The troops arrived in Tirana with puffy eyes and stinky armpits. 18 hours and nearly 3000 air kilometers to cover a distance of 1425 km. It reminded me of the time Delta tried to send me from NY to Cleveland via Houston, Nashville and Buffalo. 18 hours to travel the distance of two.I knew I was going to Albania. I had no idea that I would also be paying my first visit to Istanbul. It was only a layover, but a long one. We watched the sun come up and drove across the city, drank Turkish coffee and struggled to stay awake.
Fortunately there wasn’t much turbulence and the length of the journey added to an enthusiastic spirit by the time we touched down in Tirana.
All I knew about Albania before arriving was that while there were around 3.5 million people in the country, there were also nearly that many Albanians living abroad and out of all of those, the only Albanians I’d met in my life were dealing hash on corners in Italy, which says more about my mates than Albanians.
I also knew that the English papers reported fervently on the terrible condition of the pitch each time they had the good luck of playing a qualification match near the Adriatic Sea. I haven’t seen that pitch, but based on the condition of the roads and general façade of the city I imagine it is closer to a rocky beach than a golf course. In the image gallery you’ll see one spot with a litter of books in a state of utter decay. That is indeed the literature of the city.
This isn’t your very first impression, but it becomes noticeable about 10km out of the airport and this part of the trip provided some Brother’s Grimm sort of foreshadowing. The first view we had of Albania was more macho than Rico Suave. Our friendly taxi driver was rapping to us in Italian, blasting the worst House music I’ve heard since that Mexican bar in Denver, and peeling stacks of 200 euro notes off a wad of cash he had stuffed into his pocket. It looked like a sun-bleached paper melon.
The guy drove in a way that made you think he’d run over his own mother and when Chaz finished the bottle of beer he’d picked up at the airport, in an effort to be hospitable Mr. Cab Driver took the empty, rolled down the window and chucked it into the street with a smile. Are you kidding me? Pure Trash and Zero Respect. I will admit that I was slightly nervous. Not only about the driver’s behavior, but by the sort of road rage that we’d soon know as a standard driving style.
Until communism collapsed in 1991 there were something like 600 cars in the country and you had to be a politician to get one. Today you can see 600 passing in front of the Skanderberg Square in a period of 5 minutes. Things are changing in Albania. Other things are not. The students that helped overturn the communist regime are now pinpointed as the corrupt politicians of this moment in time. The circle keeps spinning and Albania seems left behind, looking to shoot a winner, but the ball hits a rock and takes a bad bounce just before that crucial moment that never actually arrives.
This does not feel like Europe though it very much is.
I should rewind for a quick second here. Before getting into Mad Max’s taxi and for the first time being happy I don’t look like Lenny Kravitz, there was an encounter that would change our trip. Morcky met a guy at the airport who had asked him if we were with a band. This young man’s name is Itre and it turns out he is one of two graffiti writers (though he doesn’t know the other) in Tirana.
Within hours of dumping our bags at the Stela hotel, he started showing us a warmth and generosity that has been a common characteristic in all our encounters during the first 48 hours. This is the sort of chance meeting that brings so much joy to traveling.
Irte took us to a great spot for dinner and I was shocked as even Chaz turned down a night on the town to cash in on a few zzz’s. We were all shattered and I wondered what the morning would hold. We had an Albania guide now, but we didn’t have paint, permission or a plan.
Yet as you’ll see from the pictures, none of this stopped us from getting on with our mission. By sunset on Tuesday we were being invited for drinks, thanked for transforming the walls and trading words with local children. From zero places to paint, to walls being offered to us, it was soon very clear that the press text of Operation Tirana was no poser. This trip was about communication and the exchange of traces.
Traces we’d eventually leave and traces eventually left on us, imprints the 14 of us would take back to the 6 different countries where we live. It is a rough city and we are very much at ease. So much happened in that first 48 hours that I wish there were more than 30 minutes to try and share it, but there isn’t much time to stop and think. There is too much to do. This morning the guys found walls to paint behind the Art Academy, now they’re back in the neighborhood and continuing to hustle.
A good place to stop this first post on Operation Tirana might be with the first word we all started to pick up in Albanian.
Falemnderit / Thank You
Stay tuned for more videos, pictures and thoughts from Tirana … and send a warm thought to Ripo who still doesn’t have his bag after it was confiscated in Cologne for the rattling of a couple cans.
(pix courtesy of Alexander Malecki / video by Peter Jan Horns)