Geia sou apo Atina,
We’ve arrived in Athens after a few days in Albania. Here there are two days of general strike and protest against economic stringencies but we should be able to see what we want – including perhaps a demonstration or two, which would be good.
Albania’s most famous export is probably Mother Teresa, who dedicated a life of selfless and meritorious service to the less fortunate. She is remembered fondly but not commemorated overtly in place names or such. This is consistent with the quiet, selfless way she lived her life, I suppose.
“the road less travelled”
Albania was a surprise packet in many ways. In retrospect, it’s gratifying that it was included in our itinerary. We approached on “a road less travelled”, as The Lonely Planet described it. We soon found out why it is less travelled. Let me explain. First thing in the morning, we got a taxi to the remote border in the expectation that there would be minibuses to Shkodra, the next big town.
The three police officers were now having their card game interrupted. They informed us that there was no transport at that time but offered to take us to Shkodra for 25 euros. M. was a bit wary “of getting into a car with a man carrying a gun”. We were taken along a road which hasn’t seen any serious maintenance since Joe Stalin was a boy. In fact, calling it a road is a bit generous.
donkeys, pitchforks and scythes
Seeing this appallingly inadequate infrastructure, we could have been forgiven for concluding that Albania was a grossly impoverished nation, especially when we could also see donkeys, pitchforks and scythes being used in the fields. I thought we had also discovered where the Germans sell their second-hand Mercedes Benzes, since there were so many on the way. (The lavazh was also doing a very brisk trade since the car owners were obviously very keen to keep their prized possessions in mint condition.) We subsequently learnt that the Mercedes Benzes were stolen and arrived in Albania in the first days of free enterprise in the 1990s.
We arrived safely, both having been thankful that the officer had not been called away on official business.
Upon arrival to the capital, Tirana, we had our impressions expunged by a totally different outlook. Albania occupies such a low international profile, so it was hard to formulate any expectation. I think I had a feeling that everything would be dull and grey and lifeless. The reality is far from that.
optimism and verve
The city is a vibrant, bustling city populated by busy, industrious and urbane people brimming with optimism and verve. M. exclaimed, as we strolled down one city street, “Look, they even have Botox.” There is an active nightlife in Tirana, ironically based in a suburb called Blokku. This was a forbidden quarter during the regime of Enver Hoxha between 1941 and his death in 1985.
60 000 bunkers
Hoxha is remembered here as a dictator whose most noticeable legacy is 60,000 igloo-shaped concrete bunkers dotted around the countryside. These bunkers are an eyesore today, a relic of an era when fear of invasion diverted scarce resources towards defence and away from basic necessities of normal quotidian life – like roads.
migration to Albania
The overwhelming characteristic of Albanians is that they are genuinely helpful people. They often offer unsolicited assistance with no expectation of payment of any kind. One day, whilst I waited in the post office, Aleksi smiled and offered to help translate. Aleksi asked where I was from and told me he had a friend who had resided in Kangaroo Valley. His friend has returned to Albania (Kangaroo Valley to Albania? How’s that for an endorsement of Albania?!). “He is serving the Lord,” said Aleksi.
organic fruit and vegetables
Our host in Tirana was Xhina, who is an elderly woman nowadays living alone in the backstreets of the city, not far from a street called Rruga President George W. Bush. (This is not the only indication that America is an ally to Albania.) Xhina explained that her son emigrated to USA 20 years since, saying “Enough of Albania”. She didn’t ever consider following suit: “I love Albania” she said. With very limited English, she is able to point out that one of the many virtues of life in Albania is that the fruit and vegetables are organic.”I like Albanese fruit,” she says – “no chemicals”.
“The Lonely Planet” guidebook says the people are typically friendly; we can definitely vouch for this. They mirror the national slogan:
“Albania: a beautiful nature; a powerful spirit”.
On top of this, the beer is cold, which is more than can be said for quite a few other European countries. As well as the beer, we also tried some local foodstuffs such as byrek (a hand-held pastry enclosing cream cheese) and white (!) mulberries (no chemicals!).
Albania to Greece
From Albania to Greece: we departed Tirana and crossed the Greek border late last night. When the bus stopped for a pit stop, there was a television on in the roadhouse. And on the television there was an episode of “Postman Pat” (Postieri Pat) with Albanian sub-titles. I remember fondly the main themes of Postman Pat: time’s not important; people are. Somehow the ethos of helping others and remaining true seemed to fit the Albanian psyche very neatly, here in the land of selfless Mother Teresa. We are both pleased we spent some time in Albania. It was a pleasant surprise. It’s been great to uncover such experiences along the way.
lamtumirë from Tirana