A few weeks ago I finished reading the book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. At one point, the narrator describes the bustling carribbean city of Santo Domingo in a way that resonates with me here:
…and the general ruination of so many of the buildings as if Santo Domingo was the place that crippled concrete shells came to die…but also it seemed in many places like a whole new country was appearing atop the ruins of the old one. (273)
Sometimes I feel as if the post-communist construction zone of Shqiperia is just that – a place that crippled concrete shells come to die… and, through their death, support the creation of something new…something not-quite democracy yet, but getting closer over time. Living in Lezhe, as apartment buildings rise around me in the quick slapped together expansion of a growing town in an agro-industrial area of Albania, I am used to the dust, to the re-bar, to the new-ness and quick-ness and overall urgency of all the construction around me. It’s as if if the roads are all re-paved quickly enough, Albania will somehow be closer to gaining EU status…something that few Albanians will admit remains, for the moment, a far off pipe dream.
Regardless of this abundant energy that comes with a new democracy, the reminders of the recent shedding of a communist exoskeleton are evident in everything from the physical remains of upended or dynamited bunkers to the straggling mentality of those above the age of 40 in any position of power. Perhaps this is what makes it a place of such drastic juxtaposition and irony….of the unemployed owning the latest beamer SUVs, of modest traditional costumed grandmothers holding the hands of tight pleather scantily clad high heeled girls, and of the lack of planning of any kind in a place that yearns for the future.
While Albania on the surface may appear to be European, be culturally similar to the “west” in a way…this is a misconception that is an easy false reality to be lulled into as an American PCV here. It’s important for me to remember that the scars of communism are not only physical but mental. Part of my adjustment to my workplace and life here has been the occasional post-assumption slap in the face – the “what?/why?/how come?” questions that don’t have answers that make sense to me….but that come up just when I tend to assume that people will react in a way familiar to me. Then the post-ottomman, post-kingdom, post-communist realities of this place rear their heads and I am resigned back to square one. Most of the time I no longer ask “why.”
Somebody recently asked me in an email about where I see Albania in the next 5-10 years and why….and why Americans or those outside the country in general know nothing about what makes Albania “function or what holds it back.” After almost 7 months here in Albania, I still feel as confused about this as the day I arrived. However, a few facts that are easy to forget in the day to day are important to remember when thinking about Albania’s future – and they all have to do with Albania’s past.
1. Albania is a racially and ethnically pure and proud state, with a unique language and culture similar to the countries around it, but yet very distinct (does not have a Slavic language). They pride themselves on their Illyrian heritage.
2. Albania as it exists now only became a country with the fall of the Ottoman empire…this did not occur until the beginning of WWI
3. Albania was completely isolated from the outside world for 45 years – the better part of the 20th century (until 1990)
4. In 1997, after only a few years of democratic economic growth, government initiated ponzey schemes caused complete collapse of the banking system in Albania and most people lost all their savings…and thus had to start all over. The man who was president during that time is currently the prime minister of Albania.
It’s easy for me to forget that the past here is intimately linked to where Albania will be in the future.
I came across an illustrative example of the ironic and inefficient messy way Albanians are working to push forward on a recent trip to Ksamil to visit a friend. Throughout the small town, the government has been systematically demolishing buildings that are “illegal” or un-registered (a high percentage of the homes). The problem is that the way these buildings are demolished is very politicized AND they are not torn down all the way, but are rather left to stand askew – to a visitor it appears as if there were an earthquake. Instead of, say 5 years ago, making sure that all the building regulations were upheld BEFORE buildings were constructed, this is the response. Laws exist here, but they are upheld sporadically and interpreted at the whim of those in power.
So, to summarize this scattered collections of thoughts, I don’t know where Albania is headed….and feel like I have barely scratched the surface of where they have been. I do know that progress here depends on connecting the dots, on communication and accountability and planning….and theoretically that is why I am here. But that makes my time here seem all the more like a very small drop in a pretty big bucket.