Bread or "Buke" is one of the great joys of life in Albania. Albania has the highest per capita consumption of Buke in Europe. The Albanian words for bread and food are the same, Buke. The entire Albanian diet is based on bread, each individual eats, on average, over a pound of bread a day. In Tirana we lived only a short distance from a bakery.
Every day, from 4 in the morning until 10 at night the bread comes hot from the ovens and shoppers mob in to buy it for 15 leke, thatís 15 cents, a loaf. That sounds cheap, but when the average salary in Albania is $30 a month, the loaf of bread would cost the equivalent of an hour's worth of work. In Sitka, if I shop carefully, I can buy a loaf of bread for about six minutes work. In other words, bread costs 10 times in Albania what it costs in Sitka although the bread in Albania is better. The price of bread is subsidized; other food costs are proportionately higher. The price of bread went down while we were in Albania from 20 cents a loaf because of flour sent in the form of food aid from the United States.
Dinner for Albanians is at 3:30 PM and from 2:30 individuals stand in line for their loaves. The bread must still be hot for the evening meal. It comes from the ovens too hot to carry. A 6-year-old girl has forgotten her bag. She's running down the street, holding her dress up, two loaves of steaming bread in the folds providing the aroma for her nose to follow.
Most Albanians are up at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning to collect water when it's running. Water runs only from 3:30 to 6:30 AM. (I asked someone why it runs only at those hours, she said the government turns it on when it's sure everyone's home so everyone has an equal chance at getting some.) People boil water for drinking, cook, clean, wash and breakfast to be at work at around 7:00 AM. They work until 2 or 3 (women leave work earlier to get diner ready) and eat at 3:30. They nap until 6 or 7. Executives and shopkeepers go back to work, and the rest of the population promenades the streets and visits friends for an hour or two before going to bed.
The promenade is a real occasion. People step out to drink Turkish coffee and beer in the cafes, walk, window shop, and marvel at the newest thing to come off the boat from Italy or the truck from Bulgaria. America is an icon for most of the promenaders, who stop at the cafe "non-stop Amerika," spelled with a K. There is a homemade American flag flying over the outdoor dance floor. It has 11 stripes and the stars are sewn on upside down. Marlboros are for sale at an average day and a halfís wages a pack. Joy Cola is an exact rip off of the red package with the white swoosh thatís the symbol of America. It says "Joke" on the bottle. A favorite "T" shirt for those who can afford it, reads "USA the ultimate status symbol."
Sometime in December I woke up and realized how relaxed I was. I was living in a nation with tremendous problems. My colleagues at Radio Tirana work in the poorest conditions in radio. They get paid $30 a month. Change at Radio Tirana is slow when you want it to be fast. Old fears haunt my reporters. I accomplished only part of what I wanted to get done. In Sitka I would have been frantic: in Albania I was relaxed. I did what could and went home at night. I enjoyed the cafes, my family, my friends, and a country that never stopped surprising me.
There was the young man we met at the fireworks on Albania's independence day. I was taking photos. He was holding a baby. I asked if I could take his picture, and he smiled and said "with baby, yes." After I snapped the shot he said, "wait, I have to return baby." Socol Topi, that's his name, lived in our neighborhood. He speaks English and wanted to meet us. He decided the best way was to borrow a baby, stand near me and hope I would take his picture.
Socol is 20 and just out of the army. He lamented that he didn't have a job. I asked him what he did all day.
"I run a store without walls outside the foreign ministry. My languages help me sell things. But I only profit 2 dollars a day." That is twice what a Radio Tirana reporter makes. When he adds his Army separation pay of $20 a month, he's doing better than most Albanians. I asked him why he wanted a job which pays half of what he is making and would cause him to loose his separation pay. He said that sitting at a stall all day was not work. He wants to be a translator.
I spoke with another young man in the market. He's finishing University and also speaks English. I asked him what he wanted to be. He said "A waiter, and with my knowledge of languages I will do well, yes?"
"Yes." He will earn more than the Director of Radio Tirana, who has been in his career for over 10 years. With his languages and outgoing nature, he will earn more than most of his classmates. In the States students work as waiters to get through college, in Albania, students go to college to become waiters.
Things often seem turned around in Albania. The promise of freedom at the end of the Second World War had turned into the horror of Stalinism. We walked to the Martyr's Cemetery; every Eastern European city has one, a place of pilgrimage that was designed to replace churches. Wedding parties would bring their bridal bouquets after the ceremony and lay them at the eternal flame.
We arrived after an hour's walk. The walk took us past other monuments of the paranoid former leader, bunkers. Round topped poured concrete bunkers. There are hundreds of thousands of them, built to repel an invasion -- from whom? The dictator claimed NATO and the Warsaw Pact would gather their forces in a combined attack on the only pure socialist state. The bunkers now serve as everything from kilns to churches to shelters for the homeless. Outside of Tirana they look like a thousand Buddhist stupas climbing the hillsides. One estimate is that there is one bunker for every 4 inhabitants of Albania. They literally drove the country broke.
When we got to the top of the hill the gate at the Cemetery was welded shut. The new state doesn't want demonstrations at the former site of the former dictator's grave. We followed a farmer who grazes his cows at the cemetery to a hole in the fence. The floodlights around the monument "Mother Albania" are all smashed, the dictator's grave is gone, replaced by a brown depression in the grass. The eternal flame extinguished, the red star on the flame's pylon partially chipped away. There's a beautiful view of Tirana from this hill, the snow topped Mt Dajti in the background.
We waited at the gravesites with the martyrs, and their dreams that became nightmares. The dreams represented the best in people, hope and sacrifice: the nightmares showed the worst, paranoia and betrayal.
Some boys came by. One, used the remains of the red star for a toehold to climb the eternal flame's pylon and, sitting cross legged in the chalice, threw dates at us. He had picked them from the palms that ringed the dictator's former gravesite. One pink wild rose blossomed at the pylon's base.
A reporter brought me a story to edit. It started:
. . . and all the union and government officials attending were mentioned -- by name.
The report met the leaders' need for publicity; the "cult of personality" held over from the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha. But the reporter buried, in the final paragraph, what the listener really wanted to know. The price of bread was going down.
Sometimes journalists argued vigorously about the conflict between the listener's need to know and state's desire for secrecy. I had a copy of the British newspaper "The Observer" and we discussed the paper's report that John Major's government had been holding secret talks with the IRA. Some journalists thought the editor should be arrested for betraying state secrets and endangering the government's activities. The role of a free press was to protect the democratically elected government. (This was a particularly strong sentiment among those at Radio Tirana who personally risked a lot to support the Democratic Party before the fall of Communism.) Others thought that "The Observer" article was the type of journalism that made democracy in the West vital, that it served democracy and therefore the listener. (Unfortunately the one area of agreement we all shared in my office that day was that such a story could not be reported on Radio Tirana.)
I tried to get reporters to anticipate issues based on listener needs, not on government press releases. At times anticipating stories created problems. One reporter was covering an issue about to be debated in parliament. She interviewed a parliamentary deputy about the pending issue. Before her story was broadcast the deputy went to the station to kill the interview. He argued that Radio Tirana should cover the news and not anticipate it. He believed that the issue was not news until after parliament voted on it. Before the vote anything said on the issue was just opinion and the radio should keep away from opinion. A vote is a fact. Radio should report only facts. I argued that listeners must know what deputies are thinking before the vote so they could let legislators know their opinions. I lost. The interview was killed.
Any change contributes to fear among journalists, and fear is the hardest obstacle for reporters to overcome. Reporters are state employees. Some of them think that they work for the deputies they are covering. The legal structure of the radio station provides them little insulation from government reprisal if an official takes issue with a story. While covering a strike a reporter was interviewing a union leader. The leader was arrested during the interview. The journalist did not report the arrest. He was afraid that if he reported it without official confirmation, even though he had the arrest on tape, he would lose his job. In the three and a half months I was at Radio Tirana at least two reporters were attacked by government officials because of their stories. Both feared for their jobs, jobs that pay $30 a month. With a 29% unemployment rate and no private radio stations to work for, this fear is very real.
A best seller among politicos in the US, both the Clintonites and the Hickelites (Note for those not from Alaska, Wally Hickel was Governor of Alaska) is a book called "Reinventing Government." Albania is a country that is reinventing everything; government, history, culture, and reinventing individuals.
The Russian and Albanian Culture Ministers signed a cultural exchange agreement, but the real topic of their joint press conference was "not reinventing culture." A reporter asked the Russian Minister what he thought of the writer Gorky. The minister said that while Gorky was a Socialist, and was given special status by the Communists, his work could not be disregarded. He warned the Albanians not to throw away all their statues of Lenin, Stalin and Hoxha, and not to destroy the art works of Socialist Realism, but save them in museums because they will represent an important era of history for future Albanians, as they will for Russians.
A reporter asked for the Albanian Minister's comment. He was a film director under the Communist leader Enver Hohxa. He had the ability to re-edit his films after the revolution. It's tempting, he said, but he won't do it because his work reflected Albania and the Albanian cinema at that time.
When the student newspaper was shut down by the University, the head of the Journalism Department made the charge that all of us attending a meeting to defend the paper were supporting "Fascist and Bolshevist" ideals. In retaliation an opposition paper, printed the poetry by the department head, one poem ending "I Love You, I Love You, Communism." This is not only a cheep shot, it's dangerous. Everyone has literary skeletons in their portfolios, including the head of the newspaper that published the poem. The Minister of Culture is wise not to try to hide his artistic past.
After food, personal reinvention is the most pressing question facing most Albanians. "If I am not a Communist, what am I?" Several people are affecting the cultural trappings of their grandparents' religion, the Moslem women's headscarf and the crucifix. They do it without being religious. They're cultural icons. Ana, who sometimes translates for me, rejects the headscarf but regularly attends Mosque with her grandmother. She asks why she can't be spiritual and modern at the same time. I'm constantly asked about my religion. One young man asked me, not at all cynically, "Was Santa Maria a virgin or only a whore?" He wanted to know what to believe. The same man said "I must have God in my heart or else I will be constantly at war, but why must I have to choose. Can't I believe in both the Christ and the Prophet?" My friend, Ana, asked the same question when she was denied entry to an Orthodox sanctuary because she's a Moslem. Another friend, Anila, asks "so soon after Communism, why must we accept such religious authority? Perhaps we are lucky that we don't have all one religion in Albania, It will allow for a kind of pluralism."
Most of the missionaries I've met here don't reflect that wish for pluralism. The Balkans have many nationalisms driven by religious intolerance. It's a dangerous time. As people reinvent themselves spiritually, the missionaries need to talk of tolerance and respect as well as their own particular brand of salvation. Many missionaries are long on exclusivity and short on tolerance. Albanians have a unique history, for the Balkans, of tolerance among the main religious groups, Islam, Catholic and Orthodox. I hope that 46 years of the Communist religion's intolerance hasn't changed that.
"This is a non conversation." was the way the conversation started. The U.S. official caught me leaving Radio Tirana. "Salmon Rushdie's meeting with President Clinton. The State Department is concerned that Moslem fundamentalists may try to strike out at Americans. The government will issue a formal warning after the meeting. In the meantime your family should keep a low profile and take security precautions. This is a non-country specific warning. I didn't tell you this until after 5:00 PM. Thank you for this non-conversation."
Half an hour after the meeting with Clinton the embassy called us with the formal warning. When told to keep a low profile, Kevin asked "how?" Everyone in this section of town knows Kevin. He is 6'8". When he walks down Boulevardi Zhan D'ark people from the coffee shops and kiosks call out "Hey Kevin" or "Alaska, number one."
Suzi, Kevin and I have a new game, "Spot the Spook" trying to identify CIA operatives. We're reasonably sure that someone in our group of American expatriate friends is CIA. The Balkans are European "spook central." Albania is strongly pro-American and yet is an Islamic country. Representatives of other Islamic nations are here. Libya is talking about funding the rebuilding Radio Tirana. The Iranians and Saudis are also active here. The BBC reported recently that Iranian aid includes arms destined for Moslems in former Yugoslavia. The war in Yugoslavia has cut off the traditional drug routes to Europe from Turkey. Albania has remote borders that are mountainous and porous, and a long and undeveloped coastline just across the Adriatic from the European Community. In Vlora we saw several Italian speedboats. Romeo, a former Customs Director, said "smugglers." (I have an image of boats taking out heroin and bringing back Twinkies.) BBC reports Albanian clans have taken over much of the heroin trade and are using profits to fund arms for Moslems in former Yugoslavia. Certainly we've seen a lot of dollars floating around. The expensive restaurants are full and in the mini-money -market behind the central bank U.S. hundred dollar bills are flashed around. Today we saw a guy fanning a stack of 30 one hundreds. Dollars are fetching a good rate, so we fancifully ask, "which of our new American friends are the spooks?"
We've made Albanian friends here as well as American, including Nora and Cashku. Nora, a concert pianist, preformed Liszt in a concert. After the concert Suzi and I went to the Cashku's home for "coffee." We were on foot. She took off ahead of us on her bike. My main memory of Nora is leaving the concert hall on her bike, wearing her long performance skirt and spiked heals, with a huge basket of flowers given to her by the Hungarian Ambassador after the concert. The flowers were attached to the rear fender and completely obscured Nora, except for the flowing skirt. From the rear it looked like a basket of flowers riding the bike.
Every night at Sundown there is a Promenade of citizens through down town Tirana. This is the story of one evening's promenade.
In front of the Palace of Culture a man trying to give us a Bible approached us. We protest that we don't understand Albanian, "Nuk Flass Shqip." He switches to English. He's a businessman from Belfast who "works part time for the Lord." During our conversation the beggars approach us demanding bibles. I don't think they are seeking Jesus. They plan to sell them on the streets to serve a more basic function. They are printed on such nice tissue like paper. The evangelist gives them tracts printed on a stiff glossy stock. He also suspects they're not seeking the Lord.
Soon we had a group of English speakers, including an older Albanian Doctor. The evangelist has been up north and reports dreadful conditions in the hospital, and many victims of "gang warfare." Fingers and hands chopped off. The doctor says that it's a resumption of the vendettas between families. The vendettas were suspended 45 years ago and picked up after the fall of communism as if there had been no interruption two generations later. The preacher is concerned that nothing is happening in the hospital. He is shipping medical supplies from the mission society but is afraid that they may not do any good. He says that under the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha there was no freedom but at least someone made decisions. Now there is a form of anarchy where no one takes responsibility. The Evangelist says that freedom has given him the right to preach, something he had been praying for, but he says that human greed that comes with freedom is making life bad. The old man, the doctor, listens and says "you may live in Albania for 50 years and not understand things. We may look European, but we are as hard to understand as India. For instance, to outsiders we have a code of hospitality, you may find us very fine people, but with each other we can be very rough, difficult, corruption, the vendetta. In medicine, services happen, but there is so much corruption. Doctors get their state salaries but only work if they get money, as you English say, under the table. Very bad now. Perhaps this is our potato famine, you are Irish, no? Capitalism did not start well with you." The doctor shakes his head and says "yes, yes, my friend, greed. And you, have a good stay in Albania, good night." As he turns to leave he hands his bible to one of the beggars and politely refuses another one.
Just then the Muezzin on top of the minaret begins the evening call to prayer. Some of the beggars take notice, hoping to get charity from devout Moslems. Most of the life in the square continues. The loudspeaker is not sounding the clear call to prayer tonight; the system is overly loud and distorted. Perhaps he is trying to drown out the evangelist. In the coffee shops and bars proprietors turn up their sound systems to drown out the call of the religion that would put them out of business. Bob Marley is "Jammin'" in the name of the same Lord whom the muezzin and the evangelist call us to serve. A boom box on the square is playing Dion and the Belmonts.
All Scripts © 1994 Rich McClear