An automobile in Albania

KRUJA small

This is an extract from my book “REDISCOVERING ALBANIA” (ISBN: 978-1326807108). The extract describes a visit to a historic town and problems with a rented car.

“When we have hired cars in the past, we have been presented with a car which is almost new and totally flawless. This was not the case with Enterprise at Tirana’s airport. We had ordered a Tata Indica car – I had chosen it because of the price and also because I had not driven an Indian car since 1994, the first and only time that I ever drove in India. Our Tata was distinctly tatty in appearance. It was covered in scratches and dents, all of which were carefully noted and photographed by the Enterprise representative and me. The upholstery was clean but looked well worn. He told us that the car was “quite new”; it had “…only done about 32,000 kilometres”. Dubious at first, I realised later that this unprepossessing vehicle was just the job for the terrain that we were going to traverse.

I had not driven for two years, the last time being when we hired a car in Palermo (Sicily) in 2014. However, I soon got into the swing of driving. I was pleased that we had not hired the car from an office in Tirana, where traffic is heavy, but from the airport where traffic is light. Soon, we left the main Tirana to Shkodër ‘highway’, and then began winding our way uphill to the small town of Krujë, which is where Albania’s hero Skanderbeg had his headquarters while he was combatting the invasion of the Ottomans.

Skanderbeg, the son of a noble-man called Kastrioti, was taken forcibly by the Turks to Turkey as a young boy (as many Christian youths were in that time). He was converted to Islam, educated as a soldier, and became a good fighter in the Ottoman Army. In 1443, aged 38, Skanderbeg along with several other Albanian soldiers abandoned the Turks. Soon, he took command of the Castle at Krujë, which became his headquarters from where he harassed the Ottomans, who were trying to invade what is now Albania. After many military exploits both in Italy and in Albania, Skanderbeg finally succumbed to malaria in 1468. This is a very brief account of the career of a man who saved Western Europe from becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. Albania did become part of the Empire, but in the words of a guidebook published in 1969 by Albturist, the state tourist agency of Albania:

Although their heroic efforts were not crowned with final victory, the Albanian people did not kneel down. Throughout the centuries that followed, our people continued their resistance against the Ottoman feudal regime.”  

The road became steeper and steeper until we entered the town in which level ground is a rarity. We parked the car on a steeply sloping street and made our way to a café, whose terrace provided a great view of the town’s castle, which overlooked us, and the old bazaar, which was several metres below us. From where we were sitting we saw one or two elderly people wearing what looked to us like traditional costumes, but most people were dressed in modern clothing.

We made our way along the shiny cobbled street that runs between the two lines of shops that make up the old bazaar. This has been extended since I saw it in 1984, but the extension has been made to look as if it were original. As in 1984, all of the shops in the bazaar are selling goods aimed at tourists: everything from tasteless ‘tat’ to some very lovely antiques. One particular shop contained superb examples of traditional Albanian handicrafts, some pieces including some wooden cradles for babies were quite old. Some weeks later in Tirana, we met, quite by chance, the shop owner’s cousin, the daughter-in-law of one of Albania’s foremost artists. Although the bazaar resembles what I remembered from my first visit in 1984, the town is filled with new buildings, including mosques and churches, which might have existed before Enver Hoxha destroyed them, but are now reconstructed or entirely new. Many but not all of the old Ottoman era buildings that made Krujë so attractive to me in 1984 have been demolished to make way for newer mostly less-attractive constructions. Nevertheless, Krujë, nestling in the wooded hills that surround it, is still a lovely place to visit.

After stumbling through the cobbled market, we began climbing the path that leads to the castle complex. On our way we passed an old (Ottoman?) structure that housed what must have once been the outlet for a spring. It was filled with fragments of old carvings including an eight-pointed star, and just above the outlet for the water two animals (lions?) facing each other.  Nearby, two young boys selling small round green plums asked where we were from, and then tried to sell us some of their fruit. Just before we reached the entrance to the castle, we came across a man sitting on a wall selling books. He was the author of the various volumes that he had set out for sale. We said hello to him, and told him that we would have a look at his books after we had visited the castle.

Parts of the vast area of the interior of the castle walls are still inhabited. Much of the space is covered with ruins of what had originally been Skanderbeg’s castle and then later the Ottomans’. These ruins include a solitary watchtower and the base of a large minaret. We had read that there was a Bektashi mosque, the Tekke (‘teqe’ in Albanian) of Dollma, in the grounds. A young man offered to guide us to it. Because the way to it was extremely rough and Lopa had a bad ankle, she decided to wait for me while I went to see the mosque. The young man explained to me (in good English) that he is a Bektashi, a member of a ‘sect’ of Muslims (although many Muslims disclaim them) that is halfway between Shia and Sufi. It is particularly popular in Albania, Bulgaria, and Anatolia. Unemployed as so many Albanian graduates are, he spends his time looking after the tekke and its surroundings. On our way along the path to the tekke, we met a woman, aged about 30, with her small child. She spoke some English, but mainly gossiped in Albanian with my new acquaintance. We stood next to what looked to me like an Ottoman hammam or bathhouse. It was, but it has been heavily restored with bright new roof tiles that detract from its character and beauty. After the woman left, he explained that when she had been orphaned, his family had informally adopted her and brought her up as a daughter.

The 18th century tekke is in good state of preservation. By the way, a tekke is a gathering place for Sufi and Bektashi believers. Its interior walls and ceilings are covered with delicately painted frescos and lines of Arabic or Turkish calligraphy. There are several tombs of dervishes within the mosque, and also some outside it in its grounds. Near the tekke, I saw some old stone fragments that looked as if once they had been part of an earlier structure, maybe a church. My guide introduced me to an elder man who lives in a recently built circular meeting place next to the mosque. The old man, I was told, had spent 12 years in prison during the Communist era simply because he was a Bektashi adherent. Some years ago I showed my friend Bejtulla Destani, an academic from Kosovo, pictures in a book by Albert Mahuzier who visited Albania in the early 1960s, in the years before Enver Hoxha outlawed religion. The book included a photograph of the imam or priest of the tekke in Gjirokastër. Without hesitating, Bejtulla said that it was most likely that that man would have been killed by Hoxha’s people soon after 1967.

The visit to the tekke took rather longer than I had anticipated. As we were making our way back to where I had left Lopa, a security man came rushing towards me shouting: “Mister Adam?” I nodded, and he led me not to where I had left my wife, but instead to the Ethnographic Museum, where Lopa was passing the time and also becoming concerned that I might have been kidnapped or worse. After being reunited, I took a look around the museum which was not only interesting on account of its exhibits, but also because it was housed in a very old Ottoman era building.

Our way back to the castle entrance took us past the impressive but incongruous fortress-like building, built in 1982 by the Communists to house a museum or mausoleum to honour Skanderbeg. I did not enter it in 1984, and not on this visit (because it is closed on Mondays). When we emerged from the castle, we stopped by the man selling books. He introduced himself as Professor Baki Dollma (he was related to the Dollma family after whom the tekke is named), a professor of history. Most of his books are in Albanian. We bought a couple that contained some English and were related to the history of Krujë. When he learnt that I also write books, the professor became very friendly, and kept addressing me as ‘Professor’.

We left the amiable professor, and returned to our car. I turned the ignition key, and nothing happened. I tried several times, and then assumed that we had been given a dud hire car. I rang Enterprise, and explained the situation, and was told that someone would ring me back in a few minutes. When this happened, I was asked if I had used the remote control. I told the person on the ‘phone that I had not the remotest idea of what she was talking about. I was told to look under the driver’s seat where I would find a little box on a cable, and that I should always press a blue button on it before starting the car. It worked. However, it would have been helpful to have known about this security feature when we took possession of the vehicle.”

 

Enjoyed the extract? Then read more!  Buy a copy ofREDISCOVERING ALBANIAby Adam Yamey. It is available from on-line bookstores such as Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and as an e-book on Kindle

Where is it?

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Almost exactly nine years ago our middle-aged Saab automobile developed a fatal error. To repair it, we would have had to pay more than our car was worth. As our vehicle had other problems likely to occur, we sold our Saab to a scrap dealer. Living in the centre of London meant that we used our car usually not more than twice a month. So, we decided to start life without a car of our own. We felt it would be more sensible to use public transport, cabs, and to rent a car when we wanted one for trips away from London.

On one occasion, we were going to make a trip to north Yorkshire. We hired a car from an office based at Heathrow Airport. When I arrived at the office, I expressed a preference for a diesel model. The only diesel-fuelled car available was a large Vauxhall estate car. As it was offered to me at the same price as a smaller petrol-driven car, I hired it. 

I crossed the small car park to where ‘my’ vehicle was parked and entered the Vauxhall. By the way, did you know that the Russian word for railway station is вокзал (‘voksal’) and is derived from London’s ‘Vauxhall’ (see: https://londonist.com/2015/10/vokzal). I digress. I sat down in the driver’s seat, and turned the ignition key. A lamp on the dashboard indicated that the handbrake was active. But where was the hand brake? There was no lever to operate as in many other cars. Then I remembered that some Mercedes had a handbrake release near the foot pedals (see: https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2018/11/19/its-enough-to-drive-you-around-the-benz/ ). I looked around the foot pedal area, but saw nothing other than the foot pedals – no handbrake release mechanism. I turned off the car’s engine, and walked back to the car hire office.

Sheepishly, I entered and approached the charming young ladies sitting behind the counter.

“How can I help you sir,” I was asked.

“I know this sounds silly, but I cannot figure out how the handbrake works.”

“Oh that’s simple, sir”, came the reply, “There’s a small button on the armrest close to the gear change stick. By pushing that you can operate the handbrake.”

I returned to the car and found the small button, square and not much larger than a face of a dice. 

It is amazing that car hire companies are happy to rent customers almost brand new cars without leaving an instruction manual or providing essential advice. In another article I will describe another incident of renting a car without having been given essential instructions. Watch this space! 

 

Picture source: http://www.daraz.com.bd

Disabled drivers

During our very recent stay in the Cochin/Ernakulam region of Kerala in the south of India, we encountered two drivers with disabilities.

The first was in central Ernakulam. He was the chauffeur working for a friend. His right arm was encased in surgical plaster of Paris from above his elbow to his finger tips. He drove well despite having only one functioning arm. Luckily for him, he was driving a car with automatic gear changing.

We met the second driver twice in picturesque Fort Cochin. He wore a surgical support collar around his neck. It was khaki in colour and matched his khaki autorickshaw driver’s uniform jacket.

The first time we were driven by him, we noticed his collar, but made no reference to it. The next time he stopped to pick us up, we asked him about the collar, guessing that he might have been involved in accident. We were not expecting his explanation.

The poor fellow related that when his wife had deserted him for reasons that he did not tell us, he had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, his attempt failed because now his wife has returned to him.

All ‘aggro’ : my Allegro

I passed my Driving Test in 1982. Naturally, I wanted a car after that. A good friend, a dental colleague who was keen on motor cars, suggested quite sensibly that it would be best if my first car was not brand new. He felt that as I was an inexperienced driver, I was more likely to damage it. With his assistance, I chose a second-hand Austin Allegro, which looked in good condition and had not done a huge mileage. Neither he nor I would have guessed what a challenge this vehicle would prove to be.

 

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Austin Allegro [source: Wikipedia]

All went well at first. After a few weeks, I was driving along a motorway between the Medway Towns, where I worked, and London when suddenly the car lost power. I managed to steer the Allegro to the hard shoulder. The engine was not working. I turned the ignition key and the engine sprung back into life. I continued to London uneventfully.

The problem, the engine’s spontaneous and unexpected switching off, occurred on a number of other motorways and main roads, sometimes at night. I returned to the garage where I had bought the car, and their mechanics checked the car thoroughly (so they said). They could find nothing wrong. Reassured, I continued using it, but the same problem recurred regularly. I got to a point where I used to drive along the motorway with my hand holding the ignition key in the start position, so that the motor could not turn off.

After a few months in rented accommodation, I decided to buy a house when I discovered that the monthly mortgage repayments were the same as my monthly rental payments. After looking at about nine properties, I chose one. Before moving in, I used to visit its soon to be former owners in order to settle details of the house sale. On one visit, I parked my Allegro in front of the driveway where two of the occupants’ cars were parked. When I was ready to leave, the Allegro would not start. The owner’s son, a man in his twenties, came out to look at the car. Within minutes, he discovered what the garage mechanics had missed. The lock into which the ignition key fitted was loose: it did not engage firmly in the ‘on’ position. So, when the car vibrated, the key could be thrown out of the ‘on’ position into an ‘off’ position.

When the boy’s father, who was taking an interest in the proceedings, saw what his son had discovered, he fetched a wire, and touched its two ends to a couple of places in the engine. Suddenly, there was a blue flash followed by a strange smell and some white smoke.

“Aw, now look what you’ve gawn and done, Dad,” said the son, “I reckon you’ve blown a fuse.”

Almost as quick as a flash, the young man said that he would run up the road to buy a new fuse, which he did. He inserted it, and then carefully started my car.

I continued using the car for a while. Soon after the fuse incident, the car began belching black smoke instead of the normal exhaust. Once again, I returned to the dealer, who had sold me the car. After I told him what was wrong, he said:

“Sounds like you’ll need a new engine, my friend.”

“But,” I protested, “I’ve only had the car for four months.”

“Such is life, young man.”

 

I took the car to another repair shop. This was run by a wizened old man. He looked at the engine, and said:

“I can do something about that smoke, but it won’t last long. My advice to you is to sell it as soon as I’ve mended it and before the problem returns and the engine burns out.”

I took this wise man’s advice. The local Volkswagen dealership were happy to take my Allegro as part payment for my brand-new Polo vehicle.

 

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Volkswagen Polo [source: Wikipedia]

Soon after taking possession of the Polo, I visited my aunt and uncle in London. Their reaction to my new car gave away something of what they had secretly thought about me in the thirty years they had known me. After spending a few hours with them, they accompanied me to the road. I had not told them about my purchase. When they saw me unlocking my pristine Polo, my aunt said:

“Is that yours, Adam?”

“Yes.”

Then my uncle said:

“I never imagined you would have ever bought a new car. It’s the first normal thing you have ever done.”

Riding along in my automobile

I was just nineteen when I took my first driving lesson. I was staying in Harlow (Essex) doing my first holiday job (at Beecham’s pharmaceutical research laboratories). I used to have the lessons after work during the early evenings when there was little or no traffic on the roads.

DRIVING

Driving in Bavaria: my car in 1986

I found it very difficult to coordinate hands and feet, so that gear changing presented me with quite a challenge. I drove slowly, especially when approaching traffic signals when they were turning red.  I could not face the palaver of foot brake, handbrake, clutch, and gear synchronisation that was needed when stopping at a red signal. Occasionally I drove so slowly that the car almost stopped moving. After about six lessons, the instructor said to me:

“You are my first pupil whom I have had to ask to drive faster.”

A couple of lessons later, he told me sadly:

“You are going to take much longer to learn to drive than most other young people.”

I knew he was right, and we agreed not to have any more lessons.

Twelve years after my summer job in Harlow, I began practising dentistry in the Medway Towns (in north Kent). I took up the job there in April 1982. I was still unable to drive. I rented ‘digs’ near the practice. In the evenings after work, there was little in the way of public transport in the area apart from the railway that connects the three main centres of the Medway Towns. I decided that life in this part of the world would be very dull if I did not learn to drive.

One of the dental nurses in the practice recommended a driving instructor, Mr B. I decided to take an intensive course of driving lessons, paying for three or four hours a week. Mr B’s method of instruction suited me well. I learnt in a car with dual controls. My instructor, who sat in the passenger seat beside me, had a clutch and brake pedal that he could operate if necessary. Occasionally, he would operate them, and I would say to him:

“I was just about to brake when you operated your controls.”

Mr B would reply:

“If I need to use the dual controls, then I feel that you did not make the right decision in time.”

After about six weeks, Mr B considered that I was ready to take the Driving Test, which I booked. The test was scheduled for ten o’clock one weekday morning. The Test involved driving the examiner along local roads. During the drive, the candidate is asked to perform several prescribed procedures, such as: reversing around a corner; a hill start; an emergency stop; and parking the car. At the time of day when I took the Test in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns, there was almost no other traffic on the roads. This made things easier for me. Also, I was able to anticipate when the examiner was going to ask me to perform this or that prescribed manoeuvre. I passed the Test, the last important exam I have ever taken. I attribute my success to two factors. One of them was Mr B’s superb tuition. The other was dentistry. Let me explain.

During the five years prior to my Driving Test, I studied dentistry. Many of the clinical procedures I learnt involved using the dental handpiece (drill). The speed at which the bur (drill bit) rotates is controlled by a foot pedal. Where and how the drill cuts is controlled by hand movements. I had learnt to drive a dental drill. Driving a car, with the feet/hand coordination it involves, became simple for me after my dental training.

Soon after getting my Driving Licence, I bought a second-hand car. On the first day, a Thursday, I drove it to and from the Savacentre, the local supermarket, three miles from my flat. On the Friday evening, I drove through the countryside to Faversham, which was twenty miles from where I lived. On the Saturday, after finishing my morning clinic, I set off for north London, sixty miles away. It was the first time I had driven on a motorway. That was not too bad but driving across the metropolis of London felt like a bad dream. I had never driven in heavy traffic before. By the time I had crossed south London and the River Thames, I had developed a severe headache. When I reached a major, congested traffic intersection in Camden Town, I felt like getting out of the car and abandoning it. Things reached rock bottom, when the driver of a car near to mine leant out of his window and yelled at me:

“Bloody Sunday driver.”

Late on the Sunday night, I set off to drive back to Kent. Being late, there was less traffic than there had been in London on the Saturday afternoon. I had planned to cross the river using the Blackwall Tunnel. However, I missed the turning for it and found myself on a dual-carriageway that led inexorably eastwards away from London. Every now and then the road crossed intersections on steeply humped fly-over bridges. I knew that eventually I would reach the Dartford Tunnel that passes beneath the Thames, but I was getting cold and lonely as I drove through a darkened industrial landscape and then through countryside that seemed featureless late at night.

I drove through the long tunnel beneath the Thames. When I reached the toll-booth on the Kent shore, I paid the toll to a man sitting in a lighted booth and thanked him. It was a relief to be able to talk to someone, even for a few seconds, after the lonely journey I had just made.

The next few journeys I made to London always resulted in me getting a headache, but eventually I began to enjoy driving. I enjoyed it so much that later on I drove several times from England to Hungary and farther afield to the former Yugoslavia, often on my own and enjoyed every minute of the journeys.

It’s enough to drive you around the Benz

Of my attempts to learn to drive a car, I will write on this subject at another occasion. Suffice it to say that by the summer of 1982, when I had been practising dentistry for several months, I passed the Driving Test at the age of thirty years. I began to enjoy driving and cars in general. I changed my car often. Over a period of eleven years while I practised in Kent, I possessed (in the following order): an Austin Allegro, a Volkswagen Polo, a Volvo 340, then two Volvo 240s, and then a Volvo 850. The last two cars I owned after those were Saabs.

 

MERC 2

 

Some time during my eleven year stay in Kent, I fancied owning a Mercedes Benz. In my mind, this make of car rated above all others. Apart from the company’s long heritage (it started in the late 1880s), the cars it produced were reputed to be strong, reliable, and very roadworthy. It is of interest to note that Adolf Hitler rode around in Mercedes cars. I suppose he must have known that the Mercedes in the company’s name was chosen because Mercedes was a daughter of Emil Jellinek (1853-1918), a motor manufacturing entrepreneur who created the Mercedes trade mark in 1901. Emil, the son of a rabbi, was married to Mercedes’ mother Rachel Goggmann Cenrobert, who was of French-Sephardi descent. Therefore, the car Hitler enjoyed was named after a Jewish woman. But I digress.

A new Mercedes Benz dealership opened close to the practice, where I worked. One lunchtime, I drove to the dealership to test drive a Mercedes estate car. A salesman drove me about a mile, and then let me take the wheel on the way back. At a certain stage, I needed to operate the handbrake. I looked for it in the usual place on the central console that separates the two front sets, but it was not there.

“Where is the handbrake?” I asked the salesman.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “I have never driven this model before.”

He thought for a minute, and said:

“Try that handle beside your left leg.”

He was right, but my confidence in him diminished.

When I had driven the car back to the dealership, I asked to be shown some pre-owned cars, as the new ones were way beyond my price-range.

Another digression seems appropriate at this point. Many years after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I hired a car at Heathrow Airport. It was an up to the minute luxurious Vauxhall estate car. A charming young Asian lady handed me the keys and told me where to find the vehicle. I sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. Immediately, I noticed a warning light telling me that the handbrake was engaged. I looked for the handbrake. It was neither on the central console nor was there a handle near the foot pedals. I was flummoxed. I returned to the car hire office feeling rather foolish and described my problem to the young lady. She smiled before explaining that the handbrake was operated by a small button on the central console near the gear change stick. After returning to the car, I found the button, which was no bigger than the surface of a dice such as is used in board games. It was flush with the rest of the console and looked like a decoration.

 

MERC 1

 

I was quite taken with a greenish Mercedes saloon car, which was almost favourably priced, but still some way beyond my reach. The salesman opened the vehicle and invited me to sit in the driver’s seat.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Very nice,” I replied, “but I’m not so keen on that plastic trim on the central console around the gear stick.”

“Sir,” he exclaimed, affronted, “that’s not plastic. It’s highly polished wood trim. The very best. This is a Mercedes, you know.”

“Sorry,” I replied, not totally convinced, and continuing, “I like the car. Are you prepared to lower the price?”

“Oh no, sir, that is totally against our company policy. The price we offer is the only price. Our company does not haggle.”

Lunchtime was nearly over, so I said that I would think about the car and would let him know my decision soon.

Twenty-four hours later, I was eating my lunch in the practice when the telephone rung. One of my colleagues answered it and then handed me the receiver. It was the salesman, whom I met the day before.

“Mr Yamey,” he said, “I have good news for you. I have spoken with my manager, and he says that we can offer you the car for £1000 less.”

“Thank you,” I replied, “let me think about that.”

Even with the discount, the car was still beyond my means.

 

merc 3

 

Twenty-four hours later, two days after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I received another call from the salesman, again whilst I was eating lunch.

“I have more good news for you, My Yamey,” he began, “my manager has authorised a further thousand-pound reduction in the cost of the car you are interested in. That’s a discount of two thousand pounds. Makes the motor very reasonable, don’t you think?”

I told him that I was not sure about buying at that moment, and that I would get back to him if I changed my mind. I had by then decided that not only was the car too expensive even with the unexpected discounts from a firm that never offered discounts, but, also, I was actually happy with the car I already owned.