Coke and Dolls
An Albanian story
A song, a poem or a film can easily get under your skin. Drugs, sex and chocolate are highly addictive. But nothing compares to Coke. I will never fully grasp how a cheap, sugary dishwashing liquid with a tad of caramel flavour and a lot of carbon dioxide has become the no.1 drink worldwide, but I guess you’ve all read, studied or watched a Ted talk about this, so I won’t go into Business 101. The more mind-blowing fact for me is, though, that it can represent a certain way of life even in countries that have never experienced any aspect of it.
Rewind: Albania, 1994. The Coca-Cola Company opens a production and bottling branch somewhere along the so-called highway to the airport, near Tirana. I was a teenager and not really into Coke then, but I remember jumping with joy at hearing that THE company had opened a factory in our tiny, end-of-the-world country. We would all drink Coke made in Albania. It was our duty to empty those vessels now. The early nineties in Albania had the word ‘hope’ written all over them and Coca-Cola had just bloody confirmed that perception. The putsch to overthrow the communist party was still very fresh in our collective memory and we were already a democracy. That’s what we thought, but little did we know. Anyway, by the time Coca-Cola opened its branch, we had already a better idea of the outside world that had been as accessible to us as the moon until the turn of the decade.
Rewind: Albania, somewhere between Enver Hoxha AD (After Death) and Sali Berisha BE (Before Epiphany). We had cupboards and shelves but we didn’t have much to fill them with. Nevertheless, many people loved glass cabinets, where they would put on display some Skënderbeu cognac bottles, Skënderbeu statuettes, colourful paraphernalia and: empty Coke cans. That meant that you had attained a Coke can through some dubious channels and had consumed it with the closest family in a ceremony that had probably lasted a couple of days. The memory of something this special and at the same time radical had to be shared with the wider public. Thus, the empty can in the shelf. Furthermore, these colourful products of Western ideology had a unique beauty for a people that couldn't own things. Food was scarce, water was scarce and so were things. I was lucky to get one doll as a toddler. The doll was of course made in The People’s Republic of AL, it was taller than me and actually just a huge piece of hard plastic with badly carved fingers and a painted face. I believe my sister and I called her Eneida and we adored her, but she didn’t love us back so much. She scratched our skin with those sharp edges of the hands that passed for fingers and it was hard to make her sit down, so she was then rather used as a dangerous weapon when we fought. Many years later, our father brought us from a business trip to Russia two big, round-eyed, soft dolls with wavy hair. It says a lot about those times that I still remember their names, dresses and other details. The Coke can was such a doll for adults.
They say that marketing is everything and that the shape, colour and fonts of a certain product packaging are carefully chosen to impress the target group up to exhaustion. If you have then the will of soft expansion like the Americans do, your products will travel far. I don’t even remember how many people in the glass-cabinet era even knew that Coca-Cola was an American brand. It tasted much better when we got the info, although the drinks we had were actually not produced there. America was everyone’s dream destination. When Coke was finally available on the market, it was offered to you every time you went to visit relatives, which was still a thing in the early nineties. The kids were offered Turkish Delight and a glass of Coke, which made me feel sick to my stomach. If I refused the Coke, a can of Fanta or Sprite was instantly produced from some kitchen corner. Sprite is not so sweet, honey. Wash down the sweets with this. You’ll love Sprite. I hated Sprite. The adults had sweets AND a Coke AND (Turkish) coffee. They had been so deprived of anything in their youth that they didn’t care about the imminent heart attack. They still celebrated drinking colourful Western drinks.
There was no need for the Coke cans in the glass cabinet anymore.
People filled them with china plates and glass statuettes that sparkled in the sun. Plain water became passé, so there was also no need to clean the water pipes. Cool people had drinks in plastic bottles. Cool people had self-made raki in 2l Coca-Cola plastic bottles. There were stolen Western clothes and smuggled cassette recorders. Bananas and firecrackers. Cheap perfumes and MTV. Pure, magical democracy.
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