TIRANA (Reuters Life!) - Missing street signs, changed addresses, building chaos and a vast population shift after communism's fall have so confused the postal system in Albania that up to one in five letters is returned to sender.
One of the big problems, particularly in Albania's sprawling capital of Tirana, is just figuring out where you are in a place where street signs have been removed, are covered in rust or plastered over with old election posters.
Everyone knows where Prime Minister Sali Berisha lives, but there was only one privately posted -- and barely noticeable -- sign naming the street until a new one appeared just days ago.
Another problem is building numbers and names in a city where haphazard construction has created chaos since the totalitarian regime fell in 1991.
Along with democracy came the freedom to live, and grab land, anywhere, a tightly controlled privilege under communism. The functioning address system practically collapsed as about one million people moved from villages to towns.
Letters are addressed to: "The Blue Building near the Eight Year School," "The Building with the Arrows," or "The Building with the Horse." One American aid agency can be found at "Pjeter Budi Street, Classic Construction Building."
Tirana's population alone grew from 200,000 in 1900 to 700,000 and now numbers some one million inhabitants if its sprawling suburbs are included.
Zana Bregu, a postal worker in the central government and financial district, said 26 years of experience and a lot of asking around helps her cope better than younger colleagues.
"Most of the addresses are short and incorrect. Even in this area, where most addresses are correct, it is hard to find some and 20 percent of letters are returned," she said.
Albania's address problem is not unique among former countries which spent decades under totalitarian rule in the Soviet sphere of influence or behind its "Iron Curtain," but it appears more acute than most.
The post office launched a campaign this year to alert residents to the presence and services of their mail carrier.
"I am your postman," signs read, alongside the mobile phone number of the carrier.
Bregu said people have called her at home more than once when expecting important letters and that the post office is attempting to link new buildings, old buildings and the old address system into a coherent method for identifying addresses.
"The buildings are not recognizable by numbers but by the name of the companies that built them. We have linked them with numbers to other buildings to find them more easily," she said.
Businesses say bills and contracts are often delayed, costing them money and making some things impossible.
Qirjako Kocollari, Albania manager of DHL, Deutsche Post's express courier unit, blames wrong or incorrect addresses for the higher costs of making deliveries in Albania.
"The absence of an adequate address system affects in many cases the quality of service because we promise delivery the next day," he said.
Kocollari said around 70 percent of their clients were known to them after 18 years of operating in Albania, but businesses often changed addresses and new clients settled in new buildings without proper addresses.
DHL has eliminated part of the problem by requiring the recipient's telephone number.
Even some of the basic functions of democracy are stymied by the confusion over who lives or works where.
"The lack of addresses has been causing the failure of judicial notifications," said Kreshnik Spahiu, deputy head of the Higher Council of Justice.
Islam Vata, a doctor at the Tirana region emergency ward since 1988, said rushing to emergencies also meant clarifying the location and agreeing on a clearly visible meeting point.
"You feel bad when you see old ladies coming to you after hurrying more than 200 meters," Vataj said. "So far, thank God, we have with our intuition based on old addresses found the right places and we have had no fatalities."
International organizations are trying to help the NATO member and European Union applicant country.
"We are working from scratch to build an address system with street names, building numbers and ultimately apartments," said Frank Nan, who manages the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) address modernization program.
The interior ministry is using aerial pictures and digital maps to update information and give the Balkan country a modern address system by August.
"We are now identifying and counting the buildings all over Albania. Simultaneously, we're clarifying who lives where," Deputy Interior Minister Ferdinand Poni said.
"Each citizen shall receive a letter with his or her address."
Editing by Paul Casciato