Monday, July 14, 2008

Signs of Progress

My grandfather dealt with his grandchildrens' many complaints with a standard answer, "You think you have it bad? You should have seen it when I was a kid." As an impatient 7-year old, it used to infuriate me no end. Why should I care what it "used to be like?" " I'm here - I'm now." Many years later I can confidently report Albania is turning me into my grandfather.

I've been living here sporadically for over 8 years now. A lot of coming and going. I get to see the country with fresh eyes each time but still have the reference point to assess the general direction of progress. This is useful to exactly one person - me. I can't count the number of times when hearing a complaint from a "newcomer", I've channeled Grandad's ghost.

"You think the roads are bad? You should have seen it in 1999. Took me 12 hours to drive 250 kilometers to Kukes."

"Construction mess? You call this construction? You should have seen it when the "Twin Towers" were going up on the boulevard."

I know in the back of their heads they're all thinking, "Thanks, Gramps, but that doesn't fix my shock absorbers or make it any less dusty in my apartment. I'm here - I'm now." I feel their pain because I share many of their problems. I lose my temper in traffic and am revolted when I come across a large pile of uncollected trash, but something in me makes me want to try to put it in perspective. The most depressing aspect of living here is thinking people who come here will go home to report there's no hope - no progress - in Albania. It's there. You just have to look and really understand what you're looking at.

It's in the airport. The security fence that goes all the way around the runway and has no holes. That's progress from 2002 when my arriving flight got waved off at the last moment due to cows on the runway. It's in the immigration control area. Lights, AC, computers, CCTV. Nobody just strolls through without being checked. It's the 12 airlines serving the swelling ranks of travellers. It's the 0530 flight to Rome made possible by the increase in security that allows airlines to overnight their planes in Tirana. Prior to 2005 it was an "in-and-out" airport.

A huge monument to progress sits at the Kamez interchange on the Durres road. It's an overpass. No more playing "Albanian Roulette" with the southbound trucks entering the highway. Not completely done yet and drivers are still trying to puzzle out exactly how it works, but it's progress.

It's in the whole road from Elbasan to Qafe Thane. Smooth pavement, sweeping turns, modern bridges, and no "Tunnel of Death." There used to be an L-shaped tunnel on the eastbound lane, about 50 meters long. You entered from the blazing sunshine to a completely unlit, un-signposted tunnel which immediately turned 70 degrees right. No reflective arrow, just blackened stone with the scars left by unsuspecting drivers. It's gone - that's progress.

Progress is also in the faces of the successful Albanian entrepreneurs who are returning from abroad. The giant QTU - Qender Tregtare Univers (Universe Trade Center) - is owned and operated by an Albanian who returned with his family after years in Europe because he saw opportunity here. Or the naturalized U.S. citizen who got his degree in marketing in the States and came back to help expand the tourist industry in Saranda by getting visitors stay longer and see something other than Butrint.

So I continue to try to tread the fine line between being the Albanian equivalent of my grandfather and just another disgrunteld ex-pat. I'm aided in this by my sheer fascination with this place and the words of Kwai Chang Kane's* master: "He who lives in the past robs from the present. He who ignores the past robs from the future."

(*You have been watching your "Kung Fu" reruns, right?)

3 comments:

kimi in mo said...

the progress there is incredible. I just hope that the country never loses its charm! That the modernization of the country does not change the people! That is what I love so much about it!

About the airport......now if they could just get our luggage there when we get there....now that will be progress! I have been there 2 tiems and both times our luggage never got there when we did. I hear that happens ALL THE TIME!

Have a great week ahead. Love coming here and reading your stories!

And about names......my last name is GOXHO.....I have not found one person yet who can pronounce my last name! Only if I am in Albania! :)

Thomas F. said...

LOL, so true. A lot of progress has happened. When I first came to Tirana in 1995 there was one factory between Rinas and the capital: The newly opened Coca Cola one. Now you have to pay a lot of attention to even notice it with all the new buildings.

I hope that more Albanians who live abroad return to help build up this glorious little country.

ITS said...

I liked this piece... :-)

Thanks for putting the positive spin...