Exotic Cities, Part Twelve: Elbasan, Albania
August 19, 2009
Have I got a scoop for you! There will be big news coming out of Albania, but you’re getting it from me first! You already know that Cher Bono’s daughter, Chastity, who now calls herself Chaz, intends to get a sex change and marry her girlfriend. And they intend to have a baby with the help of a sperm donor. Who will that sperm donor be? Well, here’s the scoop: the sperm donor will be Edison Begaj, of Elbasan, Albania!
The world’s entertainment media will be crushing into the airport at Tirana, the capital of Albania, and they’ll be stampeding over each other to be the first to shove a mike into the bushy moustache of the handsome gym teacher at Elbasan High School. In a matter of weeks, you’ll be reading all about sperm donor Edison Begaj in your favorite gossip magazines, including such need-to-know tidbits as:
* how he got chosen over 47 other candidates!
* who found him!
* what Cher really thinks of him!
* his secret affairs with Britney Spears and Kourtney Kardashian!
* his links to the Albanian monarchy!
* his favorite hang-outs and getaways!
* how he crossed the Sahara Desert on foot — and why!
* his kinky sex life and secret vices!
* how to make him love you!
All that and more is coming to your local newsstand!
But for now, let’s learn all about the exotic city of Elbasan, which is located about 25 miles southeast of Tirana, along the banks of the romantic Shkumbin River. It was here, in fact (right beside the river), that Regis Philbin was conceived during a night of poetic and breathless love. Today, artisanal gold miners pan the river for nuggets of gold, which are then sold to buy guns. After all, what is an Albanian without a gun? Preferably two guns. For, just like the two-headed eagle on the Albanian flag, the traditional Albanian wants to look in two directions at once, thereby ensuring that he will never be caught off guard. And his moustache must be big and bushy, for Albanians are proud of having the most masculine moustaches in the world. King Zog, the last ruling king, had a fine moustache, which was copied by aristocrats around the world. (The moustache was stolen from his grave in 1975, and its present whereabouts are unknown.)
The area around Elbasan was fought over many times in Albania’s illustrious history (although no one is sure why), and control was finally wrested by ethnic Albanians from the Uzghurs in the 1780’s. Today it is rich in Turkish, Italian, and Greek influences, along with a less desirable gypsy influence.
My host in Elbasan was Hotel Manager Gregory Lehman of the Renaissance Elbasan. He has an Albanian mother and returned to his roots after growing up in the U.S. The Renaissance is the only good hotel in Elbasan by American standards, although Lehman admits it’s long overdue for a “refreshing.” Security costs have been high, owing to occasional political unrest. All the staff are armed, and the front is reinforced to withstand a good-sized bomb. But there have been no incidents in well over a year.
Albanians are a friendly people, but in some ways odd. Here’s how you shake hands in Albania: bow at the waist while sticking your forefinger up your nose. Then straighten up and shake forefingers. Ignore any snot. Don’t be a wimp. Be a man. Snot never killed anyone. This is how we bond in Albania. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization has condemned this practice,which is the reason why Albania was for many years an isolated country with a suspicion of foreigners.
But that’s changing fast. Now they want everyone to come on over and eat some kebabs, and dance to the music of the cuica (a stringed instrument), and buy souvenirs.
Tourists are really starting to dig Elbasan, according to Greg Lehman. The only negative is the gypsies. They’re all pickpockets and scam artists. And they use their kids. One kid will go up to a tourist and distract him with some simple object, and another kid will come up from behind and lift the wallet, and then they’ll run like hell. What can you do, put them in jail? Lehman’s advice is to pick up the first kid immediately and throw him against anything hard or in front of a truck. “The worst punishment that can possibly happen is that you’ll be told to pack up and go home. But usually the police don’t do anything. They’re on our side.”
Elbasan is noteworthy for its donkey monorail, a transport system that is unique in the world. It was supposed to be a proper electric monorail, but because of political troubles, it ended up as a patchy network of unpowered rails with junked cars hanging underneath. There are ladders and platforms along the way, and you go up and climb into this car body (such as an East German Trabant), and it gets towed by a donkey on the ground wearing a big harness. The donkey is guided by a “transport worker,” who wears a pale blue skirt, baggy white shirt, a fez, and soft white shoes with tassels. This uniform is called a kefte and dates back centuries, and to wear one is a mark of manliness and honor. The rail lines are mostly in the bombed-out sections of the city and basically go from nowhere to nowhere. Pay the transport worker whatever you like. Just remember that he gets no salary and has to feed his family, as well as the donkey.
Elbasan has lots of cheap little restaurants with garbled American names like Mcdoonald, Bulgar King, Windys, Techo Bell, and Kintky Fry Chiken. But all the food is the same — goat or lamb kebabs, rice, and lentil soup. The local brewery, Hoxha (pronounced HO-jah), was blown up five years ago, so you have to take your chances with whatever unlabeled stuff the proprietor puts in front of you. It could be home-made or bootlegged. Hey, don’t be a wimp. Just drink it like a man! (The Renaissance serves proper beverages, depending on what the manager can get that day from his contacts.)
Shopping is limited to a few blocks on the main street. You can buy clothing, ice cream, cigarettes, and guns. Femi’s, a large store of general merchandise, owned by Femi Rabi, resembles a 1960’s Kresge, except for the anti-aircraft gun on the roof. Street vendors are everywhere with their bootlegged goods and local “arts and crafts,” such as wallets that are the wrong size for your money.
Nostalgic pictures of King Zog and dictator Enver Hoxha can still be seen on the sides of buildings, marred by bullet holes. Politically, Albanians can’t decide what they are any more. There is a small, die-hard Royalist faction that wants to put King Leka (Zog’s son) on the throne, but he shaved his moustache during his years in exile and became too Western. Leka is 7 feet tall, lives in Tirana, and trades commodities.
Elbasan’s most influential citizen is Agim Sufa, an aging cantaloupe mogul, who is occasionally seen riding through town in his armored limousine, shooting at gypsies from the back seat. The city’s Mayor, Midat Canaj, is never around. He spends all his time on a yacht and shows up briefly when it’s time to get re-elected — just like Adam Clayton Powell.
Elbasan’s most noteworthy geographical feature is the large area of peat bogs east of the city. For centuries nobody knew what they really were — only that they weren’t safe to walk on, and lots of drunks would wander out on them at night and sink in and die. But more recently, a proper scientific study was carried out by Prof. Erion Dulaj, of the Albanian Institute of Advanced Studies, in Tirana, who determined that they were, in fact, peat bogs. An archeological team did excavations and found well-preserved specimens of early man dating back to the Bronze Age, which they named “Elbasan Man.” According to Prof. Dulaj, Elbasan Man was a hunter and gatherer, enjoyed sports, got along well with people, stayed up late, was kind to children, believed in family values, saved his money, and had a good sense of humor. One of these specimens of Elbasan Man now stands in the corner of a barber shop owned by Milan Mitic. He thinks of it as the son he never had.
Peat from the bogs is now used as fuel by the Chinese steel mills that impart a lovely brown color to the sky and add their fragrances to the fields of daffodils and petunias nearby. And a Chinese company is now processing vegetation from the bog for a new breakfast cereal called Weedies.
The unregulated development of Elbasan has taken its toll on the endangered Albanian marmoset, which has seen its habitat diminished relentlessly by deforestation and the building of a never-completed shopping mall. The mall’s only tenant is the Albanian Army, which uses it as an armory and for training.
But the Shkumbin River is still clean enough for fishing. The river is home to the rare, delectable jaraqui fish, found nowhere else in the world. Elbasaners eat it fried, with salt and malt vinegar, out of large cone-shaped containers of stiff paper. (Gordon Ramsay gets $40 for one in London.) The fish is rich in selenium and chromates, which may explain why the average life span in Elbasan is 85 years (not including victims of crime, accidents, genocide, or suicide).
The river also has many large black slugs, which are said to cure cancer. Dr. Mjallaq Pergjika, one of Elbasan’s outstanding physicians, has opened a clinic and now treats people from all over the world. He also sells his black slug cancer cure over the Internet.
Ask a taxi driver to take you to see the crop circles. Three circles about 30 feet in diameter appeared mysteriously one night in 2006 and still remain. They have never been explained. Did alien spacecraft land there? Did they abduct young women to serve as sex slaves? Hell, I would have.
Humpbacked zebu cattle graze around the charred stumps of new pastures, boys wearing team uniforms play soccer on an emerald field, and small but proud farmhouses nestle among fruit trees and flowers. A sign on a gas station reads, “Hier Sprechts Deutsch.”
Summer is the time for the Elbasan Goat Festival. Farmers bring their goats in and show them off in a big corral to the admiring public before trucking them over to the slaughterhouse. The goats are slaughtered in the traditional Albanian way — a bullet in the head.
The ugliest goat, however, gets special treatment. Townsfolk decide which is the ugliest goat of them all, and this one is given the name of a hated person. (This year it was Ed Swiderski.) The goat is strangled by several strong boys, and then its head is smashed several times with a rock. To Elbasaners, the Ugly Goat is a symbol of everything bad, so killing it is supposed to bring good luck for the coming year.
Elbasan now has a sister city in the U.S. — Glencoe, California. Formerly known as Mosquito Gulch, Glencoe was a mining town long ago and is now an unincorporated town. Arrangements at their end were handled by State Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, who told me, “Make sure I get full credit for this.” Okay, I just licked the stamp. Elbasan is happy about it, and Ahab Books, in Glencoe, is especially happy. Their manager told me, “Maybe now we can get rid of your books.”
Before I left Elbasan, I had a farewell drink with Greg Lehman at the Renaissance. We watched a clique of transvestites in lingerie and fishnet hose making merry. “We’re getting everything from the West now,” said Greg. “This is the new Albania. Like the man says, ‘Get used to it.'” I asked him what the local people thought about Chaz Bono getting a sperm donor from Elbasan. “Oh, it’s the talk of the town! Funny thing is, everyone always assumed Edison Begaj was queer. And there are a few other things about him you ought to know….” But this is where I have to cut it short. I don’t want to spoil things for all those entertainment journalists who have to make a living.
Recommended vaccinations: Dercum’s Disease, toxoplasmosis, megaloblastic anemia.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: email@example.com