An Encounter with the Byzantine

I broke the rules. I took pictures. This happened at the National Museum of Medieval Art here in the Albanian mountain town of Korce, and I started off with such good intentions to follow the rules, despite a temptation as bad as a child in a toy shop being told “Don’t touch.” But then I started seeing pieces as early as the 1500s with faces that looked natural. Guys, this is whack. I had to document it.

According to everything I learned about iconography in art history, seeing ANY signs of realism should have been as likely as hearing hip-hop at the Continental Congres. (Sorry, Hamilton.) My mind was, and still is, blown. Look down at this standard depiction of Mary and the Christ Child – a successful copy of the universal icon pose as it should be, an accumulation of universally understood religious symbols, checklist of ingredients all present and accounted for – and then look up at the Archangel Michael. The face isn’t impossibly stylized and stilted; the eyes have expression. Michael’s face is brimming with some very specific emotion like suspicion or sarcasm.

Is it really possible that the Italian Renaissance happening across the channel could have influenced something as set in stone as Orthodox inconography? Icons have always been fossilized in a stiff medieval symbolic style. The standard Byzantine style does not change substantially any more than the rounded shape of the Bhudda does. Religious icons are still made in the old standard poses, usually with a lack of individualization, TO THIS DAY all around the world.

In the most stylized, standard icons, the figures have bags under their eyes, Cubist-style long thin noses and absurdly tiny mouths. (This is to symbolize their spirituality by minimizing the earthly senses – Greek Gnosticism, anyone?) It makes them look unhappy. In one icon of Christ, his eyes are so narrowed that he looks irritated.

So what gives here? I never found out for sure, but it certainly seems that figures other than Mary, baby Jesus, and grown Jesus, were permissible to experiment on. Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that the term “Medieval” is a bit of a misnomer for at least some of the pieces in this museum. The time period from the 1500s on places these pieces squarely in the Renaissance timeline, even if most of the art is not done in the Rensaissance style.

See the picture below for an example of a strong Renaissance influence.

Now see the enormous difference from the more Medieval icon below.

However, as traditional as it seems to be, something about the one below is different from the others. Mary usually holds up a hand to bless or gesture towards the Christ child, but here she holds him up with both her hands. Even more surprising, he looks at her instead of the viewer. It feels more intimate, like a very human mother and son.

The outside of the building is modern and minimalist with large blocks of neutral tones.

Pieces from various centuries are all mixed together, but somehow it mattered not one little bit. It was kind of fun to play “Where’s Waldo?” and find paintings in a later style that seemed out of place. I did not feel the lack of informational panels in the large gold room downstairs, even though they were missing for all pieces higher than the bottom row – and the artwork stretched up to the ceiling. It helped to just focus on the art itself; knowledge of which century it was from doesn’t actually inform the observation, so it was nice to absorb the art without written information to distract from it.

Christ Pantokrator (a specific representation meaning “Almighty” or “All-powerful”) usually had eyes unusually close together, to the point of looking fully cross-eyed. The asymmetry in general was so unsettling, it was difficult to look at. It was much more uncomfortable than looking at one of those too-perfect artificial robot human faces. Those are too perfect, too symmetrical. Here, the needle has moved more in the direction of something…ugly.

I was surprised to see Saint George make several appearances, as I always understood him to be a specifically English saint. He was easily recognizable on his white horse, killing a much smaller dragon with a spear.

Some of the coolest things I saw were the cartoon panels! There on the wall amidst standard size pictures would be long, narrow horizontal wooden rectangles blocked by carved columns into little squares, each with a different apostle or scene. They were quite fascinating to look at, but somehow the tiny scenes strained my eyes. The proliferation of human figures and colors without any regard for perspective or scale made it physically difficult to focus.

I was reminded of how literacy rates would have been quite low in those days, and these illustrated Bible stories were a visual reminder of teachings that the congregation likely couldn’t read for themselves.

The three figures at the bottom of this painting are in motion! This is a massive contrast to the rest of the painting with its typically static figures extending their arms to make various hand gestures. Two men are losing sandals, which fly in the air or down to the ground as they dive for cover with their robes billowing around them. Both men reach out with their hands to break their fall; one covers his eyes with his left hand. (This move from stiffness to action is extremely Renaissance.) These men may still have full golden halos, but they are fully upside down – a far cry from the typical murals on church walls. Their dramatic reaction is canonically accurate, by the way.

It’s the story of the Transfiguration of Christ, where he went up on a mountain and revealed his true divine glory to his three closest friends. In that moment, they saw not the ordinary looking man that they had always seen but the blinding light of divinity itself, which Jesus never once revealed before or afterwards during his time on earth. The three disciples – Peter, James, and John – fell to the ground, terrified and dazed. In this depiction, St. Peter (identifiable by that grey beard he is always painted with to mark him as an important church father) is looking up and talking to Jesus. This is also canonically accurate, per his story of saying stupid nonsensical stuff about “We should set up tents and stay here camping like this!” that he so obligingly passed on to the authors of the Gospels.

All in all, Korce’s National Museum of Medieval Art was a fascinating experience, and I recommend anyone in the area to check it out if they have time.

I’d love to hear your comments about the art, especially if anyone has studied the topic in more depth and can shed some light on the subject!

I’ll leave you with this picture of the mythical St. Christopher Kynokephalos, “Dog-headed”, as well as a link to an explanation!

30 Things I Learned Before 30

  1. Courage is a necessity, not a luxury. If you don’t have it, you can’t get through even ordinary life. If you have it, the world is at your fingertips. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” – C.S. Lewis
  2. Empathy – choosing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and really feel what they’re feeling – is THE key to loving others well. If you lean into this path, you will find that a superpower of knowing exactly what to say and do is magically growing within you.
  3. Many of us have more privilege than we can begin to imagine. The least we can do is to listen to the stories and experiences of others who are not like us and learn how many obstacles exist out there that we were never put in a position to see.
  4. People do what they do for REASONS. We only show our ignorance or lack of experience of those reasons when we dismiss people for doing things we wouldn’t do.
  5. Don’t judge rebellious people just because you either never had the urge, were too scared or cautious to act on it, or acted on it and then reformed. None of those reasons are really virtuous.
  6. Corrugated cardboard is not very useful as a fire starter.
  7. You would be surprised by just how much physical exertion you’re really capable of. Your current body and current level of interest in exercise can change a lot more than you might realize. Leave the door open for that change to come.
  8. Do not leave your house without double checking to see if you have your keys. Ever.
  9. Coffee can be as effectively stirred with a knife, fork, or chopstick as with a spoon. You can put off doing those dishes a little while longer.
  10. But that’s a bad habit to get into, because then you never have any other clean dishes when you want them.
  11. Those who had bad acne as teens will grow out of it. Those who did not, will develop adult acne. There must be balance in the universe.
  12. When people offer to get the bill or do some other favor for you, they’re not just being polite. It really makes them happy to do it.
  13. Every woman and man needs to be both strong and soft, at once, unapologetically, and never stop. The world would be a much better place if more people chose this.
  14. Read every word of the contract.
  15. Saving money during periods of good salary or low expenses is crazy useful. If something doesn’t matter much to you, get the cheaper version or go without. Then you can splurge on what makes life fuller.
  16. Even loners are happier being around people that they really like and feel comfortable around. The trick is finding those people.
  17. Hostels, walking, public transportation – golden bargains, don’t be afraid of them. They make you feel alive, too.
  18. Don’t let a language barrier stop you from traveling; most places you’re thinking of visiting will have someone around who speaks a little basic English.
  19. Keep up your childhood interests and find new ones. You need hobbies that make you excited and fuel your imagination. ENJOY your life!
  20. That wish will turn to regret unless you act on it. That one nagging ambition is never going to go away. Research it, take baby steps, make some sort of loose game plan, but don’t ever be stupid enough to think that you can kill it. It will be back. It loves you and your potential and it just wants you to love it back. What if you could have what you want?
  21. Beauty makes us happy.
  22. The more accepting you are of your negative feelings, and the more willing you are to risk experience them intensely, the more accepting you will be of positive feelings, and the more willing you will be to let yourself experience those intensely too.
  23. Learn the warning signs and characteristics of all forms of abuse. In a relationship, control is often the first red flag. Respect kids’ boundaries and make sure everyone does the same.
  24. Push yourself to take some chances and make some memories.
  25. There is no love like the enthusiastic, open love given by little kids.
  26. If you haven’t re-examined your beliefs, experienced doubt, shed some negative traditions and attitudes, and embraced new ones, your beliefs are NOT your own no matter what you think, they’re someone else’s passed down that you’re just carrying on their behalf. “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
  27. Travel will teach you as much about your own country as any other. But that’s not why it’s awesome. It’s awesome because it’s a big beautiful world out there, and I hope you get the chance to run free and explore it.
  28. Time’s ticking down on life. You literally cannot afford to to spend any more of it waiting and wishing for anything to drop in your lap without you asking, repeatedly. Time to shed some inhibitions. Be crazy, be insanely yourself, and ask for what you want. None of it’s illegal.
  29. Pain fades when you honor it and allow yourself to work through it. Our brains and hearts want to heal. Pass on the healing by honoring the pain of others.
  30. It’s okay to be someone that your younger self wouldn’t have recognized. You owe it to yourself to move beyond your old assumptions about who you are. We were made to fully live!

Ever since I took the leap of moving away from the US in 2018 and then decided to keep traveling, I took comfort in knowing that, while I may have played it safe for most of my 20s, at least I was heading toward 30 with the throttle on life wide open. It makes me so excited to think that, from now on, I get to spend the rest of my time on earth being this much alive.

As I walk through the door into this new decade, my heart has never felt younger. I’m aging in reverse. The old restrictions and comfort zones have been replaced by a lightness of heart.

I have come of age, and it’s exhilarating.

The Guardian Lions of Okinawa

They were everywhere, and I was intrigued. On the garden wall or gatepost of nearly every house was a pair of grimacing lion-dog figures. I had seen giant lion statues outside the sleek downtown Bank of China back in Suzhou, and for that matter at some American Asian restaurants, but these were as common as mailboxes. I had never seen anything like it; it was so cool and unique but also mystifying. No background knowledge of the area, no language to communicate in, hardly any people on the streets to speak with even if I could have, just me and my chaco sandals and banged-up phone wandering around the tropically overgrown sidewalks taking photos of mysteries.

The lions always come in pairs – one male, one female. The male is always on the right. You can tell he is male because he is the one with his mouth open, baring his teeth to scare away evil spirits. The female is always on the left. You can tell she is female because her mouth is closed (although her teeth are probably still visible) to keep the good spirits in.

These two above are so cute. These Okinawan figurines are not actually lions like the original ones from China, but a hybrid lion-dog with an origin in varied mythology. They’re called Shisa, and they are a phenomenon unique to the Ryukyu islands, of which Okinawa is the largest. The outsides of houses are the most common place to see them, but they can also be found on gateposts to public buildings – sometimes at the entrance to the parking lot!

Like most other small porcelain Shisa that you can find in gift shops, the two figures below prefer to let their bug-eyes do the talking. I just feel like they’ve put the whole force of their eyes into those stares, trying to poke them all the way out of their face if they could. Whatever’s going on here seems very important; I feel bad for looking away from someone trying to so intensely to communicate with me!

The male and female duality here reminds me of the concept of the yin/yang and the interplay between masculine and feminine energies inside everyone. (This has almost nothing to do with your gender identity or outward stereotypical expressions of cultural masculinity/femininity such as clothing, occupation, etc. This is purely a discussion of energy.)

As important as it is to lean into your primary energy in order to flourish, it’s also crucial to be able to access the other. If we were to split hairs and categorize every activity – like planning, listening, creating, striving – into yin/yang or masculine/feminine, we would see that a healthy life requires constantly shifting between the two all day long. Talk and listen. Work and rest. Compete and collaborate. Give and receive.

Both of these energies have a “wounded” or what is more often called “toxic’ version of themselves. The masculine can become warped into dominance and aggression, while the feminine can become warped into insecure people-pleasing and passivity. One takes out its negative emotions on everyone around it; one turns its negative emotions on itself.

Both of these negative extremes make me absolutely furious to see. It’s such a brutal betrayal of an individual’s humanity and well-being, and so destructive to everyone around them. People can turn into caricatures of their worst qualities and it’s a heartbreaking cycle driven by a deep lack of self-acceptance and self-love. Both set a horrible example for children of both sexes who are picking up ideas about how men and women behave. They will have to re-learn what to expect from both themselves and relationships.

(Psst. Please enjoy the photo of whatever the heck this is absolutely losing his shit and yodeling at the sky.)

But wholeness and healing are possible. Decide to make peace with the dualities you find in yourself and to open yourself to being comfortable with the parts that make you uncomfortable. You’ll find yourself with a quieter confidence and acceptance when faced with the aspects of others that you don’t like either. They key is to not be threatened by your own humanity, to not go to war with it but to embrace it. Then you will be able to embrace the humanity in others, because finally you will understand it. You don’t have to be your own enemy.

Ah, these serene porcelain figures with the cool tones and restrained expressions. She is calm and somehow manages to be adorable through lack of facial expression – just a neutral, chilled out lion meeting your gaze with two fangs sticking out to give the whole thing character. He looks like he just saw his kid do a front flip off the top shelf in the garage – Whaaaa?????

These two below are clearly the looniest, most bizarre, specifically featured lions I ever came across. They are true gargoyles indeed – it’s almost uncomfortable to look at them for too long. Whatever weird, obscure emotion or meaning these facial expressions are meant to convey would almost be cheapened by memes…but boy, were they made to be meme-d!!!

Seriously, if you have any ideas for good meme captions for any of the Shisa in these pictures, PLEASE comment with them below!

This has been just a sampling of the dozens of Shisa I saw in Okinawa. At some point I just quit taking pictures because they all blended together. Okinawa is really a unique place, and I’m so lucky that I got the chance to explore part of it on foot as thoroughly as I did.

Bunk’Art 2

The museum that is Bunk’Art 2 couldn’t have a better, more appropriate setting – a large, concrete, underground nuclear bunker. Like almost all of the much smaller pillbox bunkers littered around the country, it was never used, not even during the fall of communism in Albania in 1992.

Bunk’Art 2 is perhaps one whole block away, at most, from big grassy Skanderbeg Square in the heart of the city, so it’s very easy to find. It’s listed as #2 on Trip Advisor’s Top Attractions in Tirana, right below – get ready for it – Bunk’Art 1. That’s right, there’s another massive nuclear bunker in the capital that’s been turned into a museum!

According to Trip Advisor, “Bunk’Art 2 reconstructs the history of the Albanian Ministry of Internal Affairs from 1912 to 1991 and reveals the secrets of “Sigurimi”, the political police that was the harsh persecution weapon used by the regime of Enver Hoxha. Bunk’art 2 is the first major video museum exhibition dedicated to the victims of communist terror.

I quote that website’s summary here because the first half-dozen rooms (there are dozens of small ones, mostly lining either side of one long, narrow hallway before it branches off at the end) have little to do directly with the sordid history of the Minstry of Internal Affairs. Instead they trace the painstaking, and, sorry to say, slightly boring, bureaucratic process of Albania establishing for the very first time ever its own national branches of police, military, and security forces. But these seemingly dry bits have real significance in context – the exhibits begin (although it is not explicitly explained anywhere in the museum) directly after the successful 1912 Albanian revolt against the Ottoman Empire, its 400+ year Turkish overlords.

Seen in that light, the black and white photos of different regions and towns with their first-ever police training academy classes bear more national significance than the typical outsider can grasp. This groundbreaking establishment of unification, centralization, and local self-government reminded me of the other European nationalist movements a century earlier, back in the early 1800s. Even today, Albanians joke that if the world ends, it won’t affect them, because Albania is 10 years behind the rest of the world.

But the smooth sailing of the new nation was not to last. There was world conflict in WWI and WWII, and in the latter, Albania was briefly conquered by then-fascist Italy which built a variety of buildings that can still be seen today. But oh, afterwards….there came the awful “communist terror”.

It was illegal to leave the country. It was illegal to enter. (Mother Theresa’s mother lived and died within Albanian territory which now belongs to Macedonia, denied the chance to see her grown daughter one last time.) Albanians caught trying to escape could be – and were – shot. Enver Hoxha’s paranoid dictatorship relocated individuals and families of suspect political loyalty inland, away from borders, and populated the border areas with those of known loyalty. Border guards were carefully chosen from influential political families. Anyone heard to say something like, “I want to move to Greece” could be reported to the authorities and relocated to a house in the middle of nowhere.

The young woman below, only 20 if memory serves, was one of many innocent people arrested by the Sigurimi. She stands out as an unusual case because she withstood weeks of gruesome torture while maintaining her innocence. After weeks, a friend was finally granted permission to visit her and was appalled by her appearance; she was filthy, covered in several kinds of bugs, and near mad. At that point, the regime was finally ready to release her. However, since they felt her condition was far too bad to reveal to the public eye, they moved her into a hospital for a few weeks so she could regain some physical and mental health before discharge. But after everything she had been through, it was not to happen. Her physical health improved steadily until one day she threw herself out the upper-story window to her death.

Hatlije Tafaj.

(The numbers you see in the pictures above are conservative estimates based on only officially verified cases. Wikipedia says the number of people killed was somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000.)

Many quotes regarding totalitarianism can be read on the walls on the way to the sunny exit. Before we walked up the stairs out of the bunker, to face sunlight, a clear blue sky, and dandelions in the grass by the bench, there was a wall lined with sayings.

One woman, born in Macedonia to an Albanian father, first called Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu and later known as Mother Theresa, said, “Evil settles roots when man begins to think that he is better than others.

One artist, Rajmonda Zajmi Avignon, created a sculpture in the shape of a monster, with a face composed of a TV screen showing footage of the regime’s evils. In his written discourse, he speaks of monsters that climb ranks, manipulate people, and fear free speech. At the end he says, If one day you decide to fight the monsters, be aware, while fighting monsters, do not forget what you strive for. Always… Watch out [for] the monster inside you!

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs

Imagine my surprise at meandering down a side street during my first week on the island and finding myself in a small neighborhood of concrete structures vaguely resembling graves or mausoleums! Most of them looked to be from within the last 50-70 years, if I had to make a snap judgment on how old the concrete looked. I snapped a few shots there on the cloudy day, feeling confused by the zombie wasteland-like deserted streets and faded buildings and intrigued by the discovery of a real-life mystery. Why were these sizable cemetery structures hiding in clusters amid neighborhoods of the living?

I had never seen pictures of turtleback tombs (kamekoubaka in Japanese) or heard about them until I saw them in person, since Okinawa was a surprise last-minute destination that I did not research. (And that’s a whole story for another time.) In fact, I only learned what they were called this week, when doing some research before writing this post.

I remember seeing graves almost exactly like the ones below after climbing the highway guardrail to take some overgrown stairs down to a hidden row of tombs lower down the hill. An asphalt-paved road with cars periodically passing to and fro was just above the ledge/clearing.

None of these were turtleback tombs, though. Not yet. I don’t have an answer for their presence, actually.

Now. Cut (several weeks into the future) to me walking down an asphalt highway on a steep hill down to the beach. Thick, lush tropical forest rises up and stretches out on either side of the road, occasionally dipping down to reveal houses, buildings, or lower vegetation. I’ve got no cellular data but am constantly checking to make sure the blue arrow of Google Maps and I are still going in the same direction. A four way intersection interrupts the rapid descent to where the water must eventually be, and right there by the corner, backed up to the forest, is a gigantic stone/concrete looking rounded structure. It’s…well, you hardly know what to call it. Monument? Tomb? How old is it? It’s so huge. No plaque or inscription of any kind.

It’s solid and feels unnecessarily, impressively vast in some vaguely important way. This is it, below, I think. By far the best picture I have out of all these tombs, and the most striking.

I would see plenty more during my time there, including a good handful of the smaller, not very turtle-looking ones set back into the woods but visible from the walking path in the big Okinawa Comprehensive Park.

Apparently turtle motifs are common in old Chinese graves in the coastal Fujian region, from whence the custom made its way to the Ryukus. (Think legends of the turtle with the world on its back.) This was hardly the only custom to make its way from coastal China to the islands; Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain are equidistant from mainland China and mainland Japan, and historically traded with and paid tribute to both.

But here’s the kicker – on Okinawa, it ain’t about turtles. It’s about a mother’s womb. The soul is believed to return to a mother’s womb of some kind after death; whether literal or metaphorical, I do not know. Take a look at that big tomb a few pics up and tell me that’s not a VERY anatomically accurate concrete wall about to give birth. Can’t unsee it now, can you?

Way to bury the lead, I know.

Since they’re meant to represent a mother’s womb, I’d sure like to call them “womb tombs”, since it rhymes and sounds funny. Yep. I think I will. That’s their name now.

In the bloody, hellish battle for Okinawa between Japanese and U.S. forces during WWII, there are records on both sides of locals and soldiers taking refuge in the turtleback tombs and the resulting fighting to gain control of them.

Sights like the tomb above, surrounded by the lush green encroaching forest, always made me feel like Mowgli in the Jungle Book. I wonder what he felt in his first moment seeing the ruined temple inhabited by King Louis and his monkey subjects. (There was more than one day where I strode along the side of the road on the way to a new destination singing “The Bare Necessities.”) The element of mystery that so romantically shrouds old architecture never shows up better than when unintended plant life crowds its way back onto the scene.

I can’t tell you exactly which spots on the island to find these collections of tombs, because I don’t remember. I found all of them by accident. Most were not alone but in clusters. If you go, enjoy the adventure of exploring the island yourself and the joy of stumbling upon them as you go!

Fun Facts About Albanian Culture

After living in this unique, easygoing place for about six months, here’s what I’ve learned.

Now, this list focuses on the positive or neutral aspects of life here instead of the negatives, because no one in the entire world wants to hear one of THOSE expats whine about little stuff like bad drivers. (Insert eye roll emoji here.) Yes, there are significant problems like lack of economic opportunity, extreme patriarchy, and corrupt politicians, but those are not unique to Albania and we all hear about that kind of thing constantly on the news anyway.

So here goes.

  1. The Albanian language is unique in the Indo-European family and thought to be one of the most ancient branches of it. It sounds unique but also very much like a mixture of languages sometimes- Ciao (Italian) for goodbye, Opa (Greek)for “oof”, many words that sound like their counterparts in Romance languages, and many more Turkish loanwords.
  2. “Familiar” – family-like communal atmosphere. It encompasses a generous sharing of time, food, vehicles, word-of-mouth information, general labor or assistance. Be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting around and doing things as a group, and know that you can count on your friends to be there for you any time you call.
  3. Albania was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, or Turkey as everyone says here, from 1478 until 1912. Hence those Turkish loanwords. The country is still predominantly nominally Muslim, and the call to prayer can be heard in almost every town and village.
  4. Most houses and apartments have no central heating. In the winter the average person (and yours truly!) heats their home using a small woodstove. You’ll buy a batch of small logs in the fall to be your winter stash, but also save all your cardboard garbage for kindling! This shouldn’t be a problem, as recycling facilities do not exist.
  5. Many people are afraid of dogs and the mountains – they say there are wolves and bears there.
  6. Occasionally a stuffed animal will be hanging from the front of building! It’s placed there to distract the evil spirits. Makes sense, really…it’s distracting all right.
  7. The food is not spicy at ALL. Seriously. Just meat, cheese, sausage, gyros, sandwiches, bread, potatoes, salad, pies, etc.
  8. Carts pulled by donkeys or horses can be seen on the roads sometimes in the smaller towns (aka most places outside the capitol of Tirana).
  9. People take their rugs to the carwash to be cleaned in the summer.
  10. They also shake them out the window sometimes in the morning to clean them.
  11. Speaking of which, Albanians tend to have seriously HIGH housekeeping standards! Some people mop their floors almost daily.
  12. Albania has gorgeous beaches and mountains, and the currency exchange rate makes it highly affordable for tourists – book your summer vacation now! The local economy really needs your patronage; it’s a win-win situation.

Vila Ebel

Cozy, homey, historic, and charming, Vila Ebel is like nowhere else. It feels like going back in time in a place so aesthetically pleasing it must be straight out of a movie set, or at least one of your Pintrest boards. This coffeeshop in Korce, Albania is exquisitely, earthily picturesque and everything I’m looking for.

If you arrive before noon you can get breakfast food like toast, oatmeal, fried dough balls (petulla), and eggs several different ways. (Hope you like your eggs Benedict on regular toast instead of on English muffins!) Now the actual buffet for guests in the hotel upstairs is a little more extensive. I can recommend it.

For the rest of the day, the menu is limited to drinks only. There’s traditional Albanian music playing instead of pop like in the other coffeeshops. It’s a lovely vibe, fitting perfectly with the surroundings. And if you walk all the way through the building to the back, you can enjoy this nice outdoor seating which is much nicer than the little tables out front bordering the street. I hung out in this nice little spot all afternoon and the time just flew by.

In colder weather, you’ll probably want to snag one of the two tables in each of the little rooms on the right and left of the entryway. They’re basically accurate turn of the century period-drama living rooms. 10/10 would recommend.

Now. Guess what? Oh, right, I already mentioned there are hotel rooms upstairs. It’s 5500 Lek for a single room and 6000 or 6500 Lek (I don’t remember exactly) for a double. Those numbers are roughly $55, $60, or $65 US dollars. I considered it money well spent indeed.

For a building from the 1920s or 30s, the bathroom features are clean and modern. Said bathrooms are tiny, but they actually have glass doors in the showers instead of the open wet rooms in ordinary homes and apartments. The tiny bottles of soap, shampoo, lotion, etc, smell AMAZING. The rooms are small too, as is to be expected, but the beds are soft and comfortable. The stone walls are an amazing touch that you’re not likely to find in any modern hotel. The furniture is old and wooden and the curtains are lace. How could you pass up the opportunity to turn the key in a giant wooden door that’s going to be yours for the night?

Oh, and the staff’s great.

This is not a sponsored post and this blog is not monetized at all. I’m just infatuated with the place and so naturally I’m going to tell everyone who will listen! Vila Ebel. It’s the bomb. It’s what’s happening. Check it out.

Control is a Poison

Terry Crews, at the end of a very personal, candid interview in which he described growing up with a violently abusive father, was asked what message he would like to send to young people.

What do you predict he said?

Was it something cliché and obvious like “Hitting is never okay” or “No matter what, it’s never okay to put your hands on a woman”? Or was it something a step deeper below the surface, something like “Get help for your anger issues” or “Get in touch with your emotions in order to be emotionally healthy and not toxic”?


His words were, “It’s impossible to love someone and control them at the same time.”

It’s almost chilling, isn’t it? I’m thinking of plenty of controlling people who never physically or verbally abused their families, and you probably are too.

But this is the heart of the issue. We’ve got to listen to him. The people who have been there, grown up in a house like that, have seen the micro aggressions and have years of firsthand observation and experience about the psychology of abuse, are experts. When they speak, we either listen or ignore them at our peril.

But what I really want people to know, what is deep in my heart to say, is that even if a person never becomes physically or verbally abusive, you should never have to put up with being controlled by someone who claims to love you. It will kill your spirit. Controlling behavior is inherently toxic to have to put up with, and that goes for any relationship – dating, family, friendships, workplaces, etc. You don’t need any more red flags. This one is red enough. People just do not have the right to treat each other that way.

Think about it this way. When you love someone, how do you see them? Do you view them as fundamentally incompetent or competent? Because that drives how you treat them. Do you see them as wonderful and amazing, despite their ordinary human weaknesses, limitations, and failings? Do you speak and act accordingly? Do your loved ones know that you trust them and believe in them? When you love someone, do you encourage and support them?

Alright then. That’s how love works for other people too, and you have the right to that same level of respect and warmth.

Control is NOT an expression of love. Micromanagement, monitoring, correcting, making decisions on your behalf, making rules for you to follow – all of these are NOT love. They may say and even believe they’re doing it for your benefit, but it’s really due to their own issues (which you can’t fix, by the way). If someone really loves you, they will see you as wonderful and, at the very least, able to handle life without constant direction. It would never occur to them to try to change you to get you to be more like them. Why would they want to do that if they love you for who you are already? That’s bonkers, guys. You have the right to real love, not a half-hearted grudging excuse for it that leaves you feeling confused and disliking them or yourself.

Control issues have nothing to do with you and everything to do with the other person. Reminding them that you don’t like this treatment will not give them a change of heart. Don’t try to prove yourself; this is their problem, not yours. If a person doesn’t treat you as an equal, it’s because they do not see you as an equal. And if they do not see you as an equal already, they never will.

Stand up for yourself, establish a boundary, and then if that doesn’t work, just go.

Leave. Live your own life.

As much as it hurts to realize, this is a situation where, as Lady Gaga sang, “It wasn’t love, it wasn’t love, it was a perfect illusion.” Clarity can be painful. It feels like eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Please, get some distance. You owe it to yourself. The recovery process is going to take a while, longer than you think, and you cannot begin it until you get out of the situation.

There is so much more I could say, personal stories from my own and others’ experience, the details of which I will reserve for now. But they burn under the skin and haunt me, every story I’ve ever been close to or heard of from others. It’s hard to see people like this hailed as heroes, with every right to live like a king or queen in their castle, with the rest of the well-trained family members just happening to live in the house too. A good partner, spouse, parent, boss, friend, etc, doesn’t need to be placated, avoided on eggshells, or given unquestioning deference.

A dynamic where people are too cowed, subservient, or financially dependent to speak up is misery. (Money and housing are power; they’re huge tools of control even if no one ever brings it up.) If people are too concerned with preserving the peace to call out problematic behavior or even just give a smiling “no” to anything, the foundation for abuse is present. The controller has set themselves up to fail spectacularly and harm everyone around them. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

To quote Terry Crews again, from a speech I’ve embedded at the bottom of the page, “Anyone, anywhere can be victimized, and no man, woman, or child should ever put up with being treated as less than a human being, ever. Ever.”

Wouldn’t you prefer to let your hair down and just breathe, existing as you are and enjoying it? What if you could be larger and freer instead of smaller and focused on should’s and ought’s? You know your situation is bad when you get used to shutting down your spirit and it becomes normal. You have no dreams; you just can’t think of anything that you would want.

Oh, but there is so much to want. The world is big and wild and beautiful and so are you. You belong here; there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you, you’re not screwing everything up by existing the way you are as a person. What if you could love yourself instead of hiding yourself?

Get out, and run free. It’s magic.

Photo by Meru Bi on

Here is Terry Crews’ acceptance speech for the Voice of Courage Award at the Safe Horizon’s 2018 Champion Awards. Fifteen minutes is a little longer than I’m used to watching for a YouTube video, but I definitely watched this one. He touches on abuse, toxic masculinity, speaking up about sexual assault with the #MeToo movement, and more. Powerful stuff.

The above link is to one of the most thorough sites I have found. It goes into detail about emotional and financial abuse, and emphasizes how abusive behavior is very much a choice.

Perks of Living in China

Many outsiders are unaware of what life in China is really like, and some of the lame stereotypes making the rounds are just silly. Expat life there has its perks, and China does many things well. In the wake of anti-Asian sentiment and hateful, ignorant racism, I’d like to chime in and brag on the positives of Chinese society for just a minute. Here is a compilation of what I miss about life in China which has been sitting in my draft folder since September.

Mobility – Transportation infrastructure in China is for the most part cheap, reliable, and ubiquitous. Busses and subways are easy to access in big cities; they run frequently and on time. Didi, the main taxi app, is cheap and super convenient. It’s a lifesaver for getting home safely from anywhere in town at any hour, and makes nights out with friends easy to coordinate. One downside is that someday you will have to show a driver how to get around the block because he’s clearly never driven a day in his life. (Just wait; it’ll happen eventually if you use Didi often enough – and you will!) Learn how to say “here”, “okay” “go right”, “go left”, and “go straight” and you’ll be fine.

WeChat Pay – This app is handy dandy for splitting the bill with friends or reimbursing someone for tickets or didi rides. AliPay is another payment app that to many feels slightly more secure than tying your bank account to your social media/messaging app, but either are fine. It’s so unspeakably convenient to be able to leave the house without a wallet or even a purse; just your phone and keys. Sigh…

Tea – Chinese tea shops seem to have every possible variation of fruits and flowers and other plants you can imagine! Only a couple menu options will be black tea, which most Westerners probably think of as “regular”, and that’s if you’re lucky. The great thing about chains like Coco Tea (one of the biggest ones, at least where I was) is that they let you choose your sweetness level. You get to tell them how much sugar syrup to spoon into the cup – none, 25%, 50%, 75%, or full sugar. Alternatively, depending on the chain, none, low, medium, full sugar. You can also customize whether you want many drinks to be hot, warm, cool, or cold, as well as how much ice you’d like.

The feeling of utter, sanitized security – It’s very safe to walk around at night, generally speaking – living in a police state does have a silver lining when it comes to dealing with crime. Cops and any authorities can access footage from anywhere without a warrant, even for the purpose of helping a girl recover a lost phone. They traced her movement through every bus and subway car she had taken that day until they found the moment she left the phone. (Sketchy didi drivers might be a bit harder to get off the streets – make sure to leave a scathing review if anything untoward happens, and you will get your money back for the ride. that’s all I know as far as consequences.)

Cost of living – On an English teacher’s salary and company-sponsored housing, necessities are so affordable, you’ll able to enjoy luxuries like nice dinners out and even big splurges like cheese and wine (super expensive but worth it when the cravings hit). Do NOT, under any circumstances, buy Great Wall or any other brand of Chinese wine. My expat friends would only have bothered to use it for cooking! Be careful of those reds that claim to be from another country but have only Chinese on the back label, too – the cheapest options are hardly drinkable. The markup on wine is really insane, if I might be allowed to complain for just a moment. A decent bottle will be about $20 USD. Any cheaper than that and you’ll be pulling horrible faces with each sip.

But I digress – water and electric bills are almost negligible, and you can find cheap delicious food if you know where to look. Your salary might not look like much if you convert it into US, British, Australian, etc, currency, but it goes so far and doesn’t have to cover housing. Your standard of living will be good, and people have saved up plenty of money to pay down student loans, etc, if they choose to live relatively frugally.

Big. City. Life. – You want burgers? A Margherita? Indian food? Thai food? Sushi? There’s a spot for that – several, actually, for each cuisine. Take your pick. In the mood for a staycation? There’s a nice spa inside that new modern mall, and plenty of bars and nightclubs to choose from. You can window shop some name brand clothes, purses, and shoes in the expensive department stores, and buy high-quality knockoffs online. Food delivery apps are cheap and speedy. Lovely parks with long walking paths, outdoor fountains, gyms, calligraphy classes, coffeeshops, ice skating rinks – you name it, any “mid-level” Chinese city is a actually a highly populated metropolis and probably has it. You could live in any one of those places for years and only scratch the surface of what it has to offer.

I’ll never forget the awe of staring at the light shows at night on the outside of Suzhou’s iconic, shiny, bluish-tiled “Pants” building over the Suzhou Center mall. It was the most lovely, futuristic night view of a city I’ve ever witnessed. Moving (LED?) pictures scrolled and gently exploded across the building’s surface. It was mesmerizing.

I was in awe, and genuinely moved by the long-famous beauty of my city. I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like it again. Raised in the suburbs of mid-size American cities like Asheville and Chattanooga, this felt like the country mouse moving to New York City. Words may or may not fully describe my nostalgia and homesickness for Suzhou itself, and the sunny freedom of coming of age there, but that is a story for another time. That feeling and experience will always be one of the best memories of my life.

I know that Suzhou is “China lite”, being so clean and green and modern, and that most cities in north or central China are far dirtier with coal smoke and construction work everywhere. Air quality everywhere is icky and in many places is downright awful. China has lots of aggravating aspects that will drive you up the wall and likely cause you to decide not to stay forever. But everything else on this list still holds true. And yes, there will always be some sort of expat (fancy way of saying English speaking foreigner) community available for you.

Coronavirus has thrown a monkey wrench into the plans of nearly everyone in the world, but as things return to normal, people will have more opportunities to travel, move, study, and live abroad. To anyone thinking about going to China to teach English, do it! It’s a fantastic learning experience and you will grow so much from living abroad. There are plenty of reasons to choose China, but a lot of boils down to the fact that the pay is good and the jobs are plentiful. You’re not likely to regret it.

Jagalchi Fish Market

It was so rainy that day, but at least it was mostly a steady, manageable sprinkle. An umbrella would have been great. Instead of that, I had a light purple, quick-dry, button down shirt (my favorite for excursions), a pair of thin all-purpose black slacks, Chaco sandals, and hair pulled back so the raindrops could run directly into my eyes. Oh, and my big Motorolla cellphone sticking out of my back pocket. That indestructible device had a close encounter with saltwater a few months before coming to Busan, so I was hardly worried about the effects of a little rainwater.

Where are all the people? I wondered. There were no other foreigners anywhere in the neighborhood, at least that I could tell, but there weren’t many other people walking the streets either. Perhaps it was because of the rain, or the day of the week, or maybe it’s just busiest first thing in the morning like every other fish market in the world.

(Sure, this was summer 2020, but South Korea had masked up, implemented contact tracing and strict quarantine for arrivals, and been able to carry on most business as usual.)

It took a while to walk there from the guesthouse where I was staying at the base of Yongdusan Park and Busan tower – maybe somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes, if I remember correctly. Now, Tripadviser says it’s much closer, so perhaps making the trip in the rain made it seem longer than it really was!

I just strolled up and down the streets looking around me. Being slightly tall for this area of the world (I’m a 5 ft 8.5 in woman) the overhanging umbrellas caused me duck slightly a few times. Most of the workers were middle aged or older, and many of them were women wearing the famous East Asian grandma visors. Iconic.

Sure, it smelled a little fishy, but compared to the odiferous mounds of crushed dried seafood in Chinese supermarkets, this was fine. Lots of squids and little shellfish. Whole fish, flayed fish, big fish, small fish, live fish, dead fish, fish in water, fish on ice. Oh, and eels, and basically everything else too.

It was all quite photogenic if only I had an inkling of skill in that area. Someone with an eye for photography could have a field day.

Real question: Are these sea cucumbers in the picture below? Are they actually edible? Why are they selling them? I’ve never seen anything like them sold in any seafood section in any other market before. Definitely did a few double-takes that day.

The market consists of indoor and outdoor areas; on one side there are buildings behind the stalls. Here you can order fresh catch cooked to order! Speaking no Korean and having no one with me, I couldn’t order anything; I never saw a written menu, and if I did, I couldn’t read it. I did see some large dishes of pre-prepared food near the end of the street, but they looked too spicy for my taste.

Well, at least that was my excuse. Honestly I just didn’t know what a lot of it was, and didn’t like the idea of mystery stew. I couldn’t get into the beef knuckles, pig feet, and fish full of bones back in China, and I feared a repeat of that experience. Don’t do as I did; Korean food is famously good if you can handle a little spice.

Jagalchi is in the Nampo-dong area, a section of town which includes BIFF (Busan International Film Festival) square. It’s just a few minutes walk from the market and has plenty of restaurants for you to choose from if you didn’t manage to eat any of the open-air catch. I ended up trying a Thai place and an Indian place in that area before leaving town.

Jagalchi market opens at 8 am and stays open til 10 pm. It’s world famous as the largest fish market in Korea. I highly recommend going with someone who speaks Korean so you can get the full experience of ordering fresh seafood and eating it there. That’s not an experience you’re likely to get too often, unless you already live near the sea. If you’re in Busan, this is a fun excursion – rain or shine!