Monthly Archives: April 2014

Clarity of Raw Fish and Cellphone Vision

One of the more interesting and disturbing things about living overseas is seeing the changes when you go back to your home country. There are the usual things: everyone’s aged a bit; trees have grown out; wall colors have changed; and your favorite hangouts have closed. Although those changes can be disconcerting, what really surprised me is the changes in raw fish and communications that occurred while I was away.

Raw Fish:
When I left the USA in 1996, neither I nor practically anyone I knew, had ever tried raw fish (I’d eaten raw oysters at The Boston Sea Party in Denver, but that doesn’t count.) I was intrigued by the idea of eating raw fish and vowed that, sometime during my first year, I would try it. Then, on my first day in Nou-machi, I ate at my colleague’s house and the first dish she offered was a plate of sashimi. I was like “as well now as another time” and attacked the sashimi without mercy. (I subsequently spent a good amount of time learning to pick slippery stuff up with plastic chopsticks.) I liked all the food I was offered, although two of them gave me pause: squid, which is a bit like eating a slippery unsweet gummy bear, and salmon eggs, which I remember using as bait when we went fishing near two-mile bridge Hayden.

Now, raw fish in all its forms is one of my favorite Japanese dishes (raw horse is another, but that’s another post). However, I’m in the land of raw fish and such things aren’t that surprising. What did surprise me was returning to Salina, Kansas in the early aughts and seeing a Japanese restaurant that served sushi. While I was spinning my totem to see if I was dreaming, She Who Must Be Obeyed was going “Hurry up! They’ve rice! They’ve got rice!”

I’m still stunned such a thing would exist in the middle of Kansas, even for a brief time. I’m also a bit surprised that sushi has become as popular as it has nationally. When I left it was in the realm of wealthy jerks and pompous well-to-dos. Now, it seems to be as common as potato chips.

Speaking of wealthy jerks and pompous well-to-dos, when I left the USA, they were the only ones who had cellphones. When I got to Japan cellphone use was more common, but it still had a small group of users. By 1999 it had exploded in Japan. I remember reading that there were something like 3,000,000 cellphones in use in the USA while Japan had 30,000,000 in use (which meant one in four Japanese had one). In Japan this was driven by shockingly expensive land-line installation prices so I wasn’t surprised. I got my first cellphone when I moved to Tokyo and having one made my job easier.

However, about the time I was in the USA trying to figure out if the sushi restaurant was real, I also noticed that several of my friends had cellphones. (And, for the record, they were not wealthy jerks or pompous well-to-dos, for the most part.) A few years later, even my mother had one and, in 2013, everyone had a smartphone.

Except me.

I’m now in the smartphone market, not out of any desire to be more high tech–and quite frankly, the cult-like devotion some people have toward their smartphones is somewhat disturbing–but because my eight year old clam shell phone is being held together by duct tape.

Stuffed Blind and Ruined Forever Pretty Much

Albania is the first place I remember being where I realized that hospitality, done too well, can border on violence and if you don’t know what you’re doing you can get hurt. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn this during my Peace Corps training; I learned it in the field, after lots of plates of food.

Part of the problem Albania 001 had was that Albania had isolated itself from the rest of the world. As a result, many of the expats who could conduct our training hadn’t been in Albania for decades. The result was a language textbook so out of date that one trainee tossed his out the window (which luckily had no glass in it yet) after about the 10th “Well, actually, we don’t say that anymore”. Also lost in translation was any sense of manners and protocol.

I guess we were expected to learn that the hard way.

On the first day with my host family, I was given lots of food. As I finished a bowl of noodles, the bowl was quickly refilled. When I stopped to use my four words of Albanian, and left food on my plate, a long discussion ensued about why I didn’t like the food after having only three bowls of it. Finally, I guess my host family lost patience because they brought out beefsteak, and fish, and chicken, and fried potatoes and an oily eggplant dish. (Oddly, I think the only time I’d eaten eggplant had been in at some kind of festival, or food event in Hayden, Colorado, but I don’t remember any more than that). After all that, we got grapes and watermelon with feta cheese. And then they brought dessert.

Finally, jet lag and carbo-load took effect and I requested a nap, which probably saved me from a Mr. Creosote style explosion.

What I didn’t know, because no one thought to tell us, was that leaving food on your plate was a signal that you were ready to move on to the next dish. Cleaning your plate meant you wanted more of the same dish. Of course, there was that “why do you hate it?” game if you left food, but I think we all got pretty good a that, although it was exhausting at times.

One thing we got plenty of was watermelon. When we arrived, watermelon was only about a penny a pound. When served with salty feta cheese–I belong to the “salt your watermelon” school–it was a great summer dish. Except when you have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and snack) every day for two months. After I finally left my host family, I found I couldn’t stand watermelon. That carried over into life after the Peace Corps. In fact, it took me almost 20 years to be able to eat watermelon again. The same thing happened with persimmons, which I’d never had before I went to Albania. To this day I can’t eat fresh persimmon; although I can eat a dried version that’s a regional specialty here in Japan.

The only things that I kept a taste for were fresh figs–which I’d also never had before –and bread dipped in salt, which is pretty much how I liked to eat bread anyway.

I never developed a taste for kos, a kind of warm pre-yogurt with the look and consistency of vomit–I laugh every time someone cites the Daily Kos, because to me it means “Daily Vomit”. I did like pretty much everything else made from yogurt, though. I still miss the ferges–random animal parts cooked in yogurt–at the Taverna Tafaj, which was the first restaurant that became a Peace Corps hangout.

I even kind of miss the hamburger stands, too, even though they put the French fries on the burger itself.

Working Through the Pain and Nausea and Piercing White Light

One of the few things that’s improved about my health as I’ve aged is my ability to deal with migraine headaches. When I was younger, partly as a result of being allergic to pretty much everything in Colorado, I used to get nasty migraines. That carried into university and into Japan, but then, once day I learned to work through it.

One of the problems with getting migraines, in my case, is that I get a warning. As I’ve said before, when I’m in the early stages of a migraine, an aura appears in my vision. Eventually the aura fades and I have about 15 or 20 minutes to get to a cool dark place before the pain and nausea set in. To give you a sense of what the headache itself is like, imagine an ice cream head ache pulsing in your right temple for two hours while someone presses their knuckle into your temple.

What makes the aura phase difficult is that I know I’m going to be sick, but there are no physical signs that I’m sick. I’m therefore in the odd position of trying to explain to people why I’m having to cancel plans. This happened once when I was teaching at Kansas State. The aura hit about 30 minutes before my class was supposed to start. I told a student, who was one of the rare students who actually came to office hours, that I was going to be sick and asked her to hand out a few things to the other students and cancel class. She did so, but reported me to the head of composition. (If I’d gone to class she could have watched my face drip off my skull which probably would have inspired a different kind of report.)

(Note: This page gives a good description, with drawings, of what the aura is like. Mine is similar.)

The migraine I got after I left the Air Force Officers’ Qualifying Test was one of the worst I’ve ever had. I ended up sleeping in the TV room in my fraternity because it was the coolest and darkest room I could find. It was also in the basement which made it the quietest. In those days there was no comfortable position to lie in that didn’t hurt and didn’t make me sick to my stomach.

Since I’ve been in Japan, I’ve learned to work through the migraines. As soon as I get the aura, I drink some coffee and pop a couple extra strength something or other (not a real medicine) and I can usually muscle my way through the headaches. The next day I have a migraine hangover, which means I’m weak and have no energy.

Once, I didn’t get an aura; instead my right arm started shaking uncontrollably. I was worried I was having a stroke, but 20 minutes later the migraine hit. (Something similar happened to Serene Branson when she started speaking gibberish at the Grammy’s in 2011; she has since said she suffers from migraines.)

I also get fewer migraines than I used to. This is most likely the result of slightly better sleeping habits, less stress, and having my allergies treated. The ones I get now are almost exclusively stress-related.

As I get farsighted and start to worry about those kids on my lawn–and I don’t even have a lawn–it’s nice that something’s actually improved.


Screaming and Wailing and Annoyingly Cute

A nasty headache–oddly enough, not a migraine–kept me away from karate tonight, so instead of waxing on and off about sports, I’ll talk about Japanese television and, more specifically, Japanese news announcers and how annoying they can be.

US announcers can be annoying, but at least each is annoying in their own way. They are arrogant, ignorant, ignorantly arrogant, falsely profound and, if they do features for CBS Sunday Morning, incapable of speaking above a whisper or annoyingly comic.

The latter is more like Japanese announcers. The morning shows are populated by a mix of young women and older, usually heavy set, men. The men are there to provide, as near as I can tell, the air of serious newsishness, even as they make funny faces and wear silly ties. The young women, who are usually excellent news readers, mostly exist to display fashion and smile and nod when the men speak. (Their nicknames are “so desu” girls–or “That’s right” girls.)

When it comes to sports coverage, especially at the international level, the announcers, usually men, toss away any sense of neutrality and propriety and openly support the Japanese teams. Granted, other countries do this, but none do it as loudly as the Japanese. When the other team is close to scoring the announcers start shouting–not speaking loudly, shouting–Watch out! Watch out! It’s dangerous! It’s dangerous! Watch out! When Japan scores, or is even near the goal, they can barely be contained. (Think “Do you believe in miracles!? Yes!” at every scoring opportunity.)

This carries over into other news coverage where it’s clear that the reporters feel it’s their job to emphasize how interesting this all is. (In the USA, the reporters usually try to remind us how serious is all is and that you’re only seeing that on their channel, or if it’s CNN, to talk about missing planes.) The result is over the top emphasis and nearly clownish takes to the camera. Right now there’s a Japanese announcer traveling around Cambodia trying to get them to try odd Japanese products–and, I suspect, to get them to allow Japanese manufacturers to move there from China. One of his products is an impressive water purifying powder that clumps the mud and crap in water simply by stirring it and makes the water easier to filter. Unfortunately, his manic way of presenting it–this is SO AMAZING! Isn’t it? Isn’t it? It’s JAPANESE INNOVATION!–makes me hope he gets a bad case of the runs from the water.

Sometimes the reporters are clearly bored and clearly struggling to find something interesting to report on. (Look, here’s a big bowl of soup! Look, here’s another big bowl of soup, with slightly different ingredients!) Anything that goes wrong becomes a major issue. One year, a female announcer was covering a winter soup cook off somewhere up North-East. She couldn’t just taste the soup, she pondered it with great manic energy and it was always delicious (even if she made an obvious “this is what evil tastes like” face after trying it). At one point, she started shouting “It’s horrible! It’s horrible! What will they do!? What will they do!? What will they do!?” as she ran through the booths and the camera chased her and bounced around like a badly filmed movie. Her reaction was loud enough I was expecting a Russian/Chinese/North Korean invasion; an explosion; or the crash of the Hindenburg. She arrived at the location and the camera zoomed on a broken bottle of sake. Apparently it had been knocked over and now the chef had to get a new one. Ah, the humanity.

Finally, there are the weather girls. Although Japan has a few professional meteorologists presenting the weather, most are women hired for their annoying cuteness. (There’s cute and then there’s something so cute you want to slap it–r.e. Hello Kitty.) They usually adopt high, cartoon voices designed to mitigate the effects of bad weather and/or wrong predictions. They usually pout if the weather is bad, and if they’re wrong, they remind me of squeaky voiced comic Felicia Michaels who says her unusual voice helps get her out of problems: “I didn’t mean to sleep with your brother. He tricked me.

The same works for Japanese weather girls. “I didn’t mean to miss the spring snow storm. It tricked me.”

The Liniest Place on Earth

This weekend is the start of Golden Week here in Japan. This is a glorious period where four different national holidays all fall in the same week, including a block of three holidays in a row.

Unfortunately, because the holidays are based on the birthdays of late emperors (unofficially, of course) this is a holiday that shifts around and some years it’s awesome, some years it’s average. This year the block of three fall on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Because one of the days falls on a Sunday, the government provides a substitute holiday on Tuesday. It doesn’t do the same for Saturday, though, because that’s a work day for many people. However, a Saturday holiday doesn’t help me and is therefore useless. (Bah humbug. Something like that.)

Many Japanese combine these days off with their paid holidays and do some traveling. The smart ones get out of the city and/or the country. The foolish ones go to Disneyland.

The Tokyo Disney Resorts (which are actually in Chiba, not Tokyo–this makes sense when you remember the New York Jets and New York Giants actually play in New Jersey) consist of Tokyo Disneyland, which looks a lot like the Disneyland in Anaheim, except is about three times as large, and the nautically themed Tokyo DisneySea, which is intended as a date spot and is the only Disney resort in the world that serves alcohol. The food there is awesome, too.

Unfortunately, they are also the most popular Disney resorts in the world and pretty much the entire population of Japan tries to squeeze in them during holidays. I’ve dubbed the place Tokyo DisneyLine, because pretty much all you do once you get there is stand in line and tell your children, “No, we are not there yet. We are yet hell and gone from there.” One time we had to wait 45 minutes just to get a Fast Pass that would let us cut the line at a popular ride. (Don’t you judge me; the stand-by line for the ride was over 90 minutes long.)

I remember a couple hundred years ago, I think on a high school trip when I was still living in Hayden, Colorado, we went to the Disneyland in Anaheim and, although we had to stand in line, I remember the Space Mountain line wandering around a performance area where Pat Boone was singing. If I remember correctly, he was putting on a surprisingly entertaining show (Although at that age, seeing someone you’ve seen on television is kind of cool no matter who it is.) Or that was the trip where we tried to smuggle my dad in the country via Tijuana, Mexico and our stuff got stolen out of our car in the Disneyland parking lot.

Tokyo DisneyLine has nothing like that, though (the small music performances, not the smuggling and theft). You just stand and move, move and stand, spend five minutes on the ride and then go stand in another line for 90 minutes for the next five minute ride. (There’s something disturbingly philosophical about that now that I think about it.)

The best time to go, though, is during school. You just play hookey and head down there. We did that once with our oldest and I got to ride Space Mountain three times in 20 minutes.

That’s a happy place to be.

Leads a Lonely 2 Unlimited Ma Baker Country Music Life

It’s fair to say, although I’m loath to admit it, what little sanity I have left is a direct result country music.

Because my Peace Corps batch arrived in Albania only a few months after the country’s first free election, and because that election was preceded by six months of anarchy in which almost everything that could be smashed ended up smashed, there wasn’t much to choose from on the radio and not a wide variety of music to be found in the market. (Because that’s the most important thing when you’ve been sent to a country to help in its development. Well, it is.)

Partly because of this, and partly because the Albanians were interested in trying out non-Communist media, and partly because, apparently, someone copied the same mix tape ten thousand times, there seemed to be only three songs played in constant rotation.

(Note to people under a certain age: music used to be recorded on magnetic tape that was contained in a small cassette and then inserted in a device called a boombox which is larger and heavier, and had better batteries than most Priuses–Prii?)

The songs, unfortunately, even the one that was kind of good at first, soon wore on the nerves after you heard  them in every coffee shop, restaurant, bar, taxi and bus in the country, usually on an endless loop, every day for months and months.

Coming in at number three, and at most inexplicable, was Boney M’s Ma Baker, which is, well, unique. But it wasn’t played as much as number two, 2 Unlimited’s No Limit. Turns out, that yes, in fact, there is a limit. Usually more than seven times in one day. (Yeah, I know, that’s an easy and obvious joke. So what?) However, topping the chart at number one was Ace of Base with All That She Wants. (My apologies to any fellow Albania 001 batch members currently suffering flash backs.)

To make matters worse, foreign radio was also limited, unless you understood/could tolerate Italian radio. We got BBC–We will now say something full of wit but in a rather dry and droll tone that conveys no sense of excitement or energy. You’re eyelids are getting heavy. Send money. Pay your licensing fee. This is BBC. We are watching. (Something like that.) Then there was Voice of America, which featured such standards as Casey’s Top 40 and American Country Countdown.

After a few months, although I’m not a huge fan of country music–I don’t hate it; I’m just ambivalent about it–I found myself listening to the country countdown more often than Casey’s Top 40.  The rock/pop top 40 seems set in stone. You hear the same songs constantly and, after a while, the titles begin to program you. Just in 1992 the message was: Tears in Heaven End of the Road Jump Under the Bridge Baby Got Back To Be With You.

Mind you, country music isn’t always happy with its songs about how my dog stole my pick up truck and crashed into my favorite fishing hole while driving drunk with my ex who lived in Texas (Oh, don’t act like you’ve never heard that song) and it did give titles that when strung together sent the message No One Else On Earth Past the Point of Rescue Straight Tequila Night, but the country charts are volatile which means a song spends a few weeks at number one and then quickly begins to fade. The chart is always changing and crap song will be gone soon. This means you don’t have to listen to “I Will Always Love You” for 14 weeks at number one and then for another seventeen years as it slides down the top 40.

My friends, of course, were very supportive. During the dead of winter one fraternity brother sent a mix tape that included such uplifting groups as Depeche Mode and the always cheerful Morrissey with his lyrics “I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die– alone.” Exactly what you need to hear on a cold February when the power’s out and the batteries in your music player are slowly dying.

Had to listen to “Achy Breaky Heart” just to stay sane, which gives you an idea of how bad things could get.

Pro Patria Pro Deo Pro Coffee

As I’ve written before, I discovered coffee at university and my tastes evolved from gussied up dessert/coffee combinations to pretty much main-lining espresso doppios. I am quite willing to admit I’m an addict, don’t understand why you are not, and that I’m a bad person before I’ve had coffee (and only slightly better after). I’m also quite willing to admit that although I’m a reasonably patient person, the exceptions to that involve family, people who walk and smoke, a handful of Canadians, morons on bicycles and people who mess with coffee.

I bring this up because one of the cliches about Japan is that it’s a smoker’s heaven and a coffee drinker’s hell. At one point a cigarette company had a great commercial about smokers from the USA arriving on Japanese shores via makeshift boats and being welcomed by the locals with a pack of smokes. One town used to have a “tobacco tax” goal meter to encourage people to light up.

When I first arrived in Japan, though, there were only a few coffee shops around and I was shocked that, although the cake part of the Coffee and Cake Set was delicious, the coffee was a tiny little half cup that wasn’t even an espresso and that cost seven dollars.

Now, a few wishy-washy artistic types have argued that the half cup is special and that some Japanese have raised coffee making to the level of a martial art. They have carefully selected and hand-roasted the beans and carefully ground them in a burr grinder. Some of the beans have been carefully “processed” by civets (i.e. eaten and crapped out by civets). They boil carefully filtered water and pour it over the perfectly measured grounds which sit in a special canvas filter hand made from organic hemp by a 120 year old zen master in a secret location in the Japanese Alps. The coffee masters pour slowly until it seems as if the water is about to flow over the brim of the filter. Then they tap it and the water and coffee flow into the pot below.

At this point some people give polite little golf claps and say “That’s amazing. He’s a true artist. The coffee is beautiful.” while I’m in the back shouting “just pour the damned coffee!”

When the coffee is finally served it is typically half a glass. I’ve asked if it was just a sample and been told that, no that was my four dollar cup of cat poop coffee. (For the record, civet coffee is actually a hundred dollars a cup so I’ve never actually tried it, also, it’s cat poop.) I’ve also made them bring the pot out and add more coffee to the cup.

I did this in front of She Who Must Be Obeyed once and she was pretty close to walking out of the coffee shop. I told her I loved her and would do anything for her and that I’d catch up to her once I got my cup of coffee filled properly.

Mercifully, since those days, the Japanese have discovered coffee. This is important because, as shown in the book The Devil’s Cup, the strongest empires are those which hold coffee in high esteem. Once they switch to tea, they are doomed. (r.e. Turkish Empire, British Empire).  This also means that there are now many chains to choose from, including Starbucks which I never patronize outside of Japan, unless it’s in an airport. There are also some Japanese chains serving decent and cheap coffee now.

If there’s ever a ban on coffee, I will start my own mafia and smuggle it in. Well, at least as far as my house which, I admit, will make it hard for me to keep my goons well paid and well fed, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

I need a cup of coffee first.

Neither Fit Nor Fashion Because This Head Wears No Hats

It’s a basic fact of life that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who look good in hats and those who should never, ever wear hats.

I am in that latter category.

Now, it’s partly not my fault. For reasons I still don’t understand, I have a malformed head (I mean physically malformed, so shut up). My hat size is around 7 7/8 but my head is longer and narrower than it should be and has an odd bump at the back. In fact, it’s fair to say my head resembles that of the alien in Alien more than that of a normal human being. (This may explain why my mother is short and I am tall; she’s not my real mother. I killed my real mother when I burst out of her chest. Something like that.) This makes it extremely difficult for me to buy hats (and, after that last aside about my mother, extremely difficult for me to visit the USA again). Any hat that’s large enough to fit me is either too wide for my head, or gets stretched and deformed to fit the length. I look a lot like those in-bedded reporters who donned K-Pots or Crye Precision Airframe  helmets to look like Special Operations Operators: i.e. an out of place poser in ill-fitting gear.

This has never stopped me from attempting to wear hats. When I was in high school I used to wear a bucket hat everywhere because I was a teenager and such things make sense when you’re a teenager. (Well, actually, such things don’t make sense, but you’re a teenager so such things are expected.) I also had an Indie Jones hat that, now that I think about it, was a bad idea in many ways. I used to have a Colorado Rockies baseball cap that fit but gave it away to a local baseball fan when I moved from Niigata. (I really wish I hadn’t done that.)

Oddly, the only hats I’ve ever looked reasonably good in, other than baseball caps, were cowboy hats and there aren’t many people who can say that.

Several hundred years ago, at the beginning of one of his mid-life crises, my father started a small photography business in Hayden, Colorado called Dwight’s Photography. He shot a few weddings and a some portraits and, on occasion, I would “help” out, although my assistance skills were questionable and ran the gamut from “pretty much useless” to “blatant saboteur.”

One year, though, he was hired to shoot the rodeo in Hayden during the Routt County Fair. I was brought along to carry stuff, but the rules required that everyone in and around the ring wear appropriate Western attire. This meant I needed cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. Unfortunately, this meant every person on the planet (Hayden being pretty much my world at the time) got to see me in the hat. Oddly, although there were comments, no abuse followed. (I did discover, however, that I was allergic to pretty much everything at the rodeo. Another post, that, involving swollen eyeballs.)

Now, the only hat I can find that fits is a woodland camo boonie cap that I wear during summer outings to nearby parks and Tokyo Disney Land (a whole series of posts resides there, too). It keeps the sun off my face and neck, but I’m embarrassed by the Mall Ninja “Hey, guys, check it out I’m totally an Operator” look to it, and it looks goofy with the brim down and floppy.

It looks better, though, when I fold up the sides like a cowboy hat. Not good, just better.

Students and the Darndest Things

One of the interesting things about teaching at an all boys school is that I get to see, for better and for worse, the boys behaving the way boys behave when there are no girls around to impress. The homerooms are basically multi-resident bachelor pads that start out clean and get slowly grungier and grungier over the week.

The other interesting thing is that boys tend to forgive slights, both real and perceived, more easily than girls and they can be a lot more forward. As a result, many of them aren’t shy about confronting teachers and/or back talking. Usually, as a teacher, I adopt the rule comedians live by: never let a heckler have the last word. For example, when a student told me to shut up, which at least he did in English, I talked him out of the room–he seemed to think we were actually going to fight–and let him explain to his homeroom teacher why it was necessary for me to shut up.

Every now and then, though, one of them says something that I can’t help but let pass. They aren’t always confrontational, just different. The student who told me to shut up gave a funny, improvised speech about how he was the best speaker in Japan. He wasn’t going to get a good score because he hadn’t actually followed the assignment. However, I said he was right, he was the best speaker, and said he was going to the speech contest. His “Really? No no way” (in Japanese of course) was pretty funny, although perhaps not the way he expected.

Another student gave a speech about his skin, which he kept deliberately pale and sickly looking. Once again, it violated pretty much every requirement of the assignment, but was done well enough I let it pass.

In a less happy one, a kid in a lower level junior high class decided that because he didn’t understand what he was supposed to be doing, he was automatically granted free time. He put his book away and took out a pair of lighters and started playing with them. I confiscated the lighters and turned them into the homeroom teacher. The next class, after I called his name in roll I said “Gotta light.” he just mumbled “Fuck you” under his breath. Since I was the instigator, and since it was the most English he’d spoken in two classes, I let that one slide.

This one technically doesn’t count because it’s from a different school, but when I was back in Niigata, some of my students were returning from P.E. They’d been studying Judo and were still in their dogis. One boy looked an me, held up and flexed his arms like a body builder and said “I’m fighting for justice” and then went on down the hall.

My favorite, though, involved two high school boys who, because they were friends, always worked together on in-class projects. Work, in this case, being relative not literal as they spent most of their time messing around and talking. After a while, I told them that if they didn’t get their work done, they’d never be together again. The more flamboyant of the two looked me straight in the eye with feigned horror and said “Like Romeo and Juliet.” I laughed through something about not ending up like them, but I’d already lost that round.

The student lost points, of course, for not doing his work correctly, but it was a small victory for me as he probably never noticed.


You Are All About to Die and Welcome to Bunkerland

Over 20 years ago, in a fit of pique, and with a vague sense of needing to do service and nothing resembling a plan, I decided to join the US Peace Corps. This involves a surprisingly lengthy selection process including interviews, health checks, background checks and lots of shots. Somewhere in this process you get to list your preferences. I picked Europe, Asia, Africa and Central/South America in that order.

Once you’re accepted, the Peace Corps gives you some control over where you’re sent. They tell that a position in XYZianastan (not a real country) is available and you leave in two months. If you’re not interested in that, you go on hold until another position is available. That could be one month, it could be six.

In my case, I was offered a chance to teach English in Albania as part of the first Peace Corps group. I checked the map and Albania appeared to be attached to Europe. I didn’t notice, though, that the cheapest ways out ran through the war zone in Bosnia and Serbia which meant Albania wasn’t actually attached to Europe. Armed with this ignorance, I said yes.

A few months later, I was in an airport in Rome choosing which of my two large pieces of luggage I loved best and which I wanted to leave behind on a Roman holiday. I was like, the bags can go on ahead, I’ll stay here but the Peace Corps was like, um, no.

We than boarded the Alitalia crop duster that would take us across the Adriatic Sea to Albania. I was teased for a brief second when the luggage handler picked up my second bag and started to carry it toward the plane. I celebrated too early, though, as he took two steps, looked at the bag, initiated scientific weight measurement by raising and lowering it twice, and then chucked it back on the cart.

I slept through take off, but I do remember the sound of panic when one of the propellers either stopped or appeared to stop during a throttle down. I also remember the look of operatic, yet surprisingly attractive horror on the face of our Italian flight attendant when we hit a nasty batch of turbulence. We all turned around expecting to see a hole where the tail had been and prepared to pray for our eternal souls. Instead she was worried about her loose drink cart. Even through it was harmless, the look of horror woke me up.

The real shocks hit when we landed on the cobblestone runway at Rrinas International Airport. It was a series of hexagons designed to be replaced quickly during an attempted bombing by US forces. We also noticed the dozens of pill-shaped concrete bunkers surrounding the airport designed to keep invading US forces off the cobblestones. When we finally finished the welcome ceremonies and met our language trainers and got on a bus, we noticed dozens and dozens more bunkers built at random locations as we drove to Tirana.

As we passed a vineyard, we noticed that every vine was attached to a concrete pylon that was topped with a nasty looking spike. We were told the spikes were intended to, how shall we say, become intimate with the buttocks regions of US paratroopers dropping in the vineyard during an air invasion.

Needless to say, with all the stuff designed to keep us out, it was sometimes hard to feel welcome–we’d later learn, as mentioned before, that our hosts thought we were being punished by being sent to Albania. Finally, we arrived at the Hotel Arberia–which would eventually become my home away from home–and discovered we’d missed the time of day when running water was available. If we wanted a shower, we’d have to wait until two, or maybe three a.m.

Culture shock hit at about that moment, became worse when we met our host families the next day, and, in my case, lasted the remaining two years.