Postcard from Albania, December 2012

Interestingly the change-over in 1991 is described by many as the ‘arrival of democracy’,  but there is little perception of improvements and less of having much say in the way the country is run. And what do they understand by democracy? A question not only for Albania.

Albania is a country of men hanging around street corners, even in the cold of winter.  They can be seen in small towns, in Tirana, on town squares, on street crossings and all over the place in endless cafes.  The country seems to be full of them.  Hotels also have cafes, cafes are all over the streets, and they seem to be heavily attended, almost exclusively by men and throughout the day.  Over my first days in their country I wondered how they could keep in business given their numbers, but they all seem to be crowded most of the time with men sitting over coffees and raki and other drinks,  and many of them smoking their lives away.  There are hardly any women in the cafes, none hanging around the streets, except for a few beggars.  Men also beg, sell phone recharge cards and other bits and pieces, here again more men than women.   Women are working at home, in offices and in small and micro enterprises; they are also found in the markets shopping and selling.  Not many kids about, though lots of playgrounds.

Other than cafes, the place is full of exchange shops, in some places one every 50 m. They are everywhere, no problem changing money, clearly an indicator of a society highly dependent on international migration; it is not the limited tourists who use such a large number of them.  And there are also thousands of banks, endless branches of a fair number of main European and other banks, with a multiplicity of ATMs.  Given the disasters of the pyramid schemes of the late 1990s, one is left wondering how much business they all get.  More than likely the average Albanian with money will spend it, invest it in livestock or something, or keep it under the mattress, seems wiser than trusting that lot after what happened!  I forget the equally numerous gambling facilities of different types:  didn’t check them out but seems to be pinball establishments as well as more ‘upmarket’ casino type places. I dropped a potential eaterie as the restaurant had a number of pinball machines near the tables.  Next in line for frequency are supermarkets, small local ones and a larger local one, typically called Euromax, as well as others like Conad from Italy.  There is also apparently a Carrefour on the outskirts of Tirana, haven’t seen it yet.  And locals also mention pharmacies for impressive frequency; but I noticed that there are also bookshops, which are barely present in many other countries.  It is really nice to see so many bookshops and bookstalls around the place, with major literary authors clearly popular; given zero Albanian, difficult to do much studying of what is available to read.

The Chinese have arrived:  I walked along a street with shop after shop selling Christmas decorations and other cheap goods, such as plastic flowers, kids toys, fancy dress but also plenty of clothes and shoes, electronics and kitchen equipment.  All made in China and even the shops run by Chinese.  In another part of Tirana I saw much the same goods but sold by Albanians.

While in some other Balkan countries, poverty is not obvious, in Albania it hits you in the face.  It is not so much the more or less decrepit apartment blocks from the earlier socialist period, many of which have been repainted in modern patterns so they look a lot less grim.  And it is certainly not the vast avenues and brand new glass office/shopping mall/apartment buildings which are cropping up all over the place.  It is the fact that people are everywhere in ones and twos and small groups, selling their home produced goods, aromatic plants,  a few old/second hand bits and pieces, mostly clothes, wearing fairly worn out gear;  women  are seen knitting on street corners and offering socks and other items, all of local rather rough wool.  If you ever wondered what happens to all the stuff we hand out to charity shops and others, you will find much of it here sold in the streets, on the ground, but also in shops, some of them fairly neat and well organised, and everything is there: clothes, shoes, scarves etc... it seems that there are more second hand than new clothes shops, at least in the bits of Tirana and other towns I have visited.  Near the markets there are plenty of people sitting on boxes and selling a few vegetables and fruit, dried herbs and more knitted goods.  The general atmosphere is also poor, with vacant spaces and pavements turned into selling sites. 

Home made or micro artisanal produce play a major part in local trade: honey, preserves, various nuts, cheese, endless varieties of wine etc. are all sold in open markets, shops etc where they arrive in bulk from small producers, a few of them labelled, but mostly without.  Shops are clearly regional with meat shops advertising their area of origin, and presumably that of their meat. 

Although about 70% of the population are said to be Muslim (religion was not a question in the census), Christmas seems to be prominently celebrated.  When I ask, people say that all the trees, Christmas decorations, father Christmases, lit up reindeers etc... are for New Year!  But trees have Happy Christmas banners, and have all the usual multicoloured and mostly red balls and other decorations.  They are everywhere, in shops, hotels, even in the squares and streets of villages and towns.  All lit up at night, and there is a series of big lit up decorations across the main avenue in Tirana, with some kind of Xmas-related abstract decorative pattern. A set of light chain umbrellas and gift boxes were being installed above the avenue near my current hotel. The main square is now completely lit up at night with all trees with garlands of lights and a vast Christmas tree; it is really all quite cheerful, probably badly needed given the poverty. While my guide books talks of frequent power cuts, they haven’t been too bad but then again, it all depends on your standards!

Difficult to estimate the role of religion. As a former officially atheist state, initial impression is of limited religiosity, though clearly all kinds of funding has been invested in large mosques and churches throughout the country and there are plenty of both - almost all brand new as they were destroyed during the earlier period.  Some of them make one wonder: Shkodra which is the northernmost city, said to be the main centre of Catholicism, has a massive brand new mosque in the centre of town (allegedly financed by the Saudis).  Most places have a variety of religious buildings, are they frequented?  Limited experience suggests that there are a lot of mixed marriages and other relationships and that religion does not play a divisive role; just hope that this is really the case, given what happened in neighbouring former Yugoslavia.

Rural sceneries are beautiful, particularly with the early snow on the tops of mountains and hills.  Rivers flowing green and blue, trees still with  a few autumn leaves in yellow and brown, as well as the darker green pines,  fields with the early shoots of winter wheat.  Loads of sheep and goats roaming around, with bells and nice mountain sounds, and a few cattle.  In remoter areas horses and donkeys still much used for human transport and people bring back their market shopping on horseback. All over the place a fair number of derelict buildings and ruins of the former socialist period,  mostly long hangars which were presumably livestock farms or processing plants.  Some have been privatised and bought up by their former workers and continue to operate as small enterprises;  other derelict buildings have been bought by people starting new businesses. But the majority remain, gradually falling apart and visible from long distances.  Most were built of good stone and it is a wonder that they have not been taken apart to build new houses.  Generally they are far less of a blot on the landscape than in some other countries, basically due to the construction materials, but they are a daily reminder of an earlier era.

Is it missed?  Difficult to tell.  Certainly the way some people speak suggests that they miss some of it at least.  Interestingly the change-over in 1991 is described by many as the ‘arrival of democracy’,  but there is little perception of improvements and less of having much say in the way the country is run. And what do they understand by democracy? A question not only for Albania.

Managed to experience sun and snow on two consecutive days, walking in fairly heavy snowfall through foot deep snow to get to a remote farm as our car didn’t have chains, essential to get through on such tracks, and the next day watching the absolutely superb views on the Shkodra lake in the winter sun.

Roads are a mix of collapsing old roads with endless potholes, many of them former asphalted roads which are now little more than a series of holes, and newly built roads, including dual carriage ways and other bits still under construction.  For the new arrival, travelling through the country involves shifting from one extreme to the other somewhat unpredictably.  Though obviously as progress is made with building, things are gradually improving.

For a country of just over 3 million people, we have 4 mobile phone networks! I wonder how they make any money, leader is Vodafone! Then others whose names do not clearly indicate to me where they come from; Eagle may be local given the prominence of eagles everywhere in Albania, including the national flag.

Albanian flags are everywhere, particularly in this year when they are celebrating 100 years of independence, perhaps a way of reconciling people to 100 years of pretty turbulent history.  The place is also plastered with EU and US flags, in houses, bars, and even in the streets.  Presumably reflecting the ambition to join the EU, which is not making massive progress though still seems to be perceived as a good thing by many.  Some pre-accession funds are arriving, mostly to bring various agricultural produce to EU standards.  There is a long way to go....  Why the US flag is all over the place is not something I have managed to work out during this short trip.  

Finally, regardless of the place’s reputation of bad governance, corruption and a strong mafia, to a short-term visitor the most striking aspect is how friendly people are, how helpful and the pleasant atmosphere, even when one is unable to utter the most basic sentences in Albanian.

About the author

Seera Marston is a freelance researcher and development consultant