Tirana, the capital and the heart of modern Albania, is not a bad city. Nor is it good. But plagued by problems as it is, if we judge the society by its people, this is a good society. Amidst the open sewers, and abundant litter, you will find very respectable looking men and women. Likewise, in a square of old apartments with decaying facades in desperate need of upkeep, you will find little neighborhood kids playing with each other. Tirana is ugly but at the same time it is a human city. It is very walkable, and it has a sense of community. Albania has a walking culture. People walk out and about. Walking is good, because people get physical exercise and they feel surrounded and not alone. In America, we do not have “a walking culture.”
At the same time, Tirana is a mess. It has no town planning, and no order. It has countless alleyways that run in all directions; in other words, no direction at all. It has a lot of traffic and no rules. You just get out there, and be fearless. Everyone here is fearless but surprisingly dispassionate. The prevailing attitude here is, “Who cares? It’s no big deal.” This is a very liberating attitude, but it is a significant cultural difference from the States. It must be taken in healthy doses, or it may just feel like plain old apathy.
People require less space for comfort here. Living quarters are smaller. The primary city dwelling is the apartment. Cars are smaller, leaner, and clothes fit tighter. Americans, who live in a country known for its great size, might find these facts a bit disconcerting, but trust me, when you’re here everything seems just about right.
Indeed Tirana and Albania can seem elegant at times, even sophisticated, and with attention to detail; but even so, it is just one big mess. It is a place that defies characterization. It has nothing in common with America. I cannot interpret it because it does not have order or defining qualities. You may look out the balcony and see poor people digging through trash and yet right near them a brand new Mercedes is driving by. Then you go walking and pass by several stray dogs, and yet the people you walk next to are wearing suits and ties. The place is shooting off in all directions at once. If one can embrace the noise, the dirt and dust, the hectic atmosphere and the total absence of order and direction, or rather can manage to tolerate them, one can live here.
excerpted from my travel essay Albania: A Visit Back Home. Wanna buy it? Get it on Amazon.