Ten Things You Need to Know About Albania (Part 2 of 2)

This is Part 2 of my “Ten Things You Need to Know About Albania” list (see Part 1 here). It’s a mish-mosh of miscellaneous items in no particular order. 

#6 – Kujdes!

kujdes (1)“Kujdes” (pronounced kwee-DESS) is the Albanian word for “look out!” or “be careful!” This is a particularly important word in Albania because falling and/or tripping are serious safety concerns here.


“Slippery When Wet”

Euro-style decor, with its reliance on highly polished marble and granite, is very much in vogue in Albania, which means that floors throughout the country are high-gloss. And, both because mopping is a national pastime and Albania gets a lot of rain, floors are often extremely slippery. Cafes, stores, entryways with and without stairs, pedestrian malls, stairs with and without handrails, steeply pitched spiral staircases, bathrooms without shower curtains…the possibilities for falling are endless. Even the sidewalks (when there are sidewalks) are slippery. This picture shows one of the fruit stands in my neighborhood. Instead of looking at the carrots, notice the two different types of paving tiles and the hose that’s used to spray both the vegetables and the sidewalk.IMG_1376

Clearly the American obsession with liability has not made its way to Albania and face it, non-slip flooring is simply not sexy.

“You Will Fall in a Hole”

Kujdes! Two holes ahead and one off to the right.

There’s an in-joke that gets a lot of play in more primitive Peace Corps countries: basically, it’s an assurance that before your service is over, you will poop in a hole.  I’ve seen the topic turn up in blogs, on the National Peace Corps Association site and there’s even a YouTube video with a “Poop in a Hole” song. In Albania, I think the greater likelihood for a Peace Corps volunteer (Turkish toilets excepted) is that you will fall in a hole. Streets and sidewalks in Albania are full of holes — broken pavement, storm sewers without covers (grates) and holes that exist seemingly at random. Between holes and uneven terrain (see next item), I am always looking down.

Uneven Terrain

As if holes and slippery tiles weren’t enough, there’s also uneven terrain. Most side streets –and some main streets — have no sidewalks and are only partially paved, leaving them a rutted mess. IMG_1677When there are sidewalks, they are usually bumpy and the paving tiles may be loose, broken, or irregularly placed (a personal favorite, which is more annoying than dangerous, is loose tiles that accumulate water underneath during rainstorms and then squirt water all over my legs when I step on them).

In addition, there are no standards for sidewalks so each curb is a different height, each section of sidewalk is a different width and trees may be planted close to the street or plopped right in the middle of the walkway. There are also stairways for cafes and stores that protrude into the main area of the sidewalk, cafes that put their tables and chairs on the street, little old ladies selling herbs, lettuce and milk at the curb and maybe even some turkeys or chickens patiently waiting to have their heads chopped off.

All of this makes for constant paranoia about falling, tripping or slipping. That paranoia is heightened by the fact that several friends have ended up with sprained ankles, torn pants, scraped hands and even a broken foot. Because walking is my primary mode of transportation, I wear only flat-soled, high-traction shoes and carry a flashlight in case I am coming home after dark. Albanian women, on the other hand, are much braver than me — I see them going to and from work and also headed out to clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, many wearing high-heeled shoes.

#7 – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

IMG_4087For 45 years, Albania endured one of the most repressive regimes in Europe. Enver Hoxha was a paranoid madman whose isolationism exacerbated Albania’s already dire poverty and who created a culture of distrust and fear where something as basic as telling a joke could get you eight years in prison. Neighbors denounced neighbors with false accusations simply to protect themselves from being denounced themselves. Thousands of people ended up in prisons or forced labor camps and their families were shipped off to internment villages.

Estimates are that one-third to one-half of Albanians were government informants. Many of them were people who had been deemed “enemies of the people” and, as a result, had lost their jobs, their friends, their hope. Many of these people felt they had little choice but to cooperate when the Sigurimi (secret police) knocked on their door and said, “We’re the government and we’re here to help.” How else would they once again be allowed to work?  How else would they feed their families?

The stories of the Communist years (what Albanians call “the Hoxha-time”) are horrific and many…and it is virtually impossible to get Albanians to tell them. When asked about that time, Albanians typically respond with one of the following: “What good would come from talking about it?”….”It wasn’t so bad — we had work, the schools were good, we had healthcare. We had our family and life was simple”….”It was a bad time but talking about it won’t fix it.”

Experts in the field of post-Communism call it “collective amnesia” or “denial of memory”

This “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance in Albania is so extreme that experts in the field of post-Communism (and post-totalitarianism in general) write about it using phrases like “collective amnesia,” “denial of memory” and “collective dis-memory.”  In the latter case, the connotation is that of out-and-out willful forgetting. Why won’t Albanians acknowledge the elephant sitting in the middle of their collective living room? Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Dredging up painful memories is difficult.
  2. Some people still feel the shame of having been labeled enemies of the people and fear ongoing discrimination.
  3. Some people are embarrassed to have been informants and fear retaliation or other repercussions.
  4. There is no high-level initiative toward truth and reconciliation. As one formerly persecuted person put it, “…as long as those who caused the most harm in that time remain in control of public discourse and deny their responsibility for wrong doing, then the everyday people who feel guilty for their actions cannot easily apologize for the things they did.”
These men are former political prisoners who are not only willing to discuss the past, they want recognition and acknowledgement of their decades in a camp in Tepelene.

It’s true that opening old wounds is difficult, traumatic and complex, but there’s a general consensus among experts that a country cannot heal from widespread human rights violations without some sort of “reckoning” — acknowledgment, dialogue, memorials and/or “places of memory.” Further, scholars in the area of “post-memory” believe that (as with Holocaust survivors and their children), unhealed trauma can be transmitted across generations and affect society as a whole. But, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is such a pervasive aspect of Albanian society that those who study post-trauma countries say that the denial of memory in Albania is among the worst they’ve seen.

#8 – Don’t Tell, Don’t Ask

Information can be hard to come by in Albania…

  • The National History Museum has a website but, as far as I can tell, its operating hours aren’t listed.
  • The National Art Gallery has a website that can be viewed in Albanian or English, but if you don’t know to search using the Albanian name (Galeria Kombëtare e Arteve), you’ll be Googling for a long time.
  • There’s a new tourist attraction in town: Hoxha’s massive, “executive” bunker. Getting there requires a bus trip to the far edge of Tirana but the web site offers no directions, only a map with a dropped pin. In many cities that wouldn’t be a problem, but Tirana’s bus system doesn’t have a route map. (more on this later)
  • Last year, Prime Minister Edi Rama opened an exhibition space and archive, the Center for Openness and Dialogue (COD). Located in the same building as the Prime Minister’s office, the COD was hailed as “a momentous step forward in the…Government of Albania’s initiative to make public institutions and records open and available to citizens” but there’s no signage on the building to indicate that there are exhibits for public viewing inside. If you know the COD exists, you can look up the address and hours on its web site, but the hours are displayed as part of a GIF that blinks on and off, making it difficult to read. Several times, I’ve attempted to go during regular operating hours and each time a young man in a suit standing on the sidewalk in front of the building tells me that the COD is “closed now but will open in a few minutes.” When I ask “how many minutes?” the young man usually just shrugs his shoulders but sometimes hazards a guess — 15 minutes, an hour. Later, I return I find a different young man in a suit who tells me the COD is “closed now but will open later.”
  • It’s can be difficult to get directions in TIrana (or the rest of Albania for that matter) because people don’t know where things are or, if they do know, can’t describe how to get there. (Most Albanians don’t know how to read maps and, in fact, maps were illegal until after the fall of Communism.)
  • IMG_4796Recently I was at an event attended by the Mayor of Tirana. During the mix-and-mingle part of the program I approached him to ask him whether there were plans for a route map for the Tirana city buses. To my surprise, he pulled out his smart phone and showed me “Tirana Ime” (My Tirana), an app with many capabilities including an easy-to-use interactive bus map. I was surprised to learn about the app because I had seen no publicity about it nor any references to it on the City of Tirana web site, (which I visit regularly in the hope of finding a newly posted bus map!). I felt sort of sheepish about the fact that the existence of Tirana Ime had eluded me but then discovered that none of my Albanian co-workers had heard of it either. In addition to the bus map, the app offers Tirana residents the ability to report problems in their neighborhoods, obtain information about city services, find parking lots, check on traffic status, identify bike routes and more (including tourist information). It’s a major advance in a city where information is so hard to come by and citizens are so under-informed yet, ironically, there has been no information campaign to inform residents that the app exists.

#9 – On the Road

IMG_4690Peace Corps volunteers are forbidden from driving cars in their host country. In Albania, that’s both a curse and a blessing: a blessing because most roads in Albania are narrow, in poor condition and — thanks to Albanian drivers (many of whom have purchased their licenses) — dangerous.* It’s a curse because public transportation in Albania is difficult at best and an out-and-out trial at worst.

*Side note for history and/or infrastructure geeks: here are some facts about roads and cars in Albania…

  • During the Communist time, cars were illegal — except for Hoxha and his cronies, of course. Estimates are that the total number of cars in Albania when Communism fell in 1991 was less than 10,000 (in a country of 3 million). As you might expect, a country without cars is pretty much a country with underdeveloped, under-maintained roads.
  • Car ownership was allowed in 1991 and cars began to flood into Albania at the rate of about 1,500/month. At the time, most drivers did not have licenses and, although that system has tightened up considerably, it’s common knowledge that it’s fairly easy to bribe your way to a driver’s license.
  • The road situation in Albania is getting better and better and in recent years many inter-city highways have been built. But, the country is dominantly rural and those roads are much less of a priority. Even in cases where secondary roads have been improved, many are only one or one-and-a-half lanes wide.
  • An article I read a while back said the following: “Infrastructure is a pre-condition for most economic opportunities, a high quality of life, and sustainable patterns of urban development. According to the European Commission, the typical member nation of the European Union has seven times more kilometers of roads per 100.000 residents than Albania and more than three times more rail lines. Moreover, Albania invests only 25% of what is required to maintain current infrastructure.”

There are trains in Albania but the system is limited (less than 300 miles of track) and trains are in serious disrepair. One guidebook to Albania mentions that trains are used predominantly by people who can’t afford bus travel and who don’t mind a slower pace.

Furgons may or may not have seat belts, windows that open, shock absorbers and seats that smell.

That leaves the bus/furgon system — although “systems” is more like it..there is no unified, coordinated inter-city tranport in Albania. Buses are anything from sleek new tour buses with reclining seats, air conditioning and sound systems to old rattle-trap vehicles with filthy seats, no air conditioning and scratched-up windows that don’t open. Furgons are privately owned vans, mini-vans and mini-buses that serve both urban and rural areas and which may or may not be licensed and/or maintained and which may or may not have seat belts, windows that open, shock absorbers and seats that smell.

It’s hard to do justice to the disorganized, borderline chaotic system that is public transportation in Albania because it’s so at odds with what we’re used to in the states. In Tirana, for example, there isn’t a single bus depot. Buses to the north leave from a lot about a mile from the city center, buses to the south from an area about a mile beyond that. But, buses to some other southern and northern areas leave from locations sprinkled more or less in the city center. And, to add some excitement to the mix, buses and furgons to the same city/town may or may not leave from the same location: sometimes, the buses leave from a lot and the furgons are elsewhere — grouped at the side of a road or on a side street. To add even more excitement to the mix, sometimes bus lots are, without warning, moved to other locations.

How do you know which cities/towns are served by which lots? How do you know where the furgons gather? You ask and hope you get the right answer*. Schedules? Buses have them but furgons (mostly) do not. Usually, you get on the furgon with the most people and hope it fills up so that you can leave soon; you also hope pray that 1) it won’t be cancelled for lack of ridership, 2) it won’t be so full that people are standing in the aisles or perched on the edge of your seat, and 3) the person who sits next to you doesn’t smell like raki (moonshine) or worse.

*Peace Corps volunteers in Albania have a communal online spreadsheet where we share information on bus/furgon stations, approximate schedules and fares to/from different city/town combinations; otherwise the information is not readily available.

Crazy furgon stories abound. Because I’m in Tirana and because I usually take buses rather than furgons (mostly because they are less likely to spend large parts of the trip passing other vehicles), my travels have been relatively tame compared to that of other volunteers. I’ve been nauseated but never thrown up — which often happens on trips through the mountains. I’ve also sweltered on summertime trips, sometimes because the windows don’t open and sometimes because other travelers refuse to open them out of fear of catching a cold. But, I’ve never ridden with a drunk furgon driver (that I know of), I’ve never traveled with animals living or dead and, most important, no one has vomited into my lap or onto my legs (yet).

#10 – George Washington Was Albanian?

Version 3No, George Washington was not Albanian, but his mother was — or so it’s said. Actually, George Washington’s mother was not Albanian — it’s an urban legend — but from time to time Americans are asked (or told) that it’s true. I’ve also heard that the ancient Greeks were actually Albanian, as was Alexander the Great. I don’t know enough history to know the validity of these claims….the real point is Albanian pride.

Albanians are a proud people. Are they prouder than other nationalities?  I’m not sure, but I certainly notice it and I think others do as well. Here’s a conversation I had with a group of college students in an American Culture class:

Me: Today we’re going to talk about American values and what it means to be an American. First, though, what does it mean to be an Albanian?

Student #1: We are descended from Illyrians, one of the most ancient cultures.

Student #2: Our language is one of the most unique languages in the world.

Student #3: We have a beautiful flag.

Student #4: Skanderbej is our national hero.

Me: But what does it mean to be an Albanian? You’re telling me about aspects of Albanian culture but I want to know what it means to be an Albanian — what characterizes Albanians?

…Sounds of students thinking…

Student #1: Albanians are proud.

…Sounds of other students nodding…

Me: And what are Albanians proud of?

Student #2: Our flag.

Student #3: Our language….

I think that “to be an Albanian” means simply pride in being Albanian. Albanians have endured and endured for centuries — occupation, poverty, deprivation and repression. Other than Skanderbej and Mother Teresa, there are very few national heroes. Historically — as far as I can tell — there has never been a “full flowering” of Albanian culture. And now, Albania is free but the hardships continue and many Albanians lack hope and are unhappy being here. One book on Albanian history talks about “defensive pride” — the idea that Albanians’ pride is a way of hiding a sense of inferiority. That’s one way to spin it. Another is to say that in a country whose history lacks much in the way of self-determination and material wealth, pride may be all there is.

3 thoughts

  1. After spending with my daughter in her village Vau Dejes in the North this all really helps to understand the full story. And, yes. I did fall. A nasty curb in Shkoder. Oh well. I learned so much, love the country, it’s people, and also the PCV’s I met in my 9 days there in May. And the food is fresh. It is prepared really well. A journey not to be missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Barb — I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet when you were here but I heard about your fall and was thinking of you when I wrote the part about the curbs. They say “forewarned is forearmed” but Albania is full of surprises!


  2. So here’s something I just read – keep in mind the author is Albanian:
    Thucydides classed the Illyrian tribes of the Threspoti area as barbarian, not Hellenic. Alexander the Great’s mother was of the Molossi tribe in Threspoti, making her Illyrian, making Alexander….yup, Albanian!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s