Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Balkan Gloom

If you've got it, you've earned it.

I'm stealing a term. The Balkan Gloom. This was a term that was passed to me by way of a Peace Corps Bulgaria volunteer via my dear site mate Brenna who had previously traveled through Bulgaria.

"He called it, The Balkan Gloom... do you know what I mean- like-" My other site mate Garrett and I nodded emphatically. Yes, we know what The Balkan Gloom is. It was as if we were cave men who had learned the first adjective ever uttered. It was an ineffable* and all encompassing feeling that had not previously been named, but since it had been named we understood what was happening to us and could fight against it. Like the scene in the movie when the scientist in the HAZMAT suit** holds a vial up to his eye, clenches his gloved hand and says to the others, "We've got it. Now we just have to cure it."

Let me explain. When I first got to Albania, I noticed that everyone walked around with a generalized scowl upon their faces, whereas in America we walk around with an tight-lipped grin. However, their scowl in no way denotes unhappiness, just as our grin in no way denotes that we have just received five dollars from a creepy stranger. Upon entering Albanian society, I wondered what the origin of the scowl was. I now know. The origin is the Gloom.

Imagine a cold, clammy, grandmother's hand massaging the back of your neck. Not your grandmother, just A grandmother. Imagine a one legged man playing an out of tune violin while standing on a stone bridge, at a foggy twilight, as he considers leaping off... on a Tuesday. Imagine an old woman in a headscarf still talking to her dead husband. Imagine a three legged dog... any three legged dog. Imagine the feeling of being grey. This my friends, is the Gloom. If you spend enough time in the Balkans the Gloom becomes you. And the Gloom must be fought mercilessly, just like Dustin Hoffman fought that disease in Outbreak.

One time Garrett and I were traveling through Kosovo to get to the Capital of Albania. Flurries of snow were blowing sidelong and the mini-bus had stopped for it's usual coffee break. Garrett and I watched as an old man stood shivering in the cold... eating a lemon. He wasn't just eating a lemon, he was devouring it like an apple, skin and all. With each bite he looked up, his face locked in the awful rictus that can come only from consuming a lemon like an apple. Snow piled on his shoulders and he finished the last horrible bit of the lemon. The worst part was, there was a crate of oranges directly to his right. We wanted to cry out to the man "NO! YOU DON'T HAVE TO EAT THAT LEMON! THERE ARE PLENTY OF OTHER, MORE DELICIOUS FRUITS INCHES FROM YOU." But we know it would have done no good. The Gloom wants what the gloom wants. His gloom wanted a lemon, peel and all.

At many points, we have all fallen victim to the Gloom. Over the snow deluged winter I once found myself scowling at the movie "Garden State" and thinking the thought, How dare you over and over again, for no reason. I once killed a scorpion in my apartment and left it's corpse out as a warning to others. Another time I read Camus' "The Stranger" just to sigh and say...you are so right before playing my violin while downing a bottle of cognac and then sweeping all of my papers off of my table and hurling the bottle into the roaring fire I had built in my fire place***. But part of having the Gloom, means that you have earned the Gloom. Because you have earned the Gloom it is yours to submit to or defeat****.

*Adj. unable to be effed.
** Like Dustin Hoffman from Outbreak.
***None of that is true.
**** See(**)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Once More into the Bar My Friends.

Marti ran off to find me on Facebook.

I walked down a spiral staircase with a glass of apple flavored vodka and was shocked to realize that the entire place was full of what we call in America... Hipsters. It was an Alice in Wonderland* moment where I opened a door to a place that looked all to familiar but all too different. It was like walking into a friendlier, cheaper, Los Angeles where no one was speaking English**.

So I sat at the bar and tried to look dangerous, and mysterious...ly... polite. Before long I found myself in a circle of Bulgarians watching a down pour of rain. We were talking about the idiosyncrasies of the Balkans, namely that it is a region of the world where somehow the friendliest people on the face of the earth are constantly locked in conflict with one another***. Of course this all stems from the fact that history's chess game had carved and re-carved borders again and again, so that the cultural heritage of any country in The Balkans, looks to a golden age of heros, kings, and large powerful borders which are recognized only by those countries.

Let's take Alexander the Great for example. Alexander the Great is the National hero of Macedonia. In the center of the Capital City of Macedonia there is a statue of Alexander the Great riding a triumphant steed, looking rad. After all it makes sense: his father was Philip of Macedonia- no slouch in the "conquering stuff" game himself. Now, this gets Grecian togas all in a knot.

However, and there is always a "however" in The Balkans. Greece claims that Macedonia at the time of Alexander was Greek. To which Macedonia responds by sticking it's tongue out and making a sweet bronze statue. I have heard Alexander claimed as having Albanian heritage as well. However, Macedonia is far more aligned with slavic countries like Bulgaria and Serbia, in spite of the fact that they have a large Albanian population.

And then there is Mother Theresa. Parents from Albania, born in Macedonia, did really cool stuff in India. So here's the question: to whom does Mother Theresa belong? The world probably, but you can't name an Airport after her if that's the case. The best way to describe it is like looking at one of those "Magic Eye" books, which I could never make look. You look at the big picture, and then you get really really close to it. Then you let your vision go fuzzy, and you slowly move the book away from you. Before you realize it, you've been staring at a page of squiggles for an hour, you're cross eyed, and saying, "I think I see something," while the guy next to you thinks you look like an idiot.

Ultimately the conversation bubbled down to a couple of Bulgarian guys and myself asking the universe in a self-effacing manner... "What can you do?" A very common phrase in the Balkans. The answer is... "Not a whole lot." History is what it is. A very unsatisfying answer filled with great people that did cool stuff

After I had finished my Bulgarian cocktail I was asked what I was drinking.

"What kind?"
"Whatever is Bulgarian."

*But a dude version... Hank in Crazydangerousjungleland.
***Imagine if Hawaii, Oregon, Minnesota, and Canada shared the same peninsula and harbored thousands of years of historical pent up rage.

I Don't Always Drink, but When I do... I Drink Bulgarian.

Marti, my new new best friend.

I'm drinking Bulgarian beer. I know that I'm drinking Bulgarian beer, because whenever I travel I want to consume as many things from the country as possible, this goes hand and hand with a natural inclination to consume beer. Whilst ordering, I narrow my eyes to slits as if considering with the tastes of a true Connoisseur... "What ever is the most... Bulgarian." Upon being presented a bottle I nod at the selection and thank them, in loud slow English with a slavic accent.

Before I bellied up to the bar however, my new friend Marti, grabbed me by the elbow and asked in a gentle yet assertive voice, "Do you like to drink vodka?" It was much in the same way that I have been asked in the past, "yes" for very different reasons.

Marti was overjoyed that I had heard about this libation, "Vodka" I explained that we had such a thing in America as well, and had consumed it on one or two occasions. He got a cup and a bottle of vodka from the fridge. he ever so delicately unscrewed the cap, seemingly shuddering with an inward giggle.

"This is the best vodka in Bulgaria. It's the most Bulgarian!"

Click. Boom. Marti and I. Just became friends. He then proceeded to pour me a half glass of vodka and his inward giggle jumped out.

"This is how we drink in Bulgaria."
"That's great!" I exclaimed. "We drink like that in America too!"(using cups)

I found myself giggling as well. Me and my new best friend were jumping up and down in the kitchen of the hostel. He handed me my cup of vodka which he had sprinkled with a dash of apple juice. I'm told this is a traditional Bulgarian cocktail*.

"You should stay another day!" Marti said**.
"I want to!"
"You should!"
"I love Sofia!"
"It is great place!"
"But, I can't!"
"I'm getting on a 19 hour bus to Czech Republic tomorrow."

There was a pause in our new found rapture. It was as if I had called my mom and she said that I could not pull a double sleep over with Marti, because I had a doctor's appointment in the Czech Republic.

"But we can make Facebook friends!" Exclaimed Marti.
"Yeah!" I exclaimed back.

We then drank to our mutual friendship

*By Bulgarian I mean Sophomore year of college.

**It should be mentioned at this point I am sober as a judge, just very very very tired and overwhelmed. Imagine locking a cat in a box made of mirrors and turning a strobe light on inside of it. I kind of felt like that.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Yelling... for No Damn Good Reason.

Moving it from one to two, to even three exclamation points

There have been moments here in Albania that I have found myself exclaiming and doing a touch-down dance* for things completely normal things. Allow me to explain:

Over the winter a national state of emergency was declared in Trapoja, my region of Albania. My pipes froze completely leaving me without water for two months. In an attempt to rectify the problem, my neighbor and I made a small fire under the pipe, using only a lighter and a pizza box. When this didn't work he patted me on the shoulder and said, "Wait for Spring."

As it turned out Spring was two months and 9 feet of snow from the initial attempt to un-freeze my pipes. I would hike to my site mate's house with a backpack full of empty water bottles, fill those water bottles, and then hike back to my place, often times falling directly through the snow, much to the amusement of the gypsy family that lives near that hill. I grew a beard and I made soups out of the available vegetation, such as, potatoes, and rice. I stayed in one room all winter, and watched an impressive Manson-esque beard grow on my face. I left my house only for coffee, more rice and potatoes, and to ensure that I still existed**.

When the day came that a fine trickle of water issued from my faucet again, I lept to my feet dancing and yelling, swearing with joy in both English and Albanian, as if I had beaten the season of Winter itself.

We are on a water schedule where I live, which means that water does not always come out when I turn the tap on. Usually we have water for about 3 to 4 hours a day, but the tricky part is that it can be turned on WHENEVER. Empty water\beer bottles have become my life blood. I have a store of between 10-20 empty bottles at all times***, which I fill religiously whenever I have water. Some of these water bottles will be frozen in the summer months to pack my body in ice in order to sleep. And during the summer months they will be filled with warm water... again to sleep with.

We are also subject to frequent power outages, during which time, we strap on our headlamps and pretend to be SWAT team members****

But there is a moment of distinct unimaginable joy that is absolutely unparalleled by anything that I had experienced in the states, when the power or the water or both, come back on.

More often than I would care to mention, I am moved to ecstasy as I hear the gurgle of water slowly tricking down into my apartment.

Many is the time that I have yelled at a light bulb which is slowly fading in and out saying:

"DON'T YOU DO IT! DON'T YOU GO OUT! YOU WILL NOT GO OUT!" only to be left in pitch black with nothing left to do but to put on my slowly fading headlamp and pretend to raid crack houses, until I'm too tuckered out, and have to go to bed... at 7PM.

The limitless power of having electricity and water at exactly the same time is akin to godliness. Do me a favor, waste some water and power for me, just turn on every light and faucet in your house or apartment. Just do it, and feel incredible.

*Obie or Outer-Critics Award nomination dance for people who work in theatre.
**Natural question: Showering? Answer: No, not at all.
***Peace Corps Rookie mistake: not filling up your water bottles when you have water. You never know when you'll have water again.
**** I may be the only one that does that.

19 Hours in Sofia, Bulgaria

Sofia, I will return to you.

Lindita dropped me off at an amazing hostel* near the center of Sofia Bulgaria.

I checked in, to be greeted by Marti. Marti was the kind of guy who seemed to be always surprised to see you and glad that you were there at the exact same time. I found out within the first ten minutes of our conversation that he was a part of the famous puppet theatre of Bulgaria.

There is an odd pheromone that theatre people give off that intrinsically attracts us to one another. On another occasion I found myself stranded in Macedonia (this was a completely separate occasion from the ones previously listed, but I have come to know Macedonia as the country that people get stranded in). After walking with a friend in a thicket of Macedonian villages we stumbled upon, what I can only describe as, a Macedonian hippy retreat. Hippies like cockroaches can survive anywhere, provided there are enough good vibes around, upon which to feed. Having no way back to Albania and no way deeper into Macedonia I talked to the first person that I saw who happened to be a part of a theatre troupe which had just closed a production of The Winter’s Tale.
“Exit pursued by bear.” I said, as if it were a secret password that only theatre people understood, and suddenly I was offered a free ride on the Theatre troupes bus deeper into Macedonia.

Now back to Bulgaria. After Marti showed me around the hostel and gave me my complimentary welcome shot** he handed me a map of Sofia and said,
“Have fun! Don’t get lost.” But what he didn’t realize was, that I already was lost, I was so lost that I was exactly where I wanted to be.

There are few things that I like in life more than to walk around cities in which I don’t speak the language. It is like being a toddler again, everything is new and strange and you find yourself giggling at things which are completely normal to those around you. Though they may contain the exact same things that you have seen a million times before*** because they have been recontextualized in a forigen tongue, they become wacky and neat.

Furthermore, everything becomes a story. I just crossed a street IN SOFIA BULGARIA! I just ate ice cream IN SOFIA BULGARIA! I just squinted at a subway map for twenty minutes trying to find the little dot for “where I am”…in every city I’ve ever been in. That last experience remains relatively the same.

I knew I had only 19 hours with sweet sweet Sofia Bulgaria and I was determined to get everything I could from the experience. So I walked. I walked like I was hunting for a long lost lover, or the man who killed her, or both. I physically tried to limit the amount of times that I blinked, because that was one mili-second of Sofia that I would miss. I walked until my legs felt like long packages of battered day-old salamis bought at a Mexican 99 cents store. There was no way physically they should have held together.

I want tell you everything that I saw, but I can’t. Because the signs were written in the Cyrillic Alphabet. I saw beautiful Orthodox Churches, and incredible street art. I saw bizarre meats hanging in windows and I heard people speaking in languages other than Albanian. I smelled the first subway that I’ve smelled in over two years, which immediately whisked me back to New York, as the smell of diesel and feet usually does.

After being in rural Albania I was in a city for the first time for a year and I was anonymous. And anonymity is amazing when deprived of it, and horrifying when deluged with it. One of those handy double edged swords of modern American life which I was glad to be playing with again.

When I returned to the hostel, people began gathering in the bar downstairs. I found the nearest computer and emailed my mother with the subject line, “Guess where I am now.” And after rhapsodizing about Bulgaria I joined the people in the bar.

That’s when the night got awesome.

*Art Hostel, 10 Euro a night and well worth it.
** A practice which should be adopted most places, not just European hostels, churches, banks, the gym, possibly Costco. Something to think about.
***Buildings, people, other stuff.

Monday, July 2, 2012

On the bus to Bulgaria.

The Dali Lama said something about how every moment is intrinsically meaningful unto itself, that there is no such thing as wasted time.

I kept thinking about the Dali Lama on my bus ride to Bulgaria, because I had already found time to think about everything else, so I decided to go through the alphabet and I was at “D”. In between the bouts of a state of manic lethargy that I’ve come to know as “sane enough to travel,” and the bowel clinching fear of going to a country that I knew literally two things about* the Dali Lama came up frequently.

While thinking about the Dali Lama’s words I realized, how awesome it would be to be the Dali Lama. Homeboy can say anything and it’s printed on a billion “thought of the day calendars.” And he gets to be reincarnated.

While, I had expected to be in Austria at the time I ended up on a bus to Bulgaria, no one path was any better or worse, it was just different. Traveling is traveling; there is no right or wrong way to do it. Despite any fastidiously laid plans, eventually everyone ends up where they need to be. You only lose if you stop, and you only stop if you believe that you ever knew where you were going.

My site mate Garrett (who you will come to meet later) has said, in all of his small town American wisdom: “Man, places are like beers. If I like a place it’s because of the people I’m with when I’m there. If I like a beer, it’s because I had a great time drinking that beer with the people I was with. Boom. Done. Beers and countries.”

Any time he says “Boom. Done.” You know that he has made his point.

As the grey green landscape of Macedonia and Bulgaria rolled past, the windows speckling with rain my new friend (who I will call, Lindita because I didn’t have prior approval to use her in this blog) sat behind me. She showed me a video of her flute students playing heart-breakingly beautiful music in a music hall in Prishtina. She gave me a book of her poetry and music the title of which translated to “Riddle.” All I had was a copy of George Orwell’s "Down and Out in Paris and London.**" She signed her book, saying “Good luck in Bulgaria.”

I already had very good luck.

At one point a large German man sat next to me, cramming me against the window. He talked at me for the better part of an hour about… well everything. His large belly rumbled pushing me closer and closer to the window as he orated in a thick German accent. I had merely asked him if there was a bus to Prague from Bulgaria, and unwittingly made a new Balkan Bus friend. From our one sided conversation I gained the following information:

He is a very famous cardiologist. Who is subsequently on a waiting list in the Netherlands for… wait for it… a new heart***

One of his fingernails was painted red with the Sanskrit word for “Om” painted on it.

He smelled like wet cigarettes and Macedonian coffee.

He was owed hundreds of thousands of Euros from a lawsuit against a Bulgarian branch of an international medical device retailer.

He enjoys Harley Davidson Motor Cycles and according to him has two of them waiting for him in two of his three homes, located around the world.

He enjoys medicine but he hates talking to patients. This is a direct quote, “They always want to talk! I say: You stressed? You want a prescription? I tell you what- you smoke a joint when you go home every night and you won’t be stressed any more.” He then threw up his Christmas ham sized forearms and looked at me like I should be taking notes… In the interest of complete disclosure, I was taking notes.

He then grabbed my leg and turned to me to give me some paternal advice, “I lived in a cave in Greece for a year. I was making silver jewelry for all of the pretty girls. You should do that. I don’t know why you’re in Albania. You could go live in a cave in Greece.”

Yes, I could go and live in a cave in Greece. I suppose, I hadn’t considered that. Given how the first three days of my trip had gone, all options were on the table, and I could only assume that the Dali Lama would approve.

At the end of the bus ride, the German man handed me his card and said- “So here. Take this, you can find me on the internet. Have a good life.”

Lindita then took me to the Bulgarian Bus station and asked if there was a bus to Prague... In Bulgarian... because Lindita speaks Bulgarian too... My Balkan bus buddies are the best****.

The travel agent said they had one bus left and told me the departure and arrival time. I said that I would take the ticket.

I then did some rudimentary finger math. When I ran out of fingers I realized that I had just booked myself a 19 hour bus ride to the Czech Republic.

*They have a great puppet theatre, and their organized crime syndicate is called “The Octopus.” As far as I know these organizations are not related.

** I know that title is supposed to be underlined but I can't figure out how to underline or indent on blogger yet. I'll figure it out.

***I flashed back to a theatre professor explaining “dramatic irony.”
**** One million blog experience points for alliteration! You have advanced to the next level, from "Knight" to "Berserker."

Everybody Quits at Eleven.



This is how you say “eleven” in Albanian, and it almost made me book a plane ticket home. Given the fact that I had already opened my bag in my hotel room, I reconsidered. I was not about to re-pack everything.

Our first day of our Pre-Service Training (PST if you’re into Peace Corps Acronyms…PSA’s) I woke up to the sound of a cock crowing and the Muezzin’s Call to prayer floating in to my hotel room from the Mosque. After months of spending nights on any horizontal surface that would have me*, I finally woke up knowing where I was. I was in Albania.

The day began with a brief run down of Peace Corps rules and meeting our new trainers, many of whom I had worked up an entire dossier on via shameless Facebook stalking, (see post “Fake Albanian” for information as to why I’m not creepy, but in fact, overly prepared).

We then jumped into our first language class. I briefly cursed myself for throwing away my flash cards before getting on the plane, but I didn’t want the other Peace Corps Volunteers to think I was a geek for having flash cards. They would have to come to that realization on their own.

That being said, I was fully prepared to blow minds with my freshly acquired Albanian vocabulary**. And then they actually started speaking Albanian.

Given that I learned to pronounce what few Albanian words I knew from Youtub-ed Albanian music videos, my accent was slightly off***, but I would make up for that by saying things loudly and flailing my arms around. This is how you make friends with people you’re going to live with for two years.

And then we came to the word for eleven. The teacher said it, and then came the sound of bubble wrap being stepped on in another room, which was the sound of a series of small aneurisms that everyone in the entire room was having at the same time. I wanted to slam my hand down on the table and yell:


And then came twelve.


We all gave it our best shot. At one point you could see everyone in the entire room silently mouthing the word for “eleven” over and over again. I comforted myself by trying to think how often, I really used the word “eleven” in English.

I resolved never to say it in Albanian… ever… in two years. In fact I wouldn’t use any of the teens as they were all incredibly difficult to say. I would only purchase things in multiples of ten. If I were to meet a teenager, I would round their age off to the nearest ten. While my Peace Corps Service was supposed to extend from 2011 to 2013, I would now say that it goes from 2010 to 2020. My time as a Peace Corps Volunteer has really taught me that if something is hard, you can always find a way around doing it. Unless you can’t.

In spite of my distain for the Albanian word for “eleven” I stayed… And learned that there were far more un-pronounceable words in Albanian. After a year and a half I cannot pronounce the difference in the words for, “stamp,” chicken” and “forest.***”

I wake up in a cold sweat some nights after having a nightmare about needing to say, “Excuse me, I need a stamp because I have to mail this chicken to my friend. He lives in the forest. Actually, on second thought, can I get eleven stamps. No. make it twelve chicken stamps for the forest chicken package. Thank you.”

I must say though after spending a year and a half learning to speak Albanian, I have realized that my best teachers have always been my students. Who have laughed at my goofy accent mercilessly for an entire school year, and will likely do so for one school year more.

Even so, I miss my students madly over summer.

Language learning is literally always going on, in English or any other language we are constantly attempting to make ourselves understood. In the end, the plasticity of language and over coming cultural misunderstanding can be summed up most clearly and succinctly by one of America’s greatest thinkers and poets, in his immortal words:

To try and to fail, the two things I hate
Succeed in this rap game, the two things that's great
H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A
What else can I say about dude, I gets bu-sy


Please don’t sue me.
But if you read this blog, do you want to be friends?

*My buddy Deven’s couch, my buddy Dave’s couch, my buddy Deven’s floor (if I didn’t quite make it to the couch), my bed in my childhood bedroom, the other bed in my childhood bedroom (to mix things up) my buddy Dave’s parent’s floor, a literal closet in New York, I mean an actual closet, I am not being hyperbolic here and I am fully aware of any and all comments that can be made about my living in a closet. I will gracefully accept any and all zingers posted below in the comment section or sent to my private email.

** Sword, male turkey, island, motorcycle.
***Hilariously atrocious given that all of the Albanian music videos were auto-tuned. I thought that was just the accent.
****Spelled, pule, pyl, and pyll. IT ALL SOUNDS LIKE THE WORD “PULL.”