Immersion Trip: Day 2

Today involved touring the city and eating. Food in Tirana is cheap – last night’s dinner was $9 for two pizzas and $12 for a bottle of decent wine. This morning we started with espresso, which Albania has in abundance. Then we met our teacher for a walk around some of the sights. A few notable sights included the Polytechnic University (to the right) and the Academy of Arts, which look forlorn and run-down. These sit in Mother Teresa Square, and despite the reverence that Albanians have for Mother Teresa (who was Albanian), the only marker in the square is “Nena Teresa” spelled by the bushes in front of the Polytechnic. Similarly, there is no marker in Woodrow Wilson Square (the traffic circle in front of the blue building). Albania is the most pro-American country in Europe because Wilson prevented Albania from being carved up between Serbia and Greece in 1913, and he is a national hero of sorts. Yet there isn’t even a sign. In fact, there are almost no street signs at all in Tirana.

Another interesting feature of navigating Tirana streets is that you have to watch out for missing utility hole covers in the sidewalks and roadways. The Roma steal these and sell them for scrap metal. The holes can snap an axle (or ankle).

A story about the Academy of Arts and Albanian politics. The Academy used to have a privately-run café attached to it. The café was operated by a supported of the Socialist Party. When the Democratic Party came into power, they ordered the café to be torn down. This is emblematic of the past 16 years of Albanian politics. The SP and DP have alternated control of the government – the SP, led by Fatos Nano initially and now by Edi Rama, and the DP, led by Sali Berisha. Both Nano and Berisha were former Albanian Party of Labor (Communist) Party members, and they are paired in the public mind as two sides of a not particularly effective coin. National leadership often seems to use “kazmën në vend të plugut” – a pickax instead of a plough.

So back to food: we lunched at King House, which is owned by our teacher’s husband’s business partner. Every Friday night, it’s ex-pat central. (More on this later.) We had some amazing Albanian dishes including a green pepper/cheese/tomato casserole and meatballs baked with tomatoes and onions, and then finished off the meal with raki, which is an Albanian grappa. It’s killer stuff – we went for a nap after the meal, and when I woke up, I had no idea who the woman in bed with me was but I knew that Abby was around there somewhere …

After we reassembled our heads, we visited the Regency Casino. Tirana has legalized gambling. Most of the gambling houses are small clubs with roulette tables and video poker or slots, and with bouncers who look like they could chew through a Plymouth. However, the Regency is a larger (although still small by American standards) casino with blackjack, three-card poker, and good lighting – very much like a casino you’d find in London. We won $150 at blackjack, which just about covered our meals for the week. On the way back to the King House for another raki, I began to take serious note of the fashions. Some writers have mocked Albania’s youth for their lack of fashion sense, and there is some truth to the matter: the girls’ blouse cloth is a little too shiny, or the kids will wear anything that has an English phrase on it even if the phrase makes absolutely no sense. But there’s something very sincere about the whole look.

Immersion Trip – Tirana: Day 1

(By way of introduction – I’d started a blog on in September, with thoughts about learning Albanian, but it’s hard to manipulate photographs on, so those brilliant blog entries are lost to posterity. Tough. So we pick up here, 30-odd weeks into language training:)

Abby and I went to Tirana on a language immersion trip from April 13 – April 23. I’ll try to capture the 10 days in a few readable (i.e., short) blog entries.

We flew in via Vienna and passed over the northern part of Albania. The scenery was fantastic – rugged mountain ridges and hills criss-crossed with small paths, and then a sudden swoop down into flat green fields with the Adriatic Sea beyond them as we approached the airport. Albania’s new airport, named for Mother Teresa, looked like Dulles International Airport when we saw the news of its opening on VOA’s Albanian-language service. In real life, it still looks like Dulles International Airport – shrunk to about 1/10 of the size. It’s also in the middle of a pasture, and after whisking through immigration and out of the car park, we immediately passed herds of sheep. On the road into Tirana, we also saw one half-built building after another – basically concrete floors and pillars. It seems to be some combination of a non-existent mortgage system that allows people to build only until they run out of money; illegal construction stopped midway through; and an outlet for money-laundering.

We were staying in our teacher’s rental apartment in Tirana, which she and her husband graciously lent us. It’s in the middle of the Block (Blloku), which during the Communist era was reserved for Party officials but now is full of apartment buildings, shops, restaurants, clubs and coffee houses. It’s about as close to Greenwich Village as Tirana gets, and it’s a lively place. Here are some examples of the architecture in the Block, and a shot of the park:

Generally speaking, Tirana is a city of architectural contrasts. In addition to the shiny new buildings of the Block, there are the Italianate government buildings and also a new European-style shopping center, but many of the old apartment buildings remain. Edi Rama, head of the Socialist Party and mayor of Tirana, had many of the old buildings painted to brighten up the grey of the Communist era with some success:

The image to the right is Skenderbeg Square, with the statue of George Kastrioti (Skenderbeg), Albania’s national hero, a small clock tower (whose faces show different times) and the chief mosque in Tirana. An amazing thing about Albania is that although the country is 70% Muslim, the national hero is a Catholic prince who defended the country from the Ottomans. We walked through Skenderbeg Square on our first day – in fact, we walked a great deal on our first day. We ended up back in the Square that night because we saw on Albanian television that there was going to be a rally/concert in the Square to protest Prime Minister Berisha’s attempts to clamp down on the media. (The PM had accused various media interests of having ties to the mafia. Accusing the opposition – political or media – of corruption and mafia ties seems to be a staple part of Albanian politics.) The rally was sponsored by MJAFT!, a civic organization whose name means “Enough!”, and was supported by Top Channel, which runs a number of popular television programs, including “Fiks Fare”, a satirical program that occasionally uncovers political scandals, and “Portokalli” (Orange), which Abby describes as the Albanian version of “Sabado Gigante.”

The protest showcased some of Albania’s biggest musical acts, as well as some political speeches and comedy from Portokalli and Fiks Fare. The musical groups seem to fall into three categories: legitimate rock, American Idol-styled pop, and Albanian hip-hop. The Albanian language is actually great for rhyming, since nouns are formed/declined and verbs are conjugated in set patterns, but the sight of Albanian guys gesturing like 50 Cent is just too hard to handle. Kind of like Vanilla Ice … There also was the whole Ashlee Simpson thing going on in that you could hear the performers singing whether the microphone was anywhere close to their faces or not. Still, it was a great night of entertainment and the (uniformed) security presence was pretty low key. Here are some scenes from the protest:

Days 2-10 to follow.