I arrived in Tirana expecting to see a city with a new surface but rotting at the core, a painted pig of a capital wallowing in its own filth. But as disasters go, it was another disappointment. Central Tirana parks are now filled with kids playing around new jungle gyms. Parents sit on public benches amid neatly manicured, trash-free lawns. Multicolored buildings create a skyline resembling a postmodern Lego set. Couples stroll through the formerly forbidden and now fashionable "bloc" district of bars, cafes and restaurants. At night, young groups order cocktails and listen to chill music in Euro-hip bars, while men sip their thimbles of coffee and smoke away the time in sidewalk cafes. People walk home without fear of mugging.
As I reflect on various trips to Albania, I recall sitting on a veranda in Gjirokaster, sipping a glass of raki, watching the sun set on the Lunxheria mountains. I think of swimming in the glistening Ionian sea, drinking coffee in Tirana, wandering among the exquisite ruins of Butrint.
I remember all the instances of friendliness from Albanians, and I think of Byron's words: "[The Albanians] are brave, rigidly honest, and faithful ... perhaps the most beautiful race ... in the world."