Albania: The land that time forgot

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As you walk across the tarmac, you might notice a couple of planes from Albatros Airways – there is, again, an Albanian inevitability in naming your planes after the only bird that is an international synonym for bad luck, and which doesn’t fly anywhere near the Adriatic anyway.

Any sentence with Albania in it is likely to get a laugh. Albania is funny. It’s a punchline, a Gilbert and Sullivan country, a Ruritania of brigands and vendettas and pantomime royalty.

It is a tragic place. But just at the point in the story where you should be sobbing, you can barely restrain the sniggers. After all, Albania’s favourite comedian is Norman Wisdom, and that’s the place all over. It’s funny because it’s not funny. The capital, Tirana, is a rare place, blessed with both fascist and communist architecture. The competing totalitarian buildings strut cheek by cheek down the potholed roads, like an authoritarian tango in marble and concrete.

The Italians, who had the most sympathetic fascist architecture, built the futuristically classical university art school and government buildings, while the communists made the thudding celebrations of workers’ triumph and the grim warrens of piss-stained grey boxes for housing the triumphant workers in.

Parts of Tirana look like small southern Italian industrial towns, tree-dappled, lots of cafes, while other bits look like Gaza, ripped up and smashed stretches of urban exhaustion and collapse.

But none of that is what you notice first. The thing that catches your eye and holds it in a sticky grasp, like a child with a humbug, is the colour. The grim apartments and public housing projects have been painted with broad swathes of livid decoration. They look like a giant installation of West Indian scatter cushions.

The multicoloured building was the very, very bright idea of Tirana’s mayor. A man who the locals seem to think is suicidal and inspired in equal measure. When Albania’s peculiar version of hermetic communism finally collapsed, in 1992, the new man said that, though there was no money to change anything, seeing as they’d been living in monotone grindstone misery for 50 years, they might brighten the place up with a lick of paint. Apparently, they got a job lot of all the colours Homebase couldn’t sell in Cheshire and sploshed away. The result is both inspired and ridiculous, and very Albanian. Like a clown’s make-up, it draws attention to the crumbling, gritty face underneath.

In the span of one long lifetime, Albania has been dealt a full house of political, social and economic experiments. It started the 20th century as a subservient state of the Ottoman empire, then it became a playground for every Balkan and Adriatic neighbour. At one time or another, Albania had seven competing armies trying to grab lumps of it. Briefly it was an imposed German monarchy, then an ineffective Austrian protectorate. In 1913 the Treaty of London drew its borders to suit the conflicting demands of Serbia, Greece, Italy, Austria and Russia, which left over half of all Albanians living outside their own country, principally in Kosovo.

At the Treaty of Versailles, the Albanian throne was absurdly offered to C B Fry, an English cricketer who was supposed to be such a paragon of masculinity that he was photographed naked and flexing at Oxford, and ended up running a naval prep school of exemplary cruelty with a dykey, sadistic wife. And then they got King Zog.

You really couldn’t make up Albania’s history. Zog was Europe’s last self-made monarch, and a man who made Charlie Chaplin look serious. He favoured light operetta, white hussars’ uniforms and waxed moustaches, and cut a mean tango; he encouraged the Italians to come and build things like roads and cafes. The bad news was, the Italians were Mussolini, so Zog had to make a dash for it and ruled in the Palm Court at the Ritz.

Then the Italians lost the war and the partisans took over; which might have been a good thing, except they turned out to be run by Enver Hoxha, the weirdest of all cold-war communist dictators, a man of stern cruelty and fathomless paranoia, who decided that the only two allies he could trust should be at the opposite ends of the world. Albania’s only mates were China and Cuba, and it became proudly the only Maoist state in Europe.

Finally, long after everyone else had got a credit card and a mobile phone, Hoxha got cancer and died, and his unique chronic communism died with him. So Albania was welcomed out of the cold into the warm embrace of the free market. That should have been the good news, but of course it wasn’t.

There’s a park in the centre of Tirana that was built by the workers for themselves. They dug a great lake, built an amphitheatre, made a little zoo with a mad bear. You get in by walking through a homeless incontinent’s toilet, past the busts of madly furrowed Albanian heroes and the small, neat British war cemetery.

In shady meadows, men cut grass for hay and young men sit on tree stumps staring at nothing. Around the lake, men fish without anticipation; behind them, other men squat and watch. Fishermen-stalking is a feature of former communist countries. As a displacement activity, it’s about as complete a waste of a day as you can come up with. Old men sit in the sun and play dominoes. Their peanut-butter-tanned bodies are wrinkled and polished like old brogues. They sit on cardboard boxes in those distressingly skimpy second scrotums that the communist world still clings to as attractive swimwear; they grin through bomb-damaged teeth.

These are the flotsam and detritus of the train wreck of a command economy, their jobs and pensions just another cracking Albanian joke. A man who was once a history professor looks out across the water at the speculative illegal palaces being built in the people’s park and tells me how the good news of capitalism came to Albania. “We didn’t know anything about markets or money. Suddenly it was all new, all opportunity, all confusion. And then there comes pyramid scheme. You’ve heard of this ‘pyramid’? We put money in. They give you back many times more. You put that money back and much more comes. It was brilliant, this capitalism. Magic. Everyone did it. Maybe 70-80% of the country. People gave up their work to live on marvellous pyramid money. This was best two years of Albania’s life. Drink and food and laughing; everyone is happy. Everyone has cash and hope.” He stops and looks at the fishermen. “But it’s fraud. Everyone loses everything, not just their savings but their homes and farms, and they borrow and there’s no state to help. We have less than nothing; I lose my savings and my job. I don’t understand.

“You laugh. We were fools, yes, but what do we know of capitalism? It was a fairy story. And when it’s gone, people kill themselves, go mad, fight, scream and cry and want revenge. You understand Albanians have very, very… ” (he searches for the words) “… strong emotion.”

Albania was a nation of dupes waiting to be taken and they didn’t take it well. Everything you understand or think you know about Albania and Albanians needs to be seen in relation to how they got the way they are. After the pyramid scam, Albania sold the only thing it had left: its people. They handed out passports and waited. There are 4m Albanian citizens in the world – fewer than there are Scots. Three million of them live at home, the fourth quarter work abroad, and what they do is mostly illegal. Albania is the hub of the European sex trade, smuggling and pimping girls from Moldova and the Ukraine into the West.

It’s said they also run most of the illegal arms trade, the cheapest Kalashnikovs you can buy. They’re the Asda of mayhem. After years of being bullied, invaded, ripped off and lied to, the Albanians have grown very good at being frightening. They’re not subtle, they don’t deal in proportionate responses, controlled aggression or veiled threats. Albanians, I’m told, have taken over the crime in Milan – exporting organised crime to Italy beats selling fridges to Eskimos or sand to Arabs.

In the centre of Tirana there’s an area known as the Block. Under Hoxha this was the closed, salubrious preserve of party members, patrolled by soldiers, forbidden to all ordinary Albanians. Now it’s grown into the all-night trendy reserve of the young: cafes, bars and clubs have sprouted back to back along the crowded streets.

In parts it looks like sunny-holiday Europe, but then you turn a corner into grim, hunkered, crumbling commie squalor, with kids kicking balls and toothless ancients sitting like lonely loonies on benches, staring at the angry graffiti.

The number and proportion of young people in Tirana is a shock, compared with northern Europe. This is a young person’s country; they have large families here who all continue to live at home, so they need to get out.

The cafes on the Block are thick with teenagers, collectively called “students”, though this is a title rather than a vocation – there’s precious little work for them to study for. The streets are a slow crawl of large cars: BMWs, Porsche Cayennes, blacked-out Range Rovers, Humvees and the ubiquitous tribe of Benzes – all stolen, of course, from Germany and Italy.

The young lounge and practise their impenetrably tough looks; the boys play-fight. The difference between these kids and their neighbours in Italy and Greece is how they look. With effortless élan, Albanian students are without peer the worst-dressed kids in the western world. They are obsessed with labels and designers, but all they can afford are the chronically laughable rip-offs and fakes in the markets. Shops here are full of absurdly repellent, tatty clobber with oversized logos stencilled on, and the kids wear this stuff with a flashy insouciance, all looking like characters in search of a comic-sketch show.

Albanians are naturally quite modest people. You still see old women in peasant headdresses and men wearing traditional white fezzes, but the youth are desperate to be European, and that means sexy. There are girls with bad peroxide jobs, and minute skirts, and tits-out-for-the-boys tops. They play at being gangster bitches, but it all looks much more like a drama-school production of Guys and Dolls.

The men have a strange – and, it must be said, deeply unattractive – habit of rolling up their T-shirts so that they look like bikini tops. The Albanians are short and ferret-faced, with the unisex stumpy, slightly bowed legs of shetland ponies. My favourite fashion moment was a middle-aged man with a Village People moustache and a Hobbit’s swagger in a T-shirt that declared in huge letters: Big Balls.

Albanian is one of those languages that have no known relative, just an extra half a dozen letters. They say it’s impossible to learn after the age of two. They say it with very thick accents. The fact that nobody else can speak it makes it a ready-made code for criminals, but in a typically unintentional way it’s also pathetically, phonetically funny. The word for “for sale”, for instance, is shitet; carp, the national fish, is krap.

I went to a tiny basement bar that specialised in death-metal music. This, finally, is a look that even Albanians can get right. I found a seat next to the drummer’s mother, a beamingly proud peasant woman watching her son epileptically thrash our eardrums with his group Clockwork Psycho Sodomy Gore.

Groovy Tirana troops into a nightclub with a self-conscious bravado and sips cocktails politely, while the naffest barman in the free world goes through his Tom Cruise bottle-juggling routine, shaking passé drinks and presenting the bill stuffed into the top of his stonewashed hipsters to groups of giggling top-heavy girls.

All this imitation, this desperate wannabe youth culture, is being paid for by cash sent home from abroad. Albania’s economy runs courtesy of Western Union and wads of red-light cash stuffed under the seats of hot-wired Audis. Much of it is criminal, but there is also a lot that is the bitter fruit of lonely, uncertain, menial jobs in rich Europe done by invisibly despised immigrants on the black economy. However it’s gleaned, this is the hardest-earned money in Europe.

I was constantly told to be careful of pickpockets and muggers in rough areas. Over the years, I’ve developed a bat-eared coward’s sixth sense for the merest whisper of trouble, but Tirana felt like a very safe place playing tough. There is very little drunkenness on the street, though they drink copiously. The only drugs seem to be a bit of home-grown grass and, given that this is the vice-export capital of the West, there were no lap-dancing clubs or pornography shops. You can’t even find a prostitute on the street in Tirana. It’s like trying to find lobsters in Scotland: they’ve all gone for export.

Albania has by far and away the worst traffic record of any western country, and no Albanian would conceivably wear a seatbelt, considering it the first symptom of passive homosexuality. Driving north out of Tirana along the pitted roads, you see an insatiable orgy of construction with barely a nod to need, purpose or planning permission. The outskirts are being covered in country bars and restaurants without customers, and capacious country houses without sewerage, water, electricity or inhabitants. The biggest single industry in Albania is money-laundering, and construction is the easiest and quickest way to turn vice into virtue. There are thousands of buildings without roofs or windows flying an ironic Albanian flag, which, appropriately, is the double-headed eagle looking both ways at once.

The mountains are a landscape of terraces and forests sparsely populated by peasants who still cut hay with scythes, where men turn rotated strips with wooden ploughs behind bony mares as their wives sow seeds from baskets, looking like the posters for a Bertolt Brecht revival.

Tiny villages lurk in high valleys; extended families live on the first floor of stone-and-mud-plaster houses. On the ground floor live the cattle and plough horses. Vines climb the walls; chickens and infants scratch in the dirt; dogs are chained in wicker kennels; hens nest under the sweet hayricks; women bake bread in wood ovens. We’re given a lunch of grilled lamb, fizzing sheep’s cheese, tomatoes and cherries fresh from the tree. The fields all around are choked with wild flowers; songbirds and turtledoves clamour for attention; tortoises shuffle in the stubble; donkeys moan operatically to each other.

It is as close as any of us will get to seeing what life across Europe was like in the 16th century, but living a 16th-century life in the 21st century is not a smart option. Even 16th-century people know that. So the country is emptying, and the peasants trudge to the city to try and lay their hands on a little second-hand vice money.

All across Albania there are decrepit concrete bunkers, thick beehive constructions that smell of mould and foxes. They run in little redoubts up hills, along coverts and through gardens. There are millions of them. Hoxha started building bunkers at the end of the war, and they became a lifelong paranoid obsession that cost a hubristic amount of Albania’s wealth. The bunkers follow no coherent battle plan. There would never have been enough soldiers to man them; they are simply the solid pustules of mistrust and fear. Albania has always been surrounded by enemies, but it has also been divided against itself.

There is no trust in this landscape: it is the place of vendetta and vengeance. There are still families here where the fearful men never leave their windowless homes, where male babies are born to die. The rules of being “in blood” were laid down in the 15th century in the Canon of Lekë, an ancient murderer’s handbook. That is one of the reasons Albanians are so good at organised crime. The distinctions of religion are nothing compared with the ancient honour of families; everything is secondary to family honour and to making money. Everything is excusable to sustain those.

There is also a divide between north and south Albania. The north is called Gheg, the south Tosk. Gheg is tough, uncouth, aggressive; the south, educated, civilised, Italianate. It’s a bit like England.

On the Adriatic coast, in Durres, which was once a seaside capital, the beach is a muddy grey, a coarse sand of cigarette ends, bottle tops and those blue plastic bags that are the world’s tumbleweed. The smelly, tideless Adriatic limply washes nameless slurry onto the shore, and children build sand villas while their parents roast. Albanians have surprisingly fair skins and they cook to a lovely livid puce. A man calls me over. He’s angry. “American?” No, English. “Tell them, tell Europe, we don’t have tails. You see, we are not apes. We’re not another species. Durres is going to be the new Croatia.” There’s a thought.

“Norman Wisdom – what do you think of him?” I asked. “He’s very ’90s. Now top best comic is definitely Mr Bean.”

Sitting in Tirana’s main square, where the moneychangers stand in the shade with their wads, and men sell dodgy mobile phones and repair petrol lighters, I watch the Albanians come and go, and there’s something odd. It takes me an hour to work out what it is – hardly anyone wears a watch. Well, why would they? They haven’t got anywhere to be.

- July 23, 2006 @ timesonline.co.uk