If nothing else, my travels this year have brought home to me how much I don’t know about the world around me. My understanding of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Southern Europe isn’t completely blank, thanks to my interest in history, my reading, my awareness of current events, but it certainly leaves much to be desired.
More than once over the last three days, I’ve been stopped short by the thought that I am in Albania. Albania! Growing up, I knew of it only as one of those Soviet satellite countries where people suffered under an oppressive government. I knew, of course, that it has been shaped by the different empires that swept through Europe over the centuries but I didn’t know which ones or how much. And that’s about it – which is one of the reasons I wanted to visit.
My time in Tirana has been more interesting than I expected. The city wasn’t particularly appealing at first acquaintance, especially in the rain: worn buildings, broken sidewalks, crowded streets, ever-present cigarette smoke, obvious poverty. After a few days, though, the city really starts to grow on you: colorful buildings, quirky street art, bustling streets, good restaurants. The people I’ve spoken with are friendly, willing to help, quietly proud. There is construction everywhere, from the central square to the business district, and the activity is constant; even on a Sunday, the machines are moving. This is a city on the cusp, still coming out of the grinding poverty and overwhelming brutality of its communist past, but ready to shine now that the door has opened. It may not be as beautiful as Montenegro, but I’m very glad I was able to experience it.