The Way It Used To Be - Chapter Twenty-four: Tirana

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Europe » Albania » West » Tirana
August 13th 2005
Published: May 28th 2008
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View From Hotel RoomView From Hotel RoomView From Hotel Room

First Impressions fortunately do not always reign supreme...
Some European cities beg to be explored. The less quiet, romantic, and dimly lit back streets of Lisbon and Budapest come to mind. Others cities, however, instill a deep desire to remain in your hotel room with the door locked and all windows shut tight.
Tirana pertains to the latter.
Albania’s capital does very little to diminish the already horrendous first impression the northern city of Shkodër delivered. Hot and layered with a coating of chalky grime, Tirana only confirms that Albania is a third-world country in an otherwise modern Europe. Overcrowded and polluted with an endless blaring of horns from backed-up traffic, only a rare cool and rainy day in summer provides relief from the loads of fermenting trash at every street corner that overflows from neglected dumpsters. No matter what the weather, there is no escape the choking of noxious diesel fumes that hang in Tirana’s already stench-filled air.
Just how unfriendly is Tirana to tourists? First of all, there are virtually no tourists in Tirana because there is absolutely nothing of interest to see, not a single physical attraction worth mentioning. Museums are elusive. The faceless government buildings are inaccessible to the public, as proven by the heavily
All Aboard!All Aboard!All Aboard!

Only thing missing is the tumbleweed...
armed guards on patrol posted every fifty yards or so around them. Monuments, however grandiose, stick out like sore thumbs in an already unwelcoming and faded Skënderbeg Square. There exists no tourist office for exactly the same reason. If not for my guidebook that has not updated its entry on Tirana for three years, I would have no map of the city to orient myself because only a few are available anywhere in the city. Have you ever heard of such absurdity? No matter. Even locals have no clue which streets carry which names. The name of particular street is “the one at the corner of the betting parlor and across from the park.” With that information, locals can direct you where you want to go. Anyway, what go would a map of Tirana do when there exist no street signs to verify you’re headed in the right direction to begin with?
While Budapest has the Danube and Parisians stroll along the Seine, the Lana splits Tirana from between north and south, but is no more than a swift flowing sewer ditch. For all my time in Tirana, I cannot make heads or tails of its public transport system, as
Exiting Train StationExiting Train StationExiting Train Station

My initail reaction was to get back on the train, but that would have been even scarier...
the ancient and numberless rectangular monsters of buses roar by, collecting and dismissing suffocating passengers at never the same point on an avenue twice. To head out of Tirana by car is a scary mystery, as no signs point you to other Albanian cities. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re absolutely screwed beyond imagination and will inevitably wind up encircling a complex of condemned, yet inhabited apartment blocks the cracks on which better resemble a road map of Vermont. The train station is the most frightful site in the city. Packs of emaciated and hairless dogs dart up and down the empty platform from which you can walk by torn and smashed out railway cars. At the far end of the eerily concrete and abandoned monstrosity a (barely) functional train awaits departure. There are no announcements, no schedules posted, and no ticket window. Where does this two-car train go? When? Better yet, why? The scruffy staff looks far too unapproachable for to me to ask how to get to the south of Albania by train. And given Tirana’s train station, Albania’s premier rail depot, I’ll stick to the buses while here.

Just like in Shkodër, I touched
Refuge in TiranaRefuge in TiranaRefuge in Tirana

Everyone here made me feel at home...
foot in Tirana in spinning bewilderment. My taxi driver struggled to find the address of the hotel I received as a recommendation while in Mostar. As we pulled up to the building, I stared at it in horror. “Rruga Vasha Pana!” cried out the driver, Vasha Pana being the street name. But there was no hotel, just a rocky staircase the steel rods of which protruded up in the air out of the concrete.
“Number twenty-seven?” I wrote the numeral down. He nodded, yes. Twenty-seven.
There was no way I was getting out of the taxi and I was on the verge of having him take me anywhere else, like Toronto.
Just then, a chubby bald man (I am partial to these types) appeared from a door and waved me up with my belongings. The taxi driver disappeared towards the center of Tirana. I gulped. What was I doing here?
His name was Patrit and the owner of the Hotel Endri. Very outgoing and rather functional in English, he informed me he had no rooms available. He saw the forlorn look on my face. At that very moment, my whole attitude of and outlook towards Tirana, and Albania for that
New Joisey!New Joisey!New Joisey!

What exit?
matter started to change. Patrit’s next words sparked a major transformation on how I was to view this city and country forever.
“You don’t worry.” He put each of his hands upon my shoulders. “I find you hotel room near center. Same price. You are---” He wanted to know my name.
“Ah, Richard. You good man. You come to Tirana. This makes me happy to see you. I help you. You will have a room tonight, I promise. Let’s go.”
And off we went through the most unsightly neighborhoods and abandoned lots until we reached the Hotel Balkani. I had no idea where I was. I could have been in Tashkent for all I knew. He booked me a room and requested that I stay at his hotel for the rest of my time in Tirana. Moreover at nine the next morning, there would be a taxi to collect me and bring me to his door. Then, he knocked 30% off the price others had paid for a room at the Endri.
He had a deal. He couldn’t have been more pleasant. To this day, I still consider him my Albanian angel. And his hotel is immaculate behind the

Broad Communist boulevards, few cars...
awful exterior.
My room at the Balkani was extremely clean and by chance very cool. I doused myself in a hot shower and was ready to give Tirana, along with Albania, a second chance.

Like any other capital of a developing country, Tirana does retain one small and reserved area of relative opulence in an otherwise disastrous and blighted landscape. In this case, it consists of about twenty-four square blocks of unblemished apartments, boutiques, international banks, pubs with sate-of-the-art plasma television screens, restaurants, and very contemporary nightclubs. The area is so welcoming that venturing outside its well-defined parameters is rather unappealing. Nightlife in this part of Tirana is thumping. The well-dressed young of Tirana flock here in droves armed with and slaves to the latest Vodaphone has to offer in wireless communications. The streets overflow every night. However finite, this is where to have fun in Tirana.
While I have slept at the Hotels Balkani and Endri, I consider my home in Tirana to be the Wine Bar Alehandro, where I stepped in one night by happenstance; it is one of the few establishments in Tirana where you can sit at the bar alone without having to occupy a table. An upscale wine pub, its presentation is ultra-modern, yet tasteful. It caters to a wide range of customers, anyone from older ladies for an evening tea to hip twenty-somethings who desire house music and a livelier scene. They take care of all their guests and I have been no exception. I was instantly made to feel welcome, offered a variety of Italian whites, and invited back anytime I wished. Having befriended an affable and eager staff, I was asked what I wanted to do while in Tirana and where I would be visiting. I turned around to say that during the day, it would be nice to stroll through an open-air market and have a lunch at a local diner of sorts instead of the typical pizza parlor or sandwich shop.
“Done”, they said. You be here tomorrow and we will take you there.” This is typical Albanian hospitality, I have learned. From the tone of their voice, I had no choice. And the next morning after a night out with them that went to two thirty a.m., the both of them acted more like my bodyguards as we meandered through parts of Tirana I would never have found myself. I got to the market, found what I wanted to buy, and had a wonderful lunch with them at a seatless diner that specializes in qofte (pronounced “shoftuh”), a very tasty grilled sausage. Ever since, I have been subsisting on qofte in Albania.
My time with the folks at Alehandro has been phenomenal and has transformed my attitude about remaining in Tirana. Yet, Erlis who runs its operations along with other endeavors has become a very special pal. Dressed with a touch of class, only twenty-one and mature beyond his years (being an interpreter for the BBC and witnessing first hand the atrocities in Kosovo will do that to you), he approached me during my first visit with a wide smile and an open hand, which I met with mine.
“How ya doin’, bro?” Whoa. Not only was the in-your-face approach not what I expected. But it was the accent!
“Well, thanks. My name is Rich.” He had still not let go of my hand, ensuring a good first connection between the both of us.
“Erlis. I am the manager! Where you from?” My, oh my, the accent!
Usually, I answer Boston, as a point of reference. I am not from Boston, never have been and do not identify myself with the city at all, other than a great place to visit. I knew immediately I could be more specific. “Connecticut.”
“No way! I got family in” Then it hit me. That accent. “Joisey!” As in New Jersey.
This prompted the only reply I could muster that permanently solidified our relationship for a long time to come. “Oh yeah? What exit?”
He just about fell off the stool to the floor. He collected himself together, wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes, and said, “Dude, I haven’t heard that line in years!” But, to Erlis’ credit, he gave the route number, exit, off ramp, right down the turns at which traffic lights, and how far from the bridges and tunnels to get to Manhattan. Typical New Jersey. Classic, in fact. The rest of the staff, very conversant in English, was completely clueless to our exchange. They looked at each other perplexed. We may as well have been speaking Thai.

In spite of my having invited him to dinner, I struggled to pay for my drinks, as he and his staff were my personal guides, guardian angels, and advisers while in Tirana. Anything I wanted, I got, whether I asked for it or not. Unbelievable hospitality.

Many travelers tediously cry out that it is the people that make a country so wonderful. Oh, the Turkish family that served us tea in their carpet shop. (If you’ve been to Turkey, that’s how they get you in the carpet shop!) And how jovial the Irish are. And when I was in Austria, the lady at the post office was so good to us. That sort of elementary stuff. No matter where I have been in the world, no country, no country¸ can touch Albania in terms of hospitality. These folks are hospitable to a fault. Think about it, wherever I have been. The Italian family in Shkodër. Patrit at the Endri. And a man with a carpet of chest hair creeping up his neck whom I met on the way to Tirana who gave me every slice of information on the do’s and dont’s of the city, including his cell phone number if I should encounter trouble. When he got off one hour before Tirana, I knew what to watch out for, where to avoid (which in my opinion is Tirana itself), which taxis to trust, and a few tips on the nightlife.

Tirana has no concept of a singular bus station. When I asked the Alehandro staff to help me find where I could get a bus to Berat, they only responded with instructions to have a coffee in the morning and they would arrange everything. And they did. Unbelievable. They put me in a taxi, accompanied me to the depot, and ensured I got on the right bus.

On my way to Berat, a man sat down next to me on the crowded bus. An hour into the journey, he discovered in our mutual silence that I was not Albanian and asked me where I was from. To mention the dialog is pointless because I inferred the questions from Albanian and answered in English: First, American. Second, Boston. Yes, I like Albania, but not Tirana. I was going to Berat. Four for four. I considered myself fluent in Albanian. I was so proud of myself.
Later on, a vendor boarded selling snacks and drinks. I grabbed a bag of potato chips and, by habit, opened my hand to him so he could take the proper amount of change. He took the equivalent of $.50 USD too much, which set off my companion next to me. He ripped the money out of his hand and returned to me. Then, he went on a verbal tirade for the rest of the passengers to hear that this one vendor was cheating another passenger. The vendor slithered out the front entrance without continuing up the aisle.
The performance over, I thanked him. He grunted something back to me in Albanian. So much for my miraculous fluency. Then, he tried to explain Berat to me. An Italian word slipped from his lips among a wave of unintelligible Shqip. I came right back at him. “Tu parli Italiano?”
“Sì! Parlo!” All this time, we had used charades and drew pictures in my notebook to get by. Like German in Slovakia and Poland, Italian will save your life in Albania. Many speak and it has been a godsend to me.
He is Aurelio, an Albanian, and café owner in Berat. I asked him for general advice on a place to stay and where to get a good pizza. Since then, I have been a guest at his café. I cannot pay if I tried. His staff welcomes me in his absence. He has taken me in his Mercedes convertible all over Berat, has bought me dinner at a restaurant with a brilliant view of the city, introduced me to his family, and arranged my accommodation. The hotel story is a great one.
During the midday siesta, we walked to the Hotel Tomorri, where Aurelio, very clever, asked me to go to the reception desk and ask for a room, get the price, and come back outside. OK, no problem. So I trudge in, drenched in sweat, my life on my back, and clearly out of place for Albania. I ask in Italian about a room. There is one left for me. Fifty euro. Wow, I thought. Must be a good place. They do not take credit cards of any kind.
Thanking him, I walk back out to the sidewalk and related the information to Aurelio. His mouth opened and he chucked the remainder of his cigarette to the ground, ripping mad. “I know him. For twenty years.” He stormed into the reception area and I followed. Oooh, this was going to be good.
The exchange started out pleasant enough. And Aurelio asked about the price. Fifty euro.
He snapped at the receptionist. “What? In Berat? Why are you trying to rob my friend?”
Uh, oh. Trouble. The receptionist did his best to dig his way out. Aurelio would have none of it. “My very good friend has come to Albania all the way from -” He looked at me and asked where in the States.
“Boston! Fifty euro? No hotel charges that ever!”
The receptionist apologized and thought I was a party of many more. A terrible lie. It didn’t work. Aurelio threatened him to call him out throughout town as a thief. All of a sudden, the receptionist smiled and looked at me meekly and uttered in broken Italian, “It would be an honor to have you as our guest. Just seventeen euro.”
Bastard. We left and Aurelio put me in another hotel, where I bought him lunch.


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