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.