A visit to Albania

After ASTA in Hamburg, Germany, I headed for Albania. That was 1990, the first year the doors were open to American tourists since the 1940s. After World War II, Albania -- essentially a medieval kingdom until 1939 -- turned into an oppressive and xenophobic Communist state.

Nadine Godwin

During my visit, it was easy to see evidence of a stunted economy (women working with hoes and horse-drawn carts as standard transport), a damaged ecology (oil standing in pools in ditches) and the fabled fear of invasion (cement bunkers everywhere).

Enver Hoxha, the man most responsible for these things, was dead, but communism wasn't quite, and I found a lingering fear of the state. An 11-year-old boy whose father had escaped that year said the police did not want him to talk to foreigners. It was whispered that we had two guides because one was there to watch the other, the one who did the talking.

On the other hand, the lead guide, Fatmir, said we could walk anywhere, and we might be invited into local homes. No invites came, but our unplanned encounters with Albanians were welcoming. And a charming tradition, born of the limited motor transport and nearly nonexistent entertainment, was the nightly "slipper parade" in Tirana's central square. Locals, and visitors, simply strolled for a chance to be social with others. The only hazard: bikes and public buses.

Fatmir, who had never met an American, had many questions about life in America. He wanted to see photos of our hometowns and hear how we lived.

We learned plenty in museum visits and from what Fatmir said and what he didn't. I have a clear memory of his discussion of the 1389 battle of Kosovo, at which the Serbian Prince Lazar led and lost the fight to keep the Ottoman Turks out. Much later, Serbs came to view that catastrophe as central to their national identity -- hence, one of Milosevic's motivations for pushing "aliens" out of Kosovo now.

Fatmir said the Serbs claim this heroism as their own, although Albanians and others fought there, too. Indeed, history texts say, the prince was leading a multinational force. After World War I, the victors drew or acceded to borders for the new Yugoslav nation that left more than 400,000 Albanians, mostly in Kosovo, in Yugoslavia.

The weight of communism sat more lightly in Yugoslavia. Residents could leave, and I had known Kosovars in New York. So when visiting Albania, I figured I was seeing their less fortunate cousins. It seemed those in Yugoslavia were the lucky ones. Now, I would not call any of them lucky.

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI