Albania 8: Apollonia

IMG_1964My determination to see Apollonia was a bit like my attraction to Përmet when I read about it in my guidebook. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but simply gazing at a single picture convinced me. A week ago Friday morning, I went to the Berat bus station with my daypack, filled with a surprise bag of snacks courtesy of my guesthouse hostess, Theodhora, whose generosity and thoughtfulness never failed to catch me off guard. I caught a minibus to Fier, a rather drab slab of urbanity that would seem to be utterly skippable; Gillian Gloyer’s Albania guidebook completely omits it except in very occasional mentions as a place from which to connect to other buses elsewhere: it’s a place you go in order to get out of it. (Part of me can’t help suspecting that guidebook authors will sometimes omit a country’s less obvious gems out of protectiveness or possessiveness, concealing them from overuse by tourists, but I don’t think that’s the case with Fier.) From Fier it’s a short ride to a village called Pojan, and from Pojan you can walk to Apollonia in less than half an hour.

I arrived in Fier and quickly found the bus stop for Pojan/Apollonia. It was at a busy street corner, with a sign listing departure and arrival times, instead of the usual gas station lot with its motley assortment of conveyances and impatient men selling tickets to them. I was glad for the forthrightness of the sign and schedule, but not for the discovery that the next bus to Pojan wasn’t due for nearly an hour and a half. Looking around, I saw no appealing options for plunking myself down for a coffee and waiting for the customary sixty-three-year-old to start talking to me and pouring me raki. Nor was I in the mood or market for that, to tell the truth, fun as it can be. I had only Apollonia in mind—and in body: I decided to walk. Keep moving! Never change!

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Albania 7: Berat

It occurred to me that I was really in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation—even if it wasn’t a part I relished […] But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, a sailor—landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before.

I came across the above lines quoted in a piece of writing I’m revising. They’re from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. No question there’s a fundamental part of the sentiment I can’t connect to, since Coates is describing what it feels like to be African-American and, for the first time in his life, not in America: the “garden” is the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris. But when I came to those lines today, I instantly recalled the feeling I had when I arrived in Albania three weeks ago: landless, disconnected, alien.

How much longer than three weeks ago it seems! I feel quite at home in Albania now. Most of the initial uncertainty and anxiety are gone. It’s not to say I know much of anything at all about this country, but the condition of not-knowing has changed. I’ve settled into my ignorance and I’m fine with it. I just am who I am here: a gentle, clueless hippie.

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Albania 6: Gjirokastra

IMG_1837Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from just after World War II until his death in 1985, was born in Gjirokastra. So was Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most famous writer—but to call him that is to undershoot by miles. To the rest of the world, Kadare is Albania’s only famous writer, although that doesn’t make him beyond compare. Think of someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s only well-known literary export.

Think of Vargas Llosa too because he and Kadare have some similarities. They were both born in 1936, are both still alive, by and large expatriates (Vargas Llosa in Madrid, Kadare in Paris), and both have made their careers by speaking truth to political power. (It was Vargas Llosa who, on a prominent stage, made the indelible comment about Mexico that it was “the perfect dictatorship” because it was camouflaged not to look like one.) Kadare’s early books, written in the 1950s and 1960s under Albania’s nominally communist boot (in fact a fascist regime), were banned in his home country. But as Kadare’s international reputation grew, Hoxha was shrewd enough to recognize the cultural and thus exchangeable capital Kadare embodied, and didn’t entirely censor him. Kadare even became an occasional writer for the state, traveling to China on diplomatic missions and going to Vietnam during the American war, where he reported from the side of the Vietcong, via Albania’s alliance with Mao’s China.

Kadare’s writing continued to run him afoul of the government, and at least one of his manuscripts had to be smuggled out of the country for publication, but he didn’t claim asylum in Paris until 1990, just before the dismantling of the political regime in Albania. Hoxha himself had been dead five years by then, and there’s something almost poignant about Kadare staying in Albania all through the dictator’s life, as though he couldn’t bring himself to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere until its ruler had left it, too. Later, Kadare was offered the Albanian presidency (he declined, twice). They’ll be forever intertwined, these two famous Gjirokastrans: a symbol of oppression and a symbol of freedom.

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Albania 5: Përmet, or Corrections

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Some corrections:

First, I don’t know anything about religious icons, or the schools that painted them. I went to another icon gallery yesterday, in Berat (to get a little ahead of myself), and there were those same long noses and bulging foreheads. What struck me as unique in Ohrid may not have been at all. Clueless! I shouldn’t have been so sure of what I was seeing, and remembered Stasiuk’s observation that unfamiliar objects can be perceived as no more than what they are in fact. (But I do think the Ohrid pieces, which were older than those housed in the Onufri Museum in Berat, were technically superior and more full of feeling. And none of the other saints look as sad as poor St. Clement, except perhaps for Onufri’s rendering of St. John the Baptist, into which it seems he poured most of his tears.)

Second, returning to Nell Zink’s line in The Wallcreeper about Albania, “Single mothers there dress and live as men”: I called Zink inclined to glibness, and she sometimes is, but this line is not an example! After reading the post, my sister sent me a link to pictures of Albanian women who really do dress and live as men. According to the artist Jill Peters’ statement:

“Sworn Virgin” is the term given to a biological female in the Balkans who has chosen, usually at an early age, to take on the social identity of a man for life. As a tradition dating back hundreds of years, this was sometimes necessary in a society that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. The Kanun states that women are the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. A family suddenly without a patriarch or male heir would find themselves in jeopardy of losing everything. As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha,” elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name.  Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. She became a “he”.

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Albania 4: to Ohrid

img_1710.jpgIn the afterword to Lolita, Nabokov enumerates some very minor details of the novel, a few of them just a sentence or even a mere word, that most readers will have probably not even noticed. He calls these “the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted.”

Likewise, the subliminal coordinates of my Albanian ambit aren’t major figures like Lee or arresting moments like my encounter with the epileptic on the hilltop above Kruja. Those episodes are the flesh, muscle and blood of my experiences here. The bones and joints, what it all hangs on and what holds it together, is the actual travel.

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Albania 3: Theth to Valbona

It poured down rain overnight, timpani on the metal roof right above us. When I woke up, I thought about staying in bed all the next day in that chilly guesthouse, reading, but this plan suddenly seemed intolerable. I thought about walking back down into Theth and finding another guesthouse for the night, but that would only accomplish improving the conditions of waiting around. I had to keep moving. I checked the weather again. My phone couldn’t locate Theth, so I asked my hostess to check hers. Cloudy, slight chance of rain. Not a nice day for hiking.

Does every day have to be a nice day, whether you’re hiking or not? Isn’t there some corollary of this-is-just-one-place-and-I’m-just-one-person that posits that weather is just weather and any day for walking is as good as any other, as long as it isn’t pouring down rain? In any case, I had a rain jacket, and Lee had already set an example for me: he had decided to visit a waterfall partway up the Theth-Valbona trail and then come back and spend another night at our guesthouse. While I was deliberating on what to do, he did what should be done: he didn’t think about it; he just got up and left, shortly after our hostess cooked us frittatas she made with nettles harvested from her property—delicious.

There was only one thing to do. I shoved all my stuff back into my bag and announced that I was setting off for Valbona. The hostess’s mother, let’s call her bubbie, objected in Albanian. Snow! she warned. All that rain in the valley the night before wasn’t rain 1000 meters up, where the trail went. But her daughter wasn’t quite so worried. Possibly a light dusting, she said; perhaps mere rain. I asked how much I owed her for the room and the food. It was somewhere under twenty dollars, but I had forgotten exactly how much, and without WiFi—did I mention her guesthouse had no WiFi?—I couldn’t check the booking site; plus she’d fed me twice and given me a beer, so I owed her for board as well as room.

She was sheepish, and wouldn’t name a price. Her face betrayed awareness that her place was lacking, her son a problem. As if deleting amenities by the hour, after breakfast the power went out. Enough. I gave her a 2,000 lekë note (about $20), fairly close to the actual listed price of the place on booking-dot-com, plus a little extra for the food (she looked a bit surprised that I gave her anything at all); and I marched off.

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Albania 2: Shkodër to Theth

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Marubi’s camera.

Shkodër, or Shkodra—the rendering of Albanian nouns can evidently change with usage in ways I haven’t figured out. In fact, I find the language hard to get a grip on, and so far I’m still pretty proud of just being able to count to ten. Albanian is a language isolate, like Basque and Korean. Its grammar, rules, and even pronunciation are resistant to quick study. There seems to be a different way to say a pronoun in every kind of sentence in which it’s used.

Shkodër is a pleasant city in northwestern Albania and has clearly been on a development kick over the last few years. There’s a handsome central piazza and newly pedestrianized main avenue, lots of young restaurants, and a new museum (about which more soon). I spent two nights there, and on the last of them I chatted briefly with a couple of Americans, one of whom lives in Shkodër and the other, his friend, visiting him for the first time in four years. He told me that Shkodër’s growth and general act-cleaning-up was very apparent since his last visit. “People have more disposable income,” he said.

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From Albania: Keep Moving, Never Change

Hello from Albania, by which I mean Macedonia: this morning I checked out of my hotel in Peshkopi, Albania, where I stayed overnight, and took a taxi over the border and then two buses to Ohrid—boom boom, one after another, in lucky timing sequence. Ohrid sits on a large, deep lake of the same name. Somewhere I read that it was “the jewel of Macedonia,” and it’s just across the Albanian border. So here I am. My big agenda when I got here was to find a place to do laundry. It turns out the affordable places are closed for the weekend; the hotels will gladly charge daftly inflated prices, i.e. as much to wash three shirts as I spend on food in a day of travel here. I think I’ve got enough clean clothes to last me a couple more days, by which time I’ll be back in Albania. In the meantime, let me write about it a little.

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An Open Letter to Scott Harmon

(Reprinted from the ABCDurham downtown listserv, in response to developer Scott Harmon’s “Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives” posted to the listserv on March 13, 2019.)

Dear Scott Harmon,

We don’t know each other, but we have at least four things in common: we both work in downtown Durham; we both care very much about the future, character, and quality of our city’s rapid growth; we both consider ourselves white progressives; and we’re both proponents of residential density in city centers. I admire Center Studio Architecture’s redevelopment of the 500 block of North Mangum Street, a previously characterless thoroughfare stretch that has not only gained housing but also aesthetic presence from your firm’s three condominium buildings: Mangum 506, Mangum Flats, and now Eleven Durham, the latter currently in its early phase of construction.

Your “Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives” (which I’ve copied below for those who haven’t read it or need refreshment) got and kept my attention ever since you posted it to the listserv a few weeks ago. No doubt that’s partly because I hear your voice, so to speak, every day. Before I continue, let me make an important disclosure, as you did in acknowledging (via Dawn Bland’s preface to your letter) that you are “a developer and architect in downtown Durham [who] has a vested interest.” I have a vested interest, too. In addition to working in downtown Durham, I also own and live in a house here too. It’s nearly adjacent to the Eleven Durham site; my bedroom is just a few dozen feet away from it. (There’s a fifth thing we have in common, or very nearly so: a property line.) The persistent beep-beep-beep of backhoes going backward, beginning daily at about 7:30 a.m., is a de facto alarm clock that gets me prematurely out of bed: I work nights and no longer get sufficient sleep on weekdays. It also, in a chorus with the downtown-wide beeping of heavy machinery and cherry pickers, heard like a soundtrack motif throughout the day, keeps me awake and alert to (not to say alarmed by) the full-throttle development I witness at street-level, with close observation, nearly every day: Eleven Durham’s daylong construction clangor and thunder often render my house uninhabitable for hours at a time, so I have to get out, and that takes me around and about downtown on foot.

Perhaps there is some world where people whose lives are upheaved and degraded by a construction project which deprives them of sleep and the basic comforts and tranquility of home are compensated in some way or another, or at least cautioned in advance of the project in case they should like to seek counteractive or protective measures. But I know full well that that world is not this one. The business of America is business, as the saying goes: hence it’s up to business to determine the activity, direction, and character of the country, or at least any given business’s part of the country. “Market forces,” as the euphemism puts it, answer our essential civic questions, either intentionally or incidentally: What is downtown Durham going to look like? What kind of place will it be to live and walk and work and experience, from any vantage point: that of the homeowner-resident or the tourist; the developer or the bartender; ground level or the parking deck roof; white or black?

You have, in other words, a heavy responsibility, and I genuinely appreciate the seriousness with which your open letter takes it. I suspect we agree that any city ought to strive to look, feel, and do good from whatever position and identity each of us occupies. In addressing you here, I’m trying to balance my public enthusiasm for seeing residential density increase with the personal inconvenience and stress I experience at Eleven Durham’s hands; and I’m also trying to reconcile my desire to see Durham keep thriving with my concerns about the nature of that thriving.

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The Tobacconist, Vol. 7

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. On the face of it, it seemed a little surprising that North Carolina, a ten-loss team, not only got a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament but the highest No. 2 seed, making the 10th-ranked (in the polls) Tar Heels the fifth-best team in the country by the selection committee’s lights. They outranked 26-7 and ninth-ranked Duke — whom they beat two out of three times, so no huge surprise — as well as Cincinnati (30-4, No. 6 in the polls), Purdue (28-6, No. 11), and Michigan State (29-4, No. 5). The Spartans, who drubbed UNC in the PK80 invitational tournament in November, were the Big 10 regular season champions, yet were awarded just a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The explanation for this apparent confusion is derived from so-called “Quadrant 1” performance. The NCAA has more precisely codified wins this season. The Quadrant system rewards teams for beating top-30 opponents (by RPI) at home, top-50 teams at neutral sites, and top-75 teams on the road. (One can quibble with the RPI itself, but there has to be a baseline somewhere, and it’s not as if the RPI rankings are an abomination.) Those are all considered Quadrant 1 wins, and North Carolina not only has the most in the NCAA (14), they’ve played the most Quadrant 1 teams (22), by far, in the country. That’s why they got a cookie from the committee, whose priorities are quite clear: as often as you can, play good teams, especially away from home. A 14-8 overall Quadrant 1 record is nowhere near as dominant as Virginia’s 12-1, but it’s far better than Michigan State’s 3-4. (Duke finished 6-5 in Quadrant 1 games.) Carolina was rewarded for sheer quantity, which actually harmonizes with the program’s overall strengths: their current three-year run of high-level play has been fueled largely by how many extra shots their offensive rebounds provide them, and by players whose quality owes largely to staying around for three or four years.

The Tar Heels were also rewarded for something they had no control over: the ACC regular season schedule, which required them to run a very tough gauntlet, much tougher than Duke’s. While the Blue Devils were beating up on both Pittsburgh and Wake Forest twice each, UNC had to play Clemson twice, N.C. State twice, and Notre Dame twice. Their lone games against Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse, and Virginia were all on the road. Carolina got extra Quadrant 1 points just by showing up.

An outcome of this math can be measured in distance: UNC only has to drive down to Charlotte for the tournament’s first weekend. They’ll take on No. 15 seed and Atlantic Sun champion Lipscomb in the first round. It’s the Bisons’ first ever tournament appearance. Why they’re called the Bisons is beyond me, since Lipscomb is in Nashville. (But then, why are any sports teams in America called the Tigers?) If UNC manages to run the Bisons off the cliff — and hey, the Ken Pomeroy metrics rank Lipscomb eight spots lower than Wofford, so the Tar Heels definitely have a chance — they’ll meet the winner of Texas A&M and Providence in the second round. For what it’s worth, the Tar Heels beat Providence in the second round of the tournament two years ago, in Raleigh, on the way to the NCAA championship game against Villanova.

Carolina fans may wince at the memory of that heartbreaker, but Carolina has a decent shot to advance to what would be their third straight Final Four. That would put them in rarefied air. It’s only happened eleven times — once by Carolina themselves, back in the late sixties, when UCLA was setting a never-to-broken record by appearing in ten straight Final Fours. (Duke made it to five in a row from 1988-1992.) To achieve that threepeat, Carolina has the easiest path of any No. 2 seed, as their overall rating affords them. The No. 1 seed in the West Region, where UNC was placed, is Xavier. Along the way, UNC would probably have to get past either Michigan, whom they beat earlier this season in Chapel Hill, or Houston, a slightly underappreciated and very good team that can both score and defend. (To me, that’s the scary matchup.) Still, all the way up to the regional final, it’s hard not to look at the bracket and conclude that UNC is probably the team you’d take. Then it’s a one-game toss-up.

Duke, meanwhile, is off to Pittsburgh as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. They’ll play Iona in the first round, followed by the winner of Rhode Island and Oklahoma. That means there’s already a little drama awaiting the Blue Devils in the second round. Tenth-seeded Oklahoma has not played well lately, but they boast Trae Young, the wispy star guard, a lottery pick this coming June and the sort of player who can score forty points on any given night. If he has a career game — and players like Young tend to love bright-spotlight moments like an underdog March matchup against a team like Duke — the Blue Devils could find themselves in the soup. (You might recall what happened when they drew Derrick Williams and Arizona in the 2011 tournament.) Seventh-seeded Rhode Island — which wears Carolina Blue and is called the Rams — is coached by Danny Hurley, Duke legend Bobby’s brother. (An aside: Rhode Island’s loss in the Atlantic Ten tournament final had a domino effect of jeopardizing the bubbly at-large bid hopes of Arizona State, which is coached by… Bobby Hurley. Arizona State squeaked in as a First Four probation pick, and you should check out Danny’s reaction when his fear that he’d cost his brother a bid went unrealized.)

Arizona State’s play-in game — against Syracuse, an ACC bid I wish had been swapped out for Notre Dame, a much more interesting and fun team to watch, with perhaps the ACC’s most likable coach — happens to be in Duke’s half of the Midwest Region bracket, making it possible for the Blue Devils to play both Hurleys’ teams in consecutive tournament games. (Cue committee-has-a-sense-humor chorus.) That won’t happen, though, because Arizona State would have to beat not only Syracuse and its sticky 2-3 zone but then none other than the fearsome Michigan State Spartans — who, are, once again, the trendy pick to win the tournament, as it seems they are every year. The Spartans are the No. 3 seed in Duke’s region. Duke beat Michigan State earlier this year behind a career  night from hot-and-cold Grayson Allen, but that was nearly four months ago. A third-round rematch would be a potential powerhouse showdown in the round of 16, and it could be followed by Duke facing No. 1 seed Kansas in the regional final in Omaha. If the Blue Devils are going to the Final Four, they’ll have to earn it pretty much from the start. Even Iona can’t be discounted, if for no other reason than that the ghosts of Lehigh and Mercer are still perhaps hanging over Duke.

So with all that out of the way, where are our two teams now as they enter the tournament?

Duke plays at the highest level country, except when they don’t. That’s a way of saying that they’re a freshman-dominated team. They looked disengaged and outplayed in losing to Virginia Tech two weeks ago; looked terrifyingly great in storming back to beat UNC in their next game; had no trouble running away from Notre Dame in their first ACC Tournament game; and then let UNC slap them silly until a final, desperate rally in the last five minutes of the game almost produced another sensational comeback. You just never quite know with this team. At the level of efficiency and metrics there’s lots to love. Duke has the country’s third-best offense and seventh-best defense, per Pomeroy. They’ve got the best player in the country, in my opinion, and when Marvin Bagley III gets going he’s close to unstoppable. But they have long stretches of losing focus, and the solution Mike Krzyzewski has come with at guard doesn’t entirely work. Grayson Allen runs the show, but he isn’t a natural point guard, and no real priority seems to be given to feeding the ball to the post, where Bagley and Wendell Carter, Jr. ought to be primary options. It amazes me how many possessions go by without Bagley or Carter getting the ball anywhere near decent scoring position, if at all (although you could argue that anywhere Bagley gets the ball puts him in decent position to score). Krzyzewski’s guard-focused style is long practiced, of course, and he loves Allen; but it does seem like he runs the risk of living and dying by his lone senior.

As for Carolina, they’ve got the friendliest path to the Final Four of any No. 2 seed. They’ve been playing well, even in their loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament final. Unlike Duke, Carolina is pretty predictable out there on the floor. They tend to win or lose based on varying degrees of how well they do the things they always do (or try to do). In their win over Duke in the semifinals, they took seventeen more shots than the Blue Devils did by dint of offensive rebounds and points off turnovers. Against Virginia, those advantages weren’t there. They’re playing about at their peak — also unlike Duke, a team that could get a lot better in these last six games — but the question is whether UNC’s peak is high enough to take them back to the national championship. Probably not, but that a team that lost to Wofford at home this season and started the conference schedule 5-5 has set itself up for a decent shot at the Final Four may be reward enough.

The Tobacconist is unsure whether he will be back this season. He has enjoyed it tremendously — probably more than he’s enjoyed any season in recent memory, and that includes numerous Final Fours and championships by our two local teams in this decade. (This is just a reminder that either Duke or Carolina has been in the Final Four in six of the last ten seasons; had Kendall Marshall not fractured his wrist against Creighton in 2012, it’d almost surely be seven.) The sheer coltish excitement of watching Duke’s freshmen learn on the job — not to mention Bagley’s breathtaking ability, Carter’s great old-man post defense, Gary Trent, Jr.s’ sweet shooting — and the subtler simmer of UNC’s development have yielded all kinds of rewards, including three games against one another this season, all of them entertaining. No one reads these posts, I barely edit them. They’re just to express a personal joy in watching the local college basketball, which is the greatest college basketball in the world.

But for me March Madness is closer to March Sadness. The season is coming to an end, and even though there’s baseball, our chance to watch college basketball players is by definition limited. Grayson Allen, Joel Berry, and Theo Pinson have built tremendous legacies around here, and it’s hard to say goodbye to these kids who have played so hard for so many minutes, games and seasons — and who have been growing up, in their own different and tangled ways, before our eyes. And then there are the inevitable early exits by players like Bagley, leaving us to wonder what could have been had they stayed longer. There’s always a point in the season, usually right around the first Duke-UNC game in early February, when you feel as though it’s all just getting fully going, and then you realize how soon it’s all going to end. It has been a blue winter in more ways than one, and the Tobacconist feels fully saturated in the color, be it sky or midnight or some amalgamated shade. The NCAA Tournament is an awful lot of fun, but it’s also driven by unpredictability, unfairness, and bitterly quick ends to long work. It’s as hard to watch as it is fun. And it may be that between those opposed feelings, the best thing to do is to take it in quietly and let it speak for itself.

I leave you with a beautiful tune by the Pernice Brothers that I always associate with the end of winter and coming of spring. It’s called “The Weakest Shade of Blue.”