Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The value of a vacation is measured against interior and exterior landscapes. It's not only what's seen and learned but how we process the new and unfamiliar. Who we are when we arrive gets mixed with what we perceive en route, and much of the excitement of travel lies in not knowing exactly how we'll be altered by the time we return. We arrive with more than what's in our suitcases and return with more than souvenirs.

I just completed a two-week trip through the Balkans with my wife and two teenage sons, and the resulting changes still feel fresh, even mappable.

Traveling companions certainly add to the chemistry of a trip. I know why vacations often end up on lists of stressful life events: Inevitably, individuals within a group of travelers find themselves limited by their companions. We're slowed by the slowest among us, we stop to eat on a schedule set by the fastest metabolism. Our schedules are altered by the most impatient.

But balancing the limitations are the pushes into new directions that we give each other. Our days' activities were frequently shaped by the shifting alliances that produce 3-to-1 votes. In the best of circumstances, the minority of one turned out to the be the big winner, unexpectedly enjoying what s/he previously regarded as uninteresting.

I can't say why, but I've always been drawn to dictatorships when I travel: Mobutu's Zaire, Ceausescu's Romania, Kim Il Sung's North Korea, Castro's Cuba. I never made it to Enver Hoxha's Albania but was curious to visit, 25 years after the fact, what had been an isolated, communist country ruled by a paranoid, ruthless strongman for almost 40 years.

I'm interested in expressions of art in totalitarian states. In free societies, art can subvert authority; in dictatorships, authority subverts art. (Stalin's "socialist realism" was anything but.)

It is fitting, then, that TripAdvisor's top attraction in Albania's capital, Tirana, is called "Bunk'Art." Hoxha lived in fear that the country would be attacked and built hundreds of dome-topped concrete bunkers. About 40 rooms of one in central Tirana have been turned into a museum that documents Albanian authoritarianism from the time of the modern nation's founding in 1912. It finds its richest material in the Hoxha era. Several rooms are given over to artists' interpretation of strong state control.

While it was movingly executed, it wasn't the aspect of Hoxha's residue that most informed my understanding of Albania and, more broadly, totalitarianism. That came while standing chest deep in the Ionian Sea with Beni, a boat captain I had hired to take us to some remote coves near the resort town of Saranda.

Beni grew up in Saranda, and he discussed how it had changed, particularly since the time of "the dictator." I asked if things were better now. He gave a noncommittal head movement.

Saranda, whose population is 50,000, hosts multiple times that number of tourists and cruise passengers in high season. But in Beni's childhood, it was a small resort town of 8,000. He said that the hills sloping to the bay, now decorated for miles with rental properties and hotels, had been covered in pines.

"The dictator liked pines, so we had pines. Not development," he said.

In the off-season, Beni is a fisherman, and he rues the depletion of fish stock since democracy arrived in 1992. But he wasn't endorsing the leader's repression.

"If you said something to the wrong person ..." he said, putting his wrists together as if in handcuffs.

I gave the conversation a lot of thought. I've always viewed the appeal of authoritarianism as beyond my understanding, any upside vastly outweighed by horrors. Beni wasn't endorsing "the dictator" but found himself aligned with some aspects of state control vs. free enterprise. And I found myself sympathetic.

I've read commentary suggesting that Vladimir Putin's popularity is rooted in Russian nostalgia, but my conversation with Beni provided a more sympathetic understanding of why authority that promises a return to former, happier times holds such strong appeal.

As I mentioned earlier, when people go on vacation, they bring more than what's in their suitcases, and they return with more than souvenirs.

In the tourist stalls of Saranda, I found and bought an alabaster ashtray in the shape of a dome-topped bunker. I'll leave that on my desk. But I'll carry my conversation with Beni around for quite some time.

•   •   •

Before leaving the topic of Albania -- and leaving the impression that the country might be primarily assessed by its oppressive past -- I'll call attention to a high point of the trip. As is often the case when my family vacations, it occurred over a meal.

Among the restaurants started by alumni of Copenhagen's Noma restaurant is Mullixhiu, chef Bledar Kola's modern take on traditional Albanian food. In subtle ways, Kola's approach is almost theatrical. Regarding set design, there is a drawer in the table below each setting so diners can refresh their own cutlery after each course.

And his sauces were like recurring motifs, sometimes reappearing as smears on a plate at the exact right moment. I would never have predicted that the best meal I've had in Europe this year would be in Tirana.

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