Letter from Albania: What’s being done to improve the environment

Heading south, I passed the town of Orikum and the road soon climbed steeply into the Llogara Pass, one of those places that makes you feel very small and alone.

The road clung to a mountainside so steep that when I craned my neck up I couldn’t see it top out. On my left there was a verdant valley far below and another huge wall of gray rock. The valley seemed to pinch farther up ahead, for the views were long enough that I could mark the road’s progress as it snaked in and out of sharp bends.

Then, rounding one, I confronted the most dramatic and lovely stretch of road I’d seen on the Adriatic/Ionian coast: In the windshield, a ridge line the color of ash loomed over the road and it descended in a tumbling pitch perhaps 2,000 feet into iris blue water. The narrow road worked its way down the green hillside not in gentle curves but in hairpin switchbacks, like an extended mark of Zoro.

Far below, the town of Dhermi perched in resistance, some how, to the Llogara Pass’ plunge to the sea.

A few days later, taking a road out of the southern city of Saranda that soon turned into one of the best in Albania — despite having been marked in yellow on my map, signifying a track slightly better than cracked concrete — I was again to pull neck muscles trying to take in the immensity of a light-speckled valley that stretched almost to the hill town of Gjirokaster.

In one frame, a single house sat sentry over groves and green terraces, with the patchwork valley floor running away from it in the distance.

These were scenes that revealed how much Albania, despite all its problems, had that was worth protecting.
It was not an exaggeration to say that Albania’s environment and natural landscape had suffered mightily, both during the country’s communist isolation and in the years after it emerged from it. Like in the communist countries of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, there was little tradition of conservation and certainly no complex talk of carbon footprints, emissions and the crisis of global warming. Factories and production ruled the day, always at the expense of the land.

Albania, however, had a far messier recovery period after communism than places like the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Elsewhere, countries were beginning to address the environmental legacy of their pasts. When the dust settled in Albania, people seemed to put a higher priority on simply getting theirs.

The rush to build personal property during the past decade, for example, had lead to the disappearance of 30 percent of the country’s forests, while substantial mining had altered or dried up water flows in many of the country’s rivers.

The problem of air pollution grew as Albanians rushed to buy cars, most of them old and running on diesel. As of three years ago, the country still did not have a single waste water treatment plant.

Albania’s environmental woes seemed to gel with a damning United Nations critique of Porto Romano, a exotic-sounding suburb near Albania’s main port, Durres. In 2001, environmental experts found nearly 6,000 people living pretty much on top of an abandoned chemical plant where soil and groundwater contamination had been found to be 4,000 times the European acceptance level.

Some had even built homes out bricks taken from the derelict plant.

In a stern letter to the Albanian government, the UN team urged relocating the residents of Porto Romano and cordoning off the site with a fence.

Porto Romano might have been a wake up call for the Albanian government to finally begin taking measures to tackle the country’s environmental problems head on — that and the European Union’s recent courting of Albania to one day join its growing club.

Joining the EU would mean bringing the country’s environmental standards in line with, currently, 27 other countries.

“This is not only a problem of flowers or birds or plants,” Dzemal Mato, a Green trailblazer, told the BBC last year. “The environment can be a big cost economically.”

Whatever the reason, Albania lately had scored some significant environmental progress and was currently awash in projects countrywide that while complex in scope and lengthily in timeframe gave hope that the country had turned a corner.

Projects ranged in price. Larger ones included spending $13 million to improve ecosystem management in the Prespa Lake basin; $3.6 million to built and sustain an ecotourism industry; and $2.8 million to develop an environmental management system.

Smaller projects included spending $1.3 million to cleanup a handful of polluted “hot spots,” like Porto Romano, countrywide; $600,000 for green house gas emissions projects; and $36,900 to rehabilitate the Drini-Mati river delta.

The United Nations, with its development program, the EU and individual European countries like the Netherlands were helping Albania pay for all this.

It seemed that the world was taking notice of Albania’s new environmental commitment. This year Yale University ranked Albania 27th out of 149 countries in its annual environmental performance index, 12 places ahead of the United States.

Tome Thercaj, a spokesman for Albania’s environment minister, was particularly proud of this ranking as we sat and talked in his office in Tirana. He said the government overall had doubled spending on the environment.

I asked him what was the biggest environmental problem Albania continued to face, expecting him to address those dry river beds, or the air quality in many urban centers. His answer was more fundamental.

“Urban garbage,” he said. “It is not only an environmental problem. It is not good to see.”

Any traveler in Albania noticed the garbage that lined many streets and roads, piles of food and diapers and other trash that cooked in the hot sun and gave off a terrific stink. But this was not something unique to Albania; in Montenegro the situation, especially around the capital of Podgorica, was the same: litter everywhere, and in a country that last year called itself an “ecological state” in its new constitution.

Not far outside Tirana, a massive landfill lay smoldering, set ablaze by nearby residents so that its smoke would often waft over the city.

Thercaj told me that the government was currently negotiating with the northern city of Shkodra to build a $5 million landfill there. Another big new landfill had been built in the middle of the country.

So, Albania’s was tackling its garbage. But, Thercaj told me, there was more. Yes, there were many projects underway and financing coming from outsiders to fund them. But there were also more subtle efforts to change the environmental consciousness of the Albanian people.

One of the government’s biggest initiatives, he said, was to develop a recycling program for the country and foster a recycling culture among the people.

“Look,” he said. “I’ll show you.”

After a few clicks on his computer, Thercaj pulled up
a photo taken on a recent trip to Italy. It was of four large recycling bins taken in Milan, colored red, blue, yellow and white. Soon, he said, these would begin popping up in more locations in Albania.

He started at the picture on the screen, the way you would at a postcard.

Yesterday: The brutal custom of Albanian blood feuds (Part 2)
Tomorrow: Tirana’s impressive recovery

Letter from Albania: The brutal custom of blood feuds (Part 2)

When Agim Loci was 23, a good friend of his tried to rape a girl in their hometown of Fruhe Kruje.

The girl’s two brothers thwarted the attack at the last moment. But the matter did not stop there: The girl’s family wanted revenge. Loci did something surprising: He took his friend, tied him up and made him stand in a field before the girl’s entire family.

“I said, ‘If you want to kill him, kill him. But then his family will come and kill one of you’,” Loci recalled.

“Of course, nobody was going to kill him then.”

Loci told me this story in a taxi that inched through choking traffic heading out of Tirana.

We were going to meet with a few families living under the shadow of blood feuds, and I had asked him how he had gotten started as a volunteer peacemaker for the Albania’s Committee for Nationwide Reconciliation (CNR), which mediated between feuding families in order to broker peace without violence.

There were at least 1,600 families in Albania today thought to be in hiding because of blood feuds.

That incident in the field had been 14 years ago, but that was the first blood feud he resolved, Loci said. He’d resolved more than a dozen in recent years, and since he was in charge of a roster of CNR volunteers throughout greater Tirana, he’d probably had a hand in many more truces.

He was currently handling seven feuds, three of which were close to reconciling.

Loci was not a tall man, but he was powerful, someone you’d want clearing the way ahead of you on an end zone run. His day job was as a bodyguard and and I would come to see how his profession colored his work with Albanian families.

In the end, he was just protecting people.

Loci received no payment for his work with families, save for a small gift they’d give him when a feud ended.

He said he was setting an example for his three children. “I want my children to have the respect for life my father gave me.”
The afternoon spent with Loci
in Tirana’s outer suburbs was bookended by hope and despair.

Hope came first. It took the shape of Haziz Aruci.

Aruci, 56, was the patriarch of a family in Fushe Kruje. He sat at a round table in a noisy, second floor bar and told how a member of another family in town had murdered his nephew last year.

After some consideration and consultations with Loci, Aruci had decided not to seek revenge.

“We don’t want to look to much into it,” he said. “We want peace.”

Had the other family been in hiding since killing his nephew?

“Ha! Yes!” he said. “But you know what? We didn’t tell them to hide, or that we would kill!”

Loci and Aruci talked about finalizing plans for a video-taped ceremony during which all parties concerned would be present to shake hands, drink coffee (and maybe a little raki) and sign a formal statement that the feud was over.

“To have this peace in hand feels good,” Loci said. “It’s not the first time, but it feels good. The good thing about this is they’ll be no more violence.”

An end to violence seemed something that Tirana’s suburbs in particular needed.

There were one to two revenge killings a month here, Loci said. There were thought to be 40 families in Fushe Kruje alone who were hiding.

That fact was evidence of how blood feuds had molded to modern realities in Albania: A practice traditionally relegated to the tribal lands in the north of the country had migrated south to the capital – and beyond – with the peasants who had migrated here after communism, looking for better opportunities.

The Albanian government for years had been downplaying the extent of these blood feuds, preferring to say that they existed only in isolated pockets in the north.

But it seemed like the government no longer believed this. For the first time leaders pledged money last year — more than $100,000 – to the CNR to help with increased reconciliation efforts and to get more teachers and textbooks to the children kept out of school because of these blood feuds.

Leaders had also begun making bolder statements about blood feuds.

“Rule of law must triumph over kanun,” Prime Minister Sali Berisha told the Washington Post last year, using the Albanian word for the country’s ancient code of conduct. “I can’t say we have eradicated it, but there is progress.”

The CNR was poised to double the feuds it reconciled this year. Already to date, volunteers had brokered peace in 60 cases, compared with the 50 it managed in all last year. .

Earlier this year, the government amended the country’s criminal code to make blood feuds illegal and punishable with three years in jail.

But despite this good news, it still took a long time to get families to decide to end their feuds peacefully – usually more than a year of steady back-and-forth by people like Loci.

“It’s frustrating, because it takes time,” Loci told me. “You always have to wait.”

The Puci family knew that fact all too well.

Mr. Puci (who did not want his first name published), his wife and seven others, including five children ages 5 to 17, had not left their property since January.

It was a complicated story.

Four years ago, a member of the Ferhati family down the street stabbed Mr. Puci’s two brothers to death in front of their wives and children. The Pucis waited for justice. The killer was never caught. So, in January, Mr. Puci’s 76-year-old father killed a Ferhati brother and sister. He was now serving a long jail sentence, and the Ferhati family had vowed revenge.

(It’s worth noting here that the majority of blood feuds in Albania still stem from property disputes, even ridiculously trivial ones. When blood was first shed in the Ferhati-Puci feud, it was over ownership of a space as wide as a kitchen table, which ran between the two families’ markets. In the left picture, the Puci family market now sits empty.)

On the day of my visit, there was a funeral for one of Mr. Puci’s extended relatives. He was not going.

“The other family will be watching everything we do,” he said. “They’ll know when somebody’s getting married, or when somebody’s died and they’ll wait for their chance.”

The Puci’s home spoke of isolation.

The curtain’s were all drawn, blocking the afternoon sun.

Mr. Puci, 52, had been a construction worker. He was missing four fingers on his right hand; reaching out to greet me, I shook only stubbs.

The Pucis contacted Loci in January. Since then, Loci had been going between the two houses. He was not bringing good news this afternoon.

“It’s too soon,” Loci told Mr. Puci.

We were in the living room. Mrs. Puci served coffee and homemade brandy, and took a seat in
a blue plastic chair against a white wall.

Loci explained that the Ferhati family believed that not enough time had elapsed since the January killing to consider reconciling. The head of the Ferhati house was in favor of settling, but there were still some brothers living abroad that were vowing to avenge the killing.

Loci had even had a drink with an acquaintance of the Ferhati family recently who concluded the same thing.

The kanun in some parts of the country stipulated that families had to wait a year before asking for forgiveness. “Kanun must be respected,” Loci told Mr. Puci. “It is too soon.”

The conversation turned emotional.

“My view is that it’s not too soon,” Mr. Puci said. “For four years my brothers have been under the ground and now this family has started to know how we felt for four years.”

“We fear that there are no limits anymore,” Mr. Puci said. “If this family is going to kill, they’re going to kill five. They’re going to kill six. There are no limits. The families will just be at war.”

A silence claimed the room.

Somewhere in the house, a television was on and I heard the applause of a raucous game show that seemed to mock the discussion.

I got up to use the bathroom, and noticed, in one bedroom, a 10-year-old boy asleep, in the middle of the afternoon.

Our talk appeared to have peaked. The news was delivered. We sat, toasted and drank.

Mr. Puci seemed resigned.

But across the room, Mrs. Puci’s forehead was furrowed in despair, and I regarded the Susan Sontag streak of gray in her brunette hair that made her look older than she probably was. Her head canted, and she looked at her knees and avoided eye contact in that way you do knowing the eyes of others will only reflect your situation back at you.

At one point she said, “We have nowhere to go.”

I asked Mr. Puci whether he regretted his father’s actions, given the situation he was now in.

“We regret killing the woman,” he said. “It was an accident. She was dressed like a man.”

“So, you don’t regret the revenge in general?”

“We wouldn’t regret it otherwise,” Mr. Puci said.

I thought a lot about that statement on my way back to Tirana.

Mr. Puci had at one point begged for peace. “Please, no more killing, that is our request.”

Yet he could not condemn the act that was behind his family’s isolation. He seemed to say: It was still the right thing to do.

That afternoon, the Puci family had asked me what I would have done.

It was easy to see blood feuds as barbarous, an affront to modernity. I’d like to say the question had an easy answer.

But I saw the Pucis up close.

I thought of my mother and father. I thought of my brother.

A simple answer would be a lie.

So many of the world’s problems were rooted in the goddamn inability to let a bad act go unpunished. The Pucis asked a question that distilled that reality down to one human decision. As I thought about my own family, I wasn’t so sure whether that inability was itself inexcusable, or rather just the Hobbesian reality in all of us that we might deny until faced with defending, at any cost, what we love.

Would I avenge a murder in my family? Honestly, maybe.

Maybe what we were talking about was the human code of conduct, as applied at its basest level.

I had put the same question to Gjin Marku, the RNC director. If someone killed his wife or daughter, would he seek revenge?

He thought only briefly.

“I would take justice into my own hands if the state cannot give it to me,” he said.

None of this made Albania less contradictory to me, but in a strange way I felt I understood the country better for it. I saw a place in which tradition and modernity exerted equal pull and to get on here, you needed to balance a respect for both.

That night in Tirana I had dinner with a local journalist named Lorena Kollobani, and I talked about this.

I noted how odd it was that kanun provided not only the justification for revenge but the fundamental tenants of hospitality and friendship — not to mention the tradition of besa, a strict keeping of one’s word – that no doubt was behind much of the friendliness I had encountered.

“Albanians are like that,” Kollobani said. “We are generous and ruthless.”

Yesterday: The brutal custom of blood feuds (Part 1)
Tomorrow: What’s being done to improve Albania’s environment

Letter from Albania: The brutal custom of blood feuds (Part 1)

Agim Loci flashed a smile, and then a revolver, the barrel of which I’d noticed peeking out from beneath his red shirt. “In case of problems,” he said.

We sat drinking coffee in the Tirana International Hotel.

Loci was on and off his cell phone, having already brandished a pile of licenses the size of a blackjack shoe for my inspection, among them: a weapon’s permit, a government ID (he was a bodyguard for the justice department) and a card identifying him as an official missionary for Albania’s Committee for Nationwide Reconciliation (CNR).

I was interested in the last one.

A contact in Tirana had introduced me to Loci the day before, after I mentioned that I wanted to visit some Albanian families currently living in hiding because they were caught in the murderous, “eye for an eye” cycle of gjakmarrja, or a blood feud.

CNR was a nonprofit organization of a dozen coordinators and scores of volunteers countrywide aimed at eradicating blood feuds by brokering peace between warring Albanian families.

Some 1,600 families in Albania today were in hiding because of blood feuds, though some estimates put the figure much higher. There were families that had not been out of their homes for fives years or more, instead relying on a network of friends and distant relatives to deliver food, supplies and a little money.

More alarming was the estimate that more than 1,000 Albanian children could not go to school because of blood feuds, forced instead to remain in hiding with their families.

World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that monitored Albania, said more than 5,000 had been killed in blood feuds since 1992.

CNR managed to reconcile about 50 feuds a year. But it also tracked 100 to 150 new ones annually.

For the traveler in Albania, all this just confirmed the foreignness of the place and seemed a damning indictment of the political and judicial institutions of a country currently being groomed by the west for eventual inclusion in the European Union and NATO, the latter having formally offered Albania membership this spring.

“It’s lack of justice that brings on these blood feuds,” CNR’s Director Gjin Marku told me. “Albanians don’t believe in justice. They believe justice is corrupted, and the state is also corrupted.”
I sat in Marku’s office, which doubled as the CNR’s headquarters: a two-room affair six floors above a shop that looked to traffic in hocked watches, tucked away down a nondescript Tirana alleyway.

A picture of Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian whose parents were from Kosovo, dominated a bookshelf over his right shoulder. Marku sat and smoked.

“The blood feud notion in Albania is directly stemming from the idea of preserving life,” he said, reaching over to drop ash into a potted palm near his desk.

“Blood keeps you alive. Blood is the main fuel of life. It is the main material for love. It comes from your heart. And it is directly related to every person. The notion of a blood feud is really ‘blood taking’, so in a way this is all about blood.”

The small Albanian flag on his desk, dark red with its frightening eagles flashing serpents’ tongues, looked a little more menacing for Marku’s words.

Blood feuds were sanctioned under the the 15th century Code of Lekë Dukagjini, a code of law that served as a blueprint for social conduct, governing everything from how to treat strangers and arrange marriages to how to pay taxes and settle property disputes.

The kanun, as the code was called in Albanian, justified bloodshed for any reproach on an individual’s honor; in some parts of the country, calling an Albanian man a liar in front of other men was grounds to be killed.

One of kanun’s main tenants was simple enough: blood must be paid for with blood.

But there were always strict rules governing that precept, namely that only the killer could be targeted in a blood feud.

When kanun began reasserting itself in Albanian life after the fall of communism — the dictator Enver Hoxha had prohibited blood feuds, and the iron grip of his regime left little room for following an ancient code of law — blood feuds emerged as something altogether different and more destructive.

As applied today, the family members of the killer, including women and children, were also targeted in blood feuds, according to Ismet Elezi, a law professor at Tirana University who was recognized to be Albania’s foremost scholar on kanun.

The result: Whole families confined to their homes, the one place a murder cannot be avenged under kanun.

For a feud to end, a family had to decide not to seek revenge. That’s where the CNR came in: volunteers, acting at first on behalf of families in hiding who want forgiveness, performed a type of grassroots shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between the families concerned until some deal could be reached.

Reconciling was not cheap. Families could pay thousands of dollars to buy forgiveness from their avengers. And for any of this to happen, enough time had to have elapsed.

It was difficult to correctly apply kanun in modern Albania, Marku said. Society was shifting. “Today we don’t have the same hierarchy in the family for kanun to serve at its best,” he said. “Kanun was developed as a code of law, but one of tribal traditions rather than political ones. Still, Albanians have this deep respect for kanun.”

While talking to Marku, a man, Pal Della, from the northern town of Puka, entered the office and in conversation told me he had stolen away from his home to meet with Marku because his family wanted to buy its way out of hiding. They’d been confined to their home for five years. Della rarely left his house.

“When I go out, I must be careful,” he said.

It was Marku who introduced me to Agim Loci, a CNR coordinator in charge of greater Tirana, where 114 families were thought to be in hiding.

“He can take you to meet some families,” Marku said.

I agreed to meet him the next day.

Yesterday: One man whose legacy still haunts Albania
Tomorrow: The brutal custom of Albanian blood feuds (Part 2)

Letter from Albania: Enver Hoxha’s legacy, and the question of tourism

They were everywhere: gray domes surrounded by green grass, either in rows or scattershot across the landscape. Viewed from high mountain roads they had the appearance of large rocks; up close, traveling under ones that hugged hillsides, they looked like huge boulders that might fall.

They never lost their strangeness to me.

I first saw them on the road south from Durrës , heading to Vlore: one, then three, then a half dozen. After this they became more conspicuous, and I noted the different sizes, the small pillboxes and the ones as large as Quonset huts, all with gun slits. The oddest sight was to see them in the pretty valleys, in miniature, maybe a dozen of them in a row, like a small army encampment. I could not shake the impression that they looked more martian than militant, like a refuge for a character in a Bradbury novel.

These concrete bunkers, which everyone who traveled to Albania noticed, were the work of Enver Hoxha, surely a standout among the megalomaniacal whack jobs that ruled during the communist era. Hoxha seemed particularly afraid of the outside world, and had roughly 700,000 of these bunkers built — in theory, one for every Albanian family — in case of an invasion.

Many things the traveler encountered in Albania could some how be traced back to Hoxha’s brutal, paranoid 40-year rule, when he effectively sealed Albania’s doors to the rest and turned off its porch lights.”He spent all our money on these bunkers and defense,” said Leos, a bartender in the coastal town of Himare, where I was having a drink one afternoon in a bar called Manolo’s.

I was the only customer.

Manolo himself had just scooped out a helping of spicy shrimp salad from a Tupperware container and presented it to me. I had mentioned, with some marvel, the nonstop construction I had seen farther up the coast.

“Everything has been built in the last eight years,” Leos said.

“Why only these years?” I asked.

“Before nothing was happening. You still had this Hoxha mentality everywhere.”

Hoxha died in 1985. Yet here was Leos, citing the man as the excuse for the ways things were today.

Not that the country still clung to Hoxha.

The huge Hoxha statue that once dominated Skanderbeg Square in downtown Tirana was torn down, replaced with, well, nothing except a lot of space for kids to ride small electric go-carts.

But in many other ways, his legacy remained.

There were the bunkers, of course, the most ubiquitous leftovers of the Hoxha era. (Though some have been turned into rather creative things: Outside Shkoder one day, I saw a bunker that had been transformed into a tattoo studio).

The bunkers were just one component of Hoxha’s aim to arm the entire country against enemy invaders. Gun training used to be a part of school, I was told, and every family was expected to have a cache of weapons. Soon, Albania became awash in guns and other armaments — and the country is still dealing with that today, not just in its reputation as a center for weapons trading but in its efforts to finally decommission huge stockpiles of ammunition as part of its new NATO obligations.

Albania’s industrial complex has never really recovered from Hoxha’s death and, seven years later, the official fall of communism. That milestone was met by whole populations of Albanians who went around the country literally setting factories and manufacturing centers ablaze. The hollowed husks of some of those buildings could still be seen.

Hoxha had outlawed the anachronistic practice of blood feuding. But after communism the state weakened, grew more corrupt and lawless, and the justice system, reinventing itself anew, began failing at bringing criminals to account. Today, blood feuding was back in a big way, with around 1,600 families living in hiding around the country.

Even Albania’s drivers, among the most reckless I had ever seen, could be explained at least in part by Hoxha: He had generally prohibited the owning of cars, so, when you think about it, the country as a whole hasn’t been behind the wheel for all that long.

O.K., so that’s maybe a stretch.

I also saw something positive resulting from the Hoxha years, if one can truly say such a thing.

Religion was banned during his time and Albania was officially an atheistic country. Lacking a religious tradition, the country today still felt more secular and was certainly tolerant: Greek Orthodox, Catholicism and Islam coexisted here in relative harmony, sometimes in the same town.

“I am a Muslim,” Leonard Boduri, 23, told me one day in Tirana, “but I am not a fanatic. We are Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics. But we don’t see religion as political. We see religion as something individual. We think we are alone in the world for this.”

One of the more pressing questions in Albania, and it too was related to Hoxha, was when the tourists would begin to arrive — not just for the summer season but consistently year round.

For 40 years, Albanians were not allowed to leave the country and it was the rare foreigner who got in. Then came the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed, which affected Albania tangentially.

The country as a result had been left with hardly any infrastructure to support tourism, even as the government in recent years finally began to see the money-making potential in beefing up this industry. Albania now seemed like one giant highway project, with miles of road torn up. The coastal route south from Durrës to Serande was a particular priority. There was no road for much of that stretch, just stripped pavement and rocks.

It took most of a day to travel a distance that would be covered in less than two hours elsewhere in Europe. When the new road was finished, it would surely be one of the nicest in the Mediterranean. But when would that be?

I met one person who hoped the answer was never. “If that road is finished, man, the coast will disappear,” said Attin Fortuzi, a television reporter. “Now it’s untouched down there.”

There was some melancholy to this tourist watch. It seemed to me as if, in some small way, Albanians were looking at Montenegro and Croatia and thinking, Our neighbors are raking it in, when will our turn come?

The posh new Rapos Resort Hotel opened up in Himare two years ago. I stumbled upon it after taking a bad road a bit out of town. It was an unexpected sight that flashed at my windshield as I rounded a bend, standing out from its surroundings like blood on snow. There was a Vegas-style swimming pool, a veranda and expansive views of the sea.

There was one car in the parking lot.

At dinner that night in the hotel, over what I would see was some of the best food in town, I ate almost alone. One other table was occupied, and thr
ee waiters busied themselves at my table.

Soon, the town would be crawling with tourists, Leos and Manolo assured me the next day. For a country that had been sold many lies in its recent history, I hoped the promise of a tourism wave many believed would come wasn’t one of them. There is nothing more depressing than a tourist town with no tourists.

The bar remained deserted. We were watching loud Greek television.

“From where?” I asked.

“Albania, mostly, and Kosovo. But also Italy. Not so much from Greece,” Leos said.

The place was one of those sports-themed bars you find in unlikely spots, with walls festooned with soccer balls and tennis rackets and bicycle wheels. The bright light outside made everything inside seem too dark. I heard the surf against some riprap.

I thought Manolo’s could be fun with some young drinkers ensconced in booths or out on the patio. It surely looked like a better place than the town’s only disco, located down some unpromising stairs.

Behind the bar, Leos flipped bottles back and forth, then behind his back, like he was practicing his best Tom Cruise moves for a time when he might need them.

Yesterday: Into Europe’s dark corner
Tomorrow: The brutal custom of Albanian blood feuds

Letter from Albania: Into one of Europe’s last dark corners

The car rounded a bend heading south, a bit outside Fier, and there he was in the middle of the road: dressed in a red shirt, a white crusher on his head. He had no legs, just two stumps that poked out of his jeans.

The road looked baked in the sun. He lunged at passing cars, hands cupped. A large bus bore down on him from the other side, and passing I looked back to see traffic in both directions and him not moving. Where could he go?

It was a fruitless, and dangerous, way to beg for money. He was stuck, doing what he could, being passed by, life having dealt him rags.

In that man I saw something of the desperation of an entire country in miniature.

I have come to Albania. Not many do, even today, 16 years after this country emerged from a particularly isolated horror show. Tourists are expected any day now, I was told, and there was justification for that optimism: Farther up the coast to the north, Montenegro was rapidly seeing its coastline cede to Riviera-style hotels and villas.

Albanian does promise some of the last unspoiled coastline in the Mediterranean. Seeming to anticipate this, places like Durrës along the coast had become a confusion of construction, haze and dust, giving way to tall, colorful tenements — hotels? — most seeming unfinished.

Guidebooks padded entries about Albania by saying it had “a few rough edges” or with phrases like, “Sure, it has is problems, but…”

Yet really, Albania was a ruinous country — and probably the most interesting and least artificial place in which you could travel in Europe today.

I was with a German who said, “It’s the last dark spot on the continent. “
Albania was also one of the weirdest
places I’d ever been to. I’m not just talking about the stuffed animals that hung like totems on unfinished houses to ward off spirits, or the dystopian sight of thousands of small concrete bunkers dotting the countryside everywhere you looked. This was the country that gave George W. Bush a hero’s welcome last year, putting it in rather small company indeed.

It was something of a travel cliché to call Albania a joke. It was, after all, the country the United States went to war with to draw the public’s attention away from a presidential sex scandal in Barry Levinson’s 1997 satire on the Clinton Administration, “Wag the Dog.”

Albania was not a joke. It was just sad. There was no comedy at all here, and if this were some kind of Hollywood production you could conclude, passing through towns and seeing all that was unfinished and piecemeal around you — the decapitated homes, the roads, the husks of cars in so many roadside chop shops — that the director had told the crew to pack it in, abandon sets and change locations.

But Albania commanded headlines — real ones.

In March, the country received an invitation to join NATO, and the European Union affirmed its commitment to see the country within the bloc sooner rather than later.

That same month, in the Tirana suburb of Gerdec, a munitions factory — Albania was a giant weapons depot — blew up, killing 26.

That was one of the only factories working in Albania.

Nothing was manufactured or built here, aside from elaborate, brightly colored gas stations that are everywhere, most complete with a hotel (EUR 20 a night), restaurant, bar and market, all catering to the Albanians’ obsession with cars.

“Albania is not a place where industry is very developed,” Tomë Therçaj, an adviser in the environment ministry, told me one day in Tirana.

He seemed positive about this. “We don’t have these problems with greenhouse gas emissions.”

He told me that a 2008 United Nations survey ranked Albania 25th among 144 countries in terms of environmental friendliness.

Then what was behind this air? It was dusty, choking, redolent with diesel fumes and smoke in Tirana.

Elsewhere, in Durrës, Vlore, and Shkoder in the north, the air was a hot, whiskey-colored haze and if the breeze was right, it brought waves of stink from roadside garbage piles.

Farther south and inland, breathing was easier, but then you saw the dry river beds. What were once great flows of water now were reduced to no more than wet ribbons along which some trucks drove.

Albania has some spectacular scenery: deep canyons; scree cliffs that plunge thousands of feet down into the Ionian Sea; meadows and hillsides shaded and fragrant with eucalyptus and olive trees.

But it was hard to balance scenes of environmental splendor and squalor.

It was also hard to balance the Albanian people.

Who were they? They rankled at being compared to Greeks (despite a sizable Greek minority along the southern coast and in places like Gjirokaster). Their music seemed Turkish, but that’s where those similarities stopped.

Albanians, of course, were Albanians, members of an old ethnic group whose pride seemed to belie its size (the country has a population of 3.6 million, though the Albanian Diaspora is significant).

They were contradictory. Albanians were generous and kind, and I was to see many live up to their reputation of hospitality; yet they were also barbarous and vengeful, practitioners of blood feuds that trapped whole families in their homes. They were fiercely nationalistic; yet they were also the very models of tolerance: In Albania, three religions coexist largely in peace.

The only joke associated with Albania was what had been perpetrated on its people, and it seemed to me they were still shaking off their dark years.

Albanians had been invaded by the Greeks, the Turks, the Italians and then communism. They spent more than 40 years in utter isolation, forbidden to travel, forced to take up arms against invisible enemies, made paranoid and afraid, all thanks to a lunatic leader.

Communism’s collapse let in some light, and also lawlessness and corruption. And the people were then cheated again: The country teetered on the brink of civil war in the late 1990s after tens of thousands lost their life savings in a state-sponsored confidence trick.

Albanians still don’t trust the government. There were rumors nearly every week of misappropriated money and graft. Perhaps there was something to this: Despite receiving some of the highest aid per capita that the European Union gives out — $110 million this year alone — Albania still ranked as the second poorest country in Europe, behind Moldova.

Albania could seem desperate, but it was also hopeful and the people seemed to know the score.
In conversations there was no delusion about the state of the country, and even simple statements could be imbued with a faith that the country, one day at least, would find its way.

“The roads are terrible here, but the government is really trying to improve them,” Leonard Boduri, 20, told me in Tirana one day, exhibiting some of that optimism.

I found all of this fascinating.

If Europe had become staid and predictable in many places, travel in Albania was the antidote. Horrible in many places, wonderful in others. But real.

I showed up purposely having read little about Albania. I wanted only to look, think and react. That seemed to me the purpose of travel.

Tomorrow: One man whose legacy still haunts Albania