"O! Land of Albania, thou savage nurse of noble men" was how Byron hailed the place in Childe Harold. For me too I feel I have come, once again to the dark tower. As always the country seems to be very hard work for a visitor- you end up hot, dusty, thirsty and faintly revolted by the poverty, the dirt and bad smells, the gimcrack buildings and the neediness all around you.
Tirana is a crumbling fly blown city which makes Easterhouse look like Paris. It is an increasingly eccentric place- all the crumbling commie buildings are painted lurid colours which, in a strange way, makes the place look a bit like art deco Miami.
Skanderbeg square, the central cross roads of the city, has a quartet of Zogist, faintly Fascist buildings, which, not withstanding their brutal origins, are probably the most harmonious in the city - the other side is dominated by a massive Communist mosaic depicting the triumph of Mother Albania- the full Stalinist works on the front of the Parliament. In the middle is a statue of Skanderbeg himself- mounted on a horse, looking like a combination of a pirate and a viking (which probably fairly accurately represents what he was).
Only in one corner is there any relief from ugliness, in the shape of a delicate mosque with an elegant filigree of colonnades and a minaret that almost looks too thin to remain standing. This is a building that dates back to the 16th century and is much the most attractive edifice in the centre. All around swirls the tides of noisy smoky traffic, moving like disorderly shoals of fish, superficially messy, but conforming to is own demented logic. Police cops try to direct the flow, but these are largely ignored.
When you go into a building to meet anyone there is usually a hallful of mendicants pleading for special treatment from a burly security guard, who generally abuses them- and even Western visitors must wait at the pleasure of the guard, and of course the host. The Prime Minister's Office- echoy corridors and marble floors has decorations that are seem to date from the time of the previous incumbent- the murderer Enver Hoxha.
Tirana sits in a plain, surrounded on one side by low hills, which mask the breezes from the sea, and on the other by frowning mountains that at this time of year seem always to have a five o clock shadow of clouds. Away from the city, closer to the airport, to the north, you can see the town of Kruje clinging around its castle high on the slopes about halfway up the wall of the mountains. From some of the taller buildings in the centre one can also spot the castle of Petrela, guarding the approach to the plain from the south- a Byzantine structure, taken over by the Turks, but built on a Roman ruin.
The echo of the Romans does not seem far away- the Latinate sounds of Albanian, though officially in its own language group, sound eerily like dog latin, it is usually possible to surprise an Albanian by picking up on the thread of the conversation. The slooshing and flat vowels softens some of the more guttural elements of the language. Everywhere one sees the dramatically sinister Albanian flag- its double headed roman eagle black against the deep crimson field.
Meeting the leaders of the country is a bit of a shock for those of us who are used the to easy egalitarianism of Estonia- firstly they are much older- well into their fifties, and since most are heavy smokers, they in fact look even older. Hunched and chesty, they struggle to converse in heavily accented English. At least the Prime Minister tries to say the right things, and almost uniquely amongst Albanians, he is not suspected of personal greed. However he is hot tempered and has been quick to punish those associated with his political rivals.
Albanian politics, like the country itself, is tightly clannish, with family and personal ties holding sway above all else. Indeed sometimes I have day dreamed that Albania is not so much a country as a giant extended family. A federation of squabbling and proud tribes whose genealogy is known to all and whose family history of violent squabbles and dramatic makings up punctuate the long brawl of Albanian history itself. In the economy, at least, even family businesses are now beginning to develop, and the economy is clearly moving forward and benefit ting from a form of capitalism that suits them.
Chaotic, noisy, hot blooded- the epitome of the Balkan image. However amidst the general crudity of life there is an energy that has not been ground down and the country is clearly turning a corner. It will never be Switzerland- it won't even be Sicily, but it will be different and better than it is now, and it is very much European. Not our, slightly milk and water, North Europeanism that is true, but a much more meaty (and, frankly farty) version of the southern Europeans. Brigands, bandits and rogues, the Albanian can charm and repel in equal and full measure and his clear eye and smile (with gold teeth) will be seen much more often in European counsels. Slow to forget an insult, their adulation of George Bush is equalled only by the cold contempt and hatred that they have towards the Russians. Albania is a hot blooded friend and a cold hearted enemy.
The theft of George Bush's watch is greeted with winks and muffled chuckles. Although the code of hospitality has been broken- possibly more to annoy the Prime Minister than anything- and although Bush has made himself genuinely popular for his outspokenness over Kosova, there is still enough of the rebel in Albanians to take deep satisfaction from "bucking the system" in such an emphatic way. As the stars and stripes on every lamp post and the welcoming posters for President Bush are taken down, the future still looks brighter. I meet the Chairman of the state electricity company. His eyes ringed with exhaustion, he outlines the truly heroic efforts that he has made- and as a young and western educated man he has understood the scale of the problems he faces. After the crisis of the winter, it now seems quite possible that the worst is over. I certainly hope so- this difficult and chaotic country deserves some peace and prosperity ofter centuries of war, occupation and tyranny.