Outside Uncle Enver’s House

Longlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2023.

I ask the girl if people talk about the deaths, the torture, the spying, the hunger, the betrayal, the fear. “No,” she says. 

An awkward silence. I’m not sure what to say. She stares at me blankly. And, as if reading my mind: “It’s still an open wound for many.” 

We’re in Tirana’s museum of secret surveillance, the House of Leaves, a red brick building hidden just off a busy street near Skanderbeg Square. The September heat is oppressive, far harsher than the coastal climate from which I had arrived at Albania’s capital, a place where you can taste the salt in the air and the sea breeze makes you forget about the military bunkers watching you from the hills, relics of a lived nightmare. 

Tirana is a closed city, encircled first by dark mountains and then by a steadily growing number of high-rise apartments, clad in glass. They’re few now, but soon they will eclipse their thickset, soot-covered concrete neighbours. 

A dense smog hangs over the city, diesel cars squeezed onto every inch of road. The acrid air fills my lungs, but the wide, open pavements invite me to walk them. I take solace in this, as do the people of Tirana: they walk everywhere, a colourful medley of old and young. And despite the air, they breathe easy. Easier than before, at least. 

Rruga e Barrikadave calls me, a long street that runs parallel to the square, lined with cafes in front of which old men and women sit in small groups, laughing and chatting, espresso cups pinched between thumbs and forefingers. They are all smoking. 

I find this scene all over Tirana. The sweet smell of coffee and tobacco lingers in the air and forces me to sit down, to slow down, to enjoy now. To forget about what came before. And so, I do, easing myself into a chair to watch the men and women. I imagine their conversations: the weather, the football, the EU, the cost-of-living. But something is off. Their pitch is always high, positive. There is never a sombre tone, never a veneer of anger or despair or exhaustion. Their words dance carefully and intricately around the atrocities, remembering not to remember.

They are the men and women who did that unimaginable thing of living in another world and surviving to tell the tale, that story which ended only 30 years ago when the red blanket was pulled from their naked bodies and communism finished. The dome lifted after 50 years of dictator Uncle Enver Hoxha’s enforced splendid isolation. The city is full of these people, living among the others, just beneath the surface. 

“Many still live in the Old World, in their heads,” says Noel, a local I meet at a bar. He is young, his hair a single red strip that straddles the length of his skull. He oozes rebellion. “But here, in real life, they don’t speak about that.”

Across Tirana, sore reminders: The House of Leaves, the old tourist hotel, the bunkers, Uncle Enver’s three-story mansion in the leafy Blloku neighbourhood, once accessible only to the party elite, where he gorged on chicken and beef and stew and baklava, and swam in his pool, and read his foreign books while his people went hungry. 

Noel tells me I must visit the New Bazaar, and the next day, as I zig-zag through its honey stalls and raki and artisan coffee and carpet sellers, I find a box full of red books. Their frail covers are stamped with cracked hammers and sickles, golden letters scratched across the top: Partia e Punës e Shqipërisë, reads one. Libreze ushtarake, anotherThey are old party and military membership books, and when I turn their covers, forgotten young men, tired and gaunt, stare back at me: Thomas (b.1931). Miho (b.1920). Pavllo (b.1956). Bedri (b.1934). Arbër (b.1970). Ervis (b.1947).

“Who are they?” I ask the vendor. He looks at me and shrugs. 

I buy two and for a moment feel vulgar. 

For the last time I cross the city, passing the Rruga e Barrikadave where the old men and women sit with espresso cups pinched between thumbs and forefingers. I pass over Skanderbeg Square and arrive at a red brick building hidden just off a busy street.

I pay the fee and go inside and walk around, reading and hearing the testimonies of the deaths, the torture, the spying, the hunger, the betrayal, the fear that cover the walls.

It is still oppressively hot when I leave, the sky like a clear body of water. The sweet smell of coffee and tobacco lingers in the air. Things are the same. I remember her words.

“It’s still an open wound for many.”