Most days pass in Albania like a dream.
I enjoy a double espresso along the seafront.
Then I write.
Later I take a nap. A long nap. And if I’m feeling really lazy, maybe I catch up on my favorite serials.
But sometimes, in those winter moments when not a single tourist or foreigner is around, Albania opens itself up and really surprises me.
It’s overwhelmingly positive, like the way I’m deliberately served dinner on a larger plate when I go to someone’s house as a guest, or the time a new friend offered me a pair of shoes after he’d seen my road-weary Vans.
Then there’s the weird stuff.
Let’s talk about driving. Stop signs are a suggestion. Blind corners mean swing hard and wide. And anything resembling a narrow street means drive faster.
I thought nothing would beat my taxi ride across Lima.
I was wrong.
My friend Dimitri likes to bomb his black Mercedes down the narrow winding alleys of Saranda’s hills.
Every so often, when he doesn’t think I’m looking, I catch him glancing over at me with a smile on his face.
He’s trying to scare me.
And I’m not showing it.
After a while he gave up trying to scare me but he still likes to blast through stop signs.
Last night I’m hanging out with two guys I met in town when their friend stops by for a visit.
He speaks English and we bullshit over a few cans of Korça.
“Hey,” he says. “You’re American. Have you ever shot a gun?”
“Sure,” I say. I was born in Missouri and grew up in Colorado. I no longer own any guns, but I had my hunter’s permit at age 14.
“You want to hold my gun?”
Ah, things have become interesting.
Now I’m curious. “You have a gun?”
“Of course!” He laughs. “This is Albania. Everyone has a gun.”
I wonder if it’s true. Albania gets a bad rap. These are some of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve met.
But let’s not forget, the country had a war in the late 90’s during which the armories were opened and guns were taken up for the cause. Or just to protect your house.
So when he says he has a gun, I don’t doubt him.
Our mutual friends seem unfazed, too busy rolling themselves a spliff on the living room table.
He reaches for his waistband.
I try halfheartedly to stop him but it’s too late.
He smiles as he flashes the gun around in his hand. I’m just hoping he doesn’t shoot one of us in the leg.
“You want to see it?” he says.
“Really, that’s okay.” I smile and try for the perfect balance of polite but uninterested.
He’s profusely enthusiastic. “Come on,” he says. “You can take a picture with my gun.”
Before I can pull away he presses it into my hand. The grip already feels warm.
He looks like a kid showing his parents something he made at school. “You like, uh?”
“It’s very nice.”
“Hold it up,” he says. “I’ll take your picture.”
I rest my elbow on my knee, flash the gun in front of my face like some kind of gangster.
But I’m not a gangster. My occupational hazards include arthritis, not drive-by shootings.
For the first time I get a good luck at the hunk of metal as I turn it over in my hand.
It’s a Colt 1911, .45 caliber, or at least some kind of knockoff.
“Very nice,” he says. “American gun.”