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II. The Art of Losing Things
2  3


"The art of losing things isn't hard to master"
Elizabeth Bishop

About two weeks before the evacuation, the currencies were going wild, and I had to change my lek back to American money before it lost any more value. I had rent money, grant money and money for future travel. In one week the value of the dollar dropped 25%. It was to be a repeat of the hyperinflation found in Bulgaria. I walked with a sense of urgency past Skenderbej Square in search of the man with the best rates. I took pride in my ability to figure out exchange rates and the best value for them. I brought about $300 or $400 and a calculator. I found a man with the best rates, sat at a cafe with him and counted my money. But in my haste I'd made a mistake. Instead of looking for the best rates, I ended up exchanging my lek with the man who had the worst rates for the dollar. I didn't realize it until the next day. I discovered my error at the same time I discovered that fifty more dollars were missing or unaccounted for. I frantically searched my bags in the hopes that it had fallen somewhere. Perhaps I traded it the day before. Perhaps the man who did the money exchange accidentally took it. Maybe I should go back the next day and ask if he was $50 over. That day and the next were spoiled. How could I have been so stupid! And I for so long had prided myself on my quickness with numbers! The $75 I had lost was nothing to sneeze at either. To someone living in America, it was an annoyance, but in Albania, it was about 2 weeks of living expenses. I couldn't believe it. Suddenly I became more conscious of what I was spending. Perhaps I didn't need that extra bag of Cheetos on the way to Peace Corps. Perhaps I could skip the Stephen Center (the only American restaurant in town) a few times. My misfortune was too embarrassing to mention to other Volunteers.

Sometime, in November 1996, I visited my Tirana host family and mentioned the Peace Corps director's warning about the pyramid schemes. I'd heard about it on and off before; a banking volunteer had told me as early as 1995 that Albania's biggest company, Vefa, was probably a pyramid scheme. It started hitting the Albanian newspapers in that month or the month before, but the dangers warned by the newspapers seemed more hypothetical than real. Nelson, the new country director, prepared us for contingency plans and talked about possible scenarios for the next year.

"Did you invest a lot?" "Yes, a few thousand dollars, why?" My heart sank as I realized the implications.  

At first, Bashkim, my host father didn't understand what I meant by "schema pyramida," and then when I mentioned "fajde," he replied that yes, he had invested money just recently. I stared at him with surprise. "Did you invest a lot?" "Yes, a few thousand dollars, why?" My heart sunk as I realized the implications. I explained to him what the embassy had been fearing. But how can you tell a man that the money he'd invested (probably 1 or 2 year's salary) would probably never be seen again? Of course, he was concerned and wanted to know exactly what I heard. But I knew only sketchy details. He had invested most of his money in Gjallica ( the investment company based in Vlore) and some in Vefa, the country's largest company. He planned to use the profits to buy a taxi and become a taxi driver. His business as a drink shop owner was worsening. It was hard work, the profits weren't great, and his shop was not large enough to compete. He was renting from somebody, and the owner wanted the land back. I tried to tell Bashkim that I really didn't know if he would get his money back. I was only an English teacher and shouldn't be trying to give people investment advice.

PCV's playing the guitar
Baskhkim, a private vendor of drinks, invested several thousand in the "fajdes." His dream was to buy a taxi.  

Upon returning to Vlore, I tried to spread the word about the schemes to my Albanian friends at the university. Or at least to find how many of them had invested their money. Some like Abdyli, an English professor, waved off the question together. "Where would I get the money to do such a thing?" I mentioned it to Ermelinda, the best business student at the university whose father worked for Vefa. What did she know? What had Vefa been telling her dad? She smiled and shrugged. "Nobody knows these things. Maybe it is a good investment, but how can anybody find out?" She said it with a bit of good cheer, as though merely wishing would make the schemes work. I remember my discussion with two young business professors whose opinions I respected. Both were enthusiastic free market people. Selman, the professor of marketing and investment, showed a grasp of what a Ponzi pyramid scheme was, noting the need to make company reports more transparent to potential investors. Still, he assured me that the big investment companies were probably legitimate. He had "played the market" by investing a little bit in each of them. Natasha, an economics professor who had studied in America and Italy, said, "capitalism in your country is more developed. Americans have more experience. In Albania, people don't understand the concept that you might lose your money when you invest." These professors were not idiots, but in their enthusiasm for free markets they had overlooked the necessity of skepticism in making investments. Neither individual was really bothered by the possibility of economic collapse. They viewed it as one of the consequences of a free economy.

A new English teacher, Ilka, confessed that she'd invested the money made from the sale of her house in Berat to Gjallica. She had never heard anything bad about Gjallica before. After all, the company seemed successful. They were building a new business complex a few blocks from the university and had sponsored the Miss Europe extravaganza in Tirana a month or two ago. I didn't want to say what I thought would happen to her money, but I didn't want to lie to her either. I was only an English teacher. Ilka was not one to be disturbed easily; she took the news calmly, but at least she had come to her senses. Although it is true that a lot of money invested in these pyramid schemes came from family members overseas and savings, many people sold their homes, rented an apartment and used the money from the sale to invest in a company. One legacy of the communist system is that almost every family owned their apartment and didn't have to pay rent. The apartments were not pretty, and many were downright awful, having problems with electricity and water, but at least nobody had to worry about being evicted. Many of the best houses I'd seen in Albania were those built by the family themselves. The Sako family, a family I met in my first year, built a stylish house and artist studio in the center of Tirana. It was their pride and joy. Another family in Kruje, a small village outside Tirana, had invited me and another volunteer into a spacious and magnificent villa amidst the olive trees and haystacks. This was not poverty but grandeur.

Vefa
Vefa, the largest pyramid scheme and the last to go bankrupt, reassured potential investors by massive advertising and the purchase of things like boats  

But the house was an financial asset, and Albanians were starting to realize that. I lived with an Albanian family in Vlore who moved from an already small apartment into a smaller one in Uje Ftohte nearby. The parents were shrewd people who jumped on the opportunity to invest in Vefa in the latter part of 1995. Pavli, the father who once taught physics, showed me how by earning 10% interest a month, the family would be able to buy a new and even bigger house. I was skeptical when he told me in 1995, but later in Tirana, I bumped into them taking their evening stroll. They had found a nice house in Tirana that they were overjoyed with. Should I begrudge Pavli his good luck?

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