Sunday, November 3, 2013
I Love A Parade
Albania is a country whose people are obsessed with their vehicles. Perhaps this obsession is the result of their fifty years of self imposed isolationism where the Communist regime banned all privately owned vehicles. As is the case with most things Albanian, firm statistics are difficult to come by but most sources agree that until 1991, there were only between 5,000 and 7,000 cars in the entire country. With so few cars, roads were all but non-existent with narrow dirt packed lanes being the norm. After the fall of Communism in 1991 the ban on private vehicles was lifted resulting in upwards of 1,500 vehicles being imported into the country on a monthly basis. (Again, this statistic varies with some people arguing that the numbers are in fact much higher). In a country roughly the size of the state of Maryland with a population of just over 3 million people, that is a whole lot of cars. Whatever the root cause for this vehicle obsession, today the country's roads are clogged with so many cars that driving in urban areas is an unusually stressful and congested affair.
So Albania has a lot of cars but they aren't just any type of cars. Yes, you see a smattering of the usual Fiats, Opels, and other compact cars that the mainstay of European countries. (With narrow roads, limited parking, and fuel prices higher in Europe than in the United States, practical Europeans tend to eschew the American style super-sized SUV. Compact cars are the family vehicle with people learning to make do with less space). But once again, Albania appears to be the exception to the European norm. Increasingly I am seeing larger and fancier vehicles, from luxury sports cars to super-sized, tricked out SUVs barreling along Albania's narrow roadways. As noted by the New York Times over ten years ago, Mercedes have been a popular Albanian choice for over two decades. These German made cars are sturdy and early model sedans can regularly be seen transporting families, pulling trailers laden with household goods, serving as driver's education vehicles, and yes, even hauling livestock in their back seats. But these older Mercedes work horses are being outnumbered by newer and fancier models. Top of the line models share the road way with Porsche, BMWs, and Bentleys as well as Lamborghinis and Masaeratis. (And I'm not talking just one or two of the later category). Just yesterday, as I stood in front of the Sheraton Hotel waiting for Glenn to pick me up (in our battered Honda CRV), I saw four of these five makes of vehicles parade by me. (The Maserati was missing but I did see one a few blocks away later in the evening). As yesterday attests to, one can see more luxury vehicles in less than one hour in Albania than you can in a week's worth of travel through western European countries.
I suppose I should clarify my earlier statement about Albania being a country obsessed with vehicles. Rather, they are a country whose people are not only obsessed with luxury vehicles but they actually drive them. (This is in juxtaposition to a recent Washingtonian Magazine survey where these cars were listed as dream vehicles by DC's movers and shakers who relied on their more pedestrian Hondas, Toyotas, and Subarus for their daily commutes). Not too shabby in a country whose Gross Domestic Product ranks it 86th in the world just ahead of sub-Saharan African countries and last in Europe. The country may be poor but they sure do drive fancy cars.