My adventure started on February. A mix of emotions, due to the uncertainties that I will face on my way, comes along with me. How will my fellows look like? And the guys of the organizations? Is it true what people generally say about Albania or there’s something else? Curiosity is the very first motivation for this experience.
I found myself together with my three flatmates at the sixth floor of a brand new building, in an apartment never inhabited before, kindly provided by our Albanian association “Beyond Barriers”. I have to say that they had a lot of care and passion on it, furnishing with all we needed; moreover it’s just some steps away from the office where we’re going to work. By the way, we have a huge balcony with a sight of all the surroundings.
The first week is merely a discovery of the environment, of Tirana in general. We’re free to uncover this city without any specific task. Let’s begin with saying that this city is one of a kind, like the rest of the country. Someone said to me that you can see a mix of Greece, Turkey and Italy all in once; I don’t know how much it’s correct but maybe we can get quite near, at least, to a general image of the city. Walking around I see that people spend no end of time in cafe, maybe they just order a coffee and stay all day there. That’s why you notice crowded bar at any time, and their number is really high: this is a habit, for what I’ve seen, quite common in the Balkans; people, in this moment, used to discuss a lot about every kind of topic they run into. Under my office, at the eighth floor of a modern building in Don Bosko district, I counted around 16 bars in just a few hundred meters! I’ve soon renamed Tirana the “city of 10000 bars and 5-6 churches and mosques”. This is actually the proportion that appears before my eyes, among places of worship and relax facilities (to these ones, we should include also several casinos scattered around the city. Furthermore, perhaps because of the heritage of the harsh repression during communist time against religion, churches and mosques are a few indeed. We have to specify that in 1967 a decree by Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator in power from 1945 until his death in 1985, prohibited every expression of worship but his cult of personality: his famous statement at that time claimed blatantly that Albania became “the first atheist country in the world”. Because of that, many places of prayer have been wrecked, while the most ancient ones converted in clubs or something similar. In 1991 the first protest against communism aimed at freedom of religion; as some Albanians told me, nowadays about 9 out of 10 people in this country believe in God, whatever faith they have. The majority of believers is supposed to be Muslim, way behind are Catholics and Orthodox, but soon I realized that mostly are non-practicing. For sure, tolerance among faiths is absolute.
Another fascination about the Albanians are the strolls along the main avenues and roads, like the “Youth Park”, “Rruga e Kavajes”, “Rruga Durresit”, “Bulevard Deshmoret e Kombit”, in the center, the so-called “xhiro”; this is made usually in the evening and it’s a leisure moment of very big social importance, since Albanians seem to be tquite at ease in socializing and in general during informal times. It’s really easy to make friends with people in the streets.
The primary avenues of the city (“Bulevard Zogu I” and “Bulevard Deshmoret e Kombit”) are really wide and were built by Fascist Italy during the occupations in the years 1939-44, and still now the base of the ministries, in that area, is clearly the result of the typical rationalist engineering of that period. Another sight which is impossible to avoid, in the beginning of Bulevard Deshmoret e Kombit, is the “Pyramid”, a former Mausoleum dedicated to the dictator Enver Hoxha, built in 1988 by his daughter Pranvera, an architect. They told me that looking at it from the sky, you can recognize the shape of an eagle (the symbol of Albanian, depicted in the flag) out of the structure. The Pyramid was bound for its original purpose only a few years, then after 1991 and the fall of communism it was converted into a discotheque and a cultural center. Now it’s abandoned; some politicians are even planning to destroy it and build the new parliament instead.
There’s not so much green in Tirana, unfortunately. The only very big place where you can take a break from the urban stress it’s the “Grand Park”, located on the southern edge of the city; it’s equipped with a lake, which is not exactly the clearest stretch of water I’ve ever seen. Buildings are raised up like mushrooms everywhere, presently it’s the most proficient business for what I’ve understood; everybody from all over the country prefer to live in the capital, which is obviously provided with much more services than elsewhere, as well as job opportunities. There’s a lot of untidiness in the city, mainly due to a lack of urban planning. Besides, a thing that struck me (actually typical of the Balkans, but here more prominent), is the fact that an impressive number of single family houses and apartment blocks turn out to be incomplete, with the last floors left unfinished halfway. Apparently because of a lack of funding, or inadequate projects, works proceed maddeningly slow or they even stop. All of this confers to the urban scenery an impression of precariousness and sprawling development (this is visible, as I will realize right after, all over Albania, included other major cities like Durres or Vlora). But, in the end, this is what conveys the idea of a unique country, you like it or not.
The mayhem of the city is magnified by the great bulk of traffic, regardless of street rules: the act of crossing a road is not surely a bit of a joke! In addition, just in this period, “Skanderbeg square”, where there are the main sights of Tirana (entitled to the national hero, the leader of XV century who strenuously defended the country against the Ottomans, but it would require a book to describe him!) is in a phase of drastic renewal. This means that the center looks like a huge construction site.
Albanian language, that we’ve been learning through the lessons of a local volunteer, is quite complex and, let’s say, one of a kind, like many things in this unique country. This gives to the tongue an aura of mystery (ok, there are some borrowings from Turkish, Italian, Serbian and some other European languages that have been in cultural contact with Albania, but the core of the language remains unparalleled). Grammar appears quite tough to Albanian themselves to know it all: to master the language, it requires a lot of practice indeed. Obviously, even only as a tribute to the country that hosts me, I’d like to learn it, at least the basics.
My effort is somehow made more difficult because an outstanding number of Albanians, and almost all of the young generations, are fluent in Italian since they learn it from the television, starting from watching cartoons when they’re just little more than babies. Then, in most of the cases, I end up talking in Italian and this may slow up my learning process at some point; usually languages are learned more rapidly because you really need to use it, and maybe I’m lazy, but with Italian as a “spare wheel” in almost every situation, how is it possible?
Finally, to focus on the people that I’ve run into (what a polite expression to define my encounter with them…), I admit I’ve been learning a lot from them about their daily life habits, which is something that of course pleases me. Finally, the local Albanian volunteers have proved themselves as very welcoming and warm-hearted towards me and my colleagues, never lacking of support and laughter…well yes, playfulness and friendliness is part, if we should generalize, of the features of this people.