Friday, June 01, 2007

Tales Of The Unexpected

Albania is certainly unlike any other European country and whilst travelling here the unexpected becomes the norm. (Or that could have more to do with the fact that I'm travelling 'blind' with neither guidebook nor map and so everything is a bit of a surprise really.) One day I get a half hour lesson in Albanian whilst buying bread and the next my tent gets pelted withstones by a stupid kid, who then has the nerve to ask for money. The country is still remarkably rural with no towns of any real size except for Tirana the capital. It reminds me very much of my childhood memories of Communist Czechoslovakia, and even the people here seem to have the dull, matte colouring of a 70's movie. Bumpy, narrow main roads wind their way through broad valleys linking up drab, concrete towns until, out of the blue, you come across a real gem, like the towns of Gjirokaster and Berat which sprawl down hillsides below rundown forts. Narrow cobbled lanes wind between stone houses and villas dating from Ottoman times. Unfortunately most of the churches and mosques from the period are damaged or destroyed completely following Hoxha's own little Cultural Revolution.

Communication is also proving difficult because although Albanian is an Indo-European language it is so far removed from the surrounding Slav and Romance languages that it is only when you hear the numbers that the relationship becomes clear. And because tourism hasn't really caught on yet the general level of English amongst the population is quite low. Instead the most commonly understood language is Italian due to the large number of Albanians that travel there to find work and the importance of Italy as a trading partner (70% of Albanian trade is with Italy). So I am forced to dig into my reserves of Spanish and smatterings of Italian that I've learned from mafia movies: capisce? bene bene! Suffice to say a lot of hand gestures are also needed to make myself understood.

Finding accommodation is also rather comical but I have finally perfected a technique that seems to work: when I arrive in a town I shoulder my backpack and start looking lost and foreign (not difficult as I am both) and sooner or later I will be approached by someone saying "hotel hotel?" offering a bed in a private home for half the price of a hotel room. Okay, sometimes it might be dodgy as when my host came back one night, obviously drunk and shouting about Italian mafia and damning the Serbs and the Russians for the whole neighbourhood to hear. But another time I got a big room to myself with TV an en suite, which was very handy as I really to needed to wash my clothes. It also gave me the opportunity to check out Albanian TV. I honestly believe that you can tell a lot about a nation from the TV programmes they watch and Albanian TV proved to be very interesting. The local productions are incredibly amateurish with wobbling cameras, poor lighting and shoddy effects, but the channels have a great ace up their sleeves: the small size of the country and the relative lack of laws, and so in the evenings they just put on DVDs of recent films with Albanian subtitles - absolute heaven for me, though I'm sure somewhat against copyright.

But upon arriving in Tirana accommodation proved to be rather tricky as my arch-nemesis, George W. Bush, is about to come to town (although he'll only be staying in the country for 7 hours) and so not only were beds scarce but prices were ridiculous. Damn that meddlesome Yank! The city itself is laid out in typical Grand Communist style, with ridiculously wide boulevards and pavements and a gigantic central square (perfect for military parades) and all around are boxy, concrete apartment blocks which, thankfully, have been painted various pastel shades to try and minimise the damage they inflict upon our retinas. Actually there is only one real 'site' in Tirana and that's an old mosque that managed to survive the Hoxha years which has incredible frescoes on the inside unlike any I have ever seen in a mosque, with depictions of palaces and trees (buildings are particularly rare in Islamic art).


Ex-Shammickite said...

That George Bush, he causes trouble wherever he goes!
Albania... you don't hear much about it. I guess nothing important happens there. The only news about Albania is when there are stowaways found on board ships and they invariably turn out to be Albanians. It must be a place that people want to escape from.
That's an interesting way to get overnight accommodation, although I don't think it would work here. What do you do about money.... so many different currencies that you have had to have in your pocket.... and I'm sure they don't take VISA or MASTERCARD.

yaniv mazor said...

hey erik, its yaniv
id just like you to know im having a lot of fun reading your blog, it brings me a little comfort knowing you're out there..