Life During Wartime--The Balkans, 1994
Pages from the Journal: Serbia, Macedonia, Albania
Tuesday October 25, 1994
TiranŽ, Shqiperia (as the Albanians would write it)
On a lark I went to the Serbian embassy. I thought there was no way I could get another transit visa because I'd have to enter through sensitive Montenegro or even more sensitive Kosovo, plus I had no through ticket, as they require in Budapest.
But, on my fourth trip there on the west side of town, after dealing with the scrum of people and false office hours, I got a transit visa! It's great news in the financial sense. Any other option (i.e., boats) is not especially cheap and then still involves a long train ride. On the other hand, it will surpass all previous records of ugliness. I'm sort of excited about the challenge of the journey, though. I may not go to Corfu, Greece after all. Some ferries have stopped running and charter flights I imagine to be minimal, if at all. The cheapest boat is from Vlore to Otranto (at the end of Italy's "heel"). That's $40. There's talk of a boat to Split and Rijeka, Croatia, but info is only available in Durres. Durres-Trieste is $122.
The consular officer in the Serb embassy was something else. You feel like you are at the feet of the Grand Emperor. He's incredibly relaxed, so serene in his power. I spoke my little Serbian, "Dober dan. Da li govorite engleski?" sparing him the rest of my Serbian which centers around food. He asked what I was doing. He asked if I was sure I don't need a visa for Hungary. He asked my occupation. After raising his voice to ask his secretary if I need to pay for a visa (no), he calmly said, "You see? It's free. We like tourists. In Yugoslavia there is no problem for tourists"--a slight pause--"as you know".
"YES! Yes, I know", I said. I tried to be calm. I didn't know if he was angling at something or not, but the moment passed and eventually I got my visa. Getting from Albania to Szeged shouldn't cost more than $50. It's good, but Montenegro?
It's a real surprise I got that visa. I never would have thought it was possible. Itís the shortest way out.
I'll miss the weather down here. It rains, but a t-shirt suffices.
Silvana--Silva, as she prefers--is a headstrong woman very proud of her country. I find that if I don't think fast, I am on the verge of saying insensitive things sometimes. She knows her country has problems, but the problems don't amount to her country as a visitor might conclude from a fleeting visit. I'm probably guilty of this more than I realize. Beginning with this perspective of pride and from other peopleís praises, I maybe look at things a bit differently. Meeting Silvana was a great thing. Her family has been wonderful to me, but even better, I'm meeting a proud native, able to explain and shed light on things I wouldn't be able to understand without living under a dictator myself. On visitors being insensitive, she said other friends have made rude comments about Albanians without probably even realizing it. I wonder how often I do.
An average teacher's salary in Albania is $30 a month. Silva makes $300 a month. Inflation is 30% a year. Unemployment is 18%. GDP is $330. (An average wage was $6/month during the Hoxha regime.) Water comes three times a day for a short time, but at least you know when it comes. In the neighborhood of Agim's, whom I met Sunday, the water comes only once at 3am. He must get up, fill buckets, etc. (Iíve had hot showers from an overhead tank.)
On that Sunday trip Agim said that an American told him once to "preserve what you have" after he saw a 9-year-old girl walking down the street carrying a loaf of bread, not a care in the world. The American said that in the city you don't see that. "Is it true?" Agim asked. I guess it is.
The other morning Silva was wearing short shorts and serving breakfast when she mentioned she was Muslim. I looked at her legs. I don't think I'll ever again hear a girl in shorts say, "I'm Muslim". She explained that she's not a practicing one. In fact she only says sheís Muslim if she has to pick a religion.
Just south of the river is the way ultramodern $70 million glass and marble pyramid, formerly the Enver Hoxha Museum. It was subsequently a disco, now it is a cultural center, or it hopes to be. When I had a look it was primarily dusty and underutilized.
Got quoted three different rates at two different post offices about sending a postcard to America.
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