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Taking the comparative standpoint

While Albania is devising new verbal strategies to cope with the report, other countries have taken the right comparative approach in analyzing the results. Across the world mass media have had different comments on the report results. Thus, one of

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Beckham’s X5 clandestinely into Albania

By James Podles Want to drive David Beckham’s luxury BMW X5 through the streets of Tirana? You could have the chance: unless the Real Madrid midfielder claims his car from the Macedonian police, who seized it at the Albanian border

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Energy crisis at the gates

By Alba Cela TIRANA, December 2006 – Gone are the promises of the state-owned Albanian electricity supplier KESH about a crisis-free winter. Many Albanians were fooled by the serious declarations of Economy Minister Genc Ruli and KESH Executive Director Andi

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Atop Tirana

By James Podles Insulated by the Plexiglas casing, the interior of the gondola felt strangely warm and quiet on this breezy October day. As the car left the embarkation building and its speed increased, I could see the hazy outlines

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Danish sociologist’s thoughts on Albania’s past, present and future

By Alba Cela Bjoern Andersen’s first visit to Albania was in the middle of the 1970’s when he joined a group of enthusiastic Marxists form Western Europe to explore what was then a forbidden country for almost all the rest

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Forsaken Albania

By Artan Lame Albania, 1939-1943. I realise some individuals may frown a little, but that too, is history. It is a known fact that dictatorships are full of ideological meglomania and with things that distort and de-naturalise reality. In this

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Seasonal Tastings

By James Podles Last week (Nov. 23-28), the Apollonia Restaurant, at the Rogner Hotel Europapark, celebrated the peak of the fall season with a special menu created by resident chef Tobias Fritz and visiting chef Robert Pressinger (of the Rogner

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Wintering in Saranda

By James Podles I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started my new job at a radio station in the southern town of Saranda last winter: I knew that the town was near Greece, and that the beaches

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Forsaken Albania

By Artan Lame Vlora, June 1920. The Albanians, who forgot to take a camera with them, the day they proclaimed Independence in 1912, naturally were to forget again, eight years later, when, at the beginning of June 1920, they began

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“Old Bread”

By Charlotte Morgaine Strolling through the little side streets, tucked away in between the new high rise apartment blocs, constructed on amazingly small sections of land, in the old neighborhood of the city where we used to live years ago

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                    [post_content] => While Albania is devising new verbal strategies to cope with the report, other countries have taken the right comparative approach in analyzing the results. Across the world mass media have had different comments on the report results. Thus, one of the main newspapers in Greece, Kathimerini reports that Greeks are eight times more likely to pay a bribe than the average Western European according to the TI report. The newspaper emphasized that in Europe, only Albania and Romania had a higher percentage of people answering yes to "a bribe" than Greece. Kathimerini compares the 17 percent of Greece's corruption to the average 2 percent of the same figure in Western Europe. The report indicates that among EU countries Greece and the Czech Republic have major problems when it comes to corrupt police forces. It also indicated that Greeks rank political parties to be the most corrupt organizations, followed by the mass media and the armed forces as the least corrupt. LA Times, concludes that corruption has a global foothold and that bribery is most common in Africa, where an average of 36% of those surveyed said had paid a bribe in the last 12 year. The article, though, does not fail to mention that Albania is to be considered the top offender. North America had the lowest incidence of bribery, with 2% of respondents saying they had paid a bribe. The global dimension of the phenomenon was also indicated by Robin Hodess, policy and research director at Transparency International who said "corruption has infiltrated public life and burrowed in."
                    [post_title] =>  Taking the comparative standpoint 
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                    [post_content] => By James Podles
Want to drive David Beckham's luxury BMW X5 through the streets of Tirana? You could have the chance: unless the Real Madrid midfielder claims his car from the Macedonian police, who seized it at the Albanian border two weeks ago, the armor-plated SUV, stolen in the Spanish capital last April, will be sold at public auction. 
Such incidents do absolutely nothing to improve the commonly-held image of Albania as the car-theft capital of Europe. Although most foreigners' perception of the automobile industry in Albania begins and ends with this stereotype, the country has a unique and tangled historical relationship with the car. From the Communist era, during which cars were reserved as the sole privilege of high-ranking Party Officials; to the neo-liberalism of the early 1990s, when borders and markets were opened to a huge influx of foreign goods, both legal and illegal; to the present time, in which international manufacturers and distributors have established a small yet growing base in the country, the Albanian automobile market has been intertwined with and often mirrored the country's political and economic development.

"Like Letting a Bull Loose in the Streets"
During the Communist era, private cars were unheard of. Driving was reserved for party officials; before 1991, there were only about 600 cars in the entire country, most of them Russian GAZes and Polish Warszawas. People relied on utterly unreliable buses to travel between towns and around cities. After the liberalization of the early nineties, cars from neighbouring countries began to flood into Albania. The impact of such a sudden inrush of vehicles into a country with no traffic signals, vehicle registration, modern highways, or even driver's licenses (not to mention a total absence of drunken-driving laws) dramatically changed the social landscape of the entire country, nowhere more so than in Tirana.
In the years before the opening of the border and the loosening of economic and mobility constraints, all of the city's public social interactions were centered around the xhiro, or evening walk. Romance and intrigue, business and social interactions: everything took place between six and nine in the evening on the boulevard stretching from Sk쯤erbeg Square to the University of Tirana. The xhiro was, for the entire city, the axis around which social life revolved; the xhiro offered freedom. 
The arrival of the first cars on the boulevard created a pandemonic disruption of the xhiro. Pedestrians were unsure how to act towards these intruders; drivers were unsure of how to treat pedestrians. Vehicles tried to act like pedestrians, threading their way through clusters of people; people tried to ignore vehicles as they encroached on the previously pedestrian-only space.
This disruption proved to be the beginning of the end of the institution of the xhiro. Pedestrians, finding their social space disturbed, began to move into the newly-opened caf곮 As more cars arrived, more caf고opened, and more pedestrians left the boulevard for the safety of the coffee houses. Eventually, the balance of the social mass tipped far enough towards the caf고that the displacement and eventual disappearance, of Tirana's xhiro was inevitable. This disappearance was perhaps the most sharply evident manifestation of the speed at which the sudden entry of the automobile into everyday life changed Albanian society.

"Your Car is Already Here"
After the country's borders were opened to imports, a flood of Western European cars began to cross into Albania. Some of these were legally imported by authorized car dealerships. Some were traded on the so-called grey market: bought outside of the country and driven back to Albania, these vehicles were then sold by one individual to another, avoiding taxation. The great majority, however, were black-market automobiles stolen in Western Europe and smuggled across the border.
As the years passed, the black market became more sophisticated and more deeply entrenched. Stolen-car dealers printed catalogues of their merchandise ("ordering" a popular car like a Fiat only took a day or two; a rarer vehicle like a Porsche might take a few weeks to arrive). In 1999, the then-Minister of Public Order's car was impounded as stolen property as he tried to cross into Greece to attend a conference on cross-border crime. A system of collusion was developed: cars (complete with keys and legal papers) were "stolen" in Germany and other Western European countries, then driven to Albania for no-questions-asked re-registration, allowing the cars' original owners to claim compensation from their insurance companies. While a national vehicle registration was eventually introduced, checking a vehicle's VIN against the European database of stolen cars was not (and still is not) part of the process. Stolen cars could effectively disappear.
At the same time, however, legal automobile dealers began to set up establishments in Albania. The company which would become Mercedes-Benz Auto Star was founded in 1991 by Basri Rruka; it was the first or one of the first private companies in the country. Originally an importer of household appliances and American tractors, in 1996 it was granted the exclusive rights to import Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Other entrepreneurs soon followed suit.
Presently, legal dealerships still have only a small section of the market. Although statistics are, of course, inexact, car dealers state that informal sales still account for a significant proportion of the new car sales in Albania. For example, of all the BMWs that entered the country in 2006, says BMW Sales Manager Altin Zhurda, his company imported only 13%. Even after taking into account legally owned cars which are sold from one individual to another, he still estimates that black-market transactions make up the majority of sales of new BMWs.

Mercedes-Benz Auto Star estimates that only 2.5% to 3% of the 142,000 Mercedes which have entered the country have passed through his dealership, rather than the desired 25%-30%. It should be noted, of course, that these figures deal only with the sales of new cars and do not take into account the thriving used-car market.
Competition with the black market is such a major problem that the Albanian Association of Legal Car Dealers (Shoqata e Distributor췥 Ligjor롴롍akinave t롒eja n롓hqip쳩) has petitioned the government (most recently, the offices of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, Minister of the Interior Sokol Olldashi, Minister of Finance Ridvan Bode, and Minister of Transport and Telecommunications Lul컩m Basha) to address this crisis. The Association, headed by Z. Rruka, has written several letters calling the government's attention to the various ways in which the presence of such a large black market affects the country: illegal car sales not only throttle the development of the legitimate automobile industry, but also cost the state at least 60 million in lost taxes on the 400-million market. Additionally, the prevalence of uninspected, unregulated automobiles contributes greatly to the country's high level of air pollution (approximately 10 times higher than the European standard) and contributes negatively to international perceptions of Albania. The association estimates that up to 95% of Albanian vehicles are traded on the black market at prices anywhere from 50% to 20% of their real market value.
To reduce the presence of this black market, the association suggests the creation of an administrative unit which would act as a liaison between the government and the automotive industry, allowing them to combine and co-ordinate their resources and efforts. Additionally, it emphasizes the urgent need for the government to create and strictly enforce regulations for the automotive market, as it has for other consumer markets (alcohol, tobacco, technology, and so on). The association points out that while any type of collusion between government employees and automobile smugglers exists, especially with regard to the re-registry of foreign automobiles, it remains impossible to stem the flow of black-market cars into the country. Although Albanian legitimate car dealers have invested in bringing their companies up to European standards, and are perfectly able to meet the demands of the market, further growth will be difficult if competition from the informal market remains so strong, states the association.

Growth of an Industry
While the market for new, legally obtained vehicles is still relatively small compared to the rest of Europe, it has exhibited slow but steady growth within recent years. And as consumers' ability to legally buy competitively priced vehicles grows, the cheaper but riskier market for illegally obtained cars is slowly but steadily shrinking. Mercedes-Benz, according to Z. Rruka, sold 80 cars in 2004, a number which increased to 210 in 2006. Similarly, sales of legally imported BMWs nearly doubled over the same period of time. 
One factor which has aided the growth of the legitimate market is the relatively new possibility of obtaining cars on credit rather than by paying cash. Since 2000, Albanian banks have offered automobile loans to their customers. Presently, lease agreements, made either through banks or through car dealerships' leasing departments, account for anywhere from 50% (in the case of Peugeot) to 90% (in the case of Mercedes-Benz) of sales. As lease and lease purchase agreements both bring car ownership within the financial reach of more consumers and bolster the perception that new-car ownership is both feasible and affordable, they have been a major cause of the increase in new-car sales. 
Legitimate dealers also stress the reliability of their products compared to that of dubiously-obtained cars. The immediate savings involved in purchasing a black- or grey-market car may seem attractive to buyers: a new BMW, according to Z. Zhurda, can cost over 30,000 after taxes, while the same model can be bought on the black market for half of that amount. The Association of Legal Automobile Dealers estimates an even greater gap between real and black-market value, writing that vehicles worth from 60,000 to 80,000 can be bought for 15,000. Legitimate dealers, however, point out that these lower prices can be a false saving, as the cars come with no guarantee quality, no warranty, and no service agreement.
Automobile companies are currently focusing on marketing the brands and models that are best-suited to the often unique automotive environment of Albania. BMWs (especially X5s and the larger sedans) are highly sought-after, as are Mercedes-Benz sedans; both of these brands are known for their reliability under rough conditions. The condition of Albania's infrastructure, unfortunately, often imposes limitations on the types of cars which can be successfully sold in the country. General Motors is reluctant to ship diesel-engined cars to Albania due to concerns that using Albanian diesel, which often varies widely in quality, could damage its new, more technologically advanced models, voiding their warranties, says Valbona Shkopi of Opel-Chevrolet Noshi. The Porsche Group, according to brand manager Eno Turku, forgoes importing relatively fragile Lamborghinis into the country, concentrating rather on marketing ˫odas, Audis, and Seats as better suited to the rugged conditions of Albanian roads (while the company does not sell Porsche-brand cars at its showroom, it will order them on request; not surprisingly, the four-wheel-drive Cayenne is the most commonly ordered model).

The Future
The automotive industry has, by now, become solidly established in Albania. All of the major international car manufacturers have representatives in Tirana; nearly all of them are independent of their parent companies and are run completely by Albanian managers. Many of them have expanded or are planning to expand beyond the capital to meet the needs of growing markets elsewhere in the country. Mercedes-Benz, the most well-established importer, has branches across the country, from Durr쳠to Gjirokastra, and plans to expand to cities like Vlora, Shkodra, and Kor衮 The Porsche Holding Group, whose brands include Audi, Seat and the newly-introduced ˫oda, plans to open branches in Elbasan and Fier in 2008. Volkswagen, Peugeot and Renault-Nissan dealerships have also been established in Tirana. New car models are being introduced to the Albanian marketplace: ˫oda will launch 3 new models (including the Roomster and a new version of its popular Octavia) next year; Peugeot recently introduced the 207 and plans to begin selling the 206 in December 2006 or January 2007, says Sales and Marketing Manager Genard Zela.
This year's loosening of import regulations and the elimination of customs duties for European automobiles has provided another area of opportunity for growth. Small-scale entrepreneurs can now privately import cars for resale within the country. These entrepreneurs, who are able to operate without the overheads of the large-scale dealers, can provide a legal source of low-priced vehicles. Additionally, they can operate in a more decentralized way than can the major dealerships (which are all based in Tirana); needing no more facilities than a parking lot or even just a piece of roadside, they are able to easily sell low-priced cars anywhere in the country. An informal "network" of these entrepreneurs may prove to be a major factor in eventually supplanting the black market.
The future growth of the Albanian automobile industry depends, perhaps more so than any other industry, on the political and economic realities of the country. While current market trends exhibit a steady (albeit fairly slow) growth, sales of new, legally imported cars still make up a small percentage of the market compared to those of other countries in the region (Z. Zela estimates that 70% of car sales in Albania involve used cars, compared to an average of approximately 10% in the rest of the Western Balkans). The major obstacle to further growth is, as noted, the prevalence of black-market sales; legitimate car dealers, however, have expressed an attitude of cautious optimism, hoping that, as connections between Albania and the European Union are strengthened, government corruption, especially corruption related to the importation of vehicles, will decline. Additionally, as standards of living and average incomes rise, car dealers hope that the purchase of black-market vehicles will lose its attraction and will be supplanted by the purchase of legitimately acquired imports. In the next few years, they expect that car smuggling will be relegated to the status of a minor problem.
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                    [post_content] => By Alba Cela
TIRANA, December 2006 - Gone are the promises of the state-owned Albanian electricity supplier KESH about a crisis-free winter. Many Albanians were fooled by the serious declarations of Economy Minister Genc Ruli and KESH Executive Director Andi Beli that Albania has the right combination key of imports and local production to go through the iron gates of winter without an economic stagnation or a business paralyze like that of last year. Power shortages have started to plague the country from the rural zones that suffer the longer hours to key strategic points like the port of Durr쳠whose activity was frozen for more than 24 hours last weekend. The situation is still going to get worse. The entire West Balkans region expects further difficulties given the gradual but definitive closing of the Bulgarian nuclear plant Kozloduy upon the country's successful acceptance in the EU this January. This makes the prospects of importing from the region quite bleak. In mid-October there was an announcement that a power line with the capacity of 400kv will be built according to the latest memorandum of agreement between Albania and the UN-run Province of Kosovo. Kosovo's energy ministry published a feasibility study determining the connection sites of the line. According to this publication the power plant Kosova B, located near Prishtina, would be connected to the sub-station of Kashar, near Tirana, realizing thus an important amount of energy exchange.  The hydroelectric unit of Vau i Dejes would be the most important transition point of the line. 250.2 kilometers of power lines would have to be built out of which the majority will be in Albania. The first segment of the line, which would run from Kosova B to Vau i Dejes, would cost $ 64 million. The line though has no energy to transport. The winter has not yet shown his bare teeth and Albanians are already consuming by loads. Excessive consumption should not surprise anyone give the country's lack of alternative ways for heating and cooking. Natural gas still remains unpopular. What should we expect? The alarming roars of power generators scattered in Tirana that make it resemble Baghdad during the bombardments? The dark and cold nights spent at home wrapped in a blanket counting the hours until our quarter is allowed to have its ration of electricity? Fear the blocking of the elevators? The freezing of activity at our job places? Our work documents at the constant threat of being lost due to malfunctioning computers? Sure the government is stepping in to patch up the wounds with threadbare bandages. After failing to procure a single provider for its imports KESH has finally decided to buy from five different ones. Director Beli is spending more hours airborne traveling throughout the region from Greece to Slovenia to beg for some energy. There is no need to blame one person for having inherited one of the less-functioning companies in the country. No later than Thursday he produced a statement that we need 7-8 million KWh imports per day to overcome the situation. There is also a sincere hope and good-will that he succeeds. But how realistic can these solutions be faced with the long-standing unsustainable situation. Relying in hydropower plants has just worsened the dependency on unpredictable factors like weather. Plans to build thermo-power plants abound but have still to be realized.  Meanwhile the relationship between KESH and its consumers runs along traditional hostility lines. One example: In an angry note last month KESH warned consumers in Shkodra not only to pay their money but also to take care of the materials used from KESH to rehabilitate their network. A KESH statement angrily denounced theft of the cable used by a Croatian company to install a 110 KW new line for the northern city with a total investment of 11 million Euro. The statement said stealing 12 meters of the cable used for the system was threatening the continuation of the project from the Croatian company. The corporation publishes daily the list of the consumers, be they individuals, private or public companies that have not paid their duties for the power consume. It is impressively negative though how it is treating the starting crisis with no transparency and accountability whatsoever. Continuous declarations to the media blame technical problems and power-line amortization when it is quite obvious that the shortages are far from being irregular but start and finish at determined hours. Certainly the distribution system needs an upgrade and often it is responsible for electricity deprivation. 
KESH also presented this week a proposal to overturn the reduce in prices for business customers , overturning the promise of Prime Minister Berisha who boasted long ago about supporting the business community with favorable energy prices. Foreign owned businesses are threatening to close up their investment projects in case the situation does not change. The good old economics laws are in rule. Price does not matter is supply can not be guaranteed. Nevertheless, the current situation is much more structural. It is inherited from long years of mismanagement and lack of investment in the energy sector despite annual crisis.
All eyes are still glued to media to watch the latest carnival-style local elections with colorful coalitions changing shape in miraculous fashion. With the upcoming longer hours of deprivations perhaps Albanians will finally find the time to reflect and react to the deep structural handicaps that condition their lives. Yet there is no guarantee. Political developments still constitute the major concern of the local constituency. A recent survey concerning integration has shown that Albanians see their future tied up to political developments even when it comes to integration. There are those officials of KESH who repeat the mantra of repairs as the cause of shortages, unable to accept their own failure. And then there are those who can not be fooled easily and that unfortunately take justice upon their own hands like the villagers of Bitincke, deprived of power for an average of 16 hours per day who threaten to block the road that leads to the Kapshtica customs office, a major border point with Greece. To sum up the energy crisis is at the gates and unless a structural reform overhauls the entire energy sector this will not be our last winter of discontent. KESH is already planning to rely on imports next year fro nothing less than the substantial 2.206 million MWh.
                    [post_title] =>  Energy crisis at the gates 
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                    [post_content] => By James Podles
Insulated by the Plexiglas casing, the interior of the gondola felt strangely warm and quiet on this breezy October day. As the car left the embarkation building and its speed increased, I could see the hazy outlines of the city sinking below me. After passing over haystack-covered farms, rocky cliffs, and a flock of ducks feasting on an algae-covered pond, the cable car finally dropped me off at a broad outcropping on the slopes of Mt. Dajti. I had reached Dajti Park, just east of and over a kilometer above Tirana, by way of the Dajti Express cable car (or teleferik).
Dajti was established as a national park in 1966, and the original Dajti cable car, used almost exclusively for transporting goods rather than people, was built by the government in the 1970s. This fell into disrepair, however, and it was not until 2001 that the teleferik was rebuilt, this time by a group of investors headed by Z. Muhamet Malo, president of the television channel Telesport, who now owns 96 percent of the company. The new cable car, built by the Austrian company Doppelmayr, opened in July of 2005; since then it has been carrying tourists year-round, with a maximum capacity of 360 people per hour (the imminent addition of ten more cars will bring the number up to 540 per hour). 
The ride up the mountain takes about 15 minutes (as opposed to between 30 minutes and an hour of driving). The cars are outfitted with wind sensors that automatically adjust the speed of the cable to anywhere between 0.3 m/s to 6 m/s in response to the speed of the wind (and can even, under extreme conditions, bring the whole mechanism to a halt, if necessary). On gusty days, it can take slightly more time to travel the nearly four-and-a-half kilometers between the bottom of the lift (located near the Institute of Nuclear Physics, east of the city centre) and the mountain.
The ride itself was, for me, reason enough to travel to the top of the mountain, but the Dajti Express Company plans to further integrate the lift complex into the park itself, developing the area to be more attractive for weekend-long (or longer) vacations rather than simply for day trips. The company is currently concentrating on the area around the landing spot: by next summer, it plans to have built a hotel, complete with pool and restaurant, next to the top of the lift. The president's son, Z. Klajdi Malo, told the Tirana Times that within the next two years, the company plans to have landscaped the surrounding areas, adding a network of trails for hiking and horseback riding, as well as a ski slope (served by a smaller, auxiliary lift). By drawing both Albanian and foreign visitors to the park, Z. Malo hopes that Mt. Dajti will become firmly established as a year-round tourist attraction in and of itself.
Dajti Express is considering eventually building a larger hotel, possibly including a casino and spa, as well as more ski slopes, said Z. Malo. While the company plans to finish the developments at Dajti before building any more cable cars, it is also working on a similar system in Llogara National Park, in the southern part of the country. Located between the cities of Vlora and Saranda, the Llogara cable car would traverse one of the sharpest climactic contrasts in Europe, rising from the sea-level beaches to the top of the mountains.
Since the opening and subsequent success of the Dajti Express, cable cars, an ideal form of transport for Albania's mountainous landscapes, have begun to spring up all over the country. Here in Tirana, the cable provides a quick, easy, and relatively inexpensive (500 leke for a round-trip ticket) way to escape the heat and dust of the city; elsewhere, the concept is being adapted to the differing needs and environments of each locale. For example, four or five new lifts are planned for the Korca area alone; these will provide much-needed transport for skiers, who at the moment must walk up the mountain should they want to ski down it. These lifts will most likely be open chairlifts, rather than gondolas, in order to speed skiers' entry and exit. Other lifts are planned for the towns of Berat and Kruja: the latter's will connect the castle with the town's eighteenth-century teq련Bektashi Muslim temple).
Dajti Park is still occupied in part by a military base: should you take the left-hand road from the drop-off point (as I initially did), you'll be stopped by a drawing of a rifle-wielding soldier warning you (luckily for me, in both Albanian and English) not to enter the military zone. The right-hand road leads you into the public zones of the park, winding through the forested mountainside and along the cliffs. A herd of horses roams seemingly freely, although I hear that you can ride one around the park for a couple hundred leke per circuit. 
Much of the edge of the mountainside road is overgrown with forest: I had to walk for close to half an hour before I finally reached a clear view of the valley below. Had it been a clear day, I could have seen all the way across the city; as it was, the clouds and haze obscured all but the outlines of a distant lake. The buildings of Tirana itself were barely visible, obscured beneath a blanket of smoke and dust. 
On my return to the Mt. Dajti teleferik, I discovered the downside to all of the construction and renovations taking place on the mountain: the lift was being used to transport building materials to the top of the mountain. I had to wait half an hour in the park until the workmen could take a break from repaving the landing spot and the cars could be restarted. Still, the dramatic descent down the craggy mountain face made up for the wait.
                    [post_title] =>  Atop Tirana 
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                    [post_content] => By Alba Cela
Bjoern Andersen's first visit to Albania was in the middle of the 1970's when he joined a group of enthusiastic Marxists form Western Europe to explore what was then a forbidden country for almost all the rest of the world. Then, in 2003, after participating in an international conference in Tirana about religious tolerance he decided to come back every year. He agreed to confess to Tirana Times his observations, talk about the big differences between the situation in the middle of the 1970's and the situation by now, and disclose some of his plans related to a seminar he is planning about the figure of Skenderbeu. 

Albania, then and now
I have always met an overwhelming hospitality and some nice curiosity. In the middle of the 1970's borders were closed in both directions. Only high-ranking officials and specialists, or people on guided tours were allowed to visit from Western Europe and the United States. Anyways, back then,  I got some good impressions from different parts of the country - Kor衬 Elbasan, Tirana, Durr쳠and Shkodra - and from different sectors: the factories, the cooperatives and the state-farms - and from a very little private market as well. Now, the country has opened its borders in many respects. It is really good, even when some very important problems are appearing too: illegal emigration, heavy crime related to drugs, trafficking and smuggling - and corruption at different levels. In the Northern parts of Europe from where I come we are not at all happy with these sinister aspects of the open borders, we do not accept either the quantity or the "quality" of crime. To my opinion the crime presents an important hindrance when speaking about the possible Albanian membership of the European Union. 

Positive changes
One of the really good things is the improvement of the free debate and the improvement of printed and air borne media. Some of your newspapers have developed considerably in quality and the education of journalists has improved too. The debate has improved considerably in quantity and quality through the years. For example I have observed a long and sincere discussion about your great writer Ismail Kadar鮠Some Danes know Kadar鬠actually one of his books - "The Successor" - was published just recently and got very good commentaries in newspapers. The Danish-Albanian Association 'Miq촩a' has just invited Kadare to visit Denmark and to give a lecture, hopefully he will find the time in 2007. The discussion between Rexhep Qosja, Drit쳯 Agolli and Ismail Kadare, three different and very skilled writers with different approaches to the Albanian past, strikes me as positively serious. I am grateful to Shaban Sinani who has published his very important studies about the "Kadare archives". Just recently a special edition came out in French together with a very good interview by St걨ane Courtois. I will recommend that edition and the interview to everyone interested in the works of Kadare and in his artistic interpretation of Albanian history. Hopefully, the interview will appear in Albanian, English and Danish as well.
I am not at all an expert in politics, and I can only speak on my own behalf, but on the one hand I have observed impressing and very good steps concerning elections and political working together in certain matters. Now you will only find a few examples of the type of boycotting parliamentary work. On the other hand, the nation would benefit quite a lot, if the politicians forgot - from time to time at least - to get and to obtain power. Politics is very much about such issues, so I will not recommend a na෥ approach - nevertheless things would be much better if the politicians focused much more on real issues: economy, exports, security, corruption, infrastructure, education and health-care.

Observations about economy
Obviously your economy has improved during the last years. But still there is a very high trade deficit. The imports are - compared with the exports - tremendously high. The exports are - to a certain extent at least - improving, but it is not so easy to find good markets. I understand that you meet a lot of obstacles. Often you have to import electricity, especially when the quantity of electricity from the rivers is too little to meet rising demands; you have to buy some commodities abroad, cars for instance - but you could meet much more of the internal demands pretty well with Albanian commodities,  especially if quality or design was improved. Your dairy commodities are better in quality , good milk, good cheese etc. You are also very good in vegetables, especially you have the opportunity of exporting early tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and the like. You are very good at grapes, but many other regions in the Adriatic and the Balkans are highly productive and cost-effective. Also, you are wine-producers, but there is a reason why even Albanians prefer to drink wine from other countries. To my opinion Albanian wine - in general - is not meeting the European market standards. If you will stay in the market or even get a better position, you will have to do something seriously, I am afraid. Anyway, you have an advantage, I think: You are not using fertilizers that much, and therefore you possibly can get a good position in the market of organic vegetables and herbs. Obviously, you will have to improve in organizing exports and in marketing.
You have a big informal - or black - economy. To some extent it is about trading between acquaintances and friends, hard-crime money is involved and this definitely is a serious question for the police and other authorities. 
Definitely, this is not only an Albanian problem, a black economy has developed in countries like Denmark too - especially when hiring workmen and service-people, possibly because the taxes in Denmark are considerably higher than in Albania. The big informal or black economy is somehow a catalyst, nevertheless you do not get taxes from it, therefore you are in a shortage of money to invest in infrastructure, education, health-care and the like, and that is a serious problem, since education is a prerequisite for  economic and social development.

Suggestions:

1. Military spending
You could consider, I think - and in that point I definitely disagree with many Western governments - to lower the costs in the military sector and to use the money to improve the more in other sectors? Do you have any serious enemies by now? I do not think so. Then why do you not leave it to bigger countries to secure the region militarily and instead use your money to solve your problems?

2. Infrastructure
As mentioned before I have been visiting the Burrel area, actually both this year and last year. The roads in Burrel city are under reconstruction, and that is very good. Outside Burrel, in the village areas, for example in Uraka, the roads are pretty bad and the bridges are either missing or not good enough. Here you are facing some sort of a paradox. When the roads are in a poor condition, when the bridges are missing, you could assume that the people would stay behind the 'bars'. But, as you know, the opposite happens. The 'bars' or 'walls' are somehow one-sided; they are hindering visits from the outside, they are hindering the villagers from working in the cities in the daytime - or hindering them in bringing commodities to and from the local markets. The government, I would suggest, and the regional authorities should consider to change priorities, that is to move more money to the villages. Otherwise, more and more villagers, especially the younger ones, will move to the cities - worsening the situation there - or to countries abroad - legally and illegally. When I visited the mountains in the Mat-region, I met many very nice, diligent, hard-working people, shepherds and peasants. If the roads in Uraka were bad, the roads in these mountain arrears were a real challenge. You could only approach by an off-roader or by foot. How do you think these nice people should sell their sheep, their cheese, and their nuts to the city markets or even to export it? They need support. Without good roads and modern facilities they cannot attract foreign tourists to these very beautiful places.

3. Traffic
I have met many very good drivers in Albania, drivers who manage as good musicians, to "listen" to each other and in that way they are helping the traffic to flow. But there are many bad drivers who do not have proper manners, who do not know of musicality. A very nice lady told me that she was pushed to act in traffic as an aggressive male, because if she did not she would not be allowed to drive from a smaller road into a bigger. It seems like the most important instruments in an Albanian car are the steering-wheel, the mobile phone, the speeder and the horn. Not many are using the seat-belts, some tires should be renewed immediately, and a lot of drivers should learn to slow down. Last year I observed a fast Mercedes running directly towards a car from the other direction with full speed macho. Full speed macho is an awful cocktail you do not have to export. Again, if you are dreaming of attracting foreign tourists, some Albanians have to improve considerably in the music of traffic.

Current visit and future plans
This time I have been doing three things: I have visited the Burrel area and the high mountains in the Mat-region, I have had meetings about a possible Scanderbeg-seminar in November of this year and I have had other meetings with some journalists and sociologists. One afternoon I visited the book exhibition in the Pyramid. I knew already that the Albanian publishers are producing a huge quantity of books and many of them seem to be of high quality. I was quite happy to visit the stand of the Miqjeni Publishing House. The director, Angjelina Ceka, who I met briefly in Copenhagen earlier this year - recommended the book of her husband, Neritan Ceka, about the Illyrians and the Albanians. Now, the book has been published in a very nice English edition, which I am going to read pretty soon. My meetings about the Scanderbeg-seminar went pretty well. All I have met, at the Albanian embassy in Copenhagen, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the Danish Embassy as well have been very supportive. I have arranged with Genc Myftiu, who is in charge of SEDA and experienced in promoting Albanian history and culture,  that he will do what has to be done in organizing the seminar, and he will very soon contact Albanian historians and philologists and authorities as well. In spring 2007 I will visit Tirana once again to participate in the planning and organizing.

A memory about Albania in the 1970's
When visiting Albania in the middle of the 1970'es one 5-year plan was to be finished and a new one was on the sketch board. A quick comparative study in the original old plan and in the reports about the results - especially in the agricultural sector - made me curious since there was a big discrepancy. The results were considerable lower than the estimates. What could the reasons be? Most possibly, I thought, the original plan was built upon wishful thinking. At first I asked our Albanian guides, a teacher and two young students. The teacher suspected me, I think, to be an enemy beneath a friendly surface, so I told him that I was quite sincere and definitely not an enemy to the Albanians. He called for a party-secretary when we visited a cooperative in the Shkodra area, but the nice man was not able to explain why the outcome was so much lesser than the estimate-figures and went away a little angry, I am afraid. Some days later professor Harilla Papajorgji, a big shot in planning business, appeared, gave e lecture about Albanian economy and social structure and also took questions. I put my question to him. At first everything went quite well, but since he in fact did not explain the discrepancy, I asked once again - and definitely as politely as I could. Then he suggested bad weather as the cause. OK, weather is always up and down, but I did not know of troubles of particular size of the kind in the previous years - and said it to him. Then there were no more space for questions. Our guides asked all to leave, and afterwards I got a reprimand in quite harsh words from the Danish tour leader (a real Marxist-Leninist) for offending Albanian hospitality! In the evening I asked the other Danish tourists whether they would like to participate in a discussion on the beach. Actually we had a nice and friendly discussion for an hour or two about Albanian economy, problems deriving from inside the country and abroad, planning issues and the political situation in general; that is, the Danish tour-leader and some of the other Marxist- Leninists, mostly "Chinese" to my recollection, kept away. Home again I concluded that Albania - may be - was on the track to prosperity, that the Albanians - may be - really wanted a political system like what they had, but also that something had turned completely wrong since an open-minded and free discussion was a prerequisite for a modern society.

                    [post_title] =>  Danish sociologist's thoughts on Albania's past, present and future 
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                    [post_content] => By Artan Lame
Albania, 1939-1943. I realise some individuals may frown a little, but that too, is history. It is a known fact that dictatorships are full of ideological meglomania and with things that distort and de-naturalise reality. In this context, fascism not only was no exception to the rule, but it was avantguard in this respect. Even worse, afetr it had been imposed on its own people, it was then imposed on another people, via invasion, and here this megolamania reaches the propostions of the absurd. All of this, fermented into an environment which was Albanians, full of life contrasts and centuries old opportunism, naturally created the terrain for all this to become surreal and ridiculous.
In photo 1 you can see Count Cianno, the son-in-law of Mussolini during a visit he paid to Saranda. The building behind is Customs, where in the 80-ties of the 19th Century, Naim Frasheri had worked and which the Italians re-built from its foundations. On the window you can see the slogan which reads, "Long Live Il DUCE , Albania's Saviour." 
In photo 2, you can see teh slogans being carried in an anti-Greek demonstration in Tirana in August of 1940. Naturally, due to the fact that we were incapable of liberating Kosovo and Chameria ourselves, then we showed our patriotism hoping that either Duci or Hitler would do the job.
In photo 3, you can see an Arch of Triumph in the shape of the letter "M" for Mussolini, built in Korca in 1941. The words in Italian say, "CIANNO-TELL IL DUCE TYHAT KORCA AWAITS HIM." 
In photo 4, you can see a demonstration on teh occasion of the visit of Victor Emanuel the third to Shkodra in 1941. The words on the banderola carried by several highlanders, carrying axes, are a quote of Mussolini's: "I LOVE TREES, I WILL HELP YOU DEEFEND THEM."
In photo 5 you can see a group of youing Albanians wearing the uniforms of the Albanian Fascist Youth. One of the slogans reads, "LONG LIVE THE IMPERIAL QUEEN," REFERRING TO Helena, the wife of King Victor-Emanuel the third. The other slogan reads, "MAY THE CROWN OF GREATER ALBANIA BE YOURS ETERNALLY"
The slogans in photo 6 are the more profound. This is about a spontaneous rally of inhabitants in Tirana against the repression of the people of Chameria by Greece. One of the placards reads, "THE ENGLISH MUST LEAVE THE CIVILIZED WORLD," in other words the Albanian of 65 years ago defined who the civilised world was and shows the English where they should go. "ORDER US IL DUCE"  is another slogan. "LONG LIVE THE ARMY," THE Italian army of course. "DOWN WITH THE ENGLISH THIEVES," naturally, if we are here, nothing remains for the English.
However, what you remember is not so much the fact of Albanian opportunism which generation after generation has been reflected in all kinds of slogans and banners, but the parody of  fascist Italy which with such manouvers tried to convince itself and the rest of the world of its strength.
                    [post_title] =>  Forsaken Albania 
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                    [post_content] => By James Podles
Last week (Nov. 23-28), the Apollonia Restaurant, at the Rogner Hotel Europapark, celebrated the peak of the fall season with a special menu created by resident chef Tobias Fritz and visiting chef Robert Pressinger (of the Rogner Fuchs Palast in St. Veit, Austria), which inventively mixed seasonal flavours, classic Central European cooking techniques, and local Mediterranean ingredients. The menu showcased the fruits of the autumn harvest (pumpkins, potatoes, and chestnuts especially) combined with rich, strongly flavoured meats and fish. The food was perfectly suited to the autumn weather: hearty, mellow, evocative of crisp, cool evenings; changing leaves; and smoky fireplaces.
All of the appetizers were, a little strangely, served cold and more or less raw. While the tartare of salmon with caviar, for example, sounded excellent, it seemed ill-suited to a cold November evening, as did a carpaccio of beef and a chicken liver pat鮠Soup, on the other hand, sounded like the perfect starter, so we began with a rich, smooth cream of pumpkin drizzled with a lacing of pumpkin oil and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, and a fantastic chestnut and celery soup. The layers of flavour in the pumpkin soup showcased the quintessential fall vegetable's versatility: the mellow, unctuous, purꦤ flesh of the squash mingled with the nutty earthiness of the oil, and was set off by the crunchiness of the toasted seeds. The chestnut and celery soup blended the principal ingredients with an excellent, savoury stock reminiscent of wild mushrooms; scattered slivers of roasted red onion provided a sweet, chewy counterpoint. 
After the pumpkin-overload of the soup, I regretfully decided to pass on the vegetarian main course, a "steak" of pumpkin and ricotta. Instead, we ordered roe deer (which was promptly nicknamed "Bambi"); a filet of salmon; and a venison steak ("Bambi's mother"). Other possible choices included trout; a rack of lamb; spiced roasted chicken; and pappardelle with tomatoes and feta cheese.
The salmon was the only sub-par main course: the naturally oil-rich fish was cooked in far too much additional oil. The accompanying fried risotto cakes and roasted root vegetables did nothing to mitigate this oiliness: if anything, they increased it. The venison, on the other hand, was fantastic. Seared perfectly to the requested medium doneness, the rich, gamy, chewy meat was served on a bed of velvety braised cabbage. A strudel-like concoction of mashed potatoes baked around a mixture of sautꦤ spinach and onions sat alongside, while a ring of balsamic vinegar and wild berries encircled the plate. The roe deer, placed atop a mound of truffle-laced mashed potatoes, was meltingly tender, soft enough to cut with a fork. Garnished with a small stack of savoury pancakes, it was complemented by a mixture of sautꦤ artichoke hearts and zucchini. 
As for desserts, the yogurt-honey mousse and grape-walnut strudel were both good, but the undisputed highlight was the pear dumplings in sabayon. The small, beignet-like dumplings, filled with diced pear, had been chilled and then quickly deep-fried so that the exterior was hot and crisp, while the centre remained smooth and cool. Swimming in a pool of Muscat wine-flavoured custard sauce, surrounded by wild berry compote, and topped with a slice of dehydrated apple, the dish's finishing touch came in the form of a small glass filled with gently stewed sour cherries.
Each section of the menu was matched by a choice of recommended wines (available either by the bottle or by the glass): a great idea, especially for someone (like myself) with little or no experience of the restaurant's predominantly Austrian wines. The venison, for example, was matched with a deep, fruity Syrah, while two florally astringent white wines (a Gew
                    [post_title] =>  Seasonal Tastings 
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                    [post_content] => By James Podles	
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I started my new job at a radio station in the southern town of Saranda last winter: I knew that the town was near Greece, and that the beaches were nice. Not even sure what the weather would be like, I packed everything from t-shirts to a Canadian-issue winter jacket (I even optimistically brought a bathing suit). As it turned out, winters in Saranda are cold only by Mediterranean standards: even in the middle of winter, the days are mostly warm and sunny, while at night, temperatures drop but rarely even approach the freezing point. The winter's snowfall consisted of a barely-noticeable dusting one morning in February, which soon melted under the afternoon sun. 
Thawing out in the Mediterranean sun, and not having much to do during the daytime (I worked from seven p.m. until midnight), I set out to explore the town and its surroundings. Saranda is laid out on a sort of amphitheatre-shaped plan, with the "stage," as it were, being the bowl-shaped harbor. A series of streets runs parallel to the curved pedestrian-only beachfront esplanade, connected to each other by broad stone stairways which run up the hillside. Most of the town's hotels, restaurants, and bars sit on or near the waterfront. The town is currently undergoing a massive construction boom, with hotels and apartment buildings springing up all over (there are rumours of even more ambitious plans, like those for a semi-underwater museum; a new marina next to the five-star Hotel Butrint; and the extension of the boardwalk to seven and a half kilometers). 
Winter in Saranda was nothing if not laid-back: the beachside clubs and bars are quieter if not deserted, while the open-air movie theatre sits empty (things should be more lively this year, as the University of Tirana has just opened a tourism management school in the town). Still, don't expect the same crowded party atmosphere you'd find in the summer (many days, I had the entire town beach to myself). 

Saranda
Even a quick look around the town revealed a wealth of archeological treasures. Around the seaside boardwalk, the remains of fourth-century fortifications can be seen, while in the town centre, a joint Albanian-Israeli excavation has revealed the mosaicked remains of a fifth-century synagogue (the excavations have slowed after archeologists discovered that one of the synagogue's main halls now runs under the town's main street). One waterfront bar even incorporates what was once a Roman bathhouse into its basement lounge. Also near the esplanade, a recently excavated Roman villa is preserved inside a glass-fronted building. The excavation is theoretically open to the public, but I had absolutely no luck in finding anyone who could unlock the doors for me. Still, you can see quite a bit of the mosaic- and fresco-covered interior through the large front windows.
One windy afternoon I decided to climb up to L쬵resi Castle, which sits on a peak overlooking Saranda. After taking several wrong turns on the way up the mountain, I finally reached the 16th-century Ottoman fortifications by abandoning the signless roads and just taking the most direct path to the top (which I think was a goat trail). Once used as a military base for the Sultan Suleiman's campaigns into Greece, the castle retained its strategic importance into the 20th century: concrete bunkers dot the mountainside, and a Second World War-era artillery piece stands just outside of the castle walls. From the top of the battlements, I could see all of Saranda harbour (I suddenly recognized the vantage point of all of the town's postcards), across the Vivari channel, and into Corfu. 
A Monastery and a Bottomless Spring

Another day, I took a side trip to the nearby monastery of St. Nicolas (in the village of Mesopotam, 15 kilometers from Saranda) and the Blue Eye national park. At St. Nicolas, much of the monastic complex lies in ruins, but the church is still standing and is still in use. The interior walls of the church were originally covered with late Byzantine frescoes, which, unfortunately, were plastered over at some point. Conservationists, having recently begun the slow, painstaking work of removing the plaster without damaging the underlying paintings, have exposed a relatively small area of fresco, which offers a glimpse of the former and potential future grandeur of the church. The exterior, although also in serious need of restoration, is covered in relief carvings of mythological animals. The remnants of the surrounding walls hint at how imposing the fortifications must once have been: a surviving section (which includes what was the bell tower) is nearly ten meters high. 
Near the monastery is the Blue Eye (Syri i Kalter) national park, the star attraction of which is a series of springs, which join together underground and bubble up to form a wide, perfectly blue, perfectly clear pool, surrounded by a grove of ancient trees. Supposedly, it's impossible to drown in the Blue Eye, as the force of the rising water is greater than the force of a sinking body (no one, on the February morning I visited, could reassure me about hypothermia, so I stayed out of the water). No one's really sure how deep the spring's source lies: even scuba divers carrying weights have only been able to descend about forty meters into the pool before being pushed up to the surface. 

Butrinti
Later in my stay, I took a side trip to the ancient town of Butrinti. From Saranda, it takes about half an hour of driving past scrub-covered foothills and shimmering mussel farms (and through a herd of cows, on the way back) to reach the archeological site. Unique in the way it encapsulates thousands of years of Mediterranean history, Butrint's excavations include an amphitheatre, baths, and acropolis, as well as a more (relatively speaking) modern basilica and baptistery (the mosaic floor of which was unfortunately covered with plastic sheeting for conservation reasons). Besides the major edifices, countless smaller buildings have been discovered, among them a Venetian watchtower; Roman baths; a temple to Aesclepius, the Greek god of healing; and the remains of an aqueduct which once connected the city centre to its suburbs. And even with all of this, at least eighty percent of the city remains unexcavated. The search for the villa of Titus Pomponius Atticus, a close friend of the Roman orator Cicero, is still underway. 
The greatest thing about Butrinti, at least for someone raised on a cultural diet of guided tours, overprotective docents, and climate-controlled museums, is its total openness for exploration. Unlike similar sites in Greece and Turkey, Butrint lacks the ropes, railings, and security guards meant to keep tourists from taking pieces of the ruins home with them (not that I did). Visiting Butrinti feels more like an exploration than a tour: but for the aforementioned baptistery floor, the site is more or less completely accessible. The lack of signs and Plexiglas does more than let you walk unhindered through the remains of the city: it removes the filters that are usually placed between ancient archeological sites and their modern-day viewers, bringing a certain authenticity to the experience, a verisimilitude that's missing from other such excavations.
Saranda's distance from Tirana (the trip takes about five hours by car and slightly longer by bus) makes it too remote for a day trip but within easy reach for a weekend visit. Once in the town, public buses run from the main square to Butrinti, with a stop at the Hotel Butrint; Mesopotam is a short drive away; and L쬵resi is about 45 minutes' walk from the town centre.
                    [post_title] =>  Wintering in Saranda 
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                    [post_content] => By Artan Lame
Vlora, June 1920. The Albanians, who forgot to take a camera with them, the day they proclaimed Independence in 1912, naturally were to forget again, eight years later, when, at the beginning of June 1920, they began the first attacks against the Italian garrisons, located around Vlora. This must be the reason that there are no photographs from the Vlora War, although it continued for about two months. Precisely for this reason, you can imagine my joy on discovering  the above photograph (although not very good quality), of a group of Albanian fighters, posing in front of the frame of an aircraft they had shot down. I recalled that this event has also been recorded in the folk songs of the area, something that really must have stunned the Albanians at the time, unaccustomed as they were with the sight of an aircraft, which they used to call, "kite", and even more so when to shoot down an aircraft with rifles was an event for Europe itself, at the time, let alone for the inhabitants of the hills of Salaria.  On the frame of the aircraft you can distinguish the identification number "43" and the sign of the Italian Air Force, three circles, green, white and red. Two of the fighters hold the national flag , while behind them you can see a mule waiting to be packed with items. The photograph sums up the entire logic of this war, and in particular, its two main instigators: the Flag and the Mule. The flag as the symbol of the national awakening, constitutes the main instigating factor of the Albanians in this effort, which won back for the Homeland, one of its main cities; and the Mule, where no time has been wasted it in getting the animal to the site, to load it with anything of value from stripping the plane, symbolizing the trophies of battle, the other instigating factor.
Don't forget that the Italian garrison in Vlora is the last remnant of the Italian Army in the Balkans, which had operated in the zone, from Vlora to Selonica, during the years of the World War. In the depots of this garrison there were stocks of weapons, logistic materials. Clothing, food etc, of the troops that had not been transferred back to Italy. This material constituted much sought after war trophies and an irresistible instigation for the local peasants, who had suffered so much during all the years of fighting in the recently ended World War One. 
77 years later, the Albanians once again attacked army barracks. The only difference was that seeing there were no Italian barracks they attacked the military depots of their own State.
                    [post_title] =>  Forsaken Albania 
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                    [post_content] => By Charlotte Morgaine
Strolling through the little side streets, tucked away in between the new high rise apartment blocs, constructed on amazingly small sections of land, in the old neighborhood of the city where we used to live years ago when the girls were still only little girls, I tried hard to visualize, in my mind's eye, how this residential block had been in those days. Many of the former five story apartment blocs have been replaced by new ones which have also devoured, under tons of reinforced concrete, all the old, familiar landmarks like the local children's nursery and kindergarten with its lovely green lawn and the brightly colored flower pots on the window ledges. 
I remember one amusing detail about this particularly nursery. It became "famous" for its very large sandpit, and its unusually enterprising woman manager who organized the transportation by horse and cart of a wagon load of sand from Kavaja every now and then. She had been refused permission to touch the sand on the Durres beach. I don't believe I ever saw a sandpit anywhere else in the country in those years. The nursery's cook was a friend of mine and I remember her relating that as much as the parents hated the pit, because the children came home so messy, the children adored it.
 "Deliberately" creating conditions for children to get their clothes dirty, in other words, allowing children to have fun, and make a mess and soil themselves, was just not part of parental psyche. It's strange when you think about it. Elsewhere, a mother, when washing heavily soiled clothes her child wore to nursery the day before, shakes her head whilst tucking them into the washer, but is also content, because obviously the child had a good time. Unbelievable, as it may seem, the woman manager of that nursery was eventually "moved on" to another kindergarten somewhere in the city under the pretext that the sand pit was interfering with the disciplining of the children!
Anyway, the nursery and its sandpit and its "over-emancipated" manager live on only in the memories of the old neighborhood now and like me, most of them have moved on too. Unconsciously, I know I was seeking my special landmark, the bakery, with its wonderful old oven and rickety old wooden shelves that would lean dangerously outwards towards the counter, groaning and squeaking under the weight of the heavy roast pans of crispy golden-brown oven backed chicken and rice, or chicken and potatoes; or the round flat, shallow pie tins bearing the golden pastry pies with every manner of filling, from sweet pumpkin filling to tomato and onion, with a little mince meat thrown in (scarce in those days).  
The elderly couple who used to run the bakery back then made the best little, round loaves of maize flour bread. Golden yellow, soft, when freshly baked. I would rush down there in the morning and buy a loaf before catching the bus to work. In the Winter it was so warm in there I could hardly bring myself to leave the shelter, the red furnace of the fire, the wonderful fragrances of freshly baked bread that wafted through the street, and rush on down the road to the bus stop. I loved to chatter to both of them and catch up on the neighborhood gossip. 
It was still there, and there was a queue outside the little door. Now, there was a brand new aluminum sign hanging over the little door and a metallic chimney that ran up five stories to the top of the building. On reaching the queue, I peeked inside. The same oven and even the same old counter, the stone floor had been covered in new tiles and there were spanking new wooden shelves nailed to brightly colored walls. My eyes ran over the queue looking for a familiar face. Not finding one I asked one of the elderly women if  the Murati's still ran the bakery. Yes, she said, Clirim, the son of the old couple, and his wife. 
When my turn came in the queue, I looked at the young man and explained that I hadn't bought anything to be baked and I wasn't there to buy a loaf of bread, but that I was just passing by and had once knew his parents and had wanted to say hello. He smiled warmly back and said he knew me only too well. He was the same age as my elder daughter and had gone to primary school with her. He remembered us all. His parents had both passed away, which seemed strange, twenty odd years ago, they hadn't seemed so old to me. The young man told me how he had been living and working in Greece for years and had worked in a series of bakeries over there, and even ended up managing one. Now, he had come home and had bought the old bakery. He said he would gradually renovate the interior and turn it into a small, neighborhood coffee and cake/biscuit shop. I wished him all the best of luck and walked slowly down the slope towards the bus stop. Neat little bread loaf tins were being pulled out of the over. Breaking off a corner of a steaming, square loaf of maize flour bread, he handed it to me asking me to try it. I munched slowly, looked at him slowly and said it was very nice, but like his old parents, there was just nothing else like "old bread."  
I often do that now, wander around the old neighborhood and visit the elderly neighbors, they love being remembered, but I love talking to them too, because they relate little fragments of my life to me as well; episodes with my children; how they saw my family from their point of view; how neighborhood gossip filled in all the little gaps of knowledge missing about our family, funny little twists and turns. But it all fits and I do love "belonging."
                    [post_title] =>  "Old Bread" 
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            [post_content] => While Albania is devising new verbal strategies to cope with the report, other countries have taken the right comparative approach in analyzing the results. Across the world mass media have had different comments on the report results. Thus, one of the main newspapers in Greece, Kathimerini reports that Greeks are eight times more likely to pay a bribe than the average Western European according to the TI report. The newspaper emphasized that in Europe, only Albania and Romania had a higher percentage of people answering yes to "a bribe" than Greece. Kathimerini compares the 17 percent of Greece's corruption to the average 2 percent of the same figure in Western Europe. The report indicates that among EU countries Greece and the Czech Republic have major problems when it comes to corrupt police forces. It also indicated that Greeks rank political parties to be the most corrupt organizations, followed by the mass media and the armed forces as the least corrupt. LA Times, concludes that corruption has a global foothold and that bribery is most common in Africa, where an average of 36% of those surveyed said had paid a bribe in the last 12 year. The article, though, does not fail to mention that Albania is to be considered the top offender. North America had the lowest incidence of bribery, with 2% of respondents saying they had paid a bribe. The global dimension of the phenomenon was also indicated by Robin Hodess, policy and research director at Transparency International who said "corruption has infiltrated public life and burrowed in."
            [post_title] =>  Taking the comparative standpoint 
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