Τρίτη, 9 Σεπτεμβρίου 2014

The Retired Colonel from Canakkale (RCC)

The RCC arrived suddenly , in a battered Renault Megane.  He was tall and a tad overweight, but still muscular. He claimed to be a travel writer. He had written a five hundred page book on his adventures in South America, but could not find anybody that was willing to publish it. I took a look at his travel blog, and I understood why. Nobody in his right mind would publish a book from someone who was writing in broken English, or broken Spanish, let alone the fact that most of his writing  was more about explaining that he was in good company, and that he liked this or that. In short, his writings where short in describing places, faces and situations.

The day after that Eran mentioned a few things about him. He said that discussing with the RCC was very much like walking through a minefield. He said that talking to the RCC needed to be comprised by delicate manoeuvres, if one wanted to avoid a confrontation, and that there would be a harsh confrontation between Mourad and the RCC. The RCC would say something provocative, Mourad would, at one point respond accordingly, and, in the end, the RCC would kill Mourad. And then he added a few titbits of information about the RCC, and his worldview by narrating the first two phrases the RCC uttered on their first exchange of words.

"I used to think of the Serbs as traitors, but now my opinion of them has changed. I like it here"

"Turkey would be like heaven if  pseudo-intellectuals like Orhan Pamuk did not exist".

Of course after the second statement Eran set the rules of the relationship straight. No politics, we are on holidays here.

On election night the RCC was in high spirits. Was it because Erdogan had won? Or was he in good company? Looking in from the outside patio of the hostel, we could see the RCC happily pecking away, drinking his beer and socialising. Was it the good company that made him? Or the election results? Or, was he watching something extremely funny through his computer screen?

All questions about his joyous appearance where answered in the following morning. Eran momentarily dropped his policy of not-discussing-politics-with-the-RCC, and asked his opinion on the result, to get something along the lines of "fuck you" for an answer. And that, given the humiliating defeat of the Kemalist-Grey Wolve Alliance at the presidential election, was telling of the RCC's political ideas. The RCC was, at best, a Kemalist, and, in the worst case scenario, a Turkish nationalist. And he was not happy about the his side's electoral results.

If Turkey's political climate is bad for the left, right now it is not much better for a Kemalist or a Grey Wolve. It is, a bit better. They are not persecuted yet, but are involved in a fierce fighting of fractions within the Turkish establishment, with the AKP in one side, and the Grey Wolves and the Kemalists in the other. And that means that, like Eran, the RCC was also taking a break from events back home. He looked as if he was running away from trouble back home.

On another note, the meeting between Mourad and the RCC went smoothly. Mourad also proved too smart and unwilling to engage in a serious political debate with him, and the RCC, who was probably looking for company, played along...

Παρασκευή, 22 Αυγούστου 2014

The Turkish Left (Murat and Eran)

The Turkish Left arrived at the hostel a day later than I did. They had first met on board the flight to Belgrade, and that had proved useful to Murat, who did not speak o word of any language other than Turkish and Kurdish. Murat, according to Eran was the stereotypical Kurdish guy. Left-leaning, thin, bespectacled, bearded, and with reactions and reflexes caused by centuries of warfare and persecution. Mourat is from Konya, but is currently residing in Istanbul. Always ready to absorb any kind of information translated to him by Eran, and almost always ready to respond in a humorous way. For example, when, on the way to Zemun, our bus passed by the grounds of the Belgrade Beer Fest, he said that his lifelong dream was to organize a big beer fest in Konya, just to spite the local Islamist authorities. Mourat proved himself to be remarkably democratic, secular and ready to calmly walk any minefield in any kind of discourse, during my stay in Belgrade.

The presence of Eran, on the other hand, was quite different. Towering hight, blondeish complexion, beard and glasses, and a very good command of English. Eran has gone through a lot. Last year he was almost expelled from the University where he was doing a PhD on Law, because of  his involvement with the movement of Gezi Park. It proved to be a close call, but the political climate in Turkish Universities is, probably unfavorable for people like him. Life as a leftist scholar can be quite difficult, when the University elites are dominated by Kemalists, Grey Wolves and Islamists. But thank god, the infighting between Kemalists and Islamists, resulted in Eran and his case being put aside, for the moment. On the night of Erdogans electoral triumph, in the presidential election, he expressed a reserved feeling of defeat, especially because the leftist parties, being lead by the Kurdish parties (and their political elites), supported Erdogan. Once, the left was especially strong in Turkey, but now, many mistakes and wrong turns later, it is a shadow of its former past. And that makes people like Eran feel a bit disappointed. He kept saying that the political climate, in Turkey, was bad for him too. And he has prepared a way out, continuing his studies in Berlin, or Belgium, or the Netherlands. Nevertheless, talking to him, especially about the subject that agitates him, that being Turkish politics, can be enlightening. He has a very solid idea about most things. Gulen, the Army, the police, the Unions, the National Questions, etc. He also has a very extensive knowledge of the minorities and their cultures. And that, because, despite being Turkish, his dad comes from the Kurdish regions. At one point, when describing the contrast between Mesopotamia and Anatolia, he showed me a picture, in order to show the stark contrast between the two regions. It was the border between them. The Anatolian side hosted a dense forest, while the Mesopotamian side was just some bare, dry and rugged terrain. Turkey is full of contrasts.

Anyway both of them seemed like they wanted a way out of their everyday lives. And that because being a Kurd, or a leftist scholar who has also dabbled as a paralegal in human rights cases,  makes your life in Turkey a little harder, day by day.

In short, both of them seemed to be running away from trouble back home. Like too many a backpacker. But, on the other hand, when thy return home, reality is going to come back, slapping them across the ways, the ways that it does, especially to dedicated fighters like Eran. I seriously hope that Eran goes over his disappointment with the situation in Turkey, and stays there, so that he can bring the fight to both evils besieging the turkish working class. His sworn enemies, capitalism and political islam. The road of the fighter is a perilous one, and they have both realized that. Hope that the wisdom of the seasoned leftie prevails, and they keep on fighting in spite of bitter defeats and disappointments.

Σάββατο, 16 Αυγούστου 2014

The Danes

Well if the Kiwis where the archetypes of frat-boys gone backpacking,then the Danes where something more than the Kiwis ca 2012. In a way the Danes where freaks. That,or they where well on the way to become freaks. They where very interested in skating, and their reckless way of doing it had cost f Jojo, one of their members, a fractured limb. But their recklessness was manifested in more ways. Most of them where driven by a voracious appetite for Jagerbombs, weed and sex. The only exception was the reason why they came to Belgrade. Their mate Oliver was working in the hostel where I was staying. Oliver was also the brains and the looks of the whole outfit. He was the only one currently holding a job, being one of the people working shifts at the hostel (and, in Olivers case, staying there) .  He was also madly in love with a local girl, something that probably made him think things through and try to make something better of himself, something that did not seem to register with the others. The others where not holding neither steady jobs, nor a steady relationship, let alone the will to study something.
But, nevertheless,  they where good and solid folk, always up for some good fun, especially if it involved stoner rock,drugs and the possibility to meet girls or do something stupid.

There is one rule in the art of doing stupid things. A good mischievous rogue, is the one that breaks the rules, but gets away with it, because he did it in a way in which he could not cause suspicions to arise on him. The Danes could not understand this simple concept.  Their slacker-meets-fratboy mentality did not allow them to think this way.  Let me show you one example. Night out at the splavovi (river barges that serve as bars in Belgrade) . Me , Oliver, Princess (2nd in command, goes by the name of Anders), Frederick and Jojo are having a few drinks are having a few drinks at a splav called "Freestyler", or something like this. Oliver, being the face and brains of the outfit is keeping something like a straight face. The rest of us are terminally pissed. At one point, Princess, Frederik and feel the urgent need to let the golden shower out. But we can't wait in a cue for the barge's dirty bogs, so we decide to throw the lot in the river. Frederik and Princess decide to piss from the side of the barge that was looking toward the river's bank, in full sight of both some of the other guests,and, the notorious psychopaths that work as bouncers in Belgrade. I did the same thing , but from the other side of the barge, which could not be observed by the bouncers (but could be by the rest of the revelers in the splav. They got spotted and ejected, I got away with it. Simple as that.

I do not know what happened to Princess ( the 6 stone stoner rock fan called Anders by his non-friends), Fred ( the mild mannered 6 ft 2 guy), or Jojo the skater. Probably they are back in their hometown in Denmark, doing the mundane  jobs any small-town boy sans a university degree does. But, on the other hand, after two years of roaming around the Balkans and central Europe with his sweetheart, thus June, Oliver informed his Facebook friends, on his decision to take the entry exams for University,in Denmark. Oliver,always the brains of the outfit. 

Κυριακή, 10 Αυγούστου 2014

Backpacker profiles vol 1: The Kiwis

If I could describe the Kiwis in one way,
 I would describe them as the ultimate backpacking party animals. 
Being Single-mindedly focused on the pursuit of women, 
cheap booze and other thrills of the like,
their minds hold no space whatsoever for any grownup-related things
 such as job related anxieties,politics and so on.
The most prevalent character of the duo is the "Dane",
 a six ft blonde beast weighing some 110ish kilos, 
who looks like a rave-freak-turned-migration-office-clerk. 
This guy is definately looking for party going.
 H e is also desperately trying to understand the concept of
 being madly in love with someone.
 His main question toward people he meets is " Have you ever been drunk on love?".
His loyal sidekick is another case worth being examined by the narrator
 of the present.
 Darren, who claims that his name is an abbreviation to the greek name "Dherianous",
 is a dark skinned slim wannabe dj,
matching his mates towering hight. He also claims to be half-Greek half-Maori,
 but does not look like either of the two. 
Up until my departure from Belgrade,
I treated this as a half baked attempt to create a running joke for this trip. 
The Kiwis are prone to, and open to suggestions concerning, 
any shenanigans that have worked for guys like me and Hunter Thompson,
but that I would not condone. Their appetite  for craziness has landed them a few
 close encounters with the notoriously crazy reaction of the psychopathic nazi scum
that work as bouncers in Belgrade's splav bars, 
most of which ended in spectacular near misses.
 Nothing serious though. 
Needless to say they where amazed by the stories of my previous exploits 
(La Coruna,student years etc). 
Currently they are enjoying the good life of the backpacker in eastern europe.

Δευτέρα, 3 Σεπτεμβρίου 2012

Tuesday- Conclusions and disilusions

Tuesday morning came and went quickly. So quickly thaτ I could not even understand it even existed. I was busy writing and working on articles in the laptop, but I was also thinking. I was pondering on the situation in Albania and Albania society. Everyone that looks toward Albanian economics can understand that the indicators are looking “good”. This is only half trae. How good can things be in a country that has come this close to rocking bottom? How good can things be when there are so devastating social differences? How good can things be when development is dependant solely on the will and money of foreign investors and financial aid? And how good can things look when these elites head the country into a big financial Hubble, that is about to be burst in a really violent and devastating way? I tell you this is not as good as indicators show. The social contradictions are too big to ignore, and any kind of development comes and goes in pieces. Wages are very low and pensioners barely survive, with the help of their children and the imigrants of the family. A great deal of the income of most Albanian familiεs comes from members of the family that live and work abroad. In the States, Canada, Italy, Greece, the UK. Then again there is a big influx of yuppies , especially from crisis stricken sountries like Greece and Italy. Loads of executives that have moved to the country in search of an investment opportunity or a job that can provide them the comforts they will miss back home. On another note, the country is a fértile ground for any kind of profitteer. From bankers to dubious investors to mobsters and subcontractors with connections in high places, almost any kind of foreign businessman with aknack of bribing, Sterling and even killing in order to aquire the said rights. The type of businessman that Works and invests in the country, is the cut-throat sporting a bow-tie, a tuxeedo and a 500 dollar-a-piece gold plated watch. These vultures stand to gain a lot, while thw locals gain way less rights and Money. They have also given their helping hand in creating the Albanian version of a real estate bubble, by buying loads of properties along the coast and in Tirana itself, whithout caring about the consequences that the bursting of such a bubble might have on ordinary Albanians. Anyway, by noon I was in the airport, and climbing aboard the Olympic Airways Bombardier that would take me back to Athens. I was on the return of the greek yuppie trek. Yet, I wanted to see more of the country. At one point I would be back, in order to visit the “real Albania”. And that was the Albanian parto f Kosovo, with the high plateus and the towers…

Πέμπτη, 26 Ιουλίου 2012

Monday- Tirana (walking around and pondering on the block)

Whoever said that Tirana is a a small town, is unequivocally wrong. Tirana is quite medium sized. Two million souls live in this anarchic city. Most of them are internal immigrants from the all over Albania, but one can not rule out the occasional European or American company executive, nor the occasional Kosovar or Macedonian . The outskirts are poverty stricken, if one does not take into account the gated comunities. The case where the city erupts, though, looks like a faraway possibility. The three deaths outside the presidential palace, during demonstrations against what the opposition called an election fraud. From the looks of it what happened in Albania last spring (in the middle of the Arab spring, mind you), was not a free and fair election. It has a lot of the marks of what people in the west would call electoral fraud , and there is chit chat going around about the Americans having given a helping hand in the election of Berisha. Necvertherless Berisha and the current mayor of Tirana seem to be USA’s favourite alies in the region. Without the support of the Albanian government the operations in Kosovo could have been seriously hindered, if not deemed impossible. But Albania provided logistics and a “staging point” for the operation, let alone the help to the UCK. Anyway there I was, in the middle of a quite moist day, walking along the Central Boulevards of Tirana. Some areas are really run down, but the truth is that downtown Tirana has bee greatly modernised, and looks like a big shopping area for rich Albanians. A lot of Flagship and high end stores are there. Embassies are situated left right and centre around this area, so are important buildings like the new Cathedral built by the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Albania, and some mosques. South Albania is dominantly Greek Orthodox, but middle-to-northern Albania is a Muslim country. That goes as far as religious people, because most Albanians are Atheists. Around Tirana one can also spot old men with bicycles. Bikes are very popular among the eldest generation, a generation that did not really get used to private cars. So, even now, in the midst of the busy streets of the capital, there is a lot of old men and women going about their day to day business on their ageing bikes. It is some sort of a picturesque scene from a generally dim urban Albania. Colours in Tirana where much dimmer in the past. But Eddi Rama, during his tenure as mayor did two things. First he tore down the shanty town that was situated in the banks of the river and along the circular road that almost goes around the city centre. The whereabouts of the residents remain unknown, though I think they got stuffed around the messy suburbs, hidden because of anachic building and no urban planning. The second thing was to paint some of the buildings in various colours, and provide full exterior lighting 24/7to all the important buildings that are situated around the area of Skenderberg Square, which is the heart of the City. Then, a massive remodelling of the square started (with use of Austrian funds), which was concluded during the tenure of the current mayor. Though it did not vastly improve living standards, the tenure of Rama as mayor was deemed rather successful. But cosmetic changes do not change a lot. Five to ten kilometres away from the well paved city centre, sidewalks are missing, there are open sewage pumps, buildings that remain in ruins, and even dirt roads. Anyway it was Monday so the National Laographic Museum of Tirana was closed. All I could do was sit down and watch the big mural on the side facing the square. This mural depicts all heroes that had taken part in the biggest wars rebellions and riots that had to do with the country, from the times of king Perrus up until the second world war. Men and women armed with all kinds of weaponry where depicted in the huge mural. Two other sights lie nearby, both on the Boulevard that starts from Skenderberg Square and ends, more or less, at the Kemalstafa Stadium. The emblematic Pyramid, a monument built to honour Emver Hoxha ( and a sign of all the “god” treatment that leaders of Stalinist states received and I am talking about Stalin, Mao Ze Dong and even Nicolae Chausescu), and the clock tower. Right across the Pyramid lies a series of ministries and, further on, the Polytechnik. And, if one takes one of the cross streets and moves to the right, (when facing the Kemalstafa end), he or she enters the biloku district, universally known as “the Block”. The history of the “Block”, is a lot like the history of modern Albania, in small scale. Like Albania, the “Block” was a secluded area during the times of Hoxha. No commoner would be able to enter this area, which was designed only for party and state officials. In a similar fashion Albania was closed to non-comrades. Then communism fell in 1991, and by then the country’s borders where open for anyone willing to visit. The same happened to the “Block”. Suddenly anyone could see where the party leaders where living. But then again the block semi-closed in later years. It became full of restaurants and bars that where a little to expensive for the average Albanian. So, now ther block is a semi-secluded area where only those who have the money hang out. Nevertheless, I could sill pay a visit to the grounds of Emver Hoxha’s residence. It was in the middle of the “Block”. A luxurous safe haven for a “communist leader” who lived in luxury while his people had to live with far less. Just like in mother Russia and China. Oligarchs and princelings are not to be taken out of the picture too. While walking around the block I spotted six Bentleys, a couple of Jaguars, loads of Mercedes and BMW cars, even some American limousines.Some of them had Kosovo plates and strange looking men and women inside. Mobsters by the looks of it. And those guys had the "don't look at me strangely, and I will not hang you by the balls" look in their eyes. Criminals that most probably had killed people in their past. And all the while, there was people begging for food in the streets. This is Albania in 2012. Loads of poor people, and a very few super rich men and women laughing in their face. Anger must be slowly boiling here. But not that much. There was an air of optimism in the air, even in the worst and most crime-ridden slum in Tirana. People had the feeling that there was still some room for more development. That I got from conversations made with people, and some conversations that caught my ear around the area. Perhaps it is because people felt they have “rocked bottom” and the only way now is up. Things could not get worse, only better. This feeling was shared by my stepfather when he came around to pick me up. We went for a drive around town, saw a few neighbourhoods, and then went back to the apartment. I had to pack, because on Tuesday I had to catch a plane back home.

Sunday- Back to Base

I had seen this village befote. It was like Las Vegas, only in Southern Albania. It was pitch black and the place was lit up like a christmas tree. We where passing by once again heading for a café outsider Gjirokaster. Djodjas said that this village was famous for its crops. Its hashish crops. The village was governed by something like a local mob. Everybody there grows drugs, and everybody there owns firearms. Like a mix of Texas with rural Crete. Weed and guns. It turns out that the guys do not have to pay any electricity Bills, because the electrical company looks the other way, for fear of violent reprisals. Even the circulation of cash is scarce there. Djodjas told us a story of him meeting an aquaintance from there, who had just bought himself a new luxurious Jeep. He asked how much it cost the guy. The answer was “Eighty kilos”. Djodjas asked again, explaining that he wanted to learn the price in cash. The acquaintance remained unfased. The answer was the same once again. Eighty kilos. The weed that is cultivated in Albania goes to the Greek market. The Albanian mob also supplies the European markets with heroin, but this is not a homegrown product. It simply passes by Albania with the help of local mobsters and lands in Italy. Same thing goes with women, cigarettes and al kinds of contraband. The Albanian mob almost always operated as clandestine busboys for the Italian and Turkish mob. Once we arrived, Djodjas greeted a suited man. This was the mayor of Gjirokaster. Djodjas is man with many acquaintances and many connections in the area. My stepfather joked that Djodjas should run for MP in the area. The café was situated on the side of a river, but in reality the setting looked like an artificial lake in-the-making. The place was clearly a restaurant for local heavy hitters, at least in the financial sense. And local celebrities can be seen there. Our next stop was within the city. It was the castle of Gjirokaster. It served as a fortress. It also served as a prison, housing political prisoners. Many Albanian resistance members and dissidents who where fighting against the King. Now its serves as a lot of different things. The interior serves as a wartime museum and an area dedicated to the resistance against the Germans. A big variety of weapons is stored there, weapons that range from medieval swords and axes to a WWII Italian tank and Chinese AK-47’s.The walls are sprayed with harrowing accounts from the prisoners. One, a member of the Greek minority wrote “I am sick and cannot move myself because of the pain and the beatings. I feel that I am going to die soon.” He was executed in days before the Nazis left Albania. Actually it is the occupation and resistance against the Nazis that unified the Greek minority with the Albanians under the banner of the revolution. After the Germans left the country, the communists took control. And a miscalculated move by the MI6 solidified the power of their leader Emver Hoxha. Actually this was the work of KGB’s most successful mole in the Circus. Kim Philby. During late 1946 MI6 hatched a plan to land saboteurs into Southern Albania in order to overthrow Hoxha. Philby, who was a high ranking officer in the Circus, learned of it and informed the KGB, who in turn tipped off their Albanian colleagues. The Albanians, in turn, ambushed the saboteurs and killed them all. The gardens and the moats of the castle serve as cafés and concert venues in the summer time. Mrs Djodjas, who loves almost everything Greek remembers Eleftheria Arvanitaki doing a memorable concert there. After this we climbed down into the old town for a small stroll and some coffee. The centre is picturesque, but also derelict. Most buildings need repairs, but still retains features of the architecture of the late 19th century and early 20th century in good condition. Noon was approaching rapidly, and we had to get back to Tirana, before nightfall. And we had to make haste because about a hundred kilometres of really rough road lay between us and the highway that leads to Tirana. That is three to four hours of driving up and down the mountains. On top of all of that, for about twenty kilometres we had to move through .works in progress, semi incomplete bridges, hard gravel roads and the ensuing traffic. The road up until Premet was in a terrible condition. It took us more than an hour to reach the city. For at least thirty five minutes we had to negotiate ourselves through seven kilometres of bad terrain and incomplete bridges. We sighed when we reached the plains, and when we reached the highway, it did not look like the four lanes with the potholes and the grass strip in the middle, but like an Italian autostrada. We where on our way home. With only one break. Throughout the whole drive, Sollace was calling us to get updates on our whereabouts. He was having fish with friends in a restaurant in Durres and had invited us there. We where trying to explain to him that we would not make it in time, so he settled for some coffee in a hotel just outside of Durres. An exclusive one. The clientele included the CEO of the Turkish Steel company (the one that owns the factory in Elbasan), whom we met on our way in, foreign dignitaries and heads of state from various areas in the world. Sollace was waiting for us in the entrance. This bespectacled man is the son of Albanian immigrants in Greece. He studied medicine, started a career in Greece, and hen Ygeia made a move towards Albania, he was the “man”. He was there with his wife, a plumb and pretty woman in her forties. They have a sixteen year old son that drives the family’s other car on his nights out, with a five Euro note in his pocket in case he gets stopped by police (the legal driving age in Albania is 18), for the ensuing little bribe. Corruption and nepotism in Albania are still rife. Bribes are widespread and there is always talk of the government being very corrupt and taking sides in business matters, to favour businesses with which members are affiliated, through the ownership of shares or any other connection. And if one comes to realise that Berisha’s crowd are Washington’s favourites in the region, well, that says it all. Nevertheless Solace himself does not seem to partake in all of this. If one does not take into account the nice house and the massive Audi, he is a man of simple pleasures. No drinking, little eating, some coffee, driving around and good company are his vices. Well, some of them are mine too. But these “vices” are harmless. Real corruption can be fatal. As usual the discussion turned to economics and politics. It seems that the situation is not that polarised in Albania nowadays. At least not as polarised as in the late nineties, the ears when the pyramid schemes collapsed and an armed riot drove Berisha out of power, and into seeking asylum. But with the construction bubble going on and crisis lurking around the corner, nobody can be too sure about the situation remaining the same. We left the hotel in the early evening, in order to go back to base. On the next day I was to walk around town and my stepfather was to go to work.