Eyewitness to 1984, Part Two

The Second Visit

This is the second part of Armand’s story about traveling in Albania. In Part I he discussed his first trip there with a private aid group originating in Naples, Italy. At that time Armand was staying with my first wife and I just south of Naples, while I was stationed there with NATO. Several months after his first trip, Armand went back on his own to perform additional relief work and explore. This is his account of the second trip.

Armand wrote and attempted to have his story, “Eyewitness to 1984,” published about 1997. He did get Part I published in a travel magazine that folded immediately afterwards. As Armand retained copyrights and publications rights, he let me also publish it on a travel website I operated at the time. However, this is the first time the second part of his story has ever been published.

This has been edited for obvious spelling and grammatical errors, and formatted for best presentation on this website. Otherwise, this story is exactly as Armand wrote it.

Chapter One – Ulli

Armand Charest in 2000
Armand Charest in 2000

It was with a sense of apprehension and anticipation that I embarked on my second trip to Albania in August, 1992. I wondered if my mixed emotions were due to the fear of undertaking a journey alone to a strange country. But I considered myself a seasoned traveler and I had been there before. So I had to admit to myself that my hesitation had something to do with discovering that perhaps some of our unfinished projects were just that. I realized also that I looked forward to seeing the lady doctor again. There was only one certainty—this trip would be on a more personal level than the first one.

The company operating the ferry lines institutes a strange policy (to me anyway) in July and August. In what should be its busiest months, it limits passenger capacity to available cabins and seats. There is no standing room on the decks. The boats leave Italy on Saturday and Wednesday nights and return the next day, whereas, there is only one weekly sailing from Bari the rest of the year, on Saturday. For some reason, I could not comprehend that type of business arrangement. Consequently, the ferries are jammed on Saturday nights as I found out much to my chagrin. I could not buy a ticket, so I had to return to Naples. But the delay was not a total loss since I became acquainted with Ulli.

He had just spent a year in Italy studying modern furniture making at a technical institute maintained by the Italian government to educate citizens of Eastern European countries and was returning home with the intention of passing his knowledge on to his countrymen. Ulli was determined to do something about the deplorable economic situation. He spoke very good English, was well read and knowledgeable about current events. Camus was his favorite author; Bob Dylan his revered singer. It was he who alerted me to the changed sailing schedule as we stood in line to buy tickets in the chaotic ferry terminal.

In Naples I made reservations at a travel agency. On Wednesday I retraced my steps and found my seat on the boat with no problem. We left at 10:00 p.m. At 10:05 I met Ulli again. We greeted each other like lost relatives; we even had adjoining seats.

Ulli was a patriot and an atheist, a product of the education system foisted on the people by the party. As I soon discovered, he was no friend of America. I could not really fault him on that since I’m not always crazy about it myself, especially when it does not act in a democratic and honorable manner. But his dislike seemed to go deeper than mere verbal hostility. It was rooted in ideological beliefs instilled in him since infancy and probably never questioned by any outsider like myself. That thought sobered me into taking pains to be on my best behavior and not get rattled by any hostility on his part or on my own for that matter. I guessed I was the first American he had ever encountered: he was my first communist acquaintance. It proved to be an interesting relationship.

Neither one of us could sleep so we paced the decks talking about—everything. Inevitably our discussion turned to the role of America in the world’s affairs. Why doesn’t the U.S. do something about the burgeoning crisis in neighboring Bosnia, he wanted to know? Was it because there was no oil, unlike the situation in the Gulf? Or was it from dislike of Muslims in Europe? I had no answers. In return I tried to explain the limits of the president’s power as outlined in the Constitution and the fact that such action as intervention in Bosnia could only be undertaken with NATO’s consent and cooperation. He should have known that from reading Italian newspapers.

To his questions as to why the West was not helping his country, I pointed out the problems plaguing Europe and America: unemployment, drug abuse of all kinds, criminal depredations, economic assistance to Russia, defusing potential explosive situations elsewhere. And besides, I rebutted, his countrymen must do something to prove that they can handle outside assistance: it should not be all one sided. How, queried Ulli? They need to go back to work, they have to make an effort to get the country moving again, I replied. Then Ulli hit me with the $64,000 statement: there are no orders for manufactured goods to allow the country to buy raw materials; therefore, we cannot build any credit ratings. We are caught in the proverbial endless vicious cycle, he pointed out quite vehemently. I had no answers for him.

I changed the subject as discreetly as I could. Without wanting to sound preachy and condescending, I discussed with him the concept of independent thinking, the germination of which had never been implanted and cultivated by the party. But now that the country was independent it would be obligatory for the people to ingest the notion that they were now responsible for their own destiny to a great extent and could not depend on anyone else for all answers: the government for example or the West. That notion was as yet foreign to most Albanians. He was not stupid by any means. So I kept talking, clarifying, explaining; I kept hoping that I was getting through to my friend. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I could feel my companion’s mistrusts dissolving into uncertainty and doubt. I was extremely patient, conscious of my role as ambassador of good will.

“Ulli”, I said,” have you ever read or heard of a book called “1984”?

“No”, he replied,” I never have.”

“I am not surprised. It was certainly not a book the communist party would allow its people to read. It was written by a concerned and compassionate Englishman named George Orwell in 1948, an enemy of totalitarianism in any form. He opposed fascism as well as communism, the two types of political systems that deny to its citizens any kind of personal freedoms such as free speech, free religious choice and free press. Socialism had just been introduced in England and the government had nationalized many private industries such as coal mining, transport, steel making, etc. Orwell was afraid that the English would, over time, lose some of their freedoms. So he projected the situation into the future, 1984, and depicted a society in which the people’s lives are totally managed by the ruling party. We get the expression “Big brother is watching” from that book.

Life was hopeless. Chronic shortages of food, clothing, housing, medical facilities force the people to become walking zombies devoid of any hope for a better tomorrow. Through incessant and intrusive propaganda and brain washing techniques, the party is able to persuade the citizens to support it as it wages a war, total fiction of course, against enemies on distant continents. Hence the people accept mental and physical deprivations in the name of national defense. Does that ring a bell, my friend? Remember the thousands of concrete mushrooms in your country? I could go on and on about the contents of the book. It’s very depressing writing.

But Orwell awoke the world with his warning of unbridled government power. His prophecies did not come to pass totally in the western world, but we remain alert just the same. It’s quite conceivable that your late unlamented leader read that book and learned how to imprison a whole country for forty years. Communism is dead. Marx had some good ideas about making the worker’s lives better, but the application of those theories ran counter to human nature. You have read Camus. He would say to you to live as best you can even in an absurd world. Whether you like it or not capitalism has won the cold war. Adjust, my friend, to that fact. You may even like it and make money. That would be your revenge against Hoxha”.

So we passed the night. In the morning we docked at the port of Vlora. I had to wait patiently in line for two hours to retrieve my passport. Ulli’s wife had come down from Tirana to greet him and they invited me to ride with them to their home. I accepted gladly. I would dearly have gone to visit the orphanages again, but Ulli maintained that by the time I reached Shkodra it would be late at night. So he advised against it. At his apartment we parted on what I thought were friendly terms. He gave me his address and told me I was always welcome there. He promised to write and tell me about future progress. Ulli then made arrangements with someone to drive me to my destination. We said goodbye. I hoped I had made a friend for my country.

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