In the streets of Albania, a traveler finds evidence of a country trying to distance itself from its political past.
Editor’s note: This article was written before the world’s deadliest earthquake of 2019 struck near Tirana on November 26, killing 51 people and injuring thousands. The European Union has this week pledged €15 million for relief efforts.
The elevator chimed to a halt, but no one got out. A boy of 11 or so, messy black hair and scruffy clothes, tightly gripped the handles of a pram. He, his mom and the baby within all stared at the wall as the elevator doors opened. There was no room for us to enter. So we waited. The doors closed, and the elevator ascended once more with the same family inside. Every time we tried to use a lift during our week in Tirana, we would encounter a similar experience. The numbers on the screen would skip randomly from 1 to 7 to 3. People would placidly ride up and down and up again, staying in the cabin as if unsure how to exert their will over this driverless vehicle. Looking out at the city from the balcony of our Airbnb, it was easy to fathom why elevators caused such confusion: Few buildings had more than a couple of floors.
Tirana, the capital of Albania, has few skyscrapers and fewer international chains. If you’re craving chicken nuggets, a Starbucks coffee, or even a Domino’s pizza, then you’re out of luck. What you will find, however, are coffee houses, everywhere you go. They are always on one floor, spacious, and often quite modern in design. Each table will be full of a group of young people—either men, leather-clad with close-cropped black hair, drinking coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes, or women, peroxide blonde, wearing blue jeans, also with a cigarette in one hand and a black coffee in the other. Strike up a conversation, and you will most likely encounter someone who speaks good English—better than you will encounter on average in Spain or certainly France. You may hear about a recent trip perhaps to Germany or Italy—but not to the UK, where the visa situation is prohibitive. You will be told that there are “many foreigners” who come here, though you are unlikely to encounter many yourself.
No matter where you begin or where you’re going in Tirana, your path is going to take you alongside Lana, the river or stream that flows down from the nearby mountains and cuts through the heart of the city. With the concrete flanked stream on your left, you’ll walk past numerous small kiosks where you may glimpse the owner taking a kip on his newspapers. You’ll pass a few placid beggars, some knick-knack shops and several plush-looking pharmacies until eventually walls appear on your right and you look up and see a towering grey mosque. The so-called “Great Mosque” has been under construction for a number of years and is already probably the largest in the Balkans. Outside a bar, I asked a young man whether he considered himself a Muslim. He took a sip of his pint and said, “My Dad told me I am. I asked him why. He said he didn’t know.” The construction of the mosque has been financed by Turkey. Erdogan attended the inauguration in 2015.
A man marches through Skanderbeg Square holding a megaphone. Despite the amplification device against his lips, he shouts at the top of his lungs, phrases incomprehensible to me but with the unmistakably supercilious, declarative tones of the political prophet. We wander around the huge, mostly empty square under the blue sky, breathing in the heroic mural outside of the national museum and pausing for a moment before the Et’hem Bey Mosque. Here, in 1991, 10,000 local Muslims gathered to peacefully protest the closure of mosques under communism. The lone protester is still swaggering around the square. He clutches a red book in his hand with a word that looks like “Constitution” emblazoned on the cover. Two bored-looking policemen soon frog-march him out.
A few clicks down the highway is a bus stop. There are no stands and no timetables. You scour the parking lot until you find a bus labeled with the place you want to go, hop on, and wait until it fills up. When every seat is taken, the bus departs and a friend of the driver comes through and collects the fare. It’s sunny, and the bus for the seaside city, Durres, fills up quickly. Out the window, the city falls away and greenery soon emerges, stacks of hay stand in front of houses, horses, and sheep graze in the greenery between factories and warehouses. A towering white building emerges, a fake marble palace—perhaps a shop or maybe someone’s home, incongruous among the ad-hoc, one-story modern constructions surrounded by grass.
The Durres seafront is in the process of being developed with posh restaurants, mostly empty, serving a few laconic locals. There is no beach to speak of. We checked the prices at one bar/restaurant and, finding them reasonable, pointed towards the cheapest beer on the menu. “No,” the waiter said. “That menu is out of date.” “Ok, so how much is a beer?” The waiter conjured a price several times higher than what was written. We left. At the end of the promenade is a statue of a man fishing in the water. Behind, where you may expect to find a posh hotel or the nicest restaurant of the lot, stands a crumbling, concrete carpark. A stray dog befriended us as we walked back towards the bus station. When we boarded the bus for Tirana, it ran around the station in confusion, sniffing at the air.
At a bar in Tirana, the owner showed us relics from the communist period, pointed out the two well-dressed undercover police-officers sitting at a booth being plied with free alcohol, then proceeded to attempt to murder us with shots of a home-brew spirit generously poured out of a gallon-sized decanter. It would have been foolishly easy to scam us at that point. She did not. No one in Tirana even attempted anything of the sort. Even the unlicensed taxi driver who scooped our weary and frazzled forms up at the airport stuck to his word and charged a fair fee. This made me think that the Durres experience could have been a communication breakdown. Or maybe that one waiter just got impatient, waiting for the promised boatloads of foreign tourists, swimming trunks in hand, who never arrived.
The elevator in the building where we stayed in Tirana opened, revealing an old man standing in the doorway. The lift had been going down and was now about to start going up, but the man did not get out. He just stood there, waiting for Godot. But this was no longer surprising. The elderly gentleman heard us speaking to each other in English and remarked, “You’re not Albanian!” He had grown up here, but moved to the United States in the ‘90s and was back home visiting family. I asked him what he thought of things here, how the country had changed after communism. “Changed? Nothing has changed,” he said, still with a thick accent. “Some buildings are taller, but the people…still short.”