COLD WEATHER, WARM HOSPITALITY
A Trip to Albania, Part 1
|Korcë Cathedral (in snow)|
In spite of a lot of bad publicity in recent years, it is a fact that Albanians are characterized in the main by friendliness to strangers and almost embarrassing hospitality. My first experience of this was before I even set out from Greece. An Albanian living in my village, no more than an acquaintance, found out I was visiting his country and immediately organized for his cousin to pick me up from Tirana airport to take me to where I could get a minibus for Korcë. Not only that, he lent me the sim card for his Albanian mobile because it would avoid the need to pay expensive roaming charges!
Having arrived safely at the minibus park, I found another surprise. Ordinary bus services in Albania are slow as the buses meander around all the villages so, for long journeys, people use the more direct minibus (fourgon) services between the larger towns. However, there is no timetable for these and they only leave when they have a full load so it was over an hour before we set out. The return trip from Korcë four days later was even more fun as we only set off after 1)waiting for more passengers, 2) driving to the Vodaphone office for one of the passengers to buy a phonecard and 3) driving round the town three times touting for customers. As with the driving, however, the system seems to work and I learned some useful lessons in patience and a slower pace of life.
Once on the minibus and heading for Korcë, I experienced two much more positive aspects of Albania. First there was the landscape. Away from the towns, it must be one of the most beautiful countries in Europe. The drive through the mountains was spectacular, with snow-covered landscapes and towering mountains. I also had the chance to experience again the friendliness and kindness of the Albanians. Two young people, Brouna and Genti, chatted with me and generally took me under their wing. Brouna, who spoke very good English, helped me order lunch when we stopped for a break and then Genti refused to let me pay for it. And this in a country where most people are still in deep poverty! When I told them why I was in Albania, the conversation turned to the Hoxha years and the current state of religion. Brouna, a Roman Catholic, said that when she had children she would name them all after angels to make up for the years when religion was banned.
Although I was expecting the first night to be cold, I was unprepared for just how cold it could get. I was staying in the Metropolitan's guest house and , being a conscientious sort of chap, I turned off the radiator when I went to bed. After I had been forced to put three extra blankets on the bed, two pairs of socks, a sweatshirt and a pullover over my pyjamas and my anorak hood on my head, I realized I might have made an error of judgement! This was confirmed next day when Vladimir, the bishop's assistant, said I was crazy and insisted that I leave the radiator on all night. This certainly improved things for the remaining nights.
Next week: I meet some of the survivors.