For the month of May 2021 I am finally able to undertake oral history interviews with Albanians living and working in Istria. While the pandemic has upended research plans for many colleagues, the combination of vaccine-induced antibodies and warmer weather has enabled me to start speaking with individuals about their life experiences (notwithstanding the usual precautions, outdoor interviews only and regular home testing before meetings!)
Many of the oral history narrators I am speaking with operate small businesses and May is perhaps the most suitable time of the year to speak with them before the tourist season begins in earnest. As the season picks up they will be increasingly busy from morning to night in shops and hospitality businesses along the coast that cater to the tourists that come to Istria.
Work ethic and a familial entrepreneurial spirit are among the most pertinent topics emerging in discussions with Albanian business owners and workers. From Yugoslav times to the current day, getting up early and staying late is juxtaposed against the more predictable and shorter hours of workers in the public sector (or the former social sector – društveni sektor). Indeed, the necessity of putting in long hours at the family business is cited by narrators as one of the most important reasons in explaining why Albanians were underrepresented in socio-political activities in the late socialist period (a bone of contention for the League of Communists in places like Poreč, Rovinj and Pula).
Yet, this entrepreneurial spirit was not entirely lost on the communists of Istria during the 1980s. A few voices even wished that the Albanian work ethic could be applied to the more relaxed social sector.
For example, the authorities in Poreč, the leading centre of tourism in the country, noted the gap between the sometimes cavalier attitude of tourism workers in the social sector (large complexes like “Plava Laguna” and “Riviera” catering for Western European tourists) and the small Albanian-owned private businesses on the main street in the old town, Decumanus.
One journalist for the official newspaper of the municipality, Porečki glasnik wrote in 1984:
Walking along Decumanus street after 21h should give Poreč residents something to think about. Thousands of tourists pace the streets but other than the [Albanian owned] jewellers and sweet shops [filigrani i slastičari] and a few souvenir stands, all other premises are closed.
Filigrani and slastičari open up at 6h or 7h and close at 23h while the sellers in the social sector in the centre in the height of the season of the leading tourist town of Yugoslavia work 7 or 9 hours per day. Most of them close their doors at the time when the most people are on Decumanas street
If the responsible people at “Plava laguna” and “Riviera” [the social sector firms employing the lion’s share of tourism workers] think that these working hours are acceptable they are deceiving themselves. I would instruct some of them to walk the street in the evening.
Does everything need to close by 21h? The season is short, it has to be used well. At the same time, workers in the social sector have interesting behaviours and habits. They pay pedantic attention to every working minute but when we look at the private sector, for them the working hours are not important, in fact, they work longer so as to earn more! What can the same system not be applied to the social sector workplaces?
Rory Archer. Pula, 14.05.2021