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Albania Then & Now

Modern Italy has always looked west with an eye on Paris and London, and lately New York and Los Angeles. It was strange to see Sicilian notables, à la Prince of Lampedusa, sometimes even avoiding Rome and scurrying to cloudy climes for off-duty sojourns. Greece wasn’t ruled out entirely but Albania was as far away as the moon. The influx of Albanians in the post-communist 1990s caught the momentary attention of Italians but heads soon turned back toward the setting sun. It took two expatriates to remind the Berkeley Circle that Albania can be seen by the naked eye from the port of Otranto.

In a meeting at the home of Susan Arculus, she and Wenche Ostensen spoke to us about the near neighbours we tend to ignore. Susan and husband Corrado have been visiting Albania since the 1990s. They were interested in its history and the British link marked by the visit of Lord Byron in 1809 when he was received as an equal by Ali Pasha, the Turkish-Albania ruler of what is now northern Greece, Albania and beyond. The encounter figures in ‘Childe Harold's Pilgrimage’, the poem that brought Byron instant international fame. The poet had noted Ali Pasha’s tolerance in matters of religion. Two centuries later, with radical Islam much in the news, both Susan and Wenche could report that Albanian Moslems and Christians lived in harmony, often socialising together and even intermarrying.

Susan’s experience in the 1990s was of an Albania as the dictator Enver Hoxha had left it. The population struggled to wake from its long nightmare. The clocks had stopped except for several of Hoxha’s megalomaniacal projects that had raced ahead into an Alice-in-Wonderland time zone. Automobiles were a rarity, traffic lights treated as national monuments. Donkeys pulled carts over unpaved roads and men in the fields worked with oxen. There were endless beaches of pristine beauty that it seemed wrong to call ‘unspoiled’. For Albanians yearned to be spoiled by the life they were beginning to see on Italian TV. It explained the increasing numbers who were attempting to cross the Adriatic by any means available to join this utopia with its mouthwatering publicity interludes. Susan and Corrado made Albanian friends and were instrumental in helping a boy to settle in Salento where, beginning as kitchen help, he has become, thanks to immigrant energy, a chef and restauranteur.

Supreme Leader Hoxha had worked himself into a corner. He was not only at odds with Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia but become a sworn enemy of Soviet Russia. Despite his claims that Albania could go it alone, with its donkeys, oxen and homespun expedients, he needed an alliance that would keep his fellow Marxists from crushing his regime. He found one in Maoist China that was at daggers drawn with the Soviet Union and European Communism. It was an odd coupling that, again, seemed straight from the adventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Using paranoia to keep three million Albanians under control, Hoxha built 173,371 concrete pillboxes around the country to repulse the invasion he insisted was coming.

Both Susan and Wenche were struck by these one-man bunkers scattered over the landscape like swollen warts. Being solid concrete, they are the part of Hoxha’s legacy hardest to forget. For Susan, who knew Albania in the immediate post-dictatorship years, they were sinister reminders of evil days. For Wenche who, together with her husband Jan, came to know Albania in the second decade of this century, they were simply oddments, picturesque in an ugly way. Some served farmers as livestock shelters. Others were painted bright colours and become part of inner-city playgrounds. There are now bunker pizzerias, espresso bars and tiny nightclubs. With the growth of tourism, bunker-visiting tours are on offer.

To the question of whether anyone regretted the passing of Hoxha’s world, Wenche could think of only one crusty example. The magnetic pull of modern comfort and consumer culture made the question pretty well senseless. She went on to provide a mine of information for today’s travellers. She underlined the friendliness and openness of Albanians, their optimism and appetite for hard work. The roads are fast improving and restaurant prices low. The beaches are still very impressive by European standards. A first wave of modernisation has destroyed some venerable old-town centres but awareness is growing that visitors do not come in search for what they have at home. The tourist’s prayer remains as always: Please don’t spoil your country for us. Let us do it for you, our way.

Peter Byrne

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