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'

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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