June 16, 1999
The Albanian Chronicle: Food and Lodging
Many of you asked about food and lodging, so I will take a time out from the more meaningful things going on here to describe the basics. My apartment looks like a slum from the outside. You have to walk through this short alleyway to get to it from the street, and you walk through piles of rubble and garbage. This is a very dirty city, and dusty. And no one takes care of the outsides of their buildings so they all look decrepit and falling down. But inside is a whole different story. My apartment, for example, is MUCH nicer than my house in Eagan. (That's not saying much, is it?) Tile floors everywhere, nice furniture, a large screen tv, 2 porches with open windows and no screens but they do have mosquito netting in the form of lacy curtains.
It is common for Albanians to rent out their places after renovating them completely with the rent money, because the amount of money foreigners are willing to pay for rent here goes a long way. Albanians only make about $300 per month, even for the professionals. I just hired a doctor as a social worker. He'll be making more money with us at $300 per month than he did as a doctor. I also hired a vice principle of an elementary school. She may only be with us through the summer though. They have the summers off just as our teachers do.
I'm on the fifth floor of a six story apartment. And usually it is dark when I come home from work/dinner at the end of the day. There are no elevators and no lights in the stairway. So it was a bit scary the first couple times I had to walk up in the dark, but it is comforting to know that there is an Kolishnakov armed guard just outside the entrance to the building who I have gotten to know and always try to say a few words to him in Albanian. Our building is guarded because someone important lives here... an ambassador or something. There is also no air‑conditioning here, but the heat is very dry, so its not quite so bad. I have been sleeping well after those first few days and getting used to the time change. They also don't really have showers stalls here. The bathrooms are totally tiled and the shower head is on the wall sometimes over a tub and sometimes not. So, in effect the whole bathroom is the shower stall, with a drain on the floor. It was like this in Russia, too. And the water heaters are hanging on the wall in the corner of the bathroom. There have been more afternoons than not where the water everywhere does not run. Its like a mandatory water conservation technique. Works very well!! We haven't had rain since I've been here.
When I first came, they found an apartment for me, but even before it was renovated, we moved a Kosovar family in there, because of their sick father, who was dying of lung cancer. I visited him the day before he died, last Saturday. He had lung cancer, and had withered away to nothing but bone. They were trying to emergency evacuate him and his wife and six children to the US where he has a sister in the army. He apparently didn't want to die in a strange country. We visited them again on Sunday morning after we heard that he had died at 2AM. The family will soon be flying to the US.
The food is not very diverse. Most of the restaurants are Italian. Pizza and any pasta dish you can imagine. Last night, however, I had a decent Cobb salad with egg, corn, bacon, chicken, a small bit of lettuce, and cabbage, with a tasty dressing of some kind that approximated ranch I suppose.
Last night, I met our program manager for dinner at 7:30 (because we typically work late) at the Piazza, one of the more nicely decorated restaurants in Tirana. I arrived early and found one of our Kosovar staff caseworkers having a beer with the owner of the restaurant and a journalist from Voice of America at an outdoor seating area, which is always packed in the evenings. The owner of the restaurant, Dannika, agreed that Tirana is very boring food wise. She would love to open a sushi place next to the Piazza. It would be the first in the country and she's not sure how it would be received. I encouraged her of course, being a big fan of sushi. She is Albanian‑American. Her father owns some MacDonalds franchises in the US. I usually eat dinner with my international co‑workers and we usually talk about work, because we are all going in different directions during the day, so this is the time to catch up.
This is one of the contradictions here. Within a matter of hours, I am talking with displaced homeless people who have nothing left materially in their lives, and then am enjoying a nice dinner in an air‑conditioned restaurant. Why am I not in their shoes and they in mine? I'm looking for some answers to this question... anyone??
In the next Edition of the Albanian Chronicle, I'll be talking about the Kosovars I've met. Until then, I remain...
Your Albanian correspondent,