Tag Archives: albania

German on the Mount

There's a mountain just outside of Tirana where you can gondola up to the top.

Like everything else in Albania, it was basically deserted. I had my own gondola!

You see these bunkers all over Albania. The former dictator, Enver Hoxha, built thousands of them for the inevitable (ha) Western invasion.

There were some abandoned ... radio sheds? I have no idea what these are.

There was no one manning them, or telling me not to poke around.

I don't know why Tirana is where it is. It's not on the water or near any resources, it's just sort of plopped in the knuckles of a bunch of mountains.

Apparently Albania has oodles of regional diversity, which is impressive considering it's basically the size of Rhode Island.

I imagine it was easier to get lost up here before there was a gondola.

Though the way down was probably faster.

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The Forgottenest Corner of Europe

I think the thing that most struck me about Albania is the sheer degree to which it’s forgotten by the rest of the world.

This is a country that is next door to Greece. It’s a two-hour flight from Berlin. The only way its remote is in the popular consciousness.

I’m reading a history of communism at the moment. In an 800-page biography of an ideology, there are literally four mentions of Albania. Albania was hardcore communist from 1941 to 1990. Four mentions! Even the former Yugoslavian countries must be like ‘damn, Albania is invisible.

It’s even more surprising when you consider that Albania has all the features that make a country interesting:

Compelling History
Until 1990, Albania was ruled by one of the world’s purest, weirdest communist-dictator footnotes. Enver Hoxha was such a diehard Stalinist that be broke off relations with the Soviet Union and then China because they weren’t communist enough.

As they were Albania’s only source of foreign investment or aid, the country then languished in complete isolation for 30 years. Foreign emigration, immigration and investment were banned until 1990. To this day, Albania is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in Europe.

Complex Demographics
Albania has a population of 3.5 million—about the same as Berlin. The tricky part is that its national borders were drawn such that there are another 3.5 million Albanians living in bordering countries. Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece all have significant Albanian minorities.

To add to the complexity, Albania is majority-Muslim (it took me a few days to figure out why many of the taxi drivers have Malcolm X car fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror). But there’s also a sizable Christian population, and the neighboring countries with big Albanian minorities are Orthodox. As you can imagine, Albania’s foreign relations have been nonstop tense since independence in 1912.

Migration
Half of Albania’s labor force at any given time lives and works in other countries, mostly Italy and Greece. These people send home enough money to account for 15% of Albania’s GDP, but have denuded the country of its educated, healthy working males. The fact that most of these emigrants are illegal adds yet another challenge to Albania’s foreign relations.

Economic Potential
Basically all of the consumer goods in Albania are imported. Even stuff like tomatoes and squash, which you could easily grow in Albania’s climate, are boated in from Italy. According to Oxfam, Albania has the lowest agricultural productivity in Europe. All it would take is an injection of EU money to bring Albanian farming up to Italian (ok, maybe just Greek) levels. Albania’s the only country in Europe that had a rise in GDP in 2009.

Albania also has rampant organized crime, a thriving women’s civil rights movement and significant internal migration. It had a major financial crash in 1997 when the entire country got involved in a giant pyramid scheme.

Seriously, everywhere you look, you find something fascinating about this country. Why isn’t anyone paying attention?

That said, I have no right to talk shit. I decided to go to Albania by literally opening Google Maps and following a warm-looking latitude. What’s that country there next to Greece? Oooo, it’s on the water! It has mountains!

That was all I knew about Albania before I went there. Next time I go, I feel like I should bring an EU delegation with me.

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Tourism is Tourism, Not Research

In the documentary Casino Jack, they tell the story of Saipan, a US protectorate where a bunch of clothing companies set up sweatshops so they could keep the ‘Made in USA’ label. Terrible working conditions, long hours, third-world pay, blah blah blah.

According to the documentary, the primary strategy for keeping all of this legal was to fly senators out to the island itself for ‘fact-finding’ missions. The government of Saipan would stage-manage ‘impromptu’ tours of factories and meetings with fake workers’ representatives. When the senators got back to the US and were confronted with NGO reports about the terrible working conditions, their response was ‘that’s not true. I’ve been there and it’s not like that.’

Visiting Saipan didn’t give them any new information. It simply increased their confidence in their own expertise.

Sometimes I feel like this when I travel.

I was in Albania this week, and spent five days basically spectating it. I walked around the capital. I biked to some smaller cities. I bussed across the border to Macedonia. I trained to the Aegean coast.

Fine. I had a blast. But what I always struggle with on these trips is the urge to turn my incredibly limited experience into a generalization.

I walk around Tirana and I see hundreds of bustling cafes, filled with Ray Banned young people. The cars are new-looking. Construction workers are construction-working to fix potholes and repave sidewalks.

All of this means that Albania is not only a middle-income country, but firmly on its way to high-income status and EU membership, right? There’s a Gucci store, for Christ’s sake.

Albania’s per capita GDP is $6,000, one of the lowest in Europe. The unemployment rate is upwards of 15 percent, and the only reliable money coming into the country is from Albanians who have emigrated to Greece and Italy for low-skilled labour.

Aside from that specific splash of water, there’s the broader point that aimlessly walking around a country ‘s capital is a fucking terrible way to determine its level of development. I don’t speak Albanian. I can’t read Albanian newspapers or speak to people who know the country intimately. Basically, I have no ability to gather factual information. Experiencing the ‘feel’ of a foreign country is just another way of saying that you’re filtering your stereotypes through your observations.

This is obvious, of course, but it’s a hard impulse to resist. Just being someplace isn’t a remotely reliable way to gather systematic information about it. But it’s a great way to make you think you know what you’re talking about.

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