Letter From - Autumn 2006

Qyteza: The Chicago Connection

By Allison Stanger | September 1, 2006


During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Albania, perhaps the poorest nation in Europe, invested unfathomable time and resources erecting more than 600,000 above-ground bunkers to defend a population of less than three million. Today, those indestructible concrete “mushrooms” are still in place, ubiquitous reminders of totalitarian paranoia. Most are concentrated near the borders, their narrow sighting windows in the mushroom caps facing every anticipated point of invasion. You see the bunkers along Albania’s eastern boundary confronting Macedonia, once part of the former Yugoslavia, across Lake Ohrid. A traveler on the road from Korça to Qyteza, toward the Greek border, will notice a proliferation of bunkers. They multiply as well at strategic vantage points for patrolling the Adriatic Sea from Vlora to Tirana, thwarting a potential NATO invasion from Italy. Bunkers are inserted into the rock ledges of the Adriatic port town of Durrës, and some are even partially submerged in the sea, in anticipation of amphibious landings. It’s a reliable rule of thumb that whenever you come upon a panoramic vista in Albania, a slit in a mushroom bunker will share the view.

The architect of Albania’s bunkerization was Enver Hoxha. As the Albanian Party of Labour’s first secretary, he led the country from 1944 until his death in 1985 and harbored no doubts about what the defense of Albania’s hard-won sovereignty and his own power demanded. Everyone over 14 years of age—men and women alike—received instruction in the fine art of firing from the eyes of a bunker. Should any invader follow a traditional script, Albania would be ready.

Hoxha severed relations with neighboring Yugoslavia after Tito broke with Stalin in 1948; and he cut ties with both the Soviet Union in 1961 after the Sino-Soviet split and the Warsaw Pact countries after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. That left Maoist China as Albania’s last powerful ally until 1978 when Hoxha accomplished his final break. Now Albania was Europe’s autistic hermit. The Hoxha regime had embraced and implemented its own distinctive interpretation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. After the split with China, Hoxha’s insanity only intensified. He banned both religion and beards. Private automobile ownership was strictly forbidden. All flights into the country were prohibited, the only points of access being over land from the former Yugoslavia. Entering vehicles had to pay a $3 disinfection fee and drive through a pool of disinfectant before crossing the border. No one bearing an American passport was allowed to visit Albania.

While Hoxha’s extreme totalitarianism was severing all links to the outside world, the Albanian side of my family committed itself to radical assimilation in America. My maternal grandfather, Vasillaq Pano, had moved to Chicago soon after World War I, leaving the old world and its allegiances and hidden meanings for later generations to sort out. Except for a visit to his village near the Albanian-Greek border in 1935 and a persistent commitment to wiring money “home,” he never returned. His children grew up in the heart of Chicago, speaking only English and knowing very little about his life prior to Ellis Island. The old country seemed an otherworldly place, despite our connections to it. My grandfather never talked about how the money he sent was deployed or just who the people actually were who needed it. I knew nothing about Hoxha’s abuses in the land of my grandfather’s birth. We were all Americans anyway, as my grandfather would proudly proclaim, so what did it really matter?

The prospect of shedding light on my grandfather’s Albanian origins made an invitation to travel there irresistible. My husband and I were asked to serve in Vlora as professors for a course titled Democracy and Participation. Vlora is nestled into the spot where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian Sea, and we planned a side trip to Qyteza, the village my grandfather left in 1921 and John and James Belushi’s father departed in 1934.

We arrived at Mother Teresa International Airport in the capital city of Tirana. The airport was rechristened in 2002, the year Mother Teresa was canonized, in a nation that is overwhelmingly Muslim. Mother Teresa was born a Catholic to an Albanian mother and never actually lived in Albania, where Catho­lics constitute only 10 percent of the population. Her parents had moved to Skopje, Macedonia, from Kosovo before her birth in 1910, a time when neither Macedonia nor Albania existed as sovereign states. As she was born and raised in what is today the country of Macedonia, many Macedonians dispute the notion that the saint of Calcutta was Albanian.

In Tirana, we saw the results of a civic facelift initiated by artist and Mayor Edi Rama, who was elected in 2000 at the age of 36 and is now in his second term. His administration’s priorities for a city that had been a magnet for post-communist despair involved paint and trees. The ugly gray façades of the city’s Stalinist buildings are now raucous colors in wild patterns: patchworks, arrows, Mondrian grids. Tirana’s town center is green and alluring. The Bllok neighborhood, formerly the exclusive domain of the party elite, brims with life and energy, especially after the sun goes down. On a Friday night in August, Rinia Park is packed with people enjoying themselves rather than preparing to camp out for the night, as had been the primary evening use of the park prior to Rama’s election.

At the middle of it all is Skenderbeg Square, its stone namesake on horseback flanked by the red Albanian flag and the minaret of the Mosque of Et’hem Bey across the way. Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeg (1405–1468) is Albania’s national hero. The Skenderbeg family crest, the black double-headed eagle on red background, became the symbol of the Albanian nationalist movement and later the flag of an independent Albania.

A short walk away is a second distinctively Albanian monument, the Enver Hoxha pyramid, designed by Hox­ha’s daughter Pran­vera, who oversaw its construction and consecration after his death. Until the collapse of the Communist regime, the pyramid housed the Enver Hoxha museum. Today it is home to a coffee house and headquarters for Albania’s leading private television station. A collection of communist artifacts frame the building, and an outdoor café flanks its doors. Hungry, we park ourselves at a table and observe that the menu is in Serbian as well as Albanian, and we wonder why, especially because the café is on the grounds of the Hoxha monument. It turns out that Serbs own and operate the Pyramid Café as part of a restaurant chain. The discovery that Albanians are enthusiastic about Serbian food after the Kosovo conflict startles even our host Julie Mostov, an American expert on the Balkans. Why would a Serb want to set up shop in Tirana, she asks, and the waiter shrugs his shoulders: “Business is business.”

As we learn more about how Albanians view their Kosovar cousins and vice versa, what at first startles us becomes comprehensible. The Kosovars may fly the Albanian flag, but to date, no major Albanian politician has embraced the cause of a greater Albania, even though a larger number of Albanians reside beyond Albania’s present borders than within them. But standing by and watching Albanians abroad be slaughtered is another matter entirely. Albanian citizens love the Americans for stopping the persecution of Albanians in Kosovo. nato’s intervention combined with Woodrow Wilson’s role in sovereign Albania’s birth and the bond of anti-communism is a big part of the reason why American visitors to present-day Albania receive a warmer reception than perhaps in any other European country.

Navigating Tirana as a tourist can be a challenge. The streets are only sporadically paved, with dirt roads and rubble still asserting their authority right in the center of town, so that any extended stroll often turns into a dusty or muddy affair. But the real kicker is the absence of street signs. A few unmarked streets have never had either a legal or a colloquial designation, and others that received names under communism have yet to be renamed. Some streets have official names that do not correspond to those actually in use. The situation is not only a postal nightmare but a challenge for the stabilization of democracy as well. How can free and fair elections be held when many potential voters do not have proper street addresses?

Under pressure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, former Prime Minister Fatos Nano promised an address for every citizen by February 2005, but many of Tirana’s shops and services are still identified by only a phone number, often a mobile.

My grandfather was born in the Orthodox Christian village of Qyteza near the border with Greece and spent his childhood there. He was 16 years old when he left for America with his father, who had previously made the journey and knew the ropes. Immigration officials at Ellis Island Anglicized his Albanian name, Vasillaq Pano, to William Panos. In Chicago he worked his way up from busboy to maître d’hôtel at the Ivanhoe Restaurant. He returned to Qyteza in 1935 with his wife and two young daughters, ushering in an era of progress. With his help and that of other Chicagoans from Qyteza, the water and irrigation system was improved and a second church built. The new church, St. Thomas, claims the hill’s summit and overlooks the first church, St. Nicholas, and the cemetery above it. My grandfather apparently thought that the best views should be reserved for the living rather than for the dead, and the view from the courtyard of St. Thomas is indeed breathtaking, a panorama of the surrounding hills painted in Umbrian colors. The only blemishes on the idyllic landscape are a couple of Hoxha’s bunkers near the entry to the village. Their rifle slits look toward Greece.

At the time of my grandfather’s emigration, the Greeks and the Albanians struggled bitterly over where the Greek-Albanian frontier should lie. Qyteza—surrounded on all sides by Muslim settlements—resides in that formerly contested territory. Southern Albania’s villages form a patchwork quilt of mosques and orthodox churches as testimony to the rise and fall of empires. I wonder what makes some individuals buy into the belief system of the newly powerful, while others cling to the faith of their ancestors, despite the obstacles to ambition those traditions can bring. My ancestors were surely a hardheaded lot, nurturing their link to Byzantium under Ottoman rule. Perhaps it helped to know that they could walk just a mile and a half down the dirt road and find themselves in Greece.

Our little party of commemorators has arrived bearing flowers to put on the grave of my grandfather’s parents, Jovan and Konstandina Pano, and their other son, Kristaq Pano. A single tombstone with their photographs marks the spot. I have never before seen pictures of any of them, so I take a long look. Kristaq left Qyteza for Australia, but unlike his brother, Kristaq returned to Qyteza for good after a year away. He would suffer decades of hardship, outliving his father but not his mother. One sister, Krisela, made her way to Chicago and stayed, but another sister, Afroviti, never left Albania and is buried nearby. Afroviti’s daughter Roi places a bouquet on her mother’s grave and steps back to absorb the effect. Although I never met Afroviti, her picture on the tombstone is familiar. Roi tells me that when she met my mother, Joan, in Chicago, she too was struck by my mother’s resemblance to her own. Roi places flowers on the graves of her mother, grandparents, and uncle and kisses all the pictures on the tombstones.

We make our way down the hill to the jumble of dwellings below. Qyteza’s stone houses, with roofs composed of crumbling slate shingles, are built into the hillside on terraces, a symphony in dusty grays and beiges. The village feels organic, as though it emerged from the land, and most neighboring structures have multiple overlapping elements, making it difficult to tell where one family compound ends and another begins. The few buildings that have had roofs restored, St. Nicholas Church among them, sport flashy red-tile hats.

Qyteza had a population of 700 when my grandfather left in 1921; today it is inhabited year round by only four families. But some members of the Albanian diaspora are returning to transform family residences into summer homes. The old Pano family homestead appears dilapidated outside but turns out to be well maintained and cool inside. A family of four from Korça is using the house as a summer place. The mother is currently visiting in America (Chicago, of course). I have no idea who these people are or why they are living in a house that doesn’t belong to them, but the arrangement seems more than palatable to the Korça branch of the family, who greet them warmly by name. Property rights in Albania is an emerging concept, with plenty of room for self-defined claims. I don’t think anyone is worried that we might want to reclaim the Pano property. The woman who greets us there has a sister in America who is renovating the adjoining structure. We walk through the newly rejuvenated building, which features a brand-new outdoor grill and a well-tended rose garden.

We are ushered into my great-grandparents’ former bedroom, which doubles as a living room. My grandfather slept upstairs. Our hosts serve us apple candy, along with raki (Albanian grappa) for the men and a creamy liqueur for the women. A drink is offered to me on a silver tray. I taste it and laugh out loud. It’s Baileys Irish Cream. The coffee is accompanied by an American coffee creamer. After a full tour of the village, we realize that each house has a story whose narrative lines wind up in Chicago. The Belushi homestead, the only one in the village three stories high, stands abandoned with gaping holes for windows. John Belushi never made the trek back, but his brother James has.

Exploring the country’s rugged terrain by car makes it clear that Albania could not help but be the indigestible prey of many a foolish imperial venture. At one time or another, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Hapsburgs, Germans, and Italians controlled Albanian territory. But control should be used lightly in this context, for traveling on the country’s roads is a thoroughly harrowing experience, not simply because Albania is entirely mountainous. Fearing foreign invasion, Hoxha intentionally built up a network of narrow roads with endless hairpin turns that tanks could not possibly traverse. Renting a car and driving yourself around is out of the question; you need a professional driver who knows the roads and just where and when the pavement is going to evaporate. Since a herd of goats or sheep can choose to cross the road at any time, the dangers only multiply.

But getting to some places in Albania is definitely worth the effort. Tirana is not the only city with new and enticing restaurants, cafés, and public spaces; Korça and Vlora are appealing as well. To make the most of its stunning natural beauty and tourism potential, however, the new Albania will to have to do something about the trash. We encounter enormous piles of garbage on beautiful beaches, near picturesque mountain streams, on the side of the road. Albanians calmly sun themselves amidst rubbish on their beaches, where donkeys have free rein. We ask why Albanians trash the beautiful places they enjoy and are told that throwing one’s garbage where one wishes is in a perverse way an expression of freedom. Under Hoxha, there were mandatory cleanups once a week. Without Hoxha, citizens enjoy not being told what to do.

Then there was the collapse of pyramid schemes in 1997. As the market economy began to take hold, the first impulse of many Albanians was to invest their funds. The nation’s personal savings rate grew from zero percent of the gross domestic product in 1990 to almost 15 percent in 1995. Unfortunately, that’s when the scam artists swarmed in. Isolation prior to communism’s demise made Albania a perfect target for swindlers of all nationalities. Ponzi prophets promised big returns fast, and it sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to virgin capitalists. Promised returns in the last quarter of 1996 were as high as 50 percent a month. Albanians felt confident that the government would back an enterprise in which practically every Albanian was involved. Pyramid managers, after all, had direct ties to then Democratic Party President Sali Berisha. Riots followed the crash in early 1997; thousands of arms were stolen from army depots and used to exact revenge on old enemies. The anarchy that ensued as citizens slowly realized they had lost everything did not provide an auspicious foundation for building the rule of law.

Despite its Muslim majority of roughly 70 percent, Albania is not a Muslim country. A history of domination by foreign powers fuels a basic skepticism of transcendent values, which have served all too often as a weapon of aspiring empire builders. The Catholic intellectual and poet Pashko Vasa (1825–1892) crystallized this orientation when he wrote that “the religion of the Albanians is the Albanian nation.” Hoxha co-opted the sentiment in his quest to eradicate all religion from Albanian soil, and Vasa’s words are still quoted to reassure Western visitors that Albania belongs to Europe rather than to Islam. Albanians maintain that they have created an understanding of Islam as a cultural tradition that can be sustained without religious belief and can coexist comfortably with democratic pluralism, and we saw no evidence to the contrary. The caretaker of the Mosque of Et’hem Bey in Tirana welcomed us all the more warmly after learning we were Americans.

Our own encounter with Balkan regional complexity began in Vlora. The summer course in which my husband and I lectured brought together young leaders from all corners of the Balkan Peninsula; they had competed to win a week of networking opportunities at a seaside resort hotel and access to professors and Albanian luminaries. Most participants were from Albania, but there were also representatives from Kosovo, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Serbia, Cyprus, Montenegro, and Germany. Our topic concerned the proper ingredients for successful democratization.

At one point, we divided our students into five smaller groups to brainstorm on the five most important factors in democratization. Working independently, the groups came up with five identical factors, which could mean that either they are obvious to everyone or perhaps they were just saying what they thought we wanted to hear. I watched handsome young Balkan men deliver seemingly spontaneous odes to the importance of equal rights for women as a precondition for development. Do they believe what they are saying, or have they trained themselves to talk the talk?

Introducing Alexis de Tocqueville’s understanding of the tradeoff between equality and liberty produced some animated conversation. Democracy celebrates both equality and liberty, Tocqueville maintains, but often one must come at the expense of the other. Communism sacrificed liberty to the façade of equality; democracy, American style, often sacrifices equality to liberty. The metaphor is crude but it connects with our incipient Balkan leaders. When things get really bad, one Macedonian Albanian notes, sometimes the tradeoff itself is the primary casualty. The monopolies now running Skopje have eradicated both liberty and equality. Monopoly in Macedonia, he explains, means no liberty, no equality.

As I ponder what these impressive young people really believe, it dawns on me that at a certain point it doesn’t really matter. If you say it out loud often enough and are rewarded for doing so, you begin to believe it. If Nazi Germany and fascist Japan can evolve into stable and prosperous democracies under the watchful eye of Western minders, why can’t other countries that are emerging from dictatorship?

Democratization and self-betterment, after all, ultimately depend on both incentives for hard work and the trust of individuals with certain ideals. A world that cannot be envisioned cannot be brought into being. If opportunity only beckons from across an ocean, dreams cannot help but reside there as well. When Albania’s dreamers are able to imagine American-style opportunity at home, the same impulse that once drove my grandfather to Chicago will become the foundation for Albania’s self-betterment.

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