Ok, so not really ALL about Albania but it was the catchiest title I could come up with and I need the motivation as:
a. It’s the very end of January and I’m trying to blog more
(I think this is going well)
b. I went to Albania over 4 months ago,
c. I owe my rug a backstory
d. It’s high time that my act get it together.
Be warned, this is a long post.
The West coast of Albania is lapped by the waters of the Ionian and Adriatic Seas across which lies mainland Italy. From north to south and by way of the east, Albania is wedged in by Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. After 46 years of xenophobic Communist rule ended in the early 90’s, the Albanians set about establishing democracy. The 90’s were a difficult time for Albanians as successive governments endeavoured to deal with unemployment, widespread corruption, a dilapidated physical infrastructure and organised crime networks. Sporadic violence in the face of being one of the poorest countries in Europe led to a large informal economy and a nearly non-existent tourism industry. Mass migration from rural to urban areas has left a huge dent in Albania’s agricultural sustainability and created a mass of unemployed but well educated public. Enough background – Google whatever else you need to know. I was in Tirana for 9 days and although entire days would pass without us seeing daylight we were always out in the evening, schmoozing or just sitting collapsed over plates of pasta. These are just my own observations:
1. Tirana is an interesting city. Its buildings are all mainly squat square communist blocks, built to last. The post communist mayors gave individual buildings money to jazz themselves up, to remove the greyness/ plain-ness and lift the gloom, and as a result many of the buildings have been used as blank canvasses and painted with shapes and bright colours, like a great big city of pieces from different jigsaw puzzles. I really enjoyed this look. It made for interesting walking and comparing the adventure of one building compared to its neighbours. I hear the older generation was most disapproving.
2. There is a long canal that runs through Tirana with a one way road in opposite directions on either side. It’s less canal, more drain with banking slopes on either side of sludge water, dumped garbage and tree saplings. There are thin and quite unsteady looking bridges at various points along the ‘naala’ besides a few proper sized car roads traversing it to allow change of direction. We stayed some way away from the centre of Tirana but along the famous canal and our modest mid-level hotel proudly gave us canal facing rooms. I felt so wanted.
3. Albanian’s love their food and much like Indians they show their affection by trying to feed you large and delicious meals. While their traditional food is very meaty and heavily influenced by various invaders they eat a lot of Italian food. We ate 3 hearty meals a day, and chomped on hot bread from the local bakery while walking between meetings. Food is incredibly cheap compared to here in London and widely available from little street stalls to mid-size restaurants and by the poolside of the few five star establishments. There was a huge fresh vegetable market not far from us, a bit chaotic with yelling sellers and bargaining buyers haggling over piles of fresh colourful fruit and veg. Not like sterile-and-often-touristy Borough market, more like Church Street off Edgeware road but not as much as like an Indian early morning/ late evening subji mandi.
4. Albanians really love Mother Teresa. REALLY. We were invited to the opening of an exhibition of works by different artists to celebrate her life at the national museum. Sadly a work commitment meant that we had to decline. Our hosts were aghast that we refused to change our plans for this event. Needs must I said. Everyone talks about her in tones reserved for talking about something deeply revered like God. Roads, hospitals, schools, universities, museums and an airport among the many things that bear her name. Every Albanian I met was thrilled to be meeting an Indian, wanted to know if I had been to see her work in Calcutta and professed a desire to one day go and see her home away from home. Like a pilgrimage.
5. In our one spare evening we were guided to the shopping area, all along said canal, shoe shop after shoe shop. Interspersed by the odd clothing shop. As in food they are heavily influenced by Italian fashion and every woman no matter what economic status or age is always perfectly turned out with neat clothes, make-up and hair done and wonderful shoes and handbags made of Italian leather. It would have been easy to get carried away in shoe paradise but I limited myself to two comfortable and beautifully crafted pairs of slip-ons. Unlike some other people who bought 10 pairs of shoes.
6. The central square is bound by Italian styled buildings of red brick and yellow paint. Starkly different from the rest of the cities gloomy and uninspiring architecture. Well, it’s not exactly a square, more a large rambling rectangle. Beside the nice buildings there is also the National Museum and Opera House, marked by some fantastic pictoral mosaics. The centre of the square has its token statue and the oldest mosque in Albania (or Europe?). And it’s full of people and whizzing traffic and smog.
7. This brings me neatly on to the traffic situation. It’s chaotic to say the least. There are cabs at various street corners but we did lots of walking between offices and the hotel and restaurants and shops on the somewhat-there sidewalks when not boxed inside the hotel conference rooms. This was to get the limbs moving and to avoid sitting in traffic jams that just like India left the about 0.5 inches between vehicles on any side. When not sitting in still traffic the drivers undertake Formula One racing tactics and drive at break-neck speeds. Like shots from a catapult. I quite enjoyed it, even the heart-in-the-throat-moments.
8. On our one day off we decided to do the touristy thing and take the cable car up the mountains. Tirana is surrounded by hills on 3 sides (from what I could see) and we went up the cable car to the top of one of these. It cost us the equivalent of £2.50 and the swaying but shiny little pods were great, clean and efficient. Only we got to the top and there was nothing but a few restrooms, a café and a great view. Besides other tourists and a man with a horse leading little children around an abandoned parking lot. From the view it’s easy to see how all that migration is causing Tirana to spread quickly into cheap and hastily constructed apartments that are creating suburbia as they grow.
9. On the same trip up and down the cable we saw something that defines the Albanian landscape. The former dictator Hoxha (pronounced Ho-ja) built 600,000 concrete bunkers into Albania’s landscape. Ostensibly built to repel attack each concrete toadstool is large enough for one man and his rifle. Everyone whom I talked to about Albanian history mentioned these and the paranoia they caused amongst a population where there were 4 people for every 1 bunker built, not enough for an attack from the outside and impotent from the enemy within. The bunkers are everywhere, ugly ugly concrete spheres. I only saw them built into the hillside but I hear they exist in the most unexpected of places.
10. Last but definitely not least, it is the people of Albania I want to talk about. Among the group of people I met there was great economic disparity but each person was educated and well-spoken. The common factor between them all was the warmth and welcoming spirit they shared. From the young company Director to the older English teacher, the university researcher to the Psychology student, there was a spirit of optimism and a national pride that was heart-warming. Counting on doing the hard graft for a better future, for themselves, their families and their country. It was a sentiment I have not often heard echoed across such a disparate group.
Albania was a trip of amazing discovery. It’s more ‘Rough Guide’ than ‘Luxury holiday’ but its real, grounded and poised for a future of opportunity. I never thought I would enjoy it as much as I did.
There will be pictures. Soon. I promise.