Published: May 28th 2004May 28th 2004
Relaxing by Lake Como, when I am approached by two young men in shirt and tie, both clutching black books under their arms. Shit! They’re after my soul! I try not to make eye contact, but they’re onto me. They say something in Italian, but my blank expression makes them change tactic "do you speak English?" (Their American). " No" I reply instinctively in my panic, but apparently in an English accent? Got me!
With the formal greetings and niceties out of the way, the duel begins. They want my soul and they have the self-confidence to suggest they know they can get it. They have of course access to the truth. My questions are civil and testing, I want to learn about them rather than their cult (they are Mormons). 22 yrs old and have been missionaries in Italy for a year and a half. I am amazed at their sacrifice and commitment. I have the highest respect for them in a way I do for all deeply religious people from any faith - they all seem to exude an inner peace. I feel a rapport is growing between us and I suspect that they would like me on their
Little __kers berat
side, rather than burn in the pits of hell with the rest of the sinners! I give a few boisterous, but knowledgeable retorts to their answers - some of which have them in stitches, they lighten up, and I’m a lost cause. They start taking an interest in what I am doing. They look at me in a different way as I explain to them about my life, in a way I know will appeal to their sense of 'truth'. By now the offer of a bible is almost a token gesture. I tell them I'm looking to buy some paper and a pen. Half an hour later they return with my new book of Mormon, pad and pen. But in way I hope we all three of us knew, that as I took ownership of my new book, all worldly truths were not contained within it.
During my trip down between Milano and Ancona I have a well-needed shave in the toilets of the moving train - careful not to make it look like a failed suicide attempt.
I also come to the controversial conclusion that on average Danish girls are more attractive than their Italian sisters, but
the Italians are somehow sexier. I flicked through my new book of Mormon, and it turns out that Jesus actually visited the Aztecs of Central America! There is even a picture of him standing next to what looks like Tikal in Guatemala! On departing the train in Ancona I placed a small black book of Mormon on the table and walked away feeling slightly guilty.
I visited Ancona seven years ago on a trip back from Cyprus, and even though it turned out I remembered very little of the place the mystery was gone.
On the ferry to Albania I talked to an Albanian journalist in his 50s called Murat. His claim to fame was once meeting Norman Wisdom in his hometown and watching Cardiff City play Hartlepool. The 20 hr voyage to Albania was a few hours late so I spent a bit of time talking to Murat about life in Albania, regional politics and religion. He invited me to stay with his family in a mountain town to the north of Tirana. I declined his offer promising to return one day - Partly because it was out of my way, but more importantly I felt it would
make my first impressions of Albania a little rosy. I wanted to be struck by by the full force of Albania - because the first couple of days in a country are when I see everything with eyes wide open - when the differences seem somehow magnified.
Murat made a few phone calls on our arrival in Durres and helped me out with my first nights hotel arrangements. We said our farewells, and then the Hotel owner in his old Merc picked me up. Along with his English speaking daughter who asked “well what do you think of Albania? I don't know yet, I said "well look" as she proudly held up both hands to the window "Shithole!" was the honest reply I should have given, but didn't.
It is hard to imagine Albania is in Europe; the brain just cannot process such information. I tried to think long and hard what it reminded me of and if you squint your eyes it looks a little like eastern turkey - but less developed and less oriental. The people are also very different, everything seems somehow laid back and they seem strangely contented even though know they strive for
more, because they clearly have very little. The cities are in a very bad way, not because they don't care but because they govt. has no cash.
I wanted to visit rural Albania so I traveled to Berat - which is supposedly Albania' 'second' most picturesque town. Berat is filled with magical white stone houses with terracotta-tiled roofs. These houses occupy both sides of a gorge, one side Christian and the other Muslim. The two sides are separated by a river and connected by a lovely seven-arched bridge. On the Muslim side of the river, some 100m above the river is a wonderful old castle ruin with an equally majestic village sheltering inside its walls. From up here you can see the town below and the endless rolling hills stretching away until they meet the snow capped mountain backdrop. Berat seemed a million mile away from communist-industrial-nightmare-Durres. It was here, on a clear blue sunny day, way above the town listening to the distorted sounds coming from below that I heard the sound which will keep Albania out of the EU for many years to come. It sounded as if it was almost carried on light breeze from a distant village - it was a muezzin’s melodic call to prayer - a sound I have not heard for over a year, and it bought back so many memories of my last journey though the Islamic world.
Between 1967 and 1990 the communist govt. of Albania created the worlds only atheist country by turning many mosques and churches into museums, cinemas and whatever else they thought was needed. Worship was banned, so when it says in the statistics that Albania is 70% Muslim, they are Muslim in the same way that people in England are Christian - they are not religious, they drink alcohol, eat pork, and I didn't see a single women wearing a head scarf. Plus the men are only allowed ONE wife the poor bastards!
On leaving Berat I set out on a winding journey up through the mountains to Lake Ohrid on roads that resembled those in Africa more than Europe. I saw on this journey more evidence of the communist govt.s paranoia. In the late 60's, Albania left the Warsaw pact after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. With no superpower to protect them, they built a million igloo shaped concrete bunkers on every strategic hillside, pass, field and local park. So everywhere you go in Albania you see these things, like the heads of daleks pointing out of the earth in defense of the realm.
Then whilst changing buses I met 22 yr old Leonard: an Albanian who had lived in Dagenham, east London for 6 years. He told me the amazing story of how the country slipped into civil war in 1997 when the govt. stole everybody's money from the banks. People revolted, attacked police stations, army barracks and all symbols of the state. All the countries weapons were looted, and for over a year anarchic Albania was a pretty dodgy place. This is when Albania earned its tag the Wild West of Europe. People didn't travel between towns, men didn't leave their homes at night and women and children rarely left them at all. People had less than nothing, life became very cheap, and many were killed.
This when Leonard aged 14 with his two friends 14 and 15 attempted to leave Albania to join his older brother in England. He got the speedboat to Italy for half price (approx. 300 euros). It was full of refugees and the trip that was supposed to take 2 hours took seven, pursued by the Italian coast guard in a larger yet less nimble ship in the stormy seas off the Adriatic. They always waited for rough seas because it gave them a better chance of making the journey un detected. Upon reaching Italy, Leonard and his two mates climbed into the back of a random Lorry, where they stayed for three days before the driver discovered his new cargo in Spain. Leonard said he believed he would die in that truck. They were so sick and dehydrated that when the worried driver bought them some cokes he was violently sick. The driver left them a little money and they sneaked onto a train to France, eventually reaching the border port of Calais where they climbed into another Lorry bound for England. Leonard claimed asylum, claiming he was from Kosova - but six years later he was kicked out because the war was over.
Leonard has fond memories of England - but now he is trapped in Albania. He had a long term girlfriend in England - she visited for a month with her father (Leonard paid the whole tab) When a year later Leonard was kicked out of England, the girls mother wouldn't let her marry because she felt they were too young. Now Leonard’s girl has predictably found someone else. But Leonard is quite philosophical about the whole thing. He said he like English girls for drinking, smoking and general fun - but they are no good to marry!
But before Leonard and all his mates, and their families, come to Europe to steal your jobs and marry your sisters, I was able to ask him a few more questions about Albania. I told him the guy I met on the ferry earned 200 euros a month. He said most people earned closer to 120, and that only attractive girls who sleep with the boss earn 200! (So at least there are some career prospects!).
Overall I liked Albania a lot. I only encountered honest, friendly people, willing to help me out and watch after me. Nobody wanted my money, I felt totally safe and felt the people I met were genuine. But as my affair only lasted for four days, and was ultimately a transit route, this may not represent the true Albania. I never met a single foreigner here, which I'm sure I would have, had I visited the more spectacular south (just a few kms from Corfu). If I had stayed for 40 days I'm sure I would have seen much better aspects of Albania and much worse. I'm happy with the Albania I knew, albeit briefly.
Now I must confess, I do feel a little guilty about my stay in Albania. I stayed in the most expensive hotel in very town I visited - the problem you see, is that it is so bloody cheap!
(doner kebab, hamburger and coke $2US) I changed 50 euro into local currency when I arrived and had trouble spending it! If I had taken up offers of staying at people’s homes I would have spent next to nothing. My 10-euro hotel last night was so extravagant I cannot begin to tell you - the view was amazing! Well how can I afford all these luxuries? Well I had a minimum wage job inside the EU for a few months.
Wouldn't you want to come to the EU?
But more importantly, I'm planning to cross this world-class lake in a few hours to check out the Macedonian side. Summer has most definitely arrived, I'm quite far south now and I'm worried about my tan - what do you reckon sun factor 12 or 16;)