Author with PM Edi Rama
You land after almost 6 years at an airport and waiting at immigration, you know that you have come home! You enter the arrival hall and see your former colleague waiting to receive you with her signature smile and welcoming arms — open as wide as possible. Now, you are sure you have come home! You feel like you never left and your dear colleague echoes your thoughts as if she read your mind! These were my feelings when my husband and I landed in Tirana, the capital of Albania on a pleasant summer night in July 2022.
A soft breeze welcomed us – a wonderful respite from an unusually hot & humid European summer. Tirana was home for us where I spent 3 memorable years as World Bank Country Manager. It was also in Tirana, where I received THE most lasting gift a World Bank job offers us: lifelong relationships and friendships. Some of us, like me, have been privileged to live in different parts of the world where such lasting connections are built. The desire to reconnect with these very relationships is what pulled me to visit Albania after my recent retirement from the World Bank. The pull was strong and the memories of a highly fulfilling life in Tirana still fresh.
Author with mayor of Tirana, Erion Velliaj
I landed in Tirana on a winter day in December 2013 and left, three years later, on another winter day in January 2017 after a spate of farewells culminating in a beautiful dinner hosted by the Prime Minister Edi Rama when it suddenly snowed. Many friends I met on my return visit recalled the special “white-night.” I was told that Tirana hasn’t seen snowfall since that night! Three years earlier, my arrival coincided with the election of a new government led by the Socialist Party which is now in its third mandate. Being an ardent student of history, I was well aware of Albania’s fast transition from a highly closed communist country – known as the North Korea of Europe – to an open economy after the fall of communism. But the country surprised me in more ways than one! I had no idea that I would be lucky to live in Europe’s best kept secret with its beautiful beaches, medieval towns, castles, high alpine mountains, and amazing food offerings. Home to one of the most tolerant people, it is no coincidence that Pope Francis chose Albania as the first destination of his first European tour in 2014 as he saw Albania a model of harmony among various religions.
A snowy farewell
Fast-forward to 2022, Albania remains special. Many friends had moved on to different roles, many still there. Tirana looked spectacular –cleaner, more beautiful, new sidewalks and bike paths, and more organized. During my visit, the country was in a celebratory mode as the EU had opened accession negotiations. In midst of all these developments, the challenges of an economy in transition were also evident with an economic rebound in late 2021 impacted by the fallout from the war in Europe.
Despite the changes, why did I feel that nothing has changed and why did I feel that I never left even though I came back after nearly six years? I reflected on these questions yet answers evaded me until I realized that the answer lay in the very reason that had brought me back to Tirana: friendships and relationship. The warmth of the people, their genuine affection, the friendships, mutual trust and feelings were unchanged. Having such lasting connections is the most precious gift that we get from being part of the World Bank. And it is the one I cherish the most.