Category Archives: albania

Name that Albanian

You may know the late John Belushi for his iconic role in Animal House.  You may also know his actor brother, Jim Belushi , and of course Regis Philbin, TV personality.  All are of Albanian descent.  But the most famous Albanian of them all was Mother Teresa.  Actually she was born in Macedonia, but at the time (1912) Macedonia was controlled by the Ottoman Empire and was administered by them as Greater Albania.  That’s enough for modern day Albanians to claim her as their own…and name streets and squares after her, erect statues, and hang giant posters.  I occasionally see elderly women with white head scarves, a la Mother Teresa.   They are very proud of her.

They are less proud of their Gypsy (Roma) population.  Albania is poor by European standards, but not by world standards.  The only people I ever see begging are Roma mothers, sitting on a busy sidewalk with young children draped over them.  It appears to me that such begging is more a lifestyle choice, that a poverty-induced requirement.  Young Roma boys hang around crowded streets in the evening.  As a car begins to back into a parallel parking space, a boy will make a show of directing the driver into the space…then stand near the driver’s door until the driver emerges and hands over a few coins for a service he didn’t ask for and didn’t need.  But wise just to part with the coins anyway.  This disenfranchised population – – and not just in Albania, but in many European countries – – needs to be integrated into society, but no one knows just how.

I have finished my footwear factory tour, taking in eight factories around the country.  Shoe factories are a big deal here, they employ 100,000 people – – a lot in a small country, and they account for 18% of GDP, again a big number.  Such factories provide needed employment and especially for women.  Few men work in the factories, perhaps because of tasks that are required – – cutting, stitching, sewing – – are traditionally viewed as women’s work.  And Albania, especially rural Albania where many of the factories are located, is very traditional.  Factories adjust their schedules so that their mostly female workforce can leave work in mid afternoon, shop for groceries, then arrive home in time to put a hot meal on the table for hubby.  Factories never run a second shift because that would require their female workers to be at work in the evening leaving father and children to fend for themselves.

Tirana is a mix of old and the new.  Old means decrepit, crumbling buildings from the communist era.  New means bright, shiny new buildings.  But not everyone can afford a bright shiny new building, so they do the next best thing: they paint over the old crumbling buildings.  And they paint with the loudest, gaudiest, most clashing colors available.  It is a visual treat to walk around town comparing the old, the new, and the painted-over.  Check out my newest photos.

I have had a very heavy work schedule here.  For most of my assignment I have been going 60 mph with my hair on fire.  Consequently, I decided that I deserved a break so I found a place to get a one hour massage at the relatively affordable price of $36.  By luck of the draw I ended up with a Philappina woman.  She was an excellent masseuse.  At least until she jumped up onto the massage table with me, then jammed her hands and knees into my lower back, balancing there as her bony joints dug into me.   In order to mask the sound of my spine rupturing, I began a conversation that I often use with foreigners.  “Are there any good Philippino restaurants in Tirana?”  (I knew there weren’t.)

A few days later I found myself at a birthday party in a private apartment with fifteen Philippinos – – one guy, fourteen women, and me, eating the finest Philippino food in all of Albania.  Based on the food alone, I think I’d like to work in the Philippines next.  And since my Albanian adventure ends tomorrow, who knows what will be next?  Stay tuned.

The Family Bunker

You can’t tell by looking, but Albania is a predominantly Muslim country. (70% Muslim, 20% Orthodox Christian, 10% Catholic.) As in many Muslim countries, men wear no distinctive clothing that provides a clue to the individual’s religion.  However, in most places the dress of the women is a clear give away.  But not here.  Young women of all religions wear tight revealing clothing, sort of like in Italy, but not quite to that extreme.  Pork appears on most every restaurant menu, as do alcoholic beverages.  Night clubs and bars pulsate.  I have yet to see a veiled woman and the number of headscarves I have seen can be tallied on one hand.  White domed mosques paired with graceful minarets are scattered about…but I don’t see too many people going to them.

For over a decade in the midst of Dictator Enver Hoxha’s autocratic rule, Albania went through a period of forced atheism.  Religious practice was absolutely forbidden.  Perhaps that is why even today Muslim is more of a heritage or cultural artifact than a rigid guide to living one’s life.  I suspect Albanian Christianity is likewise.

The cuisine here is not world class, but it is pretty good.  Traditional Balkan food includes lots of grilled meats, varieties of feta cheese, and plentiful fruits and vegetables.  In Adriatic-hugging Albania one can find a fine selection of fresh fish as well.  Due to Albania’s Mediterranean climate – – we are on the same latitude as Italy’s heel – – at this time of year the open markets brim with oranges, tangerines, pomegranates, kiwis.  And just climb one thousand feet in altitude and one finds more temperate fruit: apples and pears.  So, while I pretty much avoid the heavy meat portion of the menu, I can find much that appeals to my palate.  Including, of course, many Italian-inspired pasta dishes. The Italians were good enough to bring their food with them during their many occupations of neighboring Albania.  Augustus Caesar was here (but rushed home upon news of Julius’ assassination on the Ides of March.)  Mussolini sent his fascist troops as well.  Fortunately, today big Italy and little Albania are good friends.

The Italians were not the only invaders, we can include the Germans, the Greeks, the Bulgarians, and especially Turkey and its Ottoman Empire.  They controlled the country for 500 years leading up to World War I.   All these invasions could bring on paranoia – – who is coming next?  Well, Enver Hoxha, a master of paranoia, wanted to make sure that the next invaders were properly greeted.  Consequently he ordered 700,000 steel and concrete bunkers built.  This is 700,000 bunkers in a country of just 3.6 million people.  Safe to say that most ever family had one. These one-person bunkers were, and still are, scattered all over the country, but especially along anticipated invasion routes.   I have seen them on every trip I have taken outside of Tirana.

They are a solid round shell, about five feet in diameter.  Perhaps four feet is buried in the earth, the top foot or so, along with a small slit window, pokes above ground.  Every able bodied man was expected to collect a rifle and retire to his bunker when the invasion came.  Well, the invasion never came.  Hoxha passed away, communism collapsed, but 700,000 bunkers remained.  Unfortunately they are too small to turn into anything useful, like a disco or a snack bar, unless you like dancing and dining alone – – or much of anything else for that matter.  So they remain, like large concrete mushrooms poking through the earth, to remind Albanians and tourists of a confusing time in the middle of the 20th century.

My hotel stands on the edge of an area in downtown Tirana called “The Block.”  During Hoxha’s rule (we just can’t seem to get away from his legacy) The Block was a closed zone, closed to everyday people.  Only ranking communist officials could enter the area.  Their homes were here, as were shops that carried items the rest of the population could not get.  Today the block is the most happening area of Tirana.  It is packed with restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, and offices.  My office is here.   The area is lively from early in the morning to well past my bedtime.  After a busy day at work, I stroll around The Block, to pick out my restaurant.  I can always find a good menu that won’t set me back more that $10 – $15 max.

And now, back to Hoxha:  During his time private ownership of cars was not allowed; private business was forbidden.  Even such basic services as barber shops, cafes, shoe shines were all government run.  And not surprisingly, inefficiently run.

One of my Albania work colleagues grew up in the 1970s – – right in the middle of the communist era.  She told me that furniture factories turned out one style, and only one style, of each item.  Consequently, her family owned the same coffee table, the same sofa, and so on, as every one of their neighbors.  If by mistake, she stumbled into a friend’s home, she might not initially realize she was in the wrong place.  Presumably the friend’s mother looked different than her own mother.  If someone lucked out and was able to purchase a TV, all the neighbors would show up with boxes of chocolates to offer their congratulations…and also, I suppose, to jockey for an invitation to watch TV.  But they didn’t get “All in the Family.”  Hoxha wouldn’t allow that.

007… and 1/2

Albania is small, about the size of Maryland; with a population of 3.6 million, similar to metro Seattle.  And poor: ranks 42 of 47 countries in Europe in GDP per capita.  I am here for the month of October to help Albania – – or at least its footwear industry – – become just a little bit wealthier.  I am working on a USAID-funded project to bring modern sales and marketing tools to Albania’s inward looking footwear manufacturers.

Albania is in the western Balkans, north of Greece, south of Montenegro, west of Kosovo and Macedonia, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.  In fact, if Italy cocked its boot back any farther, its heel would thump Albania in the stomach.

I arrived on Tuesday to find a hybrid country.  At first blush, Tirana (the capital) looks much like the rest of Europe: modern steel and glass office buildings, up to date malls, vibrant cafes and restaurants, traffic jams.  But looking deeper I saw the signs of a still emerging economy: haphazardly strung electrical wires, cigarettes, gum, shoe shines sold by sidewalk vendors, open markets with piles of second hand shoes and clothing for sale, also used hand tools and cell phone chargers.  Hubcaps sold streetside.  There are plenty of local fresh fruits and vegetables in the markets, but also unrefrigerated butchered meat on display and homemade cooking oil sold in recycled plastic bottles of varying sizes.  And still crumbling, communist-era concrete block buildings. So Albania is clearly a mixed bag.

The country (and its industry) is still emerging from a half century of gross mismanagement by Enver Hoxha, Albania’s late paranoid communist dictator.  In fact following World War II until the early 1990s, Albania was Europe’s version of North Korea.

I am based in the capital, Tirana, but will take several trips to provincial towns elsewhere in the country where shoe factories are found.  In my first week I traveled to Shkodra in the far north near the border with the aforementioned, Montenegro – – a country so new (2006) some of you might not even know it exists.  I have already visited four shoe factories, and as an added bonus, one underwear factory.  I think my hosts threw that in because they heard I liked underwear.

I am working in an office headed by an American, but staffed with 13 Albanians…all of whom speak remarkably good English.  I speak remarkably little Albanian.  The language forms its own branch on the Indo-European language tree.  This means it is distantly related to English, Spanish, Russian, Farsi, but has no close cousins (like Spanish and Italian.)  One of the first things a student looks for in a new language is cognates, words that are recognizable from language to language.

I discovered some cognates on the menu during my first restaurant meal:  okotpod = octopus, birre = beer.  Other words were a bit more difficult to recognize: xaxiq = sour cream with cucumber, berxolle gici = Piggy chop. (Sounds too cuddly to eat.) One item was translated as “white cheese with aluminum.”  (Eat your trace minerals, children.)  The Republic of Albania is a partial cognate, Republika e Shqiperise.  The Albanian part, the non-cognate, is also totally unpronounceable.

Saturday was my first day off.  I walked around Tirana for a while to get the lay of the land and then took a taxi (seldom more than $5 anywhere in town) to the cable car on the outskirts of the city.  There I was whisked a thousand or so feet upward, high on the flank of Mount Dajti, spectacularly overlooking Tirana and its plain, then further west 30 miles  to the Adriatic.  I decided to hike to the actual mountain peak, nearly two hours above, to take in the scenery and to get some exercise.  I had had no exercise the previous two days, unless one counts watching shoes move along the assembly line.

I hiked uphill for two hours through what I thought was a national park…except that I saw no other hikers during the entire time. This seemed strange for a national park near a city of 700,000 to draw no hikers.  I began to realize I was not in the national park when the two rifle toting soldiers approached me.  An animated conversation in Albanian broke out.  They were animated and they spoke Albanian.  I mostly stood there dumbfounded, occasionally offering my two best Albanian phrases: “I don’t speak Albanian” and “Sorry.”

I gathered that I had been hiking in a restricted military area and the guards weren’t too keen on this.  However, eventually we became friends and they pointed me in the most direct way out and back to the cable car.  I wanted to take photos of them but thought it not wise to push my luck at this point.  But, they did have handsome uniforms.

On my way back to town I realized that I would actually make a very good secret agent with the ability to infiltrate restricted zones and then bluff my way past guards.  I have seen James Bond do this several times.  So maybe on my next gig…