I´m in Eastern Europe, starting out along the southern Adriatic Coast of Albania in the capitol city of Tirana. I’m on a cultural tour of the region that has no particular focus, with a friend who needed a roommate. It would never have occured to me to put this on a travel bucket list, but I´m glad I did.
I call this Eastern Europe because it was once part of the Communist bloc pre-Gorbachev, that turned it’s loyalties to China and Mao, a stricter version communism after Glasnost.
This is a developing country. It broke its shackles of repression after more than 30 years of isolation, forced labor camps, concentration camps, and extermination of liberal opposition. This is a city of bunkers built between 1960´s and 1980´s out of paranoid fear of invasion by foreign powers. By 1983, over 173,000 bunkers were built. Tirana today dedicated two to the martyrs who died in opposition, a memorial to a holocaust.
With this in mind, the group I´m traveling with visited the National History Museum. The galleries are devoted to Albania history with ties to Greece, Italy, Macedonia and the Ottoman Empire. Artifacts, including marble busts, bronze weapons and jewelry from archeological sites are on display here.
An entire gallery is devoted to remembering those who suffered and died under the regime of Enver Hoxha. Here, I cried. This is fresh history. Recent history. Living history. And politics here is everywhere.
Albanians love Americans. Woodrow Wilson said Albania should be independent after the Balkans were divided after WWI. In 2007, George W. Bush was the first US president to visit here. Two young students told me it is their dream to go to America. It is heartwarming to be welcomed so enthusiastically by people we meet. The history is dark, yet there is a sunrise to the east in the second poorest (only to Kosovo) country in Europe.
There is a small gift shop at National History Museum. It is filled mostly with vintage textiles that are 60 to 80 years old. The cloth is handwoven wool or cotton, embellished with embroidery or appliqué. The symbol of the country, the double-headed eagle, reminds me of some of the indigenous regions of Oaxaca where the same iconography is central to the language of cloth.
I see weaving patterns that look like Zapotec rugs. I see tiny joining stitches that looks like Mexican randa. I see belts woven on backstrap looms embellished with fringed and wrapped tassels. I see the creativity of a people who desired to adorn themselves in beauty, a consistent them worldwide.
There are mostly European visitors here in this city of one million people, in this country of three million. We were told that there are six million visitors here annually now and the country is struggling to keep up with tourism infrastructure. The time to come here is now!
I am meandering on my own after the museum. I want to go to New Market and head in the direction a museum guard points me to. At a corner, I hesitate. I ask two young people where to find it.
That’s how I meet Casey and Ben. They speak English. I ask them if they will be my guide for the afternoon. They have free time. They are university students starting their first year, and classes are delayed because the registration system is kerfluffled. Along the way they tell me that young people don’t stay here. There is huge unemployment and the jobs are in Italy or Germany. Their dream is to go to the US. They are delighted to help me and I am delighted to give them each 500 Lek, about $5 USD each. Lucky us!
After New Market, I continue on my own to Oda Restaurant and have a traditional Albanian lunch of stuffed eggplant with veggies, corn bread and beer. Then, back to Hotel Rogner for a rest.
Tomorrow, we are off to Montenegro. Who knows what I’ll find there!