The most interesting places to visit are often those furthest from the beaten path.
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After barely surviving the '90s, Albania finally got things together, and eventually established a market-based economy with a reasonably workable legal system. German and Greek banks abound, and Albanians have their own currency and a central bank. Albania is a member of NATO, and has applied for membership in the European Union, although it will be a long time before it’s admitted. While annual per capita income is reported at about $3,000, some 80 percent of the economy remains underground and unreported, and foreign investment is mostly limited to beachside hotels and condos (and the beaches are beautiful, largely unspoiled, and property is cheap). The bulk of foreign trade is made up of the 15 percent of GDP remitted to relatives from citizens working abroad.
ALBANIANS ARE A FRIENDLY LOT — helpful, well mannered, hospitable, and even pro-American. The American they love the most is George W. Bush, probably the only U.S. president who ever visited, whose name is found on bars and streets, and for whom a statue will soon be erected just outside Tirana. Albanian leaders seem to have a centuries-old addiction to power struggles undertaken at the expense of the people, who would probably rather be left alone to raise their cows and their children. These people seem to accept, with good humor, the residue of their police state — an antiquated and almost feudal farming system, rusting factories and power plants, mostly built by the Chinese, and lots of those awful concrete block apartment buildings from the Communist era. And they even accept, if begrudgingly, the fact that they were so abused by their dear Communist leader for so many years. As one told me, when I asked him about it, “We were all spied on, but then we were all spies.”
After 45 years of brutal Communist dictatorship and 20 years of struggling to undo it, Albania has finally established the outlines of a democratic government, the rule of law, and a free market. Although it stands at a crossroads, even a short visit renews one’s faith in the human spirit, and revives hope that the culture of this country will continue to reawaken and its people continue their return to faith as they rediscover what freedom means.