Days have past, yet the child still haunts me.
When I can’t sleep, I replay the scene again and again in my mind and the child’s pitiful wails cause me to heave. I can still see him there, sitting alone on a piece of cardboard, begging cup at his feet, weeping on the shattered sidewalks of Tirana. I try to tell myself that he wasn’t alone, that his mother was close by and had, like I have done so many times with my own son, left him to blow out his temper, whilst safely observing from a distance.
But I know this isn’t true. I can see him clearly now in the supernaturally pure light of an Albanian autumn day and I feel a tear slide down my cheek. I check once more on my own son, sleeping softly surrounded by his zoo of soft toys and then the real tears come. For the thousandth time I wonder if I should have scooped him up, comforted him and tried to find his mother and I feel shamed that I walked on by. As a father, and I would hope, a humanitarian, I feel sickened by my action.
I try to clear this one image from mind yet it remains. I want to write about a country which is beautiful, both in landscape and people; a country where hospitability to strangers is the norm; a country with such gentle dignity and spiritual resilience that it makes your spirit soar to travel there; a country rich in history and culture and one that few people dare visit, but this one image remains burned in my mind. The Albanians will not thank me for this image. It is not a true representation of their country, but still, it is an image which haunts me. There is much joy and beauty in Albania as these gentle and loving people slowly rebuild their shattered land. I cannot believe that in a country that has suffered so much and so needlessly, and where today life is embraced in every way that such a child would ever be abandoned. This is not how I want to remember my first trip to Albania.
I had arrived in Tirana that afternoon. I felt the pangs of fear deep in my bowels as I left the airport. I knew nothing about this hidden part of Europe. I had no local currency, spoke none of the local language and didn’t even have a map of the country with me. There was no guide book I could consult and barely any travellers’ reports to guide me. It was deeply unnerving to arrive somewhere so unprepared. Fortunately, I managed to find a taxi to the centre of Tirana and, swallowing my fear, immediately set about exploring the town.
On first inspection Tirana looks like nowhere else on earth. Streets are torn up, buildings half-torn down, rubble is strewn everywhere, huge pot-holes litter the atrocious roads and donkey-carts line the street. It looks part medieval, part nightmare, part architectural joke. As I stood in the late Autumn light, which bathed the city in a supernatural orange glow, I felt like I had strayed onto the set of some apocalyptic science fiction movie, which considering Albania’s tragic past, might just be appropriate. I watched old men, resplendent in pin-stripe jackets walk from bar to bar calling out to friends and exchanging the traditional greeting of a kiss on both cheeks, old woman shuffling by with bags of fresh produce whilst young boys hung around the remains of street corners and watched me watching the achingly pretty girls with a mixture of fascination and amusement. I took deep, deep breaths of the clear air and fell, deeply passionately in love with Albania and its people. More than anything in the world I wanted them to reciprocate this feeling and headed off to the nearest bar to buy the first person I met a beer or two.
The bar I chose, the New London Bar (the Old London Bar apparently was sadly no more) was tucked away between the ruins of a hotel and a partially derelict apartment building. It didn’t look like much from the street. In fact it looked precariously close to sliding down the immense hole in the street outside it, but it had a raffish charm and looked inviting enough, especially if you liked your bars bombed out and surrounded by chaos and ruin. I scrambled over three mountains of rubble to the entrance and, taking a deep breath, dived into the gloom.
The inside, like most homes, bars and hotels I visited in Albania, was spotlessly clean. Inside was a mass of ornately carved columns and shady little alcoves. It was exactly as I had imagined a bar in Albania to be. There was a crowd of locals gathered around an immense plasma screen television watching English football whilst an incredibly pretty barmaid polished glasses. A fume of old cigarette smoke hung around head height and gave everyone a vague blue tinge. Motes of dust twirled in the afternoon sunlight. I slid into a corner seat, gestured to the barmaid that I would like a beer and settled back to watch the game.
My beer arrived, lukewarm. Considering that the city lay in ruins around us I wasn’t too upset. The locals, who were obviously gambling on the game, smiled and raised their beers to me. A few minutes later the barmaid came and made me move closer to the screen. I felt myself drawn into the game. By half-time we were all friends. We shared no common language apart from beer and football. An English speaker was found and I showed them some pictures of my son. His toothy grin was passed from hand to hand. The beefy guy at the bar, who I had marked down as mafia, pulled out a pile of pictures of his baby daughter and we all cooed.
‘Raki on the rocks for our guest,’ called out one of the locals after he had examined my son’s picture. A shot glass filled to the brim with pale liquid was placed in front of me. It was, he explained through the local English speaker, a welcome to his country. I wondered, rather curiously, if it would turn me blind.
‘But where are the rocks?’ I asked, somewhat innocently.
‘All around you,’ laughed the English speaker, ‘but please leave us some because we plan to finish rebuilding the country tomorrow.’
We all agreed that it was a very funny joke.
Much later, I staggered out onto the streets and wandered more around the city. Once you got beyond the piles of rubble and carnage the city was actually terribly appealing. The sidewalks, where not obliterated, were lined with numerous cafes and bars, and the next big slice of pizza was only ever a stone’s throw away (no need to bring you own stones, I thought ironically after shredding my boot on a pile of rocks, whilst trying to reach the country’s only ATM that would accept my visa card). Tirana had a wonderful Mediterranean air; a casual joie de vivire which could never be defeated, even if you knocked down the remainder of the city. I suspected that on some deep level the Albanians didn’t see the carnage around them and focused instead on how their lives had changed since the country imploded rather spectacularly in 1997 and how that in a few years this beautifully flawed town would be heaving with tourists and be the new place to be seen in Southern Europe. As the sun set I sat on a pile of rubble, notebook in hand, and thought: this is something special.
It also dawned on me that Tirana was the cleanest capital I had ever visited. The streets were strangely devoid of litter, there was no graffiti on any of the walls – standing or otherwise and the whole place had a just scrubbed feel to it. It was almost as if the local governor had called a meeting and said: ‘Listen, I know our city is devastated, broken and generally buggered beyond belief. I accept that it’s a mess, but its our mess so go out there, give it a lick and a promise and be proud to be Albanian.’
Or perhaps a more rational explanation is that in a country with unemployment in the region of 60% and miniscule average wages, nothing goes to waste.
As night fell the cafes lit their fairy lights and the night seethed with expectation and hope. A tranquillity descended on the town as the good people of Tirana strolled about meeting friends, striking young girls preened themselves under the few pale street lights that still stood erect and cafes began to fill up. I felt deeply moved by the sheer normality of the people who carried on living their lives in such utter, utter desolation. I stayed a long time, sitting on my pile of rubble, watching people. It seemed strange to find such peace and contentment in such a devastated landscape but I could feel the magic of Albania flowing through me. After much time had passed, I sighed deeply and set off to find another bar and make some more friends.
There were no more lone children sobbing on the street and the world felt right once more.