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Foreign Service Life

January 2003

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Few of us have ever had the opportunity to visit Albania. The author of this memoir can claim that distinction, having been assigned there in the Foreign Service a decade ago.—Ed.

Weech | Vignettes from a Tour in Albania, 1991/1992

December 1991–our first couple of weeks in Tirana:
Every morning I start my workday with a crisis. This morning’s crisis is that we have run out of paper for our facsimile machine. The machine is our primary link with the outside world and virtually our only means of communicating with Washington. No fax paper is available for sale in Albania and our next supply flight from Rome won’t come in for five days. It’s unacceptable to be without communications for five days. What shall we do? By the end of the day one of our local employees convinces the ministry of finance to lend us two rolls of their fax paper and I modify our machine to accept this odd size. An American visitor discovers what we have done and laughs uproariously. "The U.S. government is borrowing supplies from the Albanians?" he chortles. "Boy is that rich!"


A colleague and I pay a courtesy call on the management of the hotel where we are all living. We struggle with the chief of reception to find a common language. "Shqip (Albanian)," he says, "Français, Español… " "¿Español?" I say. "Really?" and suddenly we are conversing in my second tongue. It turns out that Zoti Perparim studied in Cuba and served as an Albanian diplomat in Latin America for sixteen years. At the peak of his career he was the Albanian Ambassador to Mexico. Then, in 1985, he committed an unpardonable sin: at a diplomatic reception he shook hands with the American Ambassador. He and his family came back to Albania in disgrace. For five years neither Perparim nor his wife (a doctor) were able to find employment in Tirana. Only recently did Perparim begin to work at the hotel reception desk.


January 19, 1992
The first American Ambassador to Albania, William Ryerson, is summoned to the presidential palace to present his credentials. The five accredited diplomats on his staff accompany him. Thus it is that I meet my first head of state, Albanian President Ramiz Alia. While chatting with the ambassador, the President points to the consular officer and says (through an interpreter): "She will have to learn our language."

"Your Excellency," responds the Ambassador, "All of us have already begun to study Albanian."

"Does she understand any Albanian?" asks the President.

"Yes," says the consul, answering directly in Albanian. "I know a few words and I hope to learn more."

The President is enthralled. "Say something else in Albanian!" he cries. The consul hesitates, slightly flustered. Then she says: "I am very pleased to meet you." The President beams. Later my colleague confesses that her mind had gone blank at the President’s request. For a moment, she said, the only phrase she could remember from language class was: "Waiter, the tablecloth isn’t clean."


February 21, 1992
Before we came to Albania, my wife, Jane, and I had heard that hundreds of U.S. citizens were trapped here after World War II when the communists took over, unable to escape to America. In February I started doing consular work and I began to learn the tales of these lost Americans. The story invariably goes like this:

"Poppa was born in Albania just before the turn of the century. (No one remembers the exact date of his birth.) He immigrated to America shortly after W.W.I. After a few years of hard work, Poppa became a U.S. citizen and then he returned to Albania for a pre-arranged marriage. He stayed in Albania for only a few months, however; then left his pregnant wife behind and returned to America. During the 1920’s and early 1930’s Poppa returned to Albania periodically, and after each visit a new child was born - a child that acquired U.S. citizenship at birth under the law of the day. When World War II broke out the family lost contact with Poppa (who remained in the States) and the children grew up fatherless. In order to avoid persecution from the communists, the family concealed its ties to America, ties that became more and more tenuous as time went by. Sometime in the 1970s the family somehow received word that Poppa had died in America.

Now Poppa’s children are in their fifties and sixties; they are parents and grandparents themselves. And they are coming to the U.S. embassy in Tirana to tell their tales. Many of them—probably the majority—are not interested in the U.S. passport to which they are entitled. The $65 passport fee is an enormous hurdle for them, and besides, what good would a new passport be? They can’t possibly afford airfare to America and they recognize that it is too late for them to start their lives over in a strange land. Mostly Poppa’s children come to the embassy to seek financial aid. Did Poppa perhaps leave an estate? Are they entitled to a social security check? Can they get welfare checks or food stamps from the U.S. government?

Generally speaking the Embassy’s answer is not exactly what Poppa’s children want to hear. First we must document that Poppa’s children are indeed U.S. citizens, a task that the passage of time has made extremely difficult. Can someone in the United States be persuaded to spend hours looking for a copy of Poppa’s certificate of naturalization in the archives? The case may depend on it. But even if documentation proving the claim to citizenship is uncovered, the federal benefits to which the claimants are entitled may not be substantial. And yet, as I meet these lost Americans, I get the impression that they are satisfied by their visits to the Embassy regardless of what we tell them. They are satisfied because at last their stories have been told.


March 2, 1992
Our Albanian language tutor, Gezim Hadaj, teaches English at Tirana University (previously Enver Hoxha University, named after the notorious Albanian dictator). Many of Professor Hadaj’s former students are now employees of the American Embassy. Their command of English is extraordinary, given the university’s utter lack of written materials in English and the students’ difficulty in meeting native speakers of the language. One day the professor spies a Newsweek magazine on my desk. "Could I perhaps borrow that some day to show to my students?" he asks. "They’ve never seen anything like it before." A few days later I give Professor Hadaj a stack of Newsweek magazines and International Herald Tribune newspapers. The professor smiles as he stuffs them into the deep pockets of his overcoat. "You know," he says, "Eighteen months ago I would have been arrested for possessing these."


Two or three times a week Jane goes jogging early in the morning with a sixteen-year-old high school student named Elton. Jane appreciates the security that Elton’s company provides and Elton appreciates the chance to practice his English with Jane. In high school Elton is learning the Basic computer language, a language that went out of fashion in the United States several years ago. Elton’s high school once had an old Olivetti computer on which to run the Basic programs, but in the general anarchy of the last year, the computer was stolen. Now the instructor writes programs on the blackboard and the students copy them into their notebooks; thus computer programming is "taught" without the benefit of computers.

Elton was ecstatic when Jane invited him to try some of his Basic programs on our personal computer. None of them worked. Elton took them back to the author, his computer instructor, who suggested a few revisions. Elton tried again but the programs still wouldn’t run. I can only wonder how many Tirana high school students carry notebooks full of invalid computer programs written in an obsolete computer language.


March 21, 1992
Lawlessness has become the norm in Tirana these days. Recently the Peace Corps director drove to the ministry of education and parked his car by the guarded front door of the ministry. When the director came out after his meeting, his hubcaps were gone. "What happened?" he asked the policemen who stood guard no more than ten feet from the car. "Two men came and took your hubcaps," answered the police, without a trace of shame or embarrassment.


April 26, 1992
Perhaps the one element of Albanian culture more renowned than the legendary hospitality is the besa, or pledge of honor. If an Albanian gives you his besa, you can be sure that the promise will be kept. Indeed, if a dead man leaves a besa unfulfilled, his family will feel bound to carry it out for him. There is no more solemn oath.

While driving to Greece for a holiday, I am forced to stop by a car that has broken down in the middle of the road—not an unusual occurrence here. The car following us is unable to stop in time, and he rear-ends our Nissan (also not a surprising event, given most Albanians’ lack of experience with automobiles). The damage to our car is minimal: a gash in the bumper and a broken taillight lens. The driver of the car that struck us insists that we must report the incident to the police, however, so we stop in the next town to inform a policeman of what has happened. A crowd gathers around us as the policeman, the other driver and I discuss the matter. The policeman tells me that we must go to a police station in another town to make a written declaration.

"I’m not interested in making a report," I say. "Nothing really happened. My car is fine. There is no problem."

"But you say that the other man was at fault," counters the policeman. "How can we be sure that you won’t file a claim against him later? No, we must investigate and file a complete report today." The other driver nods in agreement.

Two images enter my mind: on the one hand, an afternoon in a cold, dark, smoke-filled police station where we argue endlessly about the details of the non-event in the classic Balkan style. After hours of jabbering, much of which I will not comprehend, I will be rewarded with a useless police report. As a consequence of the lost afternoon, Jane and I will end up spending the night in unheated Albanian hotel room, possibly without water or electricity. Dinner, if we can find any, will be uninspired at best. The other image in my mind is of our destination: the Hilton Hotel on the Greek island of Corfu. Our room in the Hilton will be warm, bright, and cozy. The bathroom will have hot and cold running water. Downstairs the restaurant will offer a variety of western dishes and I will order a chicken breast smothered in mushrooms (my fantasy meal for more than three months now). I must avoid the first alternative.

"There is no need for a report," I say. "I will not file a claim."

"But how can we be sure?" the policeman insists.

"I give you my besa," I say. The crowd murmurs in appreciation. The American offers his besa! That settles it. The policeman, the other driver and I all shake hands before the crowd of at least forty onlookers, and I drive onwards to Corfu.


The author, William Weech, was assigned to three posts abroad, plus the Department of State, as a Foreign Service officer. Earlier he had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica. More recently, Dr. Weech has served as a training coordinator at the Foreign Service Institute near Washington, D.C.

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