Friday, July 24, 2015

Is Albania a dangerous place?

"Albanians are good people," my driver says in a Balkan accent that 15 ex-pat years in England failed to dissipate. "Albanians do anything for you. They help you. But just one thing," he warns. "Never cross an Albanian. He will never forget, and he will fuck you."

The bus from Gjirokastra had deposited me at an intersection 35 kilometres from my destination, the ancient hilltown of Berati, in a heat of as many degrees. It had skirted the mountains that divide the two towns and wound along the milky turquoise waters of the Vjosa river as close as it could indirectly take me, but from here, at Lushnja, the bus was going north and Berati was south.

I fumbled in Albanian to the conductor, "autobusi stacioni?" and he waved me down a rural road.

As I prepared to flag down the next bus, minibus or furgon, knowing it was unknown when one would appear, a Mercedes Benz pulled up. This was the second car to stop. I had declined the first offer for a ride because, though I'd done a great deal of it in my youth, hitch-hiking here hadn't occurred to me. Is it safe? But I'm clearly a visitor to the country, and it seems this is what's done. Albanians always take care of you.

"Albanians are good people," he says again as we coast past fields of some low-growing grassy crop, "but, like everywhere, there are good people and there are bad people. I hope very much you find only good people."

His name is Marius. He is a middle-aged local, stocky with dark, bristly hair, on a return visit to his family from Manchester where he now lives. He asks where I'm from, whether there is corruption at home and if Australian police take bribes. Albania was recently a lawless place after the demise of Enver Hoxha, the post-war Communist leader, in 1985 and the chaotic years of financial collapse and popular uprising after the Soviet Union dissolved. Though stable now, corruption remains endemic.

Then he asks me how I am finding Albania and the people.

I have found Albanians nothing short of helpful and hospitable. His comment that they never forget a betrayal, though, rings true. Blood feuds between families are a very real problem here. Clan warfare goes on for generations. If a man is murdered, the men of the victim's family are honour-bound to exact revenge by killing the perpetrator or, if that's not possible, a close male family member. Or descendant. 

Having not killed anyone, I figure I'm safe. I have met only good people, I tell Marius.

He pauses as though I said something naive. He warns me of 16-year-old gangsters with guns, and goes on to tell me that two Czech tourists were shot and killed near Shkodra last week. Shkodra is my next destination.

"Just one bad person and you won't want to come back. Please," he cautions me, "keep your money separate. Some in your wallet, some put away."

This is already my habit as a matter of prudence wherever I travel, but his sustained concern is making me uneasy.

Ten minutes along this road of scrubby farms and simple dwellings billowing in the heat we pull up at a palatial white mansion, where manicured gardens shade vine-bound gazebos, flowers and fountains.

"This is as far as I'm going," Marius says. "This is my cousin's restaurant."

"This is your cousin's restaurant?" I marvel, betraying it's impression on me.

"Would you like to have a drink?"


Marius buys me a beer and we sit in the cool garden. I meet the cousin. A tall, grey-haired man, mid-fifties perhaps, in unassuming shorts and T-shirt, he reminds of Anthony Bourdain. Nonetheless, he has an air of importance about him. He is brought his lunch by his brother, but he sits at a separate table and doesn't eat with us.

"He's very influential," Marius tells me. "Respected. If you have trouble, you know... he has connections."

I make sure to go over to him to shake his hand and show respect before I leave, carrying my hat in my hand. He smiles, appearing pleased I've done this, and as I reach for his hand I find and unexpectedly grasp a wrist. He has offered his forearm. I've seen this kind of handshake before, in Ethiopia, when a man greeted one of the much venerated priests. This is a handshake reserved for people of high status. I don't miss a beat, smile and thank the cousin in Albanian: "faleminderit."

It seems I have responded well to the hospitality. Marius decides to drive me the rest of the way to Berati, and in the car tells me I am welcome to return to his family there anytime if there is anything I need—"They will help you". He then gives me his phone number.

"If you have any trouble, call me."

Trouble, he says. I am both reassured and nervous.

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