The Dark Side of the Moon by dM4cKjZw

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									The Dark Side of the Moon

In Enver Hoxha’s Albania

          1976

     Randall Baker
It is four o’clock in the morning, and Belgrade is pitch black. There is untimely frantic

action in one small hotel room—mine. The reason: I should have been up and active

at three in order to get the shuttle to the airport. Until this point, I confess I had no

idea that there actually were flights operating at these hours; other than those setting

off to bomb somewhere.

           As one might anticipate, this was a good time to be at the airport since no-one

in their right mind is there. My short flight will take me to destination Tirana,

Albania’s diminutive capital. The first indication of the shroud of mystery that lay

across that land and its bizarre politics, was the fact that the flight, and the

destination “Tirana,” were not on the board. In fact, they never appeared on the

board, or anywhere else. Furthermore, even though this was, with the possible

exception of its Asian counterpart, North Korea, the most difficult country to enter,1

I had been granted permission to enter though there was absolutely nothing stamped in

my passport. That got me thinking about the fact that if I vanished into Albania—

who would ever know? And worse, who would do something about it?

           The air of mystery is further deepened by the approach of a man in a suit, who

seems to know who I am, even though I have never seen him before in my life. “Stay

calm,” I think to myself, “This is the Balkans; things are different here.” Somehow,

that does not have the reassuring tone that I hope it might. But, the man is perfectly

polite and says, “Are you for Tirana?” “Well,” I thought, “I’m not against it,” but

then I realize he was asking me if that is my destination. “Absolutely,” I reply,


1   And, as I am sure the local people would have mentioned immediately, to get out of.
bearing in mind this may be my last recorded utterance before I disappear under the

political shroud of Enver Hoxha’s fiefdom. “Right,” he says, “Here is your boarding

card.” I take the card, and study it to memorize the gate and seat number. I notice

that there is nothing written on the boarding card, though in the top corner, someone

had stamped TIRANA.

       The main thing is, it works. Soon I am in the air in a half-empty plane with

my first view of real Albanians—correct number of heads, eyes, etc. And here also are

some members of the more radical wings of the British Trade-Union movement. I

wonder whether the British government knows

that they are my traveling companions. Clearly,

they are a “delegation,” though they are

becoming well-lubricated. There are even a few

resolute Western businessmen looking for

prospects in this, the most controlled economy

in the world.



       Soon, in the light of dawn, we are

preparing to land at Rinas airport, and it comes

as something of a shock to realize that Albania

is really there. It has always seemed such a totally off-beat place that eventually I

came to think that someone had invented it in order to make everyone else look good.

Or, maybe, it was some sort of political Brigadoon that popped up only to relieve a

slow-news month in the West. To be fair, First Secretary Enver Hoxha was not the
total architect of all this weirdness. He had been preceded by the diminutive self-

declared King Zog2--a tribal leader, previously known as Ahmed Zogu, who produced

a bevy of daughters and a very tall son, Leka. But Zog was long gone, this summer

morning of July, 1976. As a result of Albania’s well-developed paranoia, the airspace

allowed to civilian flights for landing at Tirana is very restricted, and so we are

banking rather alarmingly over the coast. There, just below us as we prepare to land,

is a line of aged silver MiG fighters, with the splendid double-headed eagle of Albania

emblazoned in black on red on the tails. It is a curious mixture of the very modern

and the medieval, rather as though a knight in armor has been turned into a jet.

        We taxi up to a very undistinguished building, not bearing any name and

continuing this wonderful night of anonymity and inscrutability. We have to walk

from the plane to the “terminal.” Our passports are collected, en masse, and we are

“invited” to wait in a large, but totally non-functioning restaurant. With that, a

rather stocky, but very handsome lady approaches us—it was to be her job to “look

after” us—our “minder” in British parlance. She talks to several members of the

group—all men—who discretely leave the room, and I wonder what her basis for

selection is. However, I soon discover that this has nothing to do with immigration;

she is telling them to get their hair cut, as Albania considers long hair to be a sign of

“Western decadence.” Furthermore, “no beards,” and they have to come off too. The

parade of returning shorn passengers makes it look as though we are being prepared to




2Albanians have captured all the most wonderful names in the world. Who else would call a king Zog?
Try these: Arta Dade, Skender Gjinushi, Sali Berisha, Bislim Zyrapi, Orhan Rexhepi and Fatos Nano
enter prison, or the Marines. I wonder how they would have dealt with the gentleman

pictured here, whom they regard as God?

       But, the socialist evaluation of our appearance is not over yet, and a couple of

men are chosen to have their “bell-bottom”

trousers pinned up, as such flared cuffs are

corrupting to the youth of Albania. At least Marx

never wore those, so there is some ideological

basis for this. In the corner of the room is a

facility for changing money, and this is where we

meet the Albanian lek and quintar. Interestingly it

is tied to the US $, which seems like a big

concession to the antichrist. For those who

treasure such arcane details, in July 1976, the lek

                                                  exchanged at 15 to the US$ (not that

                                                  there was anything to buy, as we

                                                  were to discover).

                                                          Then, things start to happen

                                                  and we are led off in rehabilitated

groups of four. It was absolutely impossible to find any guidance beforehand on what

is, and is not, acceptable for entry into Hoxha’s Albania, so the customs inspection is

a venture into the unknown. All bags and cases are opened and searched, and all

printed matter scrutinized very closely—this is the real focus of their attention. The
selection process for contraband goods seems to be entirely capricious as it accords to

no logic that I can distinguish. For instance:

        Reader’s Digest—I would have thought the most rabidly anti Communist

           publication by Albanian standards, is allowed in without any problem

        D. H. Lawrence—forget it. Seized at once—Lady Chatterley fixed him for

           ever—though I would have thought of it as a masterful exposure of

           bourgeois decadence.

        Daily Telegraph—rabidly anti-Communist conservative British newspaper,

           fine, no problem.

        Ten Commandments: Let me say right away, I am not the carrier of this

           document, but it is on the table next to me. Extremely seditious in this

           state—which is about to become the only declared atheist state in the

           world.

        Novel on the “Irish Troubles” of 1917—leads to long intellectual debate, and

           is finally held as it is not certain whether what went on in the Post Office

           in Dublin was a bourgeois or truly revolutionary uprising.

Absolutely no interest in my camera. Now we are out of the no-man’s-land of

immigration and, yes, in Albania. Wow it really does exist. Brigadoon.

       My first sight as I leave the terminal is an ox-cart and two horse-drawn

wagons loaded with hay and straw making their timeless way along the road. But, I

have to remind myself, these are Marxist-Leninist horses and oxen. There, waiting for

us is a new Fiat bus—anything imported, and there isn’t much, seems to come from

Italy across the Adriatic. As we sit in the bus for one of those inexplicable, but
inevitable, delays, I have a chance to look over my traveling companions. Tourists,

per se, are not permitted to wander in and out of Albania as they are in Bulgaria and

Hungary, and I never meet another group of anything resembling tourists, in the

classical sense anywhere. There are other foreigners, but they were all young and

politically psychotic, thus naturally drawn to Albania. There are two flights into

Rinas Airport per week. This year (1976) they have clamped down on the tiny trickle

of officially approved “guests.” Furthermore, the only “guests,” as opposed to

delegations, that seem to be allowed are from the United Kingdom. I wonder what

makes them respectable? To deepen the mystery, and what could possibly happen in

Albania that is not a mystery, the British have no diplomatic relations with Albania,

following the sinking of a British warship by an Albanian mine after the Second

World War. British interests in Albania are handled, in another truly Albanian twist,

by the French—our oldest irritation. The French are very much persona grata in

Albania because Enver Hoxha was educated at the Sorbonne—as were most of the

lunatic fringe of Communism: Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh and others.

       Buses loaded, passports returned, we depart for Durrës (which, we find, is

pronounced Doursi), briefly called Durazzo during the Italian occupation. First

observation: slogans. Slogans seem to be the major output of Albania—set out in

stone on hillsides, painted over the entire walls of buildings, just everywhere. They

compete for space only with gigantic smiling portraits of Enver—with children, with

bouquets, always with a smile. The message of these slogans is, sadly, lost on us as the

Albanian language, like the country, is absolutely impenetrable. A few slogans

become familiar through repetition already, and I have decided that PPSh must be
the Albanian Party of Labor, since I am alert to the fact that the name of Albania in

Albanian is Shqipteria (would you have expected any less?)3 Another invaluable word

is shokun which translates as “Comrade” and is used frequently. Long life (Rrofte) is

wished to Albanian-Chinese friendship—maybe the only friend the country has left.

The delightful lady who sent people to have their heads shaved in the airport has

seated herself next to me, and chats away in fine, idiomatic English. I have to remind

myself that, like almost all Albanians, she has never been outside this tiny country.

Taking advantage of her presence, I ask her to translate one or two of the bolder

slogans—usually accompanied by chunky, heroic, Socialist-realist art where everyone

is looking into the middle distance as though they were having trouble focusing.

“What’s that one?” I inquired. “We will resolutely survive the Imperialist Revisionist

blockade,” she answered. I thought, perhaps, it had said “Welcome to Albania,” or

something like that. I should have known better.

        Shpresa, the young lady in question, now stands up to give us what passes for

a brief history of this forgotten corner of Europe. She covers the “endless night” of

Turkish occupation, the declaration of the Albanian state in 19124 as a consequence of

the Balkan wars, the coming of Zog, the going of Zog, and the glorious ascendancy of

Enver Hoxha, who has ruled this place since 1944. As we cross over a railroad track,

Shpresa tells us that the tracks were built by the voluntary labor of Albanian

schoolchildren between 1947 and 1949. (Reminder to myself—stay away from riding


3 Before I get too carried away, I should remind myself that the name of my country, Wales, in Welsh
is Cymru.
4 In keeping with the zany way things happen in Albania, upon the declaration of independence from

Turkey, they needed a ruler, and actually advertised in the London Times to find one. At one point they
favored Neville Cardus, the captain of the English cricket team.
the train). The first thing you really notice isn’t there at all—traffic. It is as though

Benz had never invented the internal-combustion engine. How wonderful—except for

the Fiat bus of course. But then the occasional vehicle appears, nearly always Chinese

tractors and trucks—no cars. Everything is green, intensively cultivated, with bevies

of people in the fields. The buildings are relentlessly shoddy and dull. Socialism had a

real aptitude for dreariness. At one point, since Shpresa is from Albturist, I ask her

approximately how many foreign tourists, other than delegations of the party faithful

from Belgium, Germany etc., there are in Albania at the moment. She probably

knows because they would all have to go through the Albanian equivalent of the

Soviet Intourist. Without hesitation she replies, “Forty two.” That, I realize later, is

the number of people in our bus.

       Then we reach the sea, at which point, we turn away from the port town of

Durrës, and head along the plazh, or beach, which is teeming with Albanian families

on holiday (15 days a year per family, 40 for miners). We enter a zone of trees and

chalets that is clearly “recreational,” though still dreary. The bus winds through an

area of kiosks, , feeble landscaping, playgrounds, and slogans—always the slogans—

to the “Turist Kompleks”: a group of five hotels. One of these, the Adriatik, is,

Shpresa says with pride, “of the “A” grade,” though the meaning of this is never

expained. Still, it does not matter because I am in the “B”-grade Durresi. Too bad.

Albanians wander around the area where the foreigners are compounded; and I had

not expected that. Indeed, the one thing to continually surprise me was how easy-

going things seem to be—I have no idea what I expected; all those heroic statues

come to life?
        The hotel combines the extreme spaciousness and functionalism of socialist

architecture. I am, as I might have guessed, on the top (3rd) floor and there is no

elevator. I am advised that, since we are here on a group visa, we should not wander

around individually. Everyone takes this seriously for about 10 minutes until some

anti-social element among us wanders through the ornate entry gates, and no-one

ever bothered us again.

        As in all Communist countries I ever visited, the rarest commodity is a regular

supply of hot water, and Albania is faithful to this ideological necessity. But, it is

always available, night and day, in the Ladies’ shower room. That gives me no

satisfaction at all. In Czechoslovakia in 1963, I remember, it was available between 3

and 4 a.m. But now, the first Marxist-Leninist meal: Lunch.

        Lunch is wholesome, if unspectacular, and suits me fine, being British. It has a

solidly proletarian meat-and-potatoes look to it, preceded by a wonderful, very

fundamental and proletarian soup, and terminating in fresh fruit and cream cake. I

like Albania already. The peaches, grapes and water melons are crisp as only fresh-

picked fruit can be. The service is good5 as is the Albavin State wine (white or red). No

point in checking the vintage, it comes in unlabelled bottles, including beer bottles

and bottles that might once have held anything.

        The afternoon, in true and very civilized Mediterranean fashion, is reserved for

the siesta. (I have no idea what the Albanian for siesta is, but I bet it has three “R”s

and a “Q.”). The afternoon is lost in sleep.


5Which immediately makes Albania different from every Socialist country I ever visited, where the
waiters seem to have all studied at the Institute of Surliness, Indifference and Eye Avoidance.”
       In the evening, somewhat refreshed, I wander round my “B”-grade hotel, and

find it has a bookstore. As an academic, I am expected to be interested in these things,

so I went in. Most of the books are polemical politics—nicely bound but stupendously

dull. Still, there are good maps and some posters too—mostly more “middle distance”

stuff. There is nothing in here that the average Westerner would remotely consider

“holiday reading,” unless they were on something strong, and so I settle for Enver

Hoxha’s history of the Albanian Party of Labor bound in suitably red cover. I must

confess that I read it: it was well written and the translation was excellent. The plot,

however, was a bit thin. My main problem, having chosen a book and a huge wall

map, is that the store appears to be unstaffed. But, I am wrong, for behind the

counter, and a few centimeters taller than it, is a very young boy. I have no idea how

I am going to communicate—but the following conversation ensues:

       Me: “Do you, by chance, speak English?”

       Boy: “Of course!” (he speaks, as far as I am concerned, with his eyes, because

       the rest of his head is below the counter. It is like talking to a women in

       Arabia, where that is all of the body you see. Not that you ever do talk to

       women in Arabia.)

       Me: “Where do you study it?”

       Boy: “In School, from the radio—the BBC”

       Me: “That’s interesting,” (and surprising too—everyone else is jamming the

       BBC and its subversive message)

       Boy: “And we have a book. Here it is.” Over the counter comes a very used

       copy of the Longman’s English Reader that I dimly remember from infant-
       school days. There, indeed, are Dick and Jane, Spot, and father with the pipe:

       a life steeped in middle-class values. How would a child in fortress Albania

       relate to this model of comfortable domesticity. Let’s ask him.

       Me: “How do you find this book? Is it useful?”

       Boy: (eyes go into really deep middle distance, looking for inspiration—he

       looks up at his hand, holding the book to focus his thought processes, and

       utters these immortal lines) “It is, I suppose, perfectly adequate for a

       Bourgeois Liberal Text.”

Quite so. Who could argue with that?

More cakes, more coffee, more calories, a few pages of the Party of Labor, and bed.



Durrës: Wednesday July 28, 1976

       Breakfast, I learn, is an unholy crush because, as in the army, it is available

only “on the dot,” as Shpresa put it, of seven a.m. It consists of bread, butter, cheese,

jam and eggs—all of which, believe me, never saw a box, tin or fridge. This

combination wake-up call is also right up my culinary street. It occurs to me, waiting

in line, that if I am declared an “Anti-Social Element,” I think I could stay here—

foodwise that is. Then, stuffed, off to see the ancient port of Durrës.

       Indeed as we approach the port there is a bright new Chinese freighter

offloading at one of the quays, just to reinforce the fact that Albania’s only friend is

diametrically on the other side of the globe, and, in terms of population size trumps

Albania by about 1.1 billion. But, Shpresa informs us as we amble along, things are
easing up on the international relations front, and even Greek freighters come now

(Greece is next door). To show just how liberal Albania has become, she tells us,

       “Nowadays, the crews are allowed onshore to eat.”

       She continues by informing me that in 1913, Durrës had been the capital of

newly-minted Albania, though there were many capitals, often at the same time, as

this tiny country split and reshaped itself like some sort of tribal amoeba. There was

even a minor German princeling recruited to run the country for a few weeks: Prince

Wilhelm of Wied (wonderfully transliterated in Albanian into Velhelm Xuvid). This

territorial fluidity was because the 1912 boundaries of Albania left a lot of Albanians

outside the country [hence the Kosovo and Macedonia crises that haunts us in the

twenty-first century]; this was the time of the shifting alliances of the Balkan Wars,

and Albania is the last country in Europe to remain tribal (The Ghegs and the Tosks)

and to retain the vendetta.

        Durrës had a venerable history, she continues expansively, reaching back to

Greek and Roman times—when it had been known as Epidamnus. The Albanians

themselves, as is totally appropriate, are a unique little linguistic group known as

Illyrian. Doesn’t Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” open on the shores of Illyria? I

didn’t know Shakespeare had been anywhere near Albania. After Shpresa’s rapid run

through of Greeks, Romans, Byzantines (they certainly seem appropriate), Turks,

Dervishes, Italians, Austrians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, Venetians,

Ostrogoths, Normans and many, many more, charging in and out of the only place

these solitary Illyrians called home, I begin to develop a healthy respect for these

folks in their small corner of Europe. This modest town has belonged to 33 nations.
Then Shpresa tells me the place was flattened by earthquakes in 1372, 1905, and 1926.

Heck, they have every right to be paranoid.

       The town of Durrës, at first sight, I have to say is a rather unlovely collection

of wide streets flanked by totally undistinguished buildings in the socialist style

known as “Bleak.” There must be an “Old Durrës” somewhere—I never find it and

suppose those earthquakes must have taken care of most of it. The first stop on our

perambulation is at the top end of what must be the Main Street. Here we are taken

to see the monument to the fallen of the “National Liberation War,” which I take to

be the same animal as that which we, more prosaically, call the “Second World War.”

Durrës was, after all, the first place that Italians had landed in 1939 to prove that

their King Victor Emmanuel II, who was even smaller than the diminutive Zog, was

out to build a serious Empire out of the scraps the big powers had left. Better late

than never, and it was easier than Abyssinia—just across the bay really.

       The memorial is a building not just some huge piece of statuary, and is

arranged in a crescent of two stories. Plaques on the wall commemorate the dead;

some humanized by name, and sometimes haunting enamel photos; others simply

anonymous. The second floor consists of a political and documentary history of

Durrës during the Second World War. The politics of how this is rendered is too much

for some people in our group; the others succumb to the heat and stifling humidity.

What comes out of a discussion with the curator is the impression that British-

Albanian relations (and the group is entirely British) are bedeviled by the fact that

the Brits supported both the Communist-led Partisans, who were the only effective

force in actually defeating the Italians, and the “National Front,” which was an
Albanian anti-Communist movement. I am sure the British thought this was simply

being, as they would say, “even-handed,” or, as the rest of the world would say,

“duplicitous.” The curator talks about “Britain conspiring with the Fascist elements,”

which immediately arouses the ire of one member of the group who, clearly, had

served with the British Army in the War and clearly had never conspired with any

Fascists of any complexion. Above us, for those not into conspiracy theory, the view

carries you to the hill, and atop the hill, is the rather plain palace of the late Zog,

which is now used to house visiting Party delegations—and there can be precious few

of those, bearing in mind that Albania considers almost every country heretical or

treacherous, or both. Around the museum are some “relocated” tombstones inscribed

in Turkish, using the pre-Reform Arabic script, reminding us how long this country

was under the control of the Ottomans. Well, actually, they never really “controlled”

it—it is totally impossible to control Albanians, but the Ottomans claimed to

administer it.

       Over there, in the corner, is something really unusual—a large collection of

full-size church bells. During a lull, I ask about them.

                 “The bells? Yes, well since we intend to become an officially atheistic

                 country, we have no use for them, and so they were all collected,

                 brought here and they will be melted down for the bronze. In fact they

                 will be the first contribution to the new metal foundry we are building

                 with Chinese help.”

So much for the bells. Some of them are clearly very old, with inscriptions around the

rim.
         A walk now, to the partly-excavated Roman amphitheater of the town. The

Italians were trying to grab Albania even then. The amphitheater had previously

been built-over, and the old stone houses are being demolished to reveal the circus

below. When the Empire accepted Christianity, gladiatorial battles ended here, and

the amphitheater was closed. At that time, a small Byzantine church was erected on

the site using part of the much-older structure, and mosaics of saintly figures remain

from this change of purpose. Interestingly, the amphitheater had been built in such a

way that it was possible to flood it, and have sea battles there to break the monotony

of Christians and lions. Indeed I notice that I am standing in front of one of the cages

that one, I am informed, held the lion that would have looked upon me as a healthy

snack.

         Heading back to the bus, we pass a remnant of the city wall, and three canon

bearing the inscription “Clydeside 1812.” What brought them to Durrës I wonder, all

the way from Scotland. The heat is intense now, and we find a stall selling ice cream,

which is mobbed at once. Now occurs one of those “Albanian moments.” Wherever we

went we were surrounded immediately by hoards of small children. Members of the

group would hand out candy to them, and this drove Shpresa wild. We were, she

explained, undermining the self-reliance of the children, and inculcating a patron-

client dependency. I must admit that I had never thought of it that way, and anyway

I am too mean to give sweets to children (and in the US of 2003 that would

immediately get you 20 years in jail as a pedophile—our own anti-social element par

excellence).
       As we amble down the main street we come upon a large statue of Joseph

Stalin—role model for Comrade Hoxha for sure. He is staring across the street at a

poster advertising the film Ivanhoe. All the time I feel as though I am in a zoo because

people are staring in unconcealed curiosity. For some reason, Shpresa decides this is

the moment to discuss economic conditions, and so she tells us a propos of nothing:

        The average wage is 650 lek and the maximum wage is 900

        The right to strike is, of course, totally forbidden since you could only

           strike against the State (which owns 101% of everything), and how could

           the State be wrong?

        The right to strike is, however, in the Chinese constitution

That’s enough economics, my attention is wandering. It wanders to a large mosque on

my left that I see has been turned into a “Palace of Youth.” Virtually no shops in

sight. Day over. Bed.

Berat and Fieri: Thursday July 29.

This is a trip into the countryside, and is an Albturist option that I decide is for me,

since I do not want to be left with the Belgian discussing “Vanguardism” or Dialectic

Materialism on the beach—they should stick to waffles, or fries with mayonnaise. I

am heading southeast to the city of Berat. The day is beautiful, the journey restful as

we pass through fields of tobacco, maize, rice, and cotton, while weaving around ox-

carts. The driver soon tires of this and rests his hand on the very loud (remember, this

is an Italian bus) two-tone horn. This, I suspect, is a clear indication of Vanguardism

illustrating the leading role of the Proletariat over the Peasantry. Some of the bridges,

I notice, consist of unsecured planks laid across steel cross-members, and as we rattle
over these I really wonder why Albanians gave up religion, because faith appears to

be the only thing holding us up at the moment. The guide reels off the name of every

factory and hamlet we pass.

        Berat itself is declared a “City Museum.” I can see why. It is a town of most

pleasant aspect climbing the steep banks on either side of the river Osum. Tier after

tier of whitewashed Balkan stone homes rise, closely packed, giving the city its name

of “The Town of 1,000 Windows.” One great thing about being a “town museum,” is

that you cannot paint slogans—anywhere. The people of the town, however, got their

uncontrollable love of Communism out of their system by cutting a grotesquely huge

“Parti-Enver” into the limestone hill opposite. I made the great error of asking the

guide, “What would you do about that if the political system changed?” Bad, bad,

question that only a Western dupe of capitalism could have dreamed up.

        Even better than the urban landscape, however, is a terraced café that has a

selection of world-class cream cakes—not one of which has “Parti-Enver” written on

it. The air here is cool, for we have climbed substantially, and this as near perfect a

day as it is possible to imagine. And no traffic! The square in the town has a fine

stone-built mosque, and several minarets are clearly visible over the rooftops. All are

closed. Above us, carved directly into the rock, is a small Byzantine church—similarly

hors de service.

        But, enough rural reverie—down to business. Life is not all bucolic landscapes,

so let’s go look at a Chinese sock factory. Why not? It is called—surprise, surprise—

the Mao Tse Tung Kombinat . No cameras in here please—these must be strategic

socks of some sort. All round us adorning the walls are the smiling faces of those
workers who have “exceeded their norms.” The love affair with China is represented

by fraternal Chinese slogans, which nobody can read because, I now realize, despite

the love-fest between them, I have not seen a single Chinese person in Albania. In the

West, it was common knowledge that Albania was crawling with Chinese—where are

they?

        A short lecture introduces us to the 8-hour day, and the 6-day week, which is

standard fare for all Albanians. The system of worker-management proves

impenetrable, so we will leave it to them to understand. I also can never quite

understand where all these “norms” that everyone is exceeding come from. If I were a

Kombinat director, I would set the norms low, and then tell the Party I was exceeding

them all over the place. I would have thought, given that everything in this factory

comes off the business end of a machine, it is the machine that is setting the norms,

whatever its political affiliations.

        The town has, what I take to be, but would never dare say out loud, a strong

Turkish influence in its architecture—best represented in the magnificent single-span

bridge across the gorge. It reminds me very much of the one in Mostar, which the

Croats were to destroy later as their contribution to civilization. I realize as I gaze

around that I am standing on a manhole cover emblazoned with the fasces of

Mussolini’s Italy. So some small utilitarian souvenir of their brief stay is here in this

lovely, remote place.

        Now lunch and a chance to really talk to the guide of the day (not Shpresa—

this one is specific to the trip). She has a wonderful command of English and will

become a teacher of English next year. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of some
selective parts of English literature, as do the people in Customs at the airport. She

knows, not surprisingly, A. J. Cronin inside out, but interestingly, has never heard of

Oscar Wilde. She has read Beowulf in the original, which is more than I can claim.

Byron and Keats are designated respectable reading and allowed into the curriculum.

Not so, however, Wordsworth and D. H. Lawrence. Now D. H. Lawrence I can

understand what with Lady Chatterley’s class-based entanglement with the gardener

and the coarse language, but Wordsworth who spent his whole life lying on couches

and musing about daffodils with his sister. Byron, on the other hand. Who would

want him as a role-model for socialist youth? Curious—I wonder who makes these

decisions.

         The excursion now heads for Fieri. We pass through Albania’s diminutive oil

fields (“no photos please”). They had trouble with the Germans destroying them once

already. Many women with rifles on their shoulders are working in the fields and

many other young women in olive green army fatigues are marching along the side of

the road. Fieri is a very unremarkable (ugly) modern town with the usual huge square

(for May Day I suppose). But, Fieri is not why we are here (if it were, I would want

my money back—every lek of it). No, we are headed toward history—more precisely

to nearby Apolonia. Here, long ago, Augustus Caesar—the progenitor of the

progressively more weird Augustan emperors—had gone to school6. Apolonia was a

substantial Greek prosperous city with a theater; now partly reconstructed, and a


6 I don’t blame him personally for this. I understand that, as part of the privileged lifestyle of the rulers
of Rome, water was brought to the Imperial palaces through lead pipes. This metal builds up in human
tissue, is notoriously hard to flush out, and does really bad things with synapses and the like. This
seems, rather than genetics or inbreeding, to explain why so many of the line started out well, like
Caligula, and went totally barmy, as Drusilla would tell you if she could.
library. The best-preserved part of this fascinating spot is the Byzantine church, with

its exquisitely painted altar screen—though I discover that parts of it were repainted

“this century.”

       From the lofty adjacent bell tower—interestingly, not incorporated into the

church building itself—I command a splendid view across the coastal plain—a vision

of the brightest green I have ever seen outside the west coast of Ireland, mostly rice,

but interspersed with many greenhouses, all flashing as they catch the late afternoon

light. Some structures I cannot really interpret, as I am lining up my photograph.

“What are those?” I ask the guide, pointing. “Missile silos,” she replies.

       The journey back to Durrës is a traverse through endless huge fields of rice,

maize and tobacco. Amidst these huge fields, a cluster of unremarkable buildings

reveals the nexus of a collective farm or tractor station. Of the many women working

in the fields, it is relatively easy to break them down into two groups: those who do

this all the time, know what they are doing, and could do it with their eyes closed,

and, students sent into the country to work and show solidarity with the peasant

sisters and don’t know a weed from a beetroot.

Shkoder: Friday, July 30th.

       Another early start, as this journey is going to take us half-way across the

country to the northern, and not-too-friendly, frontier with Yugoslavia. However the

waffle-eaters have been into ideological discourse for two hours beside the Adriatic

before my feet touch the floor.

       For part of the journey the driver of the day is very cautious and respectful of

other life forms. However, once we leave the Tirana road he turns into some form of
demon or anti-social element of the worst sort, maybe, even, an enemy of the people?

His lunatic driving may be intended to impress the hoards of young women farm

workers with rifles along the road on their way to the fields. Impressing a young

woman with your reckless driving is one thing; doing the same thing to women with

rifles is a different matter entirely.

        On, on, past the cement factories, the superphosphate factory, the bricks, the

copper, the cement. We follow the coast long time, but then abruptly turn inland over

two broad, stony rivers, over one of which still spans the one bridge that survived the

Second World War. For three hours we drive, with no stops. Then we emerge into the

drained swampland of the Drin valley. Draining this was clearly a monumental piece

of engineering. Now the Drin valley is awash in sunflowers and maize. A new

pumping station reminds us that this area is just waiting for the chance to become a

swamp again.

        Shkoder (Scutari) itself is, as a town, rather a let-down, but has an interesting

location on a promontory almost encircled with water: Lake Scutari, and two rivers.

The encircling hills, around the lake give the location a dramatic backdrop of steep

limestone outcrops. We pause for refreshments, and then off to the cultural event of

the day, and maybe my entire cultural existence.

        There on the square stands the “Museum of Atheism,” surely a first for

Albania7. This is, apparently, a local initiative on the part of the good folks of

Shkoder, in keeping with the law of 1967 that banned religious orders and

7Wrong. Leningrad has one. Readers in the post-Hoxha era may like to read Luan Starova’s novel
“The Museum of Atheism” to recapture rather better, the Albania of 27 years ago that I am describing
here.
institutions. This museum is to show you exactly why they did that—I think.

Actually, Albania is not yet an officially atheistic state, for that resolution will be put

before the 7th Party Congress later this year (1976). The movement against religion, or

so we are told anyway, began in Durrës and spread from there (with some help I

suspect). No wonder they had all those bells outside the Durrës Museum. Religious

buildings have either been destroyed, turned into something else (stables, youth

centers and cinemas for instance) or preserved for some special architectural merit.

           To get us in the right state of mind, the guide Beatrice, informs us:

           “This exhibition is a local initiative of the people of Shkoder8, and it may seem

           to you, is only connected with religion. However, as you must all be aware, it

           is not possible to separate religion from the class struggle and the political

           history of oppression. [Actually, I must say, this made jolly good sense to me].

           Religion is, after all, unscientific [which she said as though it smelled bad].

           There are gods with three heads, God creating light before he created the sun

           [Darwin’s unfortunate observation], Gods that look like elephants: all of which

           is swept aside by ‘Scientific Materialism.’

As she reached a crescendo in her revelations on atheism, a small girl who had

somehow joined our group, faints right away, and drops like a stone, with a thud

straight onto the floor. No-one moves for a moment. Some see this clearly as divine

intervention, though the poor girl had uttered not a word, and why the divinity had

picked her was not clear. Exit small girl, horizontal, with parents.



8   Though strongly in keeping with Enver’s declarations on this subject.
       Move along now to dervishes whirling, Indians with skewers through their lips,

people in the Mid-West playing with snakes, all of which is gathered together under

the collective descriptor: Mumbo Jumbo. Yes, that is the term she actually used.

       Progress to the next room, now we focus on religion exploiting the people.

There are friars selling Papal Dispensations—the very guys Chaucer had targeted all

those years earlier; there are charms and plaster saints so beloved of Catholics, tithes

are there too, and a thousand other original ways of separating the peasantry from

what little wealth they had garnered. By far the most interesting exhibits come from

the former Shkoder cathedral and include:

            The “miraculous” undecomposed body of St. Prosper bedecked in rich

              clerical garments (in furtherance of the basic Christian principle of

              unpretentious humility I suppose). The poor were allowed to feast their

              eyes on this wonder once a year, for a fee of course to confirm their

              faith. When opened by the representatives of the secular and very

              skeptical Proletariat, the “body” was found to be stuffed with

              horsehair. Booo.

            A painting showing the roads to Heaven and Hell (a familiar didactic

              theme). Those going to Heaven, it was explained to us, were mostly the

              rich and the clergy marching through a tiny, rather dismal, gate into a

              rather barren-looking Paradise with sunlight beyond. Those going in

              the other direction, passed through a wide, richly decorated gate into

              lush green fields. Lurking just over that horizon, however, are all those

              nasty things usually associated with the afterlife in this place. What I
              find really interesting is that the painter has put himself into those

              heading for the wide gates. Given a choice between Hell and the people

              he worked for, he knew where he was going.

       The next section is very different, and if anything, even more interesting. It is

also more darkly sinister. It shows archival and photographic “proof” of the

“collusion” between church authorities—Orthodox, Muslim and Catholic, (no bias

here) and the various invading forces that had arrived in Albania: Britain, Austria,

Italy and Germany. This produces a positive deluge of questions from the group,

which the guide fields very well in a rather determined and unshakable way. As she

speaks I think for just a moment “what does she remind me of?” and it comes to me.

She is a missionary, bright with fervor and conviction, but with a slightly different

message from most: “Religion is bunk.” She wins the round and the questions become

more feeble, and eventually trail off.

       The final section of this unique display brings us up-to-date and right into the

mid-1970s. This is lovingly called: “The Continuing Role of the Church in Anti-Popular

Activities.” Someone asks even before the guide can utter a word: “What happened to

all the priests and imams?’ She informs us that “some of them fought with the

Partisans”—which sort of goes against what she so recently explained to us.

However, she quickly observes, “The Catholics never participated in the war against

Fascism.” Not too surprising, since the fascists in Albania’s case were Italian, and it

was the megafascist Mussolini who, in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, had given the

Vatican its sovereignty. Tricky situation that. What was the fate of the other clergy,
we never did divine. The Catholics, she tells us, were mainly focused on evacuating

seven million dollars before the final debacle came home to roost.

       Over in the corner, “The Continuing Degeneration of the Church” in general is

demonstrated by photographs of American clerics dancing the Twist, in Church, to

attract young minds and demonstrate their contemporary relevance. Nothing could

have been more calculated to keep me at home or encourage me to take up weekend

golf. There, also, was Cardinal Spellman blessing the troops going off to “Imperialist

Wars” in Korea and Viet Nam. We are also shown small Bibles, which had been put

in plastic bags and placed in the sea to float their message over to Albania.

       Now comes the key question, and just when I was thinking of the ice cream

vendor I saw outside: “What happens to you in Albania if you want to practice

religion today?” Deep intake of breath. Answer:

       “Well, there will be pressure from your workmates and neighbors to encourage

       you to see the error of your ways, but there will not be direct pressure from the

       State.”

Deep sigh of skepticism, and we move on. Everyone agrees, however, that this was

one of the most interesting visits any of us have had, anywhere, and it was rather well

put-together. It certainly never loses your attention. I certainly doubt very much

that you will find this in Blackpool or Manchester.

       As we leave the Museum, there over the door is an inscription (in Albanian of

course): It is, of course, Marx’s famous dictum “Religion is the Opium of the People.”

I remind the guide that what Marx actually said was the opposite of how everyone

interprets this statement:
               “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real

               suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the

               oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless

               conditions. It is the opium of the people. [Emphasis added]”

Just to set the record straight.

       Across the road to eat, and happy to see that small girl who fell victim to the

Hand of God inside the Museum is now revived and taking ice cream for her

complaint. The Albanian white wine, my first exposure to white, is very rough and

would probably sttrip paint, just as we have read in the few “guides” to Albania: the

wines are rarely given adequate time to mature. Too true—this one hardly had time to

leave infancy. Better to stick to the Albanian beer made from hops and oats, and

which, challengingly, varies starkly from location to location—so at least you can

never get bored with it. It is more like a lager than the Stygian stuff we put away in

Wales. Furthermore, for the extremely loyal and brand-faithful British imbers, the

Albanians have got you beaten, because nothing in this country is labeled, though I

am happy to see all the bottles are recycled—don’t try and leave with one. Albania is,

we are constantly reminded, self-sufficent and can stand alone. Since there is nothing

to buy, there is no packaging problem either. Great.

       Final event of the day is to drive up to the Venetian castle overlooking the

lake (and Montenegro for that matter). The Venetians were the only Europeans who

managed to get through to the Turks, and they even allowed the Venetians to rule

this place after the Ottomans had conquered it. As anticipated, a breathtaking view

right across the city, its surrounding rivers, and beyond. A small, lightly-armed
gunboat with a languid Albanian flag, and even more languid crew, is the only sign of

human presence—I am reluctant to say “life,” on the lake. Far below, somewhat

surprisingly, is a perfect miniature of the St. Sophia Mosque in Istanbul. Of course,

the Turks were here, I must not forget that—plenty of minarets everywhere. Not

much remains of the castle except the powder room9, and a tunnel that goes all the

way down to the river. A few Albanian soldiers are bivouaced within what is left of

the walls, and they do not want to be photographed. The journey home is, mercifully,

lost in sleep.



Pogradec and Korce: Monday August 2nd.

           Dull and very overcast as we move away from the coast into the interior, but

at least we leave the humidity behind. We retrace the journey to Berat as far as

Rogozhine, where it starts to rain very seriously. The last time we came through here

it was evening, and the Albanians were practicing that very civilized southern

European habit: the evening promenade. We had to edge through a solid throng of

people. Thank Heavens we did not have the Shkoder driver. Now, the square is

totally empty.

           Our journey is going to take us along the valley of the Shkumbini river, which

divides those Ghegs we talked about, from the Tosks. It is also the approximate

division between northern and southern Albania. At this point, the river valley is

broad and open and is a sea of tomatoes, peppers and onions. We climb steadily

toward the city of Elbasan, and, en route, pass the enormous nickle-iron works that

9   Mercifully, there are no Americans present to misunderstand the term.
the Albanians are currently describing as their “Second Revolution.” It is their desire

to depend on the rest of the world for nothing. Elbasan has not much to commend it,

but at its center is a large, walled enclosure built by the legendary Mehmet II in his

campaigns against Korce. The Turks never really defeated the Albanians, who, when

pressed, would head for the hills and disappear. It was here, at Elbasan, that the

legendary hero of Albania, Georgi Castrioti, known as Skanderbeg (to whom that

marvellous double-headed eagle belonged as his coat of arms), fought his first battle

against the Turks. We are not going to stop in Elbasan, but as we pass through I

notice a small, pink, Catholic church, the tower of which now bears a large red star

denoting a change of management.

               From Elbasan we face a steep climb into the mountains that back the

Adriatic. The valley now becomes a gorge of spectacular proportions—good bandit

country. It is still raining relentlessly, and gradually we rise into the clouds, adding a

further, wholly appropriate air of mystery. The river has now assumed a chocolate-

brown color. Despite the steepness of the banks, some considerable cultivation takes

place, though I have no idea how Enver would have collectivized these scattered

enterprises. At a brief stop in Librazhd we are told, en passant, that the city was badly

damaged by that earthquake in 1967, but with assistance from all parts of the

country, the damage was made good in three weeks.

       Now the terrain is getting really steep and the drama is heightened by the fact

that the ground is stained a remarkable red by iron oxides, which are mined here. All

the time we are criss-crossing the railroad tracks as the engineers try to meet the ever-

growing challenge of retaining a workable gradient for the tracks. Soon the rails end,
and will be carried forward some day by more of that voluntary labor. Suddenly, as

we crest the slope, we have a wonderful view of Lake Ohrid—the border with

Yugoslavia.10 As we look, part of the mountain abruptly disappears as it is blasted to

dust to make way for the railroad tracks. I hope they don’t entrust the Dynamite to

schoolchildren also. The lake looks surealistically blue after the eternal encompassing

grayness of the cloud and rain until now. At this point we are staring at a vista of

blue, blue, and blue.

           Our lunch stop is Pogrodec, which is a new, lakeside resort for “workers.” I

have no idea where the “non-workers” go. Currently, it is awash in Young Pioneers,

who are a sort of boy scout in which the religion has been traded for “Dialectical

Materialism” and a red necktie. This town has a most excellent location, and I would

not mind being a worker myself if I could come here from time to time. The lakeshore

is fringed with fragrant gum trees. The hotel, where we will pause, is older than most,

which means it still has some character and doesn’t look like it was built by a

committee. The food is, in true Proletarian style, absolutely identical to that in Durrës.

Here, too, are the biggest dahlias I have ever seen. It is all wonderfully restful and no

traffic.

           The drama of the road continues, as we climb directly out of Podgorec, up

through vineyards and terraces by means of a series of tight hairpin bends. I am never

ever so grateful we do not have the maniac who drove us to Shkoder. Once we reach

the top, wheat takes over from vines.



10   Today, you would be looking at Macedonia.
           Korce lies amidst the mountains in a basin, and was at one time, in keeping

with the Albanian love of the totally absurd, administered by Dutch policemen. It

was also French for a while—which may be why they make good brandy here. We are

to spend the night here. The hills here are rather disappointingly barren, in contrast

to the lush vineyards through which we passed. The town itself is rather pleasant

with, another Albanian first, a triangular square.11 One side of the square, maybe the

hypotenuse, is taken up by the Hotel Ilina—where we will camp for the night. Away

from the square the streets are cobbled, and the houses have a much more Italianate

look, though they are uniformly in a desperately bad state of repair. Albania does not

allow for the maintenance of private houses. The pantiles give everything a

thoroughly Mediterranean caste, and the house have—in some cases—fine gates and

courtyards. This place knew style once. Over there, a closed-up mosque. Up there a

vast war memorial of surpassing ugliness.

           I am delighted to see that I have made it to the “A” category of Hotel as befits

my standing in life—well, my view of it anyway. In Korce, more than anywhere in

Albania, we are aware of being a total freak show. If we had come, not by bus, but by

UFO, we would not have had a much different reception. People here don’t just stare,

they stop and stare. Now we are very aware of being the only “Turists” in the country.

Other members of the group go to “discover” the town in a crocodile—they must

have seen the Russians doing that. I sit, instead, in a small café where, despite feeling

like a monkey in a cage, I discover the world’s best walnut ice-cream; maybe the

world’s only walnut ice-cream. I make two observations, and they are only that: I

11   We can only be grateful that Pythagoras is not alive to see it.
have seen nobody in all the time I have been here in Albania (a) wearing spectacles,

(b) wearing a watch. The posters in the café are certainly interesting and intriguing,

as they are targeting the decadence of effeminacy in men. I have seen no place on

earth which has less effeminacy in men than here. Many of the women are

indistinguishable from the men anyway, dressed the way they are. At dinner, finally,

there they are—the Chinese, and actually wearing Mao suits. I knew they had to be

here somewhere—the Reader’s Digest had told me so. Actually they looked more

stunned by this place than I was, and I think they were longing for Beijing and a seat

to see The East is Red at the politically correct ballet. At least socialism has reached

here because the service in the restaurant is non-existent.

Korce: Second Day

       I had lulled myself to sleep by reading Vol. 19 of Enver’s collected works

bound in a restful green with gold trim. It was very effective as an anti-insominiate,

but probably not as efficacious as his 1960 classic “Reject the Revisionist Theses of the

XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Anti-Marxist Stand of

Khrushchev’s Group! Uphold Marxism-Leninism!” Zzzzzzzzzz.

       At seven a.m., I am wide awake and looking out of the window onto the square

(triangle?) I keep saying to myself “This is Albania,” because it is all so hard to

believe—it looks normal enough. The trucks are out washing the streets, and

everything in Albania, I notice, is kept clean. I spend much time looking for trash

bins in the street in which to dump paper etc. Always, I fail to find them, until I

realize the Albanians have no trash.
       After a poor, and long-drawn-out breakfast we make a start on the long

journey back to Durrës. First, however, we have to be immersed in the delights of

Korce’s industry. The “Cotton and Woollen Garment Factory Number 3” (Socialism

has no time for romantic names, thank you), was—like everything else—built by the

Chinese, who disregard the blockade of 1961. There is a certain atmosphere of

Chaplin’s “Modern Times” here, as workers are performing the same, repetitve tasks

like mill girls in Lancashire in the 1880s. The staff do not move around between jobs

to reduce boredom, “that would reduce their aptitude to do the job allocated,” I am

told. “Allocated?” I ask. That is when I learn that there is no personal choice in

Albania, at any level. For instance:

    What you study at school is decided for you

    Whether or not you go to university is a decision in which your peers

       participate—it is not your choice; you go if they send you.

    Your career is chosen for you

    Where you will live and work is chosen for you

    Ideally, they said, your work would provide you with clothing and food so that

       money could be eliminated, along with personal possessions. Sounds like

       something Fritz Lang might have invented.

   In keeping with the buildings, the garments are almost universally drab and

uninspiring—purely functional. There is little effort, or incentive, to finish the

products well. Who is going to complain? Who is there to compete with you? Answer:

Nobody.
       On a wall at the end of the workroom is a poster showing how the “cost of

living” has risen in four non-socialist countries in the last 10 years. I leave it to your

imagination where Albania is relative to those benighted places. It is a miracle anyone

else in the world is alive at all. Do they believe this stuff? Who knows, and they for

sure are not going to tell me. Here comes a man down the stairs with arms full of

fresh, new, inspirational posters. He actually makes them; that’s his job. I wonder if

Daimler-Benz has a poster maker? In fact, I noticed along the track of the new

railroad way up in the mountains, they were actually constructing places specifically

for slogans. The posters and slogans thin out rapidly once you move away from the

main towns. As we leave the factory we notice a French war cemetery from the first

World War. It is sort of unexpected up here, and I am sure those poor Frenchmen

never thought they would end up being buried next to the Chinese cotton garment

factory. (No 3 that is).

       But now, the rug factory, and here at last are people doing what they really

know how to do, and the atmosphere is immediately different. I thought for one awful

moment that the traditional designs would have been replaced by Enver’s portrait,

but not so. Here is a quiet hush, the women go about something Albanians have done

for centuries—before socks were even invented. Some are weaving, and some are

knotting their creations. All are beautiful. Every last one of the rugs will be

exported—one of the last things of beauty ever to come out of this disturbingly

lackluster place. It takes the women around 3.5 months to make one piece, and they

sell them for around $600—well, they don’t sell them. The women tell me that they

require six to nine month’s of training before they are competent. I tell them they
could train me for nine years, and I could never do what they are doing. They seem to

agree. It is totally impossible to buy anything—there is no mechanism for it.

       By tea time most of us awaken in the bus to find ourselves entering Tirana; the

capital. Again, this is a city in a basin almost totally surrounded by hills. We pass the

first buildings of note we have seen today—other than the purely traditional—and

these are the Italian and French embassies staring at each other across the road. We

stop in front of the city’s main hotel, the Dajti, for refreshments. Inside, the hotel

looks as though it was built to double as a construction facility for dirigibles. I have

never seen so much unusable built space as I have in Communist countries. The high

ceilings and cavernous lobbies are everywhere. But, within this cosmic space, nothing

is moving. All the formal (i.e. fixed) notices are in Russian, so this place was probably

built by the Soviets before the break of 1961. It certainly looks Soviet. It is the only

time I ever see the Russian language. More ice cream forthcoming as we sit in seats

surely made for the people in the heroic, Socialist-realism statues. Outside, bearing in

mind anywhere else in the world, this would be “rush hour” nothing is moving in the

afternoon sun. There is silence unique to this, and only this, capital city at the end of

a busy work day. But, as this is Albania, there is a traffic policeman, with nothing to

do. Over there, a huge Joseph Stalin stares across the street at Lenin.



Tirana: Wednesday August 4th

   We have come to Tirana, again today, specifically to see the Ethnographic

Museum, which is firmly closed. This is a characteristic that I have encountered

endlessly in socialist countries: Closed for Inventory; Cleaning Day—I’ve seen them
all. So, our schedule just went out the window. OK, we hear that there is a bookshop

here, and that would be interesting. Let’s go and see. Well, there it is, but we

probably won’t take advantage of it because they are demolishing it in front of our

eyes. We are told that they have not determined yet quite where the new one will be

built. In true Albanian fashion, the man demolishing the balcony is standing on it.

   Right, what does that leave us? The Exhibition of Trades and Industry: “Albania

Today”. This is an endless, mind-numbing progression of definitively utilitarian

things that most of us cannot begin to identify, and the Albanian language remains as

impenetrable as the Gordian knot—so no help there. Noticeable is the fact that they

make very little on the consumer goods end of production. That’s probably good in a

country that seems, anyway, to have no shops. No problem with Consumer-Choice

Theory here. The day descends into disorder as the plan has collapsed in a country

that is totally planned five years ahead; and this is not a country that looks kindly on

individual initiative. In fact, there is none I can detect, and positively not here and

now. It is consigned to the fate of the Dodo bird—extinction; at least under this

system. Albanians are very innovative outside Albania.

   The indecision is broken by the one fixed star left in a murky constellation of

confusion: lunch. For this we move into a totally Soviet-style aircraft hangar cum

dining room with the inevitable chandeliers. It is hard to produce this level of

institutional ugliness without deliberately setting out so to do. But, to be fair, the

meal is good, the service is good, and I finally catch up with the elusive Albanian

cassata, of which I have heard much, and seen none. Those Italians did some good

while they were here. I had the same experience in the cafés of Ethiopia. As
everywhere in Albania, there is no menu, as that would be another example of choice,

which is considered to be a “bad thing” in this country. The only thing you do know is

that you are never going to get coffee. I wonder why?

   There follows another interminable delay, and then we head off up the Elbasan

road to the Martyr’s Monument—the blot on the landscape that I had seen from

downtown. This is a classic piece of heroic socialist art [of a type which the

Bulgarians, much later, had the good sense to dynamite]. It uses beautiful materials

such as polished marble to produce something of unsightliness that would be hard to

match if you poured it in concrete. But, war is ugly, and maybe they got it right. The

problem with using pure white marble is that the reflection is so strong I cannot see

anything, including the steps, which I fall over. At least I do not fall into the eternal

flame. I cannot but notice how very young everyone is who is buried here.

       The last event of the day, after leaving the heroes, is to go to Kruja. I have no

idea what to expect, but it turns out to be a total delight. It is a small, traditional

town set into the limestone escarpment and is very striking even from afar. Atop the

escarpment is the shrine of the Dervishes. It’s true; absolutely everybody passed

through Albania at some time or another. The Germans, in keeping with their

periodic national ethic, tried to destroy this town totally toward the end of the Second

War. It has been very tastefully rebuilt—no Soviet utilitarianism here. The style

looks somewhat “Swiss chalet,” and works well. The streets are cobbled; the

atmosphere timeless, the sun warm and the cakes, well, cakes do not get better than

this. If we follow this cobbled road, we will come to the fortress of that same Georgi

Castrioti (Skanderbeg) that we met earlier. It was here that he stopped the Ottomans
dead in their tracks in the fifteenth century. He must have been remarkable, because

every ideological complexion of Albanian regards him as a hero, and that can’t be

easy. He held off the Turks for nearly twenty years, and indeed the fortress was taken

only after he died. The museum is extremely good, but ends in a tribute to the

Partisans that leaves you feeling as though they wanted to be “in the shadow of

greatness.” Anyway, Georgi invented the world’s best flag.

       The rest of the day is more sticky cakes, and bus rides.



Marx and Manure: A Visit to a Collective Farm. August 5th

       In furtherance of the socialist tradition of finding the most mind-numbing

name for everything, we are about to descend on the “November 8th State Farm.” We

never discover what actually happened on November 8th, but it must have been

exciting. A small delegation of friendly people is gathered around the steps of the

central building of the enterprise, and they seem genuinely pleased to see us. We sit

around on the ground in a casual, rural fashion to express solidarity with the

peasantry—or something like that. One of the ladies who greeted us starts to tell us

the story of November 8th Farm.

       It began in 1945, so they got down to farming things pretty quickly once the

fascists were sent packing. They started with three tractors on 900 hectares of

swampy land. “But now,” she says, beginning to look just a little bit like one of those

Socialist-Realist icons, “we have 200 tractors and 10,000 hectares, and do you see any

swamps?” True enough; not a swamp in sight. They grow and raise an interesting

range of commodities, including cereals, milk, grapes, citrus, eggs, sunflowers and
more. Everything goes to the state marketing organization—everything. Some of

their produce, see tells us, goes abroad—which is more than any of them can do. Then

we go off into a rapid-fire list of increases in productivity: 1960 wheat 15

quintals/hectare—1975 34.5; maize went from 19 to 57 in the same period; milk went

from 1800 liters per cow to 3200, and so on. In response to the catalog of production

increases, our group nods sagely, eyebrows are raised at this wondrous tale of socialist

progress. My problem watching that reaction is that this group is from Britain, which

only became metric six years ago, and they wouldn’t know a quintal if it fell on their

head. Same goes for hectares, liters and all those other foreign things. Someone,

inevitably, asks—it has to be one of the Cambridge blue-bloods: “How do you

account for this increase in productivity?” I, for one, know what was coming, but let

her tell it:

        “It is the result, first and foremost, of the purity of Albania’s socialist ideology

        and the pressures of the imperialist blockade, the state improvement of land,

        irrigation, improved seeds and mechanization. The state built two fertilizer

        plants, which made a very big difference, and then they bought some cows

        from Holland.”

Actually, having got the ideology out of the way quickly, her answer seemed entirely

reasonable. The farm is divided into 13 brigades: 11 agricultural, one transport, and

one for building. That accounts for the 500 people who work here and rent

accommodation. Every brigade has a school and basic social services, and higher-

level services are available at a central facility (I think we are sitting on it). All told,

that makes up 5000 people.
       The state sets the “targets” which may be the rural word for the “norms” that

apply to socks, and these targets are related to the needs of the country—especially

important in this nation whose policy it is to be self-sufficient in everything. All the

state farms in the country then get together, maybe on November 8th, and discuss the

national targets and decide who can do what best. Did I hear right? So David

Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, so sacred to capitalism, creeps in under

the flap of the tent of Communism and gets into bed with Karl. All the farms are

linked in a network that can share equipment, seeds, knowledge and so forth. In

theory it all sounds wonderful, and very practical, and look at all those quintals

around us. Periodically they also receive the help of those peripatetic students during

the summer, who probably have to be reminded to grow potatoes, or they would

surely start laying down railroad tracks, or dynamiting. Workers are paid in cash and

at the end of the year, in kind, according to their contribution. Well, there’s a piece of

Marx that we can all recognize. Many of the vegetables are “exotic” we are informed,

but hastily reassured that the cereals are “all Albanian.” I should hope so; what

happened to patriotism? There is, we learn, a sort of Socialist Darwinism of the land,

so that some day little collective farms may grow up to be state farms. And so it goes

on, and then we are taken in to see the cultural center, with its stage and red curtains,

and oh, over there Mr. Stalin defying revisionism again. Actually, everything we are

being told makes solid sense and the lady is clearly talking farming, not hollow,

ideological Cant. I had enough of the latter in Novotny’s Czechoslovakia in 1963 to

make me a connoisseur of that item for ever. It is all rather pleasant really, and a

good way to end this visit to the cryptic kingdom of Shokun Hoxha. I realize, as I sit
here listening to the universally familiar animal noises, savoring those uniquely farm

odors, and looking at the setting sun through the fruit trees, that life has a strong

thread of normality even under the most bizarre expressions of social engineering.

People are people everywhere. It is true that, to the “Western” eye, everything here

seems to be leveled down to a very drab and ultrafunctional common base level, but I

have to remember that this place was in the Middle Ages when Zog was on the throne,

and everyone has access to education, a job and health care etc. Of course, I cannot

get used to the overwhelming cult of the personality run riot here; the absolute

certainty with which every social question is organized into a tidy Marxist-Leninist

explanation. Still, the Catholics did the same thing, but worse, during the Inquisition.

We are all just as likely to lapse into dogma with its much sought-after reward of

imposing control on others, whatever the reason. Lincoln Steffens said of Russia in

1919: “I have seen the future and it works.” I suppose I have seen Albania, and now,

at least, I believe it is real

Unclassifiable Conclusions: Albania as Brigadoon—years later

        I am sure it was real—I was there, really. But how in the world does one man

impose himself so thoroughly on a nation that his people might as well be on a desert

island in the far Pacific. It was a world of no contact with anyone outside this

fantasy land, and a dogmatic assurance that you, and you alone, are right, and the

rest of the world is wrong, revisionist, or going to Hell—except Hell was just

abolished by the Party Congress. It is a country where people actually use dialectic

terms in speech. And yet, these are real people. In the absence of anything to do, or

anywhere to go, they focus in on cerebral challenges: chess, word puzzles,
mathematics, or the acquisition of some distinguishing skill—especially learning

English, even though you may never meet a native English speaker, and you have to

use “Bourgeois Liberal texts.” Often this need to leave the herd goes far into the

arcane. Beatrice, for instance, as we were crossing the Shkumbini river mentioned

fish, and I asked her what sort of fish are in the river. She listed thirty-eight types in

English, some of which I had never heard of. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of

strange bits of unlikely things. Someone else told me he was learning the language of

Ecuador. I said, “you mean Spanish?” “No,” he replied, “I mean Quechwa.” Of

course, I should have known. If any Ecuadorian rain-forest Indians ever stumble into

Albania, this is the man they need to see.

       Absolutely everything has been politicized to the Nth degree. I happened to ask

the meaning of a traditional peasant dance at a folk evening. Bad Mistake. “It

symbolizes the crushing of the Fascist elements” I was told. It would never have

occurred to me. I thought it was about Spring, or weddings or something. By the way,

I came to love this word “Elements.” I have used it often since. To a visiting

Bulgarian who was taking the Greyhound bus across part of the USA, I tried to give a

warning about the bus stations—generally agreed to be, well, dangerous places. I

tried to explain it to her several ways, but she was not getting it. “They are,” I finally

said, “full of anti-social elements.” “Oh, my goodness,” she replied, “I am so glad you

warned me.” When, one evening, I heard a rather appealing melody, I asked the eyes

of the almost invisible boy in the bookshop what it was called. He informed me it was

the song of the third decennial census and is called “Now We Are Two Million.”

Catchy title. Of course, I bought it. What else was I going to buy?
       Then there were those visiting “Marxist-Leninists” in droves from parties in

Belgium, Germany and wherever. They were clearly from middle-class families,

expiating their sense of guilt at being well off. None of them had seen, or would ever

see head on, a worker in their lives, but they spent all day repeating the same

mindless cant about revolutionary masses. The Germans I could understand, because

their ceaseless love of the cerebral challenge of any form of social engineering, control,

and the chance to impose ideas on all and sundry. But, the Belgians? What in the

world were they doing there? What is wrong with waffles, or fries with mayonnaise?

And, they would get up at five, do calisthenics on the beach, and sit in huddles. It was

all a mind game to them. No wonder Mao distrusted intellectuals (though he was one).

       The real “workers” were there, of course, in the form of the stolid bulk of the

British trade unionists who, I found, were really rather interesting people and

blessedly down-to-earth. They were older, of course, and belonged to that polarizing

generation of the 1930s. They were all unashamedly working class—not like the

“revolutionaries” on the beach. They knew their Marx inside out, better than the

gyrating teenagers. They spent most of their time, the trade unionists that is, sunning

themselves on the beach, though they would lapse into a discussion of the

implications of the new constitution to be presented at the forthcoming Party

Congress. Plus, they loved beer, label or no label. Then there were several people, all

women I confess, who spent every day of the entire trip on the beach, and I wondered

what in the world had made them come to “Albania the Impenetrable” of all places,

to do that? There was a small group of seven students from Cambridge who had no
Marxist pretensions, though they had every other pretension in spades. I would have

liked to lock all three groups in a room without food and see who comes out alive.

       Talking of the beach, there was a Post Office there, into which I ventured one

day to mail a letter to my mother in Britain—you remember letters? Everything in

there was in German for some reason, but at least my brain had a few handles to hold

onto with German, as opposed to the total miasma of Albanian. I could not work out

the rates on the blackboard, so I asked the man at the desk, in German, how much

was it to send a letter. I thought he would ask me “to which country?” But no, what

he actually asked me was “Kapitalistische Aussland” or “Sozialistische Aussland?”

How wonderfully ideological (if not logical) and Albanian—it was like Spain and

Portugal dividing the world into two at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494—“You take

the Kapitalistische Aussland, and we’ll have the rest”. It cost me three times as much

to send the letter to Britain as it would have to send it to North Viet Nam. I decided

at the time to remember to ask my mother to move to Cuba if I chose to stay in

Albania for any length of time.

       Most of all, I think, I liked the attitude to tipping. Not only are tips not

accepted here, they earn you a lecture in fundamental Marxism-Leninism. It is

degrading for the person to accept money from you for work that is already

adequately rewarded. Oh, if only I could take this argument back next time I get in a

taxi: “Here’s the fare. I won’t degrade you by offering a tip.” Incidentally, all those

things they held at the airport when we entered—they gave them back to us as we

left, including my month old Daily Telegraph. A final touch: they were tied in pink

ribbon.
       So there it is. The unreality of the hidden kingdom wore off after a few days

inside Albania, and the people, and even the slogans, seemed, somehow “normal.”

They were, anyway, far more normal than those zealots on the beach at dawn. God

help us if they ever got beyond posturing. By then they will all be in merchant

banking and advertising by now anyway. Most of all, going to a place like that helps

you get some perspective on your own political environment and system, ideas and

practices. Ah, is that “Now We are Two Million” I hear? Must go and seek it out, and

an anonymous socialist beer too.




                                     Another student railroad?

								
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