I’m in downtown Tirana. My 7th floor room has a fridge, desk, three chairs and a wardrobe. There’s also an electric kettle, which is useful not just for hot beverages, but instant noodles and soups. Heat is love.
My private bathroom is clean and new, with plenty of hot water, and strong shower jets. My wide window affords a panorama of tenements backstopped by a mountain range. Each dawn, a soft, considerate sun rises, cheering my prospect. On my wall, there’s a nice kitschy painting of snow-capped, craggy peaks.
For all these privileges, I pay just $427 for four weeks.
Although my landlady speaks no English, there’s no problem. Tiny, pleasant and hushed, she’s in the next room. Walking by her door, I can barely hear her television murmuring, if she’s there. In her 60’s, she’s as scatterbrained as me.
When I paid her at check in, she looked perplexed, before remembering she had left her money purse under my mattress. Fishing it out, she giggled at her own battiness. Still amused at herself, the old bird handed me my change in leks.
With suppressed excitement slightly tinged with dread, I should lift the mattress to see what else she has forgotten? There’s liable to be anything, from a broken comb, to tangled hair, to a mummified mermaid. In Egypt, where I was just at, you can book a fully furnished apartment, wink, wink, and get your musty cellar hosed out by the en suite maid.
Leaving Cairo was more eventful than necessary. An airport employee asked repeatedly for a tip just for lifting my backpack and duffle bag onto the luggage scanner, although I had told him specifically not to, for who needs such a service? Although it was only a minor shakedown, I didn’t pay him.
Two security guys then spent five minutes examining my three hard-drives, with one demanding I checked them in. After I firmly balked at this, he backed of.
At passport control, an officer steered me to another who said I had to pay $23 for overstaying my visa. After I explained that Egyptian laws allowed visitors to overstay for up to two weeks without being fined, both officers cracked up and promptly let me through. Guffawing along, I merely blurted, “I loved Egypt so much, I had to stay another week!”
Don’t get me wrong. Ordinary Egyptians were fine. On subways, strangers would offer me their seats, since they couldn’t stand to see such a white-haired guy standing with his eyes shut. (I often close them to focus or just rest.) Cairo’s streets invigorated me, and its architecture is second to none, though awfully decayed, as I’ve already stated.
What’s wrong with Egypt, above all, is its government. As established by Nasser, it is a police state dominated by the military, with socialist policies that have wrecked its economy.
Since Nasser gave the poor free bread, free land and practically free rent, he was hugely popular among them, but by chasing out the enterprising class, Nasser destroyed Egypt’s development.
Promising a job to every college graduate, Nasser created a huge bureaucracy of state employees who did almost nothing. His universal welfare triggered a huge population explosion, so now, there are over 100 million Egyptians on a land meant for a fraction of that.
Nasser’s revolutionary zeal also led him to intervene in Yemen, a catastrophe that drained his treasury and weakened his army, but the great, charismatic man with plenty of bon mots couldn’t see this, obviously, for he kept on threatening Israel most bombastically. Only a spectacularly humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War could puncture Nasser’s hubris.
Arriving in Cairo just before New Year, I noticed many armed soldiers, and even armored vehicles, around Tahrir Square. This was a preventive measure against crowd disturbance or terrorism during the holiday, I thought, but the military never left. It’s there, 24/7, primarily to prevent fresh protests against the government.
A clerk at my hotel was jailed for a month just for snapping photos of a protest, but luckily, he wasn’t abused while locked up, a too common practice there.
Twice, I was accosted by armed cops, one with an assault rifle, for merely taking photos of Coptic churches. Outside Faisal Metro Station, an un-uniformed cop grabbed my camera after I had snapped some funky food stand. He then forced me to follow him inside to see his supervisor. In Alexandria, an angry cop told me to stop photographing a tenement.
Seeing a smiling Sisi often, I couldn’t help but photograph his face at butcher stalls, a laundry service, draped on a hotel, inside a subway station, over a café, another café, a snack and soft drink stand, at a machine part dealer, a coffee and tea store, clothing store, behind a vegetable stand, by a garage, stuck to a tenement, on the side of a truck, outside a spice shop, paired with the Sphinx, saluting himself, and here shaking hands with the always clueless Pope Francis.
Sometimes, though, Sisi’s face would be slashed, but listen, man, I wasn’t dumb enough to post such an image while still in Egypt.
If you see your great leader everywhere, most likely your country’s at war, either against an outside foe or, much worse, against you! In any case, it is tremendously ironic that Nasser, the great Arab leader, was inspired by a Jew, Marx, and used Jewish tactics to cripple his Arab nation.
With its demonization, dispossession and even roundup of entire categories of people, socialism is quintessentially Old Testament, thus Jewish, with its vengeful us vs. them dichotomy. Many people are drawn to this, however, for they think their enemies will be liquidated en masse, but socialism/communism will also shove these silly naïfs down the bloody chute.
Unlike Yahweh, Jesus only spoke of individual culpability and never demanded collective punishment, much less genocide, like the Jewish god.
Few nations suffered as much under Communism as Albania, and its 47-year-long nightmare only ended in 1992. Arriving by sea shortly afterwards, Paul Theroux was swarmed and snatched at by a howling mob, “Third World, I thought, but it was the only Third World scene I had ever witnessed that was entirely populated by Europeans—the most dissolute and desperate and poverty-stricken and rapacious, lunging at me, following just behind me, demanding money.”
Living in Italy during 2002-04, I encountered my first Albanians. There, they had a reputation for organized crime, but that’s common for any poor recent immigrant group, anywhere. In my village of Certaldo, they only stood out occasionally by squatting, which lent them a vaguely Oriental aura.
Last year in North Macedonia, I saw many more Albanians, but since there’s a turf war there between nominally Muslim Albanians and the majority Christian Slavs, they’re not spoken of too highly. Any population, though, is only fully itself on its home turf, so to really see Albanians, one must come to Albania.
On the packed plane from Athens, I had to be the only foreigner, for I didn’t hear any other language spoken at the gate, on the apron bus or the plane itself. Right away, I could tell Albanians couldn’t have been too Muslim, for no woman had her hair covered, a stark contrast to Egypt.
Athens’ airport was very elegant and well-organized, by the way, though my impression was perhaps boosted by a lovely Aegean Airlines employee who somehow thought I was an actor. Doing some kung fu kicks and punches, she gushed, “You’ve never been asked that? You look so strong!” Flabbergasted, I could only laugh it off, “Uh, I look homeless.”
Tirana’s airport was much more modest, but still user-friendly, with courteous, efficient employees, so just like that, I was in a taxi heading into town, with the correct fare quickly agreed upon.
All the tenements and shops outside seemed reasonably neat, but as we entered Tirana, a few beggars appeared. One man pushed a baby carriage in the dark between cars. Hobbling along, another was on crutches with a deformed leg. After we exited the highway, however, there were no more beggars among the bright shops.
In the taxi, the driver had the radio on, and listening to the news, I could pick out individual words, at least, if not understand them. Wandering the streets the next morning, I could identify so many cognates, such as avokat, bileta, avioni, makina, sigurimi, penale, shkolla, ore, pule, shnicel, proshute, revista, libraria, argjendari, pantallona and bluza, etc., that Albania instantly became familiar in ways that Egypt, South Korea or Laos, say, could not.
Though quarantined for more than four decades, Albania never left Europe, so as one who studied French from kindergarten, lived for 3 ½ years on this continent and writes primarily in English, of course I should feel an immediate affinity for this society. Plus, its agony under Communism echoes that of my native Vietnam.
Albanians seem relaxed. Even when in packs, young men don’t appear aggressive. Neither swaggering nor smirking, they don’t need to convince you they’re gangstas, ready to kick your ass.
There’s almost no littering. On such clean sidewalks, I refrain from tossing even a toothpick. There are also fewer graffiti here than in any Western city I’ve visited. In Germany, they mar just about every building. (In South Korea, graffiti are most noticeable around American military bases, as sprayed by Yankee soldiers.)
Cafes and bakeries are open at 7AM. Restaurant service is fast and courteous. No one is slovenly. Buses are new.
When I can’t understand a middle-aged barista, a young lady at the next table promptly translates for me, in perfect English, so we talk a bit.
It’s just before 8AM, and she’s about to go to her German class, for in September, she’ll emigrate to Frankfurt, where she has a brother.
“That’s exciting, no?”
Smiling, she merely shrugs.
Of course, it’s exciting, though scary also. To assimilate into any culture is always a drawn out, challenging process, requiring tremendous will power, so keep that in mind when it’s your turn to dive from a burning, listing and sinking ship.
At this point, though, it’s far from clear which vessel is sailing more smoothly, the German or Albanian one, but should her life turn sour overseas, she can always come back to tranquil yet bustling Tirana.
In nearly five months in South Korea, I never had such a spontaneous conversation, but that peninsula is not called The Hermit Kingdom for nothing. Albanians are more open. To be fair, though, they’re also more comfortable with English.
All the English I’ve seen on Albanian signs and menus are free of misspellings or grammatical errors. Unlike in Cairo, there’s no “QUALITY MEET” advertised at a butcher shop.
Speaking of which, “Mishit Hallall” is often seen here, so it’s still a Muslim country, though you wouldn’t know it from how people are dressed. As the westernmost reach of the Ottoman Empire, and the whitest country in Dar al-Islam, Albania is an anomaly, but if you go back far enough, Christianity was also an alien import. No God is intrinsic to anywhere.
On Rruga Ibrahim Rugova, I paused to check out used books for sale on the sidewalk. Among the titles were Stefan Zweig’s meditations on Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, Henryk Sienkiewicz’ Adolescents, Balzac’s Père Goriot and, naturally, several volumes by Ismail Kadare. Granted, there was also garbage, like Ulli Weiss’ book on Sylvester Stallone, but trash is a given in any culture. You must judge what rises above it, if anything.
Also browsing books was a young man who turned out to be a popular travel vlogger, as I would find out after we had sat down at a nearby café, at my suggestion.
It’s very difficult to travel with an Albanian passport, Juli said. “You practically have to beg during the interview at an embassy.”
Despite this, Juli has gone as far as Indonesia and Malaysia. Arriving in Kuala Lumpur as Covid erupted, he was immediately quarantined inside his hostel, so he saw almost nothing of that idyllic nation.
After citizens from more prestigious countries like the US, UK and France had been evacuated, Juli was still stuck at this hostel with people from Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Syria and South Sudan. He laughed at this dreadful memory.
The more we talked, the more impressed I was by his fluent, rapid and accent-free English, all self-taught, but this 28-year-old is clearly very gifted linguistically. In Italy for two months, he could converse in Italian, “I had to. I had no English then.” In Poland for three months, he was chattering in Polish, and he also speaks Greek. (I have an Italian friend, Niccolo, now living in Japan, who’s also mind blowingly multilingual.)
Featured on television, Juli is often recognized by strangers on the street, and he’s constantly invited by Albanians, from all over, to stay with them.
Like me, he’s fascinated by the quotidian. In a YouTube video, Juli interviews an Albanian couple living in Istanbul. With his phone camera, he records every square foot of their modest apartment. Such stuff is life made of, so if you’re sick of the ordinary, you’re sick of life.
Traveling during Covid is stressful, to say the least, because you don’t know if rules will change after you’ve booked your ticket and made lodging accommodations. Right now, there are only seven countries with no Covid-related entry restrictions or quarantine, and three of them, Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia, are clustered in the Balkans.
I came to Albania because Americans are allowed to stay here for a year without a residency permit. To add another year, I just need to go next door to North Macedonia, then return after 90 days. Such planning may sound extreme, paranoid even, but we’re living through extreme uncertainty.
Totalitarianism conjures up images of jackboots and gulags, but its two core features, affecting all, are the removals of free speech and free movement, and both are happening, with frightening speed, in the supposedly freest countries!
With absurd rules at airports and no-fly list, Americans have been conditioned, for many years now, to accept traveling as not a right, but a privilege granted by the state. Now, suddenly, they are told they can’t even leave their house, for weeks on end. Even Enver Hoxha never tried this stunt.
Hoxha didn’t have internet porn to somewhat pacify his captive population, though. Already addicted to the virtual, why shouldn’t you spend all your time inside, masturbating? Brain and stomach empty, you can still leak what’s left of your soul.
As I’ve discovered this past year traveling through South Korea, Serbia, North Macedonia, Lebanon, Egypt and now Albania, lockdowns aren’t necessary to combat this way overblown Covid. In each of these countries, I walked daily through crowded streets, ate in restaurants and relaxed in cafes or bars, without a mask, of course, or any social distancing. Within touching distance of my kind, I happily ate and drank.
As I laughed and bantered with some Egyptian good old boys in Cairo’s Horreya [Liberty] Bar last week, I couldn’t help but think how preposterous it was that taverns were fully open in Islamic, restrictive Cairo, while they stayed closed in freewheeling Amsterdam, London, Manhattan and Dublin, etc.
On airplanes, too, we’re repeatedly warned to keep our masks on, but when meal is served, everyone removes his and happily eats right next to his seatmates, yet no one dies from such reckless exposure!
Clearly, there’s a sinister agenda at play, and you’re the hapless toy, so escape while you can, before all your borders are slammed shut, as has happened in every totalitarian state. Hesitation may be fatal.
Of course, you can also stay and fight, if there’s any fight left in you, but it will take an army, and what will you be fighting for?
Drinking my third beer, I’m in a pool hall in the afternoon. Young and old men drop in for a quick game or two. A boy whose elbows can barely reach over the table is also shooting, and he’s not bad. Elvis, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe are depicted on its sign outside, lending an exotic glamor to this modest establishment.
On a wall is a Route 66 sign, representing, obviously, the open road and American freedom, still so sexy.
Little do they know.