Most of Kythnos’s Albanians come from one small town in the north of the country, Dibra. No one can explain why this is the case, but it is almost as if by word of mouth recommendation. There are a few Kythniot Shiptars from Tirana, and two young men who are brothers from nearby Elbasan of the notorious reputation. This by the way goes to show that you should never take guide books at face value. Under communism the outskirts of Elbasan were polluted by many ugly factories, but the city itself is a gem. It has fine atmospheric streets like Qemal Stafa and Nentori, with venerable but well preserved old dwellings, and a truly lovely mosque that dates back to 1492, called Xhamia e Mbretit or King’s Mosque. Elbasan has some very fine restaurants, where my standby of grilled vegetables (perime zgare) puts the tolerable Greek version to shame. I also ate delicious and copious fresh fish in the coastal resort of Himara, where there is a substantial Greek-speaking minority. Pretty Himara, as well as the movingly handsome little town of  Dhermiu (Dhrimades in Greek), look across to the remote but inhabited Dhiapondia Islets off Corfu (in Albanian, Corfu is Corfuz, such a perfect name). In fact when Ione and I decided to holiday together in 2013, at first we intended 10 days in either Othoni, Mathraki or Erikoussa islets. The names themselves are enough to get you booking your ticket to party island Corfu, and then fucking off as fast as you can due north to take the boat to these tiny communities. But then we did some sums and calculated that budgetwise 10 days even in minuscule Othoni, Greece = 30 days in Albania. We both like very long holidays as opposed to the appalling micro-version, and our decision was instant.

Albania is the poorest country in Europe, everyone knows that. You maybe also know that certain pan-Hellenic zealots i.e. smirking nutcases, refer to the whole of Albania as North Epirus, meaning just a rogue part of dear old Greece, and when we have the time we shall come and take you back again to our darling bosom. I was absolutely delighted and much amused, when a year ago I met the Albanian nationalist counterpart of these perfervid chauvinists. A bunch of roving electricians, all of them Albanians, were going round several of the Cyclades laying cables, and were drinking themselves brainless in the Glaros one night. There were four of them, and about forty beer bottles on their double table. One of them knew a bit of English, and as well as inviting me to their table informed me that Greek Epirus was actually a rogue part of glorious and incredibly prosperous Albania (so many Mercedes Benzes, and four storey mansions with luxurious pools in every town!)and that in due course the invincible Shiptars would reclaim Ioannina and turn it into a proper Albanian metropolis.

As for Albanian poverty we saw it at its rawest in the outskirts of Shkoder, the capital of the north. The crowds milling on the broken pavements were dirty, badly dressed, and the ferocious yet melancholy mayhem around them at some ugly little food market, was indescribable. Likewise when a taxi driver took us to the Rustan and Germahala mosques on the outskirts of Delvina, we saw what might have been an encampment of gypsies, or might have been simply the local paupers who couldn’t afford a house and decided to live in desolate and broken chicken sheds instead. The taxi we hired drove us round the Delvina outskirts for three and a half hours, and he charged us 1200 lek or about £7, meaning £2/hour. We assumed he was charging us more than he would locals, but I gave him  a 500 lek tip and still felt I was robbing him. Ditto re our stay in Delvina’s only accommodation. It had no sign indicating it was a hotel, and they had to go and fetch the old lady to let us in. We had a room each, both of them containing four beds, and two folded up couches possibly for entire football teams, and  no it wasn’t en suite, but that didn’t matter as we were the only guests (an irresistible digression here. I once booked an en suite room in an extremely dreary and characterless hotel in Maryport, Cumbria. Once arrived, I soon confronted the stony gadger at the desk, after I had discovered I had a washbasin but no toilet, meaning small hours parading bare arse to the landing bog. Guess what his oh so exquisitely West Cumbrian retort was? Ah yes, lad, it’s what you call [ I love that ‘you’] PARTIAL en suite).

In any event, our overnight stay cost us 3 euros each, or £2.35 a night, which  by my reckoning is the rate of an English B and B about 1973, or 40 years prior to 2013. But ironies abound. We stayed one night in the bleak but friendly Miredita town of Rreshen. The unemployment and poverty here are overwhelming, and the town itself could do with a bloody good scrub. It had two places to stay but neither of them were easy to locate. Then thanks to a senile and overbearing Kosovan holidaying nearby, and who had good German and insisted on helping us, we managed to book in the much uglier of the two. It was massive, cavernous, echoing, and felt exactly like a disused mental hospital.  Ione and I were obviously the only meek little paying guests for the last 20 years or so. Just as we were about to pay the old guy his pittance in advance, we realised that splendid Mr Helpful from Dusseldorf had driven off with all our luggage in his boot. Talk about panic stations and brick-shitting for the hard of hearing. By the faintest stroke of luck, when he had given us a lift into town, he had pointed out where he was staying, about a mile out on the Tirana road. We raced into a cafe and bullied an unemployed or maybe underemployed teacher, to drive us there at speed and retrieve all our gear. After a struggle we tracked down the old clown who wasn’t even apologetic, he just thought it rather a fine joke. I believe I cussed at him, and it might even have been in German. Did I really, could it really have been me who snarled Scheisskerl to a sweet old Kosovan man of late seventies?

There were two ironies very visible in Rreshen. One was that all the unemployed men were up and about, parading aimlessly from daybreak or about 5am. They had very little money to squander on coffee, so they just paced and paced, they of course  being in the larger mental hospital of unemployed Miredita, Ione and I being in the lesser institution that indeed we had had to pay to stay in. The other irony was that there were no less  than five splendid state of the art internet cafes in a town of 15,000, all of them serving perfect cappucino for 60p, and with brand new computers and headphones. Believe me, there isn’t a single 50 people hamlet in the whole of Albania isn’t well and truly online, and that includes far flung Kelmendi, bordering dreary old Montenegro, which I shall write about another time. But just to give a taster the small town of Plav in Montenegro is even drearier and soul-destroying  than bloody awful Aspatria (Spyatri in Cumbrian dialect) or hideously dead and alive Walkerburn near Peebles, Scotland.

In Tirana they go in for cosmetic dentistry in a big way, and lots of pampered foreigners come and take advantage of the cut price Italy-trained dental surgeons. They also practice their dentistry in public, meaning as you walk down to the groovy underground internet cafe, you can see through the plate glass window the patients wriggling in their chairs and all that is happening to them. I stood there gawking for a very long time indeed. In the cafe itself, as well as lovely computers by the dozen, are schoolkids of around 18, and the girls especially are beautifully and fashionably dressed, and their mobiles/cell-phones don’t look like they are made in Albania. They laugh and flirt with each other, the boys and girls, like they would anywhere else in Europe except maybe the Free Presbyterian Isle of Lewis, Scotland, where they even tie up the budgie’s swing on  the Sabbath. Meanwhile down the road is a pavement bookstall where they sell only one author, my hero and a man I actually once spent time with, Ismail Kadare, whose like will not be seen again.

Here is an Albanian proverb, and make sure you memorise it and amaze your friends.

No work, no money

It sounds better in Albanian.

Pa pune, pa pare (pronounced ‘pah’, ‘poo-nay’ and ‘pah-reh’)

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