The Joys of Nothingness in Tirana and Bucharest

There is a lot of cliched shit you can say about the major cities of the world. In Paris, you fall in love. In Rome, you eat pizza. In Rio, you go to the beach and get mugged. In Bangkok, you get an STD that will eventually wipe out the human race. In London, you get ripped off while buying a drink. The question I’m left with is ‘what the fuck do you do in Tirana and Bucharest?’

These countries in a sort of way have little in common other than the fact that their people are regularly depicted in films stealing cars with Russian accents by American actors that probably couldn’t locate them on a map. They’re only separated by one country but there is really an ocean of difference between them. Culturally, religiously, and politically they have pretty loose links. I suppose they could conceivably be considered Balkan but no one is really sure what ‘the Balkans’ is other than Wikipedia. Honestly, the only time anyone seems to call themselves Balkan is when they hit that genocidal degree of anger or smother you with food. It is all a bit too fucking vague.

Both Tirana and Bucharest are capitals of countries that are anomalies within their respective regions. Despite the constant confusion, neither are Slavic, like their neighbors. Romanian as a language is from the Latin family, while Albanian is a completely distinctive language altogether. Both are distinct except for the fact that they have little brothers – in Kosovo and Moldova – that have had far more beleaguered recent histories in contrast to their relatively straightforward paths post-communism. I stress “relatively” because there have been a couple of fuck ups here and there. What can certainly be said of them is that they really don’t fit any mold.

Despite both being capitals, neither city is viewed in a particularly positive light compared to other cities in their countries. You’ll hear far more about the beauty of Cluj or Shkoder than you will hear about these poor devils. Weirdly, both are assumed to be pretty violent places regardless of the fact that they have pretty low crime rates compared to their neighbors. I guess that’s a hangover from the post-Communist years when people first visited these places with absolute horror at the poverty and the shit supermarkets. What really binds these two unlikely pals is the joy of nothingness that can be found within these cities. They’re beautiful because they’re blank.

If you ever read The General of the Dead Army, you’ll notice that even Albania’s most acclaimed author, Ismail Kadare, can’t really muster up anything to say about the city. The two main characters do little more than try to avoid the cold streets of Tirana and the trauma of digging up their dead compatriots. The General drinks too much there. The Priest just moans. Maybe because there was nothing else to do! I read in one Complete History of Albania that Tirana was nothing more than an over-sized village before the fall of Communism. I believe the exact word the author used was “eye-sore” but a co-worker stole the book so I can’t confirm that. Overall, the city gets a horrible rep.

Currently, Tirana lacks any of the fashionable features that even the most backward cities of Europe have. There are no hipster bars for travelers to feel like they’re not in a tourist trap and there are no vegetarian restaurants that I know of, and I can always find them! There is nothing cool in that ‘artisanal fixed-gear biker’ sort of way about Tirana.

There is a great quote from a German commander speaking about Bucharest as a city. Field Marshal August von Mackensen said, “I came to Bucharest two years ago with a legion of conquering heroes. I leave with a troupe of gigolos and racketeers.” Remarkably, the image of the city vaguely lingers. Perhaps the most enduring post-Communist image of Bucharest is the much-acclaimed documentary about its street children called Children Underground. Surely, you can see how that wouldn’t be the most uplifting shit to watch. Overall, the city has been said to be dirty, lacking charisma, and has been described as “like techno music and McDonald’s, is best enjoyed on drugs.”

Mind you, Bucharest is both far more cosmopolitan and richer than Tirana in that it has quasi-hipster joints where you might overhear someone referencing something about intersectionality, as they do. It is quite conceivable that Bucharest could one day emerge as some sort of ‘ruin-porn’ alternative to Berlin. It hasn’t happened yet though. Tirana has potential to be Istanbul’s poor cousin. The sort of way you describe a guy that went without air for 20 minutes as having the potential to live a normal life despite being brain dead.

The binding quality of these two cities is their general lack of picturesque quality and the pervading nothingness that surrounds them. I should note that there are a number of really beautiful streets, parks, and shit like that but there isn’t that specific activity or identity that you need to assume when in these cities. There really isn’t a set imagine imprinted upon the public imagination of what one ought to expect from these places or how they would enjoy it. They as an experience remain an open space to be contested. It is fucking brilliant the more you think about it.

Conceptually, it can be said that neither city has a refined ‘gaze’. As an experience, cities exist as a discourse made to be experienced in a particular fashion. What John Urry calls the “Tourist Gaze” is the manner by which a space or act distinguishes normal life from a tourist experience. A set of unique discourses is constructed that involves a complex set of performative acts and narratives, myths, and images that define the tourist quality within that act or space. Urry relates the construct of these discourses to the rise of mass tourism and the commodification of those spaces. I don’t think the tourist industry has really invested much interest in either places.

The beauty of these two cities is that unlike cities such as Sarajevo, Budapest, or Istanbul, they do not have a set gaze. They are opened up to be experienced in myriad of fashions that are surprising, challenging, and most importantly, exciting. There are no set rituals that define the experience of the city. Your fat aunt won’t ask you if you drank a certain tea in one of the cities. She wouldn’t have a fucking clue about this. Instead, you’ll be more likely to find yourself randomly stumbling into your hostel room shitfaced from drinking on the steps of the University of Tirana, or hearing some hilarious anecdotes about Romanian just being hybrid of Italian and Turkish (so double fucked). They are infectious in that they keep you thinking and smiling. This isn’t the sort of shit that one can set out to enjoy. It just happens. Although any notion of authenticity is inherently problematic, isn’t something unknown and surprising slightly more original?

I could never suggest a place to eat in either one of these places nor could I propose what you ought to be doing. Likewise, I am not entirely sure if you’ll enjoy either place. What I am certain about both cities is that they hold the amazing capacity to excite and make you fall in love. So much so that you’ll be left wondering why you didn’t visit sooner; to embrace the joy of nothingness.