topics: tavë dhen (food), National Museum, National Gallery, "Linda" women's cultural center; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: April 3, 1998

Food of the Day: tavë dhen or "plate of clay"

Today we sampled a Tirana specialty called tavë dhen, which literally means "plate of clay." This may not sound at all that appetizing to you, but it gets its name because the whole dish (food and crockery) goes into the oven in the actual clay bowl in which it's served. (Although no, you don't eat the plate or the clay.) The edible part is a delicious and spicy stew of a thick sauce mixed with maize, and lamb. It is served piping hot and with dipping bread. We loved it!

Person of the Day: Eleni Laperi Koci click to view a photograph

Corinne first met Eleni Laperi Koci in 1995 when they both were attending the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Eleni had told Corinne about the organization she was and is running called the "Linda" Cultural Center for Women. When communication with Eleni all but ceased in the following years, Corinne feared and suspected that the old location had been destroyed during recent trouble in Tirana. Upon arrival in Tirana, it took help from our friend Kela at the Open Internet Center to help find Eleni. Luckily, both organizations are funded by the Soros Foundation so it was no trouble researching Eleni (even though Kela had never heard of the "Linda" Center).

A painter and art historian, Eleni, along with some fellow women artist colleagues, formed the "Linda" Center. This was after the fall of communism in Albania had left many women without jobs. New learning opportunities were not yet available to women, and old patriarchal traditions were and are still firmly in place in the culture. So these women decided that they needed a space of their own and special occasions during which they could discuss their unique problems as women recovering from communism. As artists, they had all also been longing for an association that properly represented them, so they took both matters into their own hands and formed the "Linda" Women Artists Association. (See the Place of the Day for more about this.)

Although the "Linda" Center that was opened in 1994 has been destroyed, the organization nonetheless continues its initiatives. Corinne was relieved and excited to see and hear this news and felt very lucky that BikeAbout made it possible for two long lost friends to find one another again. Eleni also gave us photographs of some of her work as a parting gift: a landscape from the Berati area click to view a photograph and a painting called "The Prayer." click to view a photograph

Today Eleni currently works as an art historian at the National Gallery of Art and is in charge of the bimonthly publication called "PamorART" which means "visual art."

Place of the Day: "Linda" Cultural Center for Women

The "Linda" Cultural Center for Women is our Place of the Day today because it is no longer a "place." The one and only women-centered cultural meeting place for women in Tirana, it was an "innocent casualty" of the upheaval and conflicts in Albania in 1997. The "Linda" Center was destroyed, thereby robbing the women of Tirana of a secure place to meet, relax, and discuss pressing issues that Albanian women face. The organization is still reeling, trying to get back on its feet, and find a home. The biggest problem stems largely from a lack of financial and human resources.

The "Linda" Center had hosted (and will again be a place for) exhibits of women artists from Albania, international installations, and forums for national and foreign guests. It was and will also be a safe place where women can pass their free time. Since most cafés are full of men, Albanian homes are small and often crowed, and work obligations are huge, there are few if any havens for women wanting time alone or with other women. The "Linda" Center was created as a response that need.

At the "Linda" Center, women could and will meet each and network with each other as there is no publicity about other women's organizations or support groups in Albania. Topics for conversation that might otherwise be considered taboo, especially when regarding alcohol or drug addiction and "domestic" problems that women face, will be brainstormed upon here, focusing on the future of Albania women in a more equal partnership with men. Male and female artistic and social issue forums will take place as well, to foster new ideas of togetherness and help build momentum in the forward evolution of women and men in Albania.

The financial struggles that women artists in Albania face are immense, so only a handful of women are able to contribute small amounts of time to further the development of the "Linda" Center. When funds and personnel are available, however, the work of "Linda" will broaden to bring the teaching of Visual Arts in Secondary schools. As a creative outlet and a useful tool for the improved understanding of Albania, the "Linda" Center would also like to see all the cultural arts of Albania more widely taught.

Despite not having a location, the current "Linda" Association still gets things accomplished. One current project involves the creation of albums celebrating the work of women artists and the strides these women have made. A collection of Contemporary Albanian [Women] Artists has also been produced. The purpose of this initiative is to improve knowledge about and representation of these artists especially since publicity about and resources on women artists in Albania are otherwise non-existent. As written in her literature about the "Linda" Center, Eleni Laperi Koci discusses the importance of the contribution of women artists in Albania: "[T]heir work has enlivened the life in our country... Art, the noblest human activity... gives these women the courage to invite others to communicate with their work and taste the special flavour of world citizenship."

Currently, the "Linda" Association is planning an outdoor exhibit in May, called Evocative Art, which will concentrate on social issues and a public dialogue about them. They see the exhibit as a forum for discussion as well as art. Anyone wanting more information about, or interested in contributing to the efforts of the "Linda" Center can contact:

Eleni Laperi Koci
Qendra Kulturore Lindart (Cultural Center Lindart)
Rruga "Kajo Karafili", No 54
Tirana, Albania
Phone/Fax: +355 4 257 475

Tech Fact of the Day: borders

Border closing/opening information sources abound, especially when you are dealing with countries that have recently been or are still in conflict with one another. But the real challenge is in how to get up-to-the-minute facts. We came to Albania having been told in July by the Yugoslavian Consulate in New York that the two Yugoslavian (Montenegran) borders with Albania and Croatia we would need to cross were open and hassle-free. Well...

When discussing our passage into Yugoslavia with friends in Albania, no one else seemed think it would be a problem either. It wasn't until we tried finding a bus or boat that could carry us directly to Yugoslavia (thus avoiding dangers along the Albanian road) that we were told differently. Then we phoned a person living very near to the border crossing, probably the best and most reliable source overall, who confirmed that it was closed. This forced us to rearrange our travel schedule and cancel some otherwise interesting plans.

So, why do borders close anyway? There are many reasons having to do with any given political situation. And these can be fickle at best. Many times, borders between certain countries are closed due to political and governmental disagreements, usually having to do with conflicting territorial claims, and/or recent (but often current) armed forces skirmishes. Sometimes it's due to an embargo or other economic boycott.

Similarly, the closure of the border between Montenegro and Albania could be for any number of reasons. And the poor relations between the two countries have certainly not been improved by recent incidents involving ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo (called Kosova in Albania), Yugoslavia. You see, in 1912 the heavily ethnic Albanian areas of Kosova and Macedonia were annexed to Serbia, despite the Albanian majority. Today, the repression of these people has grown to become an international issue, as can be read in recent world news headlines. The plight of ethnic Albanians was also publicized by one of their own, Ms. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxjiu, more famously known as Mother Theresa.

For up-to-date information on what is happening in Kosova, try these Internet sites:

Group Dispatch, April 3
picture of Corinne

Early morning breakfasts at our host homes were a very pleasant way to start the day. In fact, staying at host homes is always a nice change of pace for us as we are able to make friends and learn a great deal about life in a country. But all breakfasts must end, no matter how good they are, and the work of the day must begin.

Sure enough, we all met up by 9 a.m. at the Albanian Education Development Program offices click to view a photograph and found our good friends Mirj and Oerd once again at the ready to help guide us around and/or help with translations. The only problem was that we didn't have a plan. We had tossed around the idea of visiting the town of Kruje, for a visit to its ancient castle there, as well as the museum and its photo gallery.

However, a visit to Kruje would have meant a minimum of 4 hours away from the city and away from working time - and we had plenty of dispatch writing to do. This is the typical conundrum we face: trying to see all the aspects of the countries or cities we visit, and get our work done as well. So, we compromised; we decided to see something important that wasn't so far away. We knew that we just couldn't miss the National Museum in Tirana (and it closes early) and decided to skip Kruje. For more about our visit to the National Museum, see the Place of the Day for tomorrow.

After the museum it was already time for lunch. Corinne had returned early to the very accommodating Open Internet Center in an effort to get a head-start on work and catch-up on emails. Corinne also took this opportunity to eat lunch with Toni who is frequently overwhelmed and unable to share any relaxed time with us. That's when she got THE NEWS.

Toni had been alerted by a United Nations advisory (as well as through word-of-mouth) to troubles in the north of Albania, and specifically in the town of Shkodra, the very place we were to scheduled to go the next day. Regardless, Toni had made arrangements with both the Albanian Cycling Union and the police for an escort. click to view a photograph This would make it possible to cover safely the distance to the north and get across the border as quickly as possible. We were told that it was wise to head for the border the same day if possible. However, if we had to stay in a hotel overnight, we were strongly advised not to leave our rooms after a certain hour, and then to leave early the next morning. click to view a photograph Yikes...

Shkodra is the where the headquarters of the currently reigning Socialist Party are located. Since there is great discontentment today with the Socialists - it is said (quietly, on street) that they are on their way out - everyone was on alert after a bomb had been found in their building. We were asked not to take any chances. Of course, leaving Albania so soon would put us in Yugoslavia a lot earlier than we had expected. Still, since we had to get to the border somehow, we had no other good options. Or at least we certainly didn't know of any other safe options. And an answer was necessary right then and there. click to view a photograph

With so many safety precautions to consider, and so as not to refuse the generosity of the offers that were made, we decided to use the escort to Shkodra, and see what we could do from there. Further discussion eliminated any possibility of doing any cycling; there was an interest in expediting the whole process and getting us across the border on the very same day. Plus, Burhan, who would drive us in his van to Shkodra was eager to get back to Tirana on the same day. And we still had a portion of the trip to the border that was uncertain. Shkodra is about 30 km (19 mi) from the actual border and we would not necessarily be escorted or guided by locals across this distance.

These were tense and suspenseful moments, but with everyone taking the overall safety issues into such careful consideration, we felt confident that, as a group, we had made the best choice.

After this difficult process had ended, we downloaded and sent email. Of course we warned everyone that we were leaving the country earlier than expected, and attempted to make arrangements for Yugoslavia.

By the time 5 p.m. rolled around, the Open Internet Center was closing and we had an appointment at the National Gallery of Art click to view a photograph with Ms. Eleni Laperi Koci click to view a photograph, our Person of the Day.

After learning the about the politics of Albania's past at the National Museum, and dealing with the politics of the present through the logistical obstacles placed in the path on our way to, looking at art was a welcome change of pace. It was especially nice to stroll through the quiet and open expanse of the gallery. However, even at the art gallery we couldn't escape politics. So much of the artwork from Albania is inspired (or funded) by the various political events or parties of Albania's history. It wold appear to be impossible to separate people from a history which gives them the national identity of which they are so proud. click to view a photograph

Eleni, an Albanian artist and art historian, talked with Corinne as we toured the gallery, sharing with her the financial plight that artists in Albania face - hardships that fall particularly heavily on those living outside of Tirana. Women artists are confronted by special challenges as well, and Eleni talked about the "Linda" Cultural Center for Women and Women Artists, which was destroyed during the upheaval of 1997. Still struggling to survive despite not having a location, the "Linda" Center's aims are detailed in the Place of the Day section.

While the Center itself is homeless right now, its work continues. In May it is planning a one-day outdoor exhibit called Evocative Art. About social issues, it will take place in the botanical gardens of the Parku Kombetar, or National Park, on the edge of the city. Using provocative visual arts displays - and the male and female artists themselves - to provoke public discussion of these topics, the organizers hope to start dialogues toward education and, hopefully, change. For instance, an enormous image made out of heroine syringes will be one installment, while other subject (and object) matter may address issues of prostitution and domestic violence, all of which are serious but silent concerns that plague the Albanian society.

After the tour and this inspirational information about modern Albanian art, Eleni's friend, Valolete, from Radio Tirana interviewed some of the BikeAbouters at a nearby café. click to view a photograph Valolete was looking for the deeper reasons behind and revelations we've had regarding this trip; these were not the kinds of questions we were used to. Oerd made his debut as a translator for the boys' responses, and we immediately recognized his untapped talent and future in media. Even when the questions took us by surprise - "What is it you are running from, leaving your life behind for 9 months?" - Oerd's translations of our responses sounded halfway cohesive. Or at least they sounded good to us anyway...

After the interview, we again met with our host Dads Burhan and Fiqo, who were supposed to take us straight home for supper. However, everyone decided to look into direct buses from Tirana all the way to Yugoslavia as a possible safer option for crossing the border. By making the journey ourselves, we were hoping to reduce the risk and inconvenience to everyone else involved. That's when we got THE OTHER NEWS.

The people at the bus companies and travel agencies we consulted all agreed: the borders to Montenegro are and have been CLOSED for a while. Since we had been given different information, we researched this fact a little further, only to find that we would probably never be able to get across the border, with or wothout any escort. One person suggested we take a bus via Kosova, but the very real danger there (and the fact that many Americans are being denied visas at that crossing) gave us enough reason to say no thanks. For more about the border tangle, see the Tech Fact of the Day. And for more information about what is happening in Kosova, check out these Internet sites:

While we were glad not to have to make the journey north, we now needed new options. How would we get to Montenegro for that part of the BikeAbout journey? So we started looking into boats. There seemed to be a few routes that would work for us, more or less, but by that time (it was getting late) the shops were closing and we didn't feel like we had enough information to make a real decision. So we did what most sensible people do in such a situation: give up for the evening and go for a drink and a snack.

At a tavern near Tirana's main sports stadium, we sampled a local bar food called tavë dhen, or "plate of clay." For more about this, check out the Food of the Day. Renourished and no longer faced with pressing choices, we still knew that tomorrow we would have to move fast to collect more information about how to proceed. Plus, we had organized another cycling excursion with the host dads. In the midst of all the craziness, there would still have to be time for fun and sport.

Given the late hour, our host dads knew they'd catch heat from their wives at home for returning so late. (Knowing women, Corinne had expressed concern to this regard, but to no avail.) So we all high-tailed it home for a very late meal. Despite our tardy arrival, our host moms welcomed us warmly and invited us to eat with a greeting that we had also heard in Turkish: bujrum click to hear an audio clip means "come and join us (for a meal)" And of course we had already learned "të bëftë mirë" click to hear an audio clip, which means, "Enjoy your meal!"

We ate everything there was, so as not to confirm any suspicion that we had already eaten or make anyone feel as if dinner-preparation efforts were wasted. A full day and full stomachs added pressure to our heads, which were still swimming in logistical confusion. But surrounded by the personal warmth of our host homes, we were in the perfect place to sort it all out, or at least put it on hold until the morning.

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