since one time in Montenegro when I asked if they were sausages a girl said, "Kind of," and looked coyly and uncomfortably away. They look like a Jimmy Dean breakfast, though, and were really good.

In addition to ordering food, Betsmir the off-work bartender showed us which beers to drink by pointing, and he passed out Rothman cigarettes. He introduced us to his friends, because everyone in Albania knows each other. When you see someone you know here you honk your horn (also if you see someone you have seen before or do not like, if you see a girl in a skirt or in shorts, if you think someone might move in front of your car, if you might move in front of someone else's car, if there is a pedestrian in the road, or if someone in front of you considers stopping for a red light, although these are only present at the busiest intersections in the capital, and are usually not working anyway), and as a result the streets are as crowded with honks as they are with trash.

Police showed up because of the deafening noise of the music, but the bartender yelled at them and physically pushed them out of the café. The singing stopped, though, and the musician packed up his keyboards. Some of the 18-year-olds started a fight and had to be kicked out. Finally we left and went across the empty round-about to the hotel, where we had to wake up the night manager to get in.

In the morning we checked out with the help of a loud white-haired American gentleman who drove a yellow Hummer with Michigan plates.

"Can we leave our stuff here?" asked Chad.

The Michigan man then translated into Albanian with a method I thought only existed in movies: "THEY... WANT... TO... LEAVE... THEIR... BAGS," he said, pointing briskly at the backpack pile, "HERE." The maid, bowing under the weight of his diction, nodded, and the American told us, "She said yes."

We had arranged to meet an Albanian man from the Von Cafe at 10 that morning who happened to run a restaraunt in Vancouver 9 months of the year. He had balding grey hair, and gold jewelry peaked out from his sagging leather jacket. He ordered us tea with fruit-punch liqueur, which you mix together, and then some espressos. His name as he said it might have been Petrovic and probably was not Patrick, but he told us to call him Peter.

Patrick told us about living in Albania, and then started talking with the Canadians about where his restaurant and house are located in Vancouver. Since the cartographical debates that always ensue when two people from the same city try to pinpoint the exact street where something is located, as well as nearby monuments and eateries, are only interesting to people who live there, I tuned the rest out, but could not help but hear when Patrick suddenly said of Albania: "No money... No money... No money, no honey. Ha!"

Tirana (33)

Tirana is a charicature of capitalist society. In the 90s, this city was thrown recklessly from fifty years of isolation into Western excess, even though it has no money. The largest building before the collapse of the Soviet Union was Comrade Enver Hoxha's pyramid, which looks like the Battlestar Galactica. Since then hundreds of towering condos and office buildings have gone up with ironically Soviet features. The Albanians painted these concrete complexes with a pinstripe rainbow of colors that make them look comic rather than cultural.

Plastic bags are a ubiquitous novelty, used in grocery stores, markets, and at street stands to wrap every item the individually and then double wrap the hole package, and then to be discarded at the nearest park. There is trash everywhere, and the cars all smoke pollutants like Humphrey Bogart. An American embassy worker saw his doctor after three years in Tirana and was told to stop smoking cigarettes, which the worker had never touched.

The streets are madness, torn up roads ruled by a wild storm of lawless traffic, the chaos helped in no small part by the consumption of homemade wine and grappa-style brandy called raki. I saw only three traffic lights in the capital, a round-a-bout where traffic goes both ways, and plenty of policia who breathed through their whistles and wave white-gloved hands around while cars circle them heedlessly, following only their own personal road rules.

They serve real Temple of Doom fare here. I've tried stomach, intestines, and liver, as well as more sedate food like stuffed peppers and something like quiche, all of which was delicious. I skipped the lambs' heads -- eyes, brains, and all. These unsettling delicacies roast on spits next to the ones holding chickens and sell out twice as fast. On Saturday I went to Lizard, which is a regular sort of bar with kitschy decorations and overpriced drinks (that is nevertheless unique in Albania, where bare-walled and high-windowed cafés are the only places to drink), and to Charles, where we saw an Albanian cover band play Nirvana and CCR and some Albanian hits and jam Stevie Ray Vaughan style, but on weekday nights the city dies after 11 p.m. and becomes the domain of the stray dogs and the street sweepers.

One such night I played dominoes and drank tea and raki with one of the owners of the hostel, his cousin, and Trine-Lise, a photographer and ex-prison guard from Norway, and I learned about Albanian hardship: her borders shaved away by the Great Powers to placate Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece at the beginning of the century, and in the 1930s even more lost to Greece, which remains technically at war with Albania. The people of Kosovo and the northwest corner of Greece, as well as half the population of Montenegro, still fly the black on red two-headed eagle flag of Albania over their houses. The Albanians are proud of their trodden-on country and its few moments of glory.

I took a bus from the northern city station, just next to the Gypsy town and the combination garbage dump and sheep pasture, up into the mountains to Kruja, where the Albanian hero Skanderberg held off the Ottoman attempts to reconquer the rebellious province. From the castle, which is full of oversized statues of mountainous Skanderberg and murals of his noble acts that are framed with the same reverance as the Stations of the Cross, you can see the half-built apartments that tower over old tile-roofed Turkic homes, and the highlands that slope off toward the sea.

Kruja (18)

I got into Berat late on Sunday. It had been sunny all day, but I saw stormclouds up the Osumi River valley. Some kid asked me where I was from, and I told him "America," and asked if he knew where the hostel was. Pretty soon there were a dozen boys in a circle, all conferring about this "hostel" and asking me questions in Albanian, until some adults came by and yelled at them to scatter -- "Eke!" They pointed me towards a hotel, but I went into an Internet café instead and found out where the hostel was. By then the stormclouds were much bigger and almost solid black, and the grey sheet of rain under them flashed with lightning. The tempest at my back, the hostel somewhere across the river, I ducked into a hotel, just before the downpour started.

I got a room for €20 and then went down to the hotel bar, where I met a Canadian named Frederick, a financial consultant traveling around Albania and Macedonia on his way to meet his nephew in Istanbul. He told me that he had come from Seranda in the south, and that he had met a drunk Irishman there. "What was his name?" I asked. I'd heard about the Drunk Irishman of Seranda from two other people.

His name is Bob, and he is 60 years old, with a white handlebar moustache, and 8 kids scattered around the world. In the morning he is surly and grumbling until he starts drinking, which by noon makes him tolerable, or at least coherent, and by afternoon renders him good company as only the Irish can be. By evening, he is grumbling again, and also belligerent and insulting. Bob has been living in the little coastal dump of Seranda for 8 years on an expired visa. The Albanian government finally caught up with him when he helped some Englishmen buy local beachfront property, and he was supposed to be deported a week ago. He has to leave the country for 90 days, but then he plans to come right back.

Frederick got caught by him in the early evening, when Bob shouted, "Where'reyafrom," across the bar. "I half expected him to have an eye-patch and a peg leg," the Canadian told me. A few hours of drinking ensued, which ended when Bob, after berating the Canadian, the haggard waitress, and everyone at the bar, picked up a table and smashed it into the ground in a drunken exertion of primordial strength that cracked the marble tabletop in half. Frederick bailed, and Bob probably spent the rest of the night drinking with the bouncers.

The gutted clouds had cleared by 10 that night -- although I was too absorbed watching CSI: New York and Ransom on the TV in my room to notice -- and returned the following night for a similarly brief storm. In between I moved into the hostel, and saw the fortress on the hill above the town. On Tuesday, I traveled by bus, furgon van, taxi, and foot to the ruins of Apollonia. It was a Greek colony in Illyrian tribal land, and later the schooling spot of Octavian Augustus, the first Roman emperor. From up on the defensible acropolis you can see across miles of flat agricultural land and a web of small modern cities. The curving stone seats of the Odeon theater still rest against the hillside, but most of the ancient city is nothing but an overgrown marble outline, like a human silhouette at a crime scene.

Great in Herodotus' time, today Apollonia dances for small change from gentlemen. It is a playground for ants and an obstacle for shepherds.


  1. Ms. McDonald07 May, 2009

    I can't wait to see the pictures that you took at Apollonia. I would also love to hear about your trip in bus, van, taxi, and on foot to the site and how you got back. Hey, don't put your bag in the trunk of anymore cars. Mom

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