Impressions along an Albanian highway

I have recently returned from Albania. Considering the responses I received from every one I told before leaving, this may be an unusual place to visit and one that’s not on many travel wish-lists. And if the visitor kiosk in the photo on the left is anything to go by, it may some time before Albania becomes a tourist haven.Last year I went to Cuba. News of this trip was greeted by most with excitement on my behalf (yes, I have good friends) and some level of envy. News of my impending visit to Albania was received only with bemusement or concern that I could be kidnapped!

Both trips to Cuba and to Albania came courtesy of my membership of one of the World Council of Churches’ advisory bodies  – the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. It’s a seven year gig. We meet every 18 months, as it turns out in some exotic location. The problem is, however, that it’s a meeting and so most of our time is spent in a meeting room. We could be anywhere.

In Cuba we got out a bit more. In Albania, my overwhelming impressions were garnered from the bus as we travelled along the main highway between our meeting place (the theological academy of the Albania Orthodox Church) and Tirana, the capital, Durres, the main port and the airport.

Albania looks and feels like someone slapped market capitalism on it almost overnight and it has been trying to catch up every since. It’s not a pretty sight.

The Communists lost control in 1992. From 1944 until his death in 1985, the Communist Dictator Enver Hoxha ruled with the proverbial ‘iron hand’. Religion was not his friend and he destroyed pretty much every religious building and artefact in the country, murdered many priests and religious leaders, and declared Albania the world’s first atheist state.

In the last twenty years religion has re-emerged in Albania, a majority Muslim country now with a significant Christian Orthodox population. The Albanian Orthodox Church is literally rebuilding itself from the ground up. One of the reasons we didn’t get out much was that the Church kept us to itself – we spent time visiting building sites, icon restoration rooms and schools. After such a brutal oppression, some “look at me” attitude is entirely understandable.

So… travelling along the highway it occurred to me that one of the first signs of an invasive market economy, apart from roadside advertising (of which Cuba is deliciously free of, except for the party propaganda), must be cars. In the poorest country in Europe the major highway between the two largest cities is lined with car dealerships, including plenty of top-end luxury dealerships all made of glass and steel. And everywhere you look there are little arched canvas awnings on poles – shelters that serve as sites where men will wash your car for you. The highway is also littered with tyre and spare parts shops. The car is everywhere. The roads, however, are an example, of something that doesn’t keep up. I wondered how evolved, or not, was local government in the young republic. It seems like no-one in particular is in charge of filling in the potholes.

The other thing that you see everywhere are half-finished buildings. I was told that there are two main reasons for this. In the first flush of capitalism, people started building new (often big) homes for themselves only to find that their short-term future was not as prosperous as they had anticipated it would be. Or the builder ran into issues with planning permits. These buildings are mostly empty, except for the occasional squatter, often for sale, and have obviously been sitting there for quite some time. I was surprised that I didn’t see more squatters taking some shelter in these buildings without walls and windows. The photo to the right also gives a little indication of the state of building sites. Australia’s construction workers would be horrified!

One of the visits we made was to a day care centre run by the Orthodox Church. I found it disturbing, not because the kids were not well cared for. It was, in fact, a place full of happy, engaged, healthy looking children and satisfied staff. What was disturbing was that the walls were covered in posters – Disney’s Snow White in a passionate embrace with her prince with the seven dwarves looking on, Snoopy, Marvel’s Spiderman and many more in the same ilk. This is a country that was almost totally isolated for decades! It doesn’t take long for western (mostly American) culture to insinuate itself into the hearts and minds of an entire culture. Depressing!

I can’t imagine that I will ever go back, but I will try to follow Albania’s progress.  The people I met were wonderfully open and generous and the resilience of Albania’s Christians is a huge testimony to the human spirit. I am glad to have my impressions along a highway.