Friday, May 6, 2011

Dubya Day in Fushe Kruje

I don’t think anyone can accuse Travelarity of not being fair and balanced after this.  I just spent the entire morning making my way to a little town in Albania called Fushe Kruje, or F. Kruje, for short, where President George W. Bush visited in June 2007.  At the time of this writing I am sitting in a restaurant called the George W. Bush Bar and Kafe, having a cappuccino.

Let me back up a bit and tell you how I came to be sitting here.

I feel bad telling this first part, because the Albanians have been so wonderful to me.  But it’s part of the story.  Back in Lake Ohrid, as you may recall, I was advised that hitchhiking is the norm in parts of Albania, particularly around the Albanian side of the lake.  At the time I did some research on the subject, and for some reason I randomly Googled the phrase “robbed in Albania,” just to see what would come up. 

To my surprise—because I hadn’t heard about it at the time—a slew of stories popped up regarding President Bush’s watch allegedly being stolen off his wrist during his 2007 visit to Albania.  The video clips posted online showed President Bush wearing a watch as he worked a crowd of very enthusiastic Albanians who wanted to touch and kiss him like he was Elvis.  After several minutes, the video shows President Bush’s bare wrist.  The watch somehow went missing in the interim.

As you can imagine, the Albanians were mortified at the suggestion that someone had stolen the watch right off the President’s wrist during his visit to the country.  I did some further poking and learned that the White House issued a statement confirming that the watch actually came off while the throngs of effusive Albanians were busy glad-handing the President.  According to reports, someone from the President’s staff placed the watch in his pocket.

I found the story interesting, but what I found most intriguing were the images of Albanians going absolutely crazy over W.  I mean, I had never seen anything like that before.  I wondered why they seemed to love him so much.  I figured I’d find out more when I got to Tirana where, I had heard, a major street had been renamed after the former President.

I’ve since learned that President Bush was the first American president to visit Albania, and the Albanians were more than appreciative of the gesture.  The Albanians felt grateful, as well, that President Bush confirmed support for Kosovo’s independence during his visit—Kosovo being made up predominantly of ethnic Albanians.  The country issued commemorative postage stamps with Bush’s picture and the Statue of Liberty, renamed a street in front of parliament in his honor, and awarded Bush the highest National Flag medal.

I also learned that President Bush paid a side visit to F. Kruje, a small town where he received what is widely referred to here as a “hero’s welcome.”  This is where the aforementioned “watch incident” occurred.  Apparently the F. Kruje town council declared W. an honored citizen and, following his visit, some things in the town were renamed for him, including a restaurant.  This I wanted to see, so I made plans to take a daytrip from Tirana.

For some curious reason there is no proper bus station in Tirana—Albania’s large, capital city—so in order to get somewhere outside the city, you have to go to this big, dangerous roundabout across town and hop in a bus or frugan minibus that is going your way; assuming, that is, that you don’t first get killed by a crazy Albanian driver.  I had just about given up hope when a bus that said “F. Kruje” approached.  I waved it down, paid the 40 Albanian Lek fare (about .40 cents) and, about forty-five minutes later, was let out in F. Kruje.

F. Kruje is a bit of a chaotic town where everything is sold on the streets, including used sneakers and live goats right next to each other.  I wandered a bit while everyone stared at me—the obvious stranger in town—looking for things named after George W. Bush. I didn't see anything apart from some graffiti telling people to vote Republican, though this, I was sure, related to the upcoming local elections scheduled for Sunday.  

The clouds above were looking dark, and I was afraid the sky would open up again, as it had for the past three days in Tirana.  I decided to speed things up by asking around.  I was walking by what looked to be a hospital and ducked in to see what they knew.  A middle-aged man in a white coat was sitting behind the reception desk.  I leaned forward through the window and asked if he could tell me where I might find a cafe in town named after President George W. Bush.

The man furrowed his brow a bit when I said this--which made me worry a bit--but soon I realized it was because he did not speak English.  I was about to leave when he got up from the desk, exited the office, and gestured for me to walk with him.  We went outside and walked in silence until we reached a pharmacy halfway down the long street.  Inside were two women, one of whom spoke a little English.  Again, I repeated my inquiry.

The younger woman knew a Bush restaurant existed, but didn’t know how to tell me the directions in English.  The man in the white coat and the two women discussed something in Albanian, and then the young woman addressed me.  “If you wait some time,” she said, “the Doctor here will take you.”  

The Doctor? I thought, surprised.  All of a sudden I felt bad for taking this important man away from the hospital over my search for the W. restaurant.  I said, “That’s okay, I don’t want to trouble you.  Can you point the direction?”  The group led me outside again and pointed me in a diagonal direction. 

I thanked them and asked if I could take their pictures.  Along the way, something occurred to me.  Did I just miss a date with an Albanian doctor?  I wondered, horrified.  But it was too late.

I turned the corner and soon spotted a sign that said “George W. Bush Bar and Kafe” ahead in the distance.  Finally I reached it and found outside a bronze plaque announcing this was the place where Bush held a meeting during his visit.  I walked up the stairway to where the café sat on the second floor and was greeted with a painting of The White House at the top of the stairs. 

Inside the restaurant, I ordered a cappuccino and took a look around while I waited.  I snapped a picture of the President’s group photo hanging on the wall, and noticed that the man making my cappuccino was the very same from the picture with the President and First Lady.   There was also a framed thank you letter signed by W. that said,

Dear Saba,

Thank you for opening Café Cela for our meeting with small business owners in Fushe Kruje.  Laura and I enjoyed meeting you and your family, and we appreciated your warm hospitality.  I am grateful for your efforts to make our trip such a success.

Best wishes.

George W. Bush

During my visit to F. Kruje, I could easily see why the crowd went wild over President Bush.  Regardless of whether you love the guy sitting in the Oval Office at the time, it’s a really big deal when the Leader of the Free World visits your small town and holds a meeting in one of your local establishments.   In fact, as I’ve experienced time and again, a lot of people in these parts feel excited just to have a regular American like me visiting and learning about their country.  I can’t imagine how they felt to have an American president place the spotlight on them.

On the bus ride back I encountered a lot of smiles and handshakes and questions.  The 17-year-old kid standing next to me told me his dream is to go to America.  It’s very hard for people in countries like Albania to get a visa to go to America, he explained, so he doesn’t know if he will ever make it.  He asked for my email, though, just in case.  Another kid sitting next to me told me that his cousin won a visa through the lottery system and now lives in Boston.  “He was really lucky,” he said, with a perceptible longing.  This wasn’t the first time I was reminded how lucky and privileged I am to be an American, living my own unique dreams.

As far as President Bush goes, I’m guessing he loves Albania as much as Albania loves him.  Who knew?