The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
The runway at Tirana airport, outside Albania’s modest capital, is made of interlocking concrete slabs that look like crazy paving. It feels like it as the aircraft lands. Swissair refuses to send its big jets, so we arrive in a small Crossair designed for service in the Alpine valleys.
Even our small batch of passengers is a challenge for the tiny airport, as two policemen struggle to check us in. Not that Albania is interested in keeping people out or in. From being a hermit nation for 40 years it now has the most porous frontiers in the world; the wretched of the Earth, Kurds, Afghans, Chechens, Somalis and others flock here, not because it is a promised land but because it has an expertise in the clandestine export of people. It developed this skill exporting its own nationals and now its entrepreneurs provide a service to all comers. Currently the going rate is $800 for three attempts to cross to Italy by rubber boat.
The main task of the airport police is to collect the entry tax of $5 per person. Ominously, the exit tax is $15.
We pay and step into the glare of the car park. The waiting crowd surges forward in a burst of excitement. Some are families meeting returning migrant workers; others are chauffeurs picking up foreign technical experts and American missionaries; others are taxi drivers looking for fares like myself. There is no public transport.
This is not my first visit. I live here in a villa with our technical assistance team. I know I can wander the town and the mountains in greater safety then in most western countries, yet the legend of Wild Albania is hard to unlearn. Which taxi is safe?
A thin dark man coaxes me into his cab and we roll across the car park.
‘Skandenborg Square’, I tell him.
‘May I take my child to school in Tirana first’, he asks, in halting Italian. Most Albanians know some Italian, not from the wartime occupation but through watching game shows on Italian TV.
Before I can agree a boy about 10 years old runs alongside the car, pulls open the door and jumps in. He gabbles a stream of gibberish and I realise that he is a deaf mute. Mute is perhaps the wrong word, for he is vocal but seems unaware of the sounds he makes.
We bump down the road to Albania’s five miles of motorway and then turn away from Tirana. On either side a patchwork of miniscule farms flashes past. They look mediaeval but date from the land reform of 1993. The fields seem to be dotted with giant mushrooms: some of the million concrete pillboxes which the old regime built to defend Albania against parachutists.
We turn abruptly into a side road and begin to climb into the mountains, through steep-sided vineyards. Am I being taken to be robbed and shot? I make an inventory of my possessions: foreign currency, duty free whisky for the team, After Eights and Quality Street for the girls in the office.
The road has become a dirt track before the driver halts beside a tiny farmhouse.
‘Will you wait or have coffee with us?’
I opt for coffee. There are chairs on the verandah and he sits me down and calls his wife. She comes with their daughter, also a deaf mute, about six years older than her brother. The girl is beautiful, graceful and silent. She has learned not to make involuntary noises.
Coffee needs raki, the fierce white spirit which every household makes and considers its own to be the finest in the land. I declare it the best raki I have tasted and am given a bottle. I admire the grapes hanging from the trellis above. I forget that a guest is given anything he admires. To give one’s own possessions is considered greater than buying a gift.
Soon I have two plastic bags packed with raki, grapes, pomegranates and other fruit. I give the children my After Eights from Heathrow; alas the Quality Street and the Whiskey are already promised.
The shadows lengthen and it is time to go. We drive to Tirana, leave both children at the school for the deaf, then go on to the villa. I tug the big bell and my colleagues open the gates.
‘We expected you earlier. Which plane were you on?’
‘I took the scenic route and picked up some things on the way.’
The background and publishing history of this piece are at my post busywords.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/wildalbania