7/6/11 - 7/8/11
When I mention Albania to people it summons the strangest responses of any country I’ve visited this trip. “What? Why?” “Are you nervous?” “Aren’t they at war or something?” “Is that in Greece?” It became readily apparent that Albania is still a rather undiscovered country, and as with most things that people don’t understand, they react with a bit of fear and a touch of apprehension. To be honest, I really had no idea what to expect in Tirana, the capital of Albania, but people’s lack of interest in travelling there is part of what made me want to go. Tirana was full of surprises, but the biggest surprise was that it was, dare I say, hip.
As the pierced and tattooed hostel worker Illja led me down the dark, seemingly abandoned dirt trail, I caught a glimpse of an ambiguous animal’s eyes reflecting the small amount of moonlight that was available to illuminate the homely trail. Rusted, unusable train tracks accented the abandoned warehouses, all relics of a very different, but very recent past. As I wondered where we could possibly be wandering, I started to hear faint murmurs up ahead, the type you hear when someone on your block is having a party, but you’re not exactly sure where. A few hundred feet more and we arrived at what’s known as “Tirana Express,” another old warehouse, but one that the youth of Tirana had worked together to breathe new life into. The place was buzzing with about 75 or so people, all of which looking as though they could have just walked out of a bar in Brooklyn, but not one of the conceited ones. Projected on the wall was a documentary about how dub reggae inspired contemporary electronic dubstep. Drinks flowed, that utterly unmistakable chorus of a good party filled the air, and the modest Tirana skyline peeked through the windows of the brightly lit spray painted abandoned railcar sitting idly by. When the documentary ended, a DJ stood at the front of the party and blended the two types of aforementioned music genres. As we all danced the night away I thought to myself, “this is Tirana?”
The following day I retraced my way to where the party was to get a glimpse of what it looked like in the daylight. Without the music, the lights, and the young Albanians, only slight clues remained that anything at all had taken place.
The documentary was projected on this wall, and the DJ station was right in front
The way. Daunting at night, certainly not a road you would just stumble upon.
After revisiting the daytime ghost town of the Tirana Express, I set out to explore the more orthodox components of the city. I started with the Albania History Museum, which like most things in Albania, had no sign, and you just needed to take a leap of faith that the building you were walking into was in fact what you were searching for. The first floor was a strange hodge podge of memorabilia related to US-Albania relations. Suits that Clinton wore, hats that Albanian leaders wore to meetings, letters from American politicians, even ones that normally would be relegated to the trash can, all adorned the walls of the corridor.
Sorry it's a little blurry, my flash is broken and the lighting in the museum was similar to that of the local dive bar. Not so often you see a rejection letter hung in a museum.
The rest of the museum was dedicated to the last 1000 or so years of Albanian history. It was interesting, but it was all described in Albanian and they wouldn’t let me bring my camera in, so let’s just go ahead and move on.
After the history museum, I decided to wander around and let randomness govern the rest of my day’s itinerary. I crossed by a street called George W. Bush street, but through past experiences I decided that following down that road was probably a mistake... Ahem.
After walking around a lake and the surrounding city for a while, I stumbled upon a surprisingly good art museum. The temporary exhibit was a photo timeline of the evolution of Albania pre and post communism, and a less serious wall with more lighthearted photos like hot dogs and regular dogs wearing sunglasses. I preferred this wall.
The permanent exhibit contained works of art from the last century or so, and included some insight into just how far the country has come in the last 30 years. I honestly don’t read a lot of descriptions in art galleries - I’m more of a pretty pictures guy than a words guy - but one of the paintings jumped out at me enough to justify reading the description. It turned out that the artist was thrown in jail because the powers that be decided that the painting was too pessimistic. This blows my mind. Someone imprisoned because they decided to use dark blue as opposed to brighter hues. Even more incredible, was that this was a mere 40 years ago. Sometimes I think Americans, myself included, can take for granted the amount of freedom and liberties that we have. We complain about the smallest perceived misalignments of liberty, and this man was imprisoned for a painting a mere forty years ago. Certainly makes me appreciate the scope of liberties in America.
After the art exhibit I came upon the cousin of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Albanian Pyramid. This one might be less grand than those of Egypt, but can you run up and down the walls of Egyptian Pyramids? Can you bring 2 liter plastic jugs of beer to the top and drink them while the sun sets over the skyline? I think not. I’ll take the Albanian Pyramid every day of the week. It was originally ordained to be built as a tomb and memorial to Enver Hoxha, the much maligned leader of Albania until his passing in 1985. Unfortunately for Enver, upon his death, the people of Albania decided they did not want a memorial for a dictator that kept Stalinism alive in Europe for decades. The people would not let the pyramid be a tomb glorifying a man who they’d rather forget. Thus now it sits idly, its significance sitting squarely in the eye of the beholder.
As I sat with my hostel mates atop the pyramid, the sun setting slowly over the modest skyline, I was filled with excitement about what the rest of the country had to offer. At this point we were sitting with a group of Albanians who had lived in Tirana their whole life, and the novelty of lounging atop the pyramid had not yet worn thin on them. It’s understandable. Sure, you could just look at it as an abandoned graffittied concrete pyramid, but you would be missing the big picture. The pyramid could have been a glorification of an ugly era in Albania, a constant reminder of a past that the country is working hard to overcome. Instead, it has turned into a symbol of progress, a structure of validation, literally tons of proof that the times they are a-changin. Just 40 years prior a man was imprisoned for a painting. A decade after that, countless dollars were being spent to build a memorial for a man who made myriads of inhumane rulings such as that. Now, the painting sits proudly in a glistening art museum, and the pyramid is a sign of how the city is evolving, rather than a reminder of regression.
Protect the Pyramid
Tirana was a strong, thought provoking start to the relatively unknown country. Time to head south, and into some of the stunning nature that Albania has to offer. My bus south picks up at “the alley near the grocery store,” and the directions to the next hostel involve getting to the center of Berat and “ask(ing) the townspeople for “Scotty.” Time for an adventure, so long.