Friday, July 25, 2008

Perspective

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.

5 comments:

traveler one said...

Haaaaaahaaaaaaa!!!

Great observations! At first I was feeling irritated with where you were going but you brought me around in the end with the comment about exposure. That's really the key.

Hope your nose is healing :)

DAI said...

Your last paragraph accurately confirms current facts, but Beni’s short, initial statement contains also some underlying truth. As unsatisfying as it may be, it’s not only a reflection of today’s different needs of expertise, but also a variety of other situations within and outside the country.

Keep up your expertly articulated posts. They are a pleasure to read!

insidealbania said...

I think exposure is key as you mentioned. In addition those who travel and come back to the country should use their experience in a positive way to at their surroundings at least. What I fear is that a number of those coming back after making some money abroad only care about enterprise at any cost, often neglecting what is best for the greater good.
I feel that more students and academics being exposed to the outside is the best way to lift the country.

kimi in mo said...

HE HE HE..........At first I was like........what is all this about........then I read on. Yes it is exposure! My husband lives here in the USA now, originally from Permet, then his family moved to Tirana. He also agrees!

Did you ever find a cure for the nose thing?? Too funny! (to me that is, not to you Im sure)

ante said...

Very insightful. I truly like your blog.