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The first person we met entering Albania was Baschkim Bountla, who works at a taxi rental agency at the airport in Tirana. He usually introduces himself as Giannis (John) when he is speaking to Greeks, because that's the name he was given when he used to work in Greece as an economic immigrant.
He adored Greece
Recently Baschkim sees more and more Greeks visiting his country and always does his best to serve them. He tells everyone how much he loved Greece: "In 1992 I was caught by a soldier when I was trying to secretly get in Greece and he beat me while he was trying to stop me. That's the worst behaviour I ever came across in Greece, everyone else has treated me perfectly. In the beginning, I used to shepherd cows in Xanthi, afterwards I became a fisherman in Porto Lagos and finally a labourer in Athens".
Apart from Greece, Baschkim has also worked in London, where the wages were better, but life was worse. "In England I lost my hair and after work I had nowhere to go and I always stayed home. In Greece I never lost a single hair and people kept inviting me to feasts. At the end, though, I returned to Albania with my pockets empty".
It seems that Albanians who are go back to Albania regain their self-confidence and free of insecurities and suspicions, they nostalgically look back to their time in Greece. In contrast, the Greeks who experience an uncontrolled entry of illegal immigrants from all over the world are more cautious in expressing their positive feelings towards the Albanians. This is because they're ignorant about Albania, which even though being the closest country to Greece, seems very distant and unknown for inexplicable reasons.
The Greeks are the best
Lefteri Giaoupai worked in Greece for 11 years and fell in love with it: "I worked in construction and restaurants with a daily wage over 40 euros. I didn't earn a lot of money to bring back home with me, but I gained my Greek friends, learned the Greek language and the Greek music which I adore. I enjoy old Greek films so much and I never miss them, I see them on the Greek channels via satellite TV. I also worked for a long time in Italy, Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.
The policy for immigrants in other countries is much crueller than it is in Greece. The only advanced country which we can enter and exit, even with some difficulty, is Greece. The people and physical nature of Greece cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Italians only eat spaghetti and their foods are very juicy, but Greeks are the kings of meat, the number one worldwide".
Lefteri was baptized Christian in Lamia and fell in love with his Greek boss' niece. It shattered his heart, but he decided to return to Albania in order to take care of his old parents who lived alone. His sister though, got married to a Greek in Kilkis of Macedonia and stayed in Greece. In order to visit her, Lefteri needs some travel papers that are very difficult to obtain. He detests bureaucracy since he used to live in Greece and he gets sad when he remembers Greeks waiting for hours in those long queues.
He travels for daily wages
Another Albanian who comes to Greece often is Demos Vissia, the taxi driver. He worked as a gardener in many parts of Greece for five years, until he put aside some money and bought a taxi along with his brother in Tirana. He planted tangerines, oranges, lemons and apples in his garden, all of them brought from Greece. He himself is a Christian and his wife is a Muslim, while their four children have Muslim names. It is more usual in Albania, in cases of marriage between people of different religion, to give their children their mother's religion, until they grow up and then choose for themselves the one that expresses them the most.
In 1992 Demos bought a two-acres plot five kilometers from the center of Tirana and paid 1,000 euro for it. In 2004 he built a family home of 110 sq. m. which cost him 15,000 euro. His taxi cost 9,000 euro and he shares the work with his brother. On the average they both earn 35 euro a day from the taxi, which is not enough to support their families. That's why Demos often goes to Greece, to work during olive gathering season or to tend gardens.
In Demos' home there are two televisions and a computer with internet access. He never oppresses or scolds his girls. He buys good veal meat with 5 euro per kilo and expensive fish with not more than 10 euro per kilo. Even though he is a Christian he doesn't eat pork at home, but in Greece he easily succumbs to a well-done steak. Most Albanians don't prefer pork meat regardless of their religion. While the 65% of the population abhors it, the rest of them follow the majority's culture out of respect.
Demos has deposited his savings in Tirana's Greek Alpha Bank and Greek Cosmote is their mobile phone provider, which dominates the Albanian market. However he rarely goes to listen to Greek folk music (bouzoukia), which is as popular in Albania as it is in Greece. They too throw flowers to the singers and break plates.
In Albania, people are crazy about Greek music. The Greek folk songs touch the Albanians' souls, while the Greek folk music only differs from theirs in the words. They also like the lyrics of the Greek songs because, as they say, they speak right to their hearts. If a popular Greek artist gives a concert in Tirana, the people would even deprive themselves of basic needs in order to buy a ticket.
Albanians also like the Greek language; they find it very expressive and powerful. At first they find it difficult, because it sounds strange and doesn't remind them of any other language. Afterwards, though, they find it rhetorical, melodious and with a large degree of freedom. They say that you can always find the words to evade situations and that there are no expressive deadlocks in the Greek language.
The Albanians who migrated to Greece also brought the Greek cuisine back with them. Greek salad, macaroni pie and tzatziki have now been established in Albania and so is the “legendary” frappe coffee. When they first went to Greece, they used to laugh with the Greeks who were slowly drinking their frappe coffee for hours, but in time came to love it as well.
Most of the repatriated Albanians open cafes and restaurants which are admittedly both cheap and of good quality. It is impressive that they work without breaks and are strict towards their employees, even more than their former Greek bosses used to be towards them.
Attracted to the Greek spirit
The Albanians find the educated Greeks more approachable, not because education makes people better, but because it teaches them to cover their negative emotions and be more considerate. They appreciate it when Greeks invite them to marriages and christenings and they're surprised when they even give them their keys without fear.
They also believe that Greeks trust them more than they do with immigrants of other nationalities. Frida Bendai, chief editor of the Albanian weekly newspaper Albanian Press, which can be found everywhere in Greece , says: "The Greek spirit is very popular in Albania, we are able to live together and be united, as if we have common blood running through our veins".
The Albanian construction worker Nervous Possia describes the way the way he was gradually linked to the Greek reality: "At first, when I returned to Albania from Athens and saw the Albanian mountains my heart fluttered. Around 15 years later, when I went back to Athens and reached Lamia, I was glad that I was finally going home".
In Tirana we met some Albanians who were sceptical towards Greek influences and prefer Turkey. We watched in surprise the way in which some Albanian guide finished his sightseeing tour speech to a group of Turkish students, in front the statue of the Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg, at the central square of Tirana: "We Albanians are very much alike with the Turks, we have the same lifestyle and we appreciate you a lot. We have you as an example and we wish for a cooperation between our countries…".
Despite the very short distance from the Greek border, the one million of Albanians living in Greece, the fact that most of them speak the Greek language and that the 20-30% of the Albanian economy is based on Greek investments, the young Albanian was looking to be accepted by a group Turkish schoolboys. All this took place in front of the statue of Skanterbeg, who was of Greek origin and died while fighting against the Ottomans.
Thirst for Greek culture
The issue of strict controls at the Greek-Albanian borders does not only deter illegal immigrants, but also the educated Albanians and artists, who wish to visit Greece driven by their interest and love for its culture and monuments. One person who has dedicated their life to the study of Greek culture is Apollo Bace, a professor of archaeology, one of the 40 members of the Albanian academy of scientists, who speaks ancient Greek fluently and loves Greek history and mythology, as we can certainly understand by his first name. On his desk there were many books with pictures of ancient Greek statues and on his computer screen, a text in ancient Greek.
Albanians come from the Illyrians, primeval people just like the Greeks, and they have a rich history. Unfortunately, though, the economically weak Albanian state doesn't have the resources needed to support both the spiritual and cultural legacy and development of the country, therefore education and archaeological searches aren’t the first thing on the agenda.
Skyscrapers and corporations are constantly springing up in Tirana, but museums and cultural institutions are not. The building where the scientists’ academy is housed looks miniscule compared to the bulky government buildings and the skyscrapers of the private corporations. Meanwhile, there are very few bookshops and music shops, a percentage much worse than in any other European country.
The Hoxha regime is greatly responsible for the aforementioned phenomenon, as it demonised foreign cultural influences. On the other hand, Greece has reason to reinforce the growth of Greek education in the neighbouring country, which is thirsty for arts and culture, and to promote the relations between the two countries to a higher level.
Repatriated in Albania
We met Stella, a young Albanian woman who spoke Greek fluently, on a bus at Tirana.
-How did you learn to speak Greek so well?
-I work as a nurse in a private clinic of Athens for 15 years.
-Do you often go to Tirana?
-Yes, because my husband now permanently lives here and he has opened a hi-tech auto body shop. He learned the job in Athens and repatriated with his Albanian assistant.
-Will you ever return to Albania?
-Of course, along with my young daughter. I already have a small souvenirs shop and I'm thinking about opening a jewellery shop in Tirana.
-Why don't look for work at one of the Greek hospitals, since you have nursing experience and you speak Greek fluently?
-I'm thinking about it, but I think that the salaries are adjusted to Albanian reality, which means 300-400 euros per month. It's not enough for me, because now I earn at least 1.100 euro per month in Greece. I will try to get a higher salary, I'll ask them to let me work even without pay for some time so that they can decide if I am worth the 700 euros I will ask for.
More and more Albanians are considering returning home, but they're afraid that they'll fail and that it'll be difficult for them to return to Greece and regain their previous place in the Greek labour market, because of the bureaucracy and the economic crisis. Their fear will probably stand in the way of developmental growth in Albania, now that business opportunities are on a rise there.
The Albanians who have returned home but get pensions from Greece are very satisfied, as in Greece the minimum pension after 15-20 years of work is 7-8 times higher than it is in Albania. Most of them, especially women with underage children, who have been favoured by the easiness of pension provision in Greece, are in a flourishing age and found their own businesses in Albania. Meanwhile, in case of serious health problems they travel to Greece, because they appreciate the high level of the Greek health system. Some of them even confess that they bring uninsured relatives with them, who are hospitalized in Greece, through the "back door".
In Albania many investments have been made by Greek companies, which represent more than one fourth of the Albanian economy. There are plenty of Greek bank branches and retail chains in the streets of Tirana. The Albanians who live in Greece are plentiful and have spread their preference for Greek products to the rest of their compatriots.
Setting up the Greek business in Albania is a task often undertaken by Greek executives, who mould Albanian employees to later take over the branches. The Greek cement industry TITAN is building a 200-million-euro factory outside Tirana. This has opened doors for similar investments. When in full operation, the factory will employ 250 Albanians and produce 1.5 million tons of cement per year.
Many Greeks also work in the neighbouring country, not only for Greek companies but for Albanian ones as well. It is estimated that about 300 Greek executives are presently employed in Tirana. One of them is Dimitri Pavlidis, who works as a technical director at a new Albanian cable TV company in Tirana. He says he's satisfied by his working experience in Albania and by his Albanian fellow workers, who with the proper guidance quickly learn new things and become accustomed to new technologies. Regarding the technological level of the company, he says: "not even the most best TV company in Greece has such modern equipment”.
People coming and going
At the Greek-Albanian border custom stations, the queues are often kilometres long and passport checks last hours. Thousands of Albanian immigrants pass through the borders every day from both directions. Over 1,750,000 people enter and exit Greece through Cacavia's customs office, and the number of cars passing the borders is also very impressive.
During Christmas, Easter and The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, at least 750 busses, 6,000 private cars and 350 trucks pass the borders. This is absolutely normal, considering that more than a million of Albanian immigrants now live and work in Greece, a record number for the population sizes of both countries. Mutatis mutandis, it is about the biggest population mixing between two countries on an international level. This mixing, however, is not bidirectional, it only happens in Greece, which has led to the Albanian population's decline 3-3.5 millions of citizens.
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS