This week marks the 20th anniversary of the reopening of the U.S. Embassy here in Tirana. The week has been filled with events ranging from a simple flag raising ceremony and numerous speeches to an all day American style street fair and everything in between. For those of us who work at the Embassy it has translated into a lot of extra work but as the week draws to a close, I am realizing that the real significance of this time will last long after we have all caught up on lost sleep.
The United States reestablished diplomatic ties with Albania in 1991 after a 52 year hiatus during which time Albania, under communist leadership, entered into a period of self-imposed isolationism. Albania spent so long being isolated from the rest of the world that many of today's westerners grew up with no knowledge of Albania or her rich cultural heritage. (Even today when people hear I am living in Albania I get asked questions whether westerners can even enter the country. More "enlightened" people inform me that not only do they know where Albania is but they have cruised along her coast on their way to visit northern Adriatic ports.) As communist regimes slowly began to crumble across Eastern Europe during the Velvet Revolution, Albania finally opened her doors to the outside world and westerners got their first peak into a completely isolated society.
From what I have been told the first American diplomats who re-opened the Embassy in Tirana did not have an easy go of it. Stories of limited electricity, heat, and water make current conditions seem luxurious and extravagant in comparison. Luckier diplomats lived in hotels that actually had generators and on a good night, Tirana's one public restaurant had both heat and electricity. It wasn't until recent years that families were even allowed to accompany their sponsors to post.
I would imagine that the easiest part of reestablishing diplomatic ties with Albania was the Albanian people themselves. As a whole Albanians seem to love America and Americans. I had been told of this prior to our arrival but I didn't imagine that people would be yelling "I love America" from the street corners. The Ambassador is treated like a rock star with people fighting to have their pictures taken with him. Yes, both of these things did happen several times at Sunday's street fair. Heck, in America we would never hear people professing their love of country from the sidewalks but in Tirana, and the rest of Albania, this seems to be a common occurrence.
Albanians have a long history and institutional memory and for this reason, Albania's love for America dates back decades. In recent years, the United States' involvement in Kosovo's problems in the 1990s has not been forgotten. (A large percentage of Kosovo's population is of Albanian heritage). Whether it be Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barak Obama, Albanians express their love for these American presidents. While Americans argue amongst themselves over the individual values and decisions of each man, American party lines do not matter to Albanians who see these men as representing the country that "saved" and helped them.
With very few exceptions, the Albanians we have met have all gone out of their way to help us and answer our questions. While eager to learn about us and our lives, they are equally concerned with our happiness in their country. We may be living thousands of miles away from our families but it feels as though we have been adopted many times over by Albanian families here. Of the couple of hundred Albanians who work at the Embassy a surprisingly high percentage of them have been there since the day the doors first reopened. The pride and ownership the local hires take in the Embassy makes me think that we Americans could learn a few things about loyalty and dedication from them.
I am grateful that we are living in a country where the mere fact we are American helps keep us safe. I do not share the same fears of American friends who are living in countries where the fact they are American puts them in danger and makes them a target. Yes, we may be missing the daily conveniences of life in America, but we are surrounded by people who are appreciative of and thankful for the relative riches that American has bestowed upon them. That kind of appreciation is rare and in return, I want to thank the Albanian people for being gracious hosts while we are visitors in their country.