First impressions are precious and dangerous. Precious because you see things that later you gloss over. Dangerous because you make quick assumptions based on slim evidence.
Shqiperia at first glance looks to me like an in-between place: part Southern Europe, part Eastern Europe, part Middle East, part new and changing rapidly, part old and not moving, part Global North, part Global South. It seems like a good place to come if you want to understand the world. That is why I am excited to be here.
I am also excited to be here because of my ignorance of this land. Everything is new to me. There is so much to absorb. It is like the view from our fifth-floor apartment window. Every time I look out, something new I did not see before, pops at me. It is as if I am coloring in the panorama in a different place each time I look.
The architecture here reflects these diverse currents. Out my window, I see grey Soviet-era apartment buildings, and two-story red tile roof homes built in the 19th century, next to new hi-rises that take off on the Soviet style, but add color and more windows. Gleaming new hotels, ghosts of factories. On the streets, shops cram as many goods into tiny spaces as possible, electronics, olives, and cabbages bigger than basketballs. Not in my view are gleaming mosques, new since the 1990s, (Albania today is 60% Muslim, 30% no religion. The Communist regime (1944-1990) was religiously atheist.)
We are learning to walk all over again, as some roads are shared with cars, others have wide sidewalks, some places you just cross and the cars are supposed to stop, other places there are actual crosswalks with lights that give a luxurious 50 seconds to cross. A permanent hopscotch painted onto the sidewalk in front of the grocery store delights children as they pause to play.
Italy is the neighboring Super Power here, where Albanians want to go to advance economically; where Albanians are not wanted except as cheap laborers. At one geographical point Italy is close enough it can be seen across the Adriatic coast on a clear day. At about 70 klms it’s still a pretty big moat, yet Italians (on social media) say they want a wall to keep Albanians out. The supermarket half a block from us is an Italian chain. We were chagrined to realize we bought Italian eggs. Next time we will buy them on the street.
Shqiperia has the best food. I have been craving soups since we landed in Portugal. (What else should one eat in November?), but they were hard to come by in Iberia. Here they are on every menu; soups that elevate one flavor, served with a generous orange lemon slice. Salads so fresh, dotted with pomegranates and grapes and figs. Pomegranates! They taste nothing like the ones in Portugal and Spain. Those were good. These are brighter, and more piquant in flavor. We are careful not to drop a kernel. That good. We had a roasted vegetable salad today in a restaurant that made us swoon. I’m not a food writer. I’ll just report that we kept saying Oh, Oh, Oh, as we ate. We have sampled on pastry, a ball covered in coconut or hazelnut, delightfully spiced. Great with decaf coffee. Unfortunately, neither of us can drink the real stuff, which I hear is great here, but we are drinking all kinds of herbal teas. The chamomile is freshly made (they sell the flowers in the market) as is the rosehip tea (“it will take six minutes to brew.”) We found a stall on the street, away from the larger open-air market, where we now get all our vegetables. Beautiful broccoli. Spinach, at 50 cents a bunch.
Albania as a nation is very young, gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, and Tirana, the capital, where we are staying, is a young city as well. 200 years ago it was still a sheep ranching region. The country has been predominantly rural until very recently. As I read about the period of industrialization, 1968-1980s socially engineered by the Communist Party in power, a regime led by Enver Hoxha, who had broken with the Soviet Union, I think about Puerto Rico.
In the 1940s, the United States, the most powerful capitalist country in the world, also imposed an accelerated industrialization process on its so-called protectorate (colony), Puerto Rico, in an equally heavy-handed socially engineered way, working under the same premise that modernization and development are by-products of industrialization.
In Puerto Rico, the industrialization was done through mass private investment. Huge tax incentives opened the door to expropriation and profits left the island. In Albania, the factories were owned by the state. When the communist era ended, so did the factory era.
In both cases, industrialization was followed by a mass exodus of people, not in search of adventure or new cultures, but in search of work and income. For Puerto Rico, New York, Chicago, and Miami were the safety valves that masked the bankruptcy of the industrial solution to underdevelopment. Factories use less labor than farming. If profits are not shared, those removed from plantation agriculture but not hired will starve if they don’t migrate. In Albania, it was the fall of communism and the period of privatization that led to the mass exodus as those industrial jobs disappeared overnight. (Before the fall no-one was allowed to leave.)
Privatization also left Albania with few common resources to hold people together and fill in the gaps. Today some young Albanians are filling in those gaps by taking over the ruins of industry and turning them into common spaces, created, organized, run, and used by the people. Common-ism.
At the same time, privatization continues. Fancy hotels and restaurants go up to attract tourism (25% of the GDP today). Tourism is Puerto Rico’s new primary product as well.
The language of Shqiperia, is Shqiptare. We listen to language tapes in the morning and try to bring one new word or phrase into our interactions. Më falni—I’m sorry or excuse me—and falaminderit, —thank you—have been the most useful.
Më falni for assumptions based on ignorance. Falaminderit for listening.
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