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Letter from Albania: Into one of Europe's last dark corners
The car rounded a bend heading south, a bit outside Fier, and there he was in the middle of the road: dressed in a red shirt, a white crusher on his head. He had no legs, just two stumps that poked out of his jeans.
The road looked baked in the sun. He lunged at passing cars, hands cupped. A large bus bore down on him from the other side, and passing I looked back to see traffic in both directions and him not moving. Where could he go?
It was a fruitless, and dangerous, way to beg for money. He was stuck, doing what he could, being passed by, life having dealt him rags.
In that man I saw something of the desperation of an entire country in miniature.
I have come to Albania. Not many do, even today, 16 years after this country emerged from a particularly isolated horror show. Tourists are expected any day now, I was told, and there was justification for that optimism: Farther up the coast to the north, Montenegro was rapidly seeing its coastline cede to Riviera-style hotels and villas.
Albanian does promise some of the last unspoiled coastline in the Mediterranean. Seeming to anticipate this, places like Durrës along the coast had become a confusion of construction, haze and dust, giving way to tall, colorful tenements -- hotels? -- most seeming unfinished.
Guidebooks padded entries about Albania by saying it had "a few rough edges" or with phrases like, "Sure, it has is problems, but..."
Yet really, Albania was a ruinous country -- and probably the most interesting and least artificial place in which you could travel in Europe today.
I was with a German who said, "It's the last dark spot on the continent. "
Albania was also one of the weirdest places I'd ever been to. I'm not just talking about the stuffed animals that hung like totems on unfinished houses to ward off spirits, or the dystopian sight of thousands of small concrete bunkers dotting the countryside everywhere you looked. This was the country that gave George W. Bush a hero's welcome last year, putting it in rather small company indeed.
It was something of a travel cliché to call Albania a joke. It was, after all, the country the United States went to war with to draw the public's attention away from a presidential sex scandal in Barry Levinson's 1997 satire on the Clinton Administration, "Wag the Dog."
Albania was not a joke. It was just sad. There was no comedy at all here, and if this were some kind of Hollywood production you could conclude, passing through towns and seeing all that was unfinished and piecemeal around you -- the decapitated homes, the roads, the husks of cars in so many roadside chop shops -- that the director had told the crew to pack it in, abandon sets and change locations.
But Albania commanded headlines -- real ones.
In March, the country received an invitation to join NATO, and the European Union affirmed its commitment to see the country within the bloc sooner rather than later.
That same month, in the Tirana suburb of Gerdec, a munitions factory -- Albania was a giant weapons depot -- blew up, killing 26.
That was one of the only factories working in Albania.
Nothing was manufactured or built here, aside from elaborate, brightly colored gas stations that are everywhere, most complete with a hotel (EUR 20 a night), restaurant, bar and market, all catering to the Albanians' obsession with cars.
"Albania is not a place where industry is very developed," Tomë Therçaj, an adviser in the environment ministry, told me one day in Tirana.
He seemed positive about this. "We don't have these problems with greenhouse gas emissions."
He told me that a 2008 United Nations survey ranked Albania 25th among 144 countries in terms of environmental friendliness.
Then what was behind this air? It was dusty, choking, redolent with diesel fumes and smoke in Tirana.
Elsewhere, in Durrës, Vlore, and Shkoder in the north, the air was a hot, whiskey-colored haze and if the breeze was right, it brought waves of stink from roadside garbage piles.
Farther south and inland, breathing was easier, but then you saw the dry river beds. What were once great flows of water now were reduced to no more than wet ribbons along which some trucks drove.
Albania has some spectacular scenery: deep canyons; scree cliffs that plunge thousands of feet down into the Ionian Sea; meadows and hillsides shaded and fragrant with eucalyptus and olive trees.
But it was hard to balance scenes of environmental splendor and squalor.
It was also hard to balance the Albanian people.
Who were they? They rankled at being compared to Greeks (despite a sizable Greek minority along the southern coast and in places like Gjirokaster). Their music seemed Turkish, but that's where those similarities stopped.
Albanians, of course, were Albanians, members of an old ethnic group whose pride seemed to belie its size (the country has a population of 3.6 million, though the Albanian Diaspora is significant).
They were contradictory. Albanians were generous and kind, and I was to see many live up to their reputation of hospitality; yet they were also barbarous and vengeful, practitioners of blood feuds that trapped whole families in their homes. They were fiercely nationalistic; yet they were also the very models of tolerance: In Albania, three religions coexist largely in peace.
The only joke associated with Albania was what had been perpetrated on its people, and it seemed to me they were still shaking off their dark years.
Albanians had been invaded by the Greeks, the Turks, the Italians and then communism. They spent more than 40 years in utter isolation, forbidden to travel, forced to take up arms against invisible enemies, made paranoid and afraid, all thanks to a lunatic leader.
Communism's collapse let in some light, and also lawlessness and corruption. And the people were then cheated again: The country teetered on the brink of civil war in the late 1990s after tens of thousands lost their life savings in a state-sponsored confidence trick.
Albanians still don't trust the government. There were rumors nearly every week of misappropriated money and graft. Perhaps there was something to this: Despite receiving some of the highest aid per capita that the European Union gives out -- $110 million this year alone -- Albania still ranked as the second poorest country in Europe, behind Moldova.
Albania could seem desperate, but it was also hopeful and the people seemed to know the score. In conversations there was no delusion about the state of the country, and even simple statements could be imbued with a faith that the country, one day at least, would find its way.
"The roads are terrible here, but the government is really trying to improve them," Leonard Boduri, 20, told me in Tirana one day, exhibiting some of that optimism.
I found all of this fascinating.
If Europe had become staid and predictable in many places, travel in Albania was the antidote. Horrible in many places, wonderful in others. But real.
I showed up purposely having read little about Albania. I wanted only to look, think and react. That seemed to me the purpose of travel.
Tomorrow: One man whose legacy still haunts Albania