Okay, I’m exaggerating…the streets in Tirana do have names but it barely matters: many streets aren’t marked, buildings have no (visible) numbers, virtually no one knows the names of streets – even big streets, and addresses don’t necessarily correspond to actual locations of buildings. I may have been exaggerating when I say that the streets have no name, but I am not exaggerating when I say that, even with my trusty Google Maps-equipped iPhone in my pocket, I find it difficult to find things, I get lost and turned around more than I would expect and, when I can’t figure out where I am and/or where I’m going, I feel a sense of dread about asking directions.
This is one of those areas where it may be difficult for you to grasp the full flavor of what I’m describing. The easy-to-understand parts are the quantitative differences (differences in degree). For example, I think it’s true that the average American can read a map and give directions better than the average Albanian can. The harder parts — both for you to grasp and for me to describe — are the qualitative differences (different ways of thinking). There a whole different mindset here; I can see it and feel it, but I haven’t yet been able to name it and, as a result, it’s hard for me to fully convey it to you.
First Some Historical Background…
During the Communist times, before the great migration to Tirana (and other cities) began, the majority of Albania’s population lived in small villages, where everyone knew everyone and navigation-by-landmark was easy. Tirana, the capital city, had a system of street names, but I’m not sure there were actually addresses. During those years the city was physically smaller — the population was 20-30% of what it is today — there were no tax bills or water bills to deliver and the country was walled off from the rest of the world so there was little in the way of incoming mail. Then, in 1991, when Communism fell, the streets signs were torn down and destroyed and there was no more system of street names and addresses.
Cut to 2004 — more than a decade later. There is still no system of street names or addresses in Tirana. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of people from villages (where there are no addresses) have migrated to Tirana, nearly doubling its population and expanding its geographic boundaries. Construction is booming (estimates are that at least 25% of all residential buildings in Tirana were built between 1991 and 2001), but there is no functional system of zoning or building permits and so informal/illegal construction reigns. At this point, Albania has begun its efforts to qualify for European Union candidacy and this means compliance with a variety of conditions — two of which are “free and fair elections” and “proper administration of public services” and neither of which can be met without street names and addresses.
During the 2004 to 2010 time frame, with the assistance of several European NGOs, Albania created the formal address system needed to create voter lists and identify the locations of businesses and residences. According to a government official, “residents of Albania will now be able to identify their addresses.” In 2010, Tirana installed street signs, which means that — for all intents and purposes — the address system in this city is about five years old!
Next, the Maze…
In theory, an address system should help, but there’s another important factor here — the layout of the streets themselves. Here’s an example of what the street system is like:
Tirana is a city whose layout doesn’t come close to approximating a grid system. Once off the main streets and boulevards, the city is a jumble of small streets, some connected, others dead-ends, many of them winding. The word “maze” might come to mind, but you have no idea how maze-like it actually is…
Take a look at the two pictures below. These might look like alleyways — access to garages and the backs of buildings — but they’re not…these are the actual streets you see in white on the map above.
As you can see, structures are built all the way to the street and there are hidden curves (which makes the lack of sidewalks extra problematic!). As a result, I find that navigating these streets is very much like navigating an actual maze because it is impossible for me to see anything not immediately in my line of sight and so I lose my sense of direction/ orientation easily. There are times when — like Hansel and Gretel — I get nervous about finding my way back home and so I use my phone to take photos at corners so that I can remember where to turn.
What It’s Like on the Ground….
Put all of this together and here’s what you get:
My job is in a building on Rruga (rruga means street) Dervish Hima except that it’s really not on Dervish Hima (see map below). Dervish Hima is on the opposite side of the stadium and that’s why the official address on our business cards (quotation marks included) says, “Rruga Dervish Hima” 3 Kullat pranë stadiumit “Qemal Stafa.” Translation? “Dervish Hima St.” 3 Towers near/next to/alongside/past “Qemal Stafa” stadium.
The address for my apartment building is not actually the street where I live! Because I am not allowed to give out my address on my blog, the map below is a fictional example that illustrates my situation: My apartment is on Rruga Eshref Puma (the yellow star) but my official address is Rruga Kristaq Capo (the green star). Either way, there is no number on my building. Either way, it doesn’t matter because no one knows where either street is, nor do they know what I’m talking about when I use the closest major intersection as a landmark. It turns out that the way my neighborhood is identified is either by the local middle school or by a nearby outdoor market but not everyone knows the local middle school and/or the outdoor market and so they have no idea where I live.
When I ask someone where they live or work, the answer isn’t in terms of street names, major intersections, distances or geographic directions, it’s in terms of landmarks. I think in the U.S. we also have a tendency to talk about locations in terms of landmarks, but when we’re not making headway, naturally shift to other strategies: numbers of blocks, cross-streets (“the corner of…”), directions (“northeast of the downtown area”). Here’s an example of a conversation I’ve had the equivalent of many times:
Me: “Where do you live?”
Other Person: “It’s near the office for the Ministry of Health.”
Me: “Where is that?”
OP: “Near where the old train station was before it was torn down.”
Me: “But what part of the city is it in?”
OP: “Do you know the green buses? It’s about 15 minutes from here on the green bus.”
And, here’s what it’s like to ask for directions to someone’s home or office:
Me: “How do I get there?”
Other Person: “Do you know where Sheshi Wilson (Wilson Square) is?”
Me: “Yes….then what?”
OP: “Do you know where the Cinnabon is at Sheshi Wilson?”
OP: “Go the Cinnabon and call me and I’ll come get you.”
Me: “Really, no need; you can just give me the address and I can use Google Maps to find you.”
OP: “When you get to the Cinnabon, turn left and look for the big yellow school. Then, just call me and I’ll come get you.”
In this case the person is trying to save me from getting lost in “the maze”. Most likely there are no street signs, there probably aren’t building numbers, entrances may be hidden off the street, and even if I use Google Maps, the official address likely doesn’t correspond to the actual location of the building.
Speaking of Google Maps, the app helps, but only if the search for my destination is successful. Many businesses and institutions in Tirana are not registered within the Google Maps system, or are registered with addresses that don’t correspond to their actual location and so, when I use the app, there’s a chance it won’t find what I’m looking for.
And then there’s asking for directions: Because most people in Tirana don’t know street names, don’t think in terms of intersections or numbers of blocks and often aren’t sure where things are located, it’s difficult to get accurate and/or coherent directions in real-time. What seems to work best is to ask for a general direction, head that way and then repeat the process over and over…one person and one instruction at a time. This also minimizes the impact of having been sent in the wrong direction in the first place.
Finally, some thoughts…
Rudi, the Urban Planning expert in my office told me that it’s virtually impossible to give directions to anyone not familiar with Tirana because people know things only by landmarks that are near the desired destination itself. One of the Peace Corps doctors told me that, when she goes to conferences in a foreign country, she is stymied when she tries to navigate the conference city because “Albanians don’t learn how to read maps.” A college professor born and bred in Tirana looked me square in the eye (as I was trying to explain where I live) and said, “You know, Suzanne, no one in Tirana knows any of the street names.”
Beyond the impact on tourists and new residents, think about what all of this means for emergency services (police, fire, ambulance), non-emergency services (pizza deliveries, cable and WiFi installers, taxis) and mail delivery. It’s hard to imagine what life in Tirana was like before cell phones were ubiquitous and people could be guided to their destinations by the person waiting for them.
Most of us in America take for granted addresses, maps, and people who can given directions. In the U.S. kids learn to read (and sometimes create) maps in elementary school. What American kid doesn’t know his/her home address? What taxi driver doesn’t know the names of main streets? Here, it’s a completely different mentality and one that only foreigners seem to have a problem with. And now, with cell phones ever-ready, I wonder if things are so much better than before that it would be hard to find any reason to change.