Monday, February 11, 2008

Quick facts Albania – and the shaking story

Capital: Tirana. Other cities of note: Laç, Shkodra, Durres, Vlora and Elbasan. All connected by a roadworks and train system. Population: Estimated 3.5 million. Currency: Albania Lekë (pronounced Lek). Most significant National Holiday is November 28, Independence Day (1912).

We arrived quite late at night (down to delays, not planning) and were surprised by the very clean, neat and modern new Mother Teresa International Airport. My colleagues who travelled here before assured me that it was brand new and that in previous years it had been nothing more than a very large and rundown shack. The new airport was brightly lit and efficiently run and the swaying fake palm trees in the parking area were an amusing distraction from the airline caused cramps. Our very nice Italian driver drove speedily through the narrow and badly lit roads. The air was heavy and warm and moist. A pleasant change from the chill that September brought to London.

Religion: Sunni Muslim (70%), Albanian Orthodox (20%), Roman Catholic (10%) (est). People: Albanian 95%, Greeks 3% and others 2% (Vlachs, Roma, Egyptians, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Bulgarians (1989 est). Estimates of the minority populations vary widely between different interlocutors and unfortuantely, there is a general absence of reliable statistics.

We sat and chatted in the very basic ‘coffee shop’ before retiring to our top floor canal/ drain view rooms. We each had a nice big, clean if basic room with newly plumbed bathrooms. The ceilings had a false ceiling suspended in the centre, a very large rectangle, just a foot (on each side) smaller than the plasterboard ceiling and made of stained glass put together like modern art, in random shapes. The glass artwork/ ceiling was lit with bulbs snug between it and the actual ceiling, casting funny, often scary shadows on the very red bedspread and curtains. On our first night there I decided to sleep with my bedside lamp on to prevent any disorientation. Exhausted with the travel and reading till I finally dozed off I found myself dreaming of rocking ships on choppy waters.

Languages: Albanian (Tosk is the official dialect). This is an Indo-European dialect of ancient Illyrian, with a number of Latin, Slavonic and (modern) Greek words. People also understand some Italian, English and Greek. Everyone is friendly and willing to stop and point out directions irrespective of language differences.

Only I wasn’t dreaming, as in the next instant I had sprung out of bed and was wildly clutching the walls and watching the ceiling stained glass panorama swaying and threatening to come off its fragile moorings. It was an earthquake. Albania’s first in a decade. Mild and only a few seconds long but enough to wake me and shake me into a panic. It stopped and through the curtains the world looked still and untouched and asleep. Unsure and disoriented I called my colleague who answered the phone on the first ring. We talked for a few minutes and since neither of our stained glass roofs had fallen on our heads, decided that there was no point in panicking and we’d better go back to sleep. Needless to say I didn’t sleep well. From that unearthly hour I was shook out of my bed by the earthquake till our 8am breakfast meeting, I tossed, turned, gave up, got ready and read/ prepared. There we were in Albania, shaken but not stirred.

Albania is a very young country - 65% of the population is under 25 years old.

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