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.

Τετάρτη, 25 Ιουλίου 2012

Saturday- Moving along Northern Hyperus.

It was Saturday morning. In the clear post-rain atmosphere, we could see the coast of Corfu, where I had gone camping a few Summers ago. Electricity was back on and everything seemed to be back to normal. We checked out and reached the car. Today we where two men on a misión. To reach Gjirokaster, go to a nearby village, visit a sawing industry and buy some things Essentials to my mother’s hobby. Her heirloom. The rendez-vous was at twelve in the noon, but owing to the condition of Albanian roads, especially in the region, we thought that it would be better to be early an early bird and wait, than be late. Things where better, once we where on the road. We where driving along. surprisingly well kept country road For the first time in a whole week we did not see a single pothole in thirty kilometres. Things where going very smoothly. We reached downtown Gjirokaster half an hour ahead of Schedule. That was enough time to check out the Hotels and find ourselves some suitable lodging. In the hours to come Mr Djodjas, one of my stepfather’s friends was due to arrive in town. We looked into the first hotel we could lay our eyes upon, and almost singlehandedly decided that this place was suited for our stay and business in town. Later in the night we would find out that it was “fashionable enough” to hold wedding parties, and that, in fact, the view from its café covered almost the entirety of the city. The city itself is divided in two districts. The old district is the most picturesque and the most derelict at the same time. It is the way works happen in Albania all the way around, even if the city itself is “protected” as a heritage site by UNESCO. As it seems, even there money is scarce, and both the government and the organisation are looking for money and donations alike, in order to secure funding for refurbishing the city’s magnificent buildings, buildings that date themselves from the middle ages to the forties. Meanwhile we where waiting in the parking lot outside the hotel. Our people where to arrive any minute. Despite its quite bad situation, the centre of the old town looked busy. It seems that except the two or three UNESCO restoration projects that remained active in town, people also had other kinds of business there, And, indeed, in the old town centre there still exists a variety of cafes, taverns and shops, even though the ones that attract the “fashionable” crowd have been built in the outskirts. Finaly, a grey Skoda Yeti, carrying two characters, arrived and parked next to us. Two middle aged men appeared from within it. The youngest one was a burly dark haired man in his mid fourties. The eldest of the two was a greying man, of a similar posture, who was in his late fifties. From the ensuing conversation (mind you only the elder one spoke any foreign language, that being Greek), I understood that their families where bound by some sort of wedlock, and that the elder one was the father-in-law. They asked us to follow them. We left the old town, crossed the highway and went into a narrow rural road. Ten minutes later we where reaching the only Albanian speaking (by majority) village in the area. We went into a building that double as a sawing factory, on one side, and a heirloom artifact museum on the other one.. From what it seems, they where also dieing the raw material and selling it to customers. But this is a dying business, even in Albania, and few customers actually care about handmade clothing and bedlinen, especially if they can have it through industrial production and, much cheaper, synthetic raw material. So our order of about fourteen kilos of raw sawing material up front and another fourteen kilos to be sent by mail to Tirana, was a big one that they could not have seen from individual buyers in ages. So, after the deal was closed and done , we where invited to join the owner and co at eh local taverna, for a drinking session that included tsipouro and lamb. We left four hours later, with heads about to explode from the alcohol we had consumed and went back to the hotel. We had to have a bit of a sleep, because in the afternoon we had a new round of drinking and eating with our friend Djodjas and his wife. Now Gjirokaster has a tradition of being the birthplace of important figures in Albanian literature and politics. Despite tha fact that his most notable stories have to do with Northern Albania and the traditions of the area, profilic writer Ismail Kandare was born in Gjirokaster. Two very important Albanian statesmen, former PM Fatos Nano and the former mayor of Tirana Edi Rama, both being leading figures of the Socialist party, come from nearby areas, Actually the former is being rumoured to be the new presidential candidate in the upcoming election, for the Socialist Party, despite the fact that the latter is the acting president of the party. Edi Rama has fallen in the eyes of the both the party’s elites and electorate, alter losing the municipality and making a lot of political mistakes that paved the way into Berisha’s rule in Albania, and leaving him alone with enough power in the legislature, where the SP had the potential to block decisions. .If one thinks about the soaring popularity of Rama during his tenure as mayor of Tirana, now the picture is very different. Even though Rama can still persuade some Albanians, he does not seem to have the ability to tople Berisha. Nano, on the other hand, has to face a lot of gossip that circles around his buxom and very smart younger wife. He is married to a very well known businesswoman, known for both her success in the Business sector, and her sex appeal. Djodjas is also some sort of dominating figure himself too. In fact he is some sort of a local celebrity. He was a top doctor in the local hospital, providing medical help to ill people who live in a radious of eighty kilometres from Gjirokaster, at a time when Tirana was a four hour drive away and the borders with Greece where closed. Later when the borders opened, people from the area started to visit Ioanina Univercity Hospital, which lay an hour and a half away from town. Of course proximity was the reason, especially when an ill person required to travel for more than four hours through roads that where in a bad shape, or nao shape at all.. So, nowadays most people from Gjirokaster cross the borders and finish their medical affairs in Greece, and a very very few of them opt to travel to Tirana. Djodjas was swept away by the tide. He went to Greece in order to be re-trained, and then stayed for years as an anaesthesiologist in Athens. And now he is working on patients in Tirana. Anyway Djodjas is so well known in the region that he could run for Member of the Parliament. His fame is preposterous. While walking around town and visiting the nearby areas, he would be greeted by anyone in sight. After having coffee in one of the town’s high end cafés , and then went to Prototsani to have some steaks. Prototsani is the most “fanatically greek” village in the area. Konstantinos Mitsotakis was the first Greek PM to visit the area back in the early nineties, when national tensions ran high in the area. It was a time of terror for both ends. Sali Berisha’s henchmen where constantly attacking figures of the Greek minority, while a Group sponsored by fascists within the Greek Foreign Ministry and the Greek Embassy, was trying to organise a separatist guerilla army, the actions of which could cause a war between the two countries. Mitsotakis toured Southern Albania in order to “calm things down”. As it turns out the speach he gave in the Squire, and furthermore his presence itself ,made quite an impression in the population. In fact it was such a positive impression that they named the central Squire alter him. It is a funny thing, especially if someone realises that people in the “motherland” hate his guts. People in Northern Hyperus have an, almost, undemanding love for Greece. They feel that it is their “motherland”. Not in the literal sense , but because they relieve that they and their customs are originated from Greece. We dined at a steakhouse in the southwest corner of the Squire, and went back to the hotel.

Πέμπτη, 19 Ιουλίου 2012

Friday- Southbound

Come Friday morning and we where on the road again. This time we where on the coastal highway, on our way to Saranda. We where to spend the weekend moving along southern Albania. The aim was to see the “Greek” areas. So we passed by familiar landscape. Agricultural land as far as the eye could see. Then, at one point we reached the coastal city of Vlore. We ventured into the port, in order to find us something to eat. But, since the city is a port of entry from Italy, we did not manage to find anything that could suit us and any restaurant that was not a “tourist attraction” . So we stayed our southbound course. In the meantime the traffic was slowly becoming worse, and the roads where gradually deteriorating. After about an hour of trying to negotiate through local traffic, we finally left the city and continued moving on the coastal road to Saranda. We reached the beach where the old submarine base used to be. We stopped at a roadside fishing tavern to make our stomachs quiet down. Our instincts proved right once again and after a rich but cheap meal we where back on our way to Saranda. This time the landscape was changing. We where slowly going up the mountains. Traffic was scarce too. It was as if nobody was using this road. We would find out a little later. For the moment we where driving with the windows down, getting the mid-spring breeze on our faces. Suddenly the freeze turned into a chill, when almost midway into our mountain climb we ran into thick fog. We could see no further than 5 metres ahead of us. Instinctively the speed lowered significantly, and we where driving with the constant fear of falling of an open cliff or something like that. As we where reaching the mountaintop, the fog was beginning to clear. Meanwhile the turns where multiplying rapidly, so where the potholes and the bumps on the road. But, once again, the Touareg prove to be a valuable and loyal companion. Despite its size, it was taking turns smoothly, and we usually did not “feel” the bumps or any other anomalies on the road. As we where descending to the sea again, the road grew wider. Its sides where also filled with nationalist slogans and UCK signs. We where into the “Greek” area, and Albanian nationalists from the north (the slogans where signed by “students from Tirana” or some similarly named organisation) definately wanted to make themselves seen in the area. This was the only sign of ethnic tension we encountered throughout the whole trip, in reality. When we reached the first villages, the majority of which was dominantly greek, the picture was different. Serene, with no provocations whatsoever. After another fourty kilometres (or so) we where reaching the outskirts of Saranda. Now, everyone of you reading this blog, might have heard that Saranda is one of the most beautiful cities in Albania. This is partly misinformation. Saranda used to be o lovely town. Until the building boom destroyed it. Now it looks like Durres surrounded by hills. Few traditional pockets still survive, in the old town, but the reality is that most of the city was taken down to make way for apartment blocks and hotels. This looked like our idea, which was later confirmed by a local restauranteur . We lodged ourselves in a cheap third rate hotel and went for an afternoon nap. In the evening we converged on the balcony (which looked over the port and most of the city), had a bit of coffee and searched for a place to eat. Once again the Albanian connection worked, and this time we landed in an uber cozy restaurant, situated just over Dekko, Albania’s biggest and most exclusive summer club. The owner, as it turned out, had a long and illustrious career in the cuisine of some of Greece’s most exclusive and famous restaurants. And that was evident in the decoration of the restaurant and the luxurious plates too. It also looked like a place for a quite select clientele. A suit from the Austrian bank, one of the bigwigs as I learned from my stepfather, was expected to dine there the next day. We where dining there that evening. Our host said that Saranda used ton look like a beautiful village. But then, showing off newly gained cash from Greece, and trying to impress the tourists took over. Soon we found out that we were the sole customers in the establishment, for the whole night. It looked as if they had had it opened just for us. The answer as to why we where the sole customers came with the food, and the bill we had to pay. As it turned out, our insightful host had missed out on a couple of things. In fact he was swept away from the way greek fashion-omics work. That means mediocre food in a luxurious environment, complete with over-the-top prices. We where paying a totally “greek” check, which means thrice as expensive as Albanian prices. Truly, the concept of value for money had missed a guy. Or he was so carried away by serving the “elite”, that he forgot about common people. Anyway, with a bit of rage in our hearts we returned to the hotel, where I started to write, only to be stopped by a city-wide blackout, caused by a storm….

Τρίτη, 22 Μαΐου 2012

Thursday-Hit the North (and come back within the day)

I wanted to see the towers. I also wanted to see the sanctuaries. I wanted to see what the areas described in the journey of Gjork Berisha, before he was killed by the Kryjekukke family. I wanted to witness all the wonders witnessed by those American scholars that where chasing after the voices of those singing Homeric narratives. But no. The plateau of Kosovo, described by the creator of all those characters, Albania’s prolific writer, Ismael Kandare, was too far away for a simple day trip. The furthest away from Tirana we could move was Shkoder. Well that could be enough too. At least for a first visit to the Albanian North, or what they called “deep Albania”. The part of the country where the tradition of prince Lek’s orders still survived. The Kanun. That is the traditional law that every Albanian must follow on just about every issue of his everyday life, from simple day-to-day matters, ‘till the settling, or continuity, of the famous Albanian blood feuds. Honour killings still exist in the north. So does the right of every family to claim vengeance over its members that where killed by a member of another family. And though these laws where banned during the Hoxha regime, they came back in the nineties, partly thanks to Sali Berisha (a northerner) turning a blind eye to the phenomenon. The road passed through a Northern Tirana suburb where “no one wants to end up” , as my stepfather’s friend Solace once said. That is because a lot of Northerners migrated there. The place looked run down and definitely is in a bad shape. Loads of traffic too. We where on our way up north where everything looked abandoned and derelict. No evidence of development here yet, except a wide array of furniture stores and some mini malls. The weather looked typical of the Albanian North. That meant that it was cloudy, moist, and pockets of rain followed out Touareg in its every step. Towns and villages passed by, even when we where, again, what looked like the typical Albanian highway. A narrow strip of grass was standing between northbound and southbound lanes. To our left and to our right, the mountain ranges that form Albania’s natural landscape where closing slowly closing in on us. All of a sudden we where off the highway and moving along the perimeter of a mountain. The weather had deteriorated and by now it was purely raining cats and dogs.. Even visibility was, at times, very limited. Thank god by the time we had reached the outskirts of Shkoder there was a break in the bad weather. The sun was shining again and we where beginning to get the feeling we could walk around town. We where fatally wrong, in this sense. First of all as soon as we entered town the stormy weather came in again. And then, there was nothing much to see in town too. It looked like the only things we could visit, the castle and the lake, where a hard catch for the day. And as we tried to negotiate the narrow road that goes around the lake and into Montenegro, the weather went from bad to much, much worse. We where mostly unable to see or spot anything from the windows, except what lay a few feet ahead of us. And again, it looked in a dreadful shape. In the following days Djodjas would tell us that this is what the weather is usually like, over there. Moist and rainy. We ate nearby, and went on our way back to Tirana. Along the way my stepfather tried to fill the Touareg’s tank with petrol for the first time in his two year stay in the country. The employee in the gas station (someplace in the middle of nowhere), did not speak any English, my Italian did not come in handy either, but my stepdad managed to explain what he wanted to him, using his limited Albanian vocabulary and some signs. A few seconds later, and while the machine was pumping in gas, he overheard me making a silly joke on the price (while the price was in Lek, there was a Euro Sign (remember the Euro to Lek rate is 1:140) painted next to the display, because the machines had been imported second-hand from Italy), understood what I was saying and laughed with us (explaining in greek that the price was in Lek). The jokes continued, and soon another car came in, the occupants of which joined in the conversation and the laughter. We met five guys who where speaking greek, in a gas station, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Northern Albania... The people I meet in my travel never cease to amaze me. Having a full tank now, we moved down toward Tirana, to gain some early sleep time. The next morning we where starting a three-day trek along the Albanian south….

Τετάρτη, 9 Μαΐου 2012

Wednesday – Around Ohrid and a small ride to Durres

After a night of really heavy rainfall, and a lot of deliberation whether the weather would allow us to continue our trip we woke up to clear blue skies. The visibility was perfect and we could see across the lake, into the FYROM side. So after big breakfast, we moved toward the border. This time I would make it across. All of the car’s papers where in order. So where our papers. We started out and within fifteen minutes of driving on a non-descript narrow road, we reached the border. We cleared both immigration control and customs with great ease. The difference between the roads in Albania and the roads in FYROM became obvious. Though the roads in both countries where equally narrow, roads in FYROM where better maintained. We spotted about two potholes in 60 kilometres. After 20 kilometres on mountainous but lakeside terrain we reached Ohrid. Ohrid is a city of roughly 100,000 inhabitants. It is home to one of the best preserved medieval towns in the balkans, and some of the most beautiful Byzantine churches in the area. It is also a popular tourist attraction for German, Austrian, Yugoslav and Russian tourists. On a clear day one can see as far as the Albanian mountains on the other side of the lake. And, guess what, there’s machine gun nests here too. Seems like Tito was afraid of his neighbours too. Thinking of all this, we where approaching the city. Within a few hours we where passing by large hotels . We where in the outskirts.of the city. After a lot of rounds around holiday apartment blocks, we finally reached the centre of the city. Ohrid, in the summer months is a busy lakeside tourist port. Small boats do daily cruises that start from here, and move along the scenic shoreline. But the real beauty of the town is its historic centre. Its old town is one of the best preserved ones in the whole region, and a lot buildings with a design owing to Turkish, neo-classical and medieval influences are scattered in it, lying between it’s paved roads . There are a lot of Byzantine churches here. Most of the are basyllikas and they are decorated in a manner that is very common around the whole region. They follow the principles of the “Macedonian school”, a group of painters that where working in Northern Greece, Southern Bulgaria, Albania, FYROM and Serbia, the whole of the historic byzantine region of Macedonia. That means that there are more bright colours in the paintings inside the church, and even some characteristics of the bodies of the people depicted are visible, contrary to typical shapeless and dimly painted pictures of the era. Notable churches aside, the city is ideal for walks and maybe late night serenades. There is a lot to see in the old town, and one can get a beautiful sunset/sunrise, if one wants to climb on higher ground around the old town. After about five hours that seemed like ten minutes we decided to resume our circle around the lake and start the return journey. We left the shoreline a few miles before the city of Struga. We then started climbing a very scenic road, that looked as if it was climbing but, in the middle of a ravine. We finally crossed the border about an hour later. But by the time we had reached Elbasan, we decided that it was still early and we could still visit Durres for some lunch before we returned to Tirana. So we avoided the curvy road going straight ahead, and decided do move south-east to Kavaje, and then straight to Durres. After leaving Elbasan the quality of the road became much worse. And to make things even more difficult, there was an endless string of lorries on the road, that where moving to Durres, in order to get to the boat to Italy. It took us a few hours to reach what looked like a real highway (in the map). But when we reached it things did not really change. Although there was some sort of barrier in the middle dividing the upward with the downward lanes, there where again the usual holes on the road, accompanied with parts where the tarmac was non existent, or where works where in progress. But even there we could not see anybody working there. As it seems they where waiting for money to come in via some sort of a relief programme, so that they could complete the highway, or even repair it. We reached Durres at around four’o’clock. The outskirts are full of high-rises, expensive-looking apartment buildings for holiday lofts and expensive hotels. Clearly there was too much money pouring into the real-estate business there. Just enough to create a real-estate bubble. The rest of the city looks like a crossover between a port city and an expensive seaside resort-neighbourhood. The seaside is full of cosy restaurants and café’s. We decided not to inform Sollace of our whereabouts, for fear of him footing the bill for us again. But my stepfather wanted to take me to a tavern where he had eaten with my sister and friends, and could not remember its name. So we called another friend, the chief anesthysiologist, a man called Djodjas. He did not remember either but offered to ask around and call us back. The next call came from Sollace telling us that we should not go to that tavern, but a restaurant lying next to it. Nothing remains a secret in Albania, for no reason whatsoever. This is a small society of a little more than two million souls. So secrets tend to leak… Gossip on relationships, dates even corruption can be heard almost anywhere. It looks like everyone knows everybody here. Anyway a huge meal of fish and tons of laughter later we left and took the only well paved highway in the country. The one that leads to the airport and Tirana. We would have an early night because the next day we would hit the north for a day trip.

Παρασκευή, 4 Μαΐου 2012

Tuesday-moving toward lake Ohrid

For the first time, in a few years, I had seen something like this. We where on the highway to Elbasan, travelling on our way to Lake Ohrid. The highway, sort of speak, was a plain commercial road full of turns and lorries. The state of the tarmac showed, at times, that it was last repaired ages ago. And the state of the railroad tracks that they had not been used since the nineties (let alone the eighties). The first bumps appeared shortly after we had passed next to the gate of the Berisha residence. Up until then we where in an area where rich Albanians and government figureheads live. We passed a Greek private school, a new (huge) mall, and a tunnel which was under construction. The company undertaking this work is, which else, AKTOR A.E. owned by the Bobolas family, a family of Greek media and construction moguls. And this would be the last piece of progress we would see for the rest of the day. The rest of Albania seemed to be left awaiting its fate. So we where counting the turns and the holes in the tarmac appearing on the way to Elbasan. It took us about an hour to reach. The outskirts of the city, the second largest in Albania according to the latest statistics. The first thing to see when driving into the town are the chimneys of the steel mills.. Albania is an open ground for foreign investors and outsourcing. A lot of foreign multinational companies have set up shop here. Cheap labour and a small but financially powerful elite that can buy anything are the reason why this is happening. Low corporate taxes are another one. This steel mill is owned by a big Turkish company. Other than that, the area looks like a typical non-descript city of a country that used to belong to the East Block. Almost run-down housing projects, and derelict streets. With the help of the Touareg we march on eastward towards the lake. We pass over bridges and next to railway tunnels. Those where built in the fifties and the sixties by the Chinese and the Russians. Nowadays there is absolutely no Chinese or Russian presence in the country. Actually the presence of nationals coming from these countries was gradually suspended by the Hoxha regime, during the years. The first to invest in works in Albania where the Russians and the Yugoslavians. But when Tito and Stalin parted ways, Ho1§xha took Stalin’s side. So Yugoslavians where deemed a source of dangerous “revisionist” influence, and promptly expelled from the country. In 1953 the successors of Stalin started having a different political approach. This caused a rift between China and the USSR, and, Emver Hoxha sided with China. So, the Soviets where replaced by the Chinese. But when Mao died, another internal struggle occurred. China steered away from the Maoist Orthodoxy, and Albania decided to stay on its own, upholding the original ideas of Maoist and Stalinism. The Chinese, of course, where promptly kicked out. And when, in 1991, the government found out that the food surplus would last only six days, and Albanians started to flee the country by land or sea, suddenly the foreign inverstors came marching in. The economy became grossly unregulated, and pyramid schemes, owned by PM Sali Berisha, began to take (economically) the centre stage. But in 1997 these schemes collapsed, people took arms against the government, and ousted Berisha. He only returned to the political centre stage in the 00’s. Now he is still holding the Democratic Party with an Iron Grip, and is currently the PM. However despite these changes, there is no real change in the average Albanian’s life. The vast majority still lives in poverty. After passing a number of small towns with similar features we started to climb another mountain. And then there was the steep way down, towards the lake’s shores. It was a clear day and we could see the other side of the lake. There we came across our first machine-gun nest. The whole country is ridden with those. It seems like there was o shortage of soldiers, arms and ammunition in the country. And the nests where controlling strategic points and crossroads. Anyone found travelling without a permit was promptly arrested. Not only did the regime keep borders closed, but it also restricted movement between cities and villages. There was almost no freedom of movement in Hoxha’s Albania. The conditions on the road where deteriorating too. There was no lanes any more, just large holes and bumps on the tarmac. Along the lake there where a lot of stalls. The owners of these stalls where advertising their merchandise. It consisted of eels and perks. We stopped in downtown Pogradec to get some clean air, a view of the lake, and take a break. Our next stop would be a restaurant called St Naoumi, some seven kilometres away from town, according to a trusted friend of my father’s called Sollace. We took a walk on the lakeside. There was some empty bars in the area. Clearly it was tourist area, and clearly we had visited it during off-season. We walked the street a couple of times and left for our restaurant. Our friend proved unreliable in the matter of the distance. The place was fourteen kilometres away. But, nevertheless the food was excellent. And, to our astonishment,our friend had called the restaurant and asked to pay himself on his next trip there. Now that was a surprise. We moved on to Hoxha’s favourite holiday spot, which was a stone’s throw away from the border, where we would spend the night. After a good two hours we set off for the town. After discovering that there was nothing going on there (off-season being the reason), we decided to move to Korce, a big city about sixty kilometres to the south of Pogradec. But after an encounter with a traffic jam caused by a folded lorry, we decided to move back to our hotel. The next day we would cross the border…

Τρίτη, 24 Απριλίου 2012

Monday- First Impressions are the lasting ones (?)

For the first time after a many years, I was getting airsick. The ride in the Bombardier Q400 of Olympic Air, was one of the bumpiest rides in my life. Below me lay a mountainous and forested terrain. We where taking the one of the four five Greek yuppie trails. One was to Sofia, one towards Bucharest, one towards Istanbul, and one towards Skopje. We where travelling one the remaining one., towards Tirana. Planeloads of Greek businessmen, CEO’S, brokers and directors travel along these trails. They are working, on weekdays, in Greek companies that have branched out in the Balkans. The main way is by plane, but some also travel by car. To my left I could see the city of Elbasan, with the river flowing by its side. Watery slides where forming on the window to my right. It was raining. As the airplane was continuing its descent on to the Nene Tereza airport of Tirana, my guts where making their presence more and more noisy. When we touched down at the airport, I was totally relieved. Within minutes we where in place and disembarking, and being moved across the tarmac towards the terminal. The next step of our adventure started there. We spent about thirty minutes waiting for passport control to stamp and wave us through. The desks where seriously undermanned. This was one of the wonders of capitalism and deregulation. We took our sole baggage (a small navy bag containing two vases of jam, cleared customs with great ease, walked out to find Armando and our car. Armando works as a driver for Ygeia hospital, where my stepfather works. He took us in a big VW Touareg, and drove us up to the hospital. My stepfather (who works as a director there) finished some small-time chores and then, we moved into the Touareg, to go to his apartment, for the night.. Meanwhile the rain was continuing uninterrupted. Meanwhile, the illustrious by nature Armando, was organising, by phone, a visit to the car’s insurance agent, to gain for us a green card for the vehicle. In 2010 I had been denied entry into FYROM, because my car had no green card. But this time, we where not to be barred from entry. We where going to beat the bureaucracy and see both sides of Lake Ohrid. Thirty minutes and thirty euros later, he told us that the next morning he would have the required paper and so we would be able to drive across the border. Our first stop toward the apartment was an Albanian shopping mall. We had to buy some food items, for the times when we would not venture to town in order to eat. At a glance I realised that a lot of brands on sale at the mall (and the supermarket) where Italian. There is a strong Italian influence in Albania, dating back to the middle ages, when Albanian mercenaries where working for the Italian kingdoms. But the great push toward the good relations with Italy, came with the Italian occupation during the Second World War. The Italians built most of the surface roads and all of the rail network. And most of these roads are still in use, in various degrees of decay. The Italian influence does not end in brands. A lot of Albanians study in Italy, and there is a huge Albanian migrant community there. Most of Albanians understand Italian. A lot of them understand and speak Greek too. There is a big Italian presence in the Albanian economy. Italians have some joint ventures with Albanians, and a good trading relationship with them. Even the Camora and the Sacra Corona Unita have Albanian contacts, and they trade between each other all sorts of contraband, from cigarettes, alcohol and stolen cars, to drugs, women and immigrant labour. There are also many foreign investors working in Albania. American Universities, Turkish-owned industrial areas, Greek constructors, Greek and American private healthcare companies, Greek, Austrian, Turkish and Italian bankers, Greek financiers, even industries producing Greek brands (like Alumil) and Greek Shopping Malls. Albania is a haven for outsourcing, investments and subsidiaries for foreign companies. Another thing I noticed within hours of the arrival in Tirana was the number of Mercedes cars in the streets. It is preposterous. After a short calculation about three out of ten cars moving in Albanian roads are Mercedes cars. That has an explanation that comes from the era of Emver Hoxha. The whole fleet of state limousines was comprised of Mercedes cars. And that happened when private car ownership was prohibited in the country. When, with the coming of capitalism, private car ownership became legal. About 300,000 Mercedes cars (mainly the W124) where imported (one way or another) in Albania. The Mercedes car is a strong status symbol in Albania. As an Albanian friend of my stepfather’s put it “ I still feel like a guy willing to double-cross his perfect wife for even a total minger, when a Mercedes passes by my car, even if it is a jalopy”. And this guy drives an Audi A4 All-road Quatro. After shopping we went to the apartment. He lives at the penthouse of a guarded community, in the vicinity of the heliport. The ride is a very bumpy one, through back-roads. But even the central roads in Tirana can prove a hard ride for most cars. The area surrounding the building looks like a derelict one. Anarchic building is also a feature of the area, and the suburbs of Tirana. There was absolutely no urban planning for these neighbourhoods. Most of the homes surrounding our guarded apartment building seemed to be in quite a bad shape. Most of their inhabitants are internal immigrants from the North. It was so anarchic that the monster my stepfather was driving had great difficulty in negotiating a lot of turns and manoeuvres. Thank God for the zillion of electronic gizmos it used. The sensors saved us from near collision a lot of times. The state of the roads was no help either We went for a small nap, and then went out for a meal. Our destination was a restaurant next to Qemal Stafa Stadium. Once again I noticed the state of roads in Tirana. A huge gaping hole was in front of us, right at the intersection with the road that would lead us to Kavaja Street. We passed through it with great care, turned the street, then made a left on Kavaja street. We passed right next to “The Block”, then made a right on Skenderberg Square, passed Hoxha’s pyramid, the polytechnic, a couple of private universities (there are loads of them in Tirana) , a couple of Embassies and finaly reached the Stadium. Mind you the ride from Skenderberg Square to the Stadium did not include any potholes or bumps. The tarmac was straight, and well preserved because we where in the area where the presidential palace, a lot of ministries and foreign embassies are situated. We arrived in the restaurant, and I toom my first taste of Albanian Cuisine. It is similar to the cuisine of most of the countries in the Balkans, though it includes a lot of vegetables. That suits the Albanian vegetarians perfectly. And there are a lot of them. I had a delicious spicy sausage and a salad of red, yellow and green peppers. Just delicious. In the end we returned to the comfort of the penthouse and our beds. On the next day we where visiting lake Ohrid.