Monday, February 15, 2010

Albania: Scarecrows and Teddy Bears

January 29, 2010 by James Morrison
Filed under Travel

Albania_travel_0As the bus hobbled across the Macedonia-Albania border, it dawned on me at the time that I only knew two things about Albania. The first is that it is involved in the Kosovo dispute, but I don’t know the details. Someone else can sort that out. The second is that, around the start of the 20th century, international cricketer and world long jump record holder, C.B. Fry, was, somewhat bizarrely, offered the throne of Albania. Initial signs, from the time we head across the border and into the Albanian countryside, are that the impression I gleaned from Fry might have some basis. The people look a bit peculiar, such as the guy on the bus who looks like Mel Gibson circa Lethal Weapon with massive mullet and all, crossed with Sylvester Stallone at the end of a Rocky movie once he’s had his face punched 200 times.

The other strange thing is the Albanian half-built houses that are all adorned with either a scarecrow or a teddy bear that has been impaled on a protruding metal rod or lynched to hang limply from the roof. This macabre cultural idiosyncrasy is apparently intended to bring good luck to the home.

A trivia question: Who is the only Albanian you’ve heard of?

Answer: Mother Teresa. They even named the country’s largest airport after her.

Bonus fact: She was actually born in Macedonia. Jim Belushi was also born in Albania but I’m sure that doesn’t make it onto many tourist brochures.

Until recently, the country’s borders were shut to tourists; only business travel was permitted. The result of this is that Albania and its people are not used to foreigners. The flipside is that much of the country is undiscovered and unspoiled by tourism, although this is changing quickly, as there are plenty of Albanian tourists available to spoil the spots.

Tirana, the capital, doesn’t look to be much of anything when we get let out at one of the bus stations. It isn’t really even a bus station, just a random dirty parking lot Somewhere along Tirana’s main street, I realise we don’t have any Albanian money.

Fortunately, a Western Union bureau de change comes into view. The 12,907 denars we have left over from Macedonia, our previous stop, equates to about $323 Cdn. The man behind the Plexiglas window – a squat, short-necked man with an Elvis-like lip – changes our money into Albanian leks, prints out a tiny receipt and pushes it all back to our side of the window.

We settle into a hotel – thankfully payable in cash but twice the price indicated in the guidebook – and head out for dinner. At around nine o’clock, I sit on the saggy hotel bed and take another look at our money. “Nineteen thousand three hundred and sixty leks,” I announce to no one.
“That doesn’t seem right.”
My wife Jane’s ears prick up. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I thought the exchange rate was more like two Albanian leks to one Macedonian denar. This guy has given us 1.5 leks.” I punch a few numbers into the calculator. “That’s a difference of … six thousand four hundred and fifty-four leks. That’s … 80 Canadian dollars!”
“Are you sure?”


“Right, let’s go kick his ass.”

We march back out into the quiet streets of Tirana, clutching our little receipt and ready for a fight. The exchange guy is entitled to a commission, that’s how these places work, but 80 bucks on a $320 transaction? No way, Goran.

Between our hotel and the Western Union office, we happen to pass the Albanian Police Headquarters, an imposing square edifice with several stone-faced policemen standing around outside. Jane walks up to one of them and asks if he speaks English, just on the off-chance that they might have some advice for us. He doesn’t, and neither do any of his colleagues. Fortunately, a couple of English-speaking passersby overhear our inquiries and come to help. We explain the situation to the young guys, who translate into Albanian.“He will call someone,” says one of the English speakers. We thank him for his help and they continue on their way. After a few moments, another policeman comes rushing over. He speaks a little English so we explain again, brandishing our postage stamp-sized receipt. He nods intently and confers with the first policeman, who also nods intently. A moment later, four more policemen walk briskly towards us, one hand on their guns. The assembled lawmen discuss our predicament with much nodding and serious-looking expressions, and several of them make calls on their cellphones.

“This is very serious,” he declares, while we try to keep a straight face. “These officers will drive you to the exchange office and we will fix the situation immediately.”

Suddenly, three police cars come tearing around the corner, sirens wailing. We figure that there must have been a terrorist attack or some similarly serious emergency in Tirana and that the group of policemen will be called away to deal with it. Instead, the cars screech to a halt right in front of us and another seven or eight police officers burst out, like circus clowns out of a Mini. We feel like we are on one of those reality shows, like Cops, and that someone is going to demand in an Albanian accent that we “reach for the sky.” The highest-ranking officer speaks some English and we sheepishly explain our exchange dilemma once more.

“This is very serious,” he declares, while we try to keep a straight face. “These officers will drive you to the exchange office and we will fix the situation immediately.”

“Uh, okay.”

We climb into the back of one of the squad cars and race off onto the main road, sirens blaring. The other two cars follow closely behind. Traffic veers to the side of the road and pedestrians dash for cover as we race through the streets. The police cars speed through red lights and take sharp corners like rally drivers, then stop abruptly outside the exchange office. Locals stop to look at the commotion, forming a small crowd. The security guard from the building that houses the exchange office is an older gentleman who was no doubt settling in for a quiet night with his feet up. He leaps to attention when the parade of police officers assembles outside.

Once all the cars in the chasing pack have arrived and everyone has emptied out onto the footpath, there must be about a dozen cops milling around, including a young lady officer who speaks English. We explain our situation once more to her and she also nods earnestly. The collective investigative skills of the Tirana police force determine that the Western Union office is in fact closed for the evening.

“That’s OK, we’ll come back tomorrow,” we offer. The group of police officers gradually disperses back into the night.

As it turns out, in the cold light of day, we don’t really have much of a case. The Western Union office’s published rate is indeed 1.5 leks per denar. Although we ended up paying a 25 per cent commission and effectively losing $80 Cdn, we didn’t have a ‘lek’ to stand on.

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