Thursday, 1 October 2009

Walking in Tirana's Streets

Walking in Tirana's Streets

I head for my usual supplier of hardback notebooks, the huge bazaar at the end of Rruga Dibres, just past the Medresa. But all the notebooks only have squared paper. The woman who has the stall gestures towards a young man, her son, and he says to me – please wait five minutes – and goes off. He returns with two packs of notebooks. Some of them have lines rather than squares, but the formerly kitsh cover designs have turned into ugly images of grimacing little boys with motor bikes. They think I don't like these because I want them for a girl. How old is she, asks the son. The ones with cute little girls are equally impossible for me to use. 16 I say, rather than attempt to explain that they are for me to write in, that the Chinese paper and the kitsh covers are precisely what I love about them. The only possible lined one is plain blue so I take that one and a squared one with gorgeous heart patterns like plush satin. 300 lek for the 2 (£2), the same as they cost 4 years ago.

Walking back to the centre – walking in Tirana's streets is an enormous pleasure for me – I go into a small café to buy byrek, that delicious flaky pastry with slivers of cheese inside. The woman behind the counter is friendly, all smiles. But she has no change for my 100 lek coin. Ska, ska, she waves me away and smiles. It's nothing, don't worry, have it on me. She shrugs, smiles, waves. Faleminderit shum I say, thank you very much.

Continuing towards the centre, I'm watching a policeman at traffic lights. He waves the cars on, while the lights are at green. When they change to red, he holds up his lollipop. Good. Green man – I cross. The first car pulls up and the policeman waves the second which is in the middle of the road, over to the side, behind the first one. I'm eating my byrek, looking back at him and don't see a car coming from my right – well I wouldn't would I? There's a green pedestrian sign, and I have right of way. But the car sounds its horn, clearly intending to continue. I wave my byrek at him and walk on.

Apart from the lack of lined and flowery kitsh-patterned notebooks this part of Tirana is, quite wonderfully, unchanged. Up the Rruga Dibres and Qemal Stafa, all is the same – powerful sunlight, noise, dust, fumes, broken pavements, helpful notebook sellers and friendly byrek sellers and cars that drive through pedestrian green lights, even when there's a policeman just a few meters away.

In the centre of course, particularly in the Blok, the fashionable area, there are very visible changes, painted façades, repaired roads, glamorous shops full of fashionable clothes, and lots of shiny new cars. Even the bicycle stall has a new parasol.

Old version bicycle stall and street

New version bicycle stall and same street.
The sparrows were doing their usual massive flocking in the chestnut trees along Sami Frasheri. I saw many of them, zooming in like fast dark arrows, to join the seething, sparking chorus in the trees. Is it their nightly reunion? Are they squabbling for space in the trees? Have I ever seen sparrows fly so fast and so far, more like swallows – are they really sparrows anyway?

If ever I'd forgotten that identity is not something discrete and compact that one can carry around with you, like a suitcase on wheels, walking along Tirana streets would have reminded me.

We might imagine that this shifting series of impressions, thoughts, and associations, connections and interchange with other people, is who we are, but this is like comparing a thin scarf of cloud tucked into a crevice of the mountainside with the mountain itself.

Identity it seems to me, is geographical, its textures are topography, and it lives in places – or it dreams there, sleeps, until you wake it, or that part of you that lives there, wakes, when your feet touch that ground again.
These street and hillside fragments are all one being, so it seems to me.

Walking in Tirana's streets is like living a double life, an abrupt intensifying of experience. The blaring car horns, the dust and diesel fumes, the smells of hot oil, roasting corn and rosemary and the early evening chorus of the birds as they swoop into the chestnut trees on Sami Frasheri, and shout and call and laugh and greet each other.

Various pasts arrive, just like those gossiping, garrulous birds, they zoom in to join this present moment as I walk up these streets. It's vertigo as well as plain sailing. It's moving up and down with sea swell, and it's those sudden shifts in altitude too, when you drop out of nowhere and you're carried up by something that just appears, and lifts you up.
Where we are is who we are.
Walking up Tirana's streets makes me feel as if something that was previously held inside me has been released, let out.