images-5This month was a big birthday for my husband. I won’t say which one, but he’s getting a lot of letters marked ‘important Medicare information enclosed’, notices about the joys of a reverse mortgage, and brochures for burial-at-sea, and

Instead of a party to celebrate this rite of passage, he asked for something special: he wanted me to be the guy in our relationship. Don’t get your hopes up; this was a practical request not prurient. He just wanted to relax and not have a care in the world.

“I want to go away, just the two of us,” he said.

“No problemo,” I answered.

“You have to make all the arrangements,” he warned.

“You got it,” I promised.

“You have to pay for it.”

“Sure. Why not?” I agreed.

“I don’t want to lift a finger – for a week.”

“You are in good hands,” I assured him. Continue Reading →

Albanian Diaries #6: My Shqip* (ship) has sailed

imagesI woke up this morning at 4:30 am. and slipped quietly out of bed so I wouldn’t wake my husband. I’ve been doing this for this last thirty-seven days so that I could go to the window of our small apartment to watch the day come to Tirana, Albania.

But this morning I didn’t see the dark apartments in the highrises a stone’s throw from mine. I didn’t see yesterday’s wash hanging from balconies or laid out on drying racks on terraces waiting for the lady of the house to collect her families clothes. I didn’t see the headlights of the dawn-drivers in cars careening around the traffic circle on King Zog II Avenue or the silhouette of the massive statue of Skanderbeg that takes my breath away. I did not see the mists and clouds over the stone mountains. I did not see the sky turning 50 shades of Albanian grey as the minutes past. I did not open the window to feel the cool breeze that would give way to a hot day. I did not smell the scent of baking bread from the little shop downstairs where the baker had been working since 2 in the morning.

I saw and felt and smelled none of this because, this morning, I am home.

Twenty-two hours in transit brought me back to Palos Verdes and a house that now seems palatial given where I have been living. I hear an owl. And silence. My family is sleeping. My town is sleeping. I look out my glass doors and see a fenced in yard, not a wonderful, imperfect, lively, marvelous city lying at my feet, and I am sad. I will miss so much about Albania.

I will miss:

-Emi and her pastries and her laugh. Evisa and Nada, law professors who are both brilliant and beautiful. The Byrek man and the baker and the women at the market who sell yellow butter fresh from the churn and tomatoes the size of baseballs.

-The hard sidewalks full of potholes and loose stones and broken concrete. It was as if each day I was being challenged to remember how to safely walk the road of my life while enjoying the adventure. I managed rather well. I may have tripped but I never fell.

-The crazy traffic, the people who drive as if the city is one big bumper car track.

-The bronze statues. Massive discarded statues of Lenin and Stalin kept to remember a time when Albania was not free. Even bigger statues that speak to the amazing strength and honor of the Albanian people – Skanderbeg, Rosafa, Prishtina. Smaller but no less important the statues reflecting their friendship with America – Wilson and Clinton and Bush.

-The food. The food. The food. I have never had such food in all my travels.

-The hospitality.

-The conversations with everyone that inevitably turned to discussions of how Albania can come into the modern world after 5 decades of brutal communist rule. Each citizen no matter what their station was concerned for their country and engaged in its political life.

-Friends Book Store. There has never been a business so aptly named. When I left, I thanked Lati , the owner who loves books and authors, his wife Eda, the young men who served me my tea in the Library Room or my sandwich on the coffee patio. I wish I had been able to thank them each a thousand more times. I’ll send them some of my books and a little part of me will always be in the library of Friends Book Store. But I should have found a way to go back. Just once more. To say thank you.

-The stray dogs. Especially ‘Benji’.

I will miss all that and more. To be fair, though, there are some things I won’t miss. But I’ll get back to you on that.

Faleminderit, Albania. Faleminderit, my friends.

*Shqip is the language of Albania. I learned ten words well while I was there. I managled many more. Albanians call their country Shqiperia and themselves Shqiptare.

Albanian Diaries #5: Traveling Companions

2014-10-08 23.34.17I may have been sitting beside my husband on the 22 hours we were in transit to Albania but he is only one of the people I traveled with. I brought along a number of friends in the form of books. I never travel without a full Kindle. Yet, it wasn’t until I was standing in the small street outside my apartment at three in the morning, a cool mist swirling at the end of  the dark street, and a big, black car waiting to take me to the airport, that I realized I had come on this journey with more people than I knew. Those friends are authors who, like me, ply our craft alone in rooms, in a digital world but who are fascinated, intrigued and inspired by the real one.

So that morning, looking at that car and the waiting driver, I thought of Brian Drake author of the marvelous Steve Dane novels that are reminiscent of Ian Flemings work. I could almost hear Brian writing the dialogue for that moment:

“Don’t get in the car. You’ll never get out again.”

Me, picking up my bag, adjusting my fictional fur coat, and answering as Dane’s girlfriend, Nina, might:

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can take care of myself.”

“Pity,” Dane would say.

“Why?” Nina would ask.

“Because It’s more fun if I help.”

I love Steve Dane. I love that Brian Drake could make a whole book out of standing in a dark street in Tirana.

I did get in the car and the only thing that happened was that I made it to the airport in time to catch a flight to Rome for the weekend. (I know, how cool is it to be able to say that?) The Piazza Navona, one of my favorite places, was one of the first places I stopped. It was a bright sunny day and the piazza was busy: a woman played her acoustical violin, artists showed their wares, tourists sat for pictures on the beautiful, ancient fountains, restaurants lined each side of the huge square. People ate and drank and talked to one another. Children ran across the cobblestones and the blue-suited police wandered in front of me with their hands clasped behind their back. Now it was Rick Bard, action and adventure author, standing beside me, telling me that the next book in the Brainrush Series was going to be set right there. “Perfect place for a chase, don’t you think?” I would say, of course. In his hands the chase would be exciting and elegant and oh-so-much-fun in the Piazza Navona.

In Dubrovnik, I walked through the fabulous walled city and just before I went through the gate I heard the sound of two dogs snapping and growling. I turned in time to see two handsome young men restraining their big hounds. In that millisecond they were crouched in fighting position and frozen. A beautiful young woman with a little white dog walked between them in her tight jeans, her oversized sweater, and her long hair  pinned atop her head. She and her dog seemed uninterested in the two man and their pets. But if my romance writer friends had been there, everything would have changed. The woman would have chanced a glance. One or both of the men would have followed her. Something romantically magical would have happened. Mindy Neff, Sandra Paul, Angie Ray – what they could have done with that scene! I had the strange feeling that if I turned around they would be there, plotting the happy ending just before inviting me to lunch.

There are a hundred more authors who have come with me on this. The quirky and fascinating Conrad Johnson whose work Clean Kill is so reminiscent of John Fowles. He would love the broken down buildings, the legless man playing dance tunes, the blind man selling books by the river. Richard Bunning who pulls you into another dimension of time and space would be fascinated by the coffee shops where people speak in all he languages of the world. For me, the inspiration is Albania with its ancient laws and contemporary politics and energy and anxiety. It is the perfect place for Josie to confront her sense of justice and Hannah to paint and Archer to watch their backs.

Sometimes new authors say that they are afraid to talk about their ideas because someone might steal them. I say, those who write have no need to steal anything. A hundred different authors could stand in the Piazza Navona or on a deserted Tirana street at 3a.m., or in the walled city of Dubrovnik and the result would be a hundred different stories. That is the magic.  Authors will write, readers will read, and the traveler – at least this traveler –  will never be alone.




Albanian Diaries #4: Going Down the Toilet

imagesUnlike Where in the World is Waldo, if I am lost when we travel my family doesn’t have to look far to find me. I will be locked in a bathroom. In my defense, we have been to some rather exotic places starting in 1982 when I was sent to China on business and had my first encounter with a Turkish toilet – more commonly known as a hole in the ground. I understand that there are western facilities even at the Great Wall now, but back then I learned quickly that wearing a skirt made the call of nature a whole lot easier to handle when faced with a Turkish toilet.

I’ve been a lot of places since that first trip to China. The world has changed but not the fascinating world of bathrooms. Here in Albania, I was actually prepared to encounter Turkish toilets once more. We were in the north three years ago and our son’s apartment was equipped with an extraordinarily efficient bathroom. The showerhead was above the hole in the ground and there were no doors to lock.  But we are in Tirana now, a bustling and cosmopolitan city. Still, Turkish toilets are to be found as my husband informed me after his first day at work. More common, though are western toilets without seats, shared facilities, and door locks that are as unique as they are inventive.

I have to say, though, the bathrooms here are, for the most part, clean and lovely. It is just odd to walk through a door and find that the men’s and women’s toilets share the same space. No one thinks a thing of it, so I pretend I don’t either. Which is a lie but I think I pull it off rather well. I also think that my skills as a mystery writer have been sharpened given the challenges of figuring out how to deal with what lies behind the door marked toilet. After years of sleuthing, I have finally discovered sure fire ways to master the toilet issue on my travels.

– Light: Immediately determine where the switch is – if there is one. Do not give up. Often logic doesn’t dictate the placement.  It could be inside the stall, outside, on the outside wall of   the restaurant or even the building not exist (look to see if there is a bulb or fixture). Exhaust all possibilities before locking yourself in a small dark room in a country where you don’t speak the language.

– Windows: If there is a window quickly assess the height of it and its proximity to any structures, outdoor markets or pedestrian traffic. Look up; someone may be looking down. Pay close attention as to whether it is opaque. Stopping at a gas station on the road from Dubrovnik I noted the facility’s door was made of glass – see-through glass.  We drove on.

-Toilet paper: Never go anywhere without Kleenex or napkins. Period.

-Toilette seats: do not expect one.

-Sinks: Plentiful. In good hotels and restaurants there are sinks in the toilet room and more sinks outside. Sinks everywhere. My favorite sink was in a lean-to in Rome. You worked the water with foot peddles like an old time sewing machine. Red for hot; blue for cold. Totally fun.*

-Company: Compose yourself before opening the door. Men, women, kids – you never know who is going to come out of the stall next to you.

– Technology: Be prepared for anything because technology has come to toilets. In Germany I actually paid three times to go back into a restroom just so I could flush and watch the seat rise and rotate under a stream of water and then be blown dry. It was fascinating and, I imagine, dangerous, if you flushed too soon.

-Locks: Door locks are as creative as the actual toilets. I have been flummoxed by keys that work to get you in but not when you want out, hidden buttons (I missed a wonderful flambé in Italy because I was looking for a hidden button on the door handle), sticks on strings, the age-old doorstop, a family member (yours, restaurant owner’s or anyone passing by) guarding the entrance, etc.

Important and final reminder for travelers:

– Before you leave a dinner table, look your traveling companion in the eye and say, “I am going to the bathroom. If I’m not out in ten, come get me.” If said companion has a bottle of wine in front of him/her, repeat as necessary.If you think he/she still might not remember, take the bottle of wine with you. You may need it if you’re evening literally goes down the toilet.**

*This little place was on a square in the shadow of St. Peter’s. I had so much fun working those foot peddles I dropped the key, had to root around to get it and finally, wet and feeling none too clean, tried to leave. The key stuck. Had to be rescued.

**2012. First trip to Albania. Locked in toilet for fifteen minutes while my husband and two sons finished their bottle of wine and ordered another. Had to be rescued.


Albanian Diaries #3: The Road Well Traveled (more or less)

2014-10-06 09.35.41

sharing the onramp

Since it’s not everyday a body has time to spend in the Balkans, my husband and I decided to see as much as we could before he settled down to work in Albania. To that end, after we landed in Tirana, we rented a car to drive to Dubrovnik, Montenegro and then back to Tirana. Simple enough, you say? Point A to point B and C? Not if you’re driving in Albania.

The first mistake we made was not reading the guidebook. Tirana in Your Pocket is one of the best I have ever, ever – and I mean ever – read. Not only is it full of great information about restaurants, museums and hotels, but whoever wrote it is hilarious and, above all, honest. Take this bit on driving in Albania, for instance.


The roads may be improving rapidly, but Albanians remain the worst drivers in Europe. Easily distracted, always using one or two hands for talking on the phone and smoking, eager to honk, disrespectful of speed limits, ignorant about the merits of seat belts, stopping in the middle of the road to chat with a pedestrian relative, and inconsiderate of other road users, they overtake in corners at high speeds in their Mercedes as if they were still riding donkeys. . .

Before 1991, only Party (communist) officials were allowed to own and drive around and there were only about 600 cars in Albania. When restrictions lifted, Albanians brought thousands of cars into the country. At the time there were no traffic regulations, no driver’s license requirements, no traffic enforcement officers and no traffic lights. Much of this has changed (really?) but driving requires nerves of steel and a good map…

Drivers should have a fire extinguisher, yellow vest and first aid kit in the car.

Ignorant of all this, we had a baptism by fire. The first thing we learned about was the Albanian third lane. That simply meant if a car wishes to pass another car they do so. At any time. Anywhere. Any conditions. The problem with this is that passing is done from both directions, around corners and hairpin turns, in the face of giant trucks bearing down on you, and multiple cars ahead of you. Think of any movie you have ever seen with an improbable car chase and that is nothing compared to the antics of Albanian drivers.

We soon learned how to navigate, though. My husband’s job was to keep his hands on the wheel and his eyes not only on the road but on the following: cars ahead of and behind him, motor bikes with trailers on the front end (hence they don’t trail but lead), bicycles on which up to three children without helmets were riding, horses pulling carts, carts carrying loads of hay that obscured traffic, goats, sheep, dogs and, yes, pedestrians who wait until the last minute to walk into traffic (even on the freeway). My job was to white knuckle the dashboard and scream, “GO!! GO!! GO!!”

We made it to Dubrovnik. We made it back to Tirana. The way back was much easier because we had both become philosophical about the situation. All would not be lost should be bite the big one on an Albanian road. We had seen enough to know that someone would erect a lovely memorial to us and the memory of our courage would last forever.

We can now drive anywhere without blinking an eye. I walk a lot in the city. I step off the curb into oncoming traffic and find myself nodding in appreciation of the fine quality of the brakes on Albanian cars. I have a horrible urge to pound on the hood of a car and yell, “Hey, I’m walking here!” ala Midnight Cowboy. I have restrained myself because a) no on would understand what I was saying and b)even if they did I doubt they would be amused and they might hit the gas.

I, however, continue to be amused by the marvelous copywriter at Tirana in Your Pocket. There is truth in humor and the truth is if you don’t laugh when you take to the streets and roads of Albania you will find yourself indulging in a primal scream in the middle of a round about.

Eventually, I’ll be home. One of the first things I’m going to do is take a restful drive – on the Los Angeles freeways at rush hour.

P.S. The part about nerves of steel and a good map? We’ve got the nerves but still haven’t found a good map. But navigating in a city without street signs or numbers is for another day.

Albanian Diaries 2: My Shqip (ship) Has Come In

UnknownAlbania has a unique and intricate language. Shqip (ship) has umlauts above and below letters, curlicues, little tiny arrows pointing upward and an elegantly, maddening way of stringing consonants together that make it impossible for my tongue to wrap around anything other than three words: falemenderit (thank you), po (yes), and shu mire (very good). I don’t count tualet because that’s pretty much the same in any language.

They say language is like math and music and that might account for my limitations. I can’t balance my checkbook and you don’t want to hear me sing. However, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Sign language. A smile. A shrug. Of course we can communicate with one another even if we don’t speak the same language. Take, for instance, my encounter with the bryek man

Continue Reading →

The Albanian Diaries: An Excellent Adventure (So Far)

images-3There are two movies everyone should see: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Even before I saw those films I longed for an excellent adventure. Whisk me into a spaceship in my bathrobe! Let me open the door to a phone booth and find myself in medieval England! Heck, just land a strange package on my doorstep and I’d probably be happy. None of those things have happened to me. In fact, for all the adventures I have had, none of them has reached the epic excellence meter – until now. Continue Reading →