Last night was the worst night’s sleep of the pilgrimage – if not my life!
I tossed and turned on that hard little bed, my hips a riot of agony, waking every five minutes to see if it was morning and I could escape the piped tobacco smoke from the air conditioning.
I spent the day taking it easy, still not feeling great, hankering for sunshine to warm the cold in my bones. Ben rang mid-morning to say he was just 15 kms away. I sat awhile on a bench in Tirane’s central park, the only aesthetically pleasing place I’ve found in the city – and even then it looks much better in the photo.
I’m annoyed by Tirane. I don’t like it. I don’t like its lack of purpose. I don’t like its absence of anything interesting. I don’t like the unhelpfulness of its people and their standard shrug as eyes roll slowly to the ceiling. I ask the receptionist in the hotel where I might find a chemist (I need to stock up on blister protection before heading into the mountains) – she shrugs. She doesn’t know. You don’t know???
The woman in the bookshop when I ask for a map – she shrugs. She doesn’t know. The woman in a tourist agency when I ask for hotels – she asks which hotel? I tell her it doesn’t matter, any hotel will do. She shrugs. She doesn’t know.
And so it goes.
I have a greasy pasta at the Tirane International Hotel for lunch, putting myself through another round of rudeness from staff. Ben rings to say he’s 15 kms away. Good maps, like help, are hard to find these days.
The hotel is throbbing with the 2007 Balkan Health Systems conference, whose participants – crowding the verandah around the restaurant puffing like chimneys, women clopping about in 12 inch heels – are going to need a decent health system.
Fascinatingly, in a hallelujah moment, here in a Tirane I have found the only two (two!) smoke free zones in all of eastern Europe – the Rogner Hotel and the Tirane International. I must say, smoking doesn’t usually bother me. I realize now this is because I live in a smoke-free world, where smoking tobacco is so taboo even middle-aged adults shuffle about a little red-faced in an attempt to hide their habit from each other.
I move out again into the grey day. I sit in the middle of a roundabout lorded over by a bronzed national hero on a high horse, waiting for precious sun to shine through.
I am confused by humanity and lost among it today.
I realize that if I were feeling more alive, Tirane would probably appear to be more alive. I resolve to be more helpful in my own world to people who appear to be not feeling well.
And then, joy of joys. Couch surfing comes through in the form of beautiful in every way Charis, and we have a great bed in a wonderful home replete with the company of a gorgeous pocket of young Americans, the entire contingent of Fulbright Scholars to Albania – Charis, Ryan and Michael – and their friends, also on American scholarships, Shaina and Liz, all of whom are in love with Albania.
There’s nothing like a bit of ‘local’ input to change the face of a city. With the flip of a coin, Tirane comes to life. We eat at their favourite Indian restaurant – can you imagine! an Indian restaurant – and suddenly I am feeling much better.
Through Charis and Shaina we received a short tutorial on Albania’s recent history, about its self-imposed ideology of isolation under a merciless Communist dictatorship, about the murder of intellectuals, the torture of poets, the abolition of religion, the burning of books and the reconstruction of the language . . . the beginnings of an explanation for the poverty that is beyond European reason and Sunday’s delight amongst the villagers that we have taken the time to come and visit.
And through Michael I finally receive information about the mountains – yes it will be cold, there will be some snow, there will be very little shelter, there will be basic food supplies and no, what you are doing is not reckless and it’s not dangerous. It’s out there but . . . it’s not reckless.
And while Ben and the Americans head out into Tirane’s night life, I sink into Charis’s bathtub – can you imagine! A bath!
Not even the Rogner Hotel had a bath.