Friday, December 28, 2012

The Roles We Play

We all play roles in our lives to some extent or another.  How many of us have the conviction to play the role as fully as the Albanian women who have chosen to live their lives as men?  A fascinating photo essay by Jill Peters highlighting these sworn virgins caught my attention.  These women were evidently the model used by  Glenn Close as she studied for her role in the film Albert Nobbs.

The Nation website in Pakistan has also picked up on this story and has more detail.  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

It's Time!

While you are in the middle of winter's icy grip, contemplate your next vacation.  I've been telling you to come to Albania for several years.  If you won't take my word for it, check out this photo essay in the Huffington Post. I agree with Leyla Giray.  This year, it's time!

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Good Review

Edward Reeves of the Telegraph has been doing what I long to - travelling all over Albania and writing about   it.  And write he does.  Here's a taste.

This is odd. I'm sitting in a bar in Tirana, Albania, and there's not a gangster in sight. What there is is a 20ft-long counter packed with an array of enticing meats, a friendly man who grills them on request, and beer at 70p a glass. Everyone speaks English, and everyone is unfailingly nice. Could it be that there's a mismatch between Albania's reputation for – how to put this politely? – unconventional economic activity, and the modern-day reality? After a week travelling the country with my mother, without so much of a whiff of trouble or a gangster's cheap cologne, I'd say the answer is a resounding yes.

I suggest you see the whole article.  Well worth reading.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Ozzy in Albania

Despite a double-barreled last name and the alarmist tone of this article that overstates the danger and the absurdity in Albania, I have to tip my hat to this gentleman who is currently relating tales of travel.  A witty style, keen observations, and a sly, backhanded manner of compliments make for good reading.  He had me hooked when he described a fellow furgon traveler as "an old man who looks exactly like Dobby from Harry Potter.

... and he does!

Monday, January 23, 2012

What A Difference A Decade Makes

Twelve years ago when I arrived for the first time at Rinas Airport in a driving, cold December rain, if you had asked me to complete the sentence "Tirana Airport - an unlikely ...?", I might have said:

"... place for aircraft to land."
"... destination for travelers with a choice."
"... amalgamation of decay, sloth, and corruption masquerading as a transportation hub."

Yeah, it was that bad.  The runway had been recently repaved to handle the heavy aircraft involved in NATO's mission to support the war in Kosova, but once the SwissAir plane trundled off the main landing strip, it was back to the sixties.  The surface was composed of six-sided slabs of concrete place in reasonable proximity to one another.  Taxiing at any speed above a slow dog-trot produced percussive rhythm that can only be replicated by a bad impression of some good scat-singing: "Takita, tak, tak, pap, pap, chunk, chunk, kechop, kechop, kechow!"

And that was the good part.

Once off the plane, the ramshackle bus delivered me to a terminal building that, to put it politely, had seen better days.  Surrounded by packs of stray bitches with pendulous teats, the arrival terminal reeked of neglect.  One door led to an arrival hall which made a phone booth seem spacious.  I shouldered my way past the clog of arriving passengers to see if I could identify the best way out of a bad situation.  There were two booths for immigration and customs clearance.  Once was for Albanian citizens, the other for foreigners.  I pushed toward the foreigners line, hoping to make some progress among the surging mass of humanity that pressed in all around.

I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit to traveling with a diplomatic passport at the time.  A swarthy gent with a safari vest which barely concealed the Beretta in his waistband shouted at me, "Amerikan?' I waved my passport in response and he physically dragged me through the scrum at the immigration booth.  On the other side was a concrete cell block where were a ragged hole in the wall substituted for the baggage conveyor belt we spoiled Westerners are used to. As my suitcases were unceremoniously chucked through the hole, I pointed them out.  My minder shouted at a local porter who snatched them up.  Once all the bags arrived, my newly appointed guardian bundled me and my bags into a waiting armored SUV, turned to me, and loudly proclaimed, "Welcome to Albania!"

It's not like that anymore.  Hasn't been for years.  Now, arrivals in Tirana number in the millions and pass through a thoroughly modern terminal.  A slick glass and steel facade greets travelers as they are deposited by  kneeling buses at the gate.  A spacious immigration area awaits inside with booths clearly marked and manned by professional border police officers equipped with the most modern of electronics.  You enter a queue, by itself a huge advancement for Albania, and when you arrive at the booth are quickly processed..  Passport scanned in a flash.  Unbeknown to you, your details are flashed to the Albanian Police and Interpol for a check against the most current wanted persons databases.

Once through, the baggage claim area is clean, efficient, and open.  Exit customs and you are greeted by olive trees and masonry that reflects traditional Albanian construction techniques.  A thoroughly enjoyable airport experience.

That could explain the phenomenal growth of air traffic in Tirana.  Year after year the number of airlines serving the city has increased. Passenger numbers have mushroomed.  Less than three years after the new terminal was opened, it was expanded by 5,000 square meters to accommodate traffic volumes.   Where once there were four intrepid airlines that dared make the inbound flight, there were now more than 15 battling for supremacy.  The winner so far has been Belle Air, the cut rate Italian operation that serves the needs of all the Albanian immigrants in Italy.

That said, I was quite surprised to learn the airport was due for another expansion this year.  The volume of passengers has reached the capacity of the terminal to handle and another extension was needed to keep up with traffic.  Which leads to a headline that answers the question originally posed: Complete this sentence: "Tirana Airport - an unlikely East European success story."  And it is!