Weird and Wonderful Albania

I spent a month in Albania this spring (May 2018), and I loved it. Because it was almost completely isolated under an extremely repressive communist regime from the 1950s through the early 1990s, it looks and feels like a slightly alternate universe. Those who are up on their Albanian history, skip ahead; I knew nothing about it before I went, so here’s a little bit of backstory in case you’re in the same boat.

Background

Modern Albania declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. It was then invaded by Italy in 1939, and the Nazis were in charge for a bit. The Albanians, specifically the communist army of Albania, liberated the country from the Germans in late 1944. A major point of national pride is the claim that they were the only country in Europe to liberate themselves without the [official] aid of foreign troops. When the fascists were defeated and the communists took power, a former schoolteacher and communist party member named Enver Hoxha became prime minister.

Hoxha did a couple good things, like effectively eliminate adult illiteracy (which had been over 90% in rural areas) and get rid of malaria, but he also put in place some of the most repressive communist policies of the time; for context, he idolized North Korea. Religion was banned, the borders were almost entirely sealed, and people who were not considered communist enough were resettled from the border areas and from cities into remote rural areas. A complex network of secret police, spies, citizen informants and blackmail along with horrific imprisonment/torture/executions kept the populace in line. Foreigners entering the country were forced to visit state-run barbers and clothing shops in the airport to ensure they conformed to communist standards of dress and grooming before they were allowed to come in, and the few hotels that accepted foreign guests were aggressively monitored, with hidden cameras and microphones in each room.

Hoxha was also extremely paranoid, and didn’t get along well with other communist leaders of the time. After breaking ties with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and China, he was convinced that Albania was facing imminent invasion from both the Soviet Union and the United States. He ordered concrete bunkers to be built throughout the country to defend it from foreign invaders, at enormous cost. The population was militarized, with citizens trained starting at the age of 12 to defend the nearest bunker, and multi-day drills twice a month. By the end of his rule, over 173,000 bunkers had been built throughout Albania, most of which remain today.

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After the communist government fell in the early 1990s, the country was economically depressed (it had been the poorest country in Europe throughout most of the cold war). In that environment, a number of government-supported Ponzi schemes started, which eventually swept up about 1/3 of the population. When those schemes fell apart in late 1996, things got violent, and it ended with a civil war. The country is still coming back from that level of economic collapse; though things are improving, the economy is still weak and there’s a strong feeling among the younger generation of wanting to get out.

Due to a complex mix of religious, cultural, and ethnic difference, along with the isolation during communist times and the subsequent unrest, Albanians are targets of intense racism throughout the Balkans. Albania is majority Muslim (though mostly non-practicing), while the surrounding countries are majority Orthodox. There’s a stronger Turkish/Ottoman influence in the cultural history, and the population also looks different from the surrounding populations as a result. I’ve rarely encountered the level of virulent racism that I found directed toward Albanians in the Balkans. I was repeatedly told not to go there, that they couldn’t be trusted, that I wouldn’t be safe, that they were all liars and criminals, etc. It was really depressing…. and it’s the main reason I decided to visit in the first place!

Impressions

Having spent a full month living among them, I can assure you that (as you would hopefully expect), all those horrible racist assumptions are complete nonsense. In fact, the Albanians were some of the friendliest, most welcoming people I met in all of Europe. The mountain villages in particular have a culture of hospitality that puts other countries to shame. The standard there is that a guest is to be treated as a member of your own family; you would never turn away a stranger in need, but would instead welcome them into your home, feed them at your table, and give them your own bed to sleep in.

It’s true that if you’re a foreigner, you will be viewed as better off/wealthy, and some people will try to take advantage of you because of that. It’s important to remember the context, though — if you have enough money to visit Albania as a tourist, you probably *are* wealthy by local standards. The economic situation in the country makes it difficult to get ahead and difficult to leave, so you can’t really blame people for trying a hustle here and there. Just do a bit of research on the appropriate prices for things in advance, keep your passport in a safe place, and you’ll be fine.

There’s an enormous amount of corruption in all levels of government and infrastructure, and bribery is common. As I learned in one museum, there are still extensive paper files left over from communist times, with exhaustive spy notes on thousands of people. They’re strictly classified, but not destroyed, because it’s all part of a power balance. A visitor asked why the files hadn’t been released, since the communist times ended so long ago. A local answered “because the people in those files are still alive, and they are the government now.”

The corruption and the economic situation means that there are unlicensed street vendors and sketchily-legit pop-up shopping areas for anything you could imagine. You can buy communist manifestos from the railing on a bridge, flowers from a Roma lady on a street corner (provided she isn’t being hassled by the cops), the opportunity to weigh yourself on an old bathroom scale in a park, washing machines in a vacant lot, statuary and lawn ornaments in a parking lot, and more.

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Need a washing machine?
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How about a lion?

Transportation in Albania is not quite up to western standards, but it’s totally functional once you figure it out (which usually involves asking around, since the internet hasn’t really caught on there yet). There are no trains currently running, but a few international bus carriers can get you to the main cities (the bus stop locations tend to vary day to day, though, which makes it a bit more exciting when you try to leave). When you arrive in Tirana (the capital city) from the north, you [probably] stop at a building that is ostensibly the international bus terminal but also happens to be an indoor basketball court.

Tirana has functional city buses that run predictable routes. Between towns, most travel in the country is by furgons, which are unlicensed minibuses — and by minibus, I mean pretty much any vehicle that can hold 10-15 people. They gather at specific parking lots or areas in each town, put a paper on the dashboard with the name of their destination, and hustle for passengers until they’re full, which is when they leave. They’ll also stop for passengers at any point along the way; if they’re full, they have no problem adding a milk crate or two in the aisle. At one point a furgon I was in stopped near a cafe and borrowed two wooden chairs from the tables outside to add them to the aisle for passengers. It’s all very casual. In rural areas they sometimes double as school buses, which means you might start off with a few backpackers and locals and wind up with standing-room-only five-year-olds for a few miles. There are also assorted small ferries, for example on Lake Koman, which follow similar rules and will stop for farmers at beaches along the way.

The architecture in Albania is… unique, and sometimes pretty alien. As my Albanian friend explained it:

In some countries maybe an architect is hired to design a building, and he looks at the area and the buildings next door and he says “hmm, how can I design something that will harmonize with the surroundings?”

In Albania, the architect looks at the area and the buildings next door and he says “hmm, how can I build something that will really stand out?”

There are half-built castles and weird concrete structures in the countryside:

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And bizarro-world structures in the cities like these:

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Plus this fun gas station that is also a mushroom:

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And let’s not forget the pyramid that Hoxha built as a monument in the capital, which has had its marble stripped away and replaced with graffiti:

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Even the churches get in on the weird:

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And sometimes there are lights:

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Streetlights and sidewalks exist on an as-needed sort of basis, with the assumption being that you probably don’t need it. In many ways it felt more like being in Morocco than Europe. The call to prayer from the mosque helped with that; the calls are much more melodic in the Balkans, and my favorite was the very gentle, slow one around 4am or so.

I really like the Albanian language (or at least, the 20 or so words I learned, and the sound of the rest). It’s on an independent branch of the Indo-European language tree, which means it doesn’t look or sound like anything else. It also has two different dialects, one in the south and one in the north. Oh, and “hx” is pronounced like “j”, for reference.

The food in Albania is Balkan with Turkish influence, and a number of delicious peasant dishes designed to stretch food during lean times. One of my favorite things was slices of cornbread, fried and then soaked in a local kind of fermented milk/yogurt. There are lots of salads and fresh vegetables, and lots of fruits and berries including those sour green plums that I pickled. Italian food is very popular, and the pastas are good. Along the seaside there is of course a lot of seafood, and in the mountains a lot of lamb and veal and stews and such.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Albania, and I would visit again. I also highly recommend it to those who are brave enough to venture off the beaten track a bit; it’s a lovely, interesting country and the people are wonderful. Don’t believe the scary propaganda; check it out for yourself!

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