Category Archives: Albania

You Don’t Mess With a Man’s Cookies

(Note: I’ve got the nagging feeling I’ve written about this before but that may be because I’ve told the story before. I’ve searched former posts for it and haven’t found it but the nagging feeling persists. Sorry, then, if this is a repeat. If it is, I prefer to think of it as a revision.)

One night, when I was in Albania, I went to war with a mouse.

I don’t remember why I was in the hotel, but because it was my home away from home I must have been in the capital getting my monthly stipend. I also don’t remember why I had a box of cookies but they were either from a care package or I was returning to Albania after my three weeks in Washington D.C.

As I was going to bed I remember seeing a mouse scurry away. I didn’t think much of it because I chased him away. Then, in the middle of the night when I was either half asleep or half awake I heard something tapping on cardboard. I realized the mouse was after my cookies.

I turned on the light and picked up my bag. I swatted at the mouse but it did one of the best jumps I’ve ever seen. It leaped out of the bag, one hopped on the floor and flew into my pillow.

Because I was half-asleep or half-awake and was protecting my cookies. I picked up the pillow and tried to bludgeon the mouse to death inside my pillow.

I then got the brilliant idea of flushing it down the toilet. Part of my brain also felt I could contain it in the bathroom. I carried my pillow to the bathroom and tried to simultaneously bludgeon the mouse and dump it in the toilet. It his the toilet, hopped out and disappeared into the wall.

I moved the cookies lower and zipped the bag closed. Once I was convinced my cookies were secure, I went back to sleep using my bludgeoned pillow.

Some time in the middle of the night when I was either half asleep or half awake, I felt the mouse run across me as a kind of final “I’m still here, human” gesture. For some reason that didn’t bather me and I fell asleep.

In the end, because the cookies were saved, I considered that war a draw. I only hope I’ve outlived the mouse. If I haven’t, at least I got to eat the cookies.


Revisiting Silly Newsletters with Spots of Bitterness and Anger

Today I’m going to cheat a bit and recycle some very old material.

I’ve mentioned before how a large part of my life and writing career revolves around silly newsletters. During my closet cleaning, I stumbled across a copy of one of the newsletters I made when I was in Albania. Even I’m shocked at how angry it is.

The newsletter is called Gremlin II and features the motto “Fighting the Good Fight Against Bad People”. Being a fool I didn’t put a date on it, but I suspect that was for plausible deniability (Hey, this thing was written on the day Dwayne was in town using the Peace Corps computer. What a colossal coincidence!) However, a reference to trainees means it had to have been written at the start of our second year.

It starts with an angry farewell message from a volunteer who’d had enough and headed home. “The express purpose of the Peace Corps is to act as a glorified welfare system for third world countries and to keep inefficient middle-management Americans employed outside of the continental United States so as not to damage the American economy or capitalistic thought.”

Yep, definitely proof it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. This person also summed up the Albanians as “They’re ANIMALS! They’re animals without teeth!” You can tell this person was ready to go home. That I ran that quote in the newsletter meant I probably had a lot of sympathy with this person at times and had been rejected by at least three Albanian women.

The rest of the newsletter was an attack on the administration of the Peace Corps. It reminded everyone that they were “not allowed to get married, divorced, drink American beer, accept candy from strangers, have sex, ride a moped, eat, breathe or shit unless a proper memo has been issued in triplicate…”

Since I wrote that, I’m sensing a lot of bitterness from me as well.

I tried to start a Money Matters column in the newsletter as a cynical way to celebrate our 450 lek (US $4.50) monthly stipend raise, but I’m pretty sure I never did.

The rest of the newsletter was dedicated to cruel insults about a member of the Peace Corps staff. These were solicited from other volunteers. I’ve included some of the clean ones:

–She’s a zombie . . . but that does imply she was once alive.”
–She’s an android. I swear I saw her scalp move.
–She’s an alien, but that does assume higher intelligence.
–She’s a victim of the body snatchers.
–She’s the world’s greatest genius undercover as the world’s most incompetent idiot.
–She’s a ridiculous petty tyrant wannabee hypocrite with a squeaky Minnie Mouse voice.
–She’s an aging starlet whose plastic surgery went horribly, horribly wrong.
–She’s a coma victim: that implies she has life, but no brain function.

Again, I think I sense a spot of bitterness there.

This, of course, was produced on government computers, printed on government paper with government ink. It was childish and cruel, but surprisingly well received even by people who actually got along with the staff member in question.

Somewhere during the two years, some of us also sketched out a Peace Corps movie and cast all the parts. I think I still have that around somewhere, but I’ll have to clean more of the closet to find it.


A No-Name Notebook from the Balkans

When I was in Albania one of the few things I found that I still wish I could find was a bunch of cheap notebooks.

Although very little seemed to work in Albania from 1992-1994, someone managed to produce surprisingly good notebooks. They had plastic covers with an odd internal pocket and came in pocket and large size. They were about the same size and thickness as modern Moleskine notebooks. They had stitched and glued spines that laid flat when open.

I bought a stack of them as they were only 15 lek (about 15 US cents at the time; 25 cents with inflation) and used them while I was in Mississippi and after I came to Japan. They are among the few thick notebooks I’ve ever completely filled. The plastic cover made them comfortable to carry in the pocket but they were sturdy enough to write on without needing a hard surface.

My Albanian notebook compared to a Field Notes notebook. You can see the damaged spine.

My Albanian notebook compared to a Field Notes notebook. You can see the damaged spine at the right..

Inside the notebook. You can see the construction and deconstruction.

Inside the notebook. You can see the construction thanks to the deconstruction.

The paper seemed to be one part pulp paperback and one part newsprint. It was not especially fountain pen friendly as it was rough and scratchy with fine nibs awhile thicker nibs tended to cause feathering. That said, although it had a little ghosting, it didn’t have much bleedthrough so it was possible to use with fountain pens.

You can kind of see Noodler's Old Manhattan and and Apache Sunset.

You can kind of see Noodler’s Old Manhattan and can see Apache Sunset pretty well. You can also see the roughness.

I had two of the pocket sized notebooks that have long since been scanned and retired. I’m tempted to try to use the cover for something but it tends to chip off plastic bits as it’s carried around. I still have half of one of the larger ones that started out as scrapbook that was eventually abandoned. I’m also tempted to start carry it in order to finish it, but I don’t really have a use for it. I’d be carrying it out of nostalgia not need.

That said, I wouldn’t mind picking up a few new ones if I ever get the chance to go back to Albania and if they still exist.

Blissfully Embarrassing Myself Without Knowing When to Leave

Be careful what you wish for, because I just might say yes.

Although I’ve gotten a lot better at it, I’ve never been very good at reading signals people are sending and I’m not always fully aware of the conventions involved in certain situations. For example, in Kyoto, if you’ve been invited to a house for lunch toward the end of the lunch you will be offered tea. As you approach the end of your cup, you will be offered another. The savvy person refuses the second cup, engages in a brief faux argument and leaves. In Kyoto the tea is the signal the lunch is over and the host’s polite way of saying “Thanks, now get the f@#k out.”

I, on the other hand, at least when I was younger, would have taken the second cup after it was offered and then gone on blissfully unaware, once I finally left, that my host was spreading the story that I was rude and wouldn’t get the f@#k out. (So maybe THAT’S why I don’t get invited to parties. Too much tea.)

I say this because something similar to this happened when I was in Albania. A couple of our language teachers repeatedly said that the next time I was in Tirana I should contact them and they’d have me over to their place for coffee.

I was not aware, at the time, that this was the equivalent of “let’s do lunch” and “my people will call your people” and that I was not actually being invited over for coffee.

Of course, during one trip to Tirana, I called the people in question and said if the offer was still good I was in town. There was a brief moment of “Offer? What offer?” and I reminded them of the offer and was invited over for coffee and dinner. Well, sort of.

They had a small place they shared with extended family and I got the chance to say hello to several people and then got my coffee. I was offered a second cup and then time just kind of froze. I remembered that I’d imagined there’d been an offer to stay for dinner so we all ended up on the couch watching TV to wait for dinner.

After a while, even I could sense something was wrong, but nobody seemed to be dropping hints that it was time to leave. Of course, as it turned out, the hints had already been dropped.

I then entered a panic loop that amounted to something like “I feel tense and that makes them feel tense and I think I’m overstaying but if I’m not I don’t want to be rude but I feel tense and that makes them feel tense and I think I’m overstaying but if I’m not I don’t want to be rude but I feel tense and that makes them feel tense and I think I’m overstaying but if I’m not I don’t want to be rude but I feel tense“. Etcetera.

Solution: sit and do nothing until the situation changed.

After about an hour of the panic loop, it finally dawned on me that nobody seemed to be making dinner and I was the reason they weren’t. At long last, I thanked them for the coffee and letting me watch the TV show and apologized that I’d have to be leaving.

Instantly everyone got nervous smiles and escorted me to the door faster than I’d ever seen happen in Albania.

This last part was the hint I’d done something wrong. The Albanians usually made a big show of encouraging a person to stay even when it was clear they desperately wanted them to leave. The fact they were sending me on my merry way made it clear how desperately they wanted me to leave.

I apologized the next time I saw them and even apologized to some of their friends in the Peace Corps, because I was 99% certain the entire Peace Corps knew about what happened the very next day.

Since then I’ve gotten much better about reading those false invitations. That said, I probably always knew about those false invitations, but free coffee’s worth a social faux pas or two.

Show Me the Losers and Show Me the Tears

In honor of Ariana Miyamoto becoming the first half-Japanese Miss Universe Japan last month, I’m suddenly thinking about the worst beauty pageant I’ve ever seen.

Oddly, you can blame the Italians.

I think it was 1993, but I’m not sure. All I know is I was up north in Shkoder visiting my friend Eddie and, as was common, the TV was set on an Italian channel. The Albanians enjoyed their new freedom to watch foreign TV without the threat of going to jail and a lot of them had picked up Italian as a second spoken language.

I couldn’t understand Italian at all and Eddie was keeping his Italian skills secret, but it was beautiful Italian women dressing beautifully or barely dressing which meant it was worth watching.

At least that was the premise; then it got bizarre.

First all the women performed a dance that was apparently choreographed by some famous choreographer as the person’s name kept being flashed on the screen. The problem was the dancing amounted to the women standing in geometric patterns and waving their arms to the rhythm of the music. Even the fact the women were in bathing suits couldn’t override the bizarre.

Then there was some kind of vote held that may or may not have involved telephone polling. As soon as the poll was complete, the survivors were announced and then sent off stage and the emcee interviewed the losers. I couldn’t understand what was being said but I think it amounted to:

emcee–How bad does it suck to be a loser?
loser–It sucks pretty bad.
emcee–Are you sad to be loser?
loser–I’m very sad.
emcee–Now get off the stage, loser.
loser–Thanks for inviting me! Viva l’Italia!!

Then the survivors were brought out to do more posing and another dance involving geometric shapes and hand waving. Another poll was taken and the survivors were sent off so the losers could be interviewed.

Along the way Eddie and I held our own poll (which is not dirty) and decided our personal favorite was a woman with a pageboy haircut and a sophisticated university look.

At some point the emcee brought Gina Lollobrigida on stage to do the “serious interview” portion of the contest. Our sophisticated university girl went first and was so moved by standing near the famous Italian actress/sex symbol, she burst into tears and was unable to speak. Gina Lollobrigida comforted her but you could tell she wouldn’t survive. She didn’t.

Eventually a winner may have been crowned but I don’t remember her name. I may have stopped watching by that point. All I remember is the dance and the losers.

Home and Go Away Again

I spent a surprising amount of my first year in Albania trying to find a permanent place to live.

I’ve written before about how I used to be a lousy house guest and how I eventually had to move out of my host family’s apartment. Granted, this was something I’d hoped to do in the long run but it happened all of a sudden. Unfortunately, it also happened when the dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages was out of the country–he had a list of places I could stay–and the only people available to help me were Peace Corps staff who had a lot of other volunteers to worry about.

I was originally told I’d be staying in an apartment owned by a widow. As I understood it, she’d move in with family and I’d get the apartment. It was an okay place, but kind of hidden in a maze of streets. When I arrived with my stuff, she was there and I was told I couldn’t move in then. I was basically homeless with all my stuff in boxes around me.

Luckily, a pair of fellow expatriates took me in “for a short time”. Unfortunately for them, both the Peace Corps and I dragged our feet to get me out. This was surprising because we weren’t, technically, supposed to live with fellow expats.

Eventually, right around the start of winter, at the suggestion of yet another fellow expat, I moved into a house with an older woman who never seemed to smile much, her daughter, who didn’t seem to talk much, and their other boarder, a cute young Albanian woman who was the only friendly one in the house. I lived there over the winter, which was a mixed blessing.

My room was one part cave, one part cold storage. I bought a little electric fan eater that took some of the edge off, but we lost power  a lot. The woman started cooking for me, which I hadn’t asked her to do, which would eventually lead to a money argument.

When my dean returned from overseas, he quickly found me a permanent place to stay. I found another boarder for the woman, which helped solve some of the money argument, especially as the person I found was paying more money than I could.

For a while I was fine, but about the time I got settled in and comfortable, my country director forced me to move cities. Luckily, I found a nice apartment quickly, but it was never quite home.

Fear and Loathing in Prague

I mentioned before how I traveled with a pair of beautiful women and then got driven insane by show tunes. I also learned, on that trip, why you should never travel with friends.

Our Prague trip started out well. We ran into a guy in the train station who rented us an apartment one block from Wenceslas Square, which is the heart of pretty much anything anyone would want to do in Prague. The apartment was nice, we could come and go as we pleased, we could cook for ourselves and it was a reasonable price.

Everything went downhill after that. Although there was a Mozart Festival going on, we’d apparently landed during a short hiatus. This meant there was nothing to see except a puppet version of Don Giovanni which is not something that interested us as 1) it’s a dark, depressing opera; and 2) puppets. (To see what we missed, see here.)

Instead, we ended up roaming around Prague, which is not a bad place to end up roaming. It’s almost annoyingly beautiful and well preserved. I managed to check out a couple exhibits about Franz Kafka and visit the castle that inspired his novel.

The problem was, we were three, which meant we didn’t always want to do things that interested all of we (something like that). Tension began building, especially as we had no real distractions other than each other, and we ended up going to a cinema to watch Schindler’s List (because that’s totally not more dark and depressing than an opera about sin and punishment).

After we watched Schindler’s List, we decided to go party. Yes, to understand how messed up we were at that point, and remember, alcohol was not yet involved, we watched a movie about the holocaust and then went out to find a disco.

Something punished us for that choice, though, because we saw a disco on top of a tall building and decided to go there. When we got there, we paid a hefty cover charge and then bought an expensive drink each. The club was well decorated and modern and mostly empty. It was playing some of the worst music ever. It was like someone was playing the music backward. Even if I’d wanted to dance, the music was impossible to dance to. (To this day I’m shocked such music exists.)

We left and found another club which turned out to be a lot of fun. It was full of locals and was great for people watching. (Unfortunately, I was still in my “stand off to the side and watch people” phase which, I’m assured, is normal and which, I’m also assured, I’ll move past some day.)

That one ended badly as well. One of my travel companions had decided she’d had enough, got the coat check ticket from me, and retreived her coat. Unfortunately, she neglected to all the coats. I then spent the next 20 minutes arguing with the coat check guy and describing everything in my coat and my other travel companion’s coat.

Eventually, all coats were retrieved. It’s the friendship that never quite got retrieved.

I should have gone to see the puppet show.

Proposals Both Bizarre and Surreal

Although I’ve been accidentally and unknowingly engaged, I’ve also had two proposals that were so bizarre I still can’t believe they happened and often wonder what exactly did happen.

Of course, they all happened in Albania.

The bizarre proposal happened during my second year of service. Because I and a few other Peace Corps volunteers hung out at the US Embassy (even though we weren’t supposed to) we made friends/acquaintances with members of the embassy staff and with the military advisers assigned to work with the Albanian military. As such, we were were invited to a party at the military advisers’ residence which was a large tacky mansion in a gated area that had been reserved for the senior communist party members as a symbol of the fact that under communism “everyone was equal” and “there were no privileged classes”.

That was surreal enough.

However, during the party one of the Peace Corps staff, lets call her Margita, said she wanted to talk to me and pulled me away from the party to a quiet place. (So far, so good.) She then said “I love you” and pretty much offered to marry me. (So far, so HUH? Could you say that again?)

Mind you, Margita was cute enough that my brain was actually tripping over ways to exploit the situation. Instead my mouth pointed out that at no point during my time in Albania had she ever shown anything even resembling affection or interest. She then made the real proposal (in so many words) two years of paradise and then that would be enough of that “if I wanted”. (Wink wink. Nudge nudge.)

Because I’d already been suspicious of one relationship with someone I actually did care about, I ran through a litany of excuses. “I need some time.” “It’s not you, it’s me.” “I love you but not in that way.” “Can we actually be friends first?” Whatever I said worked and that’s the last I ever heard about that. (Although I did get dirty looks from her friends on the Peace Corps staff for a long time, making me wish I’d said “Prove you love me” or something equally tawdry.)

(For the record: this may be the first time ever that my mouth actually got me OUT of trouble.)

The surreal proposal happened on the trip to Elbasan where I was supposed to proctor an entrance exam. On the way to the vineyard where I’d drink a lot of raki, Abdul,my host, told the van driver to stop and pick up a heavy middle aged woman who was apparently hitchhiking our direction.

As we drove to the vineyard, Abdul kept making lewd remarks about what he’d like to do to the woman. I didn’t find her at all attractive, especially as she had a faint mustache and seemed badly assembled, but I was glad she impressed Abdul. I just found myself wishing he’d left me out of his interest.

Then after 10 glasses of raki (for me), we said goodbye to the vineyard staff and returned to the hotel. I was surprised the woman came along with us as she’d appeared to be heading in a different direction when we found her.

At the hotel, Abdul pulled me aside and explained that the woman would go with me to my room and let me “know her” in a Biblical sense. (So far, so HUH? Could you say that again?) Abdul said “I want you to have this experience”. And I was like 1) “Why?” and 2) “If you’re so gung ho about this do you mind if I choose? I mean, there’s a university full of women near here or, if you insist on staying creepy and surreal, there’s an all-girls high school just down the street and I have 10 glasses of raki in me so that actually seems like the moral alternative right now.” (Something like that.)

The woman went with me to my room as I tried to figure out ways to get out of it without insulting her or Abdul who seemed to be in a fugue state that was making him act out of character.

When I got to my room it was already occupied. The maid was still cleaning and the maintenance man was fixing the room light that hadn’t worked the night before (and which I’d called to complain about). The woman panicked and went away and I never saw her again. I was never so happy to see hotel staff in my life, even when they gave me knowing “you old dog, you” winks and looks.

Abdul explained that she’d got scared and he apologized that nothing had happened.

I told him to give her my best and my apologies. Sadly, I don’t remember her name. In fact, I don’t remember if anyone actually told me her name. That made it even more surreal.



Waiting For Goodness Knows What

I’ve mentioned before that although I dabble in fiction, plays are the only things I can sit still for when they’re done live. However, I’ve rarely been blown away by a play to the point I was left speechless. That happened, oddly, in Albania.

First some background. During my undergraduate and Master’s Degree days I was smitten by the works of Samuel Beckett. He’s an Irishman who wrote in French, translated his work back into English (changing it along the way) and apparently used to drive Andre the Giant to school. His works are generally very bleak and darkly comic and feature old men who talk a lot (i.e. me) and are slowly running out of things to say (again, me).

After I got to Albania, the work that most reminded me of Albania (after William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming“) was the play Waiting For Godot. It’s the story of two old bums who are waiting for someone named Godot. They don’t know what he’ll do when he arrives, they don’t know if they’re waiting in the right place, and they don’t even know if he’s already been there and left. All they do is wait and pass the time by talking about random things and complaining about their various physical ailments (which, by colossal coincidence, is pretty much what happens when a group of Peace Corps volunteers get together).

Albania, when I got there, was like that. Things had fallen apart. Everything was broken. Everyone was waiting for this thing called “democracy”. They weren’t sure what it was and they weren’t sure what it was going to do when it got there. They just knew they were supposed to wait for it. They’d been told it was a big deal.

Then, during my second year, a local theater put on a production of Waiting for Godot in Albanian. Because I had an odd connection to the Open Society Fund for Albania (Soros), I managed to score a ticket in the second row. I ended up sitting next to a fellow expat I didn’t get along with very well (well, he didn’t like me much anyway), but the ticket was free so I didn’t care.

Waiting for Godot has only five characters who actually appear and Godot who is only talked about. The set is usually bare except for a dying tree. The Albanian set had a tree made out of pipes and was uncomfortably bright as they never turned down the auditorium lights.

Although it was in Albanian, I knew the play well enough to follow along. At one point, the main bums Vladimir and Estragon are joined by the pompous Pozzo and his slave, victim, friend Lucky. As part of Pozzo’s attempt to impress the other two, Lucky is encouraged to “think” and gives a long monologue that is 90% gibberish (but still more interesting than most State of the Union speeches). The actor who played lucky killed it. He actually got a show stopping ovation in the middle of the play. (I think I was standing, too.)

At the end of the play, the audience couldn’t stop applauding and the guy I didn’t get along with and I were suddenly temporary pals (mostly because all we could say was “wow”). The cast just stood around simultaneously looking uncomfortable and soaking in the applause as if they didn’t know what they were supposed to do next.

I somehow managed to acquire a poster of the event which I still own. I wish someone had made a recording of it.



This is What We Was When We Was Them

Around the start of my second year in Albania I got see what I was like when I was still new. It wasn’t pretty.

For reasons I don’t remember, my friend Eddie and I were walking from the bus station past the Hotel Arberia, which was the hotel we stayed at upon our arrival in Tirana and which frequently served as our home-away-from hour Albanian homes. As we walked past, we stumbled across the fresh-faced and still foolishly hopeful faces of the members of Albania 002 unloading their stuff from vans and moving into their rooms. (They’d eventually be assigned host families, but for at least one night, they belonged to the Arberia.)

We immediately introduced ourselves and got a surprising amount of dirty looks. This was probably because 1) we were haggard old vets full of venom and cynicism; 2) they were in denial about what they were about experience; 3) being new, they already knew it all; 4) they were business advising volunteers meaning they really did think they knew it all and Albania was finally getting real help and 5) at least one of us old vets tended to be an asshole (hint, not Eddie).

Our main job that day was to tell them they’d just missed afternoon water and wouldn’t have running water again until around 2-3 a.m.

Later, as Albania 002 settled in, the best of them were a lot of fun to be around, but the worst were always convinced they were the real volunteers and we were just riff-raff that blew in from Italy. My favorite moment involved having drinks with a couple members of 002. One of them was pontificating about how some business volunteer in Russia had complained that although he was an experienced businessman, the Russians had him making copies.

My friend Robert said something to the effect of “What’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t he make copies? He’s there to do what the Russians want him to do.” I thought the guy from 002 was going to burst into flames.

In the mean time I was also thinking “They have access to a copier? Cool.”

Now, of course, I understand how lucky we were to have been part of Albania 001. Even though we were the experiment, we got to be the experts without anyone else around to burst our inflated delusionary bubbles. If we’d been Albania 002, we’d have probably been jerks too. Or at least I would have.