Sunday, December 28, 2008

It's Not Just Me

I keep in touch with many travellers in Albania, and they all have something good to say about the country. OK, they also have some not-so-good things to say. To pretend otherwise would be less than truthful. The latest story that touched me is here. Enjoy!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Highways of Death

It's that time of year again. Temperatures drop, shops are decorated, and the nation's attention will once again be drawn to one thing: highway fatalities. The holiday season last year was marred by a spike in accidents and deaths on Albania's roads. This happens in the U.S. too and I wouldn't be surprised if it's the same in many other countries. Holiday travel, alcohol, and bad weather can combine to create a darker Christmas tradition anywhere in the world. Here in Albania, as with everything else, things are a little different.

The first factor is the state of the roads. No, they're not in such disrepair that they are deadly. On the contrary, the rise in fatalities becomes most noticeable just after a new section of road opens up. The routine goes something like this:
  1. The PM announces a road improvement project.

  2. Five years later the roadwork is completed.

  3. Just prior to the next election, the PM (usually not the one who initiated the project) holds a ribbon cutting ceremony to show his/her governments efforts toward development.

  4. Within three months, the new section of road is proclaimed a "Highway of Death" by the media as the carnage begins.

  5. The next stretch of road opens up and the cycle repeats.
The first iteration of this cycle happened on the Tirana-Durres "autostrade." It took nearly 7 years to build the first seven kilometers from the city limits almost to the airport turn-off. As a superhighway, it lacked a few finishing touches. Limited access, for one. The road was not fenced and drivers entered where they liked. Pedestrians had unlimited crossing points. U-turns were possible just about anywhere. In reality, it wasn't a super-highway, just a 4-lane country road. But you could drive real fast!

Progress came and eventually the road became truly divided. Concrete barriers solved the U-turn problem, but created difficulty for pedestrians and their livestock. With no overpasses or underpasses, the only way to get across was a 25-meter dash with a wall-vaulting halfway across. Easy if you're a 20-year-old lavazh worker. Not so easy if you're a 60-year-old villager with a cow.

While the government answered this need by slowly building pedestrian overpass bridges, the local made the wall-vault portion easier by piling rocks at each side of the barrier in the fast lanes! Each time I headed for the airport, I quivered in anticipation of what kind of lunacy I would witness. The road never failed to exceed my expectations. Once it was four farmers trying valiantly to boost a reluctant heifer over the Jersey barriers while angry drives whizzed by on each side, honking like crazy. Another time it was an old lady coaxing her cow over the pedestrian overpass whose spindly steel superstructure trembled with each bovine step. The cow didn't seem keen on the idea despite the determined motivational lecture being administered with a stick by the old crone in black!

This stretch of road was the first I ever heard termed "Highway of Death" in the newspaper. It seems the villagers who crossed it had grown used to crossing the old, potholed excuse for a highway which the autostrade replaced. Since the new road went in, they had not recalibrated their time/speed/distance estimators to deal with the increased traffic speed. The result was predictable. Dead pedestrians, wrecked cars, lurid headlines, and calls for action. This attention soon faded away, either because the press got bored or Darwin's laws culled out those who couldn't survive in this new traffic environment.

Fortunately for the press, the autostrade from Durres to Rrogozhine was inaugurated and soon won the coveted "H.O.D." title. This heavily-travelled two-lane road passes through more rural, isolated country than the Tirana-Durres road and soon racked up fatalilties among villagers who had only ever had to dodge cars travelling 1/8 of the new speed limit. Again the calls for traffic calming measures came and again the government did ... nothing. The locals then took things into their hands.

Americans call them speed bumps. The Brits call them "sleeping policmen." Albanians call them "dead policemen", presumably to avoid confusion with actual sleeping policemen. Regardless what you call them, these little humps of tarmac are very effective at slowing traffic. These villagers, obviously not professional highway engineers, took them to a new level. They made them about 40cm tall, from concrete, in the middle of the night. Come the morning rush hour and the police found themselves responding to accidents on the H.O.D. not involving squished pedestrians, but a $60,000 Mercedes with it's undercarrige destroyed by a 80mph collision with a miniature bunker laid across the road.

Time passed and the "slow pedestrian" gene got weeded out of the Kavaja gene pool. Accidents rates fell, and a new H.O.D. opened, one which reigns to this day. It's the stretch from Fushe Kruje to Lezhe. This one was perfectly situated to claim the title with arrow straight stretches of two-lane blacktop cutting across farmland dotted with villages and farms. The road had been started in the late 1990's, but was delayed for many reasons. This delay gave the locals a chance to get used to using the road sections as they were completed. A few entrepreneurs even managed to build their business directly on the side of the road before traffic started flowing. Today, the road is busy, crowded, and narrow in places where junkyards, gas stations, or pork butchers' kiosks stand inches from the traffic lanes.

But it's not just unwary villagers who die on these roads. Just a few days ago this road was the site of a two-car head-on collision that left two people dead. The press claimed the H.O.D. was the cause while the police blamed the pile-up on excessive speed, bad weather, and lack of lighting. Anyone who drives this road knows the real reason. It's the unique relationship between Albanians, their cars, and history.

It's only been 17 years since private citizens were allowed to drive and own cars here. Given the liberty to do so, Albanians went car crazy. Driving became a status symbol which they adopted with the same passion they have for football and the same lack of attention they pay to rules in general. Driver training was minimal or non-existent. In 1993, ten bucks got you a valid license regardless of driving skill. The stage was set. Lot's of inexperienced drivers, a passionate love for cars, construction of better (read: faster) roads, and more cars on the road. Stir these ingredients into the macho Mediterranean culture and, voila, chaos.

They think they are great drivers. They yield to no one. They drive drunk, or distracted, or both. They die in large numbers. Tragically, it's usually after a celebration when the odds catch up with them. Even more tragic, they take people with them. Families, pedestrians, children. I'm keeping my fingers crossed this year and hoping to see signs of improvement over previous years.

And I'm staying off the roads.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Highway

I love to travel to the remote corners of Albania and have done my fair share of complaining about the quality of the roads. By far the trip that brings out the whiner in me more than any other has been the trip to Kukes. I've done that slog seven times now. Yes, I'm counting. The first time was in 2000 during winter. The trip took 12.5 hours to cover 250 kilometers. This despite being driven by a midly insane Albanian in a vehicle with a huge engine and diplomatic plates! The road was bad as we left Tirana and things went downhill from there.

The last time I went to Kukes, things were looking up. The total trip time was down to 6 hours even though I was driving a badly overloaded Chevy Suburban. The modern highway from Tirana to Milot had been opened by then which accounted for most of the reduction in travel time. The rest of the road was still a twisty, bumpy mess but had been improved somewhat. I swore I would never think of going up there again. Until now.

The new 4-lane highway which is causing so much uproar in political circles is getting close to completion. Say what you will about it being a white elephant project draining badly needed funds from other sectors. That's true, but I can't wait until it's done just for the sheer pleasure on making it up to Kukes without getting carsick. This video, released by Bechtel/Enka gives a little glimpse into the project and the area it passes through. I can hardly wait. Anyone up for an August road trip to Shistavec?

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must confess these are not my pictures. I grabbed them off of "". I was just going to link to this forum, but it was full of "my tunnel is bigger than yours" flame wars between Greeks, Albanians, Croats, and Serbs.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A New Sensation

The good thing about life is it's so unpredictable. You never know when something good is going to come along. Or something bad. So little of what happens to you is under your control. No matter how much you plan and work toward an outcome, there's really no guarantee you'll get what you want. Most of the time we don't even realize how small things add up to something truly terrible, or supremely sublime.

For the last year or so I have been reading (and re-reading)"The Great War For Civilization" by Robert Fisk. Fisk is a newspaper correspondent currently working for the Independent in the UK. The book is an epic chronicle of his observations during a long career in reporting on war and its aftermath in the Middle East. I don't agree with all his political views or overall philosophy, but I was impressed with his in-depth research and historical perspective.

Among other things, the book discusses the impact of Western actions during and after WWI and how they contributed to the Armenian Genocide under the dying Ottoman Empire. The subject matter seemed relevant as I now living in a country which was part of the Ottoman Empire. I also live close by the former home of Enver Hoxha who was named in honor of Enver Pasha, one of the Young Turks most responsible for the Armenian Genocide.

Six degrees, Kevin. Only six degrees.

On Sunday, Christiane Amanpour hosted the CNN International special event "Scream Bloody Murder." Another dose of genocide reporting on Armenia, Germany, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Lest you think I am some sort of mass murder fetishist, I must confess I only watched because of Christiane. I first saw her reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall and was fascinated by her exotic looks. Later I came to admire her intelligence and journalistic integrity as much as the bottomless pools of her eyes and the cling of her sweater. Anyway, it was an excellent, if depressing, documentary.

Monday morning I was up early taking a friend out to the airport. Cold morning, still dark, head full of sleep and no shot of coffee yet to focus my mind. Heavy fog hung over the fields along the new airport access road, particularly soupy in the vale of the Tirana River. My mind was full of dark thoughts courtesy of Fisk and Christiane.

Yeah, the Turks had been here. The Germans too. No doubt these fields have seen their share of blood spilt. Greeks and Romans. Illyrians. Serb, Venetian, Italian. Each era sends a new wave of blood, setting the stage for the next atrocity. The misty acres around me brought to mind Fisk's reference to Carl Sandburg's poem Grass:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass;
I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
On the CD player INXS provided the perfect soundtrack to my pessimistic mood:
The devil inside
The devil inside
Every single one of us the devil inside
Here come the world
With the look in its eye
Future uncertain but certainly slight
Look at the faces
Listen to the bells
Its hard to believe we need a place called hell
After a quick turnaround at the airport I headed back to town in the same frame of mind, contemplating man's ceaseless cruelty to his fellow man. Blood feuds, internments, firing squads...
But as I crossed the fields, things looked different. The sky in the east was lightening and the misty fields seemed less funereal. The impending dawn changed the mood from death and mourning to one of anticipation. No matter what terrible secrets the grass concealed, it's dewy lushness also held the promise of life. The mist no longer a shroud, but the cottony wrapping of a brand new day.
Just as the sun peeked over the crest of Mount Dajti, flooding the flats with sharp clear light, INXS added their voice:
Sleep baby sleep
Now that the night is over
And the sun comes like a god
Into our room
All perfect light and promises
That quickly life changes. I dropped the windows and let the cold wind blast my head clear. Cranked the volume up and sucked in lungfuls of crisp morning air. Mssrs. Farris and Hutchence wailed on about "a new sensation" while I reveled in my new frame of mind. Tirana glowed fresh in the morning light. Quiet, lying motionless in a brief calm before the day's business begins. I parked and dashed into the local bakery for a fresh-from-the-oven loaf of bread. I ate it as I ambled down the sidewalk, senses awash in bread smell, chilly air, and all the anticipation of what may come next.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

The international press can't seem to let go of the story of Serbian prisoners/mental patients who were allegedly transported from Kosova to Albania for organ harvesting. Since Carla Del Ponte published these allegations, there has been periodic pressure to continue investigating this dubious claim. The latest report is a print/video piece in the Guardian.

I included this not because I want to push a particular viewpoint relative to the claims, but because of the footage of a remote part of Albania. Burrel, the town in question, was the location of a labor camp/prison during the communist regime. Even today the phrase "sent to Burrel" is used to signify someone is completely cut off and isolated by society.

Check out the pictures and imagine how much more difficult life must have been there 10 years ago or in the 1960's when the prison was at it's worst.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Still Here

Despite the lack of activity on this blog, I am still around. I finally got kicked in the backside by some recent reporting that caught my eye. A good read here. Winter may finally be coming to Albania, but articles like that one keep us warm and looking forward to next summer's tourist deluge. Come on down! If it's good enough for Jim Belushi, it's good enough for us.

To make your visit even easier, another el-cheapo connection is now available from Zagreb on Belle Air.

For those of you who speak German, here is an interesting travelogue by a charming, adventurous couple who travelled through Albania with their darling 1-year-old daughter. If you don't spreche any Deutsch, there's lots of cool pictures. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


I started writing this blog only to get a few of my impressions in print and stay connected to the wider world of Albania, Albanians, and Albanophiles. I never expected to get much notice. I was surprised and extremely honored when Traveler One at Stepping Stones listed me as one of her choices for a Proximidade award. I've read her blog and Simon Varwell's and am pleased to be in such company.

I guess this means I have to shake off the October doldrums and write something. Until then, check out Stepping Stones for your taste of Albania expat life.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Shoe? Meet Other Foot.

In early 2000 I volunteered to be an election monitor for the OSCE in Albania as part of the international effort to help the Albanian government ensure a free and fair democratic election. It was an interesting job, took me to some remote places in the North, and allowed me a glimpse into some of the cultural factors which influence development and governance here.

An example?

In one voting center, I commented on the chaotic method of matching a voter's ID with the list of registered voters. Why should it take several minutes of argument and searching to look up a name on a list, match it to the ID document, and check the voter off? The local election commission member smiled when he heard the translation, and waved me over to show me.

In this small village south of Kukes, almost 75% of the voters have the same last name. To add to the confusion, the sons of "Bob Smith" take their father's first name as a middle name. This leads to Jim Bob Smith, Tim Bob Smith, Tom Bob Smith, and Joe Bob Smith all showing up to vote on the same day. Times ten! What a goatrope. Anyway, the OSCE rated the elections somewhat fair and Albania continued down the road to democracy.

(Cultural note: technically it's not a "middle" name. It's literally "father's name". It applies to girls too, so the birth certificate or ID document will read Jane Bob Smith!)

Flash forward four years and it's election time again in the U.S. of A. After the Florida fiasco in 2000, the shoe was on the other foot. Many countries actually sent observers to monitor voting in the States. I met a few who had come in from Albania and were going down to Florida to see if the insanity would repeat. They joked about how turnabout is fair play and how they never imagined it would come to this. Albania helping the U.S. ensure transparent elections!

I thought I had forgotten all that until today. I was at lunch with some Albanian friends and the talk turned to the economic meltdown in the U.S. We engaged in good-natured debate and inevitably the comparison was made between the U.S. now and Albania in 1997. Can you say "pyramid scheme?" One Albanian smart-aleck at the table turned and asked, "When the rioting starts, where should we send our peacekeepers?"

We all laughed and I made a mental note to check my ammunition supply when I go home next month.

Monday, September 29, 2008


At the risk of sounding like just another tour guide, I want to tell you about Byllis. I had heard of it in passing and no one really seemed to rave about it. There's no "Byllis Foundation" like the fund started by British gazillionaires to protect and promote Butrint. There should be. The site is phenomenal.
The first thing you notice about the place is, it's up on top of a hill. Make that a mountain. The views are spectacular, even on a hazy day like this. Stand at the highest point of the site on the ruins of a watchtower and you can see for miles in all directions. The view to the west is dramatic with the Vjosa River winding between the hills 500 meters below.The walls are clearly visible around the entire perimeter. You immediately get the feeling of purpose which drove the inhabitants to create this secure citadel. When I came across the sign explaining the origin and history of the walls, I was amazed to find that almost two-thirds of the city was left outside the walls when they were constructed to guard agains Vandal attacks in the 3rd century. Two-thirds? The one-third inside the walls is almost 8 acres. Imagine what lies under the brush outside the walls.
It's not crowded in the least. On a warm September day I was the only visitor, other than a bridal party who had bounced their way along the road to take photos among the ruins before scooting back to the reception.
The place compares favorably to Butrint because it's dry. You can walk in among the ruins and never have to worry about slipping in the mud.
Imagine watching a performance in this theater. It must have been tough for the performers to compete with the view from the seats out over the valley.

Informative signs posted at all the major ruins clearly describe the purpose of the building, when it was built, and any unique aspects of the construction.

Mosaics. Lots of them. Several were uncovered for visitors to see which beats the heck out of having to buy a guidebook and then imagine what lies under the protective plastic sheeting and sand.

A shopping mall with a view!

Another endless view over the mountains of Mallakaster. .

If you want a second opinion on Byllis, here's a great article.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Lonely Planet Slideshow

I came across this today and thought I would share it. Not because it is a particularly good piece of journalistic reportage, but because it's from the biggest "alternative" tourist guide company in the world. Having said that, you would think that the CEO of said organization could make a video showing more of his subject city and less of himself.

With no further ado, "The Lonely Planet Does Tirana."


Thursday, September 25, 2008


One of the reasons I enjoy living in Albania is the sheer unpredictability of the place. You never really know what awaits you when you wake up in the morning. Sometimes it's as pleasant as a soft rain shower that makes the morning stroll envigorating. Other times it's unpleasant like the incessant screeching of some death-metal wannabe band in Mother Theresa square at midnight. (Rally Albania, I'm talking about you!) Other times it just weird. Like bicycle boy a few posts down.

The same sense of anticipation applies to driving around the country. You never know what will be around the next corner. Usually, it's just a clapped-out Mercedes straddling the center line while its driver chats on the cell phone. Every now and then it's entertaining like this gaggle of well-mannered turkeys being herded across the road.

This always brings a smile to my face. Herding turkeys. I ws raised with the conventional wisdom that turkeys are so dumb that if you leave them out in the rain, they will look up to see what is happening and drown because they aren't smart enough to shut their mouths. Turns out these little geniuses are more clever than I thought. Not only do they herd well, but they can be made to sit peacefully at the roadside as the locals haggle over price. I now have a new respect for turkeys; mildly intelligent and very tasty too!

Other surprises around the corner are less amusing, yet not entirely unwelcome despite the delay and inconvenience they bring. This sight greeted me last weekend on my way down south between Qeparo and Borshi.

I was a little annoyed that these intrepid workers couldn't find a way to route traffic around the worksite. My annoyance was counterbalanced by the knowledge that each rock chipped off the side brought this road one step closer to completion. Overall, almost 60% of the road between Vlora and Saranda has been improved. Still lots of work to do, but it's going to be a super drive once it's done. I may have to buy a motorcycle so I can appreciate its winding, smooth pavement and stunning views the way it should be enjoyed.

I also had grudging respect for these guys who were doing the job with a hand-held jackhammer. Although, during the 20-minute wait for the truck to fill up, I did wonder why a country that has thousands of tons of excess ammuniton can't spare a few kilos of TNT for something constructive.

Once past this roadblock, I rounded another curve and there was a second crew, hammering away at the rock. This time I spent 15 minutes listening to the "Saranda Seranade" of the backhoe-mounted super jackhammer as it chunka-chunka-chunka-ed a pile of rock onto the road and an old bulldozer pushed the rubble off the side of the road. I drove past I waved and wished them 'Pune te mbare' as I accelerated down the road. From here to Saranda it's an hour of winding road. I can't wait to see what's around the next corner!


Reuters Gets In on the Act

Oh look, a bandwagon! Let's jump on it!


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Road Warrior

So, how many little kids do you have to run over to amass a collection of bikes like this?


Tuesday, September 23, 2008


My first overseas trip took me to Greece where I had my initial brush with historical ruins. Venetian castles, Turkish fortresses, German bunkers, and the Minoan palace at Knossos. It was a new experience and created an awareness of the vast continuum of history that I didn't have growing up in the American West. In Greece, goats grazed on the ramparts where Venetians fended off attacks 300 years ago and local residents treated the site as nothing special, just "our castle."

The same thing exists in Albania today. People go about their lives in the midst of antiquities. Castles, tombs, forts, basilicas, amphitheaters are scattered throughout the countryside and woven into the fabric of life. In Kruja, Berat, and Tepelena, people live inside the walled ramparts of castles as people have for hundreds of years. Some sites have faded from national consciousness due to their isolation. One is Bashtova Castle. A Venetian fortress built at the mouth of the Shkumbin River as part of the chain of strong points that secured their mastery of the maritime trade throughout the Mediterranean.

Today, the castle sits in solitude, another landscape feature for the farmers to plow around. Time has chipped away at the massive walls, but enough remains for a visitor to appreciate the size and layout of the bastion. Walk the walls and hear the wind whispering across the fields, carrying the scent of the nearby sea. The Shkumbin has changed course over the centuries, depositing its load of silt on the flatlands so the castle no longer commands a view of the harbor.

It's not hard, though, to imagine the place full of the bustle of trade. Goods from inland brought down the ancient trade routes that follow the river through the mountains. The Romans built their Via Egnatia along this route, connecting Rome to Constantinople and the Venetians followed suit.

The arches which line the inner periphery of the wall served as storage for goods awaiting transport out by ship as well as magazines for supplies and weaponry for the soldiers who kept the area secure for trade.

From atop the guard towers at each corner and above each gateway you can feel the strength and sense of security that those defenders must have felt. No doubt they felt a sense of supreme confidence not knowing that, like all the things man makes, even the ramparts of Bashtova Castle fall in the face of the ceaseless march of time. Albania has seen them rise, prosper, and fall into ruin. At the peak of their power, they shaped the society and to a lesser extent still do. Even if their presence no longer command respect and awe, these citadels draw the interest of travellers and the annoyance of farmers.

Times They Are A-Changin'

Was it only two years since A.A. Gill penned his sarcastic, snide criticism of Tirana?

Now this article comes along to join the chorus of voices extolling the unique attractions of the city and Albania. You gotta love it!


Monday, September 22, 2008

A Day at Butrint

As I stood in line at the entry to Butrint on Saturday, the words of William Butler Yeats came to mind:

"Now I know that twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Granted, I've never actually read Yeats. I only remember this quote because it was included by Stephen King in his ultra-long novel of dark horror, The Stand. Pretty grim stuff. Why would I be thinking of this line at Butrint?

I took some friends down there to give them a chance to see some of the southern parts of Albania. One was a history buff who I had convinced to travel to Butrint. No place in this country has more history stacked layer on layer than this archeological marvel. I explained how the road south is much better than it used to be, that I could find a nice hotel to stay in, and that he would be practically alone in Butrint as the tourist season was over and the crowds had gone home.

As we left Saranda and headed south toward Ksamil, I knew I would soon be eating my words. There were buses on the road in front of us. Liberal use of the horn and some creative throttle work saw us past the buses and at Butrint in no time. As we loaded up our gear to enter the park, three buses pulled up and disgorged their cargo. British, French, and German tourists followed their guides like so many ducklings. We ended up in line behind them, queuing for tickets. That's when I had my Yeats moment.

The "rough beast" of mass tourism has awakened and is slowly slouching into Albania. I was on the verge of getting depressed until I started listening to the comments from some of the folks in line.
To a one they were enthusiastic about being in Albania. Several remarked on how different reality was compared to the image of Albania they got from the news. These were the same things I had been saying for years. How could I be critical when this is what I'd been advocating all along. This country is great! Come on over and see for yourself.

So, come visit Albania. Definitely go to Butrint. If there is a glut of tourists when you get there, don't despair. You can still have your quiet ramble through history. When you get to the fork in the path and all the tours go right to the theater, you go left and up the stairs. This clockwise circuit of the site has several advantages. One is that all the guides take people around counterclockwise so you won't have to follow them, just pass them halfway around. Second, you get to see the museum at the top first. This wonderful display puts everything in context and prepares you to better understand the ruins you will see on the rest of the walk. Finally, you finish at the theater, which is the highlight of the site.

And to cap things off, an article in the London Times was in my inbox this Monday morning which added to the chorus of positive reviews of travel in Albania. Even better, the author made it to Gjirokaster as well. Check here for the story.


Monday, September 8, 2008


Sorry for not posting in such a long time. I was out trying on moccasins. You've heard the Native American expression "Don't judge another man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins," right? I had the chance recently.

The longer I stay here, the more I notice I am starting to have a harder time identifying with new arrivals and visitors. Their observations and complaints start to sound trivial and inane to me. I find myself listening while they talk and thinking, "What do you mean you can't find decent meat here? There's at least five good butchers in the Blloku area alone. Not another expat rant about how hard it is to communicate with the Albanians! OK, OK, I get it - you don't like the whole "shake your head no for yes and nod once for no." It really isn't that hard.

Secure in my smug sense of superiority, I went on vaction for a few days recently and found myself squarely in their shoes. That's another of the joys of living in the Balkans. Travel a few hours and you are in an entirely new culture. New language, new alphabet, new food. My role quickly changed from savvy local inhabitant to helpless foreigner.

At the border post there was an issue with my vehicle. After trying Italian, German, and his native Serbo-Croat, the officer resorted to monosyllables of pseudo-Esperanto. "Problem!" "Problem!" I did too. Flapping my hands around and talking louder in English and Albanian didn't help at all.

Somehow I managed to get through the border and head on up the road. Then it struck again. I couldn't read the road signs. The sensation of complete helplessness threatened to overwhelm me. "Can't these people mark the roads clearly?" Through sheer luck and repeated driving around in circles in town centers I made it to my destination, checked in to the hotel, and got some rest.

A few hours later I hopped in the shower and was blessed by a rain of freezing droplets. "Shit, no hot water!" After a much-shortened and thouroughly unenjoyable shower, I marched down to reception and played indignant customer. The clerk was unfazed because be didn't understand a word I said. Or I should say he did understand the problem, I just couldn't understand the solution he was trying to explain. We trooped up to the room and he showed me the switch on the wall with all the other light switches which turned on the water heater. As he left, I recognized the look in his eyes. "Silly foreigner, stop bothering me with your inane problems. Everyone knows enough to turn on the water heater when they arrive."

To be fair, I actually had a great time. Lounging on the beach. Exploring the old cities and new attractions. Getting the feel of a new culture. Listening to music which, while different, still carried the influence of past Ottoman domination of this part of the world. There were other moments when the sense of foreigness intruded and I reacted like a true tourist: internal panic followed by avoidance then a diatribe against the local practice. As I returned to Albania, I had a sly little smile on my face.

I had learned again the meaning of "culture shock" and how strongly it can affect a traveler. I reminded myself how every traveller, no matter how experienced or jaded, is susceptible. I also learned again how it doesn't help when the locals (native or expat) pooh-pooh your reaction. After a short time wearing the moccasins of a new arrival, I promised myself I would remember how it feels to be in that position and refrain from criticizing. I'll work on my patience and my Esperanto.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Life in a Muslim Country? Part II

Thanks to Our Man in Tirana, who may be physically gone but remains engaged in Albanian issues, I can provide a link to a fantastic analysis by Miranda Vickers on the state of Islam in Albania today.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Foreign currency has always been a weak spot for me. I was never all that attentive to my spending habits in the U.S., but at least I developed a general sense of what something should cost based on how long it took me to earn that amount. A pair of jeans was $20.00, which took me about half a day to earn. Hey! Cut me some slack. This is 1976 I'm talking about!

My first experience with foreign currency was a riot. Greece, 1982. My first trip abroad and I've now turned my small stack of greenbacks into a mountain of indecipherable banknotes. Drachmas, spelled with a triangle! As I slowly woke up to the mystery of exchange rates, I had a wonderful idea. If I buy Draculas when they are cheap and sell when they are expensive, I make money. My next paycheck was converted at the incredible rate of 95 drachma to the dollar after I watched the rate soar from 75. All I had to do is hang on until the mighty dolllar fought back. Ten days later the Greek government did some financial sleight of hand and the exchange rate went to 125. Bad foreign currency! Bad!

From then on it was, "ignorance is bliss." I didn't want to know how much something cost in dollars. "An apple is 20 dracs? OK. A beer is 400 yen? OK. I just lost 200 pound and 14 shillings at the dog track? OK. A Turkish hooker is 650,000 lira? No thanks, not interested, but the price seems OK." For over 19 years all was well. The locals knew their currency, scrawled it on a piece of paper for me or pointed at the register readout and I paid. Then I landed in Albania.

I'd done my homework. A dollar was about 150 lek. On my first amble around Tirana, I passed the Rinia Park in the center of town. At that time the park was a shanty town of illegal buildings. Restaurants, clubs, pool halls, and a hotel sprawled in un-plumbed squalor. Passing by one of the forgettable restaurants, a young man sprang up from his chair and joined me on my walk. He spoke English and started peppering me with questions.

"Where you from? Where you going? What's your name? Have you seen the pyramid? Do you want to see Hoxha's villa?"

I tried to be polite yet dismissive. I'd been warned about crime and still was not comfortable in my new environment. Long story short: After pouring out his life story and offering to be my guide, friend, and confidant Genci starts telling me about his mother in the hospital and asked for financial help. In my head I'm thinking, "I wonder what the going rate for buying your way out of an uncomfortable mooch is here?" If I was still in DC I'd give the homeless guy a buck and be on my way.

I did the only civilized thing - I asked, "How much?" He immediately replied, "Two thousand."

Now my head is spinning. "How many dollars is that? Divide by .66. Or is that multiply? How much did I get from the bank today? Is that the big green one or three of the triangular bills? Oh, shit, what if he sees my wallet and tries to kill me?" I decided discretion would be the better part of valor and forked over two 1000 lek notes. Genci transformed from the misty-eyed supplicant to a Wal-Mart employee who just won the powerball jackpot and begged me to meet him again tomorrow. I declined and scuttled home trying to rationalize my generosity.

I told this story to an Albanian colleague a few days later and when the laughter stopped he said, "You got scammed. The guy saw you were a foreigner and decided to work you. There's no way he has a sick mom, he wanted 200 lek for coffee."

"So why did he ask for 2000?"

"Oh, he was talking old lek."


"Yeah, old lek. Most people still haven't gotten used to using the new lek values after the government devalued the currency by a factor of ten. It's very common to hear people refer to 1000 lek when they are talking about 100 new lek."

"So he really wanted 200 lek (about 2 bucks) and I gave him 2000 (about 20 bucks)?" I could feel the donkey ears sprouting on my head like you see in the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

"Oh, yeah. You made his day!"

"So when did this devaluation happen?"


I was speechless. The currency was devalued before the majority of the current population was born and they still use the old values? Unbelieveable. I could understand if there was still old currency in circulation showing the old value and people referred to it. It would seem reasonable if the change had only happened a few years before. The entire continent of Europe switched from marks, francs, piasters, lira, and good old draculas in just six months and now everyone talks in Euro and Albanians still refer to a currency which was phased out when Mick Jagger was just getting famous? What is wrong with this picture?

There are some advantages to this system. Every payday, I can be a millionaire again. All it takes is a trip to the ATM and the withdrawal of 1,000 USD. That's around 100,000 new lek, but thanks to the magic of time travel in Albania, I can call it a million. Even though the dollar is worth about the same as a wilted lettuce leaf, I can still close my eyes and imagine Regis Philbin asking me:

"Can you give me a million for my sick goat's medicine?"


Monday, August 18, 2008

A Dance With The Devil

It has been compared with the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Survivors refer to it as "a Tango with Satan." Others refuse to speak of it, hoping that ignoring it will make it disappear. No one leaves Tirana without being touched by it. Once touched, you're changed forever. Crossing the street here is a life-altering experience!

I've lived in several countries around the Mediterranean and have come to know well the perils of crossing the street on foot. Athens, Naples, Istanbul. Each new city had traffic rules slightly different than the others yet they shared a common factor. Successfully crossing the street requires adapting your behavior. If you stood waiting for a traffic light to change and cars to stop, you could very well grow old and die in one spot. Stepping out onto the crosswalk and expecting cars to stop would have the same result, only you wouldn't have to wait so long. No, you have to play by the local rules.

In Tirana this means learning to play "Frogger." Remember the video game where you had to hop your frog across a river without getting drowned, munched, or squished by the various denizens of what looked a lot like a five-lane highway? That's the Boulevard of The Martyrs of the Nation (Bulevard e Deshmoret e Kombit). Six lanes of speeding death which occasionally turns into eight... or twelve. I cross it at least twice a day and have learned the rules.

First, try to make eye contact with drivers. It's harder for them to kill you if they have seen your eyes and recognize your basic humanity. The flip side of this rule applies to driving: Never make eye contact. You can't be held responsible for hitting something you didn't see.

Second, realize and accept that traffic will not stop for you. You are the twig tossed on the torrent. Find the space, use it, move on. Just as it won't stop, the traffic won't alter course to hit you. If you're on the center line you can remain still and read the smallest print on the bus ads as they whoosh by, confident that you're in your space and completely safe.

Third, hesitate and you're done. There's no second chance. The quick and the dead.

Fourth, ignore the policeman and the traffic signal. He's only there for decoration. In the event of an emergency such as traffic actually flowing smoothly, the police will intervene. Mostly they just observe and chat with passing friends.

The internal dialogue sounds something like this: "OK, he's turning right... three steps across the first lane, wait for Mercedes .... three quick steps ... stop, wait for the very clean Porsche ... step, step, step and we're halfway ... look right ... six steps across two lanes ... ignore the horn ... two taxis pass and then three more steps to the curb."

It's easy to spot the newbies. They look apprehensive, tense. Like a young wildebeest approaching the Mara River for the first time. They know about the crocodiles are there but don't yet know how many times the crossing can be safely made. Experienced crossers don't even break stride. Cell phone on the ear and staring straight ahead they step into the stream and glide effortlessly across. They take the same risks as everyone else but have learned to live with, and minimize, the risk. I admire them.

So, like the annual migration across the perils of the Serengeti, street crossing in Tirana has evolved and achieved balance. Then something changes and chaos ensues. I noted before that the surest way to screw up traffic is to get the police involved. Make the policeman a German and the results are even more hilarious. Unless you're a driver who actually has someplace to be.

Earlier this decade, the EU sponsored a police training program to help Albania bring their law enforcment operations up to Western standards. I would have loved to have been at the meeting where each country staked out their area of "specialization."

The Italians: "We'uh shalla teacha thema to fightuh the corrupzione!"
The French: "Mes amis! We take les customehr relacions departmahn!"
The Germans: "Ve vill brink order to zee traffik!"

OK, I could buy the first two. Barely. But, please, Hans, you have no idea...

Sure enough, August of 2000 found teams of one Albanian and one German traffic cop standing at almost every major intersection in Tirana. As I sat in the snarled mess that resulted I had a ringside seat to the spectacle. The Albanian cop knew better than to exert himself too much in the 40+ degree heat. Spent most of his time trying to stay in the shade of the German who flapped, whistled, and waved like a madman with the veins popping out in his forehead. His directions were ignored faster than he gave them and all he got for his efforts was a lot of honking and a mild case of heat stroke. The "training" program was mercifully short and by October things were back to normal.

Since then, change has slowly occured. Most of the traffic lights work most of the time and most of the drivers obey them. Most of the time. Lately I'm noticing people waiting for the walk signal and crossing when the little green man gives his consent. That's a good thing. I know it will cut down on traffic accidents and is yet another sign of the development of a culture of rule of law. Little changes in behavior build up into the solid foundation of modern society. But, every now and then I get nostalgic for the good old days.

When I approach the Boulevard and see the signals are out I am secretly pleased. I take a deep breath and smell the sulphur. My awareness peaks, my pulse pounds, and I step off the curb.

"OK, Old Scratch, let's dance!"


Monday, August 11, 2008

My Secret Beach


I have a secret beach.

It's not mine alone, but near enough. On an August Sunday it's just me and a few other hardy souls who venture out this far. Tirana's gone. No Durres. No traffic. Just me, the incandescent sun, and the beach. It's been strewn with the obligatory plastic bottles, some trash, and a set of quickly dissolving tire tracks testifying to someone's futile effort to drive out on the sand. The breeze is lazily erasing the tracks and pushing the refuse off into the far corner.

Here, hemmed in between shoulders of stone, I lie upon my secret beach. The sun, past its zenith, warms but does not burn. Beneath me the sand holds a reminder of midday's furnace, baking my back and melting sore, old muscles. I let go of the tension from the jolting ride in and surrender to the embrace of radiant silica. Each breath brings a slight readjustment as the sand sifts in to fill the gaps, forming an exact match to my body's form. A glove, a grave, an acceptance.

Above me the blue is marked with a few stray wisps of cloud. Cirrus? Stratus? Whatever, beach clouds. I stare into blue emptyness, anchored to Earth by the grip of the beach, and marvel at the range of colors. At first the sky looks just "blue", but after a while I notice the different shades. Deepest cobalt directly overhead. Milky blue around the fringes of the clouds. Pale, watery blue at the horizon. The moon, anxious to take the stage from the dominant sun, appears faintly as a blue-grey disc patched with dark spots. "Take your time,' I think. "You've got all night."

Across this azure expanse, a silver glint traverses, leaving a thin contrail behind. Even the vastness of the sky bears the imprint of our activities. So precise, so linear, so full of purpose. Yet, before the jet exits my field of view, the ruler-straight contrail begins to fray. Like the tire tracks on the beach, this latest mark of men begins to disappear and melt back into nature. That's how it is. The tracks, the contrail, the trash, you, me, everyone, everything. We come, we leave our mark, and we go away. A second, an hour, a year, a lifetime. Nature erases us, consumes us, re-uses us.

And that's OK. I feel best when I'm closest to nature. Closest to my eventual destination. Stay close and she reveals her secret wonders. The zephyr whispering across the water, over the sand, carrying the smell of brine. When the wind calms, the pungent tang of pine drifts over me. The stand of trees has worked its way onto the crest of the dune over the centuries and takes advantage of the lull to stake further claim if only for a brief moment. The breeze returns and carries with it the hiss of breaking waves.

I roll over and look out to sea to watch the waves break. They're not huge waves. Not North Shore monsters, curling over on themselves in a savage display of physics. But to me, raised on two-inch wind-driven wavelets lapping at the lakeside mud, these waves are fascinating. Random. Individual. Yet regular. There's a pattern that emerges from the chaos briefly to create a train of impressive little breakers before dissolving away into general waviness again.

The trick is to look far away. North. Up the beach. At the limit of my vision I can see a wave start breaking on the sand. This same crest continues south in an irregular yet unstoppable advance. As it gets closer I can hear it unzipping its way down the shore. Louder now, almost here, and then with a slap more than a crash it passes. It continues south, its sound fading. "Doppler effect?" I wonder.

Near me the water that the wave pushed up the sand is sliding back into the sea to await its next charge up the slope. I realize that the wave I watched travel over a mile down the beach was not made of water. The heaving water was just the track of the passing pulse of energy, of activity. Like the contrail. Like the tracks in the sand. It's all temporary, all impermanent.

From my warm cocoon in the beach's embrace I watch this timeless display of transient energy passing in and out of my existence and it's all good.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Life in a Muslim Country?

"So, what's it like to live in a Muslim country?"

I hear that a lot from lots of my stateside colleagues, friends, and family members. Let me tell you, life in a Muslim country was oppressive. I was forced to always wear long pants and a collared shirt, preferably long sleeved. When the call to prayer was sounded, I had to go sit on a bench on the street and wait for the shops to open back up after prayer. I couldn't find an alcoholic drink of any kind, anywhere. When I went out in public with female co-workers, they had to cover up entirely with only their face showing. Any infraction of the religious rules risked a scolding by the religious police (muttawa) who were alway accompanied by armed civil police. The muttawa would hit you with a long stick and yell at you about your infraction and, if you didn't fix the problem immediately, the civil police were ready to use more persuasive methods. And don't get me started on the public executions. Let's just say I never, ever wanted to even think about jaywalking after I saw a few heads parted from their owners! Yeah, life in Saudi Arabia was tough.

But you meant in Albania, right? I thought you meant life in a Muslim country. Albania is not a Muslim country. It's a country with a majority of citizens who would probably identify themselves as Muslim if asked. The last time anyone asked was in the 60's or 70's so all estimates of population and religious affiliation are WAG's. (Wild Ass Guesses).

So why does everyone say Albania is a Muslim country? It's the inescapable burden of history combined with recent isolation. As in almost every aspect of Albanian life and culture, these factors play a huge part in modern perceptions of the role of religion.

Before the Ottoman conquest of Albania, the majority of the inhabitants of this land were either Catholic or Orthodox Christians due to the influences of Rome and Byzantium. Prior to that I imagine many worshipped Roman or Greek gods, depending on whose yoke they lived under. The point being that in a country that has experienced repeated invasion and occupation, religious affiliation was often a function of who is the oppressor d'jour.

The Ottomans recognized this and used their governance as a prod to conversion. Muslim families in Albania paid lower taxes, did not have to involuntarily send their children to train as soldiers in Istanbul, and were generally better treated than their non-Muslim neighbors. Surprise, surprise: 60-85% of the population converted to Islam during the 500 years of Ottoman rule in Albania.

The breadth and depth of conversion can be traced today back to the amount of control the Ottomans exerted in an area and how long they held the territory. One author I read compared it to a tide that filled the lowest areas first and remained there longest before receding. In the mountain fastness of the Northern Albanian Alps, the Ottomans never really managed to bring the people under effective control, hence they remained mostly Catholic. Ditto for the remote areas of the south where Orthodoxy held sway in the isolated villages. In central Albania, along the invasion and trade routes of the river valleys, the Ottomans came and stayed and established effective government and commercial structures and made more converts. Around Elbasan, Tirana, and Fier the majority still identifies itself as Muslim.

Fast forward to today. You ask someone, "What faith are you?" Statistics say about 60% will answer, "Muslim." If you dig a little deeper, many times you find out this means the person's family is historically Muslim, not that the individual is a practicing believer. The spectrum is wide and varied.

Some are observant Muslims who fast during Ramadan, abstain from alcohol and pork, and adhere strictly to the tenets of the religion. Other Muslims are actually Bektashi, a sect seen as heretical by other Muslims. The sect began in Turkey and was driven out to eventually make Albania the world center of Bektashism. They combine elements of Islam, Zoroastrianism, and some Christian ideas. Very tolerant, may or may not abstain from pork and alcohol, and not inclined to jihad at all. Still others will identify themselves as Muslim because their family comes from an area which was under Ottoman sway for a long time and is still identified as being a Muslim family even if they don't believe or practice any faith.

It's an oft-quoted truism that "The religion of Albanians is Albanianism." Religious tolerance between the denominations has been held up as an example of how disparate communities can live together peacefully by many educated experts... and George W. Bush. Historically it has been true. Under the Ottomans, there was no conflict between those who converted and those who didn't. The common dislike of the Ottomans united them. Albanians of all faiths united to push out Serbs, Austrians, Greeks, Italians, and Germans when they felt their nation was imperiled. Under communism this unity was brutally enforced by the regime as they tried wipe out all traces of organized religion and gather all the citizens around the nation. And by nation, they meant Party.

This worked fairly well in uniting the people, not because the regime did anything right, but because Albanians naturally unite around any power center that claims to make the Albanian nation the center of their focus. It was like trying to force all children to love ice cream by outlawing all other dessert choices. You won't get any of them to disagree with love of ice cream, but some will be disgruntled that they can't get their hands on a little custard every now and then. I mean, really, religion has never been a threat to Albanians national unity... until now.

After thousands of years of changing religious affiliations by Albanians in response to their circumstances, I claim they are in more danger than ever of being divided? Yeah. Here's why. The influx of religious influences since the fall of communism is different than ever before. This is the first era in which proselytizing and conversion is being done without an accompanying invasion and occupation. The Saudi Wahhabists who are trying to establish fundamentalist mosques and medrassas aren't doing so to increase the size of the Saudi Empire. The born-again Christians are not here trying to convert the people to support a crusading occupier. The Jehovahs' Witnesses aren't fighting for establishment of support for a Jehovan state. They're coming to build numbers for their faiths only. The successful governance of the territory and the peaceful inter-relations of the community matter not one iota to them.

Proof? For the first time in Albanian history, fundamentalists of all stripes are intentionally taking actions to antagonize one another. Christians of all ilk are planting huge crosses high above towns, symbolically indicating their dominance of that region. They seem to take great joy in doing this above historically Muslim villages and towns. Elbasan is one example. Mosques under the sway of hard-line imams are mounting bigger speakers on the minarets close to Christian churches. Jehovahs? Their biggest impact seems to be convincing lots of Albanian teenagers that life sucks so they throw themselves off the balcony or eat rat poison.

I kid! I kid the Jehovahs!

The final proof is made of concrete, right in the center of Tirana. First the Catholics erect "the biggest cathedral in the Balkans." Not to be outdone, the Orthodox Church is almost done with "the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Balkans," squeezed right in between the Ministry of Defense and the Socialist Party Headquarters. The Muslims feel left out and want the state to give them permission to build "the biggest mosque in the Balkans" in the center of town.

Don't get me wrong. As an American I understand the importance of separation of church and state and don't support any effort to outlaw a religion. I do understand the divisive nature of fundamentalist religion and support a state role in limiting the types of actions believers can take in the name of their faith. I'm just not down with this whole jihad thing, be it Christian, Muslim, or Jehovahn! Albania would be better off if they spent more time building a functional civil society and less on divisive religious displays.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tourist Boom?

If the local press is to be believed, Albania is experiencing a huge increase in tourism this summer. My own experience confirms that to a degree and evidently there are enough solid facts to support an article in the Southeastern European Times which makes the same claims. Forty-six percent increase over last year? This is great - or is it?

Like I said, the newspapers here are full of articles about the tourist boom. Hotels full to capacity. Durres ferry port deluged with passengers and cars. Border crossings between Kosova, Macedonia, Greece and Albania recording record levels of inbound travellers. Cruise ships calling at Sarande.

My own experience with the crush includes a 60-minute transit over a section of highway near Durres that normally takes 5-10 minutes and a quick trip to the port of Durres last night to drop off a departing passenger. I couldn't even drive within three blocks of the ferry terminal. I booted him out with his luggage in the 80 degree heat and wished him well. Geez, I hated doing that to a seventy-some year old relative, but the traffic really was bad. :-)

So it looks like the increase is real, so what's the downside? In principle, nothing. I am a great supporter of tourism as a boost to the Albanian economy. At every chance I get I tout Albania as fantastic destination to family, friends, colleagues, complete strangers. My internet pimping for this place is getting a little out of control. The only problem with the reporting of this increase is what the newspapers don't tell you.

First, much of the increase in passenger traffic is Albanian emigrants coming home for holiday. This is good for the country as these folks are bringing back money earned abroad and injecting it into the economy. They're also bringing back valuable experience and perspective on the benefits, and costs, of living abroad. It's more exposure to the Western ideas of citizenship, environmentalism, and community involvement. This is the "intangible currency" the returnees bring back along with the Euro's, dollars, and pounds. But visiting emigrants don't have the same economic impact as actual foreign tourists. They often stay with relatives or in their own houses, cook and eat at home, and generally are more frugal. Good for them, not so good for the tourism industry.

The second unreported aspect of this "surge" (with apologies to the people of Iraq) is that it happens in a very short time. From July 15 until August 30th the horde descends. Come the first week of September, it's done. The only crowds are outbound at the border crossing points, ferry terminals, and the airport. Reminds me a little of lemmings all coming and going at the same time. From October to mid-June, the country is a ghost-town, touristically speaking.

Filtered out of the background noise of emigrant returns, my impression of the tourist situation is there are improvements, just not the 46% increase cited. Two of the biggest increases come from what is known as "patriotic tourism" by ethnic Albanians living in Kosova and Macedonia. Since the declaration of independence by Kosova the political landscape has changed and these changes influence people's travel choices. Since Montenegro has not recognized the independence of Kosova, Kosovars are abandoning Budva, Kotor, and the other wonderful coastal resorts and flocking to Velipoje, Shengjin, and Durres.

Similarly the little name-related brouhaha between Macedonia and Greece has pushed a lot of the Macedonians to choose Albania as a destination vice Thessaloniki or other Greek vacation spots. The really interesting part of this is it's not just ethnic Albanians from Macedonia. A co-worker of mine owns an apartment in Vlora and has been amazed at the number of Macedonian-speaking tourists holidaying there. She quipped the other day, "Now I know what it must be like to live in Skopje." Sure, Skopje... with beaches, beautiful ocean views, wonderful fresh seafood, sailing, and lower prices. Just like Skopje .... not. Anyway, official estimates are that around 10,000 Macedonian tourists have opted for Albania this year. Bravo.

I've also noticed an increase in young foreign travellers in Tirana. More backpackers trekking along Rruga Elbasan trying to find the only youth hostel in Albania as well as a couple of Scandanavian beauties strolling along the Blloku getting stared at by all the Albanian guys. I attended a wedding with over 20 American guests in attendance, many of whom had chosen to make a vacation out of the event and had spent nearly two weeks touring around the country. All of this is anecdotal evidence of improvement in the non-emigrant sector.

What's next? Albania has to expand it's tourist window and market outside of the traditional summer beach holiday zone. Spring holidays, school breaks in winter, adventure travel, historic and cultural tours aimed at specific markets in Europe and the rest of the world. And it has to be the private sector. The ministry of tourism can assist and monitor the situation, but the real effort must be done by private enterprise and local communities. Outdoor Albania is a good example of a private company finding its niche and aggressively marketing a specialized product that is not "tourist village" oriented.

Now lets get a walking tour company to cater to the eccentric Brits who love to hike. What about the a private company partnering with the Albanian Alpinism Society to bring in climbers to the Accursed Mountains, Nemercka, or the peaks around Korabi? My personal favorite would be an adventure motorcycle outfit that arranges two-wheeled tours of the back-country. There are some roads to die for out there. (That's to die for, not to die on!) The attractions are there. The country is ripe for exploration. Build it smart and they will come.


Friday, August 1, 2008

Road Trip!

One of my favorite activities is getting out of Tirana on the weekends and driving. Don't care where, don't care why. Give me an excuse to saddle up and drive and I'm on it. You need fish from Kavaja? I'm there! A visitor needs a guide to Berat? I'm your guy. Gas costs somewhere north of six bucks a gallon? I'll put off buying a new set of shoes for a month or so. So many roads and so little time.

My most recent walkabout led me south to Korca, then to Vithkuq, and beyond. I'm not exactly sure what the reason was. Something about a little family dispute over land inheritance and use. Did I want to drive down? Let's see ..... six or more hours on the road including 25 kilometers under construction between Pogradec and Korca ..... off-road driving up past Vithkuq... and then the whole thing over again in reverse the same day. Schweet! Where do I sign up?

I'll fast-forward through the parts up to Korca. If you're interested in seeing pictures of Korca, try Google images. I want to show you how beautiful the countryside is.

Once you turn off the main road from Korca to Leskovik and head for Vithkuq, you pass by the reservoir at Gjanci. Kinda looks like Montana, doesn't it?

This was our eventual goal: the valley above Shtylla. Green, clean, and at almost 2000 meters above sea level it is cool. Bliss. Drop the windows, kill the AC and breath deep the pastoral smells of grass and flowers carried by the slight breeze. Yeah, I could live here.

Up the valley we continue on a pretty good dirt road, save for the parts that cross the wet meadows. There the passing of laden trucks has gouged gaping ruts in the mud and we tiptoe across trying to keep the wheels of our car on the high central mound of mud. Even with 4WD, it's hard going at times. The view is worth it though.

Albanian literature is full of vivid descriptions of the beauty of the country and the names given to prominent features often reflect the poetic nature of the Albanian soul...... like this soaring spire. It's called "Shkemb i Gjate" - The Tall Rock. OK, I shouldn't be sarcastic, but I asked one of the guys with us, "What do you call that?"
He replied, "Shkemb i Gjate."
I said, "I know it's a tall rock, but what's its called?"
"Shkemb i Gjate," he insisted.
"No, no! What's its name?"
Then I realized we had gotten trapped in an Abbot and Costello moment and started laughing my head off. When I calmed down long enough I was able to explain the whole "Who's on first?" routine, kind of.

This, then is the end of our journey. Mali Rungaja. The north face of this mountain is part of the land in dispute. It's currently used as pasture for sheep herded up for the summer. We need to do a little investigating to find out what's really been going on up here so we seek out the guardian of this pristine realm. Wait. There he is!

Our intrepid party finds the guardian of this natural splendor a-snooze in the shade of a few trees near the Tall Rock. Once he's satisified we are not going away without a little information, he shares what he knows about the activity on the disputed land and offers to show us what's what. So we saddle up and.... no, really, he saddled up and headed further up the valley.

Finally our new guide led us to what we feared. A little further up the creekbed we come to the place where the forest is being chopped down, burnt into charcoal, and shipped off to Bulgaria. Evidently Bulgarian goat burgers taste much better if cooked over illegally produced Albanian charcoal.

It was kind of interesting to see how they made the charcoal. A pile of wood is built, set afire, and then buried under sand and dirt. The fire burns slow and leaving a lot of unburned energy in the coals. Once cooled, it's packed in bags and trucked out.

To add insult to injury, this fella drives by loaded with pilfered wood stacked to the rafters. Going to Korca to sell it for firewood. This explains the large pastures all over the mountains and lack of forest close to the road. With our mission accomplished, we started the long drive back and allowed ourselves to indulge in a little schadenfreude when we came upon this truck stuck to the axles in one of the quagmires created in a stream crossing. "May you stay stuck for a long time." When their hands are busy digging in the muck, they're not chopping down trees.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Beauty and The Beast

Albanian women are beautiful. There's just no other way to put it. I might be a tad biased as I am married to one and live in the center of Tirana. Every morning and afternoon the tide of students going to and from classes washes over my neighborhood in a surge of young men and women. Come nightfall, the area is alive with clubs, bars, and restaurants frequented by the same youth. And the ladies are dressed to kill.

(Before you condemn me as a chauvinist pig and rail against my sexism, hear me out. Just as any honest discussion of crime or pollution in Albania requires a historical and cultural understanding, so does the topic of gender. Please indulge me as you read this post and save the rage until later.)

This opinion of Albanian women is not mine alone. One visitor remarked in 2000, "Man, what was Enver Hoxha doing here for 40 years? Selectively breeding buxom women with size 4 waists? These girls are incredible!" He was a Navy sailor who had ogled his share of beauties in ports around the world, so he was qualified to comment.

As time passed, I came to understand that not only are Albanian women physically attractive, they are smart. Their evident attention to maintaining their beauty was not shallow and vapid as you might initially think. It comes from someplace deeper. It's the same thing that drives them to excel at academics and in the workplace. What is it?

Whatever the source of women's motivation, it sure doesn't apply to the men. I don't want to say Albanian men are unattractive. First off, I'm straight, which limits my ability and inclination to comment on the physical beauty of another man. Let's just say the effort put forth by women to maintain their appearance is not matched by men. Evidence?

May it please the court to examine Exhibit A: A T-shirt rolled up to just below the nipples exposing a hairy, protruding belly on a hot summer day by a middle-aged man slouched at a table swilling beer next to his immaculately dressed, made up, coiffed wife. This is an extreme example, but to a lesser degree the pattern holds true. The women strive while they guys are just phoning it in.

I got a clue to the reason for this double standard the other day when I heard a neighbor using the phrase "Nje kove uje." It means "A bucket of water." She was responding to her friends' distressed description of her youngest sons' latest indiscretion. The boy was evidently a bit mischievous and had been caught in a compromising positon with a young lady. The boys' mother was worried about damage to his reputation when my neighbor dismissed it with, "S'ka gje - Nje kove uje." It's nothing - A bucket of water. The expression encapsulates the cultural standard of forgiving boys misteps as easily as washing the stain away with a single bucket of water.

Girls, on the other hand, are held to a much higher standard. Protecting their reputation is vital. The slightest hint of impropriety threatens to rain "turp" (shame) down on a girl and her family. From the youngest age girls are admonished to behave properly; to present an attractive, civilized appearance. The daily refrain drills it into their psyche. "Don't play rough, it's shameful." "Don't talk like that, it's shameful." "Don't go outside without brushing your hair? Have you no shame?"

So the male-dominated patriarchal model has been inherited from antiquity. Even the communists couldn't completely eradicate the bias, despite their best efforts to improve the status of women. In theory, all citizens were equal under the regime, but in practice the boys still slid by while girls had to overachieve in order to compete. An average grade of 7.5 on a 10-point scale would get a guy into university or a plum position in the government. Girls needed to have an average grade of 9. The good-old-boy network is alive and well in Albania.

It's this unfair, sexist system that produced the women of today in Albania and the men who maintained and "benefitted" from it are learning about the law of unintended consequences. They've produced a generation of Beauties and Beasts. The women are generally better educated, more disciplined, harder working, and more attractive than the men. They understand the politics of power and use the tools available to them to succeed on a vastly unfair playing field. The guys may be the public faces of power in Albania, but the women are the real source of strength.

And with the opening of Albania to all the economic and educational possibilities the West offers, the men are starting to realize how badly their system has handicapped them. The girls are going off to prosper while the boys pay the price for the image they have created and perpetuate. Albanian men are unfairly sterotyped as lazy, dirty criminals by their European neighbors. However, like most stereotypes, it has some basis in truth. After growing up in an environment that spoiled them, didn't demand much of them intellectually, and forgave their transgressions so easily, what could you expect? Many of them live up to the stereotype and all Albanian men get tarred with this brush.

This would be the part where I would congratulate the girls on getting one over on the guys except for one thing: domestic violence.

A lot of men, rather than recognizing they need to get their act together, vent their frustrations on the women closest to them. The news is full of reports of women killed or brutalized at the hands of their husbands, brothers, or fathers. Here, a woman finally goes to the police after 8 years of abuse, her left eye blackened and swollen, her arms covered in bruises. There, an unemployed man wakes his wife, accuses her of infidelity, and murders her with a rock. When asked why he did it, he claims she must have been cheating on him because she went into Tirana every day - this despite the fact she was the sole breadwinner in the family, going to Tirana to sell eggs. Last year three brothers killed their sister and her lover "to protect the family honor."

In the past, much of this crime was ignored by the police as it was considered a family matter. The good news is, if anything about this can be called good, the view of the people and police is changing. More domestic violence is being reported to the police and acted on. A woman who killed her abusive husband is fighting to have her conviction overturned and public opinion is supportive. Small steps to be sure, but they lead down the right track.

I can only hope this track leads to Beauty taming The Beast.

Friday, July 25, 2008


I was sitting in the Sheraton having a drink with an old acquaintance, a journalist I first met in 1999 in Tirana. I'll call him Beni. We were going over all the changes we've seen in Albania and all the problems that still remain despite the buckets of money thrown at the country. The conversation drifted to the theme of international assistance to Albania's transition and my friend sighted wistfully and said,

"The quality of internationals who come here sure has fallen."

I choked on my drink as I tried to stifle the urge to be offended and thought, "Hey, I'm one of those internationals!" I think Beni caught on when the raki I was sipping squirted out my nose. Man, that stings!

"Please, let me explain," said Beni. "I don't mean it as an insult to you or anyone in the diplomatic or NGO community. It's just that things have changed." He continued while I dabbed my eyes with a napkin and tried to ignore the burning in my sinuses.

"When the regime fell in '91 and the first wave of foreigners came here, we were virgin. Most of us had never seen, let alone spoken to a foreigner. We were poor, really poor. The Italian troops of Operation Pelican drove around in vehicles that made our old Russian and Chinese trucks look so antiquated, primitive. We stood by the roadside and gaped, counting ourselves lucky when they threw a pack of gum. We watched in awe as they paid outrageous rents for apartments and villas without batting an eye. We were used to haggling over a few qindarkas on the price of milk and these people handed over our yearly salary for a month's rent."

Now I had to try to suppress both the urge to cry from the raki scalding my nose and the urge to giggle uncontrollably. Qindarka? Really? I had pilot friends who used to criss-cross Europe in the days before the Euro and they had given up on trying to remember what currency was used in what country. They referred to the local currency as "Gazingas." As in "A beer costs 32,500 gazingas in Turkey! What's that in real money?" Now I find out there was a country using coinage even more ridiculously named. Qindarka!

Beni continued. "It wasn't just the economic difference. These foreigners smiled. All the time. To us, a person walking down the street smiling at strangers was either up to no good or an idiot. A serious man needs to show a serious face. But they were above that. Their ambassadors smiled. Their generals smiled. Even James Baker smiled. They could afford to smile because they knew they were serious and didn't have to convince anyone."

As he talked, it thought back to my early experiences. I remembered how deferential senior leaders were to foreigners. It wasn't just the cultural value of hospitality which is a hallmark of Albanians' treatment of guests. It was more. Almost an inferiority complex. If the Italian Police Advisors had told the Minister of Public Order to replace all their batons with grissini, the roads would have been littered with crumbs in a week! Everything foreign was better. Nothing Albanian could compare.

Beni went on. "Remember in '99 how Joe Limprecht ran this country?" Mr. Limprecht was the American Ambassador at the time and I often heard Albanians end political arguments by invoking his name. According to them, everything that happened in Albanian politics originated from, or was approved by, Joe. Other internationals were held in similarly high esteem then. Now, evidently, things were different.

The truth is, things are different, but not in the way Beni expressed it. It's not that the international community here is populated with more slackers and losers. It's the level of Albanian experience and self esteem that is rising. They travel more, their economic conditions have improved, and they're seeing themselves in a different light. As the country continues to attract more visitors and relaxed visa regimes with Europe allow more Albanians to travel, the inferiorty complex will erode even more. The cure for 40 years of isolation is exposure.

Now I need to find a cure for the raki-scalded flesh inside my nose.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tirana Holds The Air

Albanians don't say that something smells. They use the phrase "Mban ere...," - "It holds the air of ...." Apt. The air indeed holds the essence of an odor. It holds the key to memories and it takes only one whiff of a familiar odor to bring back vivid recollection of people, places, and emotions. Sometimes, though, the air holds too much.

Yesterday Tirana sweltered under 35 degrees and oppressive humidity. It's been weeks since the last rain and consistently warm. Not hot in the way that July often is, but warm enough. The lack of rain leaves the dust hanging in the air along with all the smoke and smells of the city. It wraps around your head and dulls your senses. No distinct odors to trigger a memory or impress itself forever in your cortex. Just a fog. A haze. The air holds everything in general and nothing specific. Last night, it changed.

The passage of a cold front with light rain and a drop of 15 degrees swept the air clean. All the soot, smog, and smoke was stripped away leaving this mornings air clear and cool. Like a blank slate, a virgin canvas awaiting the artist. This morning Tirana did indeed "hold the air." Held each smell aloft uncluttered, making me focus on exactly what the smell was and triggering memories.

Tirana held the air of flowers. Even now in the height of summer you catch the scent of blooms. Delicate. Faint. Calling to mind the olfactory orgy of spring with the linden trees in full flower. Remember? How that smell overwhelmed every other scent with the promise of beauty and life. Forget the trash and diesel smoke. Drink deep of the peaceful, hopeful lindens.

Tirana held the air of charcoal smoke from the small kiosk serving qofte. The roasting meat laden with oregano and salt sends up an tendril of "come hither" aroma which can make all but the most committed vegetarian sacrifice their cholesterol count. How many sunny afternoons have passed in the company of family, Birra Korca, and these tasty little meatballs? Sitting beside Grandma, learning the language. Learning the history. Getting the best gossip.

Tirana still held the air of diesel exhaust. Not like the oppressive cloud of yesterday, but something different. An industrial taste like oil and effort. A reminder of the work being done and a warning of the work still to be done. It's the price the city pays for progress - the motive force behind change. A pungent reminder of sitting behind the big machines for hours near Gjirokaster cursing their pollution and inconvenience one year and then marvelling at the wide, smooth road a year later. Like the dinosaurs it sprang from, the smell of diesel hints of it's own impending extinction.

Other smells don't prompt memories, just questions:

Why does the sidewalk in front of the Italian Ambassador's residence alway smell like an open sewer? Do they not notice it every day?

What makes that bakery smell so much better than the others? Is it wood-fired? A special recipe? Or just years of daily baking layering the aroma into the the very fiber of the building?

Oh, yes. Tirana holds the air. On mornings like today she holds it right there in front of you.

More Names

It seems everyone has their favorite Albanian Name Story. Some ended up in the comments sections of this blog. Others have been told to me in person. A few were just too good not to share.

One guy made a comment below about how relieved he was to discover his date, Fatlinda, was not what you might imagine, but rather "born lucky."

On the political side, my attention was drawn to a name which sprang from an excess of communist fervor. Evidently there are a few Albanians named Marenglen, a mash-up of "Marx, Engels, and Lenin." Someone please tell me there are no Americans running around named Wajeffad.

Finally, consider the name Sosa. It originates in the northern areas of Albania where the patriarchal, clan structure was, and remains, strongest. There, the announcement of the birth of a male child is greeted with the exclamation, "Edhe nje pushk!" Another rifle! Boys are lovingly referred to as the "pillar of the house."

Girls, loved and cherished in their own way, are seen through the cultural/economic lens as presenting a challenge. The males of the family must protect her honor, find a suitable husband, and pay for a wedding after which the daughter becomes part of the labor force of another family. The combination of these two factors has led to parents, upon the birth of a third or fourth daughter when a son was anticipated, naming the girl Sosa. "Enough!"

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Qafe Krrabe

(Editors Note: The photos were taken recently, 9 years after the events described)

Traveling in Albania is always an adventure. Part of the reason is geography, part infrastructure, part history, and part culture. All of these reason combine to produce unforgettable moments in Albanian motoring. The most impressive for me was my first time over Qafe Krrabe (Krrabe Pass). It lies on the main road from Tirana to Elbasan and I'm told it was built by the Austrians.

In Nevada, a pass is generally a point on a road where it crosses a mountain range. You go up. You cross over. You go down. So when I was offered the chance to take a quick trip over Qafe Krrabe in 1999, I thought I knew what I was getting into.

We headed south out of Tirana on the Elbasan Road. A narrow, two-lane asphalt road that generally did what roads do; stuck to the riverside, followed the line of least resistance, and passed through several small villages. Cars and trucks jockeyed for position while attempting to avoid villagers, chickens, and cows. All was well ..... at first.

I sensed something might be amiss when we parted ways with the river. It continued south and our road started sidling up the mountain. Small steps at first, then steeper. As we passed the village of Krrabe I was trying to get a picture of a communist statue commemorating some battle or local martyrs when the road went nuts.

No more sidling. This was a direct frontal assault on the mountain which threw up stone ramparts in defense. The road carved a series of switchbacks into the solid, black rock and we twisted our way up. No guardrail, no visibility, and no indication of when it might end. Back and forth. Now facing south, now north. The turns swung through 270 degrees so rapidly I swear at one point I was looking at my own backside. "Oh dear! I need to lose some weight."

We rounded the last turn, past a roadside restaurant with a lamb slowly rotating on a spit outside, into a deep pine forest. Still going up, but more gently, following the contours of the ridge. "Wow! Am I glad that's over." The driver smiled ... and then accelerated.

We were flying up the road looking off to the left down into the valley we just fought our way out of. On the right, trees whipping by in a blur of deep green. Did I really want to know what's on the other side? The driver shot me a quick glance and grinned, "We call this The Sky Road." I learned why.

One minute a comforting barrier of green on the right while the left fell away to the valley floor. Suddenly, bang! My forest is gone, replaced by thin air. At something like a million miles an hour we crested the top and traversed to the other side on a wafer thin ridge. Almost two lanes wide, no shoulder and a near-vertical drop of 300 meters on each side. Through the panic I recall thinking, "Hey, I can see the ocean!" He told me the name of that place later, but I still call it "The Place Where I Nearly Crapped in My Pants." Gross, I know, and it doesn't sound any better in Albanian.

We continued climbing, forested slope to the left now, dizzying void to the right, winding upward along the mountain contours. Where it was particularly precarious there was a guardrail of sorts consisting of a concrete wall just high enough to to trip a small toddler with a series of semi-circular concrete rails mounted on top. Painted white.

We re-crossed the ridge several times before reaching the highest point, and at each crossing the driver glanced over to watch my reaction. Evidently getting a chuckle out of my expression of fear was more important to him than us actually staying on the road. Finally we reached a small village at the highest point called Gracen. It's pronounced "Gratchen" and should be Albanian for vomit. When I got out of the car to stretch and take pictures I noticed little piles of the stuff all around on the pavement. (Have I mentioned Albanians appear to be the people most vulnerable to carsickness in the world? Is it them or the roads? Chicken or Egg?) True to form, as I was taking pictures, a mini-bus pulled off the road behind us and out tumbled four deeply nauseous travellers. We drove away with their retching in our ears: "Grraaaaaatchen."

Heading down toward Elbasan was relatively sedate compared to the ascent. Still up high. Breathtaking views over range after range of mountains marching east and west. In front, the snow-capped massif of Cuka Partizanit shone in the clear winter air. We came to the end of the ridge and dropped into hell.

The road, spiraling off the end the ridge like a coil of tattered clothesline was bad enough, but where it led was surreal. I gazed over a giant derelict industrial complex shrouded in soot and smoke, it's presence violating the natural beauty like a tumor on Angelina Jolie's inner thigh... like a ring of hickeys on a nuns neck, like.... OK, you get it. It was gross.

"Celiku i Partise." "The Steel of The Party." Built during the Hoxha era to process chrome and steel, the gigantic complex sprawled over the valley floor. A Stalinist monstrosity meant to demonstrate the industrial might of the Peoples Repulbic. Unfortunately the communists didn't give a hoot about the environment or the workers. "EPA? What's that?" It sat abandoned and rusting save for one furnace churning out thick, grey smoke. The brilliant decision to put the factory in a narrow valley prevented the wind from clearing the smoke quickly and a thick haze hovered over the plant and the people of Elbasan.

I passed on the chance to descend into the funk. That could wait for another day. I didn't want to smudge the memory of my first exposure to the wild beauty of Albania with what surely awaited me at the other end of Qafe Krrabe.