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The Albanian Maneuver

A little-known country on the rise.

By Ryan FrawleyPublished 5 years ago 4 min read

“Too much.”

“Too much?”

The gas station attendant thumbed through the crumpled bills stuffed into an envelope he held and shrugged. More lek. The last thing we needed was more Albanian currency. We were leaving the country in an hour. The car didn’t need much gas, but the rental agreement demanded it be returned with a full tank. The €50 note I had given him glowed red in the midst of the pale blue Albanian money.

“Let me see if I have anything else,” I said. The man shrugged again as I turned towards the door. His dark eyes gave no sign that he understood a word I was saying.

A was waiting in the car, the windows lowered in the intense heat. She handed me a €20 note, and I returned to the store and gave it to the man inside. He gave me my change in lek, useless to me except as a souvenir. Then he stared impassively at me as I waited.

“And my 50,” I said.

He shrugged. He didn’t understand.

Reaching across the table between us, I slid my hand into the envelope and pulled out my conspicuous €50 note. He smiled at me, as though it had slipped his mind. In a country where the average monthly income is €330, it was hard to believe. But you can’t blame a man for trying. Inwardly congratulating myself on my street smarts, I headed back to the car and drove away.

We don’t get scammed often. I’ve lived my whole life in cities, often in less than glamorous areas. You learn how to watch your back, watch your pockets, watch the eyes of the people around you. No, I won’t sign your petition. No, I don’t want a plastic flower for free. Get the fuck away from me with that friendship bracelet. But no one’s immune. Once, in Paris, we were taken in by the official-looking ID of a man near the ticket machine who told us the equipment was broken and offered to sell us tickets for cash. It’s easy to see the scam now, but when you’re rushing for a train, bad decisions are easy to make. Still, being taken only once in all the time we’ve spent as tourists isn’t bad. Sometimes on our travels, we’d see other people with their arms festooned with friendship bracelets, clutching plastic roses that may as well be a sign for every hustler in the city that reads, "this person’s an easy mark." And we would smile smugly, secure in the knowledge that we were smarter than that.

But Albania beat us.

*

“Where did you get the petrol?”

I handed the receipt I had taken from the gas station to the tall young car rental agent at the port. His sea-colored eyes flickered over the paper, and the corners of his mouth twitched. Slowly, he shook his head.

“That makes sense,” he said. “They filled the tank with air.”

It was a full-service gas station. I never touched the pump myself. Pleased with myself for getting my €50 back, I never even checked the fuel gauge before driving away.

The rental agent rode with us to another gas station, where it took a full twenty minutes to top up the tank, forcing out the air with a few drops of gasoline at a time.

So why go to Albania? The country doesn’t have a glowing reputation. Especially in Italy, where we were living at the time. When I told our landlord this story, he grimaced.

“I’m not surprised,” he said.

Back in the 1990s, after the collapse of the communist government, Europe was flooded with Albanian immigrants. The country was run by a corrupt regime that allowed organized crime to flourish and prompted many Albanians to move to the West. Finally, civil war broke out in 1997, causing even more Albanians to flee. And as will happen with immigrant communities, some people turn to crime. You can still see the legacy of this lawlessness in the ubiquitous Mercedes on Albanian streets, often stolen in Germany by criminal gangs and sent back home. They joke in Germany that there’s no need to bring your car on holiday with you to Albania. By the time you arrive, your car will already be there.

But Albania is beautiful. And the poverty of the country, along with its long isolation from the rest of the world, means that its Adriatic coastline is largely unspoiled. In many ways, Albania is where Croatia was a few decades ago, before foreign cruise ships began to arrive and pump money into the coastal towns.

It’s not going to stay this way forever. If Albania achieves its goal of joining the EU, expect the country to experience a tourist boom as Western Europeans discover just how far their euros go. Albania is cheap enough to make neighboring Greece seem expensive. And it has the same gorgeous weather, the same glittering sea. I don’t regret visiting this up-and-coming country, even if it did cost me a little more than it should have.

So visit Albania, if you get the chance. While it still has the gleam of the undiscovered. Just keep your wits about you if you do.

Towers Temples Palaces: Essays from Europe

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About the Creator

Ryan Frawley

Towers, Temples, Palaces: Essays From Europe out now!

Novelist, entomologist and cat owner. Ryan Frawley is the author of many articles and stories and one novel, Scar, available from online bookstores everywhere.

www.ryanfrawley.com

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    Ryan FrawleyWritten by Ryan Frawley

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