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
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
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
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
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.