Thursday, March 12, 2009


Back from a short visit to Albania, some reflections on that country. For starters it was my first visit and I have not been in the Balkan region for over 20 years. Well before they decided (or whatever happened) to disintegrate Yugoslavia into x number of midget states during a terrible war in other words.

For those who know their history Albania was a communist state post second world war, ruled most of that time by Enver Hoxha. It broke away from the Soviet Union infuense though. The "post-Hoxha" time was chaotic and I remember seeing the movie Lamerica mid 90s sometimes, a not very positive movie presenting a country in chaos.

So I was most pleasantly surprised to find this small country (roughly 3 million inhabitants) being fairly "modern" and inhabited by very friendly, helpful and hospitable people. Everyone tries to help, tries to speak English and as a matter of fact I was barely left alone to eat.

Food is a story in itself, mixture of Italian, meditteranian and more robust "farm cooking". I am NOT used to eating 3-4 courses for lunch and felt rather stuffed a lot of the time.

An especially memorable meal was a late lunch by Lake Pogradec on our way back from Korca to Tirana. We stopped at a very empty restaurant (low season) and was treated the best grilled lamb I have ever eaten. Full stop.

That was one day when I simply skipped dinner. Another time I had to leave the better part of a pot of lovely pork suckling baked with potato. Too much food in short - but great food.

It was a bit chilly, I have not been in Europe during that season for many years. And strange - some offices and houses are actually colder inside than it is outside! The office in Korca in particular, brrr.

We (I was with a colleague, P G Skog) found that no meeting was held without coffee "espresso style" and rarely without being served Raki. Maybe to keep the warmth? And most of the time "farm" Raki from someone's relatives rather than from the shop. That includes the acting Director General of NES that the mission was focused on.

Here some Albania photos

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Do I look gullible?

Written 8 March:
Am spending the day at Rome Airport, no fun at all. OK I have a day-room at Hilton Hotel so at least I have somewhere to rest. However: the room is nice and designed and so on but NOTHING comes with it, not even a bottle of water. Or internet access. Tea and coffe, end of story. And the prices for food in their restos are so mad I simply walked over to the airport to get a bite.

Coming fresh from the very friendly Tirana where my room included hi-speed internet it feels a bit weird that the supposedly "first-world" Italy and fancy Hilton can not offer that. Never mind.

Sadly I can never really sleep during daytime unless I am exhausted so I just rest, read and try to relax. My flight for Addis Abeba leaves at 1.15 in the night so I have time on my hands.

I guess I should have gone into Rome as I have never been there but all stories I have heard (and what I have seen so far) have led me to suspect I likely would not have been back on time or without any money left.

Most of the time when I get stopped by police on the road in my various criss-crossing travels of southern or eastern Africa I have no problems and get "let off the hook" quite easily. I have attributed it to a certain easygoing attitude combined with patience but maybe I just look "too daft or gullible" and they sort of feel sorry for me?

This thinking is because 2 times in a couple of hours I was hit on by conmen here at the airport. Guy nr 2 I can not prove (I can not PROVE nr 1 either but if I am wrong I will be more than surprised) however as I walked away from him.

Guy number 1 I meet in the long tunnel from airport to hotel. Conversation goes a something like this:
"Excuse me sir do you speak English" - this in a very to me UK-sounding accent
"yes I do why"?
"Well I have just missed my flight and need to call my brother in UK to ask for help. Would you have 3 Euro to help me make a call"?
"No but you can use my phone"
"Well he has to call me back with a booking number so I want to use one of the payphones that has a number on it"
OK I give the guy a coin I happen to have and even as I walk away from it I suspect it was a con.

That was underlined by the fact that I see the same guy 2 more times in the next hour in the same tunnel... and he is still there when I go for check-in another 5-6 hours later.

Next one gets on me when I am buying something to eat, with one of those almost incomprehensible English dialects. A long story unwinds of how he has driven down from UK and lost everything, now has to wait the whole day at the airport. Had to give taxi driver wedding ring, watch, overcoat. I leave him before I hear the end of the story.

So in other words - do I look like a con target, soft and naive? A question for me to ponder, you don't have to comment or answer.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Italian Experience

There is a movie by that name. There is now also one of those "I will never forget" experiences of my life I will label the same.

It does not happen very often that I get completely mad angry and "blow the top" in public outside the closed circuit of family and friends. Normally I label myself as probably a bit too "timid" and patient. Today's encounter with italians in general and Alitilia specifically however made me completely lose it.

From now on I have no problems understanding why they have not managed to organise a working government since forever, why Napoli is drowning in uncollected garbage and why the Roman Empire collapsed. As well as why Alitalia was bankrupt and noone even wants the leftovers. The answer to all this is "that is not my problem". It is not strange that the Mafia is in control as at least the businesses they control do work - the only thing that really surprises is that there ever was a Roman Empire and that Italy has a strong national soccer team.

These statements are the results of today's experience. I arrive at Rome airport around 5.30 am local time. I have been travelling since around 2-3 pm Saturday using Ethopian Airways and am all but kicking even if everything has worked out and the trip has actually been fine - this far.

The first thing that greets me is what I call "the Maputo experience", meaning there is not a living soul in sight until AFTER you walk through security etc and get all the alarms ringing. Then a sleepy guy shows up and we re-do the exercise.I ask this person for the transfer desk and am told to find "C1".

That no shop or cafe is open on a Sunday morning at this hour I can understand. A completely empty transferdesk I do have a problem with though. OK, I have plenty of time as the connecting flight leaves at 10.15. Or so I think at least.Time passes and around 7 am most shops and caf├ęs have opened. Not the transfer desk though, it is as abandoned as can be. An information desk or such does not exist, all I have is a screen that tells me my gate will be C36. I find another transfer desk that is just as abonded as C1.

OK, I might surf on internet to keep me busy. Right, for starters the "buy internet time"-site works only with Internet Explorer and does not help Macintosh users or users of Firefox, Opera or other alternatives. OK, I have set up a way to use IE just for this kind of situations. Then I am told to put a "future date" for my visa-card. It DOES expire this month but DOES work this month. Not according to the crappy programmer who coded this site. So forget internet.

Somewhere around 7.45 the "wrong" transfer desk is manned. I meet a quiet man who is on the same flight, he works for the Saudi embassy. He has been told to wait 10 minutes. I walk up to the desk with my papers and am told "he does not handle Alitalia, go to C1". My new friend and I walk to C1 that is just as unmanned as before.

So I figure I might do some shopping while waiting - "where is your boardingcard, you can not shop without boardingcard". Catch 22 if I ever saw one.

Around 8.30 we have walked to the gate as we can think of nothing else to try. Unmanned of course. When we get back to C1 it is actually manned - by Qatar Airways. We and other form a long queue, I am no 3 in line. Everyone in the queue is hoping these guys also do Alitalia. When it is my turn I am told "do I look like Alitalia". Let me not tell you what I wanted to say to guy my opionion of what he looked like. Tissue is used in that area - to give you a hint. This is when I lose it and scream to the queue that as we are all Alitalia we are lost and I have been trying for 3.5 hours to find ANYONE Alitalia, the supposed national airline carrier, to give me a boardingcard. Mr Qatar goes mad and bangs the phone in the desk and tries to outstare me and for a while a fist is clearly "just around the corner". I manage to control myself and start walking to the gate as I see no other option. It is now little more than an hour before take-off.

In desperation I grab an airport security guy and ask where the I can find an Alitalia person. Well, miracles do happen as the lady with him actually works for them. Hallelua. She tells me they have a new transfer desk at "C20".

Great that noone seems to know and nowhere is that information displayed so you can find your way there. C20 is in a new terminal to which you must go by tram. My timid friend, who I think was more than a little bit scared by my outburst, shows up and have been given same info by same lady. Right, we arrive there and for surel 2 ladies are actually dealing with Alitalia transfers. Behind us a queue forms of old C1 friends, some of them now quite desperate not to miss their flights.

Do I even have to say the queue barely moves? One of the ladies is dealing with an old black lady from Nigeria that get so tired she just sits down on the floor. She apparently only speaks Urubu - noone else does. She is on her way to New York and carry a handwritten note stating her daugher will meet her. No address, no name, no phone numbers. Sorting her out took the consorted efforts of all black people around and anyone even remotely suspected connected to Africa. The guy at the other counter need around 20 boardingcards, God only knows where he was heading. A third counter is opened but the man will only deal with one customer at a time and stops serving people when a queue forms. Now that is what I call service...

Finally I get a boardingcard and can proceed to the gate. I now have around 5 minutes instead of hours to shop - is that not excellent business attitude?

It was a relief to arrive in Tirana (a first for me) where people are so friendly and wanting to assist despite poor English that you feel charmed just by their efforts. Only problem up to now you are not left alone to eat as everyone wants to practice their English and make sure you are fine.

Bon giorno - really?