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Adventures in Albania

My friend from the boat was getting anxious to leave but still felt let down by his country and wanted somehow to make things up to me. I decided to take a risk and gave him my 5000 drachmas. “Buy me a souvenir of Albania with that please,” I asked, remembering that back in the ‘golden year’ I had found nothing to take home. I fully expected never to see him again, but to my pleasant surprise he returned bearing a picture of the outline of Albania with the eagle and Skanderbeg’s head superimposed in the middle. Made of a single plastic mould and finished in gold and red it was truly hideous. “This was the only souvenir that I could find,” he said. “I looked everywhere but there was nothing. Anyway, I bought this for you as well, maybe you like?” ‘This’ was a tape of Albanian popular music. It too turned out to be awful. Still, I was deeply touched; this guy had gone to real trouble to do his best for me when he could have just pocketed a week’s wages on the spot. I still have both items of course and the picture graces my hallway wall as a testament to the poor quality of Albania’s manufactured goods and the fact that, despite popular wisdom, her people are not all thieves and indeed some are very kind-hearted indeed. That fine young man would not even keep the change.

The most heart-wrenching moment however, came from the tourist agent who asked me just as I was about to leave, “Please, if you come back, can you bring me a typewriter. Not a computer as the electricity is always going off, but an old typewriter. That would be so useful to me but they are too expensive to buy here.” This remember, was 1999.

On the boat back I met another Dutchman, a Frieslander actually who was making his way back from Kosova where he’d been covering the war for a newspaper which he described as having “a religious readership”. We chatted about the Netherlands, about Albanian entry fees and the situation in Kosova and Albania. “So, how does Kosova compare to here?” I asked him

“Put it like this,” he said, “after NATO bombed Kosova, it was destroyed, completely destroyed but even now, even after all those bombs, it is still twenty times better off than Albania. I have seen no mess as big as that country in all my life and what is frightening is that it is in Europe.”

Later on I asked my Dutch friend Tom van den Ouden to buy some of the papers that the journalist wrote for and to read some of his articles on Kosova. “Never in my life have I heard God mentioned so much in a newspaper as in that one,” he reported back.

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