I don’t know where the idea to do a solo show about going to Albania came from. It was probably something to do with wanting to find out where the idea of going to Albania came from in the first place. And why people react in certain ways when you tell them you’ve been there – twice, with children, the long way, by train and boat.
It’s not as if Albania’s a long way away or particularly difficult to get to. It’s nearer to Britain than Greece. It’s a ferry trip from Italy. Three hours from Gatwick if you fly. In theory, you need a visa to get in, but you can buy one when you get to the border for €10 – and last time we went nobody asked us for the money anyway.
Albania, though, has a reputation … So maybe that was where this piece came from: the question of how an entire country, with its millions of myriad people, their accumulated beliefs and behaviours, gets a reputation? Who cooked it up? How did it enter circulation? Who mandated it? And what’s it like to be on the receiving end, to be characterised – to be judged – according to something that’s beyond your control?
I Went To Albania isn’t the first time I’ve tried to make sense of why we went there and what happened when we did. There’s a book of poems – Reversing into the Cold War; there’s a play script – Hotel Illyria; there’s a travel book – Travels in the Family; there’s a blog – Recreation Ground; there’s an academic paper on post-1945 English language travel writing on Albania – Encountering Problems. Some people say it’s become an obsession.
I Went To Albania is an attempt to work out why all this started, why for the last six years, I’ve rarely had a conversation which hasn’t, at some point, meandered back to that awkward rectangle of land between Greece and Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. To ‘a country in sight of Italy,’ which, in the words of Edward Gibbon (he of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), is ‘less known than the wilds of America’. To a failed communist utopia and a post-Cold War nation that’s in Europe but, somehow, not yet of it.
As yet, as a piece, it’s probably unfinished. A bunch of hesitant anecdotes about gangsters, Byron, oil rigs, John Constable’s picture framer, museum guides, a captured jet fighter – and a small dose of social experimentation. Oh – and bread and salt and besa.
Tom will be performing I Went to Albania in the Bristol Old Vic Studio on Wed 11 Jan at 7pm.