Curve after curve after curve, climbing up and sliding down through gut-wrenching bends, and landscapes that leave tourist postcards in shame. Each turn way-too-generously peppered with “awesome”, “duuuuude”, “shut your… front” and other extra sweet vocab from my Anglo-Saxon passengers. It’s all so awesome, I find it terribly hard not to switch on the utter pop shit that is Albanian radio.

Our old Alpha Romeo is finding it impossible to live up to the ‘alpha’ in its name and what I’m left with is the stylish ‘Romeo’ without the substance. All growl and no game. Tyres squeak, fuel tanks, we’re flying high, we’re flying North.

185+ stops later, cameras, (i)phones and social media accounts stuffed with wow material, past the snow-covered peaks of the Balkans, we begin our descent to a valley bursting with another kind of white. Apple blossoms replace their distant cousin the snowflake and we seem to have finally reached our destination – the most northern tip of Albania.

Our Romeo shyly pulls into a parking lot filled with German-made alphas and the four of us disembark for coffee, and yet more food for Instagram. What we don’t know yet is that Instagram’s about to be challenged. Huuuh… the damn locals.

Coffee in the village is served at The Bar. A dozen dirty tables surrounded by worn-down chairs, a few locals dutifully clocking hours and losing count of booze consumed. I enter inside only to find more workers pulling their body weight in rakia in a dimly lit room. Curious glances greet the intruder. Smile, Andy, smile!

Coffees in hand I step out into the glaring spring sun to discover that we have company. One, which my ears find hard to put into a nationality shelf – an absolutely adorable boy with an English pronunciation that could challenge The Queen. His uncle’s in Oregon, cousins too, when he turns 16 they’ll bring him over to the land of the free. For now, he continues to learn English from his Playstation with a single-minded dedication of beating Minecraft. Then, abruptly, in his girly, yet-to-mutate voice he says “I think I have to go now” and trots away in this careless, childish flight which we all have prior to having being educated out of it.


I’m a quarantine-in-Lithuanian-winter survivor and since landing in Albania two weeks ago I’ve been on a continuous and, unusually, natural high. My happiness, once again, spills over in a form of ‘this dude’s of the rails’ laughter of mine and boom! just like that we meet him. I’ve repeatedly been told that I’m a magnet for the undesirables – bums, criminals, head cases, freaks of any flavour. This one’s about to prove them all right.

With his broad shoulders and an orangutang-like chest, topped with a thick, muscular neck (let’s leave the head out of this for now) the dude looks like a motherfucking tank. With each turn his torso moves like a turret, beefy arms extending out like two 120mm calibre barrels. The man’s a terrifying machine save for…

His eyes. Glazed from the purple-coloured spirit he’s been consoling himself with earlier today, they are darting sideways like those of a terrified rabbit. Face red and sweaty from his old friend in the glass in front of him — one which has literally gotten under his skin, into the bloodstream and all the way up to his head. A friend he later repeatedly credited for giving him courage in tough times. When asked for his name, the man-tank asks to please keep my voice down. His eyes, in the meantime, continue to scan the scene in what looks like fear. “Come join us, please!” I invite him over. My gut already salivating from the first whiff of an upcoming story.

He takes another quick look around, as if trying to make sure no one’s approaching him from behind, and in a very low, unfitting voice utters “I’m Joey. I don’t want to be overheard by these — eyes, again, dash left and right surveying the locals in the bar — people”. “Nice to meet you Joey! But what’s up with the secrecy?” asks the American-Italian from our Alpha Romeo crew. “Oh, it’s not my real name, you see. I’ll tell you my real name when we part our ways. You can then Google it – it’s been on Fox News and CBS and all.”

The story that follows is my attempt at gluing together the fragmented bits of his life, scattered through our 2 hour conversation. Joey’s best friend in the glass and the psychological training centre that a high-security US prison is, made it rather difficult to follow the twists and turns of this incredible saga.

Drank too much and didn’t pay my taxes

He leaves Albania in the midst of the economic crisis that gripped the country in 1997 with Yugoslavia wars ravaging the region around. On the ferry to Italy Joey once again ends up calling for the help of his best friend to provide him enough courage to cross the sea. Sea – this is the first time he’s seeing it! Scary, foreign – he’s a mountain boy. Even the ticketing system is confusing – during the crossing Joey keeps moving from seat to seat as he’s always occupying someone else’s. Being able to speak only Albanian doesn’t do him any favours either.

The road then takes him through Germany, where he thoroughly enjoyed the local beers, Belgium where he stayed for a few months, and, finally, Calais port in France. Here Joey secretly hops into a truck headed for the UK and finds himself in complete darkness for the next 24 hours. Suddenly the truck comes to an abrupt stop, the rear door opens and 2 trays of Guinness get loaded in.

“What did you do?” I ask laughing out loud. “Weeell, I tried to drink as much as I could” Joey roars back proudly.

The English girl and the two Americans with me are already getting somewhat visibly disturbed, their body language radiating subdued fear and confusion. Joey’s alcohol breath and beetroot-red, sweaty face isn’t doing the situation any favours either.

The next leg of his trip takes him to Ireland, then back to London. The ultimate aim – the land of the free, land of opportunities – the United States. Joey gets hold of a fake Portuguese passport and heads to Gatwick. The tiny issue of not being able to say a single word in Portuguese ruins his dream and he stays stuck in London. Not one to surrender so easily, Joey wisens up and tries his luck once again. This time – he’s Slovenian and the authorities seem to concur. Joey’s in the US. Finally!

Fast forward a year and the all-knowing ICE is biting on Joey’s tail. Our hulk lands in the US prison for a year followed by deportation back to Europe.

Joey being Joey isn’t going to give up so easily this time either. Soon he’s back on the left side of the Atlantic. This time – Mexico. As Donald the Agent Orange was still busy expanding his sociopathic daddy’s real estate empire, the Great Wall of the US didn’t exist yet. Hence, Joey’s back to ploughing the dingy streets of Bronx in no time.

The English girl has started to shift her weight from one cheek of her ass to another. Even the customary politeness and political correctness seem to be failing here. Her face is turning into a big billboard of disapproval.

The next few years in NY are going quite swell – Joey’s living the American dream. The business is booming, he lands himself a girlfriend, a house in a posh neighbourhood, and some very important friends – everything a boy from a poverty ravaged Albanian backwater could have ever dreamed of.

Until the FBI takes a special interest in him, his business, and his friends. “I had no clue these guys were so good – they knew more about me than I did!” Joey giggles.

One morning at around 9AM Joey looks out the window to find the streets around his bar completely deserted save for FBI agents and NY cops. An inevitable arrest follows. Followed by a release on bail and Joey’s once again on the road. This time as a fugitive from the FBI. Three months on the run, money running out, a mayday call to his girlfriend for more cash. Once again he learns the hard way that the FBI are really good. Her girlfriend’s phone had been tapped, and Joey ends up back in custody pending trial.

“Why did they capture you?” asks the American-Italian girl. She’s the only one from our Anglo-Saxon crew still being able to talk without showing any visible disgust. Maybe it’s the Italian genes helping here, but she, unlike her travel mates, is genuinely interested in hearing the full story.

“I drank too much and didn’t pay my taxes” roars Joey once again causing me to crack up. His face suddenly younger, eyes as playful and alive as the kid we’d met just before. By this point even the naive among us understand that it wasn’t just about the booze and taxes.

Advised by his lawyer Joey pleads guilty and gets sentenced to 10 years in jail – one year in max-security prison, nine in medium-security and three months of solitary confinement. His friends who don’t follow his example get 26 years. The rest of the crew is released.

The English girl finally stands up and quietly flees the scene. No words of disapproval, but the body language says it all – she finds Joey rather disagreeable. Mummy was right – don’t talk to strangers – you might actually learn something.

10 years of self-education in law, bible-reading (a priest from Albania managed to send him a soft-cover version in Albanian — hard-cover, apparently, makes for an excellent knife), and depression. When the original sentence (extortion, gambling, illegal entry to the US) is up, the government comes up with new charges and Joey contacts his high-flying friend from Macedonia (brother of a former president) and is bailed out for 850k USD. He lands in Albania “owing” 6 million USD to Uncle Sam.

Here the story gets really all muddled up and the twists and turns throw Joey between Albania, Montenegro, crashing his car to fake his death, forced hospitalisation, a possible chip implant in his head, and betrayal by his closest friend.

Throughout the saga Joey keeps turning to me and to the Italian-American (the only people still genuinely interested in what he has to say) and apologising. “I’m so sorry! But I feel like you guys are like my brother and sister. See, I spend my days here drinking alone. I feel alien here.” His face suddenly losing the childish radiance and profound sadness starts clouding his eyes. Eyes of extreme depth and emotional range – from a schoolboy who’s about to do a prank to those of a man who’d seen, and possibly done, it all – death, betrayal, extreme hardship. One theme remains constant – he’s a survivor at any cost.

Having declined Joey’s invitation to join him at his house, we stand up to go to our Romeo. At the last moment I ask him if I can take his photo. “No photos, please. You’ll find a younger, more handsome version of me online. Just Google my name”. He whispers to the Italian-American’s ear and giggles once she finds his police mugshot with the word “CAPTURED” stamped under it.

I extend my hand to shake Joey’s. He gets visibly confused for a moment, takes my hand in a gentle grip for a hulk and exclaims “Most people don’t want to, they are scared”. Sadness encroaches his eyes once more. I’m leaving with a heavy heart. Extending my hand wasn’t what I wanted to do – I wanted to give him a strong hug in hope that it would somehow communicate the humanity and the connection I felt with his bruised heart. I was too shy.

We’re back in the Romeo whizzing by the apple tree blossoms dotting the mountain slopes around us. The English girl is silent, seeking solace in her phone. It’s so much easier to help people in Bangladesh from her high castle of righteousness at the Whitehall than to face the harsh reality face to face. The naiveté drilled into her over the years of top-education and middle-class parenting doesn’t budge. The political correctness takes the form of silence and this awkward encounter will soon be erased and forgotten.

Curve after curve after curve, climbing up and sliding down through gut-wrenching bends, and landscapes that leave tourist postcards in shame we are headed back to the comfort and safety of our hostel.