| Thomas Hughes | 13 August 2012 | Mons, Belgium |
I returned to Mons late Sunday evening after an eventful weekend in the Netherlands, enjoying the soccer, sights and spirits of The Hague and Amsterdam with fellow correspondents Joshua, Andrew and Kristina. Although I was exhausted from the weekend and my trip home to Belgium, I immediately had to unpack and repack for a Monday morning flight to Tirana, Albania. As I mentioned in my first post, our office is coordinating the 2012 NATO Legal Conference in Tirana with the Ministry of Defence of Albania.
I was part of a 5 person team that travelled to Albania. My short time in Albania was an eye-opening experience on many levels. I found Albania to be a truly beautiful country. It is situated directly above Greece and directly below Croatia on the west coast of the Adriatic Sea. When I arrived at Nene Tereza (Mother Theresa) International Airport in Tirana, I was immediately reminded that summer still exists outside of Belgium. As I left the aircraft I was hit by the blistering 100 degree Albanian air. The laughter and ridicule of our hosts, when we asked if we should arrive in business attire now made complete sense. After a short stint in the customs line and baggage claim we were greeted by 2 of the deputy legal advisors of the Ministry of Defence. Within 20 minutes we arrived at the Tirana International Hotel, situated in the center of downtown Tirana. Tirana International is the venue for the 2012 NATO Legal Conference and was our hotel for this short stay.
With only 2 days to address everything on our multiple-page checklist, I knew it would be a busy 48 hours. What I did not know is how much I would come to appreciate and enjoy this small country. Setting aside the rumored 300 days of cloudless skies, which I cannot refute, it is the culture, cuisine and history of Albania that makes it such a wonderful destination. Only 20 years removed from a repressive Communist regime that sounded alarmingly similar to present day North Korea, Albania has recently made amazing strides.
We were able to explore the coastal town of Durres, with a boardwalk that competes with the likes of Coney Island, far surpassing it in the selection of bars and restaurants. In the center of the city sits a magnificent ancient amphitheater that looks like it belonged in the center of Rome. The towering apartment buildings and condominiums being built along the coast of Durres contrast beautifully with the amphitheater and the city’s historical center. Enjoying our walk through the city, our hosts treated us to a phenomenal dinner and drinks along the boardwalk. On the 45 minute drive back to Tirana, we were offered the opportunity to continue our night in the bars of Tirana. Slightly jetlagged and sluggish from the meal and 100 degree heat, we politely declined the invitation.
Our Tuesday morning walking tour of Tirana started early at 9am since the forecast predicted another triple digit temperature. We observed a clean, vibrant and modern downtown, complete with shopping districts, museums, trendy bars and restaurants. We were also treated to an espresso on top of the Sky Hotel which overlooks Tirana and slowly rotates 360 degrees. Around 11:30am as the temperature crept upwards, we did what any sensible people would do and piled into a large VW van to drive an hour northeast to the city of Kruje.
Kruje is another beautiful city that developed around an old Albanian castle built into a mountain. What remains of the main tower of that castle is now a world-class museum dedicated to Albanian folk hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg. Skanderbeg was a leader that united the factions of Albania in the 15th century to repel the brutal invasion of the Ottoman Turks for over a quarter century. From the terrace of the museum you can see the border of Montenegro, the Adriatic Sea, and much of Southern Albania. The views were absolutely amazing. After our tour of the museum and old bazaar (still vibrant after 1000 years), we settled in for a traditional Albanian meal. A never ending procession of traditional Albanian appetizers, lamb ribs and desert was capped off with the traditional shot of rakia, which I’m pretty sure means ‘rubbing alcohol’ in Albanian.
Making it back to the hotel around 5:30, everyone took a well-deserved power nap before we embarked on our evening trip to the Palma Nova Resort, about 25 minutes from downtown Tirana. This resort will be hosting the capstone dinner of the legal conference, and would not disappoint. Although the duo of crystal clear pools was still tempting, the air had cooled to a tolerable 85 degrees so I was able to resist the urge to dive in. The next 4 hours were filled with numerous bottles of homegrown Albanian wine and one of the best 10 course meals (if not the only one) that I can ever remember. By 11:30pm we finally had our fill and departed for the hotel. With at least 10lbs of food in me, and more than a few glasses of wine, I was again challenged by our host to come out for a drink and explore the bars of Tirana. Three of my colleagues and I joined two of our friends from the Ministry of Defence to continue our very enjoyable evening/morning.
Wednesday consisted of some final meetings with the Ministry of Defence and the Tirana International Hotel staff to confirm some details of the conference. In usual Albanian fashion, it concluded with a delicious lunch and wine on the house.
As I returned to Belgium reflecting on my amazing two days in Albania, I couldn’t help but be pleased with my decision to pursue opportunities in international law. I was amazed that we had accomplished everything that we set out to accomplish. We finalized plans for transportation issues, security issues, cultural “field trips”, dinners, minute conference details, etc. Although very little of our trip felt like work, our constant dialogue with the Ministry of Defence Legal Office and hotel staff over the course of meals, trips, and drinks led us to our ultimate goals. The opportunity to spend so much time in these informal proceedings with our gracious hosts reinforced my belief that we have many more similarities than differences. It was extremely rewarding to get to know our Albanian friends and also my NATO colleagues on a more personal level. So much of international law is managing relationships and bridging cultural gaps, and I have no doubt that this experience will prove as valuable as it was enjoyable.