They say that virtual friends aren’t real friends, that people we meet online are a poor excuse for face-to-face social interaction. “They” are wrong. I met Ruth Pennebaker online perhaps a year and a half ago. I don’t even remember how I discovered her blog but I vividly recall being enamored with her self-deprecating, sugary-sarcastic writing style from the moment I read her first post. Her first adult novel, What Did I Do to Deserve This?, will be published in January 2011; the novel is about three generations of women living under one roof – so you could call it a horror story.
Ruth normally lives in Austin, where she blogs at Geezersisters.com and pens the Urban Cowgirl column for the Texas Observer, does yoga and frets. However, nearly a year ago she and her husband seized an opportunity to live in New York City for a year, which may have just whetted her appetite for travel writing. Although Ruth loves to travel, our styles are completely different. While I’m intrepid, she’s meek: “I always, always expect to die, even when I’m just going down the block. Miraculously, I’ve so far managed to make it in New York for almost a year, but am keeping my fingers crossed.” Since she has such a different viewpoint on travel, we thought it might be fun to publish her travel piece about little-visited Albania here on Hole In The Donut Travels. If you’d like to read more from Ruth, visit her blog, Geezersisters.com. So without further ado, here is “Albania and Me,” by Ruth Pennebaker.
My heart sank a couple of years ago when I saw the TV footage of one of George W. Bush’s recent trips. There he was – being cheered and embraced by a worshipful throng in the capital city of Tirana, Albania.
Oh, great, I thought. Just what I needed: Albania in the international spotlight. Next thing you know, the Bushes will be taking vacations there, basking in the sunlight and adulation, and Albania will be teeming with American tourists.
It wasn’t fair. Albania had been our country – my husband’s, son’s and mine.
No, I hadn’t been to China or Bali or Morocco. I wasn’t a big-time explorer. I didn’t like to rough it or take extreme trips. I was more the cringing, neurotic type.
But hold on, cowboy. I’ve been to Albania. Have you? No, I didn’t think so.
“You can’t go to Albania.”
“Albania? Are you crazy?”
It was the summer of 1998. My husband, son and I had spent three weeks in southern Italy, where my husband had been a visiting professor. Now, we needed to make our way to Greece for a conference.
Albania was east of Italy, across the Adriatic, and just north of Greece. As the crow flies, it made sense. My husband hated birds, but he’d found his guide for this trip.
The only problem was, every psychologist in Italy seemed intent on talking him out of it.
“Nobody goes to Albania.”
The more they objected, the more determined my husband became to go. He’s like that.
“Have you ever been to Albania?” my husband asked his detractors.
No, of course, they hadn’t been there. But Albania was a hellhole. Everybody knew that. It was a wretched, dangerous place, they all insisted. Even our Belgian friend, Bernard, who’d be meeting us at the conference in Greece, suggested we might be foolish. My husband told him to call the American Embassy if we didn’t make it to Greece on time.
“Why are you going to Albania?” the waitress asked. Our boat had just left Bari, Italy – a Scandinavian ship that featured Willie Nelson crooning in the background. We had already been upgraded to VIP status, since we were the only passengers not being deported back to Albania.
“Americans don’t usually go to Albania,” the waitress added.
“Have you ever been there?” my husband asked.
She nodded. “I’ve lived there my whole life.”
“Oh,” my husband said.
I ordered a drink.
A couple of hours later, the boat docked in Durres, which is on the west coast of Albania. “Isn’t this nice?” my husband said, even though it was dark. All you could see was the water and a smattering of people who watched us closely. One, a taxi driver, took us to a hotel we’d seen on the internet. It was boarded-up and empty.
He took us to another hotel that, unfortunately, was open. It was kind of like a sprawling concrete bunker without the room service. The toilets shut down at midnight. A barbed wire fence surrounded the hotel. I could see it gleaming in the moonlight as I drank and smoked heavily on the little porch outside our room.
It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I lacked the adventure gene. How had my ancestors settled in America – sailing rickety ships across the Atlantic, huddled in steerage, building sod huts? If it had been up to the likes of me, we’d all still be in the Old Country, complaining, but unmoving. After only a few hours in a new and exciting country, I was already in a state of nervous collapse and incipient alcoholism. Where was my spirit of adventure?
The next morning, a new taxi driver, Robert, was waiting for us.
“We want to see your Albania, Robert,” my husband said grandly. I wanted to kill him. I stopped blaming myself and started blaming him. It was his fault we were here in this dangerous country all the Italians had warned us about. The Italians had been right, I thought bitterly.
Worse, with Robert at the wheel – swiveling toward the backseat so he could practice his English on us – we were veering toward certain death. We ploughed into mammoth potholes and narrowly missed looming trucks, while Robert polished his language skills. Gravel and dust flew, horns bleated and every other car was a Mercedes.
Navigating from one near-collision to another, Robert drove us to Tirana. There, the hotel we checked into was like a decayed wedding cake, trailing shabby whiffs of ancient glamour and better days. My husband and son set off to find a travel agency to make arrangements about getting us to Greece.
“No flight out till next week,” my husband reported half an hour later. “No buses or trains, either.”
“You know, it was funny,” he added. “I asked them for a map of the country and they didn’t have one. Wouldn’t you think a travel agency would have a map?”
Worried – finally! – about my deteriorating mental condition, my husband called an Albanian psychologist whose name and number had been given us by one of the protesting Italian psychologists. He arrived an hour later, in a cold summer rain, wheeling his bicycle into the lobby of the hotel. He didn’t speak much English, so he and I spoke bad French and ordered Italian wine while we plotted our exit. He had a friend, he said, who was a taxi driver who could be hired to take us to the Greek border.
The next day, the psychologist’s friend drove us south. He pointed out the shrines of flowers along the highway, where drivers had been pulled from their cars and summarily executed after the nationwide pyramid scheme had failed. He showed us the hillside bunkers built to protect the country against invaders. He waved at us fervently as we made our way across the border, past glowering youths with machine guns.
“Aren’t you glad I insisted we go to Albania?” my husband’s asked again and again. As the years passed, I’ve come to agree. Who else has been to Albania? Not much of anyone. Till now.
But in 1998, we still had our good times. When we got to our hotel in Thessaloniki, we left a message for our Belgian friend, Bernard: Please to call the American Embassy about Pennebaker family.