Around 200,000 bunkers for a country with less than three million inhabitants. A coastline that can easily compete with Greece or Croatia. A lively civil society and at the same time a great urge to emigrate especially among the young. These are only three spotlights out of manifold impressions our author Gregor makes during his Mercator Fellowship on International Affairs in Albania.
“Tirana, where is that?” This, or something similar, was the reaction of many friends when I told them about my departure to Albania. The reaction that followed was often a great interest in the country located in Europe and even in the same time zone like my home country Germany. However, Albania seemed like a different world. For me, this became tangible in my journey to the south. On my way there, I wanted to travel without using a plane, but found out that there are no international rail connections to Albania. So I took the train via Munich and Rome to Bari and entered the overnight ferry from there. A special arrival was bound to happen.
A City in Radical Upheaval
Also in other respects, arriving in Albania was a very immediate confrontation and revision of my images of “the other”. With Tirana, I found a capital city in radical change. Skyscrapers and other large residential and office complexes are growing everywhere. In between, in small side streets, markets with fruit and vegetable stalls, one next to another. The growth of new buildings towards the sky also means that the city’s historic building stock, especially originating from the 1920s, is disappearing under controversial circumstances, as documented in a project by activists in the city. At the same time, poorer sections of the population, first and foremost those belonging to the Roma community, are slowly pushed out of the city centre. In general, salaries can hardly keep up with price increases, especially in the housing sector.
Tirana – Still The Place to be?
Young people from all over Albania, however, continue to be drawn to Tirana for study and work. A phenomenon that is common in many countries in the region. Every morning on my way to work, I recognise long queues of mainly young people waiting for a work visa for the Schengen area in front of the embassies. One of my flatmates, who teaches German language, once told me: “There are people who have already failed the necessary language test for the visa for the third time and keep trying.”
Why Young People Turn Their Backs on Albania
When I ask the question “Why?” for the exodus, I get different answers, often depending on the age of the people concerned: From doubts about the education and health system, to dissatisfaction with nepotism in the public administration, to the lack of a European perspective for the country. Most impressive for me, however, was the following statement: “Even if I have a worse job in the EU and the same amount of money is left at the end of the month as in Albania: the air is different, in the European Union I can breathe freely.” But still, this is not the only reason to leave Albania: Many young people want to experience studying, living, and working abroad like their mates all over the continent do. They want to get to know new cultures, but still not to give up on their country.
This Albania, shaped by young people leaving for diverse reasons, is only one among the country’s many faces that I get to know here. There are many others that fascinate and inspire. Fascination and interest are what I am looking for, especially in view of the country’s difficult history. Gjergj Kastrioti, called Skanderbeg, Ismail Qemali, Enver Hoxha, Ismail Kadare and “Mother Teresa” are only five persons of Albanian nationality representing the diverse perspectives and stories. Today, it is Dua Lipa, Rita Ora or Ermal Meta standing for Albania and representing its popular culture across borders. But this was unknown to me before I came to the southeast of the continent: While the history of the former Yugoslavia came up at least in the margins of history classes (and of my history studies at university), I hardly knew anything about Albanian history and present when I decided to spend the next months here.
Until 1990: A North Korea of Europe?
I learned that the legacies of Enver Hoxha’s Communist dictatorship still shape the country today in many respects. The impressive number of bunkers, many of them still existing today, is only one of numerous examples. Until 1990, Albania remained largely isolated from the rest of Europe and the world. Actual and supposed opponents of the regime had previously been brutally persecuted by the Sigurimi secret police. It was practically impossible to leave the country. For decades, neither foreign products nor news reached Albania. The shock and instability following the regime were even greater: The violent uprising of 1997 due to the failure of the Pyramid Scheme led to the collapse of state structures. To this day, the structured reappraisal of the communist past and the regime’s crimes is a concern essentially carried out by the civil society and private initiatives. Meanwhile, the government shows only little effort to implement measures coping with the past. For this very reason, I consider it very worthwhile to actively search for the traces of the second half of the 20th century during a visit. They are still visible if you look for them – despite the current construction activities.
Desire For More
But even beyond this historical interest and the dynamic environment, there are many things in Albania that inspire me and make me want to spend another phase of my Mercator Fellowship in this country. During my first period here, I used to be involved with the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO). Now I am on my way with a project on school exchanges in the Western Balkans jointly implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and RYCO. While following my project on international youth exchange in the region, I experience Tirana as a vibrant city full of young people who are working every day to make it a nicer and better place. Being independent and enjoying life in different dimensions, influences from other cultures seem to be more than welcome. And: There is always a party around the corner…
Young Vibes of Albania
I experience a great interest of young colleagues and other people that I met here so far. Everyone is very supportive – be it the authorities and administration staff, or peers involving me in conversations about politics and music, inviting me to bar evenings or taking me to different destinations all over the country. Recently, I spent a lovely and energetic weekend at the South Outdoor Festival. Without knowing any of the bands and singer-songwriters beforehand and even though many of them were performing in a language that I do not understand, the people around made it an indispensable experience. All these are just little but precious moments which make me feel more than welcome and integrated incredibly warmly, despite my non-existent knowledge of Albanian.
Relaxed Vibes With a Pinch of Italian
My everyday life – at work, but also at home (my flatmates in Tirana are Albanian and German) – is mainly English-speaking. But I am as well happy about opportunities to speak Italian which is the first foreign language learnt at Albanian schools, especially among the older generation. From relaxed evenings in the vibrant bar life in Blloku or Komuna e Parisit (especially since the easing of the Corona measures), to weekend excursions in the region and fantastic nature views, to exploring neighbouring countries in the Balkans, I already had many wonderful experiences. And the best is: I mostly enjoyed these together with other (young) people from the region. From Tirana, even the beach is not far … I am therefore looking forward to more weeks in this fascinating city.
I can only encourage you to explore the land of the eagles, there are still so many stories to tell and to spin. Fun fact: Tirana is the European Youth Capital in 2022, another reason to experience Albania’s biggest city and the many events offered for young people.
My Top 3 Insights
1) Where to Meet Real Tirana-People?
When the sun is shining (on annual average, it does so more than seven hours a day in Tirana), it is very recommendable to go to the artificial lake at the Parku i Madh “Kodrat e Liqenit”. It’s not an inviting place for a swim, but an afternoon on the roof terrace of the café “Lake Adventures” guarantees a wonderful view and numerous Albanian conversations at the surrounding tables. The aforementioned Blloku, while a wonderful choice in the evening, is also quite overpopulated by “expats” and “backpackers”.
2) What Surprised me The Most in Albania?
I’d go with my fascination here. And that is indeed the fascination about the historical background of the country, which was completely unknown to me before. Even after a longer time in the country I am only able to put together individual puzzle pieces…
3) What Cultural Habits Have I Stumbled Across?
Albanians ask “Si je?” at every opportunity or, if they know I don’t speak Albanian, “How are you?”. I always took a moment at the beginning and then tried to answer the question honestly. In 50% of the cases, the person had either moved on or was already on another topic. In the meantime, I have realised that I should rather understand “Si je?” as a friendly greeting which doesn’t require a real answer…