Long-Awaited Balkans Journey
Finally Achieved 47 Years Later
TIRANA, Albania – Do you have any idea how long I’ve waited to type that dateline?
I’ll tell you.
In 1974, on my first trip overseas, I was standing on a dock in a fishing village in northeast Corfu – a Greek island located between the mainland to the east and Italy to the northwest. I could see the outline of a coastal land in the distance, to the northeast. With me was a villager: I can’t remember his name so I’ll call him Nick. [John and George were my other choices as that’s pretty much it for the names of male Greeks.] He had spent some time in the U.S. and spoke excellent English.
As I best I can recall, this is how our conversation went:
Me: Is that Greece?
Nick: No. Albania.
Me: Albania? I don’t know anything about Albania.
Nick: It’s Communist. Very strict.
Me: How strict? I’d like to go there and check it out.
Nick: You can’t.
Me: Why not?
Nick: I’ll tell you why. We had maybe three or four men from this village who go too far in their fishing boats and end up in Albania.
Me: What happened?
Nick: We never saw them again.
Me: I guess I’ll pass on Albania. But I promise I will go there one day.
Nick: I’m sure you will, Yorgos. [George]
In subsequent years I visited many difficult-to-reach countries, such as Djibouti, Yemen, Myanmar, Somalia, Lesotho and Eritrea.
Albania remained elusive. But it never strayed far from my potential destinations list.
So, when the publisher [me] and editor [me] met with The Road Boomer’s only reporter [me] and photographer [me] to discuss a journey to a country less traveled, Albania was the unanimous choice.
Once decided I mentioned my trip to my family and friends. Their responses and questions were, ah, let’s say amusing. Here’s a sampling:
“That’s in Africa, right?”
“What the hell for?”
“Watch out! Those Albanians in the movie “Taken” were nasty dudes.”
My favorite pre-trip moment occurred when I met Pam Diesing of the American Automobile Association. She booked my flight and hotel, neither of which was easy. While doing so Pam mentioned she has been in the business since 1987 and handled numerous corporate accounts as well as worked with many avid travelers.
Naturally, I asked her how many people she has sent to Albania in all those years.
“Zero,” she said.
“One reason I’m going,” I replied.
For the record, Albania is located in southeastern Europe. Specifically, the country is part of the Balkan Peninsula with Greece, to the south, its most famous neighbor.
On the political side of things, the communist rulers are long gone and a quasi-democracy of some kind or another is in place. The attempt at democracy got off to a rough start. In 1997, a Bernie Madoff-type Ponzi scheme supported by the government wiped out the savings of many Albanians. People took to the streets, toppling the government.
Meanwhile, since I was traveling to Albania I thought it would be a good idea to speak with an Albanian before leaving.
I found Eva Qoshja Hoelter through a close friend of my sister. She immigrated to suburban Cleveland, Ohio at 15 in 1998 with her parents and brother. That was a year after the collapse of the government, and Albanians were fleeing in large numbers. Her mother entered what is known as the U.S. DV-99 Diversity Lottery. [Classic government moniker, eh?] The program allows for 50,000 permanent resident visas to citizens of countries with low immigration numbers to the U.S.
Eva’s mother’s name was selected – one of 4,482 Albanians chosen that year.
“It was big,” Eva said during a phone conversation last week. “My mother told us she wanted to give us a better life. Had my Dad won we wouldn’t have gone anywhere. He didn’t like change.”
Eva went to college, married and has three young children. Life is good. Would it have been as good if her mother’s name had not been selected?
“I don’t really know,” she said. “I think I would have been OK. Many of my friends there are doing well. But they would come here if they could. And now my Dad says it’s the best thing he’s ever done.”
Here’s the thing: Eva returns to Albania with her family from time-to-time. It remains a part of her life. And she’s not alone. While three million people live in Albania, another 10 million reside elsewhere. And many of them return often, mostly in summer.
As in right now.
I learned this from my Albanian interpreter, Lisena Gjebrea. We had planned day excursions to the north and south of the country, searching for stories.
“No chance,” she said. “The roads are packed. It takes hours to get anywhere.”
“No problem,” I said. “We’ll roll with it.”
Sufficiently briefed, I left for Albania yesterday. It took 16 hours but I’ve finally arrived in Tirana, the capital. As you can see from the photo, the Albanians are as excited to see me as I am them. [OK, I staged the photo with my driver Marsel's help.]
By the way, when I leave in four days I’m headed to North Macedonia.
“North what?” my friends said. “Why?’
The answer is much easier than why I’m here in Tirana.
“Because it’s next door to Albania,” I said.
Body part A when photo present
I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.
Body part B when photo present
Editor's note: The first in a series of articles from a reporting trip to Albania Aug. 10-13, 2021.