Ish Biloku

 You can tell when a city is poor, as Rebecca said recently, by the smell.  It’s hard to put a finger on what that smell is, but it’s there.  It’s almost the same every time.  Especially when it’s raining and you can smell the leaks in the sewers, or when it’s hot and dusty and the smog of burning trash and two-stroke exhaust hangs in the air.
Tirana is a poor city.  Albania is a poor country – in Europe, only Ukraine, Kosovo, Bosnia and Moldova are poorer.  Walking in the city, one feels a gripping, immediate destitution.  Children beg in the streets, manhole covers are missing, trash is piled in empty lots.  Even in Tirana’s center square one can feel it – at night, Roma prostitutes in tawdry petticoats stand on the steps of the opera.
But there’s one small part of Tirana that is – almost miraculously – very different.  The two questions: What does it stand for?  Is it real?
 “In that time,” Malvin, a new, young Albanian friend told us one night, “in the time of the dictator, not even a bird could get into ‘The Block.’  Maybe just a little bird, a tiny bird.  But nobody else.”  A woman at the guesthouse we are staying in said, about The Block, that it was “the neighborhood we couldn’t go to when we were little.  Nobody could go there.  It was where our dictator lived, and all of the other important communists.”
“Today,” she continued, “it’s where the young people go, maybe for a drink or to hang out.  It’s very cool.”
Above, Radio Bar, which is certainly a very cool bar, and one of the more popular.
 It’s true that “Ish-Biloku” (“The Block” in Albanian) is a cool neighborhood, and that it’s a place to go for a drink.  A small section of six city blocks, it’s become sleek and well-fed, the leafy streets and luxurious homes opened up to the public and the club speculators.  White chaired, colorful-walled cafes – a type of establishment, with indifferent coffee and loud techno, that’s proliferated across the entire urban continent – mix with shoe stores and “boutique” clothing stores.  The first time we came down to The Block, a new Ferrari was pulled up to the curb nearby a popular café.  Wardrobes in this part of town are painstakingly curated, the heels are high, the sunglasses like gleaming hubcaps. If there is somewhere wealthy in Tirana, it’s here.  But how much of this wealth and showiness is real?
 Until 1991, when it was first opened to the public, Ish-Biloku was the private reserve of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator, and a few high-level party members.  His house now sits disused in a neglected stretch of lawn, visible in all its mundane blockiness from the sidewalk.  Around it are simple coils of barbed wire and a low fence.  There are no visible guards.  It’s ignored, except by a few tourists who stop to gape.  The neighborhood has moved on.  Capitalism has swept in, and there are friends to meet around the corner.
Ish-Biloku, to many Tirana people, is a symbol of their victory over the tyrant, of their freedom, of the promise of a better life.  But it’s also too expensive for Albanians.
 In Chisenau (another strange, communist-block shantytown, the capital of Moldova), we used to wonder at the little pockets of wealth.  There, in a country where the people are throttled by poverty, where the average citizen makes less than someone in India or Congo, there were little enclaves of shocking luxury.  Parts of the city were full of idling, chauffeured luxury cars.  We ate at a few restaurants that would be considered expensive in New York, where women wore yards of shining fur and the men’s faces were bloated with rich food and power.  Moldova is so corrupt that it can barely be called a free country.  The black market thrives.  The old communist leaders have been replaced by gangsters and crooked officials.
 Albania is much the same, just a little more glossy.  In a sense, there is something unchanged about Ish-Biloku, even if it seems that everything is different.  People who populate the glitzy stores and restaurants are divided into two groups: the actually wealthy and the wide-eyed.  The first group is suspect – how has anyone made money in Albania, if not by being slippery and cozy with the ruling party?  The members of the second group linger for hours over a few cans of soda, or a long-finished espresso.  The average income in Albania?  About two hundred and fifty euros a month.  That’s only three thousand euros a year.  An afternoon coffee for a young student is a real expense.
When we ordered food at one restaurant, called Artigliane, everyone gaped at our plates.  This salad cost about four dollars.  The people around us couldn’t take their eyes off it.  Almost nobody orders food in The Block.  Tirana’s people eat and drink elsewhere, where things are cheap.  They come to Ish-Biloku to sit and feel better off.
 When one first enters Ish-Biloku, crossing from grime to luster, there’s a sense that something miraculous has taken hold of Tirana.  The air even smells – in that telltale way – cleaner and healthier.  Even in the rain it’s fresh, with the vegetal odor of the trees and none of the churned up mud of the outside world.  Tirana seems to be a different place.
If the neighborhood wasn’t so small it might not feel so illusory.  Instead, the fresh flowers and waiters in vests, the bright clothes and indolent youth seem like a fleeting mirage, flickering in a wasteland of poverty.  Tirana isn’t really like this.  Albania is still a very poor country.
This bar is almost attached to Hoxha’s old house.
Is Ish Biloku real?  Maybe.  It’s real in the sense that it exists.  Young people go there and sit on angular surfaces, grip cold glasses, smell the new leaves, listen to raucous techno.  But there is an illusion here, a play on reality.  At times it seems that everyone got dressed up to pretend that Tirana was better off.  Twenty years after Albanians emerged from the depths, they’re still gasping.  The Block may have been opened up, but it’s difficult to tell if anyone can really get in.
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