IT’S SNOWING IN TIRANA

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I noticed a few minutes ago that “#snowinginlondon” was trending on Twitter. Last night the mayor of Tirana in Albania tweeted that there was snow there for the first time in 32 years. Coincidentally, the average of the population of Tirana is 32 years. it prompted me to look at pictures of the city.

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I was in Tirana with the university just before the fall of the communist regime of Ramiz Alia (successor to Enver Hoxha).  How the country has changed since then. There was no private transport. You walked or used a bus (unless you were a senior official in the Communist Party).

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Back then it was another world. There were flights into Tirana only from East Berlin and Zurich and then only once a week. For the international airport of a European country it was strangely and eerily quiet. The customs people confiscated magazines as innocent as Women’s Weekly because their advertisements for bras and the like were considered to be pornographic. They also confiscated Bibles, Korans, Toras, etc, and any symbols relating to religion.

Symbols of communism and the people’s struggle were everywhere. You could get a beer for around 1p, and a bottle of wine cost a similar amount. There wasn’t much in the shops, as Albania had trade agreements only with China, no one else. More or less everything that they had was made in Albania. The only books available for sale were the various and sundry works of Enver Hoxha. No one spoke English. It was Albanian or French if you wanted to communicate.

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Interestingly, we were told, the biggest salary in the country was four times the smallest. I was paid 50 Lek, if I remember rightly, for doing an interview for Radio Tirana. I left it in my hotel room as it was illegal to take money out of the country and I had a job spending what I had changed. I seem to recall that I actually spent about £10 in the entire week. (Something that changed dramatically when we had a 10 hour stop over in Zurich on the way home.)

People were incredibly shy and avoided us (tourists and very obviously so because we had western fashion clothes) for fear that the Secret police would be watching.

We travelled over the country from North to South, East to West on narrow little roads, in an air conditioned Swedish bus, but with almost no other traffic except the odd donkey cart. It was perhaps one of the most interesting trips of my life.

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27 thoughts on “IT’S SNOWING IN TIRANA”

  1. Fantastic account of an amazing trip. It must have been an amazing experience.

    I really love the spacious town squares you get in ex-communist countries. They’re incredibly grand but definitely made to make the citizen feel very small. The train stations can be pretty amazing, too. All that municipal splendour is such a contrast with the terrible concrete housing that circles the cities.

    Did you buy any of the works of Enver Hoxha? I bet he had a good line in comic verse.

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    1. Thanks, Terry. It was a truly weird experience. In some ways it was like stepping back into the 70s (fashions and styles)… in some ways to the 20s (prices), and there were some things that just had nothing with which you could compare them. Le promenade at 6 .30/7 after the evening meal, when everyone walked around holding hands and meeting friends was a site to behold. At 5.30 the place was deserted. At 6.30 the streets were crowded. By 8.30 everyone was home.

      As I said, no personal cars, so no traffic. There was one traffic light in the whole country. It was on Skanderberg Square. It sat there all day and night, changing from Green to Red and only busses paid any attention to it. The donkey carts didn’t and the limos for the Communist Party hierarchy didn’t.

      I was a bit worried about the food. I’d read that the English football team had stayed there at one point and had not found enough to eat. But they must be a fussy lot. The food we got in hotels all over the country was amazing. And I left packets of Mars Bars, taken with me lest I should be hungry, untouched, in the hotel along with the cash when we flew back to Switzerland.

      Outside of Tirana many people had had very little to do with foreigners. Some had probably not ever met one. No ‘tourism’ was allowed. Just study trips from academic institutions.

      No Americans were permitted and no-one spoke any English apart from a few people from the University. Hoxha had studied in Paris, and though it was decadent, at least it wasn’t American. They HATED America. I’m not sure they even knew about Britain. Their school atlas (“Atlas shkollore të Shqipërisë”, I bought one) only had Albania in it. And from what I could make out they knew little about the outside world, except that China was OK, and America was the devil incarnate.

      Enver Hoxha’s books were real page turners. “Les discours rassemblés d’Enver Hoxha” were probably the very best cure for insomnia I ever had. I couldn’t put it down… mainly because I didn’t pick it up. I’m really sad that I must have lost them on my travels.

      I’d love to go back someday.

      The funny thing was that I had been fascinated by the country and its weirdness for a long time. That summer I’d been in Corfu and looked over at Albania and could just make out houses… It’s not that far. When I got home to Scotland I discovered that a politics prof was leading a study trip from the university. I couldn’t believe it. It was horrendously expensive, but worth it. Amazingly, when we went to the south of the country I was able to get to a place where I could look over to Corfu.

      Although we were warned not to swim too far out because if the guards thought we were Albanians they would assume we were making a break for freedom.

      Amazing.

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      1. It almost sounds like accounts of today’s North Korea.

        I can’t imagine living without the access to knowledge that’s been available throughout my lifetime. An atlas without any other country on it is from another world entirely.

        I almost made it to Albania a few years ago when I was on holiday in Macedonia. I borrowed a bicycle and cycled from the pleasant town of Ohrid towards the Albanian border. The bike was not in the best shape and developed a slow puncture. The pump didn’t work properly either so I decided to end my trip just before I got to the border. Maybe next summer.

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      2. Bang on, Terry. North Korea it was, although I don’t think (and I’ve no way of knowing, save for empirical evidence), that anyone was starving… and, of course, the leadership didn;t pass from father to son to grandson!

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      1. I obviously went to a more classy joint than you, as mine was 20p. Sadly gone now, turned into a tourist gastropub, where the price of a bottle of ‘craft’ ale would have got my “Younger” (hint) self pished all weekend.
        Here’s to the Ferry Arms, and all the greasers, hippies, matelots and wasters who sailed in her.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I quite like Guinness, but I’ve never tasted anything like the fantastic Guinness in a pub just down the road from the brewery in Dublin.

      Journalists Scotsman…Scotsman, journalists.

      Nope, the two don’t really compute together.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I’m not sure exactly when they opened up, but yes, they were the last to go. They really weren’t like the others, Soviet satellites. Enver Hoxha fell out with Stalin and broke the link…can’t remember what it was about. They did have fraternal relations with China though and somewhere I still ahve a pencil I bought there which was made in China (marked “Fabriqué en Chine” so that the dreaded English wasn’t used).

      It was, probably still is, a fascinating country, but by the looks of it now, so utterly changed from what it was like when I saw it.

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    2. I remember being on the same point on Corfu. Years before you. Couldn’t believe I was looking at Albania, it was a complete mystery wrapped in an enigma……Narnia even.

      I had hippie friends that were refused access because their hair was too long!

      As someone has already said, it was a bit like looking from South Korea to the North.

      “What are they all about?”

      No one knows, my friend replied.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Amazing feeling then when I looked over at Corfu from Albania.

        I don’t think any guys had long hair when I was there.

        We had a guide who spoke some English, although he was a lot stronger in French. We were warned not to say anything nice about America. And it was assumed that our hotel rooms were bugged. So we were careful to be nice about everything. You assumed people in the Secret Police would understand English.

        I’d like to go to Pyongyang.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. I’ve been interested in Albania since first year geography,when our teacher told us it was the world’s most secretive country and was once ruled by King Zog!

    Hoxha didn’t fall out with Stalin, he fell out with Khrushchev as did Mao over their interpretations of Marxism and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yeah, sorry, that’s right. Hoxha felt that Khrushchev had let Stalin down. I think I remember seeing statue to Stalin in one of the towns we visited. I remember Prof Reid saying that it was the only place in Eastern Europe you could see a “functioning” statue of the man.

      I believe Zog moved to London, then Cairo and finally to Paris where he died. He was buried there, but the new regime claimed his body and it was repatriated with full honours. (Royals know how to look after themselves/.) He now has a statue in Tirana.

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