31 October 2012

King and Shark
Learning to Drive and Becoming a Real Driver

"The control and operation of a motor vehicle". This is the definition written just underneath Driving, in on the "D" section of the old and wise Oxford English Dictionary.

As a teenager growing up in most parts of the world, among many dreams, driving is definitely in the top three. Along with sexual fantasies and drinking alcohol, driving occupied a very big portion of my daily thinking…: "A nice red sports car, fancy alloys, black windscreen and leather seats. Maybe a Ford Fiesta, that would do for me. Windows open, loud music filling my ears and the ears of by-passers too. I am driving past the College entrance, one hand in the wheel the other hand waving. All girls looking at me. I am the king of the road" all perfect…But then you wake up and you realise that before you do that, there is the "not exactly small matter" of passing the driving test. A huge matter in the UK. You invest plenty of time and effort. First, the written test. You have to study. Unlike your college study, for the written test you study fanatically. Once the written test is over, you start driving for the first time. That you are driving a car with two pair of breaks does not bother you. You do not even mind the fact that a driving instructor is the one really controlling and operating the car, from the passenger seat. By now the dream is on its way. You see the end of the tunnel.  After a few hours of that kind of driving, you feel like you are ready to be in full control of the car. You book the "reality check" with the driving authorities. All confident you start driving the same car. Your instructor in his usual seat. Only, now a gentlemen or a lady is sat at the back passenger seat. The driving evaluator is all quiet. You can only hear the point of his/her pen rubbing the white paper. The nerves get the better of you. The moves you have been doing with ease earlier now are in vain. You are not in control of the car at all. The inevitable hits you after returning to the starting point. Hearing it in such a gentle and polite way makes it remarkably acceptable for you: 'You failed'.

You start to think that what is the point of this driving test. Now you are annoyed. But the failure does not put you off. You are disappointed but not beaten. It is a dream and you do not give up easily. You start again. You already emptied your pockets, now the need to do the same to your parent's pockets has arisen.  Eventually, after doing the same process for a few times, four times in my case to be more precise, you reach the promised land. You pass. Now, if you have extremely rich parents who buy you a car, you can go ahead and live the dream. Enjoy every bit of it. Be the King of the road. And that is how it really feels, at least for the first year or so. After the dust is settled and your excitement level while driving is back to standard again, you realise the whole point of the driving test experience. It enables you to really "control and operate the car". Conditions and roads permitting. After driving for a few years, enjoying it most of the time, you start to think that you are an expert now. You have gasped all there is to driving. Years of experience, driven in daylight and during the night, through rain and snow, in huge cities (London) and small villages (Oxford, kidding!). Experience is priceless, now you are an expert driver. Then, suddenly you have to travel abroad. To drive abroad, more specifically. Depending on your luck, driving abroad can be a rather good experience or a rather horrible one. In my case, absolutely and utterly horrible. But rewarding and educative, at the same time.

I had to move to my home country, Albania. I had to drive while there.

Gëzim, the old driver of the taxi taking me from the airport to the centre of Tirana, the capital, tells me that he has been driving for over 30 years. My response to him?: I see. What I am really thinking?: Like this!, how come you are not dead, or in prison, or you have two legs, or you have two arms, or you are not a pilot, … you get the point. 'To me, you are not a driver unless you have driven in Tirana" he says. "And you can only drive in Tirana after you have seen with your own eyes how they drive here, for a few months" he continues. Yeah, right, I am thinking. I have been through the toughest of driving tests and I have been driving full-time for over 6 years, in all conditions and most of the time through rain in London and Oxford. As the definition of the old and wise dictionary says, I am in control and I fully operate the vehicle. I can handle Tirana, I do not have to wait six months and then try to learn driving here. How different can it be? I am an expert already.

Come to think of it now, Gëzim was spot on. Oxford Dictionary definition is not applicable here, at least not for the first few months. In Tirana, it seems like you are never in full control of your vehicle and fully operating it. It is like other, undesirable forces are present. Driving in Tirana is a whole new experience to most first time visitors. Even to Italian taxi drivers, who are part of and experience some amazing and dodgy driving habits in Italy. Even to worldwide experienced drivers, who have driven in Baghdad, Kabul, Australia, Africa and New Zealand. Even to "busy big city" drivers, who have driven through rush-hours and early mornings in New York, Beijing, Johannesburg, Ibiza, Athens and Rio de Janeiro. And of course, it was a whole new experience to me, a very modest driver compared to the above mentioned categories. I needed time to come to terms with it. Even more than six months. Tirana is big, but not a huge city by all means. The way that people drive here is unique. It is really hard to describe, indescribable actually as there are no patterns, no rules and no logic. It has come about as a result of a remarkable blend. Until the 90's there were hardly any cars in Tirana. But after the millennium car ownership really took off. There are a huge numbers of cars now. Infrastructure is a 'work in progress', to say the least. Many roads are not in good conditions. Road signs are to the limit of inexistence. Even in cases where there are road signs, hardly anyone respects them. Then you have the drivers. A large number learned to drive from practice. Some even started to drive as young as 10 year olds. By 12 or 13 a large number hits the road, national roads, especially in small cities and villages.  Unlike me, most of them did not go through a vigorous written and practical driving test. The result: it is not that they can not drive, far from it, but most of them do not have driving principles. Throw in their cultural and historical background and 'hot blooded' Balkanises and the blend becomes interesting. To complete the blend, authorities play their part too. Law enforcement and driving authorities are working hard. But a long time and plenty more efforts are needed to start changing things. 

As a result, if you watch the cars in the streets of Tirana from above, it is like watching fish in the sea. All going to different directions, all like completing their own private 'little' mission. Setting their own rules as they go by. If you concentrate in one particular road, it is like a river. You see plenty of fish travelling in both directions through a wobbly line. Other fish are making their entry into the river from either side, jumping at own will. Some are flying out of the river. No signs given, no lines or borders to cross. And they are fish, they do not care for traffic lights or indicators, no-one uses them as if there is no need. Or as if indications are not permitted to be used by fish. Looking at a roundabout, it is like looking at swimming pool. The fish inside are moving slowly. They stop often to make way for fish thrown in from the diving board or from the back door of the pool at 100 miles an hour. They have to carefully check all diving boards around the pool and entrances and exits before they can move again. If you are stuck in the middle of it and watching from the ground, they do not seem like fish anymore. Each car seems like a shark. Coming and going at speed. Tiny sharks and big sharks. Dirty sharks and fancy sharks. All with their teeth out and racing each other. The terms: rules, standards, speed limit, road signs, junctions, priority, do not apply to sharks. You realise, now, you are a really little, tiny fish. You have to be careful not to be eaten. You have to be brave to even move from one side to the other. You have to keep your eyes open. You can not survive for long, so above all, you have to become a shark. The only way you can survive. The only way you can drive in Tirana.

Becoming a shark is easier said than done. To become a shark you have to grow watching other sharks. You have to live in sharks territory, to come acquitted with the sea, the rivers and the pools. You have to learn some of their skills and practice some of their moves. Above all, you have to think like a shark. Fearless and predatory. Six months is the least you need.  Shark's nose, instincts, behaviour, eyes and ears have to be vividly stored into your mind.  A King is useless here, only a shark can survive. Once you become a shark, you remain a shark. You can go back to King again if you want, but your shark-i-ness will never go away. It will be stored safely. You will be able to call upon it when needed. No need for it while driving in the UK though. Less than a King is fine there, but to drive in Albania you have to be a shark.

Now as Gëzim said, sharks are real drivers. I must be one. Only now I can fully agree with the definition of the Oxford Dictionary again. I feel like I am in control and operating the vehicle. In the UK, but even in shark territory, Albania.

Experience is priceless. I was a King. Now I am also a shark.


Written by Emin Shini

The Albanian Moped trip: not exactly what the Albanian media made of it.

Sunday morning. Off early to work, way too early for a Sunday and carrying a hangover. Coffee in one hand, local paper in the other. "How two young geniuses made a fortune" is the headline. I am enjoying the article, hangover seems to be lying somewhere else for a while, no room in my head while I am reading. It will appear in a rush soon. I am reading slowly to keep it away for a bit longer. The article tells about two Chinese chaps (students) who rented a house and started a small 'plantation' business. Made a fortune in a couple of years. Plenty of lines describing their bright business plan and how smoothly they operated. There is even praise from the writer, describing their work as, hence the headline 'the work of two geniuses'.   For a minute I am thinking great stuff, brilliant. Those two, real geniuses. Then I come to my senses, and the real substance of the article fills my head: They planted weed and they were caught. Jail beckons for them. How can that be geniuses?? They broke the law. Hangover has not gone at all, it is affecting my thinking, I conclude.

Now I'm at home, enjoying the evening in front of the TV, watching the BBC. Hangover dead and buried. To the astonishment of my, now hangover free mind, I can not help it but to think that those two chaps are a bit of 'gen' after all.

That article, rather the way it was presented to me, made me think positively. That is what positive journalism does to you sometimes. There is plenty of it around in the UK. UK, where the fashion is negative journalism, that is the trend. However, there is always room for positive journalism, still and often.

Fast forward a few years. I have a beer in my hand. Starting to pile them by now. Expecting hangover to pay me a visit tomorrow, Sunday of all days. But I am thinking positively, it is Sunday and it is a day off. Beers to keep coming then. The team in red scores. It is Albania, my country and I am watching on TV, at my home in Albania. We are playing Iran, not exactly a great team. As I am about to take another drop of the cold beer, my ears are hearing what the commentator is saying: "we score, it is one-nil to Albania. The Iran defender slipped there. Twenty minutes to go, can we hold on to the score". Now I am thinking, for God's sake man, can you not praise the great shot from our striker? Can you not let us enjoy the goal for a split second? And yes, 20 minutes to go, we can score one or two more, can't we?. We are playing Iran, not Brazil. I mean, how bloody negative can you be!! Just switch channel to RaiUno for a second and see Italy score. The Italian commentator is going crazy, absolutely shouting his head out: Gooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll. I'm thinking Roberto Baggio is back playing again and scored a beauty. But guess what, their striker scored from two yards out, with his arm and Italy is playing Andorra. The striker is Inzaghi. Still a goal though, scored by his beloved national team!

As I am digesting it all, I can not help it but to think that Albanians are generally negative by nature. Something to do with our history, our social up-bringing. This is reflected by Albanian journalists and Albanian media in general, who is way too negative to the country, too unfair. I mean, I was astonished at the recent coverage of a video from two Dutch tourists on Albanian media.

Two young guys took a road trip in Albania, mainly south. And they made a video and posted it on Youtube. From the wide coverage as seen on Albanian media, I gathered that the video was all about a discovery they made, the village of Lazarat, near Gjirokastra. We Albanians know all about that village. It has a long history and it is mostly known as a weed plant factory. Yes, weed is planted all over the village and Albanian authorities are trying to deal with it, for a long time now. Puzzling how a village planted with weed made a huge impression to two Dutch nationals, so huge that they posted a video just about it, nonetheless. I mean, Dutch and weed. There should not be any impressions there, a lot of chemistry yes, but not impressions. They have plenty of it in the Netherlands. It is like a tank of beer influencing an Englishmen to make a video about it, rather than setting about to drink half of it.

As it turns out, after watching the full video the village made only a slight impression to them. However, there were many absolutely amazing things they experienced, positive things about Albania that made more of an impression to them. I discovered that there is a whole lot more to the video they posted than the village of Lazarat. Mostly great stuff. Albanian media did what they do best; they painted a rather bleak and hugely negative picture of that video. Even though the subject of the video is their country and event though the video is rather refreshing, original and above all, very positive.

Daan Vonk and Theo Roelfols,  looking to take an interesting and beautiful trip, somewhere close and somewhere cheap, do a bit of research. Exploring Albania fits the profile of their trip, they conclude. Cheap, and in Europe, close. They fly into the country from Brussels. Once they land, they see that the weather is gorgeous. Hot and sunny. Off to the capital, Tirana. They settle down. Now they are looking to rent two mopeds, when they find out that they can not rent mopeds they buy two, ready to be driven away , for 60.000 ALL (around 430 Euro). To them, that is cheap and that is great. They manage to move around Tirana, on their own, exploring some nice places along the way. All done smoothly. To me, that is something positive, isn't it?

Off they march, heading south. As throughout the trip, they find out that almost every local they come across strives to help them out. That is what the people in the first garage they visit do, fix their moped right away. They stop at a youth centre to ask if people know a place where they can sleep. The answer they received, after being looked at intensively and interestingly at first, yes we know, you can sleep in our home. So they do. They were welcomed in the house of a local. Enjoying their time with the whole family. Having an insight of the real Albanian family. All happy and all together. As part of the tradition, they even received a little tour of the house. Above all they experience one of Albania's best virtues, hospitality. Amazing hospitality. To me that is something positive, isn't it?

On they go, riding their mopeds on some good roads, bumpy roads and some 'being built' roads. Staying at cheap hotels, modern hotels, with all necessities needed and with great service. They come across the Albanian coast for the fist time. And they drive a moped through it, 2 yards away from the sea. Hospitality is always present. They drive a brand new, very expensive Mercedez. Owned by someone they just met, by someone who does not speak English. They even have dinner together. Another local takes them hunting the next day, again a local they just met. Hunting, no course up front. No license needed. And all for free. Then there is the food. In the restaurants and in local's houses. They eat amazing food. Very cheap food in restaurants and free and traditional food in local's houses. Nice fish and meet, fresh vegetable and fruits. Tasteful stuff. To me that is something positive, isn't it?
Now they are in Vlora, enjoying the sun and enjoying the beach. Their pockets exhausted very little as they pay 20 Euro for a sea view room. Then they set exploring parts of the south coast. To their right is the sea, to their left greenery cleans the air. The real beauty now hits them. The coast unveils in front of them. Absolutely amazing beaches. Breathless views. You can not describe them, you have to see for yourself. As they get a bit closer to the sea, they can catch a glimpse of the diverse beaches and the crystal clear waters. They stop at a river, it is its starting point and they are amazed. Stunning. To me this is all, more than positive, isn’t it?

Off to Gjirokastra, a UNESCO protected city. They opt not to explore the city. Instead they have a hair cut, Albanian style. And plenty of beers. Nice local brands. All too cheap to their eyes. They have a preview of what a tropical rain is like. And a preview of the meaning of some Albanian hand signs. The next day, tropical style, the sun is shining again. As they keep travelling, they pass by small villages and some high mountains. The view always exquisite. And they feel the cool air. In 30 minutes they are now from a 34 degree environment to a 14 degree one. To me, that is something very positive, isn't it??

Now through the old city of Elbasan, they are back in Tirana. They enjoy their mopeds for the last time. After washing them, they sell the mopeds for 220 Euro. So after riding through a six day trip, seeing some wonderful places in the process, their loss is around 200 Euro. To them, well worth it. They had an amazing, original and priceless experience. They discovered a beautiful country and they lived many wonderful moment. Their journey was short and only covered a tiny part of Albania, but their journey was amazing. And the video they posted was absolutely positive. Indisputably positive.

Coming by me, an Albanian, always tempted to be influenced by negatives, the video and their trip paints a beautiful portrait of Albania, as it really is. If still in doubt, watch the video for yourself: EoT.

Written by Emin Shini

12 October 2012

The House of Congress of Manastir Finally in Google Map

DSC_0044 by Albania Holidays
DSC_0044, a photo by Albania Holidays on Flickr.
Këtë verë vendosëm të vizitonim Bitolën në Maqedoni me mikun tim, Armand, pa fshehur faktin se një nga arsyet kryesore që na shtynte të vizitonim këtë qytet, ishte shtëpia ku u mbajt Kongresi i Manastirit në Manastir (sot Bitola) në 14 nëntor 1908 për përcaktimin e alfabetit të gjuhës shqipe. Bitola, megjithëse me 2 xhami të mëdha në qendër të saj e shumë elementë të tjerë kulturorë që tregonin se në atë qytet kishte dominuar popullsia shqiptare. Sot nuk flitej për dominim, por ishte e vështirë të hasje dikë që fliste shqip, të paktën në pamje të parë dhe për aq sa qëndruam dhe u interesuam ne. Këtu nuk flitet për nacionalizëm, por thjesht prisnim dhe na e kishte qejfi që përveç maqedonasve të gjenim lehtësisht edhe shqiptarë, në rrugë, në emërtime zyrtare të objekteve e rrugëve (siç qe në Shkup p.sh.), në biznese turistike apo të tjera, dhe mbi të gjitha në atë për të cilën ky qytet njihet ndërmjet shqiptarësh… Shtëpinë e Kongresit të Manastirit. Pyetëm shumë vendas që takuam (maqedonas kuptohet) dhe pothuajse askush nuk dinte gjë për të (të paktën të tilla qenë reagimet). Kërkuam në hartën e “Google” dhe nuk kishte asnjë gjurmë. Vetëm në Wikipedia kishte diçka rreth historisë, dhe disa foto, por asnjë ADRESË (?!). Si ka mundësi që gjithkush nga shqiptarët që ka qenë atje nuk shkruan në internet të paktën adresën e saktë të kësaj shtëpie historike për ne?! Si ka mundësi që shqiptarët e Bitolas (vendasit e hershëm të Manastirit) të parët, por edhe shqiptarët e tjerë të Maqedonisë nuk promovojnë këto vende historike të paktën në internet. Dhe pastaj ankohen gjithë ditën se po asimilohen dhe po u shkelen të drejtat, e po konsiderohen qytetarë të dorës së dytë?! Kush do ua qajë hallin e mbrojë të drejtat kur ata vetë nuk promovojnë vetveten nëpërmjet edhe këtyre simboleve historike-kulturore?!

Gjithsesi, me shumë të pyetura më në fund e gjetëm shtëpinë. Ishte një vilë e bukur nga jashtë, por e vetmja gjë që të kujtonte që ishte shtëpia e Kongresit të Manastirit ishin dy pllakate në të, një i vënë për 60-vjetorin dhe një tjetër më i vogël i vënë për 100-vjetorin e Kongresit të Manastirit. Asgjë më shumë! As ndonjë flamur, a ndonjë muze! Në katin e parë madje dukej sikur shiteshin objekte hidrosanitare, pra mund të ishte një dyqan që ishte i mbyllur. Për ironi ato ditë dëgjova që qeveria jonë do të harxhonte disa miliona euro për një muze të Bankës Shqiptare, ndërkohë që ato lekë mund të përdoreshin (mund të ishte bërë kjo punë edhe më parë) për blerjen e kësaj godine dhe kthimin e këtij objekti në një vend të nderuar të historisë shqiptare. Të paktën të konsiderohej një fakt i tillë, aq më tepër tani që festojmë edhe 100-vjetorin e Pavarësisë, i cili nuk do kishte ardhur pa pasur një gjuhë tonën e cila u caktua në këtë shtëpi.

Pasi i bëmë disa fotografi e shënuam adresën të cilën po e shkruajmë këtu që të mos vuajnë si ne ata që nuk e dinë dhe është: “Boulevard 1st of May, Nr 23, Bitola, Macedonia (FYROM)”. Në kthim vendosa të punoj për caktimin e pikës së këtij objekti historik në hartën e “Google”, e cila dihet që është burimi pothuajse i vetëm ku kërkohen me miliarda adresa çdo ditë në të gjithë botën. Pra diçka e domosdoshme për çdokënd që do të “gjendet” në kohët e sotme dhe një reklamë e jashtëzakonshme. Pas disa komunikimeve me vlerësuesit e adresave të reja që shtohen në “Google”, ndërmjet tyre edhe maqedonas, të cilët kërkonin që emërtimi zyrtar të shkruhej në maqedonisht dhe që “Kongresi i Manastirit” të përkthehej në “Kongresi i Bitolas”, sot kam kënaqësinë e jashtëzakonshme që të ndaj me te gjithë ju që lexoni shqip, lajmin që “Google” e pranoi vendosjen e pikës në hartë me emërtimin primar në anglisht!. Pra nga sot e tutje kushdo që do shkojë të vizitojë Shtëpinë e Kongresit të Manastirit, mjaft që të kërkojë në “Google” në anglisht “The House of Congress of Manastir in Bitola” ose edhe vetëm “Congress of Manastir” dhe do gjej në hartën e “Google” pikën se ku ndodhet kjo shtëpi, me adresën e saktë dhe disa foto që i bëra shtëpisë dhe pllakave në të. Pra mjaft ta printosh këtë hartë në internet apo të kesh një smartphone dhe nuk ke më nevojë të sillesh vërdallë për të gjetur arsyen kryesore për të vizituar Bitolën e sotme ose Manastirin e dikurshëm. Ka shumë objekte historike-kulturore të rëndësishme për Shqipërinë, si rasti i Shtëpisë së Kongresit të Manastirit që gjenden brenda apo jashtë kufijve të Shqipërisë të cilat nuk kanë piketimin e tyre në hartën e “Google”, ose e thënë ndryshe janë të harruara e larg vëmendjes të një tregu prej miliona turistësh. Prandaj ndihem mirë, që i bëra një dhuratë të vogël promovimit të kulturës dhe historisë sonë në këtë 100-vjetor të shpalljes së Pavarësisë, por mbi të gjitha dua të përcjell shembullin që të gjithë ne mund të bëjmë shumë për promovimin e kulturës tonë jo domosdoshmërish me para, por me pak sforco e shumë dashuri.

* Kliton Gërxhani
Tourism Consultant

source: Shqip Newspaper Albania