Thursday, April 28, 2016

Old Albania, 1994: Beer in the Land of the Eagle (Part 1 of 3).

Part 1 of 3.


The only “corporate” day job I ever managed to hold for any length of time lasted from 1988 to 1989, with a solitary Christmas holiday in between. On the festive occasion of Yuletide, 1988, our office in downtown Louisville declared a contest for best work station decoration.

My friend and co-worker JP, who was well-connected within local radical leftist circles, went to work with entirely uncharacteristic zeal toward his stated goal of winning first prize.

He soon appeared with scissors, glue, armloads of construction paper and dusty old copies of the English-language edition of the “New Albania” propaganda magazine, which he’d borrowed from a socialist workers group somewhere in town.

Who even knew Louisville had such an organization – or that there were publications like this, filed hereabouts?

Come the day of judgement, Jeff had transformed his work pod into a veritable showplace of smudgy, dully-colored agitprop, with a few bright red placards bearing impenetrable phrases in the Albanian language, and photocopied images, stiffly posed, of Enver Hoxha and Ramiz Alia, the country’s Communist leaders.

But it was JP’s genuinely demented final touch that I’ll never forget, because snaking along the tops of his gray office partitions were strands of silver holiday tinsel, wrapped convincingly into menacing coils of barbed wire.

JP dubbed it “Christmas in Albania,” celebrating the world’s only officially atheistic state, and while contest judges couldn’t quite bring themselves to award him the top prize, he was given second place for sheer creativity alone.

It was a landmark moment.

The Albanians call their country Shqipëria.

My first and only visit to Albania occurred in 1994, when the obscure and isolated Balkan nation was struggling for a grip following the collapse of its rigid Communist regime.

Shortly after my ex-wife and I departed Albania, the country’s economy crumbled in the wake of an immense financial “pyramid” scandal, and sadly, boatloads of Albanians again took to the Adriatic, seeking refuge and a better life in Italy.

No sooner had Albania staggered back to its feet than the Kosovo conflict flared up. The NATO bombing of neighboring Serbia in 1999 involved Albania in more than a peripheral way, owing to Kosovo’s predominately ethnic Albanian population.

For 15 years since then, Albania has been reasonably stable, and remains engaged in a long, painstaking climb toward grabbing the economic carrot dangled by the European Union – except that now, in the midst of the EU’s various identity, immigration, ISIS and economic crises, when no one seems to know what being European means, the country’s oft-delayed acceptance into the EU is likely to be set back once again.

Nothing has been easy for the Albanians, arguably the continent’s longest-serving underdogs.

Perhaps that’s why Albania has been a recurring, seemingly eternal source of fascination for me. Three years ago, there was a brief correspondence with a brewpub operator in Tirana, during which we discussed brewing a New Albanian/Old Albanian collaboration beer. Nothing came of it, although it caused me to speculate on the status of people, businesses and breweries experienced so very long ago.

It’s probably time to go back for a follow-up. Until then, here is my account of the 1994 trip. In terms of updates, I’ve no desire to be exhaustive. The two breweries mentioned, one in Korça and the other in Tirana, are operational in the year 2016. There are a handful of others: Norga, Kaon, Stela and Puka among them.

As for the people – Genci, Agim, Nico and many others – I’m honestly clueless. I hope they’re doing well. Now, let's turn back the clock to the summer of 1994.


Introduction: What is Albania?

Albania is nine overheated and gritty days spent in a pockmarked Fiat crisscrossing the central and southern Albanian landscape in the company of two successive guides and a deft, talented driver whose skill at dodging pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carts, herds of sheep and sagging road shoulders put us at "ease" to focus on splendid mountains, peeling buildings, demolished Communist monuments, ubiquitous concrete pillboxes - and most importantly – the hardy, resilient, long-suffering Albanian people.

It is climbing the twisted, shadowed, cobblestone alleyways of the old city of Berat, a short and steep walk away from the rotting 60's-era public buildings and a restored mosque across the main square from the huge pile of gravel and broken concrete marking the spot where the statue of the former dictator Enver Hoxha once stood, and where the people with pick-axes and wheelbarrows could be seen physically dismantling the legacy of Communist rule within minutes (and centuries) of our vantage point amid the Ottoman dwellings that survived earlier tyrannies.

It is driving three hours on the "highway" from the coastal city of Vlore, where broad, shabby, tree-lined avenues lead to the port, a short boat ride from the place the Soviets used as a submarine base in the 1950s, and then ascending the forested mountains, pausing just before the crest to dine on freshly grilled lamb, black olives and tangy feta cheese, washed down with cold Italian lager, before going over the top for the 5 and 1/2 hour descent through a vertical cactus-and-sagebrush landscape giving way to sheer ocean cliffs that somehow had been made to cradle a tortuous and crumbling switchback asphalt ribbon without guardrails that demanded patience and concentration of all drivers, and the necessity of honking at every blind curve to clear the path ahead as the blue ocean incessantly meets the rocks, so far below.

It is being willingly and joyfully hustled by entrepreneurial urchins atop the craggy peak in Kruje that boasts the restored castle of Skanderbeg, national hero, slayer of Turks and role model for generations of Albanians, permitting the aspiring young businessmen to hawk postcards and needlework in fractured English -- but with considerable enthusiasm and a certain innocence, since Albania isn't yet overrun with tourists -- and being sure to sweep away the dried goat droppings before sitting on the boulders to haggle over wares in a midday sun made far more intense by the sleep-inducing beer enjoyed at the privately-owned roadside cafe on the way up the hill.

It is walking along the wharf at Durres and gazing up at the Chinese cranes, watching a handful of shirtless workers lazily chip away at the rust and cracked paint on the hull of a boat that may have witnessed the mass exodus of Albanians to Italy during the problematic winter when Communism collapsed, now reduced to serenely observing the re-enactment of those events by an Italian documentary film crew housed in the same seaside Italianate, pre-war grand hotel with lime green walls and red marble floors where we stayed, the film crew bitterly complaining about the quality of the $2.50-a-bottle Albanian Merlot wine and the greasy "beefsteak" before drinking and eating every bit of it, anyway, and retreating to the bar to watch the World Cup live from America.

It's enough to make a tourist awfully thirsty.

Next: The Korça Experience.

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