Once upon a time, far far away, (or possibly not very far, particularly if you’re Albanian and reading this. Hi Ira! *waves*) there was a country, and in this country was a city, and in this city was an LJ writing a blog. The city is called Tirana, and it is very different to other cities of my experience.
On a side note, don’t you think “Tirana” would be a beautiful name for a girl? A mix of “Tiara” and “Anna” that suggests an elegant and beautiful young woman with beautiful big brown eyes, in diamonds, heels and a cocktail dress. “Ah Mr Ambassador, have you met my daughter Tirana?” I can imagine kissing the slender fingers of the beautiful Lady Tirana moments before we fall in love and start the greatest love story since Romeo and Juliet. We would run away together, defying her father and his high fashion friends, who wish her to marry a man she doesn’t love for money and business interests. We would kiss under the stars and flee to somewhere beautiful, and I would make my fortune, and we would return to Albania triumphant and she would be reunited with her now forgiving father and we would live happily ever after. You may mock all you wish my dear sir, but cynicism is merely cowardice by another name and a faint heart never won a fair lady, especially one as beautiful as Miss Tirana. It is so difficult to be a romantic these days.
But I digress. So mes amis, gather round me as I tell you a tale of many cities. For cities have a soul, mon dieu but they do, and old LJ will show it to you, the soul of the cities laid bare for all to see. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
I grew up in Birmingham, a city whose soul is written in its industrial past, and even now when it has been rebuilt with glass that working class heart beats in the steel that holds the new buildings together. Birmingham’s soul is simple, but simple doesn’t mean stupid, it is honest and it is tough and stubborn and determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other, as befits a city that is rebuilding itself despite the highest unemployment rates and four of the ten poorest constituencies in the UK.
My first experience of a “world city” was London, the biggest and most wretched hive of uncaring and impersonal money men in Europe, with a dark, twisted, cancerous and parasitic soul dressed in the most glamorous and beautiful cultural edifices, like a satin mask on an aristocratic leper. By all means go to London, but leave before you stop caring for people. I can’t spend longer than a week in London before the hairs on my neck start to rise and I feel in a permanent need of a shower.
My first non-British city was Seoul. Seoul seems like two cities, a modern place of glass skyscrapers and advanced technology nestling in an Oriental third-world-slum-like city of grubby back alleys and tiny, barely sanitary houses, with 25million people crossing between the two as though totally unaware of the contrast. The whole city is really a big, friendly giant spanning almost the width of the Korean peninsula and yet managing to seem as cosy and safe as your grandmothers kitchen. This is because of the people, who are the most welcoming, warm and smiley people you could hope to meet. Seoul is the perfect answer to those who say all big, world cities are uncaring places like London.
Other cities I have known include Tallinn (a stunning, fairy-tale old town and thoroughly modern centre, surrounded by some of the worst and dreariest suburbs I have ever seen), Amsterdam (smaller than you would think, very relaxed and yet seeming to hide its true self away from the tourists, like someone who is very clever, and clever enough to hide how clever they really are) and Belgrade (an incredibly beautiful city, one where I felt very comfortable within hours of arriving and with the air of a woman both very beautiful and very worldly wise, one whom you both respect and adore).
Tirana though most reminds me of another Balkan city, Skopje, though with some important differences. Both cities are cradled in the arms of the mountains which surround them, both have around 1million denizens, both have a huge amount of construction work ongoing within them, although Skopje has a proper River, whereas Tirana has a small, rather apologetic stream. Skopje however seems to be suffering from the delusions of Macedonia’s politicians, who are desperately striving to surgically graft the city centre from an old historical city such as Paris, Barcelona or (dare I say it) Athens onto a city which has its own character and its own beauty. It’s like a woman who looks like Angelina Jolie whose husband forces her to have plastic surgery to look like Paris Hilton. It doesn’t work and the beautiful girl ends up looking like Michael Jackson.
On the other hand, Tirana seems perfectly happy to be Tirana. In August many of the bars and shops, especially around the student city where the volunteers are living, are closed as many of the people head to the country for a break. The city does indeed seem to be dozing in the sun, as though august is a lazy Sunday afternoon stretched to the length of a month. This deserted air, coupled with the merciless sun flamethrowering the landscape and the sandy dust that seems to cover every street does at times make one speculate as to whether one has accidentally enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and been posted to an Algerian border town. Luckily the locals are incredibly friendly and hospitable, no-one has attempted to shoot me with a jezzail from a sand dune even once.
The student city, where the volunteers live, is situated in between the American embassy compound (a fortress painted a ludicrous pale yellow) and the sanatorium. As I write that a line from a Stealers Wheel song plays in my head, “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you”. When I first looked around the room I was to live in I knew I was back in the Balkans, because no one else would put a plug socket in the shower. The apartments we are in are brand new; we’re the first people to live in them. It’s stretching things a bit to call them apartments, its one room with two beds in and a small bit off to one side with a fridge, sink and in some of them an oven in, and a small toilet/shower room. Me and two others have had to move out of one of them and into an empty apartment, since our fist room developed a swimming pool. The landlady said it was something we had done but, given the state of the water damage in the wall and the fact that the water seeped out from there I beg to differ with her. Quite frankly it is not possible to do that level of water damage in a week. Anyway I have now moved slightly down the hill, which means burning a few extra calories walking up the hill every morning, which is a tremendous saving as I no longer have to join a gym. Not that I would have joined a gym, I don’t have enough money to spend it on driving to a building, running on the spot for half an hour, and then driving home again.
I digress again. The student city of Tirana doesn’t feel the same as the other campus’s I have lived on when studying in Birmingham and Seoul, which seemed like separate tiny bubble-cities. This one feels much more a part of the city as a whole, the feel of the student city is the same as the feel of the rest of the city, except with more bars and internet cafes. This would make me happy if I had the money to go to the bars more often. You can see the mountains in the distance, and close by is a lovely park with an artificial lake, which is very pleasant to wander around on a Sunday afternoon.
As with much of the Balkans, some of the streets seem more pothole than road and many of the buildings have seen better days, but somehow it adds to the life of the place. There is a sense that people are too busy living their lives and enjoying themselves to spend their time sanitising their surroundings. Tirana, like the Balkans generally, is a wonderfully human place to be. There is a sense that, yes there is poverty, but something can be done about it. There are people who want to do something, as opposed to the apathy and the “Well I’m alright Jack…” attitude of parts of Western Europe.
This has, I hope, given you a small insight, a window as it were, into the soul of the city we are in. There is still so much more to be discovered. But now, if you will excuse me, I must take my leave of you. A gentleman should never keep a lady waiting; although I have only been on a few dates with Miss Tirana she is very beautiful and I look forward to getting to know her better. Au revoir mes amis, don’t wait up!