Monday, February 8, 2010

Glitzy Shopping Mall Debut

The economy in Albania doesn't make sense. Well the 'grey' economy & the black market do but by any normal, legal yard stick it doesn't add up.
Macedonia is like 'old Yupgoslavia' with Ladas & battered Yugos, a rural economy, simple lifestyles etc. Skopje, the capital is small, low rise & makes Tirana look glitzy & exotic. Albania is not like this, not in the capital especially (it's still incredibly poor in the rural areas), even though unemployment is high & salaries are low. Our cleaner earns 40p lek an hr from her washing up job ($150 a mth for 8 hrs a day SEVEN nights a wk. No sick pay, no annual leave)She does 3 cleaning jobs on top of this.

One of the 1st things we noticed in Albania was the cars people drive. Amazing cars: Hummers, huge SUVs, Mercs, Beamers, Chryslers. All brand spanking new, lots with foreign number plates, & lots with no number plates. There is an insurance scam going on.. They get stolen in Germany (often) or wherever, by arrangement. The owner gets, say, half or less, of the value of the car from the 'thief', then once they have been phoned to say the car is safely over the border, you declare it stolen & claim on the insurance. The police never pursue them. Win-win, as they say. It's a cinch to bribe the car through the border.

Another way of doing it, more common in Italy, is a threat/note gets left on a fancy new car 'advising' you to leave the documents & the keys in the car or await the consequences. Statistics suggets 90% of Mercs in Albania are stolen & in fact all the high end cars. These are the very top of the top of the range cars (more often than not driven by 20 yr olds in baseball caps cruising around during the day. You can just 'order' whatever car you want basically. Stolen to order.

Then there is the issue of all the shops, spas, clubs, petrol stations, hotels even that never have anyone in them, yet never close down. Mysterious.

There are over 100 petrol stations between Tirana & Lezhe (a 1 hr drive) in a country of only 4 million people & even fewer cars. Clearly it's not 'need'. It doesn't add up.

I got treated to a pedicure by a friend & we went together to a sumptuous spa, no expense spared in the place, but very reasonable prices. It was empty. 6 months later we went back, for a facial this time, & they recognised us, & even remembered what we had had the previous occasion. Again it was completely empty. I know we are in the minority, being foreigners here, but I'm sorry a busy spa would not remember us from a visit 6 mths before, our feet just aren't that memorable, unless of course, hardly anyone had been in the interim. Yet it manages to survive as a business.

My husband stayed in a very smart (but still very reasonably priced) hotel on the edge of Elbasan on a field trip recently. A huge flat screen tv in every room, but only 2 cards to activate the digibox (1 of which was for the restaurant t.v) Clearly not expecting too many guest s at onc e then,.

he & his colleagues went down for breakfast the next morning, only to be told there was no breakfast because the chef didn't get there till late morning.........

So you see the hotel owner can say to the tax man, "Oh that million in my account? Yes, well you see I own a very smart hotel in Elbasan, full every night, very expensive to stay there, so the money comes from there." Money laundering. I never really understood how it worked before. I've become something of an expert. In terms of exposure to it anyway.

The head of a chain of petrol stations personally paid $2.5 million recently to Real Madrid (yes the 'real' Real Madrid) to come & play Li'l Old Albania at football, in Tirana. Now where does he get that kind of disposeable income from? (Incidentally, there was a power cut at half time, lasted 90 minutes. Energy Minister got sacked for that. Still it would have given Real Madrid a taste of Real Tirana.

So with a degree of curiosity more than expectation, I decided to visit Albania's latest economic anomoly: the new 'Citipark' shopping mall that everyone is abuzz about in Tirana. It is extraordinary; a HUGE out of town glitzy mall, the like of which you certainly wouldn't get in Britain, but would be more suited to Abu Dhabi or Singapore airport.

It had marble floors, waterfalls cascading down the height of 3 floors, t.v screens the size of double decker buses, & on the top floor an ice rink.
The shops are almost entirely designer labels, & all high end retail. The shops were mostly out of my league, as a foreigner, so who in Albania would shop there? Most Albanians shop in the 2nd hand markets & street stalls. And who would stump up the vast amount of investment to construct such a white elephant?

There's a Versace Furniture shop. I mean, here we have a shop called Jysk (a poor quality Scandinavian relation to Ikea) which is out of the reach of most Albanians, so Versace? to add a bit of class to one's communist era apartment block.....

Outside there were two enormous eagles with spread wings crouching (somewhat menacingly I felt)at the entrance. What I didn't realise was that two sides of the mall had identical entrances, identical eagles & identical exit arches with 'Citipark' signs.

So I emerged to find no car where I had left it, & was convinced that someone had stolen it, yet utterly non-plussed as to why, in this country where stealing a $100,000 car from abroad is as easy as ordering a pizza, anyone in their right minds (or even wrong minds) would want to steal our 16 yr old decrepit banger.

There are no maps/floor plans in the Mall. So you have to work your way around identical forecourts of escalators & mosaic floor patterns. In fact Albania doesn't go in for maps in general. The only road map is German, & , though improving, Albania has few road names or road signs.

I guess I'm not used to these sort of places anymore. I have travelled all over the world & been to all sorts of places, but I was initially confused by this place. Turns out, of course, I had emerged into a different (but exactly the same) car park.

It was quite a strange experience wandering around this shopping centre. Groups of mainly young lads or girls wandered round empty handed, just staring. I have seen this in other countries too where the poor come to spectate & peer in awe into this glitzy rich world (which actually is another world to me too) I went to the supermarket in there (the only place I knew I could afford) & felt how I imagined the Queen feels when she goes shopping & they close the store for her. I was one of only 3 people in there (admittedly it gets much busier at the wk ends. This was a wk day) There were rows & rows of immaculate fruit & veg, regimented loaves, perishable goods that I felt sure would have to be thrown away. No one goes out there to food shop, they do that at their local shop & fruit & veg stall. I don't know how it will sustain itself. Except it will of course, mysteriously.

The shop assistants fell into two categories. They either completely ignored you (not so much as a 'good morning' which is very un-Albanian) & continued to loll idly, but elegantly, over the counter, knowing full well that you, along with 99.9% of the people had no money, or intention of buying anything so why bother; OR they could scarcely resist the urge to physically pounce on you in their eagerness for some interaction, (let's face it, I've worked in a shop & it's mind numbing at the best of times, but so much better with customers & something to DO. Both were a bit intimidating.

So , of course, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that it's a Mafia Mall, for the discerning Godfather & fashion conscious Mafioso. Sometimes it feels like a mad, mad world, here in Albania.


Expat mum said...

Wow - very weird. They must be trying to be the next "Dubai". They wouldn't last five minutes in the USA.

Bálint said...

Great post, thanks.
I also got wondered about the numerous gas stations (and shops) when we was there…
Are you sure that it is necessary to avoid the tax authorities to have the „family gas station”? (true that it is hard to find any other explanation...)

nappy valley girl said...

All sounds very strange and quite sinister! You are right, it's probably some Mafia scheme....

Mwa said...

I just read an article on Albanian criminals in Belgium. They are into drugs, traffic of women, prostitution, burglary, theft, etc, and they send all their money home to start empty hotels and spas... So the money is probably part Belgian.

Anonymous said...

I noticed exactly the same thing about the cars when I was in Tirana. Seemed so strange that the man hole covers had all been nicked, there was gaping gholes in the road, men driving donkey carts in the cntre of town - and then these legions of super posh cars!

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Definitely organised crime. We play spot the mafia boss round here - the big cars, the weird businesses that in any normal world would have shut down. But Albania seems to be in a league of its own! Jealous of your spa experience though. x

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Paradise Lost In Translation said...
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Paradise Lost In Translation said...

Expat - it IS weird, they have a LOOOOOOONG way to go before becoming teh next Dubai tho;o)
Balint- Thnx, yes the peetorl stations are aknown money laundering enterprise.
NVG- at 1st it did all feel rathe rsinister, like being on a 'Godfather' film set. So mch obv Mafia dealings all around u sall th etime. Now we're used to it.......
Mwa- yup that just abt sums it up, those are the 'crimes of choice' people here are involved in. Belgium eh? I didn't know that. I know Albanians have a v bad reputation in the UK. I guess mayb e it comes from having spent so many yrs with nothing everyone is desperate to catch up, & with so much corruption & no real rule of Law, it's too easy & too tempting for many.
MITC- Thta's it exactly, the mish mash of rich/poor urban/rural 1st/3rd world. it's quite weird really. ye s the pot holes & man hole covers. They
get sold for scrap metal.
Brit- yes Albania excels at corruption & organised crime. It's a great shame to see how it is strangling the country from real growth & how much the poor (& those wth integrity ) suffer.
We play spo tthe 'NON-Mafia boss'- more of a challenge;o)
And yes the spas are a nice perk. HAve since found anothe rmore 'ordinary' one where lots of peopel go & it seems a lot less 'weird'. It is one of teh big perks of livign abroad. I neve rhad spa treatment sor massage sbefore moving abroad.Now they are so much more affordable (& I feel more in need of a treat in every day life here too!)

Iota said...

Very weird. Seems wrong, too, with so much poverty and so much wealth side by side.

tiranamama said...

I still haven't made it out to this much talked about place and really am not sure why I'd go. Drag two little kids miles out of town to wander around on the marble floors and stare at things I could never, or would never want to buy?? I might have to give the Versace furniture a once over though. I've been enjoying your blog for too long this afternoon. Thank you for your gift of words! I stumbled upon your blog quite unexpectedly, but I'm glad I found it.

Elisa, Croatia said...

Hi found your blog via Brits in Bosnia. Just wanted to stop by an say hello and your spa experience wow.

A Mexican mommy living in Europe