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My 1984 visit to Albania's UN Mission

 

I was recently leafing through the new White Pages when I chanced upon the entry for Albania’s Mission to the UN—an address and number which until this year remained unlisted. I became rather obsessed with Albania last year while traveling through Eastern Europe. I asked people in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, “What can you tell me about Albania?” A shrug and a “nothing” was as in-depth an answer I received.

Reading voraciously the little information available about this small Balkan state to which no American is permitted, I became interested in the Albanian point of view on world affairs, their own history, their culture. Letters to Tirana, the Albanian capital, proved fruitless. So it was with great excitement and a fair amount of trepidation that I ventured to their UN Mission office on Lexington Avenue in Midtown. Having read horror stories in the British and American press about French fishermen being picked off by Albanian border guards simply for straying “too close” to the Albanian coast, and about British tourists who must get haircuts and take disinfecting footbaths before being granted entrance to the country, I was wondering if I’d leave the Mission in one piece, let alone with all my hair.

The Spanish-speaking doorman rang up to the Mission office, and reported that someone taking a course in Eastern European affairs is here, interested in literature on Albania. I lied. Frankly, I’m a bit embarrassed being legitimately interested in Albania, so I made up that Eastern Europe course stuff. After a moment, the disembodied voice on the intercom, also in Spanish, said he would be down in a few minutes with some books. Aha, I thought, so this is how they do it: they cordially supply me with the propaganda they deem appropriate, not permitting me to come in and ferret out the propaganda of my choice. What limits!

Fifteen minutes later the lobby elevator doors opened. A sharply dressed, clean cut gentleman carrying an overstuffed manila envelope came to the front door, exchanged some Spanish words with the doorman, and extended his hand to me. “¡Buenos días!” I said. I guess I was nervous.

He escorted me to a bench in the lobby, and after we exchanged pleasantries, he got down to business. “I have included several books about Albania here. This one discusses the history of the Party of Labour,” he said, pulling from the envelope a thick red hardbound volume. This one writes about the Anglo-American and Zionist threats to Albania,” he explained through a half-apologetic smile. “These books will give information on Albanian foreign and domestic policies.”

I thanked him, and asked if he had any material on social and cultural life in Albania. He thought for a moment, then said that upstairs he could get me a copy of New Albania, a cultural and political magazine. I meekly asked if I could join him upstairs. “Of course! Please!” he said to my utter surprise.

So up we went. In the elevator, I asked where he had learned Spanish so well. It seems he had spent some time in Chile during the Allende years. Now it was my turn to smile apologetically.

We arrived at the fifteenth floor. No armed guards, no footbaths, just a bald and rotund gentleman inviting me into a sort-of waiting room. The sharply-dressed man excused himself as the heavy man closed off my room with a green drapery. All alone behind the curtain, I overheard them speaking their native Albanian language, which is only remotely related to other European tongues.

Too excited to just sit, I poked around the room. Small Albanian folk crafts dotted the walls and surfaces. Most prominent, however, was the obligatory portrait of Enver Hoxha, the Communist President of Albania since its liberation in 1944.

The drapes rustled. The heavy man’s rear-end poked through. I quickly sat down. He came into the room backwards, and turned around to reveal a glass tray in his hands. “Do you like cognac? This is Albanian cognac.” “Sure!” I smiled as I stood up.

My host now re-entered with another manila envelope filled with more books, and some rather pop-oriented information: a large fold-out map of Albania (perhaps the largest in the New Word, I mused), and the latest issue of New Albania, featuring a film review, an interview with a ballet dancer, some photos of “summer fun” along the Adriatic, and of course, a hefty dose of political propaganda. In a country where pop music is banned and listening to foreign radio broadcasts can earn one a prison sentence, pop culture info is only so in-depth.

We sat, sipped out cognac, and talked. Or rather, he talked: in Albania, it is Man who is put on a pedestal above all material considerations. When he sees the crime in the streets of New York, the filth, the drugs, the prostitution, he finds it impossible to understand. Albania’s socialism has put an end to internal struggle, as each man, woman, and child, is working toward the common goal of true freedom and true equality for all through Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist Socialism.

Since liberation, the literacy rate in Albania has been reversed. Where 85% of the population was illiterate before 1944, today, 85% of Albania’s nearly two million citizens can read and write. Albania’s agricultural system, completely collectivized in 1967, has greatly increased productivity and efficiency, so that, since 1976, the country has been self-sufficient in bread-grain production. Its industry is largely self-reliant, as productivity has increased nearly forty-fold since liberation. The Albanian government is particularly proud of the fact that, in 1970, the last Albanian village was wired for electricity, completing the electrification of the entire country.

Albania views imperialism and “revisionism” as the two greatest evils in the world today, and condemns the United States and the Soviet Union respectively as the most heinous perpetrators of these offences.

My low tolerance for alcohol has saved many an otherwise dull moment, and this time was no exception. After twenty minutes of nodding and “uh-huh-ing” as appropriate, I was still capable of maintaining a serious expression on my face, but my brains were having a party. In my altered state, I was able to ask with only slight embarrassment if he had any Albanian socialist-realist propaganda posters to give me. He didn’t, but gave me the number of someone who might, as well as the business card of someone up in The Bronx who deals in Albanian video cassettes.

My lust for Albanian pop culture was now temporarily satiated, though my academic cover was by this time surely blown. At least I didn’t ask for Albanian bubblegum cards.

My ever-the-gentleman host showed me out the door and escorted me to the elevator. “It is an Albanian custom to escort guests to the border of your land, after which,” he laughed, “they are no longer your responsibility.” I considered adding that Albanians sometimes indeed take responsibility for those beyond their territory, but thought better of mentioning that French fisherman incident, and instead, chuckled and nodded.

“Adios” to the doorman, and I stumbled on to Lexington Avenue with my two overstuffed envelopes, slightly drunk with the cognac, and slightly drunk with the pleasure of having actually pursued this thing to its end.

With the genuine hospitality the Albanians paid me, it would hardly surprise me a bit if for next year, they pay the phone company those few dollars extra for a bold-faced entry.

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