topics: yogurt (food), Durrës, Via Appia, Albanian Cycling Union, visas, politics in Albania, emigration, Albanian economy, bicycling; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: April 2, 1998

Food of the Day: homemade yogurt

It seems that everyone in Tirana makes yogurt (at least both of our host families did) and a tastier version, we would be hard pressed to find. Technically, yogurt is a semi-liquid milk product that is allowed to ferment, but in Tirana it appears to be a labor of love as each household carefully prepares its own.

Person of the Day: our wonderful host families

Anthony and Padraic are being housed in the home of Fiqo Tjegulla and his wife Afsa, who live with their son, Adrian, and daughter, Ermina. click to view a photograph The BikeAbouters met up with Fiqo (pronounced FEE-cho) during their bike ride to Durrës. An avid cyclist (he has been racing since he was 18) and member of the Albanian Cycling Union, Fiqo works today as an athletic trainer helping to mold the youth of Albania into champion bicycle racers - not an easy task considering the recent political drama in Albania, as well as the poor training conditions (e.g. the pothole-filled roads). Among the youth of Tirana, Fiqo is known as "Golden Hands" for his ability to fix almost any bike-related problem.

Fiqo speaks a little Italian and so Anthony and Padraic were only able to communicate a little (un poco) with Fiqo directly. Fortunately Fiqo and Afsa's children spoke English and were happy to translate. Anthony and Padraic would like to take this opportunity to say thanks to their host family for their wonderful friendship, tasty food (especially the homemade yogurt - see the Food of the Day) and the very special way they made them feel welcome and at home.

Ethan and Corinne, in turn, were welcomed into the Berisha home of Burhan and Lavdie, and their children Fatlinda, and Elvis. Dr. Burhan Berisha, a professor of physical therapy, cyclist, and all-around sports enthusiast, is President of the Union Albanaise de Cyclisme, or Albanian Cycling Union. As one of the coordinators of last year's Albanian Education Development Project-organized Italian-Albanian Friendship Ride, he met andrEa (the BikeAbout representative to the Friendship Ride, and offered to assist BikeAbout when we arrived in Tirana.

True to his word, and favoring the support and interaction of bicycling groups, Burhan offered to host two BikeAbouters at his very cozy home. click to view a photograph Lavdie went out of her way to make Corinne and Ethan's stay comfortable, and kept them extremely well fed.

Burhan also speaks some Italian, so he and Ethan could communicate pretty well. 16-year-old Linda speaks both Italian and English fluently so the onus of translation for her mom and Corinne fell upon her.

One of their sons, Elvis, has been working in Philadelphia (having been lucky enough to obtain a visa ), and was back in Tirana to visit for one month before returning to America. We insisted that if the family should ever go to America to visit him, they should also visit us so that we could begin to repay their hospitality. They in turn insisted that we stay with them again upon our return visit to Albania.

Any bicycle touring or racing organizations interested in further exchange with the Albania Cycling Union should contact Burhan Berisha at:

Union Albanaise de Cyclisme
Rruga: Dervish Hima 31
Tel: +355-42-28196
Fax: +355-42-27963

Place of the Day:

While Tirana is a relatively modern city (in the sense that its history is not very long), Durrës is an ancient city that was founded by the Greeks (originally with the name Epidamnos although the Romans changed it to Dyrrhachium). Once the largest port on the eastern side of the Adriatic, Durrës is famous for being the start of the Via Egnatia, the continuation of the Via Appia - the famous Roman road connecting Rome and Brindisi - that led all the way to Constantinople. For more on the Via Egnatia, check out our dispatch from Thessaloniki, Greece. Today it is still possible to see Roman and Byzantine fortifications around the city.

Although Durrës's importance as a port declined under Turkish domination, by the 20th century it was again one of Albania's premier cities. From 1914-1929, it was even the capital of Albania. It remains a major industrial city and important commercial port from which most traffic to Italy and other European sea centers departs.

Tech Fact of the Day:

A visa is a piece of paper or stamp that entitles the bearer to visit another country. Although visas are technically available to Albanian citizens, they are also very difficult to obtain.

Emigration from Albania became a problem (for its financially stable European neighbors) beginning with the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before the actual end of communism in Albania, but in anticipation of it, almost 5,000 would-be asylum seekers took refuge in foreign (Western) embassies in Tirana. After a brief period of tension, the refugees were allowed to leave for Italy where they were granted political asylum (the right to stay in another country that is given to people who are at risk of being prosecuted in their native country because of their political beliefs).

But that was not all. In March of 1991, after the Communist government agreed (prompted by numerous student demonstrations late in 1990) to allow the creation of opposition parties and to hold the first free elections in modern Albanian history, 20,000 Albanians fled to Italy. Italy, greatly taxed by this flood of immigrants began to think of the refugees as economic refugees instead of political refugees, but still allowed most of them to stay.

Soon after the elections in March 1991, workers called a general strike to express their dissatisfaction with the elections that had returned the ruling Party of Labor (the ex-Communist Party) to power. The Communists had won the election by gaining the support of the rural areas through the strategic pre-election decision to turn over state-owned land to the peasants. The strike ended only when the Party of Labor agreed to new elections and to a coalition government with the opposition Democratic Party.

Predictably, the political strife that was gripping Albania also affected the economy. As factories stopped production and the economy began to stagnate, another 15,000 refugees headed for Italy. This time they were met by Italian riot police and were forcibly returned to Albania. At this point, the European Community, wishing to prevent a flood of refugees, began to set up economic aid programs. These programs, along with the Democratic Party's victory in the elections in March of 1992, helped to calm the country.

Today, many people in Albania, where unemployment remains somewhere between 50 and 70%, have a strong desire to immigrate to countries where there are more jobs. However, it is no longer possible for vast boatloads of thousands of people to cross over to Italy, or elsewhere. People wishing to immigrate must apply for a visa and then wait to see if their application is accepted. (We were also told about hefty visa fees, unofficially going into the thousands of dollars for people who have the resources and would like to "expedite" the process.) This is especially helpful since visas are issued based on the applicant's reason for wanting to visit the country in question, and whether there is any risk that the applicant might try to stay on illegally. Hence, an older man who speaks no Italian and has a family in Albania might be more likely to receive a visa than a young woman who is fluent in Italian and has no family of his own. Basically, the young man would be more likely to remain in Italy after his visa expired.

During our stay in Tirana, every time we walked by the Greek or Italian Embassies, we saw long lines of people waiting outside to apply for a visa. Unfortunately, the fear that many countries have of Albanians coming into their countries and never leaving means that it is very difficult for them to leave. The border authorities in other countries (especially if the traveler is young and unmarried) look at them as a potential illegal immigrant and subject them to more rigorous than usual questioning. In many cases it is almost as hard to obtain a tourist visa as it is an immigration visa.

Group Dispatch, April 2
picture of Anthony

Today's dispatch starts off with an early breakfast-free start (not recommended) from the offices of the Albanian Education Development Project. Rendezvousing with their respective translators/guides, the BikeAbouters split into two groups: Corinne and Padraic headed off with Mirj, while Anthony and Ethan were escorted by Angela and Swela.

At the Qemal Stafa Secondary School, Ethan and Anthony settled down, with their laptops at the ready, while the director went off in search of likely victims (err, students). Soon he had assembled the top 10 students of the school and Anthony and Ethan quickly showed them the BikeAbout Web site. click to view a photograph From that we quickly jumped to a more lively discussion with them about life in Albania.

It quickly became obvious that many of them resent the opinion that many of their neighbors have of Albanians. One 16-year-old woman described flying into the Athens airport for a holiday and being held for 24 hours while her papers were "checked." "How can they do that to a 16-year-old?" she asked. Another student told how when she is traveling, she receives a much better reception if she tells people that she is Italian. "As soon as they find out that I am Albanian, they treat me differently." Obviously these students are very much aware of how recent events have affected the perception of Albanians in the region. "But e want people to know that Albanians are hardworking honest people. All we want is to be able to work, live and love - just like everyone else." click to view a photograph

There seemed to be some division amongst the students as to what the future held for them individually. Estimates of how long it would take for Albania to get back on its financial feet ranged from 5-10 years. When asked whether they planned on remaining in Albania or moving to another country, about 50% of the students said that they felt it was their duty to work to help their country grow, but the rest said that they were seriously considering moving to another country. Obviously a difficult decision.

Pondering this and many of the other facts we had learned about life in Albania, Anthony and Ethan thanked the students and said goodbye, pausing long enough for a group photo. click to view a photograph

The BikeAbout boys then followed Angela and Swela across town to the AEDP offices where they met Padraic and Corinne. On the way back, Swela gave Anthony a quick vocabulary lesson. If anyone needs to know how to say road (rruga), head (kokë), foot (kapucë), tree (pema), flower (lulë), grass (barë), car (machinë), eye (su), or sunglasses (susë) in Albanian, just let him know.

Meanwhile, Mirj had led Padraic and Corinne to two different secondary schools, surprising both staff and students with his guests. Because they all but burst into the classrooms, they were asked to keep presentations and Q&A short. Mirj had decided that it would be best for them to meet a wide variety of students at the schools, so they tapped on the doors of about 3 different classrooms per school, talking with the students for approximately 15 minutes each time.

Much to their delight, the students in the various classrooms had very different opinions and attitudes, and the questioned Padraic and Corinne questions stirred up a few raging debates among them. click to view a photograph They asked the students about the people and politics of Albania, and what they see for the future of their country. As foreigners, Corinne and Padraic tried to explain that they and the Internet audience that follows BikeAbout, would have to rely on the students to share the inside scoop about their country. click to view a photograph

Since these students for the most part don't have access to the Internet, they seemed interested in participating in this virtual connection to the electronic world. Mirj and the teachers seemed equally curious as to how these youth would speak out about their lives and their country. click to view a photograph

So what did they say? They stressed that they realize it is up to them to rebuild their country, and that in order to do that, they have to try to remain optimistic. The pressure is on them to study very hard, speak louder, work harder, and grow up faster, to get their voices heard by the politicians. They don't feel that the youth of the country has a voice yet, and that is frustrating. click to view a photograph Everyone agreed that the people of Albania are warm, valuing friendship and family to the utmost, and for this reason they take great pride in their culture and nation, which gives them a strong sense of identity. Regarding the re-building of Albania, all the students wished to see it happen responsibly, both as far as the people and the environment are concerned. They worry that both aren't being respected right now. click to view a photograph

The issue of young people leaving the country to study and to work came up often in the conversations. click to view a photograph Many students don't feel there is any real comparative to staying in Albania, especially since education and pay is so much better in the rest of Europe, and they must help support their families. Students at both schools insisted that family and friendship is everything to them, while it may no be as much the case in more developed countries, where the focus is more on materialistic and monetary (rather than emotional) connections among people. click to view a photograph However, the students overwhelmingly said that while they want to leave Albania temporarily, they would return in order to contribute to making Albania a place where they can all live permanently. The little catch phrase they gave us was. "East or West, HOME is best!" click to view a photograph

While some students were willing to share their thoughts openly during the group discussions, while others - after the room cleared - asked Corinne to jot down their quotes in her fast-filling notebook, lest people misunderstand the true yearnings of the youth in Albania. One young woman, named Evisi, had this to say: " Everyone who leaves, wherever he or she goes, can never forget who he or she is. We respect ourselves; we know who we are and what we can do. We educate ourselves so that we can be somebody in the future. We're doing our best."

In each classroom, we wished the young people the best of luck, and thanked them for their time.

Returning to the hotel where they had spent the previous night, Padraic, Corinne and Anthony gathered their belongings and bikes and headed back to AEDP. Ethan was busy waiting to speak to a reporter who had been unable to call him about conflicting engagements and never came. Determined to put their time to good use, the rest of the BikeAbout team enjoyed a tasty lunch in the cafeteria of the AEDP. They needed the calories because it had been arranged that the Albanian Cycling Union would join the BikeAbout on a bike ride to the town of Durrës (see the Place of the Day).

By the time lunch had ended, quite a crowd had gathered in front of AEDP. Burhan and his daughter Linda click to view a photograph showed up, followed by Oerd, and finally Fiqo arrived on his bike. (For more information on this cast of characters, see the People of the Day.) Ethan eventually showed up as well. With all the extra gear loaded into his van, Burhan drove off to the rendezvous point on the edge of town, while Fiqo led the bikers through the crowded streets of Tirana.

By the time the BikeAbouters had caught up with the van, Burhan had changed into his cycling finest and wheeled out his trusty Bianchi steed. click to view a photograph Soon Burhan's son, Elvis, and two of Elvis' friends also joined the group. They, along with Linda and Oerd were going to follow after the bikers in the van. Meanwhile, another member of the Albanian Cycling Union, Ilir, had showed up to ride along as well. click to view a photograph

The BikeAbouters started to get a little nervous. Oh sure, they more than 20 years younger than the Albanians, but these guys were in great shape and were riding light, fast bikes.

Finally, after all the tires had been filled one last time click to view a photograph and the photographer from AP and a local newspaper showed up to snap a photo for the next day's newspaper, the riders were off. Well, sort of.

The first 10 kilometers (6 mi) of the ride to Durrës were on the new highway that is, slowly, being built. It was a joy of a pedal. There is nothing like a freshly paved road to inspire a group of bikers to extreme speed. Soon enough, Ilir raised a challenge and sprinted out to the front with Padraic, Anthony, Ethan and Burhan close behind. Unfortunately, just when everyone had started to enjoy the ride, road construction forced them off the new road and onto... the Bumpiest Road on Earth. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the road to Durrës is still the bumpiest road that the BikeAbout gang has ever biked. Anywhere. (See also Ethan's comments from the bus ride to Tirana.) It isn't really fair to say that the road was bad; it was really just a series of connected potholes (and they were some of the best potholes we have ever come, or ridden, across).

Anthony, Padraic and Ethan half expected the pace to slow in appreciation of the threatening road environment, but, while the pace did slow a little, Ilir pushed ahead as fast as humanly possible. Bump, rattle, slam, crunch, swerve, jump - obviously the Albanians were used to riding on the roads in Albania. But the BikeAbouters couldn't take our eyes off the road even for a second for fear that our bikes would suffer the fate of a pothole lord knows how big. Ethan even claims that he rode through a pothole so large that for a moment he actually disappeared from sight (actually this is what he claims, but since everyone else was watching the road, this story can not be corroborated, and, sadly, Ethan's propensity for exaggeration is, well, you understand...).

During the brief moments that we did have during which we could check out the scenery, we saw a lot of farmland similar to what we had seen on the bus ride to Tirana. Sadly, we also saw an incredible amount of garbage and the carcasses of many cars that had been pushed into the ditch on the side of the road. Mostly, though, the riders concentrated on the road. The wagon passed by several times picking up jackets that were no longer needed and making sure that everyone was OK and before long the group arrived in Durrës.

Ilir changed a flat tire click to view a photograph while the group drank some water and posed for several group photos. click to view a photograph It was then decided to stash the bikes at the house of some of Burhan's wife's family, and then pile into the van for a driving tour of Durrës.

With Elvis at the wheel (Anthony has always wanted to type that), the BikeAbouters were given a quick tour of Durrës that included the view out over the Mediterranean click to view a photograph from the hill on which one of the Presidential Residences (formerly a palace belonging to King Zog) is built. It was possible to see a lot of construction happening in the town below.

Suddenly realizing how taxing the ride had been, we decided that a café was in order. Elvis carefully guided the van down the coastal road and stopped at a restaurant with a terrace that overlooked the sea. Everyone relaxed over a cup of coffee or tea as we all talked about biking, BikeAbout, and life in Albania. click to view a photograph

By then it was pretty obvious that there was not going to be enough sun for the bikers to ride back to Tirana. So, back at the place where we stored the bikes, we loaded all the bikes into the van for the drive back. Padraic was a little skeptical (by nature, actually, this is why Anthony likes to call him Sunshine) about the ability of 7 bikes and 13 people to fit into the van, but Burhan, Fiqo and Ilir proved to be old hands at loading bikes. Much to "Sunshine's" (as well as the rest of the BikeAbout gang's and some of the neighborhood kid's) amazement click to view a photograph, all the bikes were soon loaded click to view a photograph and they were on the road back to Tirana.

Riding in the van and with the remaining sunlight, the BikeAbouters were able to check out a little more of the terrain than they had on the way there. They also had the opportunity to enjoy all the potholes they had missed on the way to Durrës. Somehow Ethan even managed to sleep!

Back in Tirana, the BikeAbouters went to their new homes with their respective hosts, showered, ate a yummy dinner and quickly found themselves in bed, dead tired after a very full day of activities.

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