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New Europe

Day Twenty-four: Tirana

Michael Palin - New EuropeA famously busy man, and an artist himself, he's agreed to meet me at his office, in one of the ochre and claret-painted Italianate terraces overlooking the southern end of Skanderbeg Square. We walk down corridors that are anything but institutional, painted with carefully chosen rich, dark colours and lined with quirky art.

Rama is in his forties I should think, grave, taciturn and very tall with a shaved head. He wears baggy black trousers and a big black collarless shirt with a fine red stripe. He looks like a man of the night. His eyes are dark and hooded and this world of crepuscular colours creates an ambience that is more Dracula's bedroom than council chamber.

His office is equally idiosyncratic. Irregular, almost diamond-shaped, it's painted a restful maroon with dark-red wood panelling. Scrolled out across the wall behind the long desk is a huge computerised enlargement of a photo of the city seventy years ago.

I take some comfort from a quick glance at his desk. A bowl of colouring pens sits next to a pile of business papers and his screensaver is a picture of himself and his young daughter.

As soon as we start talking about Tirana and his plans for the city he becomes a changed man, from monosyllabic to polysyllabic.

'It was a different city when I came in. It was basically without hope any more. After communism we passed from nightmarish collectivism to wild individualism, which was not democracy, it was more an anarchy. People built everywhere. Public space disappeared, physically and mentally.'

His administration began by demolishing 2,000 speculative buildings.

I ask him about the bowl of pens.

He gives a smile, bleak but encouraging.

'This is my box of medicines. Just to escape mentally from boring meetings.'
He reaches for some sheets of paper which are covered with meticulous doodles.

'The minutes of last week's meeting?' I ask.

He nods. 'Yes. The therapeutic diary, you know.'

Boring meetings seem to have been his inspiration. From the colouring-in of these elaborate doodles came the idea for the painted buildings.

'Colours are part of our life and it's really a pity that cities are not reflecting this.' He gestures to the window.

'Tirana has a big potential... because we don't have a really strong tradition of architecture, we don't have buildings of which we should be really proud... so the only way to keep them updated with the contemporary world is to colour them.
If every building would be painted, every corner would be painted, it'll be amazing you know.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Twenty-four: Tirana
  • Country/sea: Albania
  • Place: Tirana
  • Book page no: 60

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