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.