Notes on the Balkans
Sixteen observations on Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia
People say the cafes in Albania are great. This is true. They are similar to Italy but with environments that are more laid-back and… better? Standards are remarkably high even at roadside cafes next to petrol stations.
People say people in Albania are relaxed and friendly. True. So true that for this reason alone the country will forever have a place in my heart. Essentially every interaction we had with an Albanian was positive, even when we did idiotic things. Once we walked into a construction site in the mountains and asked a guy, “Is this a hiking trail?” Confused, he said “No, this is a private house… But you’re welcome to walk around!”
I don’t get it—don’t Albanians have bad days? And what about all those theories where Communism makes everyone cold and pitiless?
Across the border to the North there was a sharp cultural change. People were totally fine, on par with large cities in North America or Western Europe. It’s just that the reassuring smile you get from every Albanian every time was gone. We once thought this pattern was broken but a friendly waiter, but after examining his name tag realized he had an Albanian name.
Why? Well, here’s one theory:
No masks anywhere ever.
Smoking everywhere always.
Like everyone, I sometimes fantasize about quitting it all and living an idyllic rural lifestyle. But when I actually see rural life, it seems to involve a lot of truck stops. In the Balkans, the rural lifestyle up close still looked damned idyllic.
But we shouldn’t romanticize things. These countries are urbanizing:
There’s also a massive out-migration, driven by a lack of economic opportunity.
Albanian history is a long series of different regimes—Greeks, Italians, Ottomans, Communists—none of which are described in museums or historical sites with particular reverence. Though people seemed OK with the general direction of things since the 1991 end of Communism, one driver called it “democracy”. Anyway, being used to the past being distorted to give neat lessons for modern ideological battles, I found this kind of refreshing.
The term “Macedonia” is controversial. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Republic of Macedonia became an independent country. But the region historically known as Macedonia also includes a big chunk of Northern Greece and a bit of Southwest Bulgaria. Greece was upset about another country using this name, as many Greeks see themselves as ethnic Macedonians, and feel they are the rightful heirs of the history of Alexander, etc. The Republic of Macedonia wanted to join NATO and the EU, but Greece promised to veto this unless the naming dispute was resolved. They started negotiations in 1995 and finished 23 years later with the Republic of Macedonia renaming itself North Macedonia.
There are lots of American flags in Albania and Kosovo, apparently the result of Woodrow Wilson supporting Albania’s independence after World War 1 plus the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 which ended the attacks on ethnic Albanians there. The latter earned Bill Clinton a couple of statues and a street. For being the first American president to visit, George W. Bush got a statue and some streets and a weird conspiracy theory about his watch getting stolen.
Albanian beaches were full of Italians, while Montenegro beaches were full of Russians (not overtly concerned about current events…) and hiking trails everywhere were full of Germans.
Over fierce Russian protests, Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, only 18 years after it had been bombed by NATO. The Russian foreign ministry released a statement saying: “In the light of the hostile course chosen by the Montenegrin authorities, the Russian side reserves the right to take retaliatory measures on a reciprocal basis. In politics, just as in physics, for every action there is an opposite reaction.”
Everywhere seemed very safe, and no one tried to cheat us. Once there was a little confusion about how much we paid for petrol. We quickly realized that the machine had shut down in the middle of the filling, so the attendant had just restarted and put in the rest. We said “OK, thank you!” and prepared to leave, but the attendant—who spoke little English—had sensed our earlier hesitation and insisted on laboriously going through the history of the machine to print out both receipts and show that they added up.
In Albania, almost everyone under 40 seemed fluent in English, while older people were variable. Fluency seemed slightly lower to the North, though this perception might be confounded by the cultural differences mentioned above.
The beaches had astounding natural beauty, but almost all have been transformed into nightclubs with table service and loud music. There are a rare few that haven’t, usually because you have to fight your way through a kilometer of brush and climb down a cliff to get to them. At these, boats often show up and blast dance music from offshore.
There was little public dysfunction and few people asking for money, most of whom appeared to be Romani. In Albania’s capital the small number that were around were often allowed to go table to table at bars/cafes/restaurants without interference from the staff, and a huge percentage of the locals who were asked gave some money.
After declaring independence in the 1912, Albania chose a flag based on this fierce double-headed Eagle:
When Montenegro declared independence 94 years later and needed a flag, they decided on: Albania except with way more bling:
I thought that seemed a bit combative, but it turns out that double-headed eagles have been used for a thousand years. The motif seems to originate with the Byzantine dynasty of Palaiologos, albeit without the tasteful extension of the eagles’ tongues:
Since then, it’s been copied by many places including the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Empire, Serbia, Armenia, the Russian Empire and the modern Russia. In fact, in 1776, Pierre Eugène du Simitière proposed this for what became the Great Seal of the United States:
Sadly, this elegant monstrosity was not adopted.