Thursday, September 24, 2009

It’s been another lazy old summer for me, right enough. The Czech Republic seems to more or less close down anyway for the entirety of July and August, as these supposedly poor Central Europeans disappear to their second homes in the country for two months at a time, so there’s not much point in me hanging around either. One holiday of hiking in Slovakia, another of mostly drinking back in the UK, and finally in September when there was a danger of work coming my way, a tour of the Balkans.

All started in heartening style with what’s now become an annual visit to Novi Sad, spent as always in the excellent company of George and Sandra Almosthole and the rest of the crew centred around the mighty TONA. This year I deliberately chose to go down in September for a number of reasons – I wanted to see Novi Sad without the madness of Exit and the swarms of British either chewing their own faces off on cheap drugs or attempting to find cheap drugs, in addition to which I planned to avoid the crowded beaches and inflated prices once I got to the coast, as well as the unbearable July heat. On the first point the Exit-free Novi Sad was refreshingly calm by comparison, though still not entirely sedate despite Princess Almosthole’s newfound sobriety, whilst as far as the weather went for the first few days things were no better than on my previous visits and my Northern European constitution suffered badly as a result. The obvious highlight was the rehearsal/private gig performed by Tona in a room approximately 4 metres square, which sounded so ferocious that the normally urbane and placid Siniša announced afterwards “I feel like going out and fighting someone”. Thankfully we didn’t quite go that far, but we did head out for a rather rambunctious evening, joining up with Boris and Filip later, both of whom were on raging form. Let it be stated for the record that the diminutive Englishman was not to be defeated by the macho Serbs.

On the subject of diminutives and drinking, I detected a note of derision on the part of the Serbs for the rather less macho Czechs, including the use of diminutives in their language. When I’ve attempted to speak Serbian I’ve been exhorted to “say it like a man!”, and have learned that instead of converting the word “pivo” for beer to the admittedly twee “pivečko” as the Czechs sometimes do, the Serbs go in the opposite direction and inflate it into a butch “pivčuga” (or something). Yeah, yeah, all well and good my testosterone-fuelled Serbian friends, but can you actually drink it? Can you match your allegedly wimpish Czech cousins beer for beer? In fact if I have one reservation about Southern Europe generally it would be its lack of a pub culture. There are café bars aplenty (they might as well be bloody French!), but it seems that the further south you go, the less places there are serving decent draught beer, and I suppose that one beneficial (?) effect of this was that during my holiday I actually drank far less than I would have done if I’d stayed at home in CZ. I’ve said before and I’ll say again that one day I intend to return the favour to my Novosadian hosts, and so once Serbia’s visa requirement has been waived I’m expecting and certainly hoping for a mass influx of Serbs here in Olomouc. To that I now add the following: come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!

Provocative, moi? Hard as nails, us English.

In Novi Sad I also managed to add to my growing number of Serbian T-shirts, which make up almost half of my collection these days. Thanks to generous gifts from George and Filip I am now the proud owner of an official Tona shirt, as well as another slightly more patriotic offering which I made a tactical decision not to wear during the Albanian leg of the trip.

Next up, after a satisfyingly inebriated afternoon at Filip’s place (now that’s a Serb who CAN drink), was a very cheap and comfortable night train, couchette included, to Podgorica, on which I managed both to sleep like a baby and catch the incredible views of the Black Mountains the next morning, and from there to the superb town of Kotor, which is like a smaller, less tourist-infested Dubrovnik, and where I was able to enjoy an enormous seafood feast for very reasonable prices. After that was Ulcinj, which was little more than a stopping point for the next leg of the journey down to Tirana, and which, looking back, was probably the nadir of the trip. There was little to see here, but the main problem was that at this point I was travelling alone and it didn’t seem an easy place to meet people. Added to this was a rather uncomfortable part of an evening spent in a bar watching the football – I’d resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to find anywhere showing the England-Croatia game, so settled for Serbia-France instead. Of course this meant that I found myself surrounded by boisterous, nationalistic Serbs (in an Albanian-dominated town), some wearing “Kosovo is Serbia” T-shirts, and the fact that they were all drinking coffee (they can’t handle their beer, those Serbs) rather than anything stronger did nothing to detract from the threatening atmosphere. I left at half time and went to another place (I confess it was yet another fucking “Irish” pub, but it was the only place in town I could find serving draught beer) run by Albanians, who were a great deal less intimidating. My spirits were also lifted a little when I learned that England had beaten Croatia 5-1.

With the majority of the population of Ulcinj being Albanian, my impressions of Albania began even before I reached the border, and my first one was this: the entire economy is built upon bakeries and car washes, which reminds me that back in Coventry also my dad always goes to the Albanians to get his car washed. Over the border it was the same, one car wash next to another all along the road from Shkodër to Tirana, where I also noticed that at least every second car in Albania is a Mercedes, albeit more often than not a fairly run-down 1970s model. On the bus to Shkodër I met a couple of fellow travellers and we decided to go for a quick breakfast before heading to Tirana, though we baulked at the “local speciality”, which turned out to be sheep’s brains, opting for omelette instead. After breakfast, out on the street drivers of various minibuses departing, seemingly all at the same time, for Tirana made enthusiastic attempts to secure our custom, despite the fact that there were clearly not enough seats for the three of us and nowhere for us to store our rucksacks. Once seated in a larger bus we continued to attract a large amount of attention, including staring and laughing, from the locals, who were very friendly but evidently quite nonplussed to hear exotic foreigners speaking a weird language.

Tirana itself was immediately fairly overwhelming, not exactly pretty but definitely lively to the point of chaotic, according to my companions more like a South American city than a Southern European one. Since neither of them had much time to hang around we headed immediately for the Sky Tower – some snobs might call it a cheesy tourist experience but it’s a thoroughly worthwhile one, in a slowly revolving bar at the top of a skyscraper, a sort of horizontal version of the London Eye with the added bonus of beer on tap (even if it is pissy Tuborg). The beer may cost twice the price of a beer at ground level, but given the fact that admission’s free, it’s a bargain. After that I headed for the hostel, which contrary to the information on the flier was far from easy to find. This became a bit of a theme in Albania generally, since very often the streets literally have no name (this is not just an excuse to quote vapid U2 lyrics) and when they do there’s rarely a signpost to tell you, meaning that in almost every case it’s necessary to phone wherever you’re staying to get directions. Later on Max and Harvin, fellow Balkan enthusiasts who I met in Bosnia a couple of years ago, arrived in the city from Mother Theresa airport, and over the next day or so we got to see more of the city, including the national museum on Skanderbeg square, which boasts a superb socialist realist mural and in a burst of typically Albanian post-socialist surrealism has toddlers buzzing about on quad bikes on the square in front of the building. As well as the regular exhibits documenting the country’s origins and history, the upper floor contains amusingly trite propaganda obviously written when Enver Hoxha was still alive.

When I told people I was going to Albania I encountered the standard knee-jerk reactions from the ultra-conservative Czechs, i.e. “you’ll never come back alive, it’s full of bandits and mafia” etc. Although self-flagellating about their nation in some respects, the aspirational Czechs also have a paradoxical tendency to regard themselves as the cream of the former Eastern Bloc. It’s customary for many to whine about how they’re not as rich as the Germans or British whilst, precisely because of this misplaced inferiority complex, desperately trying to disassociate themselves from the likes of poorer countries such as Romania and Albania – probably the worst insult for Czechs would be to call them “East European”. I’d like to make it clear here that I’ve never felt safer than I did in Albania, where many people still leave their doors open, or the doors of their Mercedes unlocked with the keys in the ignition. No doubt crime does exist and there’s evidently an Albanian mafia operating internationally, but within Albania I certainly felt safer than anywhere I’ve been in Britain, or in pickpockets’ paradise Prague (though of course ALL crime in Prague is committed by Albanians, Romanians, Ukrainians and let’s not forget the gypsies).

As well as Tirana we managed to take in Berat, an extremely picturesque, Unesco-protected town in the mountains, a far cry from the typical stereotype of Albania, and Saranda, probably Albania’s biggest coastal resort, almost within swimming distance of Corfu – in total three wildly different locations. However, whilst some of the stereotypes are based on pure prejudice, others are clearly true. Albania is without doubt poor and extremely dirty. On bus journeys, in between Hoxha’s bunkers it’s common to see what, as Martin noted, looks like blue snow collecting in ravines in the mountains, which turns out to be sky-blue carrier bags full of refuse, and on urban housing estates in Saranda it seemed the norm to find cows wondering around eating rubbish from enormous piles of the stuff left to rot by the side of the road.

Albania also seems to be a country in flux. A large proportion of the buildings, cars, shops etc. are for sale, the Albanian for which is “shitet”. In addition both Tirana and Saranda are full of half-finished constructions and in places appear like building sites. Most of the time there didn’t seem to be much work going on, so whether they will ever be finished or not I have no idea. Perhaps in a few years, if or when the new buildings are completed, Saranda will become a luxury seaside destination for Western Europeans, and there is already no shortage of shops selling tourist tat, but if so it has a monumental cleaning operation ahead of itself. The deserted beach just beneath our hostel looked inviting enough from our balcony, but to attract larger numbers of holidaymakers it would first be a good idea to clear away all the fag ends, broken glass and dog shit*.

After surviving a minor earth tremor on my last night in Saranda, waking up to find the bed shaking quite dramatically, all of this was brought home to me rather brutally on the final leg of my journey in Corfu, where the difference in the standard of the beaches and towns was immediately striking, and although I’d enjoyed Albania immensely this felt like a holiday from a holiday. I ended up wishing I’d left myself more time to enjoy the island’s shamefully obvious and passé creature comforts, but I had to catch my similarly unadventurous and bourgeois flight back to Prague.

So now back to reality. And possibly to the doctor’s, if that dose of the shits I picked up down in the Balkans doesn’t clear up soon.

*Profuse thanks to Agnieszka, who may have saved me from a severely traumatic experience.


Blogger Sinisa said...

I always wondered what it's really like down there in Albania... It's quite interesting what you wrote. I kind of expected something like that...
The comparison with Latin America stands.

7:46 PM  
Blogger TONA said...

Yea, i agree.
But wait...princess almostholes
new found sobriety? Why you little!!!

8:11 PM  
Blogger TONA said...

So, i have just become proud
owner of albanian postcard,
a rare thing in these areas,and in perfectly written serbian, too.
Nice one, Englishman! :)

10:37 PM  
Blogger ASHDAV said...

I got some funny looks at the Tirana post office, I can tell you!

10:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hahaha! I loved it! And as u can imagine I was reading quickly eager to find a fragment about me:D You are welcome!

8:18 PM  

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