Monday, July 18, 2016

When Old Friends Visit: Two Brits and Albania

                     "It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them."                           Ralph Waldo Emerson 

          A few weeks ago I had some friends that I know from my time in Korea visit from England. They're British not Korean and I greatly respect their attitudes, their open mindedness and resilience.  I'd seen them once before when they came through Nashville for a wedding in Charleston but that was years ago. Since then they both had contracted cancer, he had to have a bone marrow transplant, and her cervical, so seeing them was extra special as they were given the green light to travel abroad. They loved their time in Ohrid and I loved that they had a rental car so we wouldn't have to take the buses!! We visited the same places when my family visited which they loved just as much. We also had a wonderful dinner with my host family and thanks to Daniella, my host mother, knowing English we were really able to communicate together. Her with Maggie and Graham with Goce while I translated. 

Appreciating Sv. Jovan at Kaneo
Graham and I wore matching colors by accident during his entire visit. 
Standing at Czar Samuil's fortress.
Being tourists.
I found this little guy and named him Raphael for his smartass attitude. 
This is what I want to road trip in, a 1970's Toyota Land Crusier. 
Hanging out at home. 
          Next, we packed our bags, drove to Albania and it's capital Tirana. After hearing so many negative comments made by Macedonians I was prepared for a dirty country and cold-blooded people. I was immediately proven wrong. As soon as we had crossed the border and Ohrid Lake disappeared into our rearview mirror, the road widened, it was clean, though unlined, and the houses were completely built.  Also, there were no old cars from the Yugoslavia era, they were all from Western Europe, mostly Germany. The drive to Tirana was beautiful and quick only taking 2 hours.  As you can see in the pictures it was spectacular, clean, organized and progressive. The people were friendly, didn't stare, and most people knew English. I immediately felt comfortable there.  We had a wonderful time, took in all the sites, went to the EuroZone to watch the European soccer matches, enjoyed some bbq and just relaxed. 

Ready to cross the border. 
Even though we were only 30 minutes from Ohrid, the landscape was much different. 
One of the many old railway bridges left from the communist regime. 
Standard couple picture. 
On the left is the Tirana Clock Tower with Haji Et'hem Bey's Mosque on the right. 
Skanderbeg's Statue. 
Yes the government buildings have a green space on the roof.
The Skanderbeg Square was bustling with activity day and night.
You could see the entire city from the Clock Tower. 
Scoping out the clock tower.
Again, Haji Et'hem Bey's Mosque. 
Graham explaining more about our future Europe road trip that we'll take in one of his VW vehicles. 
Our apartment was huge, near the center and very cheap.
Mmmmm soccer, meat and beer. 
It was a solid place to get our bearings for the night.
A Full Moon rising over one of the city's ancient walls.
The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral was completed in 2012  and was built on land returned to the Church as compensation for the old cathedral that was destroyed by the communist regime. 
Chilling at our favorite place in Tirana, Hemingway's. 
Graham was quite excited to find London Pride. 
The history of Albania was something I didn't know a lot about but I came away with three points. First, they have always had a strong ethnic and linguistic identity. Second, the post WWII dictatorship that ruled for 50 years was Stalinesque in it's brutality and oppression.  Albanians despise that period of their history and do not look back on it with nostalgia. Third, following the second point they only want two things; To join the EU and to do it as fast as possible. Moreover, they're working as hard not only on their infrastructure but their social ideas too.  Everyone was dressed in Western clothes and the people were friendly not only to one another but to us tourists as well. 

Selfie time. 
Here's Skanderbeg Square from the opposite side of my earlier pictures.
I was really impressed with how the building behind this structure was designed to enhance the space. Notice that the man on the left is admiring it as well. 
It was blue shirt day for Graham and I.
Lots of retired men were out playing chess, tabla or cards. 
The Tanner's Bridge is an 18th century Ottoman period stone footbridge. The Lana river was rerouted in the 1930's so the bridge was neglected. It was renovated in the 1990's and is now a pedestrian shortcut. 
Here Graham is in-front of the Pyramid of Tirana. Designed by the Communist leader Enver Hoxha daughter and son-in-law, it's now a dilapidated relic.
One of the broad streets criss crossing through Tirana.
There are thousands of these concrete bunkers around the country yet their primary purpose during the communist regime wasn't to prevent invasions but to keep it's citizens from leaving. 
"The only good system is a sound system."
Standing outside the EuroZone. 
It had not one but two massive high quality screens for the soccer matches.
Of course Graham and I hung out with Mr. Daniels for a minute. 
While exploring the park we found a memorial to the British Commonwealth soldiers that died during WWII in Albania.
This was the memorial for the Nazi soldiers. Again, the people do not gloss over the history of their country. 
Once outside the center we discovered that many buildings were colorfully decorated. This was done by the former mayor Edi Rama, a trained artist. 
This wonderful lady was the store owner near our apartment. She was a ball of energy and we had fun figuring out what we wanted to buy and how much it all cost. Right after this was taken she kissed me on both cheeks. 
Heading into the FanZone for the night game. 
It filled up despite Albania not playing and had a relaxed atmosphere.
Afterwards we walked around to check out the venders.
They were also having a Ms. Tirana beauty contest. 
Albanian money, called "Lek". 
Chilling at our favorite coffee shop.
You better believe I had a brownie for breakfast. 
This was the first of several Albanian wedding parties we saw. 
I have no idea what the name of this old fort was, but it looked very cool.
There were waterfalls from the previous nights rain in the hills behind the house.

Ohrid Lake from Albania.
One last pint together before we went our separate ways.
          We were a bit disappointed to leave Tirana but it was a great weekend visit. I'll be returning to Albania soon, I've checked out their beaches and they look spectacular.  I was also bummed to see Maggie and Graham leave but that just gives me a nice incentive to visit them in England. 

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