From a bunker a head to a hotel for each

When I tell Greeks that I am travelling to Albania, they smile warily. This attitude doesn’t turn out to meet with reality. Not only is the Albanian Riviera very much worth a visit, with its idyllic and unspoiled bays a paradise for sailors, but the little money the Greek are earning they owe to their Northern neighbours. Banks, Construction and Insurance companies and car dealers do lots of business with the three million plus inhabitants who are still trying to get over decades of communist dictatorship. Many Albanians speak Greek (and Italian!) and have stayed Greek Orthodox, despite the anti religious policy of its former leaders. How happy they were when they could finally travel after the 1992! The isle of Corfu, only 2 miles away from southern Albania’s Boutrint, must have been the symbol of unreachable freedom for the heavily suppressed Albanians. Not that the Greek -as little as the Italians- have forgotten about the boat refugees that submerged them after the fall of communism, but business is business. By the ten thousand the Albanians went to Greece on foot, only to come back in a second hand Mercedes. This was soon followed by dishwashers, TV-sets, scooters and buggies. And more cars. The former strong man Enver Hoxha (whose auto-biography covers more than five meters in almost every Albanian’s library, though most of the time unread) found that driving cars was an unnecessary luxury for his people, which explains the inexistence of driver’s licences. This explains the extreme danger of using roads in Albania, where avoiding a pot hole seems more important than saving one’s life. Along these roads you will find an infinite number of small, concrete bunkers, in the form of an old fashion helmet, with narrow openings on both sides. They are now basically occupied by chicken and salamanders. A human being wouldn’t last an hour in these furnaces under the sun, but who cared when it came to protecting the nation. Not Enver Hoxha, who saw foreign threats everywhere. And it is true that Albania’s history is not one of the merriest, although the country has not gone through real threats since World War II. One bunker for each Albanian (yes, there were around 2,5 million of them) now seems to have turned into one hotel or restaurant a head. Not a yard of coastline North of Vlora has been left without concrete, the cancer of most of the Mediterranean coast anyhow. And again the population is waiting, these days not for enemies but for friendly tourists, who still have to find their way to the beaches and other pleasures of new Albania. It is clear that real estate companies are far more richer than the government and that money laundering through endless construction is as popular in Albania as it was, say, in Palermo. Fast cars with plates from Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia are the proof that international organized crime has reached these shores as well, although the authorities claim to fight corruption as best as they can. With hardly enough financial means this is not going to be easy. Two beach bars in Dhermiu look like they have suffered from a recent tsunami: bent iron sticking out of concrete blocks, burned wooden floors, the rest of a cute little staircase that one month ago still led swimmers to the crystal clear water. The waiter in nearby restaurant says this is the ‘punishment’ for not having purchased the right licences. It is the work of the local police, he says without looking me in the eye. He miught have meant the local mafia.
City marketing is what Albania really needs, maybe like Turkey twentu years ago. It is self confident but also realistic. It certainly is not the grey, Muslim country, a no-alcohol zone where beggars rule the streets as it is often described by its enemies. It understands that being on the list of potential members of the EU is not as good as being part of the Union, but it understands that things take time. Not to lose the faith they put the blue European flag with the yellow stars wherever they can. Professional city marketing would also be a good idea for the capital Tirana, where Stalinist buildings en socialist wall paintings exist next to modern theatres, bookshops and long lanes filled with lounge café’s and cocktail bars where they make excellent Marguerita’s. The bloc that was once exclusively meant for the party elite has become a little Miami. Students drink espresso before they go top English class in the former villa of the Hoxha family, that has not been torn down. Keeping a part of the old symbols may show how much confidence the country has in its capacity to deal with its history. Today’s government may not have enough money to build good roads, the ‘infrastructure’ of its people is quite OK. Tourists that are used to travel to Greece might as well try Albania for a change. Same food, but cheaper. Good wines, nice people, although maybe you shouldn’t ask a Greek to confirm this.

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