Taxi in Tirana

In May 2016, my wife and I landed in Albania at Tirana’s airport. There was a line of taxis whose drivers were all eager to drive us into the city centre and to accept either local currency or Euros. At other times during our trip, getting a taxi was never a problem. However, thirty-two years earlier, when Albania was a strictly controlled Stalinist dictatorship (at least as as repressive as North Korea is today) , getting to hire a taxi was impossible as this excerpt from my book “Albania on my Mind”  will demonstrate.

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A ‘busy’ street in Tirana in 1984

“After we had eaten lunch at the hotel, a group of us went into the square outside it. We saw a long line of taxis, which were waiting vacantly by a booking booth. We wondered how often these were hired and by whom; there was not a soul in sight taking the slightest interest in them. One of us walked up to the booth and asked the man sitting inside whether we could hire a taxi to take us up to Mount Dajti, some way outside Tirana. Just when it seemed that we had succeeded in hiring a cab, another person inside the booth lifted a telephone receiver, listened for a moment, and then whispered something to the man with whom we had just negotiated. He beckoned to us, and pointed at the hotel. Somehow, he made it clear to us that we needed to book the taxi not from him, but from the hotel reception desk.

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Tirana 1984. Typically empty main square (Skanderbeg Square)

We trouped back into the hotel’s lobby and made a beeline for the reception desk. Two suited men, sitting on a sofa nearby, looked at us over the tops of their newspapers. As we reached the desk, I noticed that the doors of one of the hotel’s two lifts were opening. Our Albanian guide Eduart hurried through them and towards the receptionist, who was beginning to attend to us. 
“What do you need?” Eduart asked us, out of breath.
“We want to hire a taxi.”
“Why?”
“We want to visit Mount Dajti?”
“Why should you do that?”
“We need some fresh country air. We’ve been in the city for too long.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Eduart protested. “You have already spent many days in the countryside.”
“But, that’s what we want, and we believe that the views from Mount Dajti are magnificent.”
“You cannot go.”
“Why ever not?” we asked.
“There is a lot of traffic. The roads are crowded.” We looked at Eduart disbelievingly. Traffic congestion was certainly not a problem in Albania in 1984.

“You know that there’s a big national cycle race on at the moment.”
“That was over long ago,” one of us objected. “We saw the posters announcing it along the roads.”
“You can visit Mother Albania, but no further.”
We had already visited the Mother Albania monument, which was located in the outskirts of the town. However, as we were determined to not to give in to our obstreperous guide, we agreed to his compromise.
“Alright,” we said.
Then, Eduart said menacingly:
“You may take the taxi to Mother Albania, but remember that if anything happens to you, we cannot take any responsibility for your safety. You will not be protected by your group visa.” “We’ll risk it,” one of us said.
I did not like the threatening sound of Eduart’s voice, but followed the rest of our small group back to the taxi rank. When we arrived there no more that ten minutes after we had left it, we found that all of the taxis had disappeared, and also there was an extremely long line of people waiting in a queue outside the booth. Accepting defeat, we made our way on foot to …”

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Traffic in Tirana, 2016

DISCOVER  WHAT IT WAS LIKE VISITING COMMUNIST ALBANIA IN 1984 IN “ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by ADAM YAMEY

It is available from Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle

 

Dentistry and dictatorship

Between 1944 and 1991, Albania was ruled by a Stalinist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha until his death in 1985, and then under Ramiz Alia. The country was even more isolated from the rest of the world than North Korea is today. It was impossible for individuals to visit the country unless they were members of a tour group. In May 1984, I joined one of these groups and spent a most interesting fortnight in the country. Our hosts, the state-run Albturist company, made sure that we had little or no contact with Albanians other than our tour guides and driver, who was a trusted Communist party member. Our hosts hoped that we would only see what the authorities wanted us to see. Their aim was to make us come away from Albania feeling that its repressive regime was one to be admired. I was the only dentist in our group. I managed to gain a tiny insight into the state of dentistry in Albania. The following extracts from my book “Albania on my Mind” reveal something of what I learned. ‘Aferdita’ and ‘Eduard’, mentioned below, were our Albanian tour guides. Although their job included keeping us ‘under control’ and away from other Albanians, they were curious about the world beyond Albania’a watertight borders.

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Our tour began in the northern city of Shkodër.

“Our coach headed out of Shkodër along the main road leading southwards. Once we were out of town, Aferdita delivered the first of her brief daily lectures. Every day, she treated us to a discourse on one of a variety of different aspects of life in Albania. The one that I can recall best was on the subject of medicine. She informed us, whilst we were travelling towards Sarandë some days well into our tour, that since the advent of the communists not only had malaria been eradicated, but also tuberculosis and syphilis. After extolling the virtues of her country’s medical facilities, she offered to answer any questions that had arisen in our minds as a result of her lecture. No one said anything. Then, Julian, our British chaperone, knowing already that the young lady doctor travelling with us was a reticent person, asked me, the dentist on board, to pose a question. I asked whether antibiotics were readily available in Albania. My reason for asking this was that I believed that the country, which was clearly trying to be totally self-reliant, would have been reluctant to import costly pharmaceuticals. Aferdita replied indignantly: “Why, of course they are.”

And then, spreading her hands wide apart, she exclaimed:

“When we reach the next town, I will get you a packet of antibiotics this large.”

Sadly, she never fulfilled this unusually generous offer.”

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Flash flood in Shkodër, 1984

“After an unexceptional lunch, I roamed around the streets of Shkodër. I came across a small public garden, which was dominated by a chunky statue of Joseph Stalin. Even 30 years after his death, Albania continued to honour him. It was the only country in Europe still revering that illustrious Georgian. There was even a town, Qyteti Stalin (now known by its pre-Communist name as ‘Kuçovë’), named in his memory, but we did not visit it. I am pleased that I saw this statue, because although I did see many other statues on our trip, they were mostly depictions of Enver Hoxha.

I discovered a bookshop near to Stalin’s monument, and being addicted to such establishments, I entered. I was surprised to find an Albanian textbook of dentistry prominently displayed there. Though crudely illustrated with line-drawings, I could make out that it was quite up-to-date. To the evident surprise of the shop’s staff, I purchased it and another dental book. I still treasure these two unusual souvenirs from Shkodër.”

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Backstreet in Gjirokastër

Later during our tour, we visited the historic city of Gjirokastër. Its hotel, like others in Albania, was equipped with a night club, where we, the foreign guests, were entertained by musical ensembles in splendid isolation: no Albanians apart from our guides and a waiter were permitted to enter the club. Incidentally, wherever our group ate in Albania, we were isolated by screens or curtains from other (i.e. Albanian) diners. I later learnt that this was because in 1984 there were great food shortages in the country. We were well-fed, but it was important that Albanians were not able to see that.

“That evening after dinner, a number of us sat with Aferdita and Eduart in the hotel’s night club. Each of the hotels in which we stayed had one of these. With the exception of our two guides and the musicians who performed in them, these clubs were out of bounds for Albanians. This evening we were entertained by a small band that played western pop music, mainly tunes originally performed by the Beatles. The noisy background of these clubs provided our two young guides with opportunities to ask us about life beyond their country’s tightly sealed borders. However, it was clear that Aferdita was trying to eavesdrop on Eduart and vice-versa. As the musicians strummed away in the semi-gloom of the club in Gjirokastër, Aferdita turned to me, rolled her lower lip away from her teeth, and asked my opinion of her gums. She wanted to know if they had been treated properly. I told her that I was unable to give her an opinion in such poor light.

The following morning, I spotted some tubes of Albanian toothpaste on display in a locked glass display case near the hotel’s main entrance. I tried to communicate to the receptionist (who did not understand English) that I wished to purchase a tube. I used to collect toothpastes from wherever I travelled and was curious to taste its contents. Whilst I was doing this, Aferdita appeared, and asked me what I wanted. I told her. She explained my desire to the receptionist, and moments later I had become the proud owner of a tube of Albanian dentifrice.”

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Many years later…

“In 2001, long after my trip to Albania, I began working in a dental practice in west London. Many of my patients were, and still are, refugees from the places in the world, which are stricken by military and political conflicts. Algerians, Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds, Palestinians, Eritreans, and many other others who have fled their far-off disturbed homes sit in my surgery and reveal the ravages that life has inflicted on their teeth. During the terrible conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, many of my patients hailed from Kosovo, and usually spoke poor English in addition to their native Albanian. Many were the smiles that I elicited from them when I quoted the old party slogans, undoubtedly poorly pronounced, and wished them ‘Mir u pafshim’ instead of ‘Goodbye’ at the end of their appointments.”

 

ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by Adam YAMEY may be purchased from Amazon, lulu.com, bookdepository.com, your bookshop. It is also available as a Kindle