Blame Enver Hoxha

Berat, Albania – I can’t imagine arriving in Albania and not feeling like you’ve suddenly stepped into another world.  It started with the bunkers. Minutes after crossing the border, as my bus crested a hill overlooking Lake Ohrid, I glanced out of the window to see two of the wretched grey things staring blankly back at me. Where the road cut into the mountain, two pill-shaped cement pods—each the size of a small car—hung lazily from the eroding slope.  Half buried under soil, their rectangular mouths hung open, gaping stupidly.  As my bus trundled on, the landscape grew thick with the things. Here were a dozen of the aging cement bunkers lined up like sentries, over there was a cluster of three or four, motionless as dutiful soldiers. They were just one of the many strange remnants of the Hoxha era.  In Albania, I would later discover, yet another oddity waited around every corner…

The bunkers were the Albanian government’s idea of defense spending in the 1970s. Blame Enver Hoxha. In his 43 years running socialist Albania (1941-1985), Hoxha’s most notable achievement was arguably the establishment of a debilitating climate of isolation and paranoia. Hoxha was distrustful of Albania’s Yugoslav neighbors to the north, broke with the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, and alienated China after Nixon’s visit. With few allies and the Cold War in full swing, in the 1960s he feared an invasion by either or both NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. Therefore in 1967 he began commissioning the construction of 700,000 bunkers (1 for every 4 Albanians) in every corner of the country. The bunkers were designed to enable gorilla fighters to repel an invasion. The idea was insane.

When Hoxha died in 1985, construction was halted. Gradually Albania set off on a path to repair relations with the outside world. Removing the bunkers was far too expensive, however, and the Albanians found themselves with a surplus of useless cement pods. Today some have been put to creative use, but many more lay strewn uselessly across the landscape as an embarrassing reminder of the country’s recent past.

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Photo: One of the first bunkers I saw, peaking over a hilltop on Albania’s border with Macedonia.

The bunkers are just the first oddity you encounter arriving overland in Albania. Next are the animals. They registered first as odd characters in an otherwise static landscape: hairy objects dangling on ropes or tied to porch awnings.  Empty, beady eyes stared out from strange faces as our little van sped past.  Then I noticed them on rooftops too. High above, lumpy figures sat slouching in lawn chairs or tilted over on their sides—heads askew or tumbling off. After a few moments of grasping, my brain started to piece together what I was looking at. They were stuffed animals, scarecrows of different shapes and sizes. All along the roadside residents had strung up stuffed bears, lions, and dogs from their homes. On rooftops, full-size scarecrows languished in the hot sun under straw hats. Nothing moved except for the gentle sway of strangled teddies. I shuddered.

An Albanian passenger in my car explained the objects would protect these homes against evil.

“Are we talking a Lord Voldemort kind of evil, or a Soylent Green kind of evil?” I asked.

He was talking about “the evil eye.” The concept of the Evil Eye is common throughout the Balkans and Levant, and I encountered it more frequently later in my trip. In many places in Greece and Turkey, charms and amulets are worn to deflect the Evil Eye (“Best protection. Affordable excellence” one jewelry advert goes). But only in Albania did I encounter the lynching of stuffed animals for this purpose, or any purpose for that matter. And it did not make me feel safer.

* * * *

Around 4pm I arrived in Albania’s capital city, Tirana. Contrary its reputation in Europe, Tirana offers most of the features of any other Eastern European capital: wide paved boulevards, a medley of new and old architecture, leafy sidewalks lined with crowded cafes, and one of the better English bookstores in the Southeast Europe.

I dropped my bag at a small hostel and headed immediately back to the bookstore to re-stock on reading. I picked up Drakulic’s Café Europe, a Robert Graves compilation of Greek myths, a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, and Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar (this last one is largely to credit for the blog you’re reading now). Afterward I wandered about town for a while in the receding light before retiring to my room with the books and some cheap beer.

The next day Amy Winehouse died.  And because Albania is a superstitious place, I took this as a sufficient reason to move on.  I caught a furgon (shared taxi) destined for the central southern town of Berat and left Tirana 48 hours after I arrived.

DSC_0615 copy Tirana: Sometimes beautiful.

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Tirana: Sometimes a mess.

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Not all of Albania’s eccentricities are creepy; others are just weird. Consider the unlikely number of Albanians—young and old—who vomit while riding in cars.  Not joking. This happened every time I traveled in Albania.  On every car ride there were two or three of them, huddled up against a cracked window, cloth-to-mouth, gagging.  I learned to read their faces before it happened, and their faces said: “Please excuse me while I lean over you and vomit out that window.”

One British expat generously explained this phenomenon as a sort of “growing pains.” Before 1991, it was illegal to own private vehicles in Albania, he said. Therefore people vomit because most of them are still growing accustomed to traveling at 50 miles per hour.

“I used to have a cat that did the same thing,” he told me, “so it makes sense.”

By my judgement, a far more compelling explanation for the vomiting was Albanian music. Every car trip was occasioned by a redundant soundtrack of Albania’s own “musik popular.” A friend earnestly described the genre as “a sustained clarinet freak-out.” Often it starts with the bare jangle of a lone tambourine, followed by the pulse of a drum, pursued quickly by the violent wale of a clarinet.  The lone woodwind convulses, squawks and whines like a throttled goose or a balloon animal having the goddamn life squeezed out of it. Often musik popular is blaring and frantic, a Coltrain-like clarinet jam that goes on and on and on. Drivers put it on the speakers and settle into a steady 50mph. Then the vomiting starts.

* * * *

I had arrived in Berat and was finishing my dinner around 7pm when several guests in my hostel ran out the front door putting on their sandals and shouting.

“Xhiro! We’re headed to the xhiro if you want to come!”

I followed them out the door and down Berat’s cobbled streets across the river to the old town. Berat is a cluster of perfect rectangular Ottoman homes, stacked like white shoe boxes against the base of a mountain. Hundreds of duplicate brown-trimmed windows look out across the river like curious winking eyes. Down below in the village’s main thoroughfare I could already see thousands upon thousands of people shuffling through the streets. It looked like a festival or national celebration, except everyone seemed to be heading somewhere.

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Photo: In Berat, people begin filling the streets during the xhiro.

My new friends and I walked with the crowds toward the south end of town, people-watching as we strolled. Boys and girls, women and men, individuals and families—some decked out in their finest cloths—strolled and chatted politely, stopping frequently to greet one another.  But at the south end of town, these flaneurs simply turned around and walked back north. For some it was a subtle turn—a broadly sweeping semicircle that surveyed the surrounding shops. For others, the turnaround was obscured by a short five or six minute conversation before making the return north. Still others just turned on their heels and headed back the way they’d come. And back up at the north end of town they just turned again and returned south. This circling—the xhiro—went on for an hour.

The word “xhiro” (“zhee-ro”) comes from the Greek word gyro—“to turn”—and has the same origin as words like gyroscope, gyrate, and gyro sandwich (get it, the meat turns on a spit).  The xhiro gets its name from the circular walking motion. More importantly, it’s a social affair that takes place on Sundays and Mondays throughout Albania. It reminded me of the same see-and-be-seen behavior of kids in the U.S.—the way they stroll in malls, or drive up and down the main street of small Midwest towns. And as with suburban American, the xhiro probably developed from a very peculiar set of social needs and activities in Albania.

The excitement ended at sundown. Women and girls disappeared back into their homes, while men and boys settled into cafes to drink cay.  My friends and I settled into a small, poorly-lit café where chubby middle-aged men sang along to clarinet-laced music on the Albanian equivalent of MTV. There we played pool for a couple hours and debated the relative weirdness of all the weird things we’d seen in Albania. The xhiro, we all agreed, is easily the most endearing oddity, in a land full of endearing oddities.

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