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The Rebel of the Balkans, Part I
Journal Post #27: June 18th 2023, Theth Albania
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Less than one hour after crossing the border into Albania we found ourselves by the side of a lightly traveled road with smoke coming out of the front right wheel of our “new” car. We got out and stood under the scorching sun eying suspiciously at the vehicle, as if we would know what the heck was going on with it. Us! complete car illiterates. We did this for a bit, waiting for the smoke to dissipate and half expecting flames to come out of the hood at any minute.
I stood there while I thought about how everyone we told we were going to Albania had something to say about their “craziness”. Even next door in North Macedonia, tourists would crumble their faces and exclaim “Ooooh, you gotta be careful there!” when we shared this piece of news. But, consistently, when we asked if they had been to Albania they would shake their head while sheepishly noting they had simply “heard stories”. Besides the fact that they “drove crazy”, no other story was ever shared. An hour in and we didn’t think they drove particularly bad or fast, but this - that people drive crazy - is something we have heard often about many destinations, and never found to be fully accurate. Maybe it’s because we are from Latin American countries and learned to drive in a sort of lawless and very aggressive driving culture, but most everywhere in the world we simply adjust to the driving style without much issue.
Anyways, a minute later a women in her 60s came out of a house nearby and in this awkward Google Translate dance we finally understood we had stopped a mere 2min from a car shop. We thank her, got into the possibly exploding-at-any-minute car, and drove to it. We were received by about eight men eating pizza on the floor. Google Translate was again doing a pretty crappy job until we realized the main mechanic spoke Italian, so we made do with our Italish; you know, Spanish with an Italian accent and a lot of hand gestures. I think it worked.
The Albanian who spoke Italian got busy with our car, and after about 15min and some tests he declared “sono confuso!” / “I am confused!”. He then took our car for a spin with everything we owned in it, including my purse and Alan’s backpack with all our important documents in it. After the car had left the parking lot Alan turned to me and asked if we should have grabbed the backpack, but honestly the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. The vibe in the shop was one of trust; easy and calm. Turns out there was nothing wrong with the car (idk, we will see!). When we tried to ask the mechanic how much we owed him for his time he just waved us away, ‘Niente!’ he exclaimed with a wide smile.
This first interaction in Albania, even under less than ideal circumstances, left us feeling at ease and set the tone for the rest of our time in the country. We have found Albanian people to be extremely kind, open, and curious. Even prior to arriving in the country we had met three Albanians in North Macedonia, the only people in our entire week there that sparked up a conversation with us out of nowhere, asking us where we were from and sharing their love for Mexican telenovelas. I am always scanning for people’s alternative motives, but these three friendly Albanians just wanted to chat, intrigued about our far away countries.
I also had certain expectations of Albania due to it being a majority-muslim country (official numbers cite it as 70% Muslim). I have been to many and I have become used to expecting certain things: restriction of alcohol, women wearing hijabs or completely covered, no tattoos, loud calls to prayer. Albania defies all these rules. Alcohol is absolutely everywhere, most women are not covered and many wear clothes that would be considered inappropriate in many majority muslim countries, lots of people have tattoos (men and women), calls to prayer occur but much less frequently and also less noticeably. Albania simply won’t be defined by religion.
I *really* love when a destination proves my expectations wrong.
The truth is that since we arrived to Albania we felt the country to be different than any other we had been to in the Balkans. We couldn’t quite pinpoint why, but the more we learned about the country the more we realized the feeling was accurate; Albania is the rebel of the Balkans.
Maybe this is why people think of them as “crazy”?
Maybe it’s because the recent history of the country is in fact quite unique and in a way yes, kinda crazy.
Maybe it’s because in 1997 Albanians looted 600,000 weapons from military barracks after being scammed of billions through pyramid schemes, and then anarchy reigned for a year.
Maybe it’s because they were totally isolated from the world for decades.
I don’t know. All I know is that I am in love with the place.
Albania is on the western side of the Balkan peninsula, it has a long coast facing the Adriatic sea less than 150km from Italy’s heel. As with most of the rest of the Balkans they were part of the Ottoman empire for almost five centuries. Until they declared their independence in 1912 things were looking pretty standard for the region. But, that is when Albania began to differ from its neighbors.
The country has always had a deeply entrenched history with Italy, including being an Italian protectorate around WWI, dependent on financial loans from Italy in the 20s, heavily influenced in many other ways, and being buddy buddy with Mussolini. That is, until Italy decided to ignore their alliance and invade Albania right before WWII broke out. Once again, Albania became an Italian protectorate.
Although the fascist had some Albanian support - as they did everywhere - most locals opposed the occupation and an unorganized but persistent resistance began early on. Still, even after Mussolini fell and Italy capitulated to the Allies and switched sides Albania continued to be occupied, Germany simply took Italy’s place. Germany didn’t have long term interest in the country and hence took a different approach, supporting nationalistic desires for a “Greater Albania”, which actually gained them real support from many Albanian politicians and intellectuals. But, there was always opposition too, and well, an actual World War being fought in the country, which left it in shambles.
Ultimately, the war ended and the communist party rose to power. The election that legitimize the government of Enver Hoxha - the man that would stay in power until his death four decades later - only included him as a candidate, so whether the party won due to people’s devotion to communism or their hate towards nazism is debatable. What is for certain is that the country desired something different, and Hoxha was indeed that.
Over the next four decades the country was ruled with a heavy hand. Hoxha was a paranoid extremist who refused to be part of Yugoslavia, and broke relationships with the Soviet Union and then with China until becoming completely isolated from the world and transforming Albania into a North Korea-style brutally repressive place. No country was extreme enough for Hoxha, and all wanted to attack him, so much so that he spent billions building 170,000 bunkers all around the country.
The story of these decades is very interesting and intense, so it must go into a Part II :). Besides, we are about to embark in what I am sure will be the toughest multi day hike we have ever done, the Peaks of the Balkans! Around 100miles and a ton of elevation gain in 9 days, circling where Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo meet! We won’t return to “civilization” until next Tuesday so I will likely need to skip next Monday’s post; I am certainly not carrying my laptop for 100miles! Wish us luck and more to come in a couple weeks!