Wednesday, June 04, 2014

it is forbidden

“Have you ever eaten iguana?”

The puckish question was posed during a conversation between expatriates concerning the large population of iguana in Manzanillo.

”What does it taste like?”

”I don’t know.  But I hear chicken tastes like iguana.”

A European woman, whose country of origin is well-known for its fragile grasp of irony, understatement, or overstatement, shrieked: “Eet ees vorbitten!!!”  (And, yes, Felipe, she used three exclamation points.  Really!!!)

Hers could have been a voice from my past.  When I lived in Greece, I wanted to visit Albania.  From Corfu, the coastline of Albania seems close enough to touch.

But, I couldn’t.  Go to Albania, that is.  It was forbidden.  In that era, Communist Albania closed its borders to the rest of the world -- turning itself into the North Korea of Europe.

Even if Albania had borders as porous as the European Union, Albania would have been off limits to me.  As was Yugoslavia and the rest of red Europe -- especially Romania, for reasons that are not relevant to this essay.

But, all that has changed.  Albania has become a tourist magnet.  Enver Hoxha would be rolling in his grave if he could see the waves of decadent bourgeois Germans invading Saranda.  What was once a sleepy little fishing village is now a buzzing tourist stop.  With a 5-star hotel.  Stylish boutiques.  And luxury cars stolen from other European nations.

Admittedly, it looks like any other Balkan town that has tried to make up for lost development time.  Think modern Athens or Istanbul.  But on a much smaller scale.

Most tourists come for a week or two.  We were there for just one day.

In the 1970s, I dreamed of slipping into Albania to set up a cell of freedom fighters.  Yesterday, I did something a bit different.

Just outside of Saranda is an archaeological site (Butrint) that was explored and developed by an Italian archeologist.  It is one of those archaeological sites that is almost a full timeline of its country’s history.

Archaeologists have found the remnants of societies from the stone and iron ages.  With evidence establishing that the Ilyrian, the ancestors if the current Albanians, were one of the first people to settle the Balkans.

The Hellenistic ruins are the most beautiful with their massive building stones and a very practical theater.  The Greeks were followed by a colony established by Julius Caesar and expanded throughout the Roman Empire.

In 1338 Albania was gobbled up by the Ottoman Empire and remained under Turkish rule (with a few Venetian elements added to the site from the Ottoman’s Christian allies in Venice) until 1912.  Turkish control left 60% of the Albanians as Muslims.

But Albania was not destined to be independent for long.  Along came Mussolini and his gang – only to be replaced by the Stalin-Mao-loving communists in 1945.  The reds were ousted 23 years ago.

That is a lot of history for one site -- let alone one country -- to bear.  Interestingly, most of the history is still lying on the ground or is very accessible in a small on-site museum.  It made me think of most archaeological sites in Mexico a decade ago.

So, another forbidden land now has a check mark beside its name.  Croatia and Montenegro are next on the list.

It turns out that not everything is forbidden.

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