The first time I explored Albania was in the fall of 1996. The country had not changed much from the previous forty years under Enver Hoxha,the tyrannical dictator that had closed Albania to the outside world. It was definitely a depressing week I spent traveling around alone but the one positive memory was how hospitable the people were. Their hotels were communist era design and the food was just as bad. The buses were as old as the regime had been,without reliable bus schedules, so I had to hire private cars to drive me from town to town. I remember meeting a high school student in the town of Berati, who spoke excellent Italian because he had been watching Italian television all his life. He took me home to meet his parents and they insisted I come back for dinner that night. I remember when he came to pick me up at a cafe near my hotel, he was very concerned that I had been talking with some men who were known to be in the Mafia. Another memorable moment was when my taxi driver spoke only Albanian so I suggested to the receptionist at my hotel that we take his ten year old daughter out of school to be the translator. She spoke fluent Italian, again an avid Italian television fan.
Albania today has witnessed many changes,especially in the urban areas. The town of Vlora,one of the seaports on the Adriatic coast,has built endless rows of hotels and apartments,in candycane colors,the design best described as Italian kitch. In its previous life in the early nineties,it was the main smuggling port for Mercedes and immigrants,as well as the center of the pyramid scheme in 1997. In Tirana,the capital,the architecture is less offensive in some areas.. There are some beautiful boulevards and parks built by the communists. There is also an abundance of gourmet food, Italian coffee and cafe bars without end. The former communist party elite neighborhood,Blloku, has become the new trendy area of town,unfortunately denegrating Italian interior design to tacky and tastless. The young Albanians spend all of their free time sitting in cafes,drinking coffee and smoking. A friend in Sarajevo recently joked about the youth in the Balkan countries. They have worked so hard, they have retired early. The truth is there are no jobs so the mystery of where their money comes from is still unsolved. A habit hard to break in most of Eastern Europe is smoking.There is an ashtray next to every computer in most internet cafes and smoke greats you at the door in most restaurants. I am always reminded of the joke about smoking in Russia. At the entrance to a restaurant in Moscow,the host asks,do you want the smoking section or heavy smoking section.
A positive advance in Albania today has been in the public transport area. . The country has an excellent bus service to most areas of the country and lots of new hotels which make you wonder if you are still in Albania.
As modern advances appear, people become less hospitable. No one has invited me for dinner or even talked to me in the street. I tried to chat up some teenagers waiting for a bus,curious about how life was for them and their families. They were unfriendly and a bit arrogant and told me to mind my business.Getting the hint, I turned away,waiting in silence for the mini bus to Kruja. This town was described in my guide bookË..as a magnificent day trip from Tirana,also includling a photo of a majestic castle on a mountain. The town I found was crowded with old communist era housing and brand new apartment buildings squeezed together on a partially barren hillside,strewn with garbage. As I walked up the hill toward the castle,asking directions,I met an Albanian man who taught English in high school. I am getting the impression that the Albanian youth have become arrogant and rude since my last visit twelve years ago. I had an interaction with some boys waiting for the bus. Good observation,he answered. We are having a problem now with attitude in the schools. He said he had two young sons and promised he would raise them to be polite. As I walked up the hill,the path to the castle was lined with tourist shops all selling the same ethnic jewelry and clothes. Even the castle courtyard was a bazaar.I have no idea how they shot the photo in my guide book because it had no relationship to the place I had visited. Back in Tirana,I walked through the city along the wide boulevards,wondering how it would be to live here full time. Hopefully, I will never know the answer.