The sun spills light as pink as pomegranate seeds across the white kitchen walls. The concrete town of Seranda has woken from its siesta, and the chatter of Albanian families strolling to the promenade is as loud as cicadas in the trees.
‘Let’s go to the promenade!’ Rino, the bald-headed, barrel-bodied hostel owner says to me.
I start to pile up the inky blue mussel shells from our plates, smashed open and emptied of their peach insides. Rino takes a final swig of beer.
Just like every other night this week, we can go past the gelato stall, and the men under palm trees selling popcorn from antique machines, to one of the corn on the cob stalls, where the sweetest, nuttiest smell will play in the salty breeze. We can buy a cob each – gold as honey in the middle, black and crunchy at the ends – and take them to the beach, with the sea spilling over the sand around while the hotel and restaurant lights switch on in the twilight.
Behind us on the sea wall, crinkly old men in brown slacks will sit together, their walking sticks loose in their sun-speckled hands. Hundreds of Albanian holiday-makers will walk by in their Sunday best, background props to the tanned girls in polyester dresses. Rino says they’ve been planning their outfits all winter.
Rino stands up to go. I follow, smoothing down my summer dress. Edvin, the earnest Serbian politics student who we shared dinner with, starts to talk.
“So Rino, what do you think of Hoxha?”
“Well” Rino pauses, “Nothing is black and white, but…”
Here we bloody go.
I sit back down, tap the table, and wait for the tirade against Enver Hoxha, the paranoid communist dictator who ruled Albania from 1945 to his death forty years later. He was the Kim Jong II of Eastern Europe. A laughing stock to the outside world, who turned Charlie Chaplin and Norman Wisdom into national heroes, and banned all other foreign entertainment. A puffed-up fuck up who still gets laughed about in pub quizzes. The despot who banned beards and cars, and built 700,000 bunkers for a population of 3 million – the most expensive love motels in history, haha.
Less mentioned are the thousands of Albanians that Hoxha sent to work camps, to horrifying lives, to death.
Rino continues, with the line between his eyebrows deeply knotted, “‘It’s complex, but now there’s corruption, prostitution, drugs, thieves and guns, which just did not exist in Hoxha’s time.”
An army helmet and grenade sits in the kitchen corner from 1997, when the government pyramid schemes went bust. Government pyramid schemes. Democracy has not been kind to this country. Everyone lost their life savings in the pyramid schemes, many attacked the government. Rino broke into some army barracks with a bunch of others, which is where his souvenirs came from.
Albania is crudely known for sex-trafficking, Kosovo, blood feuds, thieving immigrants, extreme poverty, mafia gangs. Poor poor poor, bad to the bone. That’s what my Greek friends across the strait think, that I’m crazy for being here.
I think of the kindess I’ve received. The old man who bought me a can of cola, then gave me a lift to Seranda. The girls in sparkly dresses at the rooftop bar on the bay, who giggled as we exchanged traditional dances under the fairy lights. I think my Greek friends are crazy for not visiting here.
Edvin interrupts, “I can’t believe I’ve not met one person in Albania who thinks life’s got better since communism fell.”
“Hey, I’m not saying I supported Hoxha”, says Rino with anger now, his normally kind brown eyes hooked tight on Edvin. I busy myself with licking the watermelon juice that has run onto my tanned arms, look anywhere but at the Serb and Albanian arguing opposite me.
Edvin’s voice rises. ‘But life is better now. You were completely isolated in those days, the borders were all closed. Now you can go anywhere.’
‘Where can I go? Greece is nine miles away and I can’t even go there.’
‘Ok, well other places.’
‘I lived in England for six years, I’ve been to Spain, Holland…’
‘But what is the point? What can I do there? Be a dishwasher in Hamburg? That’s no life for me.’
‘But with an education.’
‘It is impossible to get a good education here. So maybe we can go somewhere else, where the universities are good. But say we go to Italy, that will cost our parents maybe a thousand euros a month. Where can they find the money for this? It’s impossible.’
‘Ok, I understand that. But if you work hard you could get a scholarship’
‘But how many people get scholarships? Five out a thousand, maybe? Like I said, nothing is black and white but life is improving so slowly that it is barely noticeable.’
An older Polish guy with a nicotine-stained moustache comes out of his room, he’s been listening in too.
‘Edvin,’ says the Pole, ‘I was in Serbia a couple of years ago, and people said the same about Tito. They wanted him back.’
Silence. In Eastern Europe, the soft light that curled round Seranda bay has slipped away, and all that’s left is the rose-tint in everyone’s eyes.