Letter from Albania

Editor’s Introduction: Two issues ago we published Helen Winnifrith’s absorbing account of her journey to Albania with her husband Tom. We now publish Prof. Tom Winnifrith’s description of his follow-up visit to Albania. Prof. Winnifrith is the editor and contributing writer for the recently published Perspectives on Albania (St. Martin’s Press, 1993) and is currently working on a new book concerning the Balkans.


I write a rather long round robin about my visit to Albania to various parties… I begin and end with finance, the alpha and omega of all our sins. I travelled from Gatwick to Corfu by a cheap flight. We crossed from Corfu to Sarande by Petrakis ferries and obtained our visas for entering Albania. Living expenses in Albania were about 20 English pounds [$30] per person for a stay of five days, but the hire of a car and driver cost 500 pounds [$750]. No other method of travel would have been possible given the amount of luggage we took, the odd places we visited, and our shortage of time. I took with me my wife and an Albanian- speaking photographer.

On our arrival in Sarande, our reception by the Albanian authorities was confusing rather than frightening. The day trippers were taken off by bus, while we were taken into a little hut — where in spite of our Albanian speakers and their English — there was a terrible muddle about six dollars and a Belgian lady, the only other non-day tripper. Each country has a different rate for its visa, dependent upon the rate that country charges to Albanians. We then left on a rough road, marked as a main road on the map. After about twenty kilometres we came to a village called Peparim. We stopped the car and asked the name of the village. Shen Vasil, a man shouted, and it’s like Somalia! The car was surrounded by men jabbering in Greek in a friendly fashion (Saint Basil is presumably the Greek name). This was oddly our most frightening experience. In the next village, Lukove, we were told that most of the population, also Greek speaking, had left for Greece. In Piquerias we had difficulty in finding a Greek speaker, and the same was apparently true of Borsh and Qeparo. In Himare the men on the quay, although complaining of poverty, were extremely friendly. They seemed delighted, but baffled, that I knew that they spoke Greek. They said that there were no Greek schools. We visited old Himare a little way inland, where there was life in the battered old eighteenth century church, but as yet no priest. Some of the ornaments of this church had been preserved through people taking them into their own houses. At the next village, Vouno, the Greek for mountain, a village celebrated by Edward Lear of Limerick fame, there were apparently no Greek speakers, but Phermi had defiant graffiti demanding Greek schools, and Palase also, according to the inhabitants of Himare, was a Greek village.

At Palase, we left the coast by a tortuous road for the mountains. The coast with its vast expanse of empty unpopulated beaches looked like a property developer’s paradise. Once over the mountains we entered the lowlands of Central Albania. The land seemed lush and, apart from a few barren stretches near the coast, well cultivated. Parts of it looked like an advertsiement for fertilizer, a heartening contrast to the untilled fields we had seen in March 1992. The central plain of Albania has always been the richest part of the country, and was the place where aid from abroad, especially from Italy, was most conspicuous in 1992. Optimism about the state of Albania was reduced when after a brief stay in Vlore, we worked our way inland to the Vlach village of Selenice. There were no road signs, and our driver Fatmir (“Good Luck” in Albanian) kept on having to ask the way. Eventually we arrived in a vaguely familiar place, and wearily, as if his luck had run out, he asked the road for Selenice, only to be told he was in it.

We asked with the wrong pronunciation for the family Dhamaj, rather like asking for a family called Smith in Leamington Spa. Eventually, an intelligent small boy directed us to the right Dhamaj. I rewared him with three biros which he received as if he had been given three gold pens. Mrs. Paulina Dhamaj, a French teacher, received us with hugs and kisses and tears; her family, with raki and an enormous meal. So far, so good — and there is much that is good in Selenice. The village was only vaguely familiar, because instead of the rough rather frightening village pub we had visited in 1992, there was a multiplicity of cafes with smart tablecloths and plastic chairs. One of the Dhamaj brothers owned a small shop… and there were goods in it. The church we had seen as a ruined shell in 1992 had now been rebuilt, apart from its roof. We attended a deeply moving service there, where we were blessed both in Albanian and Greek. The funds for the restoration of the church had come apparently both from Greece and Romania. I said shamefacedly, but truthfully, that all England had been able to offer was our prayers.

And yet and yet… All is not well in Selenice. We dutifully gave our presents to the Dhamaj children, clothes to the children, tea and coffee to the grandparents, books to the school, with its shattered windows and morale. Of the three jolly Dhamaj brothers we had met in 1992, one is sadly ill with bone marrow disease, the other two are in Greece. Paulina’s husband had been a Russian teacher in Selenice; he was now a petrol pump attendant in Crete. The grandmother commented how little she saw her sons and they saw her grandchildren. The bitumen mine might have provided employment in the past, but now they could not find any way of selling its products.

The remaining sick Dhamaj brother was anxious to find ways of bringing prosperity to Selenice. He was midly annoyed by my interest in the fact that Aristotle had mentioned the bitumen mine, and was more keen to question my wife about business matters. He did however give extremely helpful answers to my questions about the Vlach language in Albania, the numbers of the Vlach population, and the present, rather divided, state of the Vlach association in Albania. We left determined to help Selenice, if we could, and proceeded northwards, past Fier, where I had met my first Albanian Vlach in 1976. Here, towards Lusnhje, I had addressed a conference of Vlachs in 1992. On the road we stopped at the church of Ardenice set on a high hill. The church had been beautifully restored and the monastery had been rebuilt as a small hotel, but we were charged nothing for entrance, and suprisingly allowed to take photographs in the church. I earned my keep by translating a Greek inscription and by talking to the custodian in Vlach. He lived in the nearby village of Kolonje, an impressive Latin sounding name, where there were apprantely thirty Vlach families. The church, a stately eighteenth century structure, had been built on the site of an earlier medieval church. The custodian and I said how much we disliked tourists, and Ardenice is a useful example of the problems Albania faces with its cultural heritage. The church has been restored in such a way that archeological inquiries into the previous church are now impossible. The custodian, an intelligent and humane man, seemed hazy about history. The history of Ardenice is clearly Vlach and Greek rather than Albanian. As a place of pilgrimage and spiritual renewal Ardenice is just right as it is, but commercialism will probably insist on a massive entry fee, a gift shop and a theme park.

We drove on to Tirana where we stayed in the home of the sister of one of our previous drivers. She lived with her parents in an old house, which they owned. Elida Reci, whom we had met in 1992, is an extremely intelligent girl, anxious to study in England for a short period. She is now working for Albanian airlines, which I visited in a street full of competing Airlines and an American Express office where I bought some traveler’s cheques. I delivered some parcels and letters for Friends of Albania. I also went to the museum, where I caught up with a little ancient and medieval history, noting sourly that a wooden board blocked off the many rooms which had previously been devoted to the exploits of Enver Hoxha. In addition, I visited the office of the Soros Foundation, where I spoke about higher education both in England and Albania.

Elida Reci had been taught business administration by Ilia Kristo, a leading figure in the Albanian Vlach association. We met him, and I had an interesting talk about Vlach matters. He was on his way to Britain for a two month course organized by a University there. We went in his car, and were driven to the Economics Faculty of Tirana University, where my wife talked about small businesses to Jeffrey Houghton of Lancanshire Enterprises (I had met him at an Albanian conference in 1991). Eventually, we fought our way out of these old friends and through the mountains of central Albania along the Via Egnatia to Lake Ochrid and then on to Korce.

At Korce our luck seemed to run out. Our old friend the mayor, Mr. Manushi, had been promoted to being Minister of Building in Tirana. Mr. Janku Balamaci, whom we had met in 1992, the first president of the Vlach Association of Albania, had been ousted from his position, but had still received an invitation to a Vlach conference in Freiburg and had gone to Tirana to organize his departure. Forty other Albanians had received a similar invitation, as indeed had I. I wonder who is paying. I am not going. We did talk to Mr. Balamaci’s son, studying now in Constantsa, Romania; he was extremely informative about Vlach matters. We also visited the new Catholic church where Farther Walsh works with the Foundation of Mother Teresa, and we tried to visit Mike Brown, an Evangelical protestant working with the Red Cross. Father Walsh stressed the religious tolerance of Albania, and this seemed true in a primarily orthodox town where my slumbers were interrupted by the call of the muezzin and where Messrs. Brown and Walsh knew each other and were clearly respected by the local population.

From Korce we visited Voskopoje, a famous Vlach town in the eighteenth century, when it had 37 churches, a printing press, an academy, and 40,000 inhabitants. The town was sacked twice by Ali Pasha at the end of the eighteenth century, badly damaged in both world wars, and is now a shadow of its former glory, with 120 Vlach Orthodox families and 80 Muslim Albanian families. We were rapturously received by Vasil Zguri, who had also been our host in 1992, but again all his sons were in Greece and his poor wife with an injured arm had to cook for us delicious bread and yoghurt. She slaved away while her husband, who did not lift a finger to help her and would not let us lift a finger, said rude things about his sons’ wives drinking Coca-Cola in Greece.

Vasil, although hardly subscibing to the Women’s Liberation Movement, was a heroic figure who had been imprisoned for twenty years by the Hoxha regime. His crime seemed to have been that he had been rich, his family having once owned 2000 sheep or goats. His cousin Rrapo, even more embittered against the old regime, claimed that his father had owned a flock of 10,000. The cousin was quite informative about Vlach matters, claiming that he was a leader of a splinter movement. We also met a sweet intellectual in the village, who had learnt French from Enver Hoxha; his sons were abroad and he was pessimistic about the future.

While in Voskopoje, we visited the famous churches of St. Athanasius and St. Nicholas, which we had seen in 1992; saw the exterior of the partly damaged church of St. Mary and another unnamed church apparently used as a granary; and we trampled over the ruins of the churches of St. Peter and St. John and the probable site of the former Academy. We also inspected a vast complex of buildings, some modern, some nineteenth century, which had originally been intended as a children’s home, and were now apparently owned, but not used, by the Albanian Trade Unions. Running water has now come to Voskopoje (and for more than just a few party officials, like before), there is now a small hotel, and there was talk of developing a ski resort. On the other hand, the road from Korce is frequently cut off in winter for as much as ten days even by tractor, the climate is cool in summer (too cool for tomatoes and I caught a chill lounging about without my jacket), and there are plenty of hazards in the way of developing a renewed Academy in Voskopoje.

At Leskovik the road took a giant “S” bend up the Vjose valley and down the Drin valley. We spent half an hour in Gjirokaster, where we heard very little Greek spoken but saw a Greek flag, and hurtled past the Greek speaking villages on the right hand side of the Drin before climbing with agonizing slowness over the last mountain range to Sarande. Mr. Petrakis was pleased to see us and found us a very nice cheap villa with a garden, owned by a retired sea captain. It is in this villa that I write these notes, like Odysseus in Phoaecia (Corfu), of my adventures and conclude with a few general observations.

VLACHS: The main reason for my journey. I had taken with me a list of Vlach villages supplied by Albanian Vlachs, and am preparing for Mr. Nicholas Balamaci in America a map of these villages. Inquiries both in Selenice and Voskopoje suggested that this list was correct, and Mr. Dhamaj in Selenice was extremely helpful about the numbers of Vlachs in the villages of the Vlore district, about 12,000, corresponding to the twelve villages named. In Voskopoje, where they admitted that 40 percent of the village was not Vlach, they were equally respectful about my list, although pointing out that, whereas in Shipska all the fifty families were Vlach, in Shen Gjergj there were only two such families. On the other hand, there are clearly large number of Vlachs in the big cities of the south like Gjirokaster and Korce and Permet, hard to track down in the high rise flats of the Communist regime. Such flats do not seem to aid Vlach culture, although forcing families to live together in close quarters has been a help to the language as small children are forced to listen to their grandparents. In Selinice and Voskopoje, I thought I heard less Vlach spoken than in 1992, possibly becuase I was travelling under less obvious Vlach auspices, possibly because increased freedom of movement had made the Vlach villages less introverted, possibly because many Vlachs had left for Greece. If asked to number those Vlachs in Albania who both spoke the language and had some sense of a Vlach origin I would say that 50,000 would be a conservative estimate, five times more than I had hazarded in The Vlachs before I had been allowed to visit Albania under the proper conditions. If asked to number those who either spoke the language or had some sense of national consciousness, I would say that 200,000 would be a conservative estimate, about 6% of the population. Vlach sources would put the number much higher. Exact numbers are obviously impossible to calculate owing to the wave of immigration to Greece.

This latest wave raises interesting problems. Greeks have always maintained that Vlachs are Greeks, and have falsified history and philology to prove this. It is not difficult for a Vlach to prove that he has Greek origins, since in the first quarter of this century many Vlachs travelled all over the Balkan peninsula. Not surprisingly, but rather sadly, Vlachs have gone to Greece to work. Romania, for obvious reasons, though claiming the Vlachs of Albania as blood brothers, has been less helpful in offering work. Thus the Vlachs of Albania, who very rarely — except in Greek speaking areas — speak Greek, have tended to move away from the pro-Romanian position I found in 1992. The churches, not yet with their full complement of priests, present a problem, since training in Bucharest or a gift from Metsovo (Selenice has both) can indicate a pro-Greek or pro-Romanian bias.

The Aromanian Association of Albania — and I here use its full name, although “Aromanian” and “Vlach” are almost interchangeable — has many problems, of which names are only a part. There is, as in the Balkans before the first war, and among the American Vlachs even now, a pro-Greek and a pro-Romanian party. There had been trouble because of this, and this had resulted in the ousting of Mr. Janku Balamaci. There was also conflict about whether the Vlachs were a political (as opposed to a cultural) force, and how far their loyalties lay with their fellow Albanians or with Vlachs all over the world.

I am not sure about the sides in these conflicts, although I am clear that Vlachs should keep themselves away from Greeks and Romanians and political controversies. In a way this line, adopted by Ilia Kristo, seems to be working. President Berisha had said kind things about allowing the Vlachs educational rights and space on television, although nothing has been done about this. In a way, nothing can be done until the Vlachs have standardized their language and their alphabet. Apparently the Albanian Vlachs hope their language will be standardized at the forthcoming congress in Freiburg. I, who have been to two previous congresses, am less optimistic. The Albanian alpahabet was not standardized until the beginning of this century when Latin forms were adopted in the face of conflicting Cyrillic, Ottoman and Greek claims. Now the conflict is whether to adopt standard Romanian or a special form. One has to be naive not to see the political implications, but I find the subject boring. The Vlach language is more interesting in Albania. It is clearly not exactly the same as standard Romanian or the various Vlach dialects in Greece, although the latter would be intelligible. I tried out a standard vocabulary in Voskopoje and Selenice and found interesting similarities between the language spoken in the two places, confirming the hypothesis that the dwellers in the Vlore plain are people who settled in the winter settlements to which they had travelled from their summer pastures in the mountains. There is, in fact, a Selenice near Korce, and it is a moot point whether it is from this Selenice or the one near Vlore that the famous David Selenice emerged to paint pictures both in Voskopoje and Ardenice. A trained philologist could and probably should note the special features of the Albanian Vlach dialect… I am working however on the problems of the Albanian Aromanian dialect. Clearly there is much work to be done here.

GREEKS: I felt I had done some good work on three pockets of Greeks: one on the coast north of Sarande; one on the coast near Himare, and one on the western side of the Drin valley of Gjirokaster. Professor Hammond reported Greek villages in all these areas before the war, and he will be pleased that Greek still survives in these areas; and that I mentioned his name in Himare. He also mentions Greek villages south of Sarande and on the east side of the Drin. These were areas where I received names of Vlach villages, and I wonder about the ethnic compositions of both areas. Clearly near Korce, a town like Gjiorkaster claimed to be Greek and occupied by Greeks during both World Wars, any claim to Greek identity must rely on the Vlachs. The former Greek claims to Northern Epirus (I saw a Greek notice in Korce referring to Western Macedonia) are clearly dependent on these Vlachs and of course on the Orthodox religion of the southern part of Albania.

Greek and Albanian relations have been recently entered the news with the expulsion from Greece of Albanian immigrants. We were advised in Greece not to visit Gjirokaster, and naturally disobeyed this advice. I bought an Albanian newspaper in Gjirokaster, but could not find a Greek one. I think the reported tension has possibly been stirred up by journalists, evildoers who see bad news as good for them, although my own impressions are naturally superficial. We spoke to people in Gjirokaster who said there was no trouble, while others said there was. We did not see hordes of deported Albanians, and gathered that those departed had in fact entered illegally. It is difficult to see why Greece has been so generous in accepting so many Albanians. Philanthropy, philoxenia and a slightly less credible chauvinistic wish to claim Albanians, especially orthodox Albanians, as Greeks, may explain the decision. Greece has its own unemployment problem with many young men seeking work in Germany as gastarbeiter, work that is now threatened by rivals from East Germany and East Europe. Why then let gastarbeiter from Albania into Greece?

TOURISM: The two Greek speaking areas of the coast opposite Corfu and the valley near Gjirokaster are at the moment (like Corfu and Metsovo) without tourists. One can understand the wish of the inhabitants of this area to join Greece and the reluctance of Albanians to countenance this. The Albanians are clearly in the right, although they might be a little more generous with minority privileges. They have the opportunity to develop both these areas and other areas in Albania without the commercial pollution, which has made parts of Corfu a kind of joke. Albania now is perfectly safe. There is a rather obtrusive, but friendly and courteous police presence much in evidence on the roads, presumably looking for illegal drivers. There are some dangerous drivers. Some cars did not have number plates. Our driver was worried about the safety of his car. We met a few beggars and pestering children, but there had been more in 1989. Money changers and prostitutes were much more in evidence in Romania, although I don’t have much contact with either group. An enterprising tourist organization could, I think, organize group tours or individual tours with perfect safety. I would be glad to offer advice about such tours either starting in Tirana or Sarande along the travel lines I have suggested. Hotel prices seem to have gone down. Car hire is clearly expensive, even for a party of four. There are trains and buses, although I have never travelled on either. I do not recommend travel in one’s own car. Mr. Petrakis, softened up by a present of duty-free whiskey, is clearly efficient and cooperative, and I think both Adria Airlines and Albanian Airlines are cheaper than Swiss Air, the traditional route into Albania. We found a slightly cheaper car ferry, the Kamelia, from Corfu to Sarande, flying under a Panama flag, but I do not recommend this. I don’t know how one sets up hiring a bus or minibus in Albania, but can see the makings of a good group tour in Sarande.

AGRICULTURE: This did seem more prosperous. We were of course in the South, more fertile, closer to Italian and Greek aid. We met someone from the Ministry of Agriculture. A great deal of wheat seemed to be grown; we saw it tumbling down terraces like a stair carpet. Little plots of land in the Voskopoje area were cultivated in spite of being miles from anywhere. Albania had had a good winter, mild and wet. Not too many trees had been cut down, and there were still virgin forests near Vlore. Men leaving the land had been replaced by tractors. The land was reverting to private ownership, apparently without rancor. All this may be over- optimistic, a consequence of the summer sun. It cannot be a life of rural ease. As in Tess of the D’Urbevilles where the lush landscape of Talbothays is replaced by the harshness of Flintcombe Ash, so agriculture cannot always be pleasant, and new machinery both in Albania and in Tess may foreshadow the death of the countryside.

RELIGION: Here, too, there are seeds of hope. We have already commented on the priest at Selenice and Voskopoje and upon the tolerance shown. The priest at Delvino near Gjirokaster with his Greek flag (we photographed this village, but could not see the flag) has recently entered the news, but this seems an isolated incident. Again, it is a mistake to be too optimistic. There was another country where Musilims, Orthodox and Catholics lived in apparent harmony five years ago. Its name is Bosnia. In Albania, the religious sects live in more distinct geographical areas. There are more Muslims, and there has been less bitterness in the past. So perhaps the parallel is not an exact one. The Church of England, if it is to play a part in Albania, must encourage this tolerance, and discourage fundamentalism in itself and in others.

EDUCATION: This seems Albania’s Cinderella. We have received a grim though useful account of the science faculty’s equipment at Tirana University. Schools in the country seemed extremely primitive. I was struck by great ignorance of Albanian history, even among educated Albanians. Intellectuals, very often on a salary of visible proportions, feel demoralized. Sometimes they are associated with the old regime. New approaches are clearly needed for teaching the humanities and social sciences, and new equipment for teaching the sciences. Everywhere there is a need for English books.

AID TO ALBANIA: Here I speak with different tongues to different sources for help. “Friends of Albania” has very little money. It has clearly used its money well as drops of good will spreading ripples in an ocean of despair. The improvement in agriculture and the spirit of religious toleration might suggest a move from seeds of hope to aid given to churches on an even- handed basis. There seems to me to be nothing wrong in raising money for a Catholic church, then for an Orthodox church, and then perhaps for a school in a Muslim village. We did give fifty dollars to Selenice, and I gave little gifts of my own to other churches. The trouble about these small gifts is that for churches and schools they are really inadequate.

The Society Farsarotul can and probably is raising money for the villages, mainly in the southeast, from which its members originated. Again its funds are limited, and it cannot really take on gigantic tasks like the restoration of the churches of Voskopoje. Here the best hope seems some rich foundation. There is much to be said for a joint approach, and this is why I am giving this paper such a wide circulation.

Her Majesty’s Government has got a little bit of money. When I remonstrated with Mr. Uden of the Foreign Office for having an enormous embassy in Washington and nobody in Tirana, he said Britain’s commercial interests were more at stake in America than in Albania. Hence all our woes, too. It is money that drives young families to Greece and makes their mothers and children miserable. It is money that sellers of hamburgers seek and make, thus making university professors envious and resentful. It is money that our taxi driver sought and got from us, making as much as I earn in a week and an Albanian pensioner earns in a year, but still harboring resentment against the rich foreigner who did not have to get up at two in the morning and drive around hairpin bends for six hours. It is money that is rotting the soul of the University of Warwick.

It is not money that kept religion alive, or inspired our host’s wife in Voskopoje to bring up her six children while her husband was twenty years in prison. Nor was it money that drove “Tomas I. Winnifrith” as he was described in an Albanian newspaper (also described as a passionate pedagogue) to write about the Vlachs. What I am asking from a wide audience, who may be able to get in touch with each other, is for their thoughts on ways in which the public service in Albania (health, education, roads) can be helped. I am naturally interested in the Vlachs in general, and Voskopoje in particular. This does seem a particularly worthy cause because of its cultural and ethnic implications, and because I hate to see families divided. [Editor’s note: Those who wish to correspond with Dr. Winnifrith may send all mail to him in care of this Newsletter.]


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