Thursday, July 10, 2014

Albania, Albania - You Border on the Adriatic

Where is Albania? Well, as anyone who is a fan of Cheers should know, Albania borders on the Adriatic and is mostly  mountainous. Darla and I along with our Dear Comrades Li Wei and Ann Yao, decided to verify this by visiting Albania for ourselves.

Yup, mostly mountainous. And quite beautiful too.

I love the cool Albanian flag with its Double Eagle. This symbol has roots in Byzantine culture.

We were so lucky to have the help of our Rollins friend, Denisa, whose Albanian family, once alerted about our imminent arrival, showered us with hospitality. In fact, if there were a World Cup for Hospitality, Albania would be a strong contender for the championship.

When our plane landed in Tirana, Denisa's friend Xhustin (sounds like "Justin") met us at the airport and took us to our hotel. Then we headed out for a walk to a local restaurant/casino in the center of the city.

Clockwise from the left: Li Wei, Ann Yao, Xhustin, Shy Person.

  Xhustin - amiable and charming law student who also loves acting.

Right next to the restaurant was a public park full of families enjoying a pleasant evening, while clusters of sweet, innocent children played merrily nearby.

                          Sweet, innocent children.

Though it was two days short of July 4, we were treated to some cool fireworks.

Albania is sometimes described as a Muslim country, but in fact the population is made up of both Muslims and Christians, the former outnumbering the latter somewhat. In the heart of downtown Tirana is a beautiful mosque.

Also in the heart of Tirana is a statue of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, an Albanian national hero who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Turks.

Also, a large pyramid structure whose purpose I don't understand, and neither did the Albanians I asked.  ???

On the pyramid: peace symbol graffiti.

From Tirana, we made our way south toward Lake Ohrid, which lies on the border between Albania and Macedonia, a country similar to Albania, but one which, lamentably, does not border on the Adriatic.

License plates: Albanian on the left, recognizable by the double eagle symbol, Macedonian on the right, with the Cyrillic letters.

                                          Lake Ohrid

We all enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a lakeside restaurant with Denisa's Mom, Xhemile and her cousin, Xhentil.

Ann puts a poppy flower in Xhemile's hair.

Albanian drivers are very brave, I will give them that. Also, they are very skilled, for if they were not skilled, none of them would survive into adulthood. On the mountain roads, one has to accustom oneself to seeing sharp cliffs falling away a few inches from the side of the car as one's vehicle zooms along at 80 kilometers per hour. As a coping strategy, I imagined that I was on a Disney World ride that had multiple safety features invisible to us passengers. When our driver chose to pass on a blind curve on one of these mountain roads, I coped by imagining I was already dead.

                                   View from a speeding vehicle.

On a mountain road, a plaque honoring the partisans who fought an invading German unit in 1944.

One of many horse carts we passed.

A surprising feature of Albanian society is that everybody seems to have friends everywhere. The drivers who hauled us across country from Tirana to Lake Ohrid and so on, seemed to honk and wave at about every tenth person they passed. This is a nation of family and friends, it seems.

In Denisa's hometown of Korce, "the city of serenades," a beautiful cathedral dominates the center of the city.

More delicious food, this time from the restaurant Oaz, owned by our friend Denisa's sister's fiance's parents. (See note above on "a nation of family and friends.")

Denisa's sister, Tonsela, and her Mom with the owners of the restaurant. They prepared the meal, which was fantastic. They would not let us pay for it.

In the mountains above Korce is the village of Voskopoje, which in Medieval times was one of the most important urban centers in Albania. Now it's a pleasant pastoral setting with a couple of old monasteries nearby.

Albania is interesting in so many ways. Albanians themselves are particularly fond of the United States. Their favorite president seems to be Bill Clinton, mainly because of his bombing campaign that forced the Serbian government to stop brutalizing the Kosovo Albanians in the 1990s. In Kosovo a large statue of President Clinton symbolizes the Kosovars' gratitude to him.

                                           Bill Clinton Statue

Albania's second favorite president is George W. Bush, who visited this country in 2007 - the only American president ever to do so. We were told that when he came to Tirana, 500,000 Albanians swarmed into the city to catch a glimpse of him.

Bush visited the town of Fushe Kruje just north of Tirana where he was also greeted with enthusiasm. In fact, the people of Fushe Kruje built a George W. Bush statue a few years ago to commemorate the president's visit.

OK, so I don't see eye-to-eye on every issue with my Albanian friends. But still, what a wonderful trip, and what warmhearted people we met.

Faleminderit, my friends!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The A Factor

Eric Cantor is out. This stunning development has provoked post-mortem pundits into focusing on Cantor’s acceptance of “amnesty” for undocumented aliens as a big factor in his defeat. After all, the most conservative elements in the Republican Party are deeply hostile to people who speak Spanish and who come into the U.S. without proper documentation.

There are a number of reasons for this hostility. First of all, undocumented immigrants break the law. Of course Cliven Bundy, the lovable bigot who kept cattle illegally on public land, also broke the law, but he is a Republican hero. His case is very different from that of undocumented aliens though, because he is a white guy. Also, he seems to have an intensely passionate love for firearms. White racist in a cowboy hat clutching a rifle with belligerent determination – GOP logo, anyone?

Conservative hostility to undocumented aliens is based on a solid foundation of justifications including their inherent, siesta-prone laziness, their willingness to work hard for lower wages than Anglo-Americans, and their non-whiteness.

A number of Republicans in the past actually tried to cobble together compromises that would facilitate the inclusion of immigrants into the American mainstream, but these were all rejected. For example, when Texas Governor Rick Perry said it should be possible for immigrant children to attend Texas universities like normal people, he ran into a firestorm of Tea Party rage. One helpful citizen suggested that a reasonable compromise might be to let the immigrant students graduate but then give Tea Party activists an opportunity to beat them up as they received their diplomas, but this idea failed to gain traction.

In spite of all the political resistance to Eric Cantor’s “soft-on-immigrant” positions, my Washington sources* suggest that he may have been doomed not by the immigration issue, but by the “A Factor.” He may have simply been too much of an Asshole.

To quote Time Magazine, “it may prove that Cantor’s problem was less ideology and more a sense that he stood more for his own ambition than for any definable policies.”

New York Magazine quotes Dave “Mudcat” Saunders as saying Cantor is someone whose constituent services suck and who rarely visits his own district except when surrounded by a huge security entourage. Mudcat is obviously a Democrat, since few Republicans would tolerate a nickname like Mudcat. But even Cantor’s fellow Republicans deem him something of an Asshole.

Again with New York Magazine:

“And yet for all the loyalty many GOP congressmen feel toward Cantor, he is surprisingly [sic!] unloved. Even his admirers say he lacks the social ease and natural confidence of most politicians…”

According to one observer, the typical Washington legislator has a douche-ometer reading of 6.2, while Cantor’s number clocks in at a whopping 9.8.**

Perhaps the Republican House member who likes Cantor the least is Speaker John Boehner, and frankly, I would like to have seen Boehner’s face when Cantor’s defeat was announced. How difficult, I wonder, will it be for Boehner to suppress an orangy grin as he publicly expresses his sympathy for his fallen comrade-in-arms?

At any rate, I believe that Cantor’s real problem was not merely that he was inadequately hostile to Hispanic immigrants. I think he was ultimately brought down by the A factor.


*I do actually have at least one Washington source.

**I am that observer.

(Picture credits: Thanks to The Atlantic for Eric Cantor and Business Independent for John Boehner.)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Guide to the Hitchhiker's Galaxy

There are some people who are so interesting that I wish they could be my friend, but they are also so interesting that I’m afraid I would go nuts if they were my roommate. John Waters is one of these.

Most people know John Waters from the movies he’s directed like Hairspray and Polyester. For those who don’t know him, the IMDB plot summary of Polyester (1981) will suffice as an introduction:

“A suburban housewife's world falls apart when her pornographer husband admits he's serially unfaithful to her, her daughter gets pregnant, and her son is suspected of being the foot-fetishist who's been breaking local women's feet.”


John Waters has just written Carsick, a book based on his hitchhiking trip cross-country from Baltimore to San Francisco. Carsick includes three parts, the first two are fictional accounts of the best and the worst possible experiences he imagines he could have on his intended trip, and the third part is an account of the trip itself. I know this from reviews of the book and from his appearance on “The Colbert Report,” not from having actually read Carsick.

Norman Power’s review in the New York Journal of Books includes this description:

“In ‘The Best That Could Happen’ Waters imagines a cross-country trip full of his favorite kinds of eccentrics, freaks, and amiable perverts, many of whom joyfully recognize him as their hero. There’s an escaped convict named Ready Whip and his girlfriend Polk-A-Dotty;…”

And so on.

I guess I’m kind of cheating by writing about book reviews instead of the book itself, but, truth to tell, I don’t expect to read Carsick. But it interests me because it calls to mind my own hitchhiking past. My highway habit was born when I was a high school student in Lakeland, Florida, and I had a crush on a girl in Eustis, but no vehicle to take me there. Not much to tell about that except to observe that so much of what we do in life is driven by just this kind of passion. I recall Daniel Ellsberg saying, only half-jokingly, that he got involved in the anti-war movement because “there was this girl.”

My heavy-duty hitchhiking career really got underway in 1966 when I was in college in New Orleans. As soon as I got a break between classes, I took off on a hitchhiking trip to Mexico. I had never been outside the U.S., and going to Mexico seemed like the most exciting thing I could do with my break, so off I went. It was all very cool since, when I finally made it, I got to try out my Spanish and discovered that the Mexicans I spoke to could actually understand what I was saying sometimes. (Gracias to Mrs. Workizer, my high school Spanish teacher.) I also met two nice Mexican students from wealthy families who spent half the night driving me around to Monterey’s various brothels where we downed drink after drink. And, in anticipation of any questions you may have about further experiences in said brothels, the answers are all “no.”

On my way home, stopping off at the border town of Nuevo Laredo, I sat for a while in a bus station with some Mexican farmers. They were super-friendly (as almost everyone I’ve ever met in Mexico is) and, they were at pains to assure me that the U.S. didn’t have to be so afraid of Castro because, “Don’t worry, we Mexicans can protect you.”

I also met a thirtyish American dude who was, I think, hung over, but he may have actually been not yet hung over, but still drunk from the night before. He looked intently at me with watery eyes and said, “Don’t let ‘em get you, man. Whatever you do, don’t let ‘em get you.”

Who the hell he was talking about, I don’t know, but I just made my way to the border as quickly as possible, not nervous about “them,” but not wanting to spend any more time being lectured to by a disheveled drunkard whose nose blew bubbles of mucous every time he breathed.

Back on the U.S. side, I picked up my hitchhiking sign, which I had stowed behind a gas station in preparation for the return trip. It turns out that more useful than a sign saying “Mexico” or “New Orleans” was my Tulane University laundry bag. Yes, I didn’t have a backpack, so, for my trip I had just thrown some changes of clothing and a couple of books into my laundry bag. When I placed it on the roadside where the university emblem was visible, I seemed to get picked up quickly, often by students from other schools.

Speaking of hitchhiking signs, John Waters had some innovative ones, including “Writing Hitchhiking Book,” Midlife Crisis, and “I’m Not Psycho.” I have to wonder how reassuring this last one was to potential rides.

I often held up a sign with my hoped-for destination on it, but once I recall using a sign that said “Scintillating Conversation,” and that seemed to work pretty well too, though it put some pressure on me when I was eventually picked up.

The hitchhiker’s worst enemies are boredom and despair. My most disheartening experience occurred just south of Atlanta, near the airport, where I once held my thumb out for two or three hours to no avail. Still bitter about that.

I suppose that nowadays people would say that being picked up by a psychotic killer is the worst that can happen, never mind the boredom and despair. Somehow I didn’t worry about those things back in my student days and I never did have to face the heartbreak of being murdered on a lonely highway.

I did garner some informal education in my travels. Once I got a ride from Mobile to Pensacola with a couple of Florida country boys. When they fiddled with the radio dial looking for good, down-home music, they passed over some of my favorite stations. I recommended that they might try listening to them, but they were adamant. “We don’t listen to that switchblade music,” one of them said. This kind of threw me. They saw my favorite music as dangerously urban, while for a city boy like me, country music had the potential to conjure up images of belligerent rednecks with shotguns and clubs.

Near Tallahassee, heading west, I was once picked up by an African-American college student. Everything was cool and relaxed until, at one point, he noticed a police car and said something nervously about what the cops might think about a white kid and a black kid riding together in the same car. Wow. I had never imagined that just seeing a cop car when you were doing nothing wrong could be a source of anxiety.

An awful lot of my rides were with gay guys. Again cool, except for one very hefty dude who gave me a ride on highway 90 on the Florida panhandle. I had been politely propositioned a number of times, and it had never bothered me. In fact, one very likable guy in New Orleans actually engaged me in an interesting philosophical conversation based on the wisdom of Plato, etc.

But Mr. Meatball on Highway 90 was different - uncomfortably forward about his interests. Hmm. So now I know what women must feel like when clumsy guys press them with crude advances.

It has been many years since I have hitchhiked, but for a while I made it a habit to pick up harmless looking hitchers during my cross-country travels. Most of these resulted in pleasant or uneventful encounters, though there was one particularly interesting hippie chick I picked up just outside Boulder, Colorado, who led me to what seemed like a permanent campsite in one of the local canyons. Living there was a small colony of some of the grooviest people you might want to know. One guy made decorative hashish pipes out of some kind of grayish material that he said was soft enough that he could carve it with his thumbnail.

I don’t quite know what has happened that hitchhiking seems so much more risky today than it did in the 1960s and 70s. We have somehow changed, and the result of the change is either that we are more dangerous to each other than we used to be, or we simply have lost our ability to trust each other. Anyway, good on you, John Waters, for showing us that it is still possible to bum rides across America without being hacked to bits by some roving psycho killer.

(The reviews I read were in The New York Journal of Books by NormanPowers and in the New York Times Sunday Book Review by Dwight Garner.)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Tiananmen and China's Mass Amnesia

A colleague recently suggested that China’s Communist Party reminded him of traditional Chinese dynasties like the Ming and the Qing. In light of this, maybe we should call China’s current regime the Hong dynasty, Hong being the Mandarin word for red.

But no, this isn’t quite right, because red symbolizes communism, and the Chinese Communist Party, whatever it is, is most definitely not communist. In fact, capitalists are playing such prominent roles in the leadership today that a name change is called for. Maybe “ the Chinese Capitalist Party?”

                         What do we workers want? More money!

                         When do we want it? Now! *

Since Deng Xiaoping pushed China so decisively down the capitalist road, it might make sense to say that the Mao era (1949-1976) represented the Hong dynasty and what we are seeing now is the “Qian” or “Money” dynasty. The pattern whereby a ruthless warrior spills rivers of blood to unite the nation, rules tyrannically, and then sees his dynasty fade shortly after his death is a familiar one in Chinese history. It happened with the first emperor’s Qin dynasty (221 BCE) and again with the Sui (581-618 CE). So is this pattern being repeated, with Mao’s brief but bloody regime being replaced by the more enduring dynasty founded by Deng Xiaoping?

Another colleague suggested that the Chinese Communist Party is not like a traditional dynasty so much as it is like many other right-wing dictatorships of modern times. Such dictatorships concentrate political power in the hands of a small elite which hide their decision-making behind closed doors, control the media, intimidate the populace, and enrich themselves while pretending to “serve the people.”

Imperial Japan of the 1930s and 1940s was a typical right-wing dictatorship. The government of Imperial Japan controlled all the nation’s media and used it to spew out self-serving propaganda. In addition to this, it used military force to intimidate or gun down any civilians who dared to protest its rule. And this is exactly what the Chinese Communist Party did 25 years ago on June 4, 1989, in the incident known internationally as the Tiananmen Massacre.
Louisa Lim has just written The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited about the slaughter of civilians in China on June Fourth and about the systematically brutal and pervasive efforts by the Communist Party to cover up the slaughter. Covering up its sins with misinformation, violence and threats is also what the Imperial Japanese authorities would have done in their day, hence my argument that the CCP is acting like the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

An ongoing source of trouble for the party’s cover-up is the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of women whose sons and daughters were gunned down by the People’s Liberation Army in 1989. One woman, Zhang Xianling, spent months trying to dig up the story of her 19-year-old son’s murder. What she found out, after struggling to locate witnesses of the killing, was that her boy was out in the streets taking pictures on the night of June 3 and that a soldier saw him and shot him in the head. The wound did not kill him immediately, so he lay for hours on the pavement as the life slowly ebbed out of him. Whenever any citizens asked permission to take him to the hospital, the soldiers threatened to kill them if they approached the dying boy.

Finally his body was removed and buried by the soldiers in a shallow grave on the grounds of the high school where he was a student. This proved problematic when the boy's corpse, and a couple others buried nearby, began to produce a stench that made it impossible to hold classes in the school. At the same time, bits of their clothing began to poke through the surface of the earth. So the bodies were disinterred and moved to another grave site.

Eventually Ms. Zhang located the site of her son’s ultimate burial and had his remains cremated. To this day, in memory of her son and as a gesture of protest against the Communist Party, she regularly visits the place where he was killed. The authorities are so hostile to this behavior that they have installed a security camera trained on the spot of the boy’s murder just for the purpose of deterring her.

And that’s not all they do. They periodically prevent her from participating in activities that they fear will remind people of the killings, and have guards watching her round the clock. According to Lim, “this five-foot-tall, 76-year-old grandmother poses enough of a threat that an escort of state security agents, at times as many as 40 strong,” follows her as she goes to the dentist or the vegetable market.

Since the government has worked so hard to keep the younger generations of Chinese ignorant of the June Four killings, Ms. Zhang’s guards often have no idea why they are watching her. Once, after she explained to a young female guard why she was being watched, the woman walked off her post in disgust.

It is the ignorance of China’s younger generation about the June Four Massacre that justifies the word “amnesia” in Louisa Lim’s book. Whole generations of Chinese are growing up with no knowledge of the slaughter that was brought down on Miss Zhang’s son and hundreds of others 25 years ago this week when they protested against the corruption and lack of democracy in the Chinese Communist Party. The party, it seems, has succeeded in hiding the reality of this massacre from an entire generation. Even the Imperial Japanese authorities would no doubt be impressed with the effectiveness of the CCP policies that have accomplished such a massive forgetting of history.

In conclusion I have to express my sympathy for the Tiananmen Mothers and my admiration for their courage. May their struggles be rewarded someday soon.

Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer whose death triggered the Tiananmen protests. Does he not deserve the honor of the Chinese people?

*Picture by Jon Berkeley