I’ll be the first to admit that my 12 years of living in the Middle East has overly sensitized me to skin issues. There are numerous elements to consider when dressing to go out and about. There is, of course, the Sun-Safety Factor: living in a desert inspires certain cancer prevention precautions. The Comfort Factor is an important one: through trial and error I’ve learned that covering up is actually cooler than baring it all. And then there’s the Eyeball Factor: how much of a reaction do you wish to garner over the course of the day? Egypt is one of the more liberal Middle Eastern countries, but for the male population low cut necklines are the equivalent of a birdfeeder to a squirrel.
So when I arrived in Albania’s capital city, Tirana, in the middle of a sweltering July, I was a bit taken aback by the quantity of cleavage on display. Practically everywhere I walked or ate or swam or shopped, my own eyeballs would gravitate to some generous display of mammary glands. Everyone else seemed fine with it. It appeared to be the cultural norm. There is even a medieval castle dedicated to a woman who had been walled into the fortifications willingly, as long as her breasts remained exposed to sustain her nursing child. Young or old, female or even male, the breastage area seemed to be very comfortable in the open air.
I adapted. I adjusted my own sensitivities and occasionally my eyelids to the community’s standards and even attempted a few revealing shirts of my own. There was one overly disturbing occasion when I was getting a pedicure and the 70-something salon employee, who had also chosen not to wear a bra that day, was vigorously scrubbing while leaning at the same time. That took me a while to get over. But overall, I became accustomed to the sight and even stopped gawking after a while.
Until Butrint. I should say upfront that the historical site of Butrint is not famous for the chests of its current citizenry, but for the beautiful and extensive archeological remains of its past inhabitants. The peninsular-ly shaped tourist destination is reached by crossing a segment of the river that winds around it. The ferrying is accomplished by a mechanical rope pulley and a floating platform that carts about four automobiles at a time. We were lucky enough that the queue was short when we arrived. It looked to be about a 15 minute wait.
Hovering off to the side was a crowd of shirtless young men relaxing and goofing around. Ostensibly they were there to herd the cars and offer assistance with the loading process, but since it was clearly a slow day with not much going on, the cigarettes had come out and the dress code loosened.
And that’s when we saw it. Even just a glimpse of it from the side looked fascinating. I elbowed the driver of our car and she followed my gaze. Our companions in the back seat started to notice and leaned up for a closer look: four sets of eyes all gaping at this uniquely tattooed, finely sculpted, perfectly tanned male breast.
We may as well have been shooting darts instead of stares because he immediately sensed the attention and turned to face us, directing a confident smirk, and both of his nipplige areas, towards our car. Provided with a full frontal we were quickly able to determine that the ink crossed from one side of his chest to the other in star and script patterns. Intrigued we mumbled amongst ourselves what could be written, debating what language the words were in, amazed at the originality of the shapes.
Clearly enjoying the objectification, our visual target threw his shoulders back, flexed his pecks and made it a point that all of his companions knew what was going on. Not to be out bolded, our precocious driver gestured for him to come towards us. He sauntered over with a growing grin, reached the widow, placed his hands at the base of the open window and leaned down.
I should pause at this moment to mention that throughout our road trip I had developed a reputation for taking pictures of just about anything: bugs, walls, bushes, clouds, broken pavement, burning garbage, telephone poles, you name it. I had the camera constantly in my hand and clicking away. My Albanian friends found it quite entertaining the things I chose to photograph. I ignored their jibes and continued to snap at anything that moved, and most of what didn’t.
At this very moment, as my intrepid friend explained our curiosity for his skin art, the sweaty chest quickly straightened and slammed itself up against the side of the car, firmly and centrally placing the tattoo smack in the middle of the open window. Between the thud of body meeting metal and the collective lurch backward of the car’s occupants, we drew the attention of even the neighboring tourists.
For a few awkward moments we all stared silently with bulging eyes at the breast filled window, until one of my friends composed herself enough to utter an appreciation for the detail of the work and thanked the young man for sharing. Quite pleased with himself he strutted back to his own companions who greeted him with high fives and hoots.
Back in the car, all eyes, including my own, slowly turned to the camera in my hand. It was aimed and focused on the window, with my normally trigger-happy finger at the ready. Curses and laughter erupted simultaneously as we realized that I had not managed to click a single shot.
A few minutes later our turn for the ferry arrived. Still shell-shocked we got the car into place, and as we floated slowly away from the impromptu and blunt display of bravado we tried to refocus our thoughts on the ancient. Once on site we explored ruins from Roman on through Ottoman times. We wandered through thousands of years’ worth of history and wooded beauty, attempting to honor the generations who toiled and defended and lived and died on the mound. But alas, it was not to be. For the rest of our journey, we constantly referred to that location by the action we had witnessed. Citadels and bathhouses, monasteries and ramparts all crumble eventually, but the memory of that breast in the window will always and forevermore be emblazoned on my mind. No photographs needed.