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Do we look like prostitutes to you? One was a TV producer, the other the anchor of Albania's top news show. They were interviewing me for that evening's program, wanting to know what I, a visiting journalist, thought of Albania and its people. The London Times had just run a story portraying Albania as a cesspool of gangsters, whores and medieval farmers, a ruined Balkan nation full of trash heaps, stolen cars and burned-out communist factories. What did I think? They sat expectantly, camera running.
I was too embarrassed to admit I had come to Albania as a joke. I arrived as a car-wreck-tourist visiting to experience the lingering disaster of Europe's last Stalinist regime. Fittingly, when my trip began a week before, the beat-up Subaru that picked me up had a bullet hole in its hood.
When I entered the country at its northern border with Montenegro, we passed a dozen abandoned gas stations, remnants of black market trade during the Yugoslav wars. Nearby we saw fortified luxury homes owned by people my guide euphemistically called "day traders. The approach to the northern city of Shkodra was as I expected: a winding rutted road dotted with trash.
Elaborate roadside memorials to drivers killed in car accidents appeared with the frequency of caution signs. I saw weary women wearing black smocks and white kerchiefs leading mules burdened with firewood to distant farms. The only industry I saw was junk yards selling parts from the rusted hulks of cars. As we reached the outskirts of Shkodra, we passed block after block of depressing communist-era public housing the color of rotting nectarines.
But as we entered central Shkodra something seemed amiss. Traffic was orderly. My hotel not only had power, but was air-conditioned and filled with friendly, attentive staff. Across the street, a nun strolled past the front of a mosque, the picture of religious harmony. Around the corner, well-dressed men sipped Turkish coffee at cafes in Italian colonial buildings.