Summer holidays again and I think of all the letters I wanted to write and the pictures I didn’t send last year:
Yucatan, huge, well restored pyramids with unpronouncable names, the hot, humid jungle with still to be excavated pyramids, grim looking Mexican policemen who stop buses and check on pale, blond tourists and stern dark local travellers, San Cristòbal de las Casas in Chiapas (Zapatista country with their (not so) secret signs the green crosses), Mexico City, its archeological area of the Templo Mayor with sad remnants of the conquistadores’ will to destroy Aztec grandiosity (Tenochtitlan) and to put their own church in its place (Metropolitan Church, bombastic), Frida Kahlo’s enchanting home and Diego Rivera’s socio-critical murals, culture keen Mexicans and their pride of their European and American heritage, colourfully clad Maya women who sell beautiful embroidery.
California and Oregon: the Oregon Trail and its historical museums (and I remembered all the teen-saturday nights I didn’t go out because I was so hooked on western movies), the Sierra Nevada, gold mining towns, wild bears and their appetite for processed food, fabulous Yosemite and uncontrollable wildfires, San Francisco, Monterey and Cannery Row, gambling in Reno and many more. Most importantly, I wanted to tell you about American hospitality and cuisine with roast beef cowboy style and homemade gingersnaps, Mexican-American casseroles, Italian-Californian restaurants so generous the doggy bags make up for another meal …
This year’s plan: get to know a next door neighbour and not go broke on a cup of coffee (so that neighbour wouldn’t be Switzerland), a place where the locals are not outnumbered by tourists and tourists are human beings …
Greetings from Albania, land of the Shqipetars, sons of eagles.
If you are German: remember Karl May, end of 19th beginning 20th century, popular German writer of adventure novels like “Through the Land of the Shqitpetars”, with the famous protagonists Kara Ben Nemsi and Hadschi Halef Omar? Fascinating! But … I’m not badmouthing him, if I say… for more reliable information about the country and its history read Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most famous writer (translated into 40 languages).
Why Albania? What’s there to see? (my friends were perplexed)
Look at this mosaic mural entitled “The Albanians” probably featuring all national heroes (not fallen in disgrace later) from Illyrian times to today (Skanderbeg Square, Tirana, facade of National History Museum)
Also on the square, a statue of the great Skanderbeg, 15th century hero, who fought at first for and later against the Ottoman empire, and brought their expansian to a halt, temporarily.
This is not a good picture of his statue, but you can see how big the square is.
What is not there to see anymore is the gigantic (10 m high) statue of Enver Hoxha (pronounce hoʤa). Remember Stalin’s, Mao’s, Pol Pot’s little cousin? I used to think he was a boy scout compared to them, but he did his best to come up to their standard and for the people who were tortured or killed by Hoxha’s Sigurimi (a kind of Stasi, KGB, Securitate) it didn’t make a difference who was worse in the end. Under him the death penalty was brought down to the age of 11 years, and was applied for offenses it would make a sharia law advocate go pale. Enver’s effigy was pulled down in 1991 by a freedom hungry mob and inscriptions for example on mountains (ENVER) were changed to “NEVER”. I took a picture of that but the word didn’t come out, too far away.
How did the Albanians get to know about the outside world? They secretly listened to Adriano Celentano, Toto Cotugno, Al Bano, that’s how they learned Italian, even more secretly they watched Italian television (under Enver you could be sent to an Albanian gulag or worse for that) and they still do, quite openly, because Mediaset (Berlusco owned) is still an exciting alternative to Albanian tv stations. Now most people speak Italian here, from basic up to excellent. Nessun problema. English is another option, more popular among the young. Besides that people speak the language of the country they work(ed) in, so if you don’t know English or Italian and know Greek you get along, too. On the beach in Saranda I heard a German Albanian explain something about the beach chairs and umbrellas to a Polish couple in German. So any language goes.
The Euro is the widely accepted currency beside the Lek, you change your money for the little things like bus fare or ice cream.
Also on Skanderbeg Square there is a beautiful little mosque, part of the 5% religious buildings that survived the cultural revolution of 1966/7.
Beautifully decorated inside (imagine what cultural heritage was lost – the destruction of it took place about 30 years before the Taliban blew up the Bamyan Buddhas. See, also Europeans have their little Talib inside).
Albanians are easygoing on religion. Slightly more than 70% of the population are nominally muslims and slightly more than 70% are not practicing regularly.
When asked if we could enter the mosque the door keeper shook his head sideways, which made me laugh, because Massimo was already about to turn away in frustration, when I remembered, it means “yes”; they let me enter without telling me to cover my head, I had forgotten to bring a headscarf, to top it off I sat down in the wrong part, the one for the men, for a while and went upstairs later, when I realised …
Gee, they don’t make it easy for a woman to climb up to the ladies’ section of the mosque or do they just want the young ones?
Signs in front of churches and mosques tell you to be decently dressed, but we saw (short) shorts on women and undershirts on men occasionally in some orthodox church. On the bus a woman wearing a niqap arouses more attention here than she would in Christian Europe.
Tirana otherwise for better or for worse is a modern city and you recognise housing built during real socialism, post-socialism … doityourselfism
and for worst a pyramidical something built by Enver Hodxa’s daughter and her husband, as homage to big Daddy to host a museum about him …
… now a ramshackle remnant of grandiosity …
A modern orthodox church, very modern, it’s predecessor was destroyed.
After breaking with all his cousins near him and in the East and far East (Tito, Chrustchew, Mao) Hoxher withdrew from the world, locked his country in, became autark and autistic, distrustful not only of his fellow countrymen but of the outside world, and had 740 000 pillboxes of varying sizes built all over the country, one for three people on average, so they could hide and survive an attack by the East or the West (North, South …) and even save a goat or a sheep to have something to eat afterwards. (Don’t sneer! I remember times when in the West people were told to hold their briefcases over their heads in case they had to protect themselves from nuclear fall out).
This is Bunker Park in Tirana, but you find these 5 tons, indestructable, nondisposable concrete and iron, little mushrooms in the mountains, at the seaside, in gardens, parks … When I had this foto taken I still thought I would have difficulties finding the other ones.
In Tirana do
what you do in big cities:
1 … see the monuments, museums, mosques (just one) churches (not many), go to the opera, to a nightclub, go to a restaurant (good and not expensive, a dinner for two with meat, veggies, chips, beer and whatnot costs like a pizza for one on the other side of the Adriatic, waiters are friendly and polyglott up to a certain point, if you don’t understand the explanation take your chances and order, it’ll taste good, no worries. The diet is mediterranean, with lots of olive oil and – eat tomatoes, they are real like they were in Italy some 45 years ago, you don’t find them anymore. ..
2 … and do what Tiranans, actually what Albanians do in all places: go for a stroll after 5 o’clock (less hot), stroll along the streets with your friends, family, on your own, sit in a café, have coffee with someone and chat chat chat … (even with your smartphone, like everywhere else).
My next letter tells you:
where you can go from Tirana, i. e. you can go anywhere if you are smart enough to find out how and from where and what time. There is no Tourist office (at least not one that is known to anybody), there is no bus terminal, no office for public transport, nothing. Busses to different towns leave from different parts in the city. You ask around, people always try to be helpful, even if they don’t have the answer on the spot, they take their time to remember, point into a direction, someone tells you around what time the bus should leave, from memory because it doesn’t say anywhere. You keep asking and finally someone tells you to wait at a bus stop, without any signs or timetables. You wonder if you’ll still be standing there the next day and all of a sudden the bus shows up, punctual, inexpensive, old but reasonably comfortable if not too crowded. And if crowded a man always gets up for the foreign lady, I feel embarrassed, because these men are probably older than I am. And then, you notice something familiar about the bus, s. th. that makes you feel at home …
… old, discarded vehicles from Germany and Italy!
In the streets you notice ambulances, too, it says Notarztwagen on the hood. Who could understand or pronounce that word in an emergency?
It’s the same with all the other cars, they wouldn’t be allowed to circulate in western countries any more, but European emission standards are a luxury this country can’t afford. You smell it in the air, less traffic and more pollution …
… that would have been better 25 years ago, wouldn’t it?
Amazing how many mercedeses there are in this relatively modest if not in many ways backward country! “How come?”, Massimo askes a young chap who speaks Italian fluently. “Ah you know,” he smiles “they are the cars we stole from you”.
Okay, that was his joke.
Next letter, all about the rest of the country