My understanding of Albania was the consequence of a research project on the near Balkan states, and arrived, suddenly, with no warning, like norovirus on a cheap, Adriatic cruise: you purchase a berth and follow a moderately educational itinerary in the hope of disease-free cultural exposure, but instead gain unwanted insight into the shared, 3rd-class toilets and the biology of your fellow passengers, something that can never be un-learned.
It’s hard to point fingers. Can we blame the Albanians themselves? The toxic, Balkan, political soup whose recipe dates to the rift of the Roman Empire? The injurious influence of neighbouring, Slavic states who have made it their mission to slap the luckless Albanians down whenever history begins to smile on this ancient and chronically subjugated people (or, rather, when history’s perennial frown begins to soften)? I am going to play it safe, and point a couple of fingers, in the shape of automatic pistols, while noisily strafing the entire room and mouthing the sounds of gunfire.
Few dare shine a light on this dark spot on the European map. But when your attention is unwillingly captured, between bouts of dry heaving, a remarkable and tragic picture emerges. Albanians are ferociously patriotic, and not without reason. They are also ferociously antipathetic to outsiders, also not without reason. Please, read on, be forewarned, and realise you cannot blame me for any unwanted, chronic symptoms.
The Albanians are an ancient people, the most ancient in southeast Europe by some estimates, and were among the first inhabitants of the Illyrian-Pelasgian peninsula. A few ethnologists consider them to be some of the earliest migrants from the Caucasus, and the roots of the modern Albanian language predate Latin and Ancient Greek. Significantly, many linguists, and all Albanians, believe their language is the basis of Greek mythology: a convincing example shows modern Albanian words of ancient origin to form the roots for the names of deities such as ‘Zeus’, ‘Athena’, ‘Thetis’, and nearly every other proper noun in Greek legend.
Thus Albania’s relationships with its neighbours and, to a lesser extent, with distant powers, are subject to two considerations:
1) Albanians were the original inhabitants of the modern Balkan states, and thus have legitimate claim to all of the land from the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas, in the west, to the shores of the Black Sea in the east.
2) Albania is the source of all Western civilisation.
Albanian contact with the world beyond has long been under the injurious influence of adjacent, Slavic states, who have stifled its efforts to promote its legitimate interests outside the Balkans, and thus Albania has adopted a rather risky diplomatic strategy which has, as its primary focus, the elimination of all peoples who would stand in the way of its claims, in addition to those who have systematically taken advantage of the Albanians’ trusting and peace-loving nature. In distinct contrast to nearby states (i.e. Croatia) whose best approach is to minimise the risk of untimely conflict with bigger neighbours and ingratiate itself through convenient alliances (Danke Deutschland!), the Albanians have put all of their lekë together in an enormous pile and purchased one, giant, geopolitical lottery ticket. In fact, the stunning propensity of the Albanians to take enormous, and tragic, risks is well documented – http://bit.ly/bNuYSN
Any sensible person must agree: they have little to lose. Every book I had ever read concerning Albania was careful to point out the staggering dearth of reliable historical records. The Greeks recorded the presence of Illyrian tribes, and they are known through coinage and the few ruins that remain of their inadequately fortified cities. In the 3rd century BC the northern Illyrians at Shkodra, close relations of the modern Albanians, embarked on the first of a small number of remarkably ill-planned but daring gambits by launching a suicidal naval attack on Roman ships. The Romans, then emerging as the most powerful city-state on the Italian peninsula (something the Albanian forefathers seem to have overlooked), quickly gained a foothold in Illyria and, a few generations later, had managed to assume control of the entire civilisation, defeating king Gentius, sacking his castle and pre-empting any Albanian ambitions of self-determination for the next two millennia. The whole of the comparatively little history recorded on the Albanians from that moment onward reads like a plaintive, American slave hymn.
Now, before you light that torch and reach for your pitchfork, may I ask you to read the other posts in this ill-spirited blog? I sincerely love the Adriatic Balkan states (big shout out to my ‘domies’ Professor Dobericious, Ivo, Dan, Igor, Marin, Minister Mršić ), and I would gladly leave my home in the withering, cultural desert of California to join my spiritual brothers on the other side of the earth where hospitality, drinas, and rich, rustic wine flow freely. I have never met an Albanian whom I didn’t like; not least for the comically large, pendulous, brass balls that every citizen of that country assumes as a birthright. It’s more than I can say for Californians, and, at least, for future Adriatic visits, I am now armed with the necessary, cultural prophylactics.
 The lek (plural lekë) is the primary unit of Albanian currency.