Monday- Tirana (walking around and pondering on the block)
Whoever said that Tirana is a a small town, is unequivocally wrong. Tirana is quite medium sized. Two million souls live in this anarchic city. Most of them are internal immigrants from the all over Albania, but one can not rule out the occasional European or American company executive, nor the occasional Kosovar or Macedonian . The outskirts are poverty stricken, if one does not take into account the gated comunities. The case where the city erupts, though, looks like a faraway possibility. The three deaths outside the presidential palace, during demonstrations against what the opposition called an election fraud. From the looks of it what happened in Albania last spring (in the middle of the Arab spring, mind you), was not a free and fair election. It has a lot of the marks of what people in the west would call electoral fraud , and there is chit chat going around about the Americans having given a helping hand in the election of Berisha. Necvertherless Berisha and the current mayor of Tirana seem to be USA’s favourite alies in the region. Without the support of the Albanian government the operations in Kosovo could have been seriously hindered, if not deemed impossible. But Albania provided logistics and a “staging point” for the operation, let alone the help to the UCK.
Anyway there I was, in the middle of a quite moist day, walking along the Central Boulevards of Tirana. Some areas are really run down, but the truth is that downtown Tirana has bee greatly modernised, and looks like a big shopping area for rich Albanians. A lot of Flagship and high end stores are there. Embassies are situated left right and centre around this area, so are important buildings like the new Cathedral built by the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Albania, and some mosques. South Albania is dominantly Greek Orthodox, but middle-to-northern Albania is a Muslim country. That goes as far as religious people, because most Albanians are Atheists. Around Tirana one can also spot old men with bicycles. Bikes are very popular among the eldest generation, a generation that did not really get used to private cars. So, even now, in the midst of the busy streets of the capital, there is a lot of old men and women going about their day to day business on their ageing bikes. It is some sort of a picturesque scene from a generally dim urban Albania.
Colours in Tirana where much dimmer in the past. But Eddi Rama, during his tenure as mayor did two things. First he tore down the shanty town that was situated in the banks of the river and along the circular road that almost goes around the city centre. The whereabouts of the residents remain unknown, though I think they got stuffed around the messy suburbs, hidden because of anachic building and no urban planning. The second thing was to paint some of the buildings in various colours, and provide full exterior lighting 24/7to all the important buildings that are situated around the area of Skenderberg Square, which is the heart of the City. Then, a massive remodelling of the square started (with use of Austrian funds), which was concluded during the tenure of the current mayor. Though it did not vastly improve living standards, the tenure of Rama as mayor was deemed rather successful. But cosmetic changes do not change a lot. Five to ten kilometres away from the well paved city centre, sidewalks are missing, there are open sewage pumps, buildings that remain in ruins, and even dirt roads.
Anyway it was Monday so the National Laographic Museum of Tirana was closed. All I could do was sit down and watch the big mural on the side facing the square. This mural depicts all heroes that had taken part in the biggest wars rebellions and riots that had to do with the country, from the times of king Perrus up until the second world war. Men and women armed with all kinds of weaponry where depicted in the huge mural. Two other sights lie nearby, both on the Boulevard that starts from Skenderberg Square and ends, more or less, at the Kemalstafa Stadium. The emblematic Pyramid, a monument built to honour Emver Hoxha ( and a sign of all the “god” treatment that leaders of Stalinist states received and I am talking about Stalin, Mao Ze Dong and even Nicolae Chausescu), and the clock tower. Right across the Pyramid lies a series of ministries and, further on, the Polytechnik. And, if one takes one of the cross streets and moves to the right, (when facing the Kemalstafa end), he or she enters the biloku district, universally known as “the Block”. The history of the “Block”, is a lot like the history of modern Albania, in small scale. Like Albania, the “Block” was a secluded area during the times of Hoxha. No commoner would be able to enter this area, which was designed only for party and state officials. In a similar fashion Albania was closed to non-comrades.
Then communism fell in 1991, and by then the country’s borders where open for anyone willing to visit. The same happened to the “Block”. Suddenly anyone could see where the party leaders where living. But then again the block semi-closed in later years. It became full of restaurants and bars that where a little to expensive for the average Albanian. So, now ther block is a semi-secluded area where only those who have the money hang out. Nevertheless, I could sill pay a visit to the grounds of Emver Hoxha’s residence. It was in the middle of the “Block”. A luxurous safe haven for a “communist leader” who lived in luxury while his people had to live with far less. Just like in mother Russia and China. Oligarchs and princelings are not to be taken out of the picture too. While walking around the block I spotted six Bentleys, a couple of Jaguars, loads of Mercedes and BMW cars, even some American limousines.Some of them had Kosovo plates and strange looking men and women inside. Mobsters by the looks of it. And those guys had the "don't look at me strangely, and I will not hang you by the balls" look in their eyes. Criminals that most probably had killed people in their past. And all the while, there was people begging for food in the streets.
This is Albania in 2012. Loads of poor people, and a very few super rich men and women laughing in their face. Anger must be slowly boiling here. But not that much. There was an air of optimism in the air, even in the worst and most crime-ridden slum in Tirana. People had the feeling that there was still some room for more development. That I got from conversations made with people, and some conversations that caught my ear around the area. Perhaps it is because people felt they have “rocked bottom” and the only way now is up. Things could not get worse, only better. This feeling was shared by my stepfather when he came around to pick me up. We went for a drive around town, saw a few neighbourhoods, and then went back to the apartment. I had to pack, because on Tuesday I had to catch a plane back home.