J, who arrived here the 2nd, met us at the airport, and a taxi took us to Tirana. I sat in the back with a sleeping S on my lap, bags piled beside me, while J took the front seat next to Vladimir, the driver. Flocks of sheep and turkeys dotted the fields, along with haystacks, like Monet's "Wheatstacks." We even saw a horse-drawn hay wain being loaded by men wielding giant pitchforks, much like Heinrich Burkel portrayed in his "Loading the Hay-Wagon," sans the colorful, period clothes:
(Image via: Museum Syndicate)
Tirana seemed to creep up on us. Solitary houses, or apartment buildings, five or more stories high dot the countryside, slowly getting closer together, cozying up to odd businesses like like statuary sellers, car washes, bathroom/plumbery outfitters. One minute the city isn't really there, then it is, a mishmash of styles and contradictions, Communist concrete and thriving capitalist consumerism. Rundown buildings bristling with dingy satellite dishes, festooned with drying laundry, and garlanded with electrical wires are mixed pellmell with dernier cri supermarket architecture, cafes, and casinos. Cars race up and down wide avenues, paying little heed to lights and pedestrians, their drivers with one hand permanently on the horn. Not quite as loud as Hanoi, though.
Vladimir dropped us off at our building, assuring us he'll be happy to taxi us around whenever we need him. This is where we are staying, second balcony up is ours*:
And the view, along with little "accident" in the street below.
Nearby side street:
After a little nap for S, J took her to get some take out for us while I tried to get some shut eye. Since S hadn't slept since 3:50 am, neither had I. I don't know if I dozed or not; with all the honking and traffic, it was hard to tell. We had a late lunch (tasty food, but I can't remember what it was called), we went for a walk. Sunset was at 4:11 p.m., and don't you know that threw me for a loop.
Near where J works, I saw the unholy Christmas tree. Can anyone guess what made it unholy? I wanted to get a pic of it today, but it was too dark when we went back that way. I'll try to get a photo tomorrow...
I'm not sure how far we walked, but feeling headachy from fatigue and pollution, I suggested we stop at a cafe to have a hot drink and rest for a bit. Not being able to speak or understand Albanian makes things interesting. I ordered hot chocolate, and the server asked me "black" or "white." J and I both looked at him with confusion plain on our faces and he said something about sugar. "Black," I said, "no sugar, but with whipped cream on top." So back he comes a few minutes later and presents me with a divine looking cup of hot chocolate. The cream was tasty, but when I dipped my spoon in deeper, I lifted out what looked like lumpy hot cocoa. I tasted it and lo and behold hot pudding. In a cup.
And then the lights went out in the cafe and street. The whole street. But not in the next one over because the lights in the high-rise apartments there never flickered. A grocery store got its generator up and going, with the casino next door quick to follow, but we were in the dark. That is until the server put his Nokia phone in a glass on our table to serve as a lamp. It was a bizarre experience, sipping hot pudding in the dark, listening to the murmur of Albanian.
Later, after our dinner at a Turkish restaurant, when the server told me they had no mint tea, I asked for another hot chocolate, determined to find out of it was some kind of mistake or an Albanian treat. No pudding this time, just an icky drink of baking cocoa powder and water. Well, there went the nifty idea of Albanians sipping hot pudding. Then this morning, sorting through the things J's colleague left in the apartment cupboard, we found packets of instant pudding (black and white) with the directions in Italian. So I guess it is an Italian thing (lots of Italians come here for hols). Anyone know if it is so?
We ended the evening with a stroll through a Christmas market where you can buy things as varied as pet supplies, frozen food, phone services, and cheap looking copies of traditional Albanian dress in the little chalets. Aside from the ornaments and fake trees for sale at the beginning of the market, nothing much about it spoke of Christmas. I mean besides the giant tree at the end where Santa Claus sat with his elf while some freaky, scary electronic music blared to put everyone in the holiday spirit.
* Pics belong to J. I'll get out and take more when he goes to work tomorrow, weather permitting.