When I was a curly-haired (and more ignorant) twelve year old in the Cold War years of the early 1980s, one day our History teacher asked the class a general knowledge question: “Who is the world's longest-serving current dictator?”
Nobody had the correct answer, though Chairman Mao was one of the few responses from the students. Mr Lamb (yes, that was his name) gave us some helpful clues. “Come on now! He's been in power since 1944 and he's not from Asia.” But still, there was no idea running through the developing minds of those in the group. “It's the Communist leader, Hoxha. Enver Hoxha in Albania,” he told us and wrote this strange sounding name on the board.
A decade and a half later (after French-educated Hoxha had been dead for almost ten years) I started to develop a morbid fascination with this country - a place the wider world knew little about. I read Paul Theroux's harrowing account of a few weeks he spent travelling there and from a ferry leaving Greece I saw part of its coast: rough, dry and barren of buildings. I discovered that both Albania's past, equally as much as its present, beggars belief and this pulled me into its orbit.
By the time Hoxha had been claimed by diabetes at the age of seventy six, his regime had modernised the economy in a classically Communist way: at a huge cost to the lives of its citizens. All across Albania, vicious historical blood feuds between families raged on and on unchecked and Hoxha's secret police, the “sigourmi,” used networks of ordinary people as informers on their workmates and neighbours. Tens of thousands were jailed or disappeared (often in the kind of nightmarish circumstances that could come straight out of a Kafka story) and it's estimated that up to twenty percent of the population were killed or died in forced labour.
When Hoxha's supposed “worker's paradise” came to an end there was a long, widespread orgy of general destruction of public property including factories. Combined with mass unemployment, severe shortages of food and fuel meant that the winter cold froze many people to death and thousands. Badly-needed professionals and working age men and women are still escaping to try to find work in neighbouring Greece or taking the short ferry to an often equally poverty-stricken existence in Italy. Some are going further away, including to Britain.
But even the years before Hoxha were no less bizarre. Albania's King Zog, who survived five assassination attempts, married an aristocratic half-American woman (having seen her in a photo.) The Albanian parliament insisted on seeing the bloody nightgown from her wedding night, as proof of her virginity. Their giant-sized only son Prince Leka moved to Spain, where he trained exiles for a planned guerilla war against Hoxha. Leka's combat practice became too much even for Franco's government and the prince's former royal playmate Juan Carlos was requested to ask Leka and his tribe to leave the country in the mid 1970s. He then took up residence in South Africa and hung around with the King of Zululand after marrying an Australian citizen and former teacher named Susan.
Meanwhile Albania was falling apart slowly. To see the country today is to witness corruption on a scale that makes Greece, Italy or Spain look like amateurish. Because of threats to their lives, the Prosecutor General Adriatik Llalla was recently forced to send his pregnant wife and two children to live in another European country. On top of this, environmentalist groups say they fear Albania will become Europe's dumping site now that the national government has agreed to take other countries recycling waste.
Albania has some of our continent's most spectacular scenery and quiet beaches. It has been predicted to become the next big thing in tourism often in the last few years but somehow it is still largely neglected.