Tirana Tableau: Post-Irony in a Place Called Ruin

Written over a year ago in January 2015, in response to an uncanny moment of clarity in December 2014 while wandering solo through Tirana’s Bllok area in desperate search of self.

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Sitting here in a place called Ruin, already over-caffeinated for the day, I ask for a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice because that’s what I order when the usual combination of “cappuccino/mountain tea/macchiato” has already run its course. Ruin Bar is an inevitable Tirana find—its eclectic array of mismatched couches, faux ivy-ridden walls, holiday lights, its Christmas tree, and its hanging-from-the-ceiling Santa hats. Sitting here, sipping lëng portokalli, I laugh at the bicycle mounted on the wall in front of me and issue a dry “ha” at the English words and bicycle-wheel O’s on that same wall: “I feel gOOd today.”

I’m an Albanian American on a Fulbright research grant, studying contemporary Albanian poetry, and though being here is fortunate, fascinating, and often wonderful, I just don’t feel gOOd today. Yet something about the sign makes me want to consider feeling gOOd, makes me take another gulp of OJ, and think: perhaps I’m once more shuffling between content and listless, fluctuating between two poles. This is common for me, but it’s become more pronounced in Albania, my country of birth. My family and I immigrated to the US when I was a toddler, so I’m in the process of deciding whether coming here is a trip abroad or a trip back home. The feeling of dangling between two choices—extremes, cultures, aspects of self—is excruciatingly apparent today.

Sitting here in a place called Ruin, I feel the return of the dangling sensation and have another “ha” moment. Here I am, consuming lëng portokalli, and all I hear in my head is the theme song from Portokalli—a popular comedy skit show. The song lyrics equate Albania to portokalli—that is, the color orange, as opposed to the fruit. The lyrics indicate the following at the beginning, in Albanian: “Forward, backward, left, and right, we are stuck at the semaphore (i.e. at “orange”—between green and red). Later on the song states: “You’ve remained at a traffic intersection, Albania, oh, Albania. Neither Europe nor Asia, at an orange light.”

Portokalli has it right: since the transition from xenophobic communism to democracy in the early 90s, Albania has found itself at a perpetual intersection, trying to move forward (and definitely doing so at an admirable rate), while realizing that “catching up” to the advances of nations that didn’t experience 46 years of isolation may take an indefinite amount of time.

Sitting here in a place called Ruin, nourishing myself with lëng portokalli, I hum the Portokalli theme song and think: maybe it’s the dangling that makes me a part of this place. I know this is untrue—know that my dangling is double: between America and a nation already on the dangle. However, I anxiously reassure myself that double-dangling still makes me a dangler of sorts and that sometimes—sometimes!—it’s best to say “I feel gOOd today” because that’s all you can do in ruin.

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This is not an official Fulbright Program article. The views expressed here are entirely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

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