An interview with the Rector of the Polytechnic University was not on my itinerary. Even when, in a moment of desperation, I had suggested seeing the university, the possibility did not cross my mind. But then I had reckoned without Ilir, my Albanian guide.
Short, stocky and dark-haired, Ilir’s defining traits were an insatiable curiosity and contempt for all politicians and their works. He had originally been an English teacher. In communist times he occasionally acted as an interpreter for western tour groups, until he was found to have accepted the occasional kindly-meant gift from grateful clients. He was disgraced and his hoard of cigarettes and instant coffee confiscated by the authorities. But the comrades did not find the stash of tips in western currency under his mattress.
In the heady days after the fall of communism he worked for a time in the budding tourist industry in the southern resort of Saranda, but the collapse of the pyramid savings schemes and subsequent unrest in 1997 had stalled the influx of tourists. Nowadays he worked mainly as an interpreter for businessmen or journalists. I was simply a curious tourist, and Ilir’s talents were sadly wasted, but he tried his best. He scoffed at my guidebook’s warning about phone-tapping. But that evening he spoke to a friend of a friend who worked in the security service. Next day he reported with interest that there were strict procedures: telephones could only be monitored in the case of suspected criminal or terrorist activity, and a court order was required. It was just unfortunate that the way the telecommunications network was set up meant that in order to monitor one suspect’s calls, the whole block had to be tapped.
Tirana is a compact city. There is, frankly, not all that much to see. Its architecture is mainly twentieth-century: modern boxes jostling with Italianate government buildings erected by King Zog in the 1930s. Touchingly, the Communists retained one or two ‘historical monuments’ from Ottoman days, mainly in the east of the city. Visiting them does not take long. The Tanners’ bridge is just that – a small stone bridge that elsewhere would probably not merit a second glance. The Türbe of Kaplan Pasha is an octagonal stone mausoleum on a traffic island, smaller and less imposing than a municipal bandstand. I spent a little longer at the mosque of Ethem Bey. It is unusually and attractively decorated with floral paintings in natural pigments. Moving on from Ottoman Tirana, the National Museum in Skanderbeg Square is a modernist box. Its exhibits cover the history of Albania from the Stone Age to the reign of King Zog. I was curious about the communist period, but these rooms were closed, it seemed, because they were ‘not historically accurate’.
The archaeological museum was also closed that day, much to Ilir’s consternation. We were only halfway through the one day city tour and he was running out of things to show me. That when I had my big idea. I work in a university, so I asked if there was one in Tirana. We swiftly arrived at the Polytechnic University, an impressive stone edifice at the end of the main boulevard. I expected to take a couple of photos and go for lunch. Ilir had other ideas. “Perhaps someone can show us around? I’ll look for an administrator.” He clearly was not going to take no for an answer so I reluctantly followed him in. Inside, it was very quiet, if not deserted. Eventually we encountered an elderly man in shabby overalls who appeared to be a caretaker. He clearly, and correctly, thought that we had no business to be wandering the corridors during the summer vacation and was happy to escort us out. Ilir thought not. A conversation in Albanian ensued. Ilir told me to wait, while he followed the caretaker down the corridor. I had no choice but to wait in the dusty entrance hall. When Ilir returned he told me that he had arranged for me to talk to an administrator. To my consternation, I found myself shown into a large and important-looking office. The ‘administrator’ who had agreed to meet me turned out to be the Rector, Prof Hoxha. Ilir came to interpret, though the professor spoke excellent English. Despite the fact that I was somewhat casually dressed for such a meeting, he was very polite and we chatted for a while about the differences between the Albanian and UK university systems. Ilir was fascinated. It was entirely by chance that I had suggested the university and that Professor Hoxha was even available, but without the intervention of Ilir this ‘chance’ encounter would never have happened. I never did find out who he had told Professor Hoxha that I was.
I visited Albania in Summer 2003