Letter from Albania: Tirana’s impressive recovery

The first time I met Besnik Lame, he sat down at my table where I was having a drink and made a few rather awkward confessions.

“You see, I have some overweight,” he said. “And so, I sweat a lot. It is a problem.”

At that moment, two ribbons of water trundled down the side of his baby face.

“Also, see this?” He ran a hand over some stubble. “I shaved today, so it makes it worse. I hate shaving!”

None of this was an impertinence, or necessarily strange, since I had commented that Lame looked to be working hard, tending to the handful of tables that crowded the first floor of his small restaurant on a Tirana side street. Lame worked hard every day, often keeping his restaurant, not very creatively named the Grill House, open till 2 a.m. and then showing back up at 7 a.m. to start another day.

Lame liked to sit down and talk to his customers. A few more times this evening he approached. “Please, may I sit with you?” He was proud of his place, the meat dishes (which were wonderful), the homemade wine, the homemade raki that went down like hot acid.

“In my restaurant, we have a saying. You drink all you can. If you cannot pay for it all tonight, you come tomorrow.”

I could get behind such a policy.

Whenever a bottle or a glass sat on the table empty, he’d come over and say, “So, what do we do about this, my friends?”

I liked the Grill House, and Lame’s company, so much that I made it my home base during my time in Tirana, and the convivial nature of the place put me in a good mood and no doubt affected how I responded to Albania’s busy capital.

I arrived in Tirana expecting to hate it — the city’s nightmarish traffic makes a harsh first impression — and while I did not leave loving it, I found myself liking the place for its energy and for its people.

At a chic nightclub one night, a student named Fatma said, “Tirana is all young people now. That’s why it’s fun.”

Fatma might have been overstating things a little — I saw plenty of older Albanians who braved honking Mercedes as they took their xhiro, or evening stroll — but she was right to allude to Tirana’s apparent vibrancy, something that rendered the capital of today almost unrecognizable from the Tirana of even 10 years ago.

Most of that had to do with Edi Rama, the city’s populist (and popular) mayor.

A national basketball star and an avid painter, Rama was credited with transforming Tirana after he entered office in 2000. It helped that he had a youthful, masculine air to him — pictures abound of him riding motorcycles and walking on beaches nude — which seemed to help connect with a younger generation eager to see its city become more European rather than the backwater with a traffic problem it had been.

Rama cleaned up the city’s streets, closing down the numerous ad hoc kiosks and vendors that had sprouted up on pretty much any available patch of public space in the city, illegally selling, well, whatever they could.

Free of these squatters, the city’s parks and squares opened up.

Rama launched initiatives to rid streets of trash, installing bins and larger containers. He attacked broken sidewalks and pitted boulevards (though why he hadn’t been able to do anything about the chaotic mess that was Skanderbeg Square, I don’t know) and implemented so many road-widening projects that the city today still hadn’t finished all them.

But it was perhaps what Rama did with the city’s drab communist-era buildings that put him on the map as one of the world’s most successful mayors. He had many of them painted in Caribbean colors: violets, crimson, aquamarine, spearmint, so that a stroll down a Tirana street could make one feel, for a minute, like he was in Turks and Caicos.

What the guidebooks didn’t mention as they pointed out Tirana’s colorfulness was that residents had no say in what color their building was painted. One day they simply woke up to see that they were now proud tenants of a pink apartment block. Imagine somebody just coming and painting your home whatever color they wanted.

“They won’t be painted again,” Attin Fortuzi, a TV journalist and teacher, told me when I pointed out that the color was fading on many buildings. “There is not a big push to paint more. Most people were not in favor of it in the first place.”

The painting program was meant to be a one time fix, essentially a cover up.

But that was what I liked most about Rama. In his brazen style of politicking, he talked straight to the people and he understood that the best way to win back people’s trust in their government officials — and trust in the government had never been a strong suit among Albanians — was not to make Washington promises, but to actually do something people could see. Roadwork, clean-ups, painting. Rama made no bones about his populism, and he proved to be right. Albanians appeared happy to live in a city where things were happening.

“Albania is like a station where everybody is waiting for a train or a boat … or a beautiful man or lady to take them away because they’ve lost confidence in the government and any possibility of a better life,” Rama told the Christian Science Monitor a few years ago. “We don’t have the resources to solve all our problems, but at least we can change the colors of the buildings, to show them that something is happening,” he says.

That gave Tirana an optimism that seemed to be missing elsewhere in Albania. Not that life was easy in Tirana. It’s just that the locals believed that the city was working hard for them, and that conceit imbued them with a determination to work equally hard, not to solve all the country’s problems but to just make better lives for themselves.

“Life is good in Tirana,” Besnik Lame told me one night.

Lame embodied this Tirana attitude, I thought. He had had a peripatetic life. He’d started a few businesses, then became a flight attendant working in Malaysia and then, improbably, as a human resource executive for Halliburton in Kosovo during the late 1990s.

Today he had the Grill House, and another family shop somewhere else in the city, and I got the feeling that he had a few more enterprises going, though I felt equally sure they were all on the level.

Yes, the days were long. But he had a second house at the sea.

One night he sat down and told me that business was hurting a bit. The value of Albania’s currency, the lek, was going down. People were spending less. It used to be he could count on government workers from a few nearby ministries to come in every day for lunch, plowing through plates of meat and carafes of wine.

Now they only come an afternoon or two.

But he just shrugged it off and, seeing I had finished the last of my carafe, smiled, picked it up and sai
d, “Now, what are we going to do about this?”

Letters from Albania