‘The music moved me to tears’: falling in love with Albania

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After visiting 17 countries for his latest book, our writer leaves his heart in Albania – ‘a country of knotty history, boundless hospitality and infinite surprises’

Over the past four years, I have travelled to 17 countries for my book Goodbye Eastern Europe. In it, I try to chart a vanished eastern Europe, one in which cultural multiplicity and religious tolerance were the rule, rather than the exception. Albania was one of only a few places in which that legacy was not a memory but a living reality. Seeing it in action gave me hope, not just for the Balkans, but for Europe as a whole.

I felt trepidation before my first visit there in 2019. You could chalk that up to what the Bulgarian scholar Maria Todorova called “nested Balkanisms”: the tendency of every eastern European country to regard itself as the golden mean, and look at its neighbours (especially to the south and east) with suspicion. I’m Polish, and I’ve been travelling through the region long enough to have experienced every kind of basic material discomfort. But I’m also old enough to remember images broadcast from Albania after the fall of communism and the civil war that swept over the country in 1997. Even though much time has passed since then, I wasn’t sure what I would find.

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