After visiting Romania, about six months ago, the Balkans had tickled my imagination. I wanted to learn more about this strange corner of Europe and luckily for me, it’s big enough to spend at least a couple of three week holidays. Choosing between these different countries of which even the names of the major cities don’t ring a bell was hard, yet very inviting. This was going to be travelling off the beaten track.
Considering the time of the year – April – and the climate statistics for that period I decided that the Balkan side of the Adriatic Sea would be the most enjoyable around that time. Montenegro and Bosnia were certainly on my list, but I needed a starting point. Albania actually never crossed my mind until I noticed that I could fly from Brussels to Bari, Italy for about 25 Euros and then take the ferry to Dürres, Albania for 40 Euros more. Cheap as I am, the plan was set. I was going deep into the Balkan peninsula, I was going to Albania!
Arriving for the first time in a big city is always very overwhelming. I remember Kuala Lumpur, Mexico city and even Madrid to be quite scary during the first half hour after arrival. Huge buildings of glass and concrete, lots of traffic on the streets and the sidewalks full of people with an unfriendly face, trying to get somewhere as fast as their legs can take ‘em. And there I am at the corner of some street, totally amazed by the surroundings, wondering where to go and why I didn’t buy a map at the airport.
Well, Tirana is nothing like that! It’s a place where you can feel home almost immediately. The centre of the city is called Skanderbeg square – a name that I would rather link to a place in Norway than one in Albania, but who am I to judge? – which is a medium size square surrounded by most of the important buildings of the city.
If you ever find yourself on Skanderbeg square, take a seat on one of the steps near the side of the square and have a look around. First thing I noticed was the location, you will see quite some green and you’ll notice that you’re surrounded by mountains. If I had to point out a location to build a capital, I might have also chosen this place. Then have a look at the surrounding buildings.
Next to the typical communist apartment buildings you will notice the Muzeu Kombetar, the only Mosque in the city – during the communist times, all religion was forbidden and all mosques have been demolished. Only this one was kept because it was protected by UNESCO – and the Opera building. Furthermore you will see a theater, some ministries and a hotel. If you look behind the corner of the Opera, you will find the UFO University. It is not a nice building and people told me it has nothing to do with outer space, but nobody could tell me what exactly the meaning was of “UFO” so it kept intriguing me…
If you visit the city during the weekend you will witness another extraordinary event. The Skanderbeg square will be full small electric toy vehicles. This is where parents drop their children while they enjoy some quality time in the park nearby. As the square is not very large and the kids are not allowed to bump into each other, this type of amusement seemed quite dull to me. But in a country with no amusement parks, not even a McDonalds with a playground, the kids probably have lower expectations of entertainment.
The actual centre of Tirana – as it appeared to me – looks a bit like a dumbbell, with two squares as the weights and an impressive boulevard connecting them. Everything very much in communist style. It didn’t take long for me to look at the ministry, and imagine Enver Hoxa on the balcony inspecting his troops on the ten lane main boulevard. In the middle of the boulevard you will find an amazingly ugly building. It’s an abandoned glass pyramid – and you thought you’d seen it all… – once supposed to be the Hoxa museum.
You have to know that I think that Hoxa was a real asshole. I have nothing against communist ideas but he was not a communist. Just like Nicolae Ceaucescu he only wanted power and if he’d seen possibilities in liberalism, he would surely have been a liberal. But communism is more interesting if you want money and power because everything belongs to the government, even the people.
But that aside, I am still not able to understand what the glass pyramid has to do with Communism. The Egypt were not communist… and although grotesque seems one of the foundations of communism, modern flashy buildings are still the last thing one would expect. And there it was, a hideous glass pyramid.
One last building I would recommend is the Kolonat at Mother Theresa square. You can find it in your guidebooks in the food section rather than the “Must see” section, because it’s a restaurant. For most people that is… To me it was one of the first signs that capitalism is sneaking into the economy of the country.
Kolonat is actually the Albanian equivalent of McDonalds. when you search for the logo on Google Images you’ll see what I mean: It’s a yellow sign with two arches which doesn’t have any connection with the word “kolonat”. When you enter, you’ll notice that the interior is a copy of your average Mc D. around the corner, people who work there have similar outfits and the burger menu is probably a picture taken in Mc D., with the names Photoshopped. This is what makes Plagiarism a true form of art.
Next to the city centre, there is not that much to do in Tirana, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get bored.
One of the best ways for getting to know the city – next to visiting the national museum – is to get of the main boulevard and hang around. When in Albania, do as Albanians do. Find yourself a street-view-seat on a terrace and drink coffee, lots and lots of coffee. By doing this, it occurred to me that most Albanians are very friendly, or at least very curious.
More often than not, someone would join my table and start blabbering Albanian to me. After the regular uncomfortable situation when they figure out that I don’t speak Albanian and they don’t speak anything else there are always friendly laughs, winks and handshakes before they join someone else’s table. But once in a while you might get lucky and find someone at your table who speaks some English – or Italian, but my Italian is probably even worse than my Albanian – and is happy to have a conversation with you.
Most conversations start with something like “What the hell are you doing in my country?”. This is not as rude as it sounds, but if you know that about 90% of the population wants to get out of the country it’s not that strange that people wonder why someone actually wanted to get in.
When you’ve explained that you’re kind of attracted to former communist areas, conversations tend to move to your relatives, which is a form of Albanian politeness. You show someone that you find them interesting if you ask about their family. Then the real conversation can start, and in general the Albanians like to talk and tell stories. Probably because when for fifty years nobody can get in or out the country, everybody must have heard your stories a thousand times.
One of the people I’ve met there was Spartak Hamidi, somewhere in his sixties, who was a former Guinness record holder for keeping a ball in the air by foot (1991 – 24 000 times in 4 hours, he showed me the article). His English was more than average and he told me the story of his father who had served as a minister under Hoxa. Once the subject “Hoxa” – whose name is always said whispering – was tackled, I felt safe to ask more about this infamous dictator, so he told me the Hoxa story.
Hours passed by, stomachs started to growl, we called it a day and decided to meet again the next day. That day he wanted to take me to a coffee bar where his niece works, so we went there and the niece joined our table. Unfortunately, she did not know any English and Spartak had to translate the whole conversation both ways. Here is more or less how it went:
Spartak: She asked your name and where you live, I told her okay?
Me: Sure <smile>.
Spartak: She asks student or work.
Spartak: She asks which work.
Me: IT… ehm… computers and stuff.
Spartak: She says she has a daughter who studies medicine at the Tirana University.
Me: Oh that’s nice, medics are needed everywhere.
Spartak: She says her daughter is 19 years and really pretty.
Spartak: She asks if you’re interested in meeting her daughter.
Me: ehm…I’m sorry but I actually have a girlfriend in Belgium.
Spartak: You don’t have to tell her that, just try and maybe you like this girl better than the girl in Belgium.
This was becoming an awkward situation, you must imagine it with lots of polite and uncomfortable smiles in between. For me the problem was that I didn’t want to be impolite, but I also didn’t want to end up in a situation even more awkward. On the other hand, I was the dumb tourist, I should be able to talk myself out of this if things got too hot, so I agreed.
Me: Ask her to call her daughter to join us here.
Spartak: She says her daughter is in school now, but she invites you to her house tonight to have dinner.
Two minutes after I agreed, I was already sorry about it… Going to a girl’s house for dinner, with the purpose of marriage was something my girlfriend would not appreciate very much. Luckily for me, I had already an appointment that evening with Hamid, a guy I’d met through Couchsurfing, so I told them that I would love to come to diner, but I already had to meet someone and the day after I would leave Tirana in the morning – which was also true.
These situations may be fun and exciting, but they are the sad truth about Albania, people prefer to couple their daughters to a complete stranger with the chance of never seeing them again, than to see them living in their own country.
Even though the communist party doesn’t exist anymore, the two parties that rule the country now are both derived from the communist mother, and the ministers are still the same so actually not much has changed. I asked several people what they expected from the government and the answer I heard the most was “concrete roads”, which made me feel quite a fool thinking that what I want is less taxes…
People seem to be happy, and most of the time they also are, and that makes it sad to see them in such a hopeless situation. When your government is against change, and new political parties have no chance against the big ones you’re… ehm… screwed I guess.
These days a lot of hopes are set to Europe, if only Albania would get into the European Union, borders would open, foreign currency would flow in and economy would flourish. If only…
People in Albania are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met, and their situation made me sad from time to time. But they’ve more or less learned to live with it and to enjoy life. Even though they don’t have much, they still have their pride – even though I told people how much I earn in Belgium, they still wouldn’t let me pay for my drinks because I was the guest – and their warmth. Fifty years of “us against the others” had also its advantages, this is probably the reason why Albanians are among the warmest and friendliest people I have ever seen.