Last night, we had a date with Malvin, a twenty-one year old biotechnology student who waits tables on the weekend. That's how we met him, on our first night in town. He invited us out for some sightseeing and drinks. "This is my favorite place," he said of Sky Club, a revolving bar atop a skyscraper, from where this picture was taken. The rain had stopped halfway through our whirlwind tour of the city's most important buildings and lightning slashed across the clear, cobalt sky as we discussed everything we'd seen over drinks. "Nothing is built by us," Malvin explained with regret and a hint of anger. "The Russians built this, the Italians built that." When he pointed at a whimsical multi-level structure in Youth Park which houses bowling, billiards, a cafe and a casino, he shook his head with a smile he said, "the Chinese!"
He hadn't taken us to the cluster of Albanian-built structures in Skanderbeg Square (above, Skanderbeg on his horse, the miraculously surviving 18th century Et'hem Bey mosque and the historic clock tower). So, we asked about its newest addition, looming large from behind and visible from most parts of the cities. "That is Albanian," he conceded. "It will be the tallest building in Tirana," he said with a contented smile, then added - with his excellent storyteller's pacing - "in 20-25 years, maybe." The builders have run out of money. I wanted to tell him that the museums and government buildings and construction projects are not the parts of Tirana that a visitor would go home remembering - something that I believe to be true. But he was speaking to something deeper about his city and mentioning the tourist impression felt trivial and beside the point.The fact remains that it took an Albanian's stroke of genius (and about a million strokes of the brush) to give Tirana its signature look. In 2000, Mayor Edi Rama - a former painter and Minister of Culture - decided to spruce things up a bit and commissioned bright, patterned paint jobs on many of the communist-era apartment blocks. Sometimes abstract, sometimes geometric, art covers the Painted Buildings of Tirana.
The insides weren't renovated and Rama's critics argued that superficial changes weren't what was most important. But it's pretty amazing what a fresh coat of paint will do. Rama remained mayor for three terms and is now the leader of the Socialist Party of Albania, of which Malvin is a card carrying member. A red business card was removed from his wallet and shown proudly to us, his name written on the back.
I know that its all just a facade - literally - but the bold colors struck me as such a bold decision. Anti-conformity, anti-uniformity, anti-dreariness. Anti-ugliness! For a country that was Communist for 47 years. That period of its life saw the demolition of almost every beautiful historic building in Tirana, the razing of religious buildings and re design of Skanderberg Square. Obviously, the statues of Stalin et. al came down with Communism's fall, but those big, concrete apartment blocks still got the message across. Imagine how terrible this view over Tirana would look without the color? What a blight the buildings would be against such a spectacular natural backdrop.
This is our favorite building, decorated with 'hanging laundry,' made more awesome by the actual laundry hanging around.
Sure, there are a number of people that felt the new look was its own eyesore. Many complained that it made the city look like a circus. Recognizing that these buildings have been fading in the sunlight for a decade or so and are still pretty darn bright, I can see their point. But I keep thinking about what Malvin said and thinking about Rama the artist-mayor signing Albania's name on the skyline canvas in stripes and squiggles and diamonds.
Other Albanian touches around the city include busts of modern-day heroes including this man (whose hair alone is worthy of tribute) and Mother Theresa, possibly the most famous Albanian of all. The man-made lake has seen better days, but the parks are leafy and beautiful. These things may not be the most 'important' landmarks, but they are certainly the most intriguing.
Then, there's the Pyramid. Malvin had us guess what we thought the monument was built for and we mumbled some answer or another. "It is like the other Pyramids. It is for a tomb." The Pyramid was built by former Prime Minister Enver Hoxha, lovingly referred to as "our dictator." "I was not alive when he died in 1985," our winsome new friend said solemnly, "but my parents said it was like the country had no breath. Like there was no sun." Hoxha was interred in the Pyramid for only a short while and then moved elsewhere, Malvin explained. "They will tear it down next year."