Just to remind you: I have been in Albania, and elsewhere in the Balkans, with Congressman Eliot Engel and his posse. They have gone on to Kosovo, and I am scribbling in Podgorica. This is the capital of Montenegro, an aspiring independent nation–but more about that in a moment.
And in case we run into matters temporal, I am writing on July 6. You can’t expect Impromptus to be up-to-the-minute all the time, can you?
Now, to continue–we were talking about Albanian politics, and related subjects.
‐In his second inaugural address, President Bush used an interesting phrase: “habits of control.” He has used it in other speeches, too–and it is an excellent phrase. I believe it applies to present-day Albania.
Let me explain: Many Albanians, and Albanian Americans, complain that the “post-Communists” in Tirana really aren’t so post-. They still think like Communists, and act like Communists. They have not developed democratic ways of living, dealing, and governing. It is hard for them to shed . . . habits of control.
An excellent phrase, yes.
Mind you, I am not endorsing this view (although I strongly suspect it is true)–I am relating it.
‐Modern history’s most famous and important Albanian is Ismail Kadare, the writer. He joins our party for dinner one night–and he exudes tremendous dignity. Yesterday, I spoke of King Leka’s dignity, in his illness, in his sorrow. Kadare has a dignity as well.
And I hear a marvelous story about him. He was at some dinner in Paris, at which speaker after speaker denounced Bush, the United States, and the War on Terror. Everyone applauded, of course. And then Kadare got up to speak, saying that anti-Americanism was obnoxious, that America was shouldering the responsibility of free men and women, etc. And the same people who had applauded the earlier speakers–applauded him even more robustly.
The lesson: Sometimes people simply go along with some approved line; you may not know what they really think.
‐The U.S. ambassador to Albania, and the U.S. ambassador to (neighboring) Greece? Married to each other. Idn’t that sweet?
‐We have lunch with a group of young people working for an organization called “Mjaft.” It is a “good government” group: pro-democratic, anti-corruption. That word is Albanian for “Enough.” And that, as you know, is the slogan of the Egyptian opposition as well.
Would you like to know whom I meet at that lunch? A Russian–a Russian-born young man. Whose parents emigrated to America. Who . . . attended the same high school I did, in Ann Arbor.
Show up for lunch in Tirana, and you never know whom you’ll meet. This is too small-world for words.
‐Albania has a rugged, almost a savage, beauty. On my first visit, I thought of West Virginia’s license-plate slogan: “Wild, Wonderful West Virginia.” Well, that applies to Albania, too: As you travel through it, you see that it is wild and wonderful. And, like West “By God” Virginia, it is a mountaineer state.
‐Not that Albania is in great shape environmentally. In fact, it confirms what we–what we conservatives–have always known about the Iron Curtain countries, and about socialism generally: that it is no friend of the physical environment (as well as other environments). But just try telling that to the Sierra Club.
‐In Lezha–a largely Christian town in Albania–we see something new under the sun. At least it is new to me. I’m talking about a new monastery. Have you ever heard of a new monastery? Weren’t monasteries supposed to be new in, say, 1250? But monasteries in Albania must be new–so this one is.
‐Before I leave you, a few, necessary words about Montenegro. I don’t believe I’ve seen a more beautiful country (and I’ve been to a few). Other countries are beautiful in different ways, of course: Tahiti is beautiful in one way, Austria in another (to choose extremes–and we haven’t even cited the desert). But Montenegro, I dare say, can compete with any of them. The entire coast seems one long Amalfi Drive.
And the women/girls of Montenegro? Well, you remember how Vinnie on Welcome Back, Kotter would bite his knuckles? Think that.
Our party meets the president, the prime minister, and the foreign minister of Montenegro (at separate times). Congressman Engel & Co. are particularly concerned about the rights of the Albanian minority, which have not always been respected. And they support Montenegrin independence, just as they do Kosovar independence. And they hope that independence for Kosovo won’t make it more difficult for Montenegro to win its own independence: The “world community” might think that Serbia, that gobbler of nations, needs a consolation prize.
A young staffer of the foreign minister went to high school for a year in Ft. Collins, Colo., as an exchange student. How did he get interested in his line of work? At that school, he had a top-notch, inspiring history-and-politics teacher. What a relief that something decent has come out of American education. What a relief that an exchange program has borne a little fruit.
‐A Fourth of July party is in full swing at the American consulate in Podgorica–this despite the fact that it is July 5. What used to be Yugoslavia is down to Serbia and Montenegro, and our ambassador to that “country” holds his Belgrade Fourth of July party on July 4, and his Podgorica Fourth of July part on July 5. That seems to me a neat solution–rather than shuttling on the day itself. The lawn at Podgorica is full of happy campers, of various nationalities. Hamburgers are cooking on the grill. I don’t see any potato salad, but maybe I’m not looking hard enough.
And a swing band is–really swinging. I mean, jammin’–playing the hell out of all the standards. The musicians are from Belgrade, and the trombonist, in particular, looks like a classic Slav. He might be in an (old) encyclopedia. And these guys could stay with any band in New Orleans. No kidding. I’m sorry to have to leave, while they are still swingin’.
‐A quick word on pronunciation: Podgorica is “Podgoreetsa.” The “c” is a “ts,” as in “tsar,” or “tsunami.”
‐Our group rumbles on to Tuze, which is an Albanian town–that is, an ethnic-Albanian town in Montenegro, just across the mountains from Albania itself. The people here have grievances, and Congressman Engel and his companions wish to address them, or at least listen to them. For one thing, the people want more autonomy. And they certainly don’t want textbooks that are printed in Belgrade.
Outside the school where he is to speak, Congressman Engel is greeted like a hero. Given his attention to this area of the world, he should be.
‐In a hotel dining room later on, we notice some curious signs on the wall: One gives Vince Lombardi’s “What It Takes To Be Number One.” (And it shows a picture of the old coach.) Another features Lincoln and his “Perseverance.”
What was I saying earlier about a “small world”? We’re in Tuze!
‐Back to Podgorica for a minute: This used to be “Titograd,” and I am reminded that one of the blessings–a small blessing–of the collapse of Communism was the dropping of ugly, wrong names for the readoption of right ones.
The city is full of interesting establishments, with interesting names, and I will give you a striking one: Cuba Libre.
The traffic here can be horrendous, but in that traffic is a diverting sight: the occasional horse and cart. A marriage of the old and the new always brings a smile, somehow. Not that we wish to preserve people in a horse-and-cart era, museum-like.
Finally, a word about the Podgorica airport–a caution. Say you have a credit card, but that credit card is a Visa. You can’t use it. You can use only MasterCard or Diners Club International (I think it is called that).
Say you want to use cash instead, but don’t have enough. No worries: There is an ATM. But if you have a Visa-associated ATM card, you have worries: You can’t use the ATM; MasterCard only. You are stuck. It is Kafka-esque. Your only choice is to take an expensive taxi back into town to search out a Visa-friendly ATM. And then, of course, you have to ride back (less expensively).
I could tell you a long, long travel story, but–after much woe–I finally escape on Montenegro Air Lines. (The guy there has been very friendly and helpful.) And when I reach Zurich, a young woman at the British Airways desk sorts everything out for me. What a relief–a profound relief. Do you know what it’s like, after being trapped in Kafka travel, to find yourself in the hands of a Swiss airport clerk? Bliss. Sheer bliss. She has the brains of Einstein, and the manners of Emily Post. Pretty, too. Bliss, bliss. You could weep.
‐I will close with a last word about Albania, and its elections: The Albanians are not a likely candidate for a democratic people. They are many centuries old, but they have had hardly any self-rule, and they have just come off 45 years of the deepest, darkest, tightest totalitarianism you can imagine. Only North Korea is a rival. This was Stone Age stuff. There were no cars. In the last five years, there was almost no food. There was no contact with the outside world. Hoxha was so Communist–so pure–that he broke with the Soviets in 1968, and with the Chinese in 1978: Those governments were too liberal.
If the Albanians can achieve democracy–and they are: Don’t you think that others, even (dare I say) Arabs, can? It’s easy to say, “Those savages can never make it, or even want it.” I believe it is also wrong, and cruel.
Thanks for reading these notes. I’ll see you.