Tour of Albania: prologue vol. 1

Lack of hope has a color: gray. In 1989 I was a fresh-faced 19 year old living and studying in the sunshine of California when the concept of “a world of possibilities” was destroyed. The boy/man that stepped off the plane in Sofia, Bulgaria for a world championship competition was not ready for the otherworld he entered – a world without color where lights and darks were reversed – the damp light of the shiny streets empty of cars, the bland taupe wasteland of row after row of identical tenements, and a darkening sky fed by an endless font of black coal dust – the fuel for heating humans and factories. After our warm-up jogs, we would cough up a black mucus of coal dust.

Thus - from those first imprints on my teenage brain was formed a morbid fascination with the effects of a totalitarian regime on a society and its surrounding landscape. Time has given those memories - like the negatives of an old picture - a rich patina of meaning: what is lost in clarity, is gained in grainy contrasts.

The people of communist Bulgaria lacked color as well. Desiccated by a life of hardship and conformity, in the city a uniform of black overcoats and black hats, gray trousers, and heavy black shoes framed expressionless countenances. The other athletes and I found ourselves nervous when we ourselves were found smiling or laughing – we joked uneasily that perhaps it was illegal. As we wandered the afternoon crowds, I wanted to pry open a mouth to see if it was gray inside…

In the brittle bone chilling cold of the eternal twilight of an Eastern European winter, the streets and parks were crowded with throngs of gray and graying people shuffling about with an indeterminate purpose - the shops were open, but nothing was for sale – row after row of empty shelves and the furtive movements of the slack jawed shoppers. Everyone was old – where were the children? No laughter, no voices, just the quiet rustling of despair.

In the center of the city we found a white stone monument decorating the end of the square, and, past the stern military guard, we followed the faithful and marched down a dimly lit series of stone steps, our frozen breath briefly ignited by the glare of the occasional bulb, and came into underground chamber with the same dim fluorescent lighting now directly overhead. Moving through the chiaroscuro outlines of the crowd we approached a thick glass case – and in it was an embalmed body laid out in the cold gray light where it had been since 1949.

40 years. Georgi Dimitrov, the father of Communist Bulgaria. Their god was dead.

20 years later and in the cold glare of my laptop, I’m planning a trip to Albania – just a few hundred miles away from the Sofia of old. An enigmatic small country between Greece, Macedonia, Kosova, and Montenagro, Albania’s communist past makes Bulgaria’s lockstep communism look like a carnival. For 42 years no one was allowed in or out, and the country was held in the iron grip of a dictator who, amongst other atrocities, outlawed religion creating the world’s first atheist state, and instituted a network of informers “Sigourami” who ruled the ‘lives of others’ (my favorite movie of all time) through careful compilations of each state worker’s “Biografi”. Lack of conformity meant prison camp and/or death.

Albania was the last holdout of communism in Europe, but eventually Enver Hoxha died in 1985 and communism finally fell in 1992.

-from Lloyd Jones “Biografi”

“Enver Hoxha, he continues, had been a religion.” “Even I. I was very, very sad when Enver died. At my office no one was brave enough to mention his death. Imagine, please, if we said the Emperor was dead and he turned out not to be? We waited for the radio report before we could speak of his death. Some had cried with genuine grief, others because they thought it was dangerous not to.”

“Some turned white believing something catastrophic would happen. The crops would shrivel and die. The seas would rise. They would be obliged to walk on stilts.”

Albania is easily Europe’s poorest, most backward state. So why, in gods name, would I want so badly to travel there? Why has it been #1 or #2 on my list for more than a decade?

A rent of color. The answer lies in the continuation of my first visit to Bulgaria. In that two week trip to Sofia little changed in the outward aspect of the city– still the graying men and women and the stiff formal coordination of the competition. I grew quite sick and lost 17 pounds during our time there from spoiled food. But even as I suffered, starved and vomited, little glimpses of light and color began to show through the façade. A young skater who spoke a little english smiled at me, asked questions about America, showed me a bootleg tape she had made with American music. She ended up writing me letters and a decade later, Evgenia Radanova become a world and Olympic champion.

147 lbs.

Our last night there, the figure skaters found out about an illegal party – deep in the bowels of the city, underground in a restaurant with blackened windows to hide the lights, a modern disco betrayed its presence with a booming sound system and a line of young, well dressed partiers, nervously waiting to get in, clearly worried by the armed soldier who had likely been well paid to ignore the illegal activity. Never mind that the crowd was dancing to Gloria Gaynor and disco as though it were brand new, there was an energy to that room and those people – an explosion of smiles, goodwill and freedom ready to throw off the shackles of the old gray guard.

Only 10 months later in November of 1989, loyal armed guards masquerading as a “change of the guard” slipped quickly beneath the noses of a huge encampment of protesters dominating the square and stealthily removed Georgi Dimitrov’s body from his public tomb and cremated him in a quiet ceremony w/ family. A few months later and Bulgaria elected its first parliament. Winter was over…

The same month I entered Budapest as a part of the first contingent of American speedskaters to cross the iron curtain into Hungary since WWII. We competed outdoor on the moat of a 14th century castle in a rare sunny weekend in February – but already spring had begun in this part of Eastern Europe - splashes of color and the occasional smile crossed those usually serious faces. Everyone wanted a part of us – for the one and only competition of my life, we had “groupies” who showed us around and were fascinated by our every move.

Fast forward a month and I’m in West Berlin, walking to and from East Berlin, pick-axing segments of brightly colored painted concrete from the infamous wall which had fallen just months before. Standing in the dead zone between the two walls in the island city surrounded by the state of East Germany I tried to imagine how it was possible for a society to live so long so close to each other and tolerate such a complete inversion of basic human needs – for the freedom to choose, the freedom to smile, the freedom to dissent, the freedom to pursue happiness. I imagined myself as one of those heroes who either fell trying to escape or who was clever enough to cross the border disguised as a car seat, or packed in a gas tank, or who mined a narrow tunnel for years underneath the wall.

Following East Berlin I headed to Prague where I fell in love with the rise of the human spirit from oppression – everywhere was an energy, a love of being alive, of feeling lucky to be in “this time.” Romance bloomed and everywhere you looked there were flowers sprouting and couples making out without a care for the world. I wrote about it in my journal (which I subsequently lost), took pictures, and in an adventure for another telling, lived for nearly a week with a troupe of Gypsies – Roma – who adopted me into their strange life.

Albania still lives in this crossroads – of emerging freedoms, of the resurfacing of the human spirit after decades of oppression and conformity. Its road to freedom has been difficult – much of the late 90’s were fraught with conflict, anarchy, and starvation. Since the early 2000’s though progress has been made, and spring has returned to Albania.

I go there to ride my bike, primarily, or perhaps not. Albania boasts, for one thing, the last deserted stretches of brilliant blue Mediterranean coastline, and a windy coastal road with very little traffic that is not donkey powered. It also has one of the last centers of a dying race – the “Vlachs” who were ushered up into the mountains before being ignored by the communists – only 50,000 or so of this race and language remain. Traffic in the cities is apparently truly hellish – in 1992, at the end of communism, only 2000 cars were registered in the whole country – no citizen was allowed to own a car, and most had never been in one. Fast forward a decade and a half and now over a million cars fight for space on narrow roadways and absolutely no parking lots. Albania has by far the highest death rate for traffic accidents in all of Europe. Fortunately I don’t intend to ride anywhere near Tirana where nearly half the country’s population lives.

Yes, of course I go to ride my bike – racing season is upon me – but more than that I go to witness the rise of the brilliant colors of the human spirit against the gray backdrop of tyranny. Freedom has many colors…

I’ll take pictures...

-John

Pre-race jitters: how evolution failed us

The body is an amazing contraption, full of natural instincts like “fight or flight” and “blink" instincts that make all kinds of intuitive and rational sense. Pre-race nerves, however, make no rational sense: explain to me how the sensation of molten lead for blood, mental numbness, and a vague sense of nausea contribute to “survival of the fittest.”

If lions readying for the kill felt this way they’d have gone extinct years ago…

Of course, maybe I’m just the prey…