Albania,between two worlds

I arrived at the ferry terminal in Corfu Tuesday morning to catch the hydrofoil to Albania. This was my second visit since 1996,when Albania was recovering from forty years of a tolitarian communist regime. At that time there were four passengers, including myself,making the journey.This time there were tour groups,American missionaries,independent travelers and returning Albanians who had been lucky enough to immigrate to richer countries and were making their yearly visit to see family. The Greek official supervising the passport control,let the tour groups enter ahead of the independent travelers which proceeded to ignite a fight between a young Albanian with British passport,accusing the official of ignoring the people who had been waiting much longer. After threats and shouting, we finally got through passport control. The Greeks hate the Albanians,treating them with disdain and accuse them of every crime that will or did happen. Most of the Albanians I have met in or outside of Albania,have no kind words for the Greeks. But out of necessity the Albanians work for the Greeks and the Greeks use them as cheap labor.

As I got off the hydrofoil,it was obvious that Saranda was no longer full of socialist styled grey buildings but had been transformed into tacky neo-Italian style hotels and cafes. Reading about the glorious white beaches on the Albanian coast,I was hoping to spend a day in this paradise. Thanks to a friendly Albanian Brit,I connected with an English couple that had made reservations at a supposedly luxurious hotel on the beach below the village of Dhermiu. We agreed on fifty five euros for the two hour journey along the winding coast road,high up above the green sea. Leilani and Nick had booked the Drymades hotel online,choosing the the deluxe accommodation. The taxi driver took us to the sister hotel in the town and a tall,emaciated guy emerged from this extremely ugly green building,informing us we needed another taxi to drive down to the beach.

There was basically a rocky dirt road that only broken down Mercedes would subject their cars to. There had been a phenomenon back in the nineties in Albania,a huge black market in stolen Mercedes sedans from all over Europe. First driven by the Albanian mafia,they had been handed down to the poor village residents for as long as they could keep them running. Like most recycled cars all over the world,the back windows were permanently open or closed,missing handles and the speedometers were broken. We made it down to the beach to discover we were the only guests in the hotel.

Our Albanian host Alban had abandoned harvesting his olive trees to open the hotel and restaurant for us. A deserted beach covered by clouds and an empty hotel with cement walled rooms,did not lend itself to a glorious day at the beach. But toward sunset rays of sunlight emerged from the clouds and the beach filled with rose colored light. With luck,Leilani,Nick and I became fast friends,all of us being world travelers,open to whatever happened. I left them at the beach the next morning,catching the bus to the town of Durres,four hours north on the Albanian coast. There was no one on the bus who spoke any language except Albanian so when I finally woke up,I realized we had passed Durres. Waving my hands and yelling Durresi,the driver stopped the bus as well as a bus going in the opposite direction. All traffic came to a standstill as I ran across the road to board the bus taking me back to Durres. I was dropped somewhere on the outskirts of town,again trying to communicate with blank faces. Jumping on a local bus,I searched the passengers for young adolescents that usually watch Italian television. Two young girls with their mother got on the crowded bus and moved over near my seat. She spoke English, having studied with the American missionaries I had just met on the boat from Corfu.

Unfortunately there was nothing unique or special about Durres. The beaches are not inviting and the water is polluted. It was second rate copy of an Italian port town. On the positive side,most of the youth speak Italian thanks to access to Italian television.The Italians have transferred alot of their manufacturing from Italy to Albania,again because of cheap labor. Asking for directions in Tirana,I met an educated thirty two year old Albanian woman who worked for an Italian shoe company. She told me that most Italian shoes are no longer made in Italy. Unfortunately the Italians do not sell their shoes in Albania. Most of the women wear spiked heels and pointed toe shoes,styles I have not seen since the fifties in the U.S. Yesterday on the bus in Tirana,I had several women admiring my rubber souled Keen loafers and sadly pointing to their own uncomfortable shoes. This possibly could be a great business opportunity for an adventurous investor who wanted to relocate to Albania. I am still exploring the country,talking to whoever will answer my questions and making my list of contradictions. to be continued.

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