Friday, 27 December 2013

Photographs of Albania Then - 3

Easter meant we had a long weekend and 4 of us drove south from Tirana, along the almost deserted coast road. We spent the first night in the village of Dhermis, by the Ionian Sea. The second night was spent in Saranda 'the jewel of our sea coast' as Naum Prifti wrote. From Saranda we visited the classical ruins of Butrint, before heading east to the town of Gjirokaster, now a UNESCO heritage site.

From Tirana Papers - The Road South


Later in the morning we go with Valbona and Russell to see the ruins of Butrint, which were only uncovered in the 1930s. Butrint was apparently mentioned in Virgil's Aeneid … was interrupted by World War II and though it later resumed it was really only when the Butrint Foundation was established in the 1990s that the site became a protected area and attracted international interest and funding.

The amphitheatre dates from the 3rd century BC, as does a temple of Asklepios. 

There are ruins of an early Christian baptistry 

as well as the dramatic, skeletal arches of an early Christian church. 

The stone ruins are restful, like an old, old grandfather, whose bones are soaked with memories. These stones have seen and heard and touched so much of life that they have lost that slick human art of judgement. They are much too wise for that. These ruins accept you in the way the stars do. They see you far more clearly than you can imagine. And they wrap their stony arms and their uncoloured light, around you.


Gjirokaster, clocktower & bazaar

A few meters away from the narrow road that clutches the side of the steep slope where the house is built, the land plunges into a miniature gorge, fringed with treetops. On the other side of the gorge is an old mosque. 

The plain below the city is so flat it reminds me of a chessboard, only thinly populated with pieces as if the players have abandoned it. While the city has an agile energy, the plain looks as if it has been left in some displaced enchantment that it hasn't woken from. It is too flat, too deserted, while the mountainside, heaped with buildings, gives you a ledge and a breathing space and something you can lean against, with gratitude. 

Plain below Gjirokaster, looking towards Greece

Looking down on Gjirokaster

Friday, 20 December 2013

Photographs of Albania Then - 2

It's been suggested I post more photographs of Tirana and Albania. I need very little encouragement! In a perfect world all these photographs would have been included in TIRANA PAPERS. There are a few black and white images in the book but it was not possible to include all these colour ones. I would still like to do something with them - perhaps I will make a series of bookmarks like the one shown in the Tirana Papers Acknowledgement Page post, and which I've had printed. But in the meantime, I'll post some of the images here, with accompanying extracts from the book.

From Tirana Papers – Introduction

When I arrived in early 2000 the country looked as if it was living in the debris of an explosion. Aid was starting to come into the country and the beginnings of repair and reconstruction were being made. The atmosphere was still suspicious and volatile, but at least for some, a sense of hope was beginning to filter through.

From Part 1 – With the Albatross we enter Mythological Time

Rruga Mujo Ulqinaku 1

I work on the second floor of a three-storey building which is rented by IRC (International Rescue Committee), in the Rruga Mujo Ulqinaku. The staircase is open, though covered by a roof. From the balcony on the third floor there is a view out over rooftops, with irregular, pinkish bleached roof-tiles and tiny garden areas, mainly filled with planks of wood and scrawny trees. Behind the houses, the mountains rise up suddenly. This morning there were thin rivulets of white trailing a short distance down the mountain sides. The sky is clear blue and the sun is bright, dazzling light, and warm. The balustrade around the balcony is very low, so I move away from the edge and don’t look down, but look out and up, the foreground a tangle of tiles. Smooth-sculpted, pressed and folded mountains are draped like curtains along the backdrop.

Rruga Mujo Ulqinaku 2

Rruga Mujo Ulqinaku in summer


Kruje, in the centre of Albania, is the birthplace of Scanderbeg, Albania's most famous hero.

The land is flat, on the road to Kruje. There are many semi-constructed houses, of dark red brick. The road is full of potholes. There are a few walls, mainly in front of fairly sumptuous-looking houses. Otherwise, the fields just begin at the sides of the road. Many of them are waterlogged this morning.

Pine tree, Kruje

We pass through a small town, Fush-Kruje, with pavement stalls selling fruit, vegetables, large plastic bins, hoses, car parts. Some of the stalls have makeshift plastic coverings over them. As we leave the town behind, the road begins to climb. The river in the valley below us is a garish orange-brown colour as if it had been dyed, but could perhaps have come from the mud that’s been washed into it, by the rain. The earth is a rich reddish-brown. Kruje is built on a mountainside, and a winding road leads up to it. This road has a couple of small rivers running through it this morning. Its streets are lined with trees – a variety of pine, with trailing, feathery needles, and other trees that look like willow.

View of Scanderbeg Museum, Kruje


The next school we visit is in Patos, a few kilometres outside Fier. We are already involved in work with this school, the first phase is completed and we’ve been given the go-ahead for the next phase to begin. The walls have been replastered, new toilets have been installed (but are not yet in use, because there is no running water) and new doors put in. These doors are remarkable; their smooth surfaces are beautifully planed and varnished.

Patos School

The director, Nebi Maska, says that all he has in the school are the walls. There are some desks – simple wooden ones and a few books donated by the Ministry of Education, but that is all. He is a large, imposing man who talks with intensity and a deep sense of integrity and commitment. He explains that he goes constantly to the Ministry of Education, speaks to the Director and Inspector of Education, to get help for the school.

I ask him, through Ira, who interprets, when the situation of lack of funding had begun. He said it started in 1991 when there were not enough books and by 1997 there were no books or supplies of any kind – nothing at all.

He gestures to me to come over to the window. Outside, there’s a rough area of earth and gravel, in front of the school. Just beyond that, is a rubbish dump – a small hill of bottles, tins, plastic cartons, plastic bags and rusted metal. There used to be grass there, he says, and trees. That's what I would like to see here again, not this mud and rubbish but a grassy area for the children to play in, bordered by trees.

Shkodra is a town in the north of Albania.

In Shkodra we go to see the TB clinic and the train station, two projects funded by IRC. Work at the TB clinic has not started yet, as agreement for funding has only just been given by the World Health Organisation. The clinic has a garden and trees at the front, bestowing an atmosphere of calm and rest. So restful in fact that, round the back, the crumpled, rusted shell of an ambulance lies on its side and two stray dogs are stretched out on the gravel, sunning themselves. 

Outhouses at TB clinic due for reconstruction

Melinda in the grounds of the TB clinic

 To be continued....

Monday, 9 December 2013

Tirana - Then and Now

Street Musicians 1

Street Musicians 2

There used to be an English language newspaper published 

in Tirana, a few pages not much bigger than A4 size, a 

summary of Albanian news, translated into English or – an 

English, a variant of English that was at times perplexing at 

other times, amusing. Not that it would be any different were 

I to try to express myself in a language other than my native 

tongue. I admired the editors' ability to do this without 

cringing with self-consciousness or being fearful of 

producing errors, which would no doubt be my attitude were 

I to make such an attempt. And this does seem to be a 

peculiarly British fear – of making mistakes and so 

appearing ridiculous; maybe this is why fewer Brits 

compared to Europeans have the courage to learn to speak 

and write in a foreign language, where one will inevitably 

make mistakes. Where one can see that a small child can 

manage better than oneself. But on the whole, the Blue 

Paper as it was called, as the pages were blue, contained few 

howlers, and I came to feel quite fond of the sometimes 

convoluted and strangely quaint forms of expression.

Rruga Abdyl Frasheri 1

Rruga Abdyl Frasheri 2

A memorable quote in the Blue Paper, at the time when I 

first lived there, in 2000, was by one Edi Rama, who was a 

candidate for mayor of Tirana. (He was successful, so much 

so that he continued in politics to become leader of the 

socialist party and earlier this year, 2013, became the Prime 

Minister of Albania). Edi Rama, I read in the Blue Paper, 

was an artist, had spent several years in Paris and had only 

recently, perhaps in the late '90s or even 2000, returned to 

live in Tirana. Tirana in 2000, he said, was like a 'medieval 

tavern'. And, if he was elected mayor, he would set about 

changing this. He was elected, and was popular at least with 

some, as an innovator, though of course he was criticized by 

others for making only superficial changes. Still, these 

superficial changes could not be denied, were very 

noticeable in fact, mainly his penchant for painting the 

façades of buildings in bright, some might even say gaudy, 

colours – lime green, blue, rose pink, and bright turquoise 

with irregular stripes, like a kind of loose weave check or 

tartan, which, I was told, was imposed upon the homes of 

the occupants without asking them first.

Bicycle Stall 1

Bicycle Stall 2

Other visible changes were more popular – street lighting, 

demolition of illegal buildings, creating parkland in the 

empty spaces, planting trees there and bordering the river 

and in the newly created median pedestrian walkways in 

other streets, saplings that would provide much needed 

shade in a few years; installing litter bins in parks and by 

roadsides (though they were much too small and dainty), 

repairing and levelling roads and pavements, and building 

glass fronted shops on these new pavements with their 

smooth and decorative paving stones, a much more 

acceptable situation for merchants than having to erect 

makeshift stalls and kiosks from polythene and poles, or 

simply spreading their wares on the pavements.

These were the changes that took place, once Edi Rama 

became mayor of Tirana. Within 3 years, from 2000, when 

he made his famous declaration re the medieval tavern, to 

2003, when I returned to Tirana for the first time since I 

lived there, these changes were very obvious. Some people it 

is true, did not like the new décor, but almost everyone must 

have enjoyed the new open green spaces, the shade giving 

trees, the bright fancy street lights. Its like Las Vegas! I said 

to an Albanian friend on my return in 2003. (not that I have 

ever been to Las Vegas, but it was how I imagined it would 


Tree planting below my balcony

Monday, 18 November 2013

Tirana Papers - Acknowledgements Page

The 'Rock Garden' of Albania 1

The story of the title. At first it was called 'travel journal'

then it progressed to Overlapping Times. The quotation at 

the beginning, by Paul Mojzes says that 'time in the Balkans 

is understood mythologically rather than chronologically'. 

Time was different there, no doubt of that. Near the 

beginning of the book, I wrote 'I begin to wonder if it is such 

a simple thing, future following on from past'. So when I 

came across the Paul Mojzes quote, I felt he had put his 

finger on this difference. 

And there was the albatross, a portal so it seemed – 

mythological time, or metaphorical 

time, similar to dream time, to Alice-through-the-looking- 

glass time, where you meet people or creatures who are not 

'real' of course they're not, you've only come across them in 

books or films and everyone knows such characters are not 

real – the Dormouse, the Mad Hatter, the Walrus and the 

Carpenter from Alice, Isolde, 'mein Irish Kind' and 'Marie' 

and the 'hyacinth girl' and even 'Madame Sosostris', all from 

The Waste Land. And the albatross, straight from The 

Ancient Mariner. Not real? Ah but they are, a reality

different from the familiar everyday one perhaps, but still, 

very real. And this mingling of characters from different 

realities, including the past, was what I was trying to convey. 

But I abandoned that title and went for a quotation from

Faik Bey Konitza's essay, where he called Albania The Rock 

Garden of South East Europe.  

But earlier this year, during one of the final edits, I decided 

to go for something simpler.  So it became Tirana Papers as 

my friend Rob had always called it, when referring to it. And 

I discovered that was just as well, as Konitza's quote has

been used for another forthcoming book of essays by him,

and since the title was his and has always been his, there 

could be no question of me using it too.

Llogara Pass - The 'Rock Garden' of Albania 2

I thought the book was finished at the end of June. The 

editing part anyway. I had read it and reread it, checked all 

the spaces between words and at the end of sentences. I had 

become acquainted with the difference between en dashes, 

em dashes and hyphens. Then I got to work with my 

wonderful editor and book designer. Cover – yes, I knew 

what I wanted the cover to be. She worked on the image. 

And the text. No, it was not finished, it turned out. It had to 

be proof read, not by me, not again. By someone else. Then 

again by me. Then there were these commas... Go and read it 

out loud she said, as you would a poem. Then you'll find out 

where a comma's needed, or not. And even after it had been 

proof read by someone else, minuscule – but crucial – small 

errors were found to have slipped through, so it had to be 

read through one last time. 


And these small but loud errors are something I notice now 

when I read other books which is why it is so important to 

have someone else look at the text, preferably an eye or two 

that has never read it before.

Book signing
 (Photograph by John Reiach)His website is full of lovely images.

I did not include an acknowledgements page in the book, 

because once started, I would not have known where to stop. 

How could I miss out so-and-so? The list would have

become ungainly. It might even have become something else 

entirely, a whole new chapter, or story. So I took the easy

way out. But I am indebted to Jennie of Main PointBooks 

and Textualities, for all the amazing work she put into it. To 

my friends and family who encouraged me all the way, to  

Robert Carver 

who made so many helpful suggestions, and to all the friends 

and colleagues who appear in the pages, particularly Rob 

Snashall who came up with the title, when we were in 


To Tom Bryan who encouraged me to keep a journal in the 

first place, and wrote me a letter every week in the days 

before emails had completely replaced letters. 

To P* who wrote long emails and sent me books and 

earplugs when I couldn't sleep at nights for the barking dogs. 

More recently, to Bejtullah Destani who has given me 

editing, translating and reviewing work that's been such a 

practical help while I was working on the book. 

To Sean Bradley, for including the launch in the Word Bank

programme of events in Edinburgh. 

And to all the angels, both incarnate and discarnate, who 

have given assistance, when energy and motivation flagged. 

You can read an excerpt from the book here - with apologies 

for the peculiar fonts which of course are not present in the 

book itself!

Design for a bookmark:Images of Albania

From top to bottom - 

Museum at Kruje, 

Bicycle Stall, Tirana, 

Museum at Gjirokaster, 

Donkey & Bunker, near Dhermis 

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Flamingo Bridge & Other Autumn Ways

Leaderfoot Railway Viaduct and 2 other bridges

Recently I've been visiting bookshops which I haven't been to before. After a search on the internet, I've discovered some that I hadn't even known existed. Searching out these shops, using public transport, has also given me the opportunity, armed with a map, of exploring new walks.....

These colours meeting me everywhere, like familiar characters, these vivid trees, orange and wine-red, bright yellow, green, still – avenues of them, against the blue of sky. The 3 hills, the 3 bridges, the Trimontium and Tripontium, you can see why the Romans settled here. Pict-free presumably, as this is north of Hadrian's Wall.

Built in 1865, disused in 1940s, some of the 19 arches of the Leaderfoot Viaduct

The gorgeous viaduct on its slender pink legs, the Flamingo Way I decide to call it. You're not allowed to walk along it and I study the bars and barbed wire, decide it could be done, but – today I'm carrying a backpack of books and even if my clothes aren't precious, the books are and I think – not today but – maybe one day. Barriers have that effect on me – a stubborn small and elf-like part of me disputes the barriers humans have put up -
The other day, I went onto the railway line that's being renovated. Of course you're not supposed to go on it, but it was Sunday, no one was around, and the surface has been evened out and flattened, a little gravelly, good for cycling on. It was beginning to get dark, the machines, earth-diggers, gougers and flatteners, were all asleep. When I turned off, along a track leading to the road, there were 4 gates I had to go through. 3 of them were stuck fast, so I had to lift the bike over them. I come back home tired these days, but it feels good, out in the sunshine, among the wildly coloured trees, rows of them laid out like crops of colour, delicately shaded, rows of small fires burning by the path and by the river.

In the bookshop courtyard, drinking coffee with sun hitting my face and the silent valley just beyond. 

On another walk, the wind moves the dried seed pods still attached to the whin. Lots of little rattles, so reassuring – they'd pause, then start up again.

Beyond the pink-legged bridge, the path continued by the river. A solitary row boat beside the river bank.

Then the path vanished and the wooded hill rose steeply. I pulled myself up by the low branches of saplings. Slid sometimes, on the moist earth, loose and leaf-covered. I wasn't wearing the right shoes, hadn't intended walking today. But that's the joy of maps, I have discovered. They mark trails or paths, or dismantled railways, and that caught my eye, after I left the bookshop in the courtyard in the golden valley.

Following this trail, crossing a road, coming back onto the once-railway track – I discover this stupendous viaduct, that one is not supposed to walk over. I suppose the fear is for people's safety. My grudge is that people are not allowed to make the choice, whether to take a chance or not. And I am so far from being a person who takes risks. I'm too fond of the enjoyments of mobility to do that. I may attempt some difficult things, take on some challenges, but I don't take many risks. There again, it could be the fear of people bringing damages, if they hurt themselves – but surely, a simple notice saying something like – unsound structure, enter at your own risk? Couldn't we give some risk back to people? 'Society' or 'the government' seems to be held responsible these days – even in bad weather, floods or snow-storms, MPs can be toppled, keel over like trees in a high wind, if they are seen to be 'ill-prepared'. But at least the Matterhorn, Mount Everest and other very risky places have not been circled with a ring of barbed wire, put out of bounds, because they're dangerous.

The Sun makes a tiny arc in the sky, at this latitude, this time of year. Shadows are always long, sweeping, stately, territorial. They claim whole valleys. Frost on the path this morning. Ice like thin sorbet on the water in the bird dish. And on a puddle in one of those shade-gripped valleys by the river, beyond the Flamingo Bridge. I climbed out of the valley, through the woods with the helpful trees, across a field, back onto the narrow road to Trimontium. 

Trimontium, Three Mountains, old Roman camp