Albania’s eagle, its national symbol, has two heads. One looks left, the other right; or, maybe east and west; or past and future. In this book, I have looked not to the future, which is difficult to predict, but to Albania’s present and the past, which are inextricably intertwined.
On learning that I had visited the country in 1984, many people we met in Albania asked me if it had changed for the better. The answer is ‘yes’. In 1984, the country was as beautiful as it is now, but most people were living in dreadful conditions. Despite what people told us about the stability of life under the Communists and nostalgia for the ‘good old days’, this stability if it existed at all was fragile. One false move, whether intentional or more often unintentional, could send someone to a prison camp or worse, and bring great difficulties for his or her family.
Today, life for Albanians is filled with uncertainty; but they can worship the way they want; they can say what they think; write and read anything; they can travel where they wish; work abroad; and do not starve. The only constraint on today’s Albanians is economic. The country is still amongst the poorest in Europe, but no one is preventing enterprising Albanians from trying to improve their lot.
In 1984, the only Albanians with whom I could speak were the two Albturist guides and our coach driver, a well-educated member of the Albanian Communist Party. During our recent trip, my wife and I were free to speak with any Albanian who wished to converse with us, and no one we met was tongue-tied. Whatever language barriers there were between us and them, Albanians made a great effort to understand us and to make themselves understood. Almost without exception, people were warm and exceptionally kind to us. Albanians overflow with kindness and hospitality.
Albania shed the tyranny of dictatorship in late 1990. Its entry into the modern ‘free’ world was not easy. Difficulties included: complex internal politics; the Pyramid Schemes and the civil war that followed their collapse; the violent disintegration of their neighbour the former Yugoslavia; and then the Kosovo crisis. Many Kosovan refugees flooded into Albania at a time when the country was ill-prepared to look after them, but Albanian hospitality ensured that the Kosovans were not let down.
Today, Albania is modernising. Internet coverage is better than in some parts of the UK. Roads are being modernised. Much building work is being done. Every bar and café has at least one wide-screen television. Old towns are being brought up to date. We saw fine examples of that at Poliçan and in Përmet. Yet, all of this is happening in what might be described as the world’s largest archaeological site, namely the ruins of the era of Enver Hoxha. Wherever we went, we saw relics from this period: bunkers, factories, railways, mines, and monuments. Many of these are reminders of the notion that was in Hoxha’s mind: to modernise Albania, yet keep it truly self-sufficient and self-reliant without straying from his own brand of ‘Marxism-Leninism’. At least Hoxha, unlike the leaders of another isolationist nation North Korea, did not feel it necessary to become a threat to the outside world.
The Communist era monuments (‘lapidars’) were an unending source of fascination to me. Not only were they often interesting artistically, but also they reflected local attitudes to the not so distant past. Some monuments have been left to decay, others have been defaced with graffiti. However, many of them appear to have been well-maintained. These mementos record lives lost, local men and women who died during the struggle to rid Albania of its fascist invaders. They commemorated the loss of people fighting on the side of the Communists. Gradually, memorials are appearing to remind Albanians of their many fellow citizens who became victims of the Communists. The grisly exhibition in the National Museum in Tirana goes some way towards addressing this tragedy.
On both trips that I have made to Albania, I have been impressed by the country’s great beauty. In 1984, our tour group was taken where the government-controlled travel company dictated, and unsurprisingly we were shown beautiful places. On our recent trip, we went wherever we wished, and everywhere we visited was without exception very beautiful. It is amazing that such a small country as Albania can contain so much exceptionally wonderful and endlessly varying scenery. Yet, it does. And, this fantastic landscape is filled with wonders: historical, folkloric, and geological. We travelled through a land peopled with kind helpful folk, all of whom gave us a warm welcome.
Excerpt from REDISCOVERING ALBANIA, written by me, Adam Yamey