Albania is a small country on the shores of the Adriatic Sea - just opposite the stiletto heel of the Italian boot. The Albanian language is, much like Armenian (with which it should NOT be confused), another one of those weird offshoots of the Indo-European family tree, with no particularly close relation to any other European language.
The Albanian word for Albania is "Shqipëria", usually translated as "Land of the Eagle", hence the flag.
Having been passed around between the Romans, Byzantines, Greeks, Bulgarians, Sicilian-Normans, Serbs and Venetians for pretty much her entire history, Albania ended up as an isolated backwater of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. The people largely became Muslim and were loyal to Ottoman rule. Albanians were often used as enforcers by the Turks, which sometimes worked but occasionally backfired, as in the case of Muhammad Ali--sent to Egypt to enforce Ottoman rule, he ended up founding his own separate state and turning on the Turks. Lord Byron particularly admired the Albanians and considered them a counterpart culture of the Scottish Highlanders he was familiar with--from a mountainous region, wore kilts and had clans perpetually fighting each other.
When, in 1913, Turkey-in-Europe was invaded by the surrounding Christian nations, Albania was cut off. The Albanians, helped by Great Power realpolitik, managed to remain independent of Serbia and Greece, but large numbers of Albanians were left outside the state. A man born Ahmet Zogolli became its prime minister from 1922-24, then its president from 1924-28 and finally King Zog of Albania until 1939. Unfortunately, he couldn't prevent Albania from being snapped up by Mussolini's Italy, keen to keep the pace with the German conquests of new territory. German occupation eventually followed, and the Albanian people distinguished themselves by collectively rallying round to protect the Jews in their midst, thanks to an extreme cultural case of Sacred Hospitality. Only one Jewish family was found and deported, and Albania was unique in Europe in ending the war with more Jews than it started with.
After the war, Communist partisans under Enver Hoxha (pronounced "Hodgah") took over and Albania became part of Commie Land, though Hoxha's regime wasn't part of the Warsaw Pact - they thought the Soviets were too soft, and aligned themselves with Mao's China instead. At least until they decided the Chinese had gone soft as well and decided to go it alone. Albania became the most isolated and secretive nation in Europe, a sort of European North Korea, until Hole in Flag and the revolutions that swept Europe in 1989-91.
Recently in the UK Albania has become known for a Germans Love David Hasselhoff-type fondness for Norman Wisdom films. This is because they were some of the few Western media allowed in the country under Communism, because Norman Wisdom tended to play cheeky working class characters who stuck it to The Man.
The new, democratic Albania has had its problems, too. Decades of isolation and poverty have wreaked havoc on its infrastructure and economy, especially in 1997 when pretty much the entire country fell for some spectacular pyramid schemes and the end result was rioting in the streets and UN intervention.
Those Albanians left outside the state caused plenty of problems too, but you probably knew that.
- James and John Belushi were of Albanian descent.
- Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Tirana airport is named after her. Rather interestingly, she was actually born in Skopje, in what is now Macedonia.
- Eliza Dushku, she of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse fame, is of Albanian descent and has the country's symbolic eagle tattooed on the back of her neck.
Albania in fiction
- For Your Eyes Only - the famous scene with the pistachio shells in the warehouse was set in Albania.
- Wag the Dog, in which a Washington spin doctor devises a fictional war in Albania to boost polls - released just as Albania imploded in the mid-90s.
- Taken - The slave traders who capture the main character's daughter and friend are Albanian.
- The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul - Kate at one point wonders about a lorry, in point trying to think of if it came from here. Turns out it's more carrying a cargo from the northern part of Europe..
- Harry Potter - Voldemort spent over a decade hiding in an Albanian forest.
- Frank Castle goes up against the Albanian mafia's sex slave trafficking operation in Punisher: Slavers.
- The Simpsons once took in an Albanian exchange student. Unsurprisingly, he turned out to be a communist spy.
- Albanian gangsters show up in Grand Theft Auto IV.
- A major oil refinery is located in Vlorë in Tom Clancy's EndWar and is a possible battlefield which is, like Albania and the rest of the Balkan peninsula (Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, etc.), under Russian control by 2020, when World War III starts.