Piracy at the Albanian Airport

I was comparing prices at the Duty Free shop when I thought I heard my name. At first I thought I might have imagined it since hardly anyone pronounces my name correctly, particularly in a foreign country. Then I heard it again.I was fairly certain I was at last an hour ahead of schedule of my flight. I  was in a small airport with only 5 gates so I quickly ran from one to the other checking to see if anyone was looking for me. There was not a single airport worker to be found. Other than the shop owners and a waitress at the coffee shop, I couldn’t find one person with a badge at the Albanian International Airport.

Then I heard it again; my name and something about gate 2. I was at gate 2. There was no one there. Albanians aren’t known for their mastery of the English language so it took a few restaurant workers before I found someone to point me down a small hall hidden behind the shops. As I turned the corner I noticed a security scanner and four Albanians in security uniforms looking at me. “Is your name William Wiatrak”? they asked. I nodded and they pointed me into the adjoining room.

In the room there was an old computer that looked like mine from college in the 80s and a luggage belt with a very familiar looking bag resting on top. Obviously there was an issue with something in my bag.I had smuggled a few bottles of cognac. Every store seemed to be trying to get rid of it so I hoped that wasn’t the problem. Maybe there was a law against exporting refrigerator magnets! I realized that I had bought a WW2 helmet and an Albanian officer’s hat. Maybe such things weren’t permitted outside Albania. In a country that had been cut off from the rest of the world for five decades, who really knows?

A man put on rubber gloves; never a good thing in a security room. His attention was on my luggage however. He unzipped it (the luggage!) and started removing each item as if he were handling enriched uranium. Before long, I realized that I had been quite the shopper on this trip. There was jewelry, hats, shirts, post cards and even a wooden elephant I’d bought for my mother. Hell, I could have opened my own shop at the airport! We finally arrived at the last item and suddenly dawned on me what this security check was all about; a gun.

Okay, it wasn’t a real gun. It was a pirate gun and undoubtedly a replica of something from the 1700s. I had picked it up from a shop in Greece to replace the missing one from my pirate costume at home. It was solid wood with metal parts and looked pretty authentic; authentic for a pirate gun that is. Assuming I had a bag of cotton, lead balls and gun powder, the airport was pretty safe from plundering and pillaging. The officer unwrapped the gun, carefully held it up and then did something which almost made me laugh out loud. He looked down the barrel and pulled the trigger. If the gun had been a real loaded gun, he would have been quite dead. He passed it to his fellow guard and the ritual was repeated. I know that Albanians had a communist background, but Russian roulette at the airport? More men in uniforms arrived and picked it up and looked at the gun. I could tell this was going nowhere fast. I tried to explain to them that I was an actor and this was a fake gun. Their experts would be the judge of that I was told, and they would be arriving in 10 minutes.

The one man that spoke English looked at me, then my hat, and asked me if I was from Texas. I nodded my head and then he asked if I knew Chuck Norris. Not personally I explained. Everyone shuffled around trying to look busy until the “experts” arrived. There were forms being filled out and some  keyboard tapping on the computer. The gun lay on the stainless steel counter waiting for final judgment. Then the police walked in.

They had guns so it was assumed that they knew a thing or two about firearms. They looked too young to have ever used a blunderbuss, but one of them picked up mine and proceeded to look straight down the barrel! For a minute I thought I might be in Poland or some international candid camera show. Then it occurred to me that even the experts knew nothing about guns. I was either going to miss my flight or lose my gun. I might even end up in jail. Who is going to read the story about an American incarcerated in Albania for trying to smuggle guns and think for a moment that it’s a toy pirate gun? The fact is, no one would really care except for a few Renaissance festival people. I knew that I had to convince them. In spite of them trying to quiet me, I grabbed the gun and showed them clearly that there was no way to put a bullet in it. I showed them that the strike hammer hit a piece of metal that was connected to nothing. If this was a souvenir, where was the receipt? they asked. I never keep receipts but somehow magically I found it in the bag the gun had been in. They looked at the receipt and passed it around and looked confused. They were confused it turns out. The receipt was in Greek. All of a sudden I had a flashback about being strip searched in the Tel Aviv airport because I had some pamphlet written in Arabic about the wildlife in the area. People are afraid of what they don’t understand.

It was time to take charge. I asked the English speaking guard to translate for me. I told the police that my toy gun was a prop that I needed for a movie. It was incapable of firing and I would be willing to prove it to them. If anyone of them could figure out a way of making that gun work, I would let them shoot me. Find any kind of bullet or gunpowder, I offered, and figure out a way of loading it into this gun and shoot me! That was the pirate challenge. After I said that, the officers must have gotten embarrassed or something. Everyone just started disappearing out of the office except for the one guy in charge. He had me sign some Albanian official looking “I promise not to shoot anyone” papers and then allowed me to cram my possessions back into my luggage.

As I boarded my plane I was relieved that I hadn’t bought the WW2 gas mask or other military memorabilia I had seen at a shop the day before. What’s the lesson to be learned here? If you’re a pirate, take charge! Argggghhhh matey!

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