I was chillin’ in a coffee shop a while back, listening to music and reading up on some of the magazines that I’d put off during the past few months, including the latest issue of mental_floss.
If you’ve never heard of it, I really wouldn’t worry about it. It’s basically just a cutesy bi-monthly magazine for trivia lore enthusiasts, something for people who think they’re smart but probably don’t patronize those weekly bar trivia encounters (those are basically all questions about who’s fucking who on Grey’s Anatomy anyways, right?). It’s no Harper’s, that’s for damn sure.
The contents for the Nov/Dec issue include a cover story on “The New Einsteins,” nine visionaries in a variety of fields who are doing things to eventually grow organs, peer into black holes, help paraplegics to walk, etc. Plus, there’s a feature on the “cool” history of ice (“what began as a joke at a family picnic turned into a multi-billion dollar industry”), a brief history of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (which is exactly how I like my Sylvia Plath: brief)(Also, Ted Hughes = total douchebag? Discuss), and a fascinating 50 cent tour on the country of Albania, which is what I want to talk about today.
Albania is a tiny, sad little country and I thought I might share a little of what I’ve read in that issue and some of my research with you, but I’m going to do it quick and easy, in the style of one of my favorite blogs: Joeblog!
A quick aside: While looking at a clip from Wag The Dog on youtube, I noticed that one of the comments is simply “FUCK OFF albania.” Ha ha, ahhh, xenophobia, so prevalent on youtube, isn’t it? Anyways…
- Albania is located on the eastern side of the Adriatic sea, right across and almost practically under the boot of Italy, both geographically and metaphorically.
- The country’s best known leader, Enver Hoxha, is a dictator who ruled over Albania from 1944 to 1985. He closed off the country to the outside world after World War II and watched as the country slowly imploded into itself.
- The economy was still in ruins til the 1990s. You know what got it kick started again? Revolution!
- Famous Albanians? John and Jim Belushi and Regis Philbin all have Albanian roots. And then there’s Nobel laureate Ferid Murad whose discoveries are responsible for a little drug called Viagra that you may or may not have heard of.
- The country’s GDP is described by mental_floss as dismally low, but says that economists have noticed something fascinating: Pretty much all Albanians who leave their country get much richer (by who knows what means). If you could ethnic Albanians living at home and abroad, the GDP increases by 60 percent.
- I can back that up somewhat. I used to be involved with a girl with Albanian roots. Her family was loaded. Good times.
- For most of the 20th century, the capitol city of Tirana looked like any other dreary Stalinist city, but in 2000, mayor Edi Rama decided to change that…
- Rama, a former painter, realized that the city couldn’t afford a makeover, so he decided on a much more immediate solution: Literally painting the town in bright and flamboyant shades of blue, yellow, green, orange, and violet. Volunteers were recruited to turn the concrete jungle into one giant canvas. They only problem? They didn’t order enough paint.
- Good move? Who knows, but one that lasts til this day. And coupled with Rama’s economic reform and crackdown on crime, he recieved not only reelection but quite a few UN grants. And in 2004 he was named “World Mayor” by London’s City Mayors organization. And he was included in Time Magazine’s European Heroes of 2005 list.
- Back to Enver Hoxha: Wanting his people to be subject to him above all else, but trying to be a benevolent ruler, he would frequently pass out bacon to his people. During Ramadan. Despite the fact that 70% percent of Albania is Muslim. But still, he forced the people to eat it, because he expected them to worship him.
- So much so that the country’s physics textbooks were altered to say that Hoxha discovered gravity. Suck it, Isaac Newton.
- “The Chinese leaders are acting like leaders of a ‘great state.’ They think, ‘The Albanians fell out with the Soviet Union because they had us, and if they fall with us, too, they will go back to the Soviets,’ therefore they say, ‘Either with us or the Soviets, it’s all the same, The Albanians are done for.’ But to hell with them! We shall fight all this trash, because we are Albanian Marxists-Leninists and on our correct course we shall always triumph!” –Enver Hoxha.
- Today Hoxha’s statues are all gone from Albania, torn down by the people, and the largest monument built to honor him has apparently been converted to a disco.
- Albania loves America! Despite their communist background, they are one of the most pro-America countries in the world.
- Their sweet but kind of pathetic infatuation with us started in 1919 when Woodrow Wilson stopped the European powers from carving up the country during the Paris Conference. And of course, our protecting ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the 1990s didn’t hurt either. And then there’s this lovable rascal here…
- There was a massive crowd that came to visit George W. Bush when he visited the country in 2007, but after the fact video footage of the people flooding the streets captured something interesting: Someone apparently snatched the President’s watch. The country was filled with a combination of pride and dismay.
- While crime is scourge in the cities of Albania, it’s also considered a national craft. Maybe even a pastime (baseball’s just not for everyone). Popular lore says that a thief once picked the pockets of the king of Albania in a London elevator. Moments later, the King then picked the thief’s pocket before the elevator doors open. FTW!
- Lovely tourist spot you’ve never heard of: Saranda. Or, Sarandë. A gorgeous beach destination, described by The Guardian as “set to become the new ‘undiscovered gem’ of the overcrowded Med,” with claims to have some immaculately clean water. Why? Because industrial pollution was on the downward spiral after the collapse of communism in the country so the beach has remained wonderfully smog-free. Also, very few tourists know of it. (There is one tiny catch though: It’s in Albania.)
- Albania is only the second poorest nation in Europe! Choke on that poverty, Moldova.
- Related to that, you wouldn’t be able to guess how poor the Albanian people are because of the bountiful number of incredibly nice cars on their roads. But there’s a simple explanation: the cars are stolen! Like I said up above, theft is the national pastime of the Albanian people.
- It has been claimed by The Simpsons that Albania’s main export is “furious political thought” and Cheers asserted that it was “chrome,” but in reality, the chief export of the country is textiles. Which is, let’s face, much less interesting.
- There’s an Albanian Idol! The annual Festivali I Këngës, the Festival Of Songs, is an annual American Idol-type comptetition that is supposed to reflect on the mood of the nation. During Hoxha’s time, the songs were sad and depressing (Resulting in or perhaps caused by the fact that some of the performers would be killed after the competition because Hoxha disapproved of their performances). But of late, the songs have been more more poppier.
- Albania has blood feuds! Blood feuds! Only there, it’s called Gjakmarrja. It’s a regular thing there since the 15th century, having caused it not to be safe for some men, who would be targets of such feuds at times, to leave the house. So the women have to take over in the social structure, living as Avowed Virgins. They keep their hair short, dress like and take on the personas of men. They swear off sex and tend to the livestock, pray in the mens’ section of the mosques, and drink and carouse about loudly (like a man would, I guess?), and carry guns. Why? Because the men are useless and typically hiding (a sed meta comment that, right?). It sucks for the women, but it’s also a much used loophole for women forced into arranged marriages. Or if their husband abuses them (which is still acceptable according to the kanun, the medieval legal code many Albanians still follow). Here’s the actual story itself, which is absolutely fascinating.
- In 1928, Ahmet Muhtar Bey Zogolli declared himself King of Albania and then shortened his name to Zog, which means “bird” in Albanian. Some of my favorite parts in this portion on Albania was the stuff on Zog of Albania.
- Before he crowned himself king, Zog was Albania’s President from 1925 to 1928. But the people just called him King during that period because they didn’t know what a President was.
- I’m going to relay this paragraph from the bit on Zog verbatim because I love it: “Zog spent most of his reign drinking, playing poker, and antagonizing his subjects. In fact, it’s estimated that he provoked 600 blood oaths and 55 assassination attempts during 11 years in power.” Beautiful.
- Zog was good friends with Mussolini, relying on him heavily during his reign, but Mussolini eventually turned on him. But that was because Albania relied so heavily on Italy during that time (to the point that the national banks of Albania were in Rome and Italian was the language taught to children in Albania’s schools). Mussolini eventually declared Albania a protectorate of Italy and sent his army to invade in 1939.
- Fearing for his life, Zog and his family were exiled from the country. So, sensible guy that he was, Zog flet to London with suitcases filled with gold. From the article: “He and his entourage took over a floor at the Ritz, where Zog chain-smoked 200 perfumed cigarettes a day. In the evenings, he was known to telephone random rooms, just to see if any other guests wanted to talk or play cards.”
- I mention Wag The Dog earlier, directed by Barry Levinson and written by David Mamet, because it involved concocting a fake war with Albania to cover up political scandal. Now I know how truly preposterous the notion of Albania at war with anyone is.
Anyways, thanks for joining me a little journey through Albania, which has to be one of the most fascinating and sad countries I’ve ever read about. Let’s go lay on the beaches there, and get our pockets picked and maybe, if we’re lucky, get ourselves in a little of that blood feud action, what do you say?