Photo by George J. Tanber
Letter from Albania
Bonding at Breakfast with Tirana Hotelier
TIRANA, Albania – I’m eating breakfast at the City Hotel Tirana. A plain omelet, chunk of feta cheese, tasty local olives, toast and an excellent cappuccino for four euros [$4.70].
Sitting across from me in his usual seat is Edmond Godolja, owner of the boutique lodge ideally located in the center of Albanian’s capital.
Edmond likes to converse with his guests, and can do so in excellent English, Italian and parts of other languages.
I could use a number of words to describe the man. One of them is cocky. I had only known him a few minutes when our conversation went in this direction:
Edmond: What do you do?
Me: I’m a journalist.
Edmond: Who do you write about?
Me: People I meet.
Edmond: I am a good story. You want to write about me?
Me: I don’t know. Maybe.
Edmond: You have to pay me first.
And so it begins, I thought.
The breakfast is the same each morning, simple but decent. It’s served by a friendly, shy woman who calls herself Lucia. She’s a cousin of Edmond’s wife, who runs the reception desk.
Edmond shows up at 7:30, right on time. Again, we’re the only two present.
I ask him about the state of his hotel business during COVID. That triggers a lengthy explanation about how he got into the hospitality field.
He tells me he sold two parcels of land in 2008 for 220,000 euros [$330,000] to a general contractor – a sizeable profit. He had always thought about owning a hotel so he looked for a building. He found one in the city center, an old mansion which he bought for a good price. Edmond being Edmond, he contacted the same contractor – he needed someone to handle the extensive renovations required - to see if they could work something out. The man wanted 30 percent of the hotel with no money down.
Edmond smiles; I await the punchline.
“I told him I would pay him cash for the work but he would get no shares in the business. It cost me 120,000 euros [$160,000] for all of this,” he says of the three-story structure with 16 basic but clean, functional rooms.
As it happened, the opening of the hotel coincided with a major uptick in tourism to Albania. In 10 years, Edmond claims he netted one million euros [$1.5 million].
The boon abruptly ended with COVID’s arrival in winter 2020, as it did everywhere else in Europe. Edmond laid off eight of his 11 staff and moved his family into the hotel. Business has picked up over the past month or two, but nothing like before.
“When will you return home?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “There’s no hurry. I like it here.”
People like Edmond are constantly seeking action, so it’s no surprise when he tells me the coffee I’m drinking is made from beans processed at a plant owned by him and a partner.
“How’s business?” I ask.
“Good,” he says.
And with that, breakfast is over.
When I arrive for breakfast, Edmond is already there. This morning there are two Italians sitting across the room from me and an Egyptian dining directly behind Edmond. Edmond is conversing amiably with the Italians in Italian. The Egyptian remains quiet.
The Italians leave. Edmond makes a phone call. I obviously can’t speak Albanian but it’s clear Edmond is in control of the conversation and boasting about one thing or another. He finishes the call. I feel like I know him well enough that I can comment on his, ah, let’s say confident nature.
The man is sharp and reads my expression.
“Yes, I am not a humble man,” he says before I can speak.
I think: OK, he’s telling me to sift through the BS and figure out what’s true or not. I was good with those terms because if nothing else ours was an entertaining discussion.
Edmond’s age – 61 – leads to a discourse on another topic. I realize that exactly the first half of his life was spent under one of the harshest communist dictatorships in modern history. Somewhere around 175,000 dissidents were executed, imprisoned or confined to labor camps in Albania from 1945-90.
So, I ask: “How did an independent-minded entrepreneur like you survive?”
“I’m very good at math,” he says.
“Math?” I respond, wondering where this is going.
Of course, Edmond has an answer. He explains there were two benefits to communist rule in Albania – excellent health care and education systems. [Others told me likewise.]
“I took advantage of the education opportunities and took a teaching certificate in math,” he says.
He found a job in the northernmost part of the country, far away from Tirana and, he hoped, the Sigurimi – Albania’s ruthless secret police. Edmond didn’t care for the isolation but he stayed out of trouble and discovered he liked teaching math. The years went by. Once he considered fleeing the country, he admitted, but changed his mind knowing that whether he succeeded or not his parents and two brothers would be punished for his action.
Soon after the communists were finally booted, in 1990, Edmond left for Italy. He was 30. He spent four years there making money, spending all of it and enjoying freedom for the first time.
“It was wonderful,” he says.
When he returned to Albania, in 1994, he was ready to shift from teaching numbers to multiplying the small amount in his new bank account.
As he finishes his story, Edmond spreads his arms, as if to say: “And here we are.”
I leave a 5 euro note on the table. Edmond stops me.
Later that morning, I have my first conversation with Edmond’s wife, who had previously introduced herself as Linda.
I ask: “Linda isn’t your Albanian name, is it?”
“No,” she says. “It’s Majlinda. It means ‘born in in May.’ And I was born in May.”
She has black hair with a pixie cut, a round face and a sweet smile. At first, she appears to be the opposite of her husband – soft-spoken, a bit shy and modest.
Her keen intelligence surfaces when I mention I am meeting my interpreter, Lisena Gjebrea, for a day trip to Kruje, 20 miles north of Tirana. Majlinda recognizes the name and within seconds has a photo of Lisena on her phone, which she had Googled.
“I remember her from being on television,” she explains, accurately identifying Lisena as the chief interpreter for the European Union’s ambassador to Albania.
I learn that Majlinda has a gift for numbers, like her husband. She surprises me with this tidbit: She’s a math professor at a local university.
I decide to tease her: “You’re smarter than your husband.”
That comment alarms her and she quickly says, “No. No,” waving her finger, as if Edmond is nearby.
Majlinda then has a telling remark: “We complement each other. That’s good, right?” [Additional confirmation of something I’ve learned in my three days in Albania: The sexes here are nowhere close to being equal.]
The conversation turns to her sons, Dante and Roman. [Edmond named them, she says, an obvious nod to his love of Italy.] Dante, the older of the two, is away at school in Vienna, Austria, where Roman will join him shortly.
Two things are clear with that information: The Godoljas have little confidence in Albania’s education system and it’s not cheap sending your kids to school in Austria.
As if on cue, Roman appears. We exchange greetings. He’s a slender boy with a curly mass of black hair atop his head. His appearance and temperament resemble his mother’s.
I ask him how he learned English.
“Watching YouTube,” he says.
“How long did it take?”
He also speaks German, required at his Austrian school, and he would like to learn additional languages. He’s 15.
Edmond told me when we first met that he learned his English the old-school way: “I memorized 20 words a day.”
I’m leaving for North Macedonia by bus. A taxi will collect me at 8 a.m. Edmond, ever accommodating, has Lucia arrive early so she can serve me breakfast at 7:15.
Edmond joins me. He’s clearly tired. He says he went to the airport at 4 a.m. but doesn’t say why. He’s also upset by some recent news: He could have sold two houses he owns for a significant profit a few years ago. The market has since declined. He now has a purchase offer for far less money, shrinking his profit.
I tell him to avoid thinking ‘what if?’ Edmond admits he can’t let it go. That surprises me as I know in his world both gains and losses are expected and common
The topic of real estate raises another question from me: If all the land in Albania belonged to the state for 46 years, what happened to it when the communists no longer ruled the country.
Suddenly, Edmond perks up, eager to respond.
“It’s complicated,” he says.
He explains the issue from his perspective: In most cases, whomever worked the land during the communist years were awarded the land by government-appointed committees. The acreage gifted was based on the number of family members. The problem with that plan was it often ignored the rightful owners of the land prior to 1945. This slight resulted in considerable chaos over the past 30 years. However, about 70 percent of the land cases have been settled. The remaining 30 percent involves mostly prized and valuable land situated along the country’s pristine Adriatic Sea coastline.
“It’s going to take a while to sort that out,” he says, closing our discussion as it’s time for me to leave.
No charge for breakfast again.
Five mornings later, after returning from North Macedonia, I’m back at breakfast with Edmond. He opened early again just for me as I’m leaving for the airport at 8 a.m. for my journey home.
The first order of business is me thanking Edmond. While in North Macedonia I realized I left my credit card at a restaurant near his hotel. I emailed Majlinda, telling her my problem. She quickly responded that Edmond had called the restaurant confirming my card was there.
“Edmond is on his way to pick it up,” she wrote.
“No problem,” Edmond says after I express my appreciation.
The Egyptian is the only other customer present. He’s quiet, as usual. After he leaves, Edmond tells me he’s having lunch with the guy today.
“Seriously?” I say. “He hasn’t said a word all week.”
“Oh, I’ve talked with him,” Edmond says. “He’s an interesting guy.”
Edmond wants to know what else I do besides journalism. I tell him I’m a video producer.
“What kind of videos?”
I tell him.
“Show me one.”
“How much do you charge for this?”
I tell him.
“Really! Next time, send me the raw footage. I can edit it for half that amount,” he says, adding yet another talent to his long list of alleged capabilities.
Regretfully, as it has been fun, I bid the man farewell. He waves my breakfast fee a final time.
On my way out I hope to say goodbye to Majlinda. But she’s down after having had several teeth removed the previous day. Her son, Roman is in her place. I wish him well in school. It’s not hard to imagine a bright future for him.
At the airport, where I have time before my flight, I think about how I stayed at much fancier and more expensive hotels during this trip, ones with impressive breakfast buffets and stoic customers who kept to themselves while dining.
And then I think of the place I just left. It’s a no-brainer for me: Give me the City Hotel Tirana Show starring Edmond Godolja anytime.
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Editor's note: Fourth in a series from a reporting trip to Albania Aug. 10-13, 2021