Wednesday 19 August 2015

Tirana and Tomi

Only a fool goes to Greece or smartly-painted Croatia or Montenegro when, for a short time longer, the real thing exists in Albania.

I decided on Friday that after five weeks of dog days in Bucharest I had to get away. One has to be guided by ones heart and my heart didn't want Malta or Copenhagen or crowded Rome or even cool raining England. I found a very cheap flight - such things used not to exist before Air Serbia became a budget airline - and came to Albania. I have intended to each summer since I first came here eight years ago. For five years I have not kept my promise but now I am thankful to be here. I shall come back each year from now on.

I came without making plans but a dear friend who used to live here put me in touch with Tomi and this proved providential.

Tomi is an architect who works on all sorts of projects for international organisations. He even worked on one about gender equality, a subject he seems to find slightly amusing.  He also dedicates his time to 'enjoying the life' which involves spending much of the summer on the beach or roaming the countryside, often from his kindness showing lucky people round. He bought some wonderful Albanian wine from a shop which the owner of the bar we went to let him drink there - it's better, he explained, than the Italian wines that are just colourings and water. And it really was. The bar was fully of lovely, pretty flirty twenty-something girls - just like Bucharest was while Romanians had to get visas to go to the European Union. Like Romania the girls are comely and the men less handsome.
Tirana is nowadays clean and pretty. An odd achievement since it is the poorest capital in Europe and has grown from a population of 160,000 in 1990 to a million. Old men in dark suits and fezes. Narrow faces. 

I am so lucky. Two weeks ago the temperature was 46 degrees Celsius says Tomi but while I was in Belgrade on my way here the weather broke and it is an acceptable 28 or 30. Nevertheless I decided to stick to my plan to escape to the mountains and the lakes. Tomi decides to take me and show me around.

Tirana at night had an astonishing vibe, utterly unlike anywhere else. Unlike Romania it's effortlessly cool. And it feels exciting. It was eight years ago when I was last in the city and it has even more bars and restaurants. The Italian fascist government buildings painted terracotta and ochre and the cool villas built before the war do not feel like anywhere else, nor the pyramid intended as a mausoleum to the Stalinist Maoist dictator Hozha. I know all the former Communist capitals and it's not like any of them. It's a bit like Turkey I suppose. Balkan certainly but not Yugoslav. Yugoslavia has the ersatz Westernness of a 1970s Yugoslav lounge lizard smoking a Western cigarette and wearing a gold medallion.

Tirana doesn't feel Western unlike the resort of Sarander, opposite horrible, overcrowded Corfu. Sarander is like the South of France. What does Tirana feel like? The imaginary capital of an imaginary country in a good, quirky thriller. That all I can answer.

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