Extract from the first time I lived in Albania, several years ago.
The title The Rock Garden of South East Europe is taken from an essay by Faik Konitza, an Albanian Writer
Opening of the Covered Marketplace at Elbasan
Elbasan lies in a plain, surrounded by mountains. On one side of the plain is the town itself and on the other - occupying an area which at first sight is just as extensive - is a grotesque array of rusted metal pipes and tubes. This skeletal arrangement is the remains of a metallurgical factory, built by the Chinese during the Communist regime. A trail of yellowish smoke drifts from a chimney and settles in the air over the town.
In some places the road from Tirana to Elbasan runs along the mountain tops, giving views over layers of peaks, becoming fainter and mistier with distance. To make the steep descent, the road curls and loops back on itself. One side of the road is built up like an embankment. Parts of it erupt into mosaics of determined and heroic workers, grasping their hammers and welding instruments, staring past you, out across the Elbasan valley and the sickly yellow smoke dribbling from the chimney.
The morning is grey and overcast. Just past the outskirts of Tirana, we cross a bridge that was closed for a long time because parts of it caved in or fell away. W
told me that it had partially collapsed because some excavation work had undermined the bridge's foundations. Capsized dumper trucks and tractors on their sides lie in the river like forlorn dinky toys.
As we climb up the winding mountain road, heading for Elbasan, we leave behind all signs of habitation and are surrounded by the wildness of the mountains. The landscape becomes stark and bare, a sea of brown-peaked frozen waves, breathtakingly beautiful. Clearly, we are in another world, one that belongs to nature.
It begins to snow a little, small flurries of white blurring the vision of the mountains. The road curls along the top of one of the mountains, with valleys falling away on either side. Some of the peaks are rocky, slanted and so thin they look almost shaved to a point, like giant pencils. Thin cloud dances on the mountain-peaks, throwing off a snow as light as the reflection of emotion in water.
By the time we get to Elbasan the sky is still grey and a light rain is falling. We are here to take part in the opening ceremony of the covered marketplace whose construction we have funded. But before going to the marketplace we visit Kuqan school, whose renovation we are also funding. There are the usual broken steps, plywood doors, huge amount of dust and grime in the classrooms, shabby, rickety desks. The classrooms are unheated, apart from the nursery, where there is a wood-burning stove, which fails to make much impact on the whole room, but does take the worst chill off the air. The little ones are not free to move around, but sit at low tables, crowded together. They all gaze at us fixedly, as we talk to their teacher. This open and unembarrassed curiosity is also present in the older students in the other classrooms. They stand up politely when we come in. And do the same when we leave, with an enthusiastic chorus of 'mirufpashim' (goodbye).
The upstairs of this school is blocked off because it’s unusable. The rooms there have no doors and the tiles are completely broken up. There are window frames but no windows. In one room, there are piles of excrement on the floor. But outside, there are neat whitewashed houses, with little yards where vines are threaded up sticks and across a lattice of wire at the top, so that in summer their leaves will provide shade. In a nearby hay barn an old woman is pulling out hay with a long fork. And in front of the school, rows of young saplings have recently been planted. In a few years time they will transform the bare brown earth, and provide shade for the children.
We then head for the marketplace. We stand around in the damp and chill for about half an hour, waiting for the mayor, as the ceremony cannot begin until he arrives. I wonder if his delay is calculated, to emphasise his importance, or simply a disregard for time. W has mentioned that she has had some difficult dealings with the mayor.
His actual involvement in the construction of the covered marketplace has been minimal, but his consent has been necessary at every step of the negotiations. At times, W has hinted, he has been obstructive, deliberately delaying the procedure, just to show his importance, and to show that he is in control. But, despite all the difficulties, the project has been completed. The fruit and vegetable vendors, who have previously had to sell their wares out in the open, in the chill and wet of winter as well as the baking heat of summer, will soon have a covered area to protect them from the elements. So W is quietly triumphant, and tolerates the mayor’s impoliteness, or deliberate show of power, whichever it might be, with a show of patience and brisk politeness.
The mayor, when he finally arrives, turns out to be a large man with a loud voice. He gives a speech in which, W whispers, he takes most of the credit for the undertaking, as if it had been his idea and had enjoyed his unflagging commitment. W’s speech is brief, praising all involved in the undertaking, and not forgetting to give due thanks to the mayor. She cuts the red ribbon, marking the official opening and then things move very quickly. The vendors are inside and have set up shop with amazing speed. Within minutes the counters are piled with scales and vivid colours - apples, oranges, lettuces, leeks, red and green peppers. Customers throng the aisles and the metal roof resounds with chatter. P and I stockpile fruit and vegetables from one of the nearest vendors and we pile them in the car.
After the ceremony, we visit another school, driving on the Librazhd to Kukes road. Librazhd is small but has an elegant curving main street, lined with trees. On the way there we pass an old woman in black, with a white scarf round her head, digging gravel and sand, to make mortar. On the brown mountainsides, there are trees with white and pink blossom. At the Hotolishti school, which we are proposing to fund, some rooms are full of rubbish, as if it had been bombed. Some of the floorboards are wet and we are told that if it rains, the ceilings leak so badly that the room are closed and classes abandoned. To get to the playground, you have to climb up a long flight of steps. There is a fine view from the top, but it is dangerous for there are no protective barriers.
On the way back, Gramoz, our driver, stops and buys some purple flowers. The clouds have gone, the sun is out. Some of the peaks, still capped with snow, are dazzling in this light. We seem to be higher up than everything that’s visible.
Back in Tirana, the evening sunlight catches pieces of buildings, clutches at them, in some rosy sense of memory - walls turn deep and mysterious, puddles
become wells of gold and the few soft, green-feathered branches of drifting trees, shine in the evening glow. We drive slowly through the narrow back lanes, swaying up and down with each pothole.
In the twilight, when I walk down the steps from the office, a rat saunters across the path below. Mattresses, chairs, boots, tiles, and pieces of wood are piled up in the river.
An old woman, bent over from a huge sack piled on her back, rummages through the litter bin. The water from the broken waterpipe has filled the hole in the street and overflowed into the road. Two boys float toy boats, tied to string, on the murky lake that the road has turned into. In the rooster street, with the thin strip of muddy, rubbish-clogged yard, where the hens and roosters peck, a scrawny tree has burst into white blossom, a sudden spillage of emotion, a rustle of light against the flaky grey grime of the buildings.
I come home with a bunch of flowers given to me at the Elbasan market opening ceremony. The flowers are vivid shades of yellow and orange.