Albania: Feudalism of the Middle Ages

The feudal system of the Middle Ages that we associate with western Europe from about the 9th to the 15th century, was also a part of Albanian society. Although Albania was part of a larger empire, the Byzantine Empire, owing to wars and invasions, the power Constantinople had over Albania was not absolute. The local governors had to have their own armies for protection. Invasion was a constant threat. The commoners had to seek protection from these governors who exploited their power. They took the property of the poor either through unfair rates, or force and turned the peasants into serfs on their large estates. Thus a new aristocracy was born.

Although the emperors from Constantinople attempted to thwart this new societal development, history was not on their side. Moreover, sometimes emperors such as those of the Comneni dynasty supported feudalism, so long as the landlords agreed to go to war for the empire. With time the landlords refused even that, and they were aided by certain events, such as the capture of Constantinople in the fourth crusade (AD 1203). This crusade weakened a crumbling empire, and made it possible for a foreign invader, the Ottoman Turks, to capture Constantinople permanently in the 15th century.


They feudal lords called themselves Dukes, Princes, or Despots, and married only among their own rank; sooner marrying outside their nationality, than outside their caste. They built castles to live in and ran organized societies with their own military, city councils, or even money. Their serfs supplied them with goods as well as money. Peasant life was tough; not only did they suffer hard labor but also tyranny; and this moved them to revolt, from time to time. One revolt in 1336 first brought Turkish soldiers to Albania who were hired to crush it by Emperor, and crush it they did. At that time, peasants were freer on the mountains, as the mountains were inaccessible to the feudal landlords. These communities bred animals and were most independent. But by the same token, owing to isolation, they were less civilized.

Although Albania was often made part of larger empires, often led by outsiders, such as the Byzantine Empire, or the Bulgarian Empire, or short lived empires liked the Serbian Empire, Albanian towns always had some degree of self governance. After the 12th century, major towns like Durres, Shkodra, and Lezha became largely independent. These free cities sooner had to struggle against the feudal princes nearby than against the emperor in Constantinople. These princes waged a heavy tribute tax on these tows. But as tyrannous and miserly as the feudal princes were, it was even worse when independence was lost altogether to a foreign power, like Venice, and soon after the Ottoman Empire.

Source:
Tajar Zavalani, History of Albania

Albania: Memories of Durres

During this visit i had a most unremarkable time in Durres; being so near Tirana, less than one hour away, my company and I drove there haphazardly one Sunday, coupling it with a visit to the Bay of Lalzi; a secluded beach that in my view outdoes the one at Durres. At Lalzi, we parked our car, walked past the woods and to my pleasant surprise were met with a white sand beach strewn with cute wooden umbrellas the kind of which I’d never seen before. The only catch was it was a cool, cloudy and somber day and not a soul was around. We strolled a bit, jumped back in the car and zigzagged through a suburban neighborhood of nice, gated houses; a concept that didn’t even exist back when I was growing up here. We only stayed in Durres for lunch, eating in the restaurant of a random hotel. The food was average, the weather dreary and rainy…

I prefer to remember the Durres of my youth. Back then, Durres was a popular beach destination. Being on the Adriatic coast not too far from Tirana, though back in those times one took the train, it was the default destination for middleclass Albanian families of all nearby towns. We went there every summer, for one or maybe two weeks.

One particular vacation to Durres that comes to mind is 1990. I know this because it was a World Cup year, and being a young Albanian kid, I was mad about soccer. I was only seven but I understood the game and I loved watching it and playing with my friends outside on the dusty asphalt of our apartment building. Today, except for the World Cup, you can’t pay me to watch your soccer! I prefer football but back in that time and place I was a fanatic, like my brother and our friends. All the men in the country were soccer heads. All the women never watched a single game! But now times have changed there and girls and women participate in athletics.

That year a friend and colleague of my dad’s was also vacationing with his family in Durres. This guy had a kind of gift at getting ahead in life under communism. He always found a way to make friends with those in power and in turn secure advancement for himself and his family under the most meagre of material circumstances. Well, in Durres, he did it again! He had pulled some strings, and booked a room for his family in the fanciest hotel in town, reserved at that time for western tourists and the political elite only. We would visit them daily and live the high life which to me today seems standard, but back in that day when material possessions were so very lacking, everything this hotel had was a big deal.

It was the at that very hotel that I first became exposed to color television. At home, all throughout my life we only had black and white TV. Seeing this new color TV set in the lobby of the hotel was a huge deal. It was a new thing for us. Moreover, it was absolutely awesome because that World Cup I mentioned was taking place at this time. We could watch games on color TV! Boy oh boy, I have seen one of the wildest soccer games of my life on that TV. It went into overtime and then into penalties. We were loving every second of it, only as a fanatic can!

Another incident that took place at this hotel was more comical. It was here that I tasted Coca Cola for the first time in my life. But not in the usual way, where one buys a drink and enjoys it. No, we weren’t staying at the hotel so I suppose we weren’t allowed to buy anything. Besides we didn’t know what coke was. Anyhow, my mom, my brother and I, and her friend and her two sons went up to an empty table spontaneously on a patio cafe where the privileged westerners had just leisured and left all their pop cans. Well, we saw the remains of a dark fizzed drink at the bottom of their glasses. Out of curiosity to know what it was, and perhaps to see what the fancy tourists were having, we picked up their cans and had a taste. It was awesome! It was Coca Cola. It was also pathetic that our country’s economy could not even provide us that…

Albania: Invasions of the Middle Ages


In 395, after the division of the Roman Empire into East and West, the Illyrian lands of Moesia (Serbia) Dardania (Kosovo) and Epirus (Albania) fell to the east. The east, the Byzantine Empire, called their political units themes, large states led by a deputy to the emperor, with several provences such as Vlora, and Lezha, in central Albania or Praevlitania, in the northern Albania, or Moesia in modern Serbia; each were ruled by nobles. On a larger level, there were four prateorian prefectures, which were divided into dioceses.


Emperor Justinian, 527 to 565, built many fortifications to defend the Empire. Eventually, the invaders would come, and great as defence was, the wave could not be stopped. Though he built 26 forts in Illyria, his home, IIlyria itself would be most affected by invasion. The first invaders came from central Europe from the Germanic peoples. The Goths, and the Iranian Sarmatians, swept through Balkan regions such as Thrace (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Dardania, Epirus. etc. Though they wrought great violence and suffering, they left no trace on the people and place. The Huns came from the east in 441 followed by the Avars, to further ruin Dardania and Macedonia. Ostragoths from the north would follow in 459.


These periodic invasions however would only increase in the 500s and 600s. The new wave would begin from the East where the Bulgars, a Turkic people, would defeat an Illyrian army in Thrace and settle the land. Constant wars would weaken the Byzantine army and its capacity to defend the empire, which only led to further invasion, and finally permanent settlement. The waves of settlers would come from the north and east, from the Slavic peoples; these people, who were numerous and particularly ruthless, would ravage the empire, killing, expelling or assimilating the natives. So bold and unstoppable were these invaders that they attempted to capture Constantinople itself; in this ambitious campaign, however, they were defeated. But they would forever change the ethnic composition of the Balkans. Today their descendants live in the modern countries of Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria.


Illyria would loose Moesia to the Serbs and all territory north of modern Albania; though today there exists an Albanian minority in neighboring Slavic countries, like Monte Negro, as well as Macedonia, which is 25 percent Albanian. Ancient Dardania, modern Kosovo, would have centuries of conflict with the Serbs, until it gained independence as its own country in 1999.


From the east came further invasion into central Albania, this time from the Bulgars, who themselves now had been overrun by the more numerous Slavs. The Bulgarian Slavs were to build a kingdom in 851 whose zenith would be in the 10th century, and whose reach would extend through Macedonia, northern Greece, and central Albania. Though it would last for close to two centuries, until 1018, it would have no permanent impact on Albania, other than some Slavic place names or words.


From the west, Albania and the Balkans would have yet more invasion, this time from the Normans, an adventurous Viking people, who are most known for conquering England in the year 1066. In 1081, the Normans invaded Vlora and proceeded to Durres without much resistance. Meanwhile Emperor Alexius called on Venice for support. On the sea, the Normans would loose to the Venetian force, but not on land; all of Albania and Thessaly (Northern Greece) would be occupied until 1085, when Alexius raised another army and routed the invaders. Yet the Normans would return once more in 1107, this time without success. So weak was their campaign in Durres that their leader Bohemond instead of conquering, joined the Empire as a governor in Asia Minor.


Sources:
Zavalani, Tajar. (1903-1966) Histori e Shqipnis, 1957, Tirana. History of Albania. London, 1963. Reprinted, 2015 Robert Elsie and Bejtullah Destani, editors.


Elsie, Robert. (1950-2017) Albania in a Nutshell, 2015.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov 1881

Albania: Gjirokastra history

Gjirokastra is a small picturesque old town in southern Albania. Its population is said to be about 25,000 but may range as high as 30,000. Nothing can be definitely known about its ancient history. It does not have ancient ruins but it is within the vicinity of two nearby ancient sites, one of Greek origin, Antigonea, an important polis, founded by King Pyrrhus in 295 BC, and the second one of Roman origin, Adrianopolis, site of an amphitheater that seated up to 4000 people. However, the picturesque old town we think of today mainly dates from the 19th century, though it is true some structures, such as mosque which dates from 1557, are much older. It is in this period from 1800 to 1830 the town flourished, resulting in the construction of magnificent large villas with ornate stone and wood facades, that reveal both unique character and taste. These villas combined with the meticulously cobbled stone streets on a mountainous terrain, make Gjirokastra an artistic city that to this very day stands the test of time.


Gjirokastra was first recorded by the chronicler John Kantakuzenos in the year 1336 as Argyrokastro; this name means Silver Castle in Greek, owing to the silver aspect of its stone walls. The origin of the city is this castle, still standing today in good shape, as Albania’s largest castle. Ceramics within have been unearthed dating back to the 5th century. Here, traces of an ancient wall suggest a pre-Roman settlement. Its early stages began in the 5th century; the general form was established in the 13th century, and it was expanded and finalized under the rule of Ali Pasha of Tepelena in the 19th century. It served as a fort akin to one of today’s military bases where soldiers, and high ranking officials could live with their families. It is said that even civilians lived within it during the middle ages. Today this castle lends a mysterious historic aura to the old town.


In 1336 Gjirokastra was under the feudal power of the Zenebishi family and was part of the Despotate of Epirus, a small successor state of the Byzantine Empire, in the wake of the fourth crusade. By the year 1419 it had completely fallen to the Ottomans who had conquered much of the Balkans, and would stay part of their empire until the early 20th century. In the late 19th century Gjirokastra became a center of Albanian patriotism, hosting a congress demanding freedom the Ottoman Sublime Porte. In 1908, the first Albanian language school in all Albanian speaking lands opens here. After the Albanian declaration of independence in 1912, Gjirokastra fell under the sway of General Zografos who owing to its Greek minority and proximity to Greece, attempted to unite it to Greece. However the Entente Powers, Britain, France and Russia, prevented this majority Albanian town from being taken by Greece.


When Communism fell, in the early 1990s, people emigrated and shuttered many historic villas letting them fall into disrepair. In 1997 Gjirokastra as well as the country at large suffered great instability, when pyramid schemes lured the populace to invest their hard earned savings, and lose all of it. In the anger and chaos afterward, the people burned the town bazaar and another mass exodus and abandonment ensued. Today, however, Gjirokastra is experiencing a renaissance. Moreover, with the opening up of Albania to more and more tourism each year, Gjirokastra is destined to keep growing as one of Albania’s top attractions.

Sources:

http://www.gjirokastra.org/albanian/al_sublinks/per_gjirokastren/mbi_gjirokastren_historia.html

http://albania.al/destinations/gjirokastra/

Albania: the village

The village is an Aromanian village. I am Aromanian (also called Rremen or Vllah) on my dad’s side. There is no difference in appearance between us and Albanians. We do have our own language, though, which is similar to Romanian. However, we do not come from Romania. We  came from the Roman colonists and assimilated natives of ancient times. The village has three streets dotted by cute small houses, many of which are newly renovated or rebuilt. Strangely many are seasonally empty. Many people of the younger generation have found work in Greece and perhaps the elderly is the largest demographic.  Everybody knows everybody, perhaps for a whole lifetime, and many houses have relatives in other houses. There is one small church without a priest. But the faithful can always light a candle. A small school was in use for several years but now is closed as there are so few children, it’s easier to bus them in to the nearby town of Gjirokastra. I hear the population fluctuates increasing in the summer when emigres from Greece return.


In the village, I was stationed at my cousin Anna’s house, whom I am close with. But she had married recently and gone off to live in Italy. Just my luck. Her younger brother was around but I saw little of him till evening. We were roomies. Anna’s parents showed me great “village hospitality,” which is the only hospitality left. The cities have turned cold. Her mom cooked vegetable rich stews for me every night, often with fresh feta cheese made from milk from their very own goats. Her dad, meanwhile, works various country jobs and in the evenings he took time out to eat dinner with us.


The pace of life in the village is predictably slow. Very little TV, and no internet; truly I had no interest for either. Good conversation is your best bet at passing the time. Thankfully, for interesting conversation, if not a little absurd, I had Papo Nidha, (Grandad Leonard) my dad’s uncle to talk to. He is an old man but still of sound mind and eccentric as ever. Curious and open minded, he had many questions about America as we sat leisurely chatting in the shade of his grape vineyard in his front yard. Yet, Papo Nidha’s ultimate curiosity is not about the west but about the east! But I cannot fault him; when he was in his prime, Albania was allied with China, not the US; and as every old person sticks to the fashions of his youth whether be it in clothing, music, or political ideology, Papo Nidha still maintains an affinity for Communist China.

Strangely, it was not only China. He also likes Japan, “One time, in Tirana,” he spun me a tale the only way he can, “there was a tour group from Japan and this young man saw a young girl that he liked. She was a cashier at a shop. He told her on the spot ‘I like you and I want to marry you.’ She told him, ‘Let me go ask my parents.’ (Papo Nidha emphasized parental approval) She came back soon, with her parents blessing, and accepted his offer. They married, and moved to Japan.” Whether or not this tale is true i have no way of knowing; but i did catch a TV show while in Tirana that mentioned an Albanian woman had intermarried with a Japanese man. Now they were living in Tokyo with their 5 year old son.

I also had chaps my own age to hang with.  Papo Nidha’s grandchildren, Cousins Lambro and Pandi, were visiting from Athens. Pandi was very Hellenized. He doesn’t speak Albanian; but speaks perfect English. Lambro reminded me of my brother and had maintained his Albanian roots. I did meet with cousin Thoma, a warm and welcoming person. However, unwittingly he took me on a rather wild ride, an errand with a bus driver friend of his to buy a new window for the minibus. All that wind blowing in my face from the broken window, however, gave me chills for the rest of the day. His brother Dhimo showed me around Gjirokastra. On tour I was struck by the beauty of the old town with 19th century Ottoman villas and cobblestone streets. Looking on, I felt a pang of regret, knowing I’d leave soon. Dhimo and I settled on the wisdom, “Let us be well off wherever we may be.” I also met cousin Nikos of Greece. He hated Albania, he told me, and generally he was a lovable grump. He smoked, napped, and played dominoes all day. In other words, he was the perfect Greek.

The village is very small and that too slows down life. There are three restaurants but they are usually empty or closed. There is a tiny market; I did go there and have a beer with the owner, a family friend or perhaps a distant relative, as far as I know. One evening, I ran into an old man, a cousin of my grandma. Very nice guy, very happy to see me, and he felt as if I had materialized out of thin air. True, when you expect one to be in another continent, it must be quite a pleasant surprise to see them walking down your street. You know we don’t have villages, in America do we? Not the way they do in Albania. This village is so small, I cannot possibly find a counterpart to it. Of course, one could argue American villages are the suburbs. Suburbs have single family homes with yards. In this view, America is full of villages, more so than Albania. But the suburbs are gigantic, and thus not true villages. An American suburb would be considered a rather large city in Albania. Perhaps one could argue that small rural towns are villages. Maybe, but in my view, villages are distinctly old world.

Albania: The Name and the Flag

(in Albanian/ne Shqip)

The personal name Ilir has survived as a clue between the continunity of the modern peoples and the ancient. I lir means to be free in modern Albanian; thus the name of our ancestors, the Illyrians, can be thought to mean the free ones. This name is in fact in used to this very day. There are several names from antiquity that are currently in use in Albania today, such as Teuta, Agron, or Genti. All these names were ancient Illyrian Kings and Queens of various tribes. 

While some suppose the modern name for our country, Albania, to be derived from the word Alps, another more plausible theory is our name comes from the word Arberia, one of the ancient illyrian tribes in central Albania. In the second century AD the geographer Ptolemy, placed the location of Arberia in central Albania, but he corrupted the word as Albanoi. However, we Albanians call ourselves Shqiptare; this name is an abbreviation from the word Shqiponje-tare, meaning the people of the eagles. Our language we call Shqip, also an abbreviation of the word, Shqiponje, or eagle.

But let us ask, where does this name come from? What is its genesis? It must come from the eagles on our flag, the very same flag that our founding father, Scanderbeg, (1405-1468) raised up on the fortress of Kruja in the year 1443, when he established independent Albanian principality free from Ottoman rule that would endure 25 years. The Double Headed Eagle was a symbol of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453).

But there is yet more history to decipher here. Let us ask, where does the Double Headed Eagle symbol of the Byzantine empire originate? This image has a very curious history and a very ancient one. In fact, it dates back to over 3500 years ago, perhaps as early as 1600 BC, to the ancient Mycenaeans and Hittites!

Mycenae is the epoch of time that has perhaps Greece’s oldest civilizations that we know of. Even to classical Greece that started at about the year 600 BC they seem ancient. The Hittites are contemporaries the Mycenaeans of Greece; they were located in central Turkey.

Hittite Eagles from Central Turkey
Mycenaean Eagles from Southern Greece (reproduction)

Both cultures made use of the double eagle probably as a royal or noble family insignia or emblem. The Hittite Eagle however is a large 2 foot engraving, and clutching rabbits, while the Mycenaean Eagle is the size of a necklace. It is difficult to say who invented the double eagle; it is just as likely that each culture came up with it on its own. 

But let us ask, what is the meaning behind the double eagle? For symbols often have meanings or even good stories behind them. The double eagle seems to represent a crossroads, a convergence of the East and the West, and there is good evidence to support this view. About 1000 years after the creation of this symbol, a very curious story surfaces relating it to Delphi, an important center to ancient Greece with a religious shrine and an oracle to Apollo called Pythia.  

According to Greek myth, Zues, the god of the sky, released two eagles from the ends of the earth. Flying at the same time and at the same speed, they would cross at the center of the world. Zeus then dropped a large stone from the sky and it landed on Delphi, the center of the world, and a crossing of east and west. Indeed, Delphi’s original name was Krisa, meaning Crossing or Crossroads.This story seems to show the eagle is in fact not double headed but is two eagles crossing in flight.

To the Romans, who conquered Greece this symbol came to mean dominion over east and west. Centuries later in the Byzantine era, Scanderbeg, who lived in the crossroads of east and west, obviously felt most drawn to this symbol and used it for his coat of arms and for the flag of his people, the Albanians, who began to call themselves the Shqiponjtare, the people of the eagles.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-headed_eagle

Images:

http://www.hittitemonuments.com/alacahoyuk/alaca08.htm

https://www.harvardartmuseums.org/collections/object/59553

https://www.inyourpocket.com/tirana

Albania: The Bus Ride

I was now to go south to a village near Gjirokastra. My grandpa took me to the bus station. By the way, I feel weird saying my grandpa, as if I was 3. I was 30! Anyhow, I took a seat, the sole person in the minibus. As I was sitting,  I saw grandpa chatting up the driver and his assistant, as if to make sure I’d be in good hands, and it occurred to me what a charismatic old gentleman grandpa is. He was full of good humor and cheer, dressed in suit and tie, and even a hat, as if he were going to some fancy downtown office, not to a pot-holed bus lot full of dirty rainwater. Anyway, Grandpa stepped outside, a few people came in, and I waved good bye to him out the window.


The driver was a man with a comically shaped head and his assistant was a lean older man who reminded me of Regis Philbin, though he was not funny like Regis, but rather funny in a sleazy way. The minibus got going, and the driver was exceedingly distracted by everything to the side of the road. He would look for any reason whatever to stop the bus; the most bizarre stop that came to pass was a vegetable stand by the side of the roadway. Can you imagine a professional driver in America stopping a bus full of passengers so that he can, on his own whim, get out and purchase the likes of lettuce and green onions! Absurd. But that is exactly what he did, and us passengers were just sitting there, our journey made slightly longer by the distractions of this buffoon and his sleazy companion. OK, so then the  journey picked up some momentum, for an hour or so, but the driver’s absurd desire to stop was ever present; the pretext being to pick up more passengers, but the real reason I suspect was that he was lazy and always looking for an excuse to not do his job!


Anyhow, we passed a few hours and finally took a scheduled break at a roadside restaurant and shoppe. I walked out, as it’s nice to have a break and stretch, picked up a water and returned on the bus. The bus was nearly empty but there was this nice teenage girl sitting behind me, and so I thought to ask her if she knew whether we were near so-and-so a village. She was of that area and told me were approaching it. Although  I said nothing more, I could tell we were both friends, in a way, and I enjoyed chatting with her simply because she had that youthful charm that I cannot find in adults. Though beyond her, I caught the eye of a shady character in the back who gave me a dirty look simply for speaking…


All the passengers boarded and we were now at full capacity. Yet just as he had done all along, the buffoon kept up his unquenchable thirst for breaking for every single passenger on the road. He picked up one and he picked up another, and yet another, and then a fourth. And where was he putting them? There were no seats open. They were all standing in the aisle! But even that wasn’t enough for him. He had to congest the isle! Only then would his absurd desire find satiety. As the aisle was clogged with standing passengers from the back to the front, the idiot stops yet again. This was too much, and a young man from the back of the bus spoke up: “Where ya gonna stuff ‘em, oh master?” Certainly the voice betrayed sarcasm, concern and incredulity.


When my turn to depart the came, a young fellow near me who was travelling with his  girlfriend turned his head and winked as if to say goodbye. Yet soon enough this warm jest was marred by the crazy driver who suddenly turned his eyes to me in the mirror and made a sharp, hurried gesture as if he couldn’t wait to be rid of me and had been wanting to do so from the moment I got on. The whole way, not once had he looked at me even though his eyes went everywhere. I was rushed off in an unfriendly hurry, though it is true my seat was coveted by long standing passengers. I walked by the side of the bus to pick up my suitcase aware that the young girl’s eyes were on my face. I wish I could have looked happy for her, so as to leave a good impression. Unfortunately, I could not as I was too fatigued.

photo credit: Powers to Travel

Albania: A Visit to Elbasan

After getting my fill of Tirana, I decided it was time to go off and see some other relatives. First up, was my first cousin Leda who lives in Elbasan. Elbasan is a city in central Albania, about one hour drive south of Tirana, but even closer now that the roads are better. It is the third largest city, but like every other Albanian city, it pales in comparison to Tirana, having only about 75,000 residents in the city proper. Occupied by Illyrians, in ancient times, the via Ignatia, the ancient military road from the Adriatic coast to Constantinople went through this area. Back then it was just a trading post called Mansio Scampa. Mansio Scampa grew into a city of 2000 by the 3rd century and was an early center of Christianity. However, once Rome fell, so did ancient Mansio Scampa.
The Ottomans set up a huge fortress here in the 15th century, that they called il-Basan, it’s namesake, meaning simply the Fortress. For the next four and a half centuries Elbasan stayed in Ottoman control and understandably turned Muslim. At the beginning of the 20th century the population had grown to 15000. During Communism the city became an industrial center enabling population growth. Recently, in 2014 it became the host city of the national football team, a surprise to me, considering Tirana is the capital.

***
My aunt, on my dad’s side, and her family lived in Elbasan. My grandma used to take my brother and I there as kids. I don’t have any outstanding childhood memories, though I do remember that she and her husband lived in a house, something utterly unusual for an Albanian city, as apartments are always the norm.  I have been to Elbasan twice since my family immigrated, once in 2004, on my first visit back to Albania. Back then my aunt and my grandma were still alive. We had a drink inside the castle, though it was “gutted” as I heard a recent tourist put it. This time, I sat alone one morning, outside facing this fortress, having a drink on the piazza, and truly felt an American on tour.

***
I have never been drawn to Elbasan. It has an industrial feeling, no doubt due to the decades it spent as a town with iron works and other factories. Someway, somehow, as happens to people, its trade became incorporated into its look, giving it a gritty feel. It is not a tourist destination and has no standing historical sites other than the Ottoman castle, which is large but does not impress. The social life of the city centers around this fortress, which also has restaurants, and houses.

***
My aunt was gone. What drew me back to Elbasan was her daughter, who though a decade older, I am good friends with. We had kept in touch through Facebook, enough so to warrant an in-person visit, if the opportunity should arise. This was a calm visit. Not a lot happened, but she and her young teenage daughter were gracious hosts to me. We chatted and caught up as cousins might, when reuniting after a few years. I was long lost American convert, who could still relate to my Albanians counterparts. We get along well. Unfortunately, she had me housed in her father’s house-you know the spacious commodity so unusual for Albanian cities, that I remembered from my youth-well, as soon as she went to work on Monday morning, her father, secretly rushed me off to the bus station and sent me back to Tirana! Poor Leda, she was upset when she found out…I spared her the fact that her father kicked me out.

***
But what a scene that bus station was! That was one of those “only in Albania” moments I witnessed. It was outside the fortress, so there was a lot of people watching, something I personally like. My “gracious” host and I were standing amidst a large gathering of people. “You wait here,” he told me. “There are no empty seats unless you rush in.” Fine, thought I,  there’s no way I can hussle my way into an overcrowded Balkan bus. I come from America, the place where buses go empty. So I stood there, people watching, and my eye caught this girl. She had curled hair, your typical brunette Albanian complexion, and was wearing stylish jeans. She had the aura of Albania, slightly yet unmistakably different from American girls. She was pretty but she was preoccupied, no doubt worrying about shoving her way into an overcrowded bus.

***
Then the bus came, and I can tell you, all of the people huddled in the station gathered around the door, but before they could enter, the people on the bus had to exit. You see it was already full! Only  a few seats opened, and it was a mad scramble for them. I never could have gotten one. I entered the bus with a delay, and took the seat my host had got for me. Give the man credit, he was good at saving a seat, though his motive was questionable… Only about half the people did not get on. I don’t know what became of my bus station beauty.

***
The ride went without incident. But I will remark here that I did witness a special moment. It was a sunny day and our bus now came near upon a mountain. In the olden days, when I was a kid, this route would zigzag around every bend. But today Albania had drilled a tunnel right through the mountain. My small country has progressed! Now you’ll say, big deal George, America has been drilling tunnels since Albania was under the Ottoman yoke. True! But never have I seen a tunnel as picturesque as that one. The traffic lights, the entryway, the sun’s light hitting the mountainside; it was a moment where Albania shined.

Albania: Then and Now

Today, Albania has all material goods that money can buy. What it lacks is not material, but rather spiritual. People don’t care for their neighbor, because the country’s social fabric has been torn. One extreme, communism led to the other, extreme individualism. But I will give credit where credit is due. In many aspects Albania today has made many improvements. Power and water is one big example. In the eighties when I was living there as a kid power and  water outages were a fact of daily life. Today, they are far less frequent. Moreover, as Communism was collapsing, food shortages were also turning commonplace. My grandma stood in line at 6 AM to buy milk and eggs for the day, every day. Today there are no food lines. Back then there were no other goods for purchase. There were very few stores.  Today there are many stores with many goods. Back then, finding something, whether be it clothing, or some other commodity like a home appliance was comically difficult.

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In Communism,  scarcity was appalling. For example, when one needed a suit or a jacket he couldn’t just go out and buy it. There were no suit or jacket stores. There were a few stores that sold dubious fabrics at certain times of the year. One had to buy the fabric then find a tailor, a friend of a friend, secretly mind you, because private enterprise was illegal and pay him under the table. Home appliances were assigned by the State. Apartments were assigned. Cities were assigned. Universities and majors were assigned. Everyone was a state employee; doctors, lawyers, garbage men… Pay for all workers was the same, seven dollars a month. So nobody worked hard; why try when there is no prospect of upward mobility? People socialized a lot for they were one big state run family; the catch was they could say nothing against Comrade Enver, the dictator, and the regime.

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Finally, when the system did collage, the populace went mad. It all erupted into a self destructive spree against its own society. Any and all things were looted, vandalized, violated. My school windows were broken. The hanging lamp in my classroom was clipped off at the ceiling. Neighborhood trees were chopped off at the roots. Nights were spent in a state of fear. New European embassies were stormed by throngs of Albanians desperate to leave. Cargo ships were madly boarded by the same crowd of desperate people. With standing room only, they made three or four trips to the nearby Italian coast. Greece, close and reachable by bus or even foot, became the most frequent immigrant destination.  Such was the frightful state of Albania that kicked out my family along with many others in the early 1990’s.

Albania: Modern Tirana

Let me describe Tirana a bit. It is Albania’s capital and largest city coming in at over 500000 residents. Locals claim it to be up to 850000. In a country that is only 3.1 million residents this makes Tirana a juggernaut. All other cities pale in comparison. But Tirana is not large in terms of land area. It is rather small, by our sprawling American standards. Tirana is a compact apartment city with meandering alleyways and lean main streets. Many apartments have a minimum of 5 stories. This all means Tirana has crammed a large population into a small area. The place is a beehive! There is a soul on every back alley at all times of the day. Once you enter a main street you become part of a swarm of humanity. 

Everyone loves to walk here; not for pleasure but for transport. City busses are utilized to the very brim; they have standing room only, sometimes breathing room only. That is not to say Albanians don’t drive; they drive Mercedez, almost exclusively. Most are inexpensive and older models, but a few are top of the line, brand new and very pricey. Yet, at the same time, new or old tires often bounce up and down muddy potholes and maneuver on streets without lanes. Traffic is bumper to bumper.  Left turns are negotiated at close range and pedestrians do not get the right of way. Tirana is brimming with energy and it packs a punch. If chaos is your lifeblood, Tirana is your paradise.

Tirana is trendy, vibrant and artsy, but it has the problems of chaos. The sidewalks are broken, sewers are open, litter is rampant.  The mail may sooner cross two continents before it crosses two neighborhoods. What is made today wears out by tomorrow. One year may turn a new cafe into an old cafe. There is no staying power. Makeshift farmer’s markets are as if houses of cards that tumble and vanish with the blowing winds. There is no rising power; construction sites are fenced off ghost towns; years may pass before a single brick is laid.

Tirana is flashy and colorful, but without standards. Apartment blocks built today are often ultra modern, chic and stylish but not without blunders in basic design. It appears looks have been prioritized over quality. A support beam may poke awkwardly beneath a ceiling. Living rooms may be illogically small, balconies illogically large.  Elevators may stop working due to the power failures; you may find yourself walking up several flights of stairs in the dark, lighting your away up the windowless stairwell with your smartphone. The apartments of the old Communist era were no-nonsense, but they had ample room, and were free of anomalies. Be it as it may, today these older buildings have often succumb to decay. There are so many eye sores. But there is one good thing: Eye sores in Albania are not considered bad. They are commonplace.