Thoughts on transit in Albania and it’s burgeoning car industry
Summing up Albania is difficult. On one hand, it’s a rugged, arid, beautiful land with honest, heart-on-your-sleeve people. They don’t hide anything; they get visibly excited when you say yes to a hotel or restaurant, but visibly upset if you say no to say, some dude trying to sell you a bus ride to your next destination. The country is being built up again after nearly 50 years under a very oppressive, paranoid Communist regime, which cut off the country from the rest of the world. Now that the country is a running democracy, there’s lots if work to be done rebuilding its infrastructure. Some areas have taken priority. The city centres we visited we’re clean, safe, and very engaging. Outside of those centres, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Everything seems to be in transition, either being built up or torn down. This is most apparent in its transit infrastructure. Actually, what transit infrastructure? The roads for the most part are brutal, there are no bus stations, and the street corner used as the departure gate seems to change to wherever is convenient that week. No amount of research we did beforehand was of any real help once we got here. Consequently, traveling around Albania required a lot of patience, trial and error, and trying to find someone to point you in the right direction.
Therefore, with all these frustrations, I can why cars are a boom industry in Albania. The top business, outside of services, seemed to be either running a car dealership or repair shop. Car washes are everywhere. When I say they’re on every street corner, I’m not exaggerating. It seems every teenage boy finds an old building, an alleyway, or their own driveway even, and puts out a “Lavazh” sign (a la lemonade stand) and opens for business. On the “highway”, the newest, most pristinely taken care of buildings are the gas stations and car stops selling snacks, drinks, beer (?), you name it. They are gleaming beacons on the countryside. Taken care of with pride. This must be how it felt to be in the boom period of auto culture in the US in the 50s and 60s. People want to drive, and they want to drive the best vehicle they can afford, and most of the time, it’s a Mercedes Benz.
(Cue record scratch noise)
Yeah, I know. It took me a while to get used to it. Not that I was expecting them all to drive beaters, but more that the country would be dominated by small compacts like the rest of Europe. Nope. Every other car seems to be a Mercedes, and there’s every model under the sun here from the last 3 decades. Rusted 80’s troopers to gleaming, top-of-the-line sedans and SUVs. I’ve become fascinated by it, to the point that I had to do some research. I found a great New York Times article that analyses the very thing I was curious about: Why is Mercedes-Benz Albania’s favourite car?
During communism in Albania, only those granted permission were allowed to drive or own cars. So driving was mostly reserved for government officials. Once the communist government was supplanted in 1992, and Albania’s people were granted financial independence, Albania was open to the car industry. Albanian émigrés, who had fled to countries like Germany during the country’s struggles, started coming back home to visit their families. Most had found good jobs, and owned cars, which they would drive back to Albania. As a way of supporting their families, they would leave the car behind for the family to use or sell. Often, it was a Mercedes. A market developed for used Mercedes, used parts became abundant and cheap, and Albanians were drawn to them not only as a status symbol, but also because their powerful engines and rock solid suspension fared best on the brutal Albanian roads. It was somewhat of a movement. The great Mercedes migration, or something. More and more Albanian émigrés would buy a used Mercedes before heading back to visit their families, and leave it or sell it in Albania for a decent profit. There was enough money in that to pay for their trip, and give a boost to their loved ones.
As you’d expect, an underground industry developed, and many high end Mercedes ended up being imported into the country in many sketchy, quasi illegal ways. A lot of that has cleaned up, but as the country grows it’s economy, the love affair with the Mercedes has grown exponentially. Almost every cab is a Mercedes. Every other privately owned car. Minibuses, buses, you name it. The 3 point star is everywhere in Albania. Right now, it seems at odds with the developing economy, but provides an interesting contrast in an already fascinating country.
Thanks to this New York Times article for providing me with a lot of my ‘insight’:
Entering a cafe in a port town (Cesme) it’s hard to figure out who works here. There are a few people at tables, drinking tea or small cups of coffee, but no one with a uniform or behind a counter. We walk in and one of these people suddenly stands, asks what we’d like and gives us a wifi password. Later, we pay and he gets our change from a wad of bills in his pocket, then goes back to sipping his tea (cay) and enjoying the sunshine with his friends.
In Izmir, the ruins and ancient Agora are right near our hotel, so we go exploring one evening. We try to go all the way around the outer wall, but it’s clearly blocked off, so we have to go back the way we came, around a group of rough-looking guys (who now know we don’t know where we’re going). One shouts in English (either to us or to someone else, we were never really sure) “hey you! You! Where you from? Where you from?” And then, depending on who you ask, either says “you, you’re a sonofabitch” or “you, you’re a colourful peach!” Nothing comes of it; we just keep walking. Will proceeds to call me a colourful peach for days.
Prices of items are completely unguessable, or else totally malleable. A bottle of beer at a (rare) licensed establishment is 11TL (about $6). A 1.5hr air conditioned train ride to Selcuk/site of ancient Ephesus is just 5TL ($2.75). Everything in the Grand Bazaar is whatever price you can confidently offer to the vendors, apparently. Even elsewhere in the country (cities, islands, port towns) I quickly learned that almost everything is cheap, but nothing is free.
Speaking of the Bazaars, I got a cool new nickname in the more touristy parts of Istanbul. Everyone seemed to agree on it. It’s “YesPlease HowMuchThisForYou GoodPrice”. I really think it suits me.
We spend the early evenings in Istanbul sipping beers on our apartment’s ramshackle rooftop terrace, trying to figure out the minutiae of evening prayer calls (we can hear 2 or 3 different mosques from the terrace). They all start within a few seconds of each other. The bigger the mosque, the longer and more exuberant the call. The more minarets, the longer the echo distance. The scale is closest to Aeolian, with some occasional raised 7ths and most of the phrases starting on the equivalent of the 5th. And the most important: it is always offensive to try and imitate what they are doing.
Walking along the waterfront in Uskadar (Asian side of Istanbul), an older man walking near us asks where we’re from. By now I’m extremely wary of this opening line, but it turns out this guy is just a happy guy with a son around our age. We learn that he’s 60, he used to work for a Telecom company, and now he’s an independent fisherman (“Better”, he says). He drinks what he calls Fisherman Beer, Efes Xtra, the only strong beer in town (“better”).His wife is quite a bit younger than him (“better”). He used to be a radical Muslim (his words), but now he’s much more moderate, and eats and drinks beer during Ramadan (….”better”). Before we part ways, he asks if we want to go drink beer with his friends. It’s noon, but we do briefly consider it.
Looking around a small pastry shop in Beyoglu, a small boy no more than 10 years old comes out and points around the store, giving us samples and trying to ask what we’d like. We point at a few things and he weighs them. it’s more than we want to pay, so we ask him to put some back. He punches a new lower number into the calculator and shows it to us, pointing a few times. There’s still no sign of an adult anywhere in the shop. We shrug, pay the “new price”, and leave with our baklava and Turkish delight.
Visiting probably our 4th mosque in as many hours, we are accorded immediate respect for knowing “the drill”: shoes off, voices low, scarf over my head and shoulders. I feel like this is too simple, not impressive or worthy of admiration; it’s not so different from general church or museum etiquette anyway. But then I see a group of tourists, and I immediately understand. They are giggling while taking pictures of themselves pretending to pray and doing sexy poses with the mosque robes covering their shorts. I wish I was exaggerating.
Finally, leaving Istanbul from the coach station we emerge from the Metro station surrounded by ads: names of tour companies, food vendors, coach lines, bright, loud, and all with employees in front shouting for our attention. Will points out that it’s like an airport terminal, and I can’t see the connection until I look closer and see small numbers between the ads. It’s the platforms. Over 100 of them. Stuffed in behind this giant ads and all the tour guides are buses, like planes arriving and departing. I pause to wonder if Istanbuls airport could be like this, too: each airline vying for your attention with big ads and loud attendants, trying to rustle up new passengers right up until the last second. Could be fun.
The common outside perception of Athens is that it’s somewhere to see famous sites, then get out quickly and flee to the fairer ports of Greece. I can see some truth in that. The Acropolis, which includes the Parthenon, is worth all the hype. It’s breathtaking and humbling being surrounded by the origins of modern civilization. Each artifact is made of marble, and what now is dusty and weathered was once gleaming white stone. It radiates from the hill now; I could only imagine what it was like in its prime.
At the base of the Acropolis is the old town, or Plaka. While the area has some of the most beautiful architecture in the city, it’s as annoyingly touristy as anywhere we’ve been - tacky tourist shops, restaurants brashly pushing you to “take a seat”, endless throngs of people walking slowly with fanny packs. It might as well be the Magic Kingdom. I can’t believe I even made that connection. Shame on me! The ancients deserve better. I feel we owe them something. Don’t get me wrong, the Plaka is very pretty, albeit at 8am on a Monday morning while everyone is still sleeping on their cruise ships and we could wander quietly through its streets.
Outside of the Plaka, things get grittier. There’s graffiti everywhere, and each neighbourhood has an urban edge to it. People live and work here. The graffiti in Athens seems to symbolize urbanism instead of ghetto like it tends to in North America. Athens has been conquered and reclaimed many times over, and the country has been through many rebuilds, so they’ve found countless ways of expressing themselves. Despite the initial conceptions, the neighbourhoods are safe and lively, gradually relaxing as locals retreat to the cafés to drink iced espresso (insanely popular) as the daytime temperatures cool.
Almost 1 in 3 Greeks live here, most having moved here in the last 40 years, and the city sprawled quickly. Before the 70’s, Athens was 1 million people. Now, it’s population has stretched to more than 4 million, meaning 40% of Greeks live here. It’s quite overwhelming at times, the sprawl goes on forever, but the congestion lends a wonderful energy to the place once we got the hang of it. It was really fun exploring local markets, popping into a downtown resto to get souvlaki pitas to-go, grabbing a beer at the convenience stand in the middle of the city’s main square, and finding some shade to eat with Athens bustling around us. Oh ya, and Andrea has picked up how to make a killer Greek salad.