Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Balkans Part 2



This guy's been smoking since his ninth birthday and he’s 36. He looks 50. He drives a stolen German Mercedes 200d that's 40% bondo. He's got way too much hair on his arms and the best tan you've ever seen and he's never owned a pair of sunglasses. His squint would make Clint Eastwood blush. I’m not describing an individual. This accounts for 70% of the male population of Albania, and 20% of the female population.


We entered near a lake and spent nearly a week gorging ourselves on Albanian cuisine. Who knew it would be so good? I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Albanian restaurant, and now I know what we’ve all been missing. We passed horse pulled wagons as we buzzed the long distance on the e-scooters to buy fruits and veggies from a tented fresh market. No one speaks English and their hands are rough from the fields. The currency is colorful and extravagant in order to make up for the earth tones of their lives.

Put The History Here

Albania has a rich and deep history with many epochs of deserved pride. However, most recently there hasn’t been much to brag about. After WW2 ended, the murderous communist dictator Enver Hoxha ruled with a cruel paranoid iron fist. Albania was essentially cut off from the world from 1976 until Hoxha’s’ death in April 1985. During that time, he forced the nation to build over 173,000 bunkers. That’s almost 15 bunkers per square mile (5.7 bunkers per sq KM). You see them everywhere. Talk about paranoia. It was money that could have been better spent as the country barely had roads and not enough housing. One bunker contained enough concrete to build a 2-bedroom home. 

Photo courtesy of Marc Morell

Death On The Road

It started with. "Wow, there's some bad drivers here." it quickly became "Holy cow. These people are terrible drivers." Then it graduated to, "I think these people are worse than Peruvians". Peruvians are now the second worst, and the Colombians are in third place. Titles change hands. New champions are crowned. Congratulations Albania, you are the world's worst drivers.

"I am Albanian. I drive around looking for job..... or causing accident, whichever pay more."

In reality the common citizen could only recently afford a car and the roads were so bad up until 20 years ago that buying one would have been silly anyway. 20 years of driving is less than one generation. No one’s dad ever taught them how to drive. In fact, I don’t think anyone every taught them to drive. Somewhere, there's an Albanian waiting to pull out in front of you.


There are cities that are so breathtakingly beautiful that words can never approach the adoration that they deserve. Durres in NOT one of those places. There is no reason to go to this city other than the archeological museum. And if you go to the museum, you won’t be impressed. There are far better museums. But… Walk behind the building and see what awaits you. 

The Balkan Real Estate Market

Croatia is no longer cheap. You and I should have bought there 2 decades ago. Montenegro is soaring now as the world looks south of overpriced Croatia. We missed that real estate market too. Do yourself a favor and buy seafront land in southern Albania and hope past results reflect future trends.

The Smoking Is Out Of Control

The woman at the table next to us when I asked her if they were smokers before choosing our table: “No, but I understand you. Everyone here smokes. But here is different. In your country only the lowest of people smoke. The trash at the bottom. I know USA. I work Disney cruise line 8 years.”

Ahh - Eastern Europe.... What you save in prices, you pay for with your lungs. I've seen Spanish hams that were less cured than these faces. In almost all of the Balkans they still smoke INDOORS! It's unbelievable - restaurants, retail shops, damn near everywhere. The cashier rings me up with a cigarette hanging from his lips. Total barbarians. We used to go to the restaurants that had the best reviews but those are crowded with smokers. Now we have to preference bad empty restaurants. Can you imagine saying: “It looks good but it has a 3 star average. It’s gonna be way too smokey. We need to be looking at 2 stars.”

The black lung emphysema gag choking smokers of the Balkans love their children too

If you're begging and smoking you won’t get a penny from me. Furthermore, I would cruelly add that you deserve your poverty and ill health. That's how little I think of people who smoke. If your thing was gnawing on cyanide in the privacy of your own home, I wouldn’t say a word but your rights end when I have to breathe your smoke. Don’t hit me up for food money with a cigarette in your hand. That disgusting habit just exposed your lie.


This place might have been the highlight

A fortressed city at the top of the hill. Many people still live there. Fascinating to walk the old ramparts

The Jews

Albania is the only country in Europe that had more Jews after WW2 than before (11 times more!). Absolute Heroes! Why? Albania was the only European country with a Muslim majority and they were committed to saving their Jews even under German occupation. So, the next time someone bad mouths the Muslims or Albanians make them aware of this fact and their custom of “Besa”. 

The Muslims

I don’t know how you can sing 5 times a day, every day and still not have any rhythm or melody. It’s just this headache inducing warble.

One good thing about Muslim countries is that there isn't a lot of dog poop to step in. They are so anti dog. You don't have to worry about it.

Muslim cultures make wonderfully delicious desserts. My theory is that because they can't drink alcohol, all that energy they don't spend brewing and distilling and drinking, they put into making excellent sweets, plus they can afford the calories, because - no alcohol. 

The frequency of beards has increased with the Muslim populations. I grew one to show a little solidarity with my hosts.   I now comb my face with a toothbrush. This is literally werewolf training 101. I did this to myself in the 90’s once. There was a lot less grey. I might try it again in 30 years.

The Balkan Uniform

Sweatpants and a collared track suit top.... The Balkan uniform. All the better to criminal. I know that statistically the crime rate is incredibly low, but they are so good at looking sketchy. When worn with a beard, one instantly becomes Balkan macho. The added bonus is the ease in which you can disappear into the crowd. When your hobby is money laundering and human trafficking there's really only one respectable fashion. Once the sun sets, you can change into your “designer sweats” and show up fashionably late for your dinner reservations. No one will look at you sideways.

Test Case Albania

Albania, like the rest of the world, was Capitalist for thousands of years. Then they had Communism for 45 years and for the last 30 years they’ve been Capitalist again. In the city of Berat our host’s name was Elizabeth. She was 65 years old. She was born under Communism and was 35 when Capitalism began to return (it doesn’t happen overnight and, in the beginning, it consists of a land grab by the connected who then try to grasp how to monetize what they control from a populace that isn’t used to paying. It’s clumsy and markets aren’t quick to reveal themselves to those untrained in the art) Her family grabbed a children’s playground and rec center. Over the years they’ve turned it into a camp ground for motorhomes and backpackers. Somewhere, someone is lamenting the loss of their land, when before the communists, it was their orchard. 

“Elizabeth – was it better under communism or Capitalism?” “Under Communism we no have things! No makeup. No earrings. Only the scent of butter. Now have things but now must pay. Must pay gas. Must pay electric.” I’m not sure she was the brightest person to interview. She spent most of her time trying to trick Aleja into giving her sunglasses. 

Capitalism Vs Communism

I think if we had to distill it down to one determining factor to decide which is better: Communism or Capitalism, maybe it could be the number of patents. You can google it yourself.  The communists invent almost nothing. There's no incentive to innovate. When the very definition of their lives is uniformity and life quality equalized across the spectrum of all humanity - they aren’t trying to better lives through innovation. Redistribution yes – innovation no. Why strive when your surplus is taken from you and given to the average?

It's the antithesis of what occurs naturally with humans; where we work to improve our lives. We’ve been homo Sapiens for 300,000 years and constantly innovating. When the reward is taken away and you know that your life can't ever get better (No Tall Poppies!) than creativity stagnates. Nobody invents. Nobody is encouraged to do so. There is zero incentive. When you remove the reward system nobody wants to spend one calorie to build a better mouse trap. The proof is in the patents. We loved the Balkans under Capitalism. I doubt we would be saying the same had we visited in the 80’s.

These last 2 dispatches on the Balkans were a little challenging. I had to cover war, ethnic cleansing and long lingering hatreds, and then I threw in the lecture on economic systems for free. I do apologize. I can promise you that the next dispatch will be only positive and fluffy: Next up – SWEDEN!

Your man on point,

Captain Bobby

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