Exploring the Hidden Europe in 2004 and 2008-2011

In 2004, I visited all 25 countries in Eastern Europe. You'll find the blog entries from that trip here. In 2008-2011, I returned to see what had changed since that time. With these two visits, five years apart, I accumulated enough material for my 750-page book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us.

This blog now has many excerpts from The Hidden Europe. But who the hell reads anymore? Just look at the best photos from Eastern Europe!

This map reflects how I define Eastern Europe. Eastern Europeans love to deny that they're in Eastern Europe. I tackle how and why I define Eastern Europe the way I do in the Introduction of The Hidden Europe.

Eastern Europe map from Francis Tapon's book, 'The Hidden Europe'

The United States Ambassador to Macedonia, Lawrence Butler, looked at me with his crystal blue eyes and said, "There's a lot we can learn from Eastern Europeans."

"Like what?" I asked him.

"First, there's the importance of family. Macedonians, for example, always come back to their family. They don't understand when Americans go to college thousands of miles away and then don't return to their homes after they graduate."

"What else?"

"Macedonians are no more than one generation away from the farm. They all have relatives that are in rural areas that they visit during the holidays, for instance. This keeps their connection with the land."

"Are there any downsides to these values?"

"Sure. For example, the labor markets aren't very liquid, because people are unwilling to move far from their family. This prolongs economic downturns. Also, I remember hearing about these two farmers who were unwilling to talk to each other because their GREAT-GRANDFATHERS had an argument."

"Wow."

"Yeah. Nevertheless, Eastern Europeans can teach us many lessons."

I had the good fortune of being invited to Ambassador's Butler's house for a gathering to promote Macedonia folk art. I was surprised by the lax security. They didn't check my bag for the grenades and uzi I was carrying. They didn't ask for my passport or notice the bazooka on my back.

Although Ambassador Butler was understandably busy, it didn't stop me from cornering him. (OK, so I had to knock down a few of his aides to get him, but it was worth it.)

But my conversation with him helped crystallize my plans...

My book on Eastern Europe

I intend to expand Ambassador Butler's thoughts on what we can learn from Eastern Europe by writing a book about it. It's tentatively titled, "What America Can Learn From Eastern Europe."

I'm sure by the time the editors are through with it, they'll modify the title slightly and call it, "What Eastern Europe Can Learn from America."

But that's what I'm calling it for now.

Wisdom from Romania

A Romanian plastic surgeon shared a wise saying from Nicolae Iorga, a historian who appears on the Romanian currency:

"One voyage is worth 10 libraries."

After receiving all my emails, you might feel like I've written enough to fill 10 libraries.

But Iorga had a point. I have learned quite a bit in the last five months of travel though 22 countries.

I've learned....

  • I've learned to use up all my currency before entering a new country.
  • Cyrillic languages can tease you into thinking that you can read it, but you really can't.
  • I've learned 22 different ways to say "hello", "thank you," "excuse me," and "where's the toilet?"
  • I've learned that there are more men wearing white hats in Turkey than in Albania, and that most men don't wear any hat at all.
  • I've learned to communicate with unfriendly and monolingual bus/train ticket vendors.
  • I've learned to carry toilet paper everywhere.
  • I've learned to make quick math calculations in my head when converting a dizzying number of currencies.
  • I've learned that English has "no grammar" when compared to most Eastern European languages, but that spelling it is not exactly phonetic ("fonetic").
  • I've learned that America still has the ugliest currency in the world.
  • I've learned that squatting toilets (i.e., holes in the ground) are as popular in Eastern Europe as they are in Japan.
  • I've learned to switch languages quickly so not to offend the neighboring country (who frequently hates the neighboring language).
  • I've learned that most Eastern Europeans can wear almost no clothes in freezing weather and not be cold.
  • I've learned that Turkish people can wear lots of clothes in hot weather and not sweat.
  • I've learned that most people who work for bus and train lines haven't traveled anywhere.
  • I've learned that Albania and Estonia really do exist.
  • I've learned that it's smart to hold onto your camcorder very tightly when you're overlooking a cliff.

Eastern Europe's top 10

Visit Eastern Europe. It's an amazing region, comparable to Western Europe, and much cheaper too!

Here are my favorite spots:

1. Dalmation Coast in Croatia (Dubrovnik, Hvar, & Korcula)

2. Prague, Czech Republic

3. Krakow, Poland (with side trips to Salt Mines and Auschwitz)

4. Most of Romania

5. High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia

6. Baltic capitals (Vilnus, Riga, and Tallin)

7. Lviv (Lvov), Ukraine

8. Kotor Bay, Montenegro

9. Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

10. Budapest, Hungary

Most would put Budapest higher on the list. Lonely Planet has put it in the #1 spot for 4 years in a row. It is a great city. But I dislike the pollution and ever present cars. It's still worth checking out.

Lonely Planet has a clickable map that lets you poke into each country for details.

So you want more lists? Here you go....

Friendliest people

1. Turkey
2. Albania
3. Macedonia

Most underrated

1. Romania: Billed as a haven of thieves. The reality is that it's one of the best countries in Eastern Europe. Some of the best mountains and historical sights. Even the capital is like a little Paris. Super friendly people. Its Latin based language helps.

2. Montenegro: Supposed to be a war zone, but it's almost as nice as the Croatian Coast. Undiscovered.

3. Western Ukraine: Think this former communist country is a dump? Wrong. Go to western Ukraine and you'll find at least four splendid and mesmerizing cities. The people are wonderful too!

4. Warsaw: Many Poles told me not to go. It wasn't that great, but the old town was fantastic. Worth a stop if it's on the way.

Most overrated

Lake Ohrid: Listed in Lonely Planet's Top 10 Sites in Eastern Europe, it's on UNESCO's Heritage List, and is billed as the best lake in Eastern Europe. It probably IS the best lake in Eastern Europe, but when your competition is Lake Chernobyl that's not saying much.

Yes, Lake Ohrid is great, but just not THAT great. You should see it if you're around the area, but it's not worth a major detour.

Places to avoid

If you're one of those wimpy tourists who insist on having hot water, reliable electricity, and a low risk of being caught in a war zone, then there are a few places you might want to skip. Otherwise, every place I saw had something to offer and even the "dangerous" places are pretty tame.

The places with the least amount of traditional touristy places (e.g., Belarus and most of the Balkans) gave me some of my most fascinating cultural experiences. With few pretty things to look at, I discovered the people. This was usually tough because so few spoke English, but if you're persistent you'll find the 1 out of 100 who does.

The people from Belarus and the Balkans have lived through some extremely interesting times in the last few years. Listening to their rich (and frequently depressing) experiences makes the trip there worthwhile. And it sure feels good knowing that I'm beating the future mad rush of tourists to Kosovo.

Future of the Balkans

Check out the "Tension Index" on the upper right hand corner of this page.

You know the Balkans is not stable as long as they have such an index.

But I’m bullish about Croatia and Montenegro. Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast attracts hoards of tourists which will help fuel their rise. And for the first time, Montenegro didn’t fight along with the Serbs. They’ve adopted the Euro and have spectacular coastline they can leverage to generate massive tourist dollars.

But as for the other Balkan countries, their negativity is justified:

  • Macedonia is waiting for its enemies to pick it apart.
  • Albania will improve, but their poor reputation will hamper their growth for decades.
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina has few resources to amount to anything.
  • Serbia has a decent foundation thanks to the years of being the center of Yugoslavia, but a decade of civil wars has taken its toll and the country will struggle for a while.
  • Kosovo is an economic deck of cards that will collapse as soon as NATO pulls out.

The future of the rest of the Eastern Europe

Except for a few regions in the Balkans, the future of Eastern Europe is bright. Although their average standard of living will lag behind Western Europe for at least 50 years, it's closing the gap. It's fun living in a place that keeps getting better. Nevertheless, some of the youth aren't interested in living through that process; others can't imagine it improving. They want out.

English = freedom

So many Eastern Europeans want the option of leaving their country, yet most don't do what it takes to make that happen. Most don't learn English (or any foreign language). If I dream of going to Germany, I would learn German no matter how much it tortures my ears.

I met so many people that (through translators) told me that they dream of going to America. If their friends could learn English, why didn't they? I know it's not easy, but I met plenty of people of humble means who pulled it off. Hell, even I learned enough Russian in just a couple of weeks that I could communicate for more than an hour with Ukrainians who spoke zero English. OK, so I used lots of hand signals, an ad-hoc form of Pictionary, and only had a 37% comprehension rate, but still...

The customer service gap

It was surprising to see the friendly smiles when I returned to the United States. Eastern Europeans criticize Americans of being fake. Yeah? Well I don't care. I love those fake smiles and phony cheerful greetings.

Besides, it sure beats the alternative, which is what I got in most of Eastern Europe's establishments: a scowl with an occasional grunt.

I still remember when a Bulgarian waitress told me that I should probably go have dinner somewhere else because the kitchen was "very busy." Only 30% of the seats were taken.

Many times in Eastern Europe I had to practically beg people to take my money in exchange for a service. It's all part of a massive communist hangover. But it's getting better. For example, I'll never forget the Moldovan border guard who actually smiled at me. I was so surprised that I wanted to kiss her! (And no, she wasn't hot.)

People don't yell at me anymore

Now that I'm back in the US, people talk to me in a normal voice. When Eastern Europeans were unable to communicate with me they frequently resorted to screaming, thinking that it helps with my comprehension. Example:

Someone would say to me, "xxxx yyyy zzzz."

"I'm sorry I don't understand."

"XXXX YYYY ZZZZ!!!!!!!!!"

"Oh, OK, thanks for yelling. Now I understand completely."

The rude awakening

Within days of returning to America, I flew to Seattle for a shocking transition. Today I'm working for the richest homo sapien in the universe. OK, so there's about 3,143 levels of management between Bill Gates and I, but ultimately he is my boss.

I'm working on a business intelligence project. No, that's not an oxymoron. These Microsoft folks do know a little bit about business. Bill is, after all, a BILL-ionaire.

"If you can count your money, you don't have a billion dollars." - John Paul Getty

So what am I really doing at Microsoft? I'm working to tie Microsoft's corporate goals with the appropriate metrics in the Operations department, thereby creating a virtual dashboard that the executives can use to gauge the health of the business.

(If you understood what the hell I just wrote, then you're doing better than me.)

Living near Seattle is a bit weird after many months in Eastern Europe. I'm not sure what's more strange for me:

(a) Walking around with a Tablet PC that reads my terrible handwriting perfectly and allows me to wirelessly surf the Internet whenever I am within sight of the Microsoft campus.

(b) Readjusting to the concept of being literate again.

For nearly 5 months I had no clue what most people were saying or what was written anywhere. I was an alien. Suddenly, I can no longer play dumb when the bus driver asks me why I haven't paid the correct fare.

What's the next adventure?

Within moments of returning to the United States my friends were already wondering when I will go on my next adventure. I'm not sure how to interpret this. Does this mean they're eager to see me leave again?

Perhaps. But they also know me well. I agree with Hellen Keller, who said, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

So I'm not retiring my passport or my backpack. My next adventure may be:

  • Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Spending 6-12 months in Africa, exploring every country on the continent
  • Fixing up a house in Kotor, Montenegro

Gosh, that last one sounds terribly domestic. What the hell is wrong with me? Next thing you know I'll get a wife, have 4 kids, and land a steady job.

Yeah I know that's unlikely, but it might be cool being the US Ambassador to Montenegro....

After a 30 hour boat trip, I woke up in my cabin, looked out the window, and saw Istanbul.

But the main reason I'm feeling great is that so many Turkish men are really good looking.

No, I haven't become gay.

It's just that throughout my Eastern European voyage people have thought that I am Turkish.

Before I visited Turkey I just shrugged off that incorrect guess and simply revealed my Chilean/French origin. But now I wear that incorrect guess as a badge of honor. After all, Turkish men are hot!

Turkish looks

You crave the dark, handsome man? Come to Turkey.

You prefer blondes? Maybe Scandinavia is a better fit.

For the first time in my trip, the good looking men outnumbered the good looking women. Eastern European is filled with attractive women, especially in the Baltics and Ukraine. But in Turkey good looking guys are abundant and women are, well, absent.

The Blue Mosque isn't really blue. But the sky sure was!

So I was strutting my stuff and feeling pretty Turkish, when a Turkish rug vendor stopped me and said, "Can I ask you something?"

"Yes."

"Where are from?" he asked.

"Guess," I said.

"France."

My smile vanished.

Crap.

I guess I really don't look Turkish after all.

The golden sunset made for a warm light.

Sensory assault

Speaking of smells, Istanbul attacks your senses.

I was in Istanbul during Ramadan, which this year lasts from October 15 to November 12. During this period Muslims fast, don't smoke or drink alcohol. At least during the day. During the night there's probably an orgy of cigarettes and food in every home as they try to make up for lost time.

I thought I'd see mellow version of Istanbul, but it still managed to assault my senses:

  • People touch and grab you when they're giving you directions, practically pulling you in the correct direction.
  • The smell of succulent food wafts into your nose, which must be torture to the 90% who observe Ramadan.
  • The din of the street vendors shouting their best offers is omnipresent.
  • The Arabic architecture delights the eyes.
  • The taste Turkish spices sends your palate into 7th heaven.

I was overwhelmed.

Nicest people ever
The library in Ephesus where men took advantage of the underground passageway to the nearby brothel. It's not operational anymore. I checked.

After traveling over 60 countries, I'd put Brazilians and the Irish on the short list of some of the nicest people around. But the Turks trounce them all. They are without a doubt, the warmest people I have ever met.

It was almost scary how nice they are. Many times I had to look around to make sure I wasn't on the Truman Show.

For example, I asked one guy where the Hagia Sofia Mosque was, and he said, "Let me take you there."

He took me on a 10 minute walk around the center, chatting the whole way. He owned a clothing store and liked relaxing near the mosques when he had free time. I was sure he would ask me for money at the end of his little tour. He dropped me off in front of the museum and said, "OK, here you are. I'll wait for you here when you come out."

"Um, that's OK. I'm fine. Thanks!"

"OK then! Bye bye!"

I felt bad. I was kinda cold to him at the end. I thought he wanted my money, but he never even hinted for it. A cynic may say that he really did want my money, but after meeting dozens of helpful Turks, I conclude that he was just a REALLY nice guy.

The Hagia Sofia was impressive. The Blue Mosque, which is right next door, was also spectacular.

But one of my favorites was the Basilica Cistern.

Built in the 6th century, during Istanbul's glory days, this cistern still works.

Overnight train to Ephesus
Pretty cool that I managed to take this picture myself using the self-timer. I probably shouldn't be goofing off at the holy site of St. John's church, but nobody was watching. Except God.

I left Istanbul via an overnight bus trip. What a difference between the Turkish buses and the Eastern European ones I had been taking for several months! This bus had comfortable reclining chairs, trays, a mo

vie (appropriately "Troy", with Brad Pitt), headphones, free food and drink, and (the real shocker) friendly bus drivers!

I arrived in the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. It is arguably the largest Roman ruin in the world and yet it's only half excavated. It's hard to imagine that 2,000 years ago the Aegean Sea filled the valley so ships could dock in Ephesus.

The Turkish government is now digging a channel to the sea. Soon visitors will be able to arrive once more by boat.

While Greek legend says that Amazons, the mythical female warriors, founded Ephesus, I think it's more likely that Androklos was responsible. On the other hand, the story on how he chose the site is a bit fishy.

Supposedly he consulted the Oracle at Delphia, who told him that a fish would show Androklos the place for a new colony and a boar would lead them to the future site of Ephesus. While preparing a fish dinner, along the shore of the Aegean, the fish jumped out of the pan. Startled, the cook caused a brush fire, which in turn startled a boar. Androklos followed the boar and eventually killed it. There became the site where Ephesus was built. The fact that there was a good harbor area, fertile land nearby, and a fresh-water stream available might have also helped.

It was exciting to walk in the footsteps of the impressive cast of characters who have walked through its streets. Here's some of them:

  • ALEXANDER THE GREAT conquered Ephesus and offered to help complete the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World). The builders turned down his funding because Alex wanted his name carved in big fat letters on the Temple in exchange for the cash. To not offend Alex, the Ephesians cleverly said that it was not fitting for one god to dedicate a temple to another.
  • JULIUS CAESAR visited Ephesus while he was chasing Pompey the Great.
  • After losing the fight for the Egyptian throne to her sister Cleopatra, ARSIONOE fled to Ephesus where she lived like a queen in the Temple of Artemis. Cleopatra eventually convinced Mark Anthony, her lover, to kill her sister there. With family members like this, who needs enemies...
  • In 32 BC, QUEEN CLEOPATRA AND MARK ANTHONY got busy in Ephesus. Anthony was assembling his forces against Octavian. The troops disliked her presence and their morale plummeted. During the fight Cleopatra fled faster than a French general, taking her sixty Egyptian ships with her. Anthony followed her in a single ship, leaving the rest of his fleet to be destroyed. With commanders like this, who needs enemies...
  • The VIRGIN MARY accompanied the APOSTLE PAUL here towards the end of her life, circa 37-45 AD. In his third visit, Paul almost caused a riot with the pagan idol sellers. After two years of living there, they gave Paul the boot. However, he still managed to establish a center for Christianity there.
  • ST. JOHN wrote his Gospel on a hill in Ephesus. A big church was built there and I visited the ruins. (St. John wrote the Book of Revelation on the island of Patmos.)
  • FRANCIS TAPON roamed the streets of Ephesus in 2004 where he eavesdropped on various multilingual tours because he was too cheap to pay for one.

Men never change
Enjoying my last night in Eastern Europe in a beach in Turkey.

When I saw admiring the Celcus Library I learned that men haven't changed much. Next to the library was a brothel. An underground tunnel connected them. So men told their wives that they were "going to library" to "pull an all-nighter."

Technically they weren't lying, but...

Temple of Artemis

The 7th wonder of the world in Ephesus sure looked nice back then.

But today, there's not much to see.

What little there is can be found in the British Museum, which Turkish tour guides are extremely bitter about.

In 1863 the British Museum sent John Turtle Wood, an architect, to search for the temple. Wood met with many obstacles. The region was infested with bandits. Workers were hard to find. His budget was too small. Oh, and he had no clue where the temple was located.

My five months in Eastern Europe was incredibly fun.

OK, c'mon it really wasn't easy. During his first season he was thrown from a horse, breaking his collar bone. Two years later he was stabbed within an inch of his heart during an assassination attempt upon the British Consul in Smyrna. And by his fifth year I'm sure he really missed the London weather.

Finally in 1869, at the bottom of a muddy twenty-foot deep test pit, his crew struck the base of the great temple. Wood then excavated the whole foundation removing 132,000 cubic yards of the swamp to leave a hole some 300 feet wide and 500 feet long. The remains of some of the sculptured portions were found and shipped the to British Museum.

Overnight trip back

The bus trip back wasn't as nice as the trip there:

1) There was one screaming child in the seat across from me.

2) When the child finally fell asleep from its screaming fit at midnight, the mother began talking loudly all night with the bus driver's assistant. You'd think she would exhausted from her child's tantrums, but I guess not.

After freezing my ass off in Ukraine, just a few days later I was loving the warm weather of this beach in Turkey!

Huh?

I was surprised that not only nobody got pissed off for being rudely awakened and that they got so many takers. I really don't understand this. Do all Turkish people set their alarms at 2AM to get out of bed and have some tea and biscuits?

Job offer from Microsoft

About two months ago a friend of mine in Microsoft asked me to help him on a project he was working on. While I was in Turkey we finalized the deal. I was to fly to Microsoft as soon as possible.

Therefore, my plan was to return to the US on Oct 29, shake off jet lag, read 5 months of mail, vote for a bunch of libertarian candidates on Nov 2, jump on a plane to Seattle on Nov 3, and start working for Microsoft on Nov 4.

Although it's not clear how long the consultant gig will last, I figured it was a good opportunity to get rained on for a few months in Seattle.

The five months of travel ends in Istanbul
My last sunset in Eastern Europe.

After a 12 hour bus ride, I jumped on a 15 hour plane flight to San Francisco (with a stop in New York). It was appropriate that I ended my trip in Istanbul, because it is the gateway to Eastern Europe.

It's always an emotional experience to go through passport control when I return to the United States, and after 5 months in Eastern Europe, this time was no different.

I smiled at the Passport Control Officer and said, "I love traveling, but when I return to the US I always want to kiss the ground."

"I know what you mean," he told me. "I wasn't born here, but I'll never go back to live in Argentina. I love America."

Yes, the United States has many flaws, but when you consider the alternatives, it's hard to beat.

I'll keep exploring, but America will always be my base camp.

Nearly everyone in the Balkans hates Albanians.

During all my travels I couldn’t find anyone who would say anything nice about the Albanians. People told me not to go to Albania. Among the insults people said about the about the Albanians is that they:

  • Steal
  • Stink
  • Are dirty
  • Have 8-12 children per family
  • All look the same and are ugly due to inbreeding
  • All wear an odd white cap (the men)
  • Are all Muslims
  • Only speak Albanian
  • All follow a tome called the Kanun which advocates a medieval code
  • Murder or injure for trivial reasons

And that’s just for starters. Over a beer they would really let the insults fly.

Let’s just say that these Albanians won’t win any popularity contests.

And it wasn’t just Serbs making such slurs. Nearly every European confirmed their low opinion of Albanians. Nevertheless, Albania’s closest neighbors (Serbs, Montenegro, and Macedonia) leveled the harshest abuse. I didn’t visit Greece, but given their relations, I’m sure the Greeks would concur. It’s hard to find Europeans agreeing on anything, but it’s clear that they agree that Albanians and George Bush suck.

What’s more impressive is that most of those who dished out such derogatory statements didn’t qualify them by saying that “some Albanians are like this” or “most are like that.”

No.

When I asked how prevalent such behaviors were, they emphasized that ALL Albanians are like this. It was nearly impossible to get anyone to concede that maybe one or two in this nation of 4 million could be different.

Wow. I had to meet them. It’s not everyday that you get to meet a nation of assholes.

Except France, of course.

Scouting them out

People told me you could easily pick out an Albanian due to their distinctive facial structure. And all the men wore white caps. So I was on the lookout.

The Montenegrins told me that there were many Albanians in their border town of Ulcinj. In fact, the Albanians are causing lots of problems there, according to the Montenegrins. Be careful, they advised.

I clutched my wallet tightly as I walked through the streets of Ulcinj, Montenegro. I walked all the way to the beautiful beach that has a 500 year old fortress overlooking the sea. It’s a lovely beach and everyone looked pretty normal to me.

I raced back to my mini-bus that would take me to the dreaded Albania. Sadly, I didn’t spot any white hats along the way. I’ve always thought Albania, like Estonia, was a fictitious country, so maybe these Albanians really don’t exist.

Crossing the border to Albania

I sat next to two nuns in a mini-bus. The flirtatious Albanian nun taught me her language. So much for the first stereotype that they’re all Muslims.

None of the men on the bus wore white hats. “Maybe they’re not Albanians,” I thought. But Montenegrins aren’t exactly banging down the doors to visit Albania. So I’m not sure what else they could be.

We stopped in Shkodra, Albania. Looming over the town is the impressive Rozafa Fortress, founded by the Illyrians.

Everything I did irritated my brusque bus driver, but when I said “fala nderit” (thank you) he broke out a wide smile. He helped me find the next minibus to Tirana, Albania’s capital.

I was about to board when I spotted an old man wearing a white cap. I had seen at least a couple of hundred people in Albania and I finally found one guy with a white cap. I wanted to run to him, kiss him, and get his autograph, but I had to go.

My next bus driver had piercing blue eyes and sandy blonde hair. When van was full, he turned on the radio and started blasting… Arabic music?

I quickly reminded myself that blonde and blue eye people can be Muslims too. But then I saw a Christian cross dangling over his rearview mirror.

The juxtaposition of these inputs baffled me. “Welcome to Albania,” I thought.

History, Balkan style

A common theme in the Balkans is their love to revisit history. Almost everyone I met was bursting to tell me their country’s story.

For example, when I was in Cetinje, Montenegro a tour guide sternly told me, with almost hatred in her voice: “For you Americans, history was yesterday, but for us we study hundreds of years of history. And not just our history, but world history.”

I told her, “You know, you’re right. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning.”

I liked how she ended the tour, “And do you know what Montenegrins were doing one year after Columbus discovered America in 1492?”

I almost blurted out, “Killing each other as usual?”

But she answered her own question, “We were making the first printing press in the Balkans, just 50 years after Gutenberg. Goodbye.”

She was implying that while Americans were still trying to get out of their diapers, Montenegrins were printing raunchy pornography.

I wanted to say, “So if you guys had such a head start over us, why are you such a puny and insignificant nation today?”

But I had to remember that these nationalistic folks have short fuses, so I dutifully awed and said, “Wow, can I be your friend, Ms. Bitchy Tour Guide?”

Despite being a bitter woman, she was right that the folks in the Balkans dwell on their history much more than Americans. Yet this is precisely one of their greatest problems. As a Canadian in the crowd later told me over lunch, “Folks in the Balkans spend so much time looking back. North Americans look forward.”

The guy from New Zealand added, “And we look upside down.”

We all laughed at that one.

However, each Balkan country is very selective in remembering its history. They only like to go back so far. They love to go back far enough to recall their glory days. They omit the years before they peaked and gloss over their eventual fall from glory.

They linger on that moment in history when they had a much larger chunk of territory than they control today. They either implicitly or explicitly say that they ought to have that territory back because it was once theirs. When you have at least eight countries in a small area all doing this, you inevitably get endless wars because they’re constantly feeling slighted that they aren’t the big bad asses they once were.

Every Balkan nation is guilty of this, including Albania.

Meet the Illyrians

The history of Albania is pretty lame. They’ve been second-class Europeans for a while. These poor folks have to go really far back before they can feel good about themselves.

How far back? Try the 4th century BC. You know you’re stretching when you have to go that far back. Yet nearly every Albanian I talked to would reminisce about their ancestors 2,400 years ago.

For example, I asked one Albanian what she thought of Montenegrins. “We do not have a big problem with them. After all, unlike the Serbs, they have Illyrian blood.”

Yeah, that makes sense to me too. Never mind that today’s Montenegrins are of Serbian descent. But since they’re living on Illyrian land, this woman feels good about them. Yeah, let’s all look at each other’s 2,400 year old blood before we figure out if we’re cool or not.

Why not look at our 60,000 year old blood, when we were all Africans?

I suppose she hates Italians, because after a few centuries of trading with the Greeks, the Illyrians fell to the Romans in 167 BC. Over the centuries the Illyrians were marginalized in just the southern part of their original country.

Albanians have one more brief glory period they are quick to recall: 1443 to 1468 when the amazing Skanderbeg held off the Turks from his castle for 25 years. Today most Albanians have at least one Skanderbeg icon in their house. After he died, the Turks swiftly overran the Albanians. From then on they remained one of the most backward countries in Europe.

Fast forward to 1913 when the Great Powers gave Kosovo, almost half of Albania, to Serbia. That led to today’s problems in Kosovo.

A wacky dictator

After WWII Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator, ran Albania for a whopping 40 years. His wacky dictatorship makes for some pretty bizarre history.

  • In 1948 Albania allied itself with Stalin’s USSR. They did the classic communist five year plan and along with the ugly commie buildings.
  • In 1960 Krushchev demanded the USSR place a submarine base in Albania. Hoxha told him to buzz off, broke off relations, and became buddy buddies with Mao Zedong in China.
  • From 1966 to 1967 Albania had a Chinese style cultural revolution, complete with collectivization of agriculture, banning religion, and forbidding all western literature. Wait, it gets better...
  • When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, tiny Albania left the Warsaw Pact and said they could defend themselves. Today 750,000 igloo-shaped concrete bunkers and pillboxes dot the entire border, including the sea. This wasn’t cheap.
  • After Mao died in 1976 Albania became increasingly insular as their relationship with China cooled.
  • So in 30 years Albania had managed to cycle through the Soviets, the Warsaw Pact, and China. It had no more friends and no more money. Like Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” predicted, the engine of their country stopped.
  • They remained frozen in time until 1992 when they finally lifted the blinds and found out what the rest of the world was doing.

Toxic Tirana

The roads to the capital were narrow and filled with potholes. Some of the main roads aren’t even paved. This didn’t surprise me, because until 15 years ago it was illegal for an Albanian to own a car.

But they seem to have made up for lost time. Tirana is a cesspool of carbon dioxide and honking horns. Snarled traffic in Tirana make California commutes look like joy rides.

Both the countryside and capital displays the rampant poverty in Albania. Decrepit houses, shabby clothing, and filth strewn throughout road testify to the living standards. The United Nations classifies Albania as the poorest country in Europe, and it shows.

I entered the 300 year old Et’hem Bey mosque in the city center. The Muslim near the entrance was incredibly gracious. He led me inside (after I took off my shoes) and softly explained the significant of the beautifully painted interior. There were a couple of guys in the mosque with white hats, but of the thousands of people milling about Tirana I rarely saw a white hat. Where are these guys with white hats all hiding?

Albanians are incredibly social. On Sunday night families would roam the streets and parks together. No matter how badly they spoke English they wanted to communicate with me. For example, I sat on a bench to take a break and four women (two mothers and their teenage daughters) started talking with me after I asked a simple question. The mother knew probably 20 English words, but she cheerfully tried to communicate with me for almost 30 minutes. She laughed often and clearly enjoyed the interaction. It was rare to find anyone who was not quick to smile and engage in friendly banter.

When I was leaving Tirana in the afternoon it hit me that 90% of the people on the streets were men. Presumably this is due to the Muslim tradition of making sure the woman stayed at home. Nevertheless, the girls in their 20s did go out at night and I almost never saw women who were covered up.

Paradoxes

This found this country inscrutable. Consider the stereotypes and what I found:

  • Steal: no one tried to rob me or short change me. I left my bags with the hotel, in the back of the van, in a casino and nothing was ever taken.
  • Stink: they certainly don’t stink more than any other European.
  • Are dirty: the poor were dirty, but that’s usually the case anywhere you go; at night highly fashionable Albanians roamed the streets.
  • Have 8-12 children per family: Every Albanian I talked with had 2-4 children and said that nearly everyone else they knew had the same number.
  • All look the same and are ugly due to inbreeding: Their looks were incredibly varied and there were tons of handsome men and hot women.
  • Are all Muslims: From 1967 to 1990 Albania was the only officially atheist state in Europe. The government banned public religious services and converted many churches into theatres or cinemas. Mother Theresa, an ethnic Albanian from Macedonia, helped change that. Today it’s the only country in Europe with an Islamic majority. But there’s not ALL Muslims. About 20% are Orthodox and 10% Catholic. Except for the many mosques, it’s hard to tell that they’re Muslims.
  • All wear an odd white cap (the men): About 1 out of 100 men wore one and they were all senior citizens.
  • Only speak Albanian: Many speak Italian and some speak English. If anything, there are more polyglots in Albania than other Eastern European countries.
  • All follow a tome called the Kanun which advocates a medieval code: Albanians scoffed when I asked about it, saying that only those in the rural northern part of their Albania place any attention to the Kanun. Most couldn’t even give me a couple of laws from the Kanun.
  • Murder or injure for trivial reasons: I purposely bumped into people and farted in public and no one shot me.

I was very disappointed. I was eager to confront the horrible society that Albania is made out to be. It would have been so interesting if everything the country’s neighbors said were true. I was hoping it would be true so I searched to confirm the stereotypes, but I came out finding the opposite. This paradox perplexed me. Normally all stereotypes have at least some grain of truth in them, but I was struggling to find any in this case.

Of course, eventually I found examples of stereotypes. For instance, despite all their poverty, most of the cars on the street were Mercedes (granted, most were older models). A NY Times article mentioned this and said that they’re nearly all stolen vehicles, thereby confirming the theft stereotype. The NYT is right, because there’s no way for a country whose average wage is less than $100 a month can buy so many Mercedes.

Yet I met a Montenegrin who said that his Ford SUV was a stolen car that he bought for cheap. He explained that was the way many people in the Balkans (not just Albanians) get their cars.

More paradoxes

Try this paradox: it seems the poorer the country, the more I spend on lodging. Relatively expensive Eastern European countries like Slovenia and the Czech Republic had a sophisticated hostel system that costs only $15 per night. Yet the poorest countries, like Belarus and Albania, didn’t have such hostel options, and foreigners pay double or triple the normal rate.

Another paradox: Albanians like to smoke on buses, but don’t like shoeless passengers. A smoking ticket collector pointed at my feet and pinched his nose to indicate that they stink (they didn’t), so I pointed at his cigarette and pinched my nose. He grinned, acknowledging his hypocrisy, and walked away.

Leaving Tirana

Tirana wasn’t a great city. They’re building like crazy, so it should get better. I heard the national museum is wonderful, but it was closed on Monday. I also hear that the south of Albania has the most interesting sites, including many Roman ruins. But I was eager to pick up the pace after taking my time in Croatia and Montenegro.

So I left in a confused state. Where were all these nasty Albanians? Maybe they’re in Kosovo. I decided that after Macedonia I would head into to Kosovo try to solve the Albanian mystery.

September 25, 2004

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