Monday, November 5, 2012

This Albanian Life: My Neighborhood on a Week Night

Tirana, from our living room window

This is biased, but my favorite place in Tirana is my neighborhood. I live near a hectic round about called Zogu i Zi, and I cross it twice a day as I trek to and from work. I can't say this is something I enjoy, and I'm always glad when I cross it at the end of the day and head towards the little alley that meets up with the sidewalk.

The Zogu- my arch nemesis

Once I turn off the main street and step into the zig zaggity network of alleys and cut throughs and skinny streets that spider themselves into the shape of my neighborhood, I feel at home. The traffic noise fades out as I move further into tightly knit buildings, and the cars move through this area with more caution out of necessity, weaving through produce stands and pedestrians, and dodging potholes ready to eat their bumpers.

I pass the cafe where the taxi cabs park lopsided on the sidewalk, their right wheels hitched up over the curb, the left leaning into the street. Despite the fact that I pass this way every workday, twice a day, the sleepy eyed men still say "Taxi" to me every time I walk by. It's not an eager proclamation, or a question as to my need for a ride, but rather a statement of fact as to the existence of their car and its purpose. "Taxi" said in that way sounds like "I have a car, and it's a taxi, in case you were wondering. And if you were wondering, and if you need a ride, you can talk to me about it. If not, it's fine, I'll just continue to nap in my car/drink coffee/smoke this cigarette." I appreciate the laid back sales approach, even if the obliviousness to my permanent presence in the neighborhood is wrapped around it.

I continue on my way until the road curves to the right, and opens up into a larger space where several little roads feed awkwardly into a misshapen paved area that lends itself to organic parking lots that change shape each day. The power lines multiply above my head, stretching like a loom and tunneling together into snarls and knots at the top of randomly placed poles. The effect is something akin to a twisted, industrial May pole. Sometimes the lines dip down and sag to graze near the top of my head, in other places they have been gathered together and pinned aside with homemade restraints. There is a hot pink beauty shop in the first floor of the building to my left, with a dusty mama dog curled up on the marble steps. She sleeps through the sound of the women inside, talking loudly over bad pop music, while the little girls play with dolls on the floor. The beauty shop seems less like a place of business and more like the scene of a teenage girls' bathroom before prom- patrons and workers are hard to tell apart, as everyone crowds around the mirrors. Some of the women blow dry their own wet hair as they wait for the stylist to finish with another woman. The mama dog sits up to investigate the old woman squatting on the street, fanning the flames of a tiny grill. Once the flames are smoldering she'll put corn on the smoky grate, or nuts, and next to her is a box of sunflower seeds, shiny black petals you can buy by the paper cone. A secondhand shoe store squats in the background,  almost comically stuffed with worn boots and dress shoes, floppy sneakers and scuffed heels. I have never seen anyone really working or buying here, but it seems to be a popular place to stand in front of and chat.

If I went left I would find a grocery store and the secondhand shop run by the gentleman we call Dusty Dude. His shop is open to the street and thus to the Tirana grit, so anything purchased from his store is sure to be covered in a fine layer of dust. This is nothing a quick rinse can't solve, and he's friendly and has reasonable prices, so we frequent his shop for household needs regardless. From his shop, Tiara has scored 8 packs of cards for math games for 400 leke- a steal to be sure. Since I don't need anything I follow the road as it arches slowly to the right, sliding in between double parked cars and stepping onto a half finished (or half demolished, who can say) stone sidewalk grown furry with patches of returning grass. A creaky, tin-roofed lean to shades a gathering of old men in hats, huddled around warped wooden tables. They sit on over turned buckets or long benches, engrossed in a game of dominoes which I have never seen start or end- it is always just in progress. The buildings huddled wagon circle style around this area are old, their exteriors studded with sketchy looking balconies rimmed with pots full of plants. Laundry blows in the breeze above the plants, and ever more power lines criss cross through it all.

The road straightens out and I walk past the densely packed bakeries, the fish shops, and the produce stands. At the small street next to the woman we call Watermelon (because she gave us a sweet deal on a watermelon) the real sidewalk begins, and I am now on my block. Trees pop up to my left, boxed in by concrete borders that serve no real purpose other than to trip you, and thrift stores, pharmacies, tailors, and the ever ubiquitous bar cafes crop up on my right. My neighborhood has stores on the bottom floor capped off with multi story apartment buildings on top, a popular style in new development and one I favor because it makes life so much easier. On my errand days I walk the row of streets, stopping at the grocery store, the bakery, the produce stands, and finally at the store run by the kind man we call Downstairs Dude*. His shop steps are right next to the steps of my building, and they are heaped with a small selection of produce. I get bananas from him, as well as large jugs of water. Bobby and Scott get their beer from him, and we all get ice cream from his freezer for late night snacks. On the weekends his son can be found working with him. He's been there for me from the beginning, when he had to give me my total by typing the numbers into his calculator, and now I like to think he's kind of proud of me when he tells me my total and I understand and give him correct change. I pay the water and electric bill to him as well, which is a much appreciated convenience. The internet cafe is one door down from my building, and the man who runs it never fails to smile, wave, and greet me, or Scott, or Bobby with an exuberant "Hello, my friends!" if he happens to be on the sidewalk.

Laden with jugs of water and a sack of whatever we might need, I climb the stairs to our apartment. If I'm lucky, the lights will be on in the stairway. If I'm not, they'll be burned out. If I'm really unlucky they'll be burned out and the cleaning women will have just mopped the steps, making them a marble death trap. The apartment right below us usually has the same inexplicable things waiting on its doorstep- a water bottle filled with yogurt drink next to well worn houseshoes. The fire extinguisher box is broken and empty, so someone uses it as a plastic bag holder for trips to the store. I end up at my door, which is right next to my co-worker, Scott's, door, and drop off anything I've been forgetting to give him. Sometimes we'll just leave both of our doors open, the boys will have a beer, and we'll share some food. Other times Scott comes over and we jam out to Garth Brooks' greatest hits while "lesson planning." If Scott has a couch surfer, he or she will join us and we'll listen to their travels and plans. Sometimes we'll all share the couch surfer's "Thank you for letting me stay in your house food", which has up to this point always been delicious. I'm still campaigning for an Iron Chef Couchsurfer competition. So far, the tiramisu has won my heart, although the onion pie is a close second.

Scott, sharing his kitchen and the delicious thank you food made by his couch surfer

If the windows are open and there is a soccer game we can hear explosions of cheers from the gamblers down the street watching on a projection screen, and if there has been a wedding, fireworks will pop in the distance. This is usually when I try to take a shower and realize I've forgotten to turn on the hot water heater, so I switch it on, at which point I'm sure to step in the perpetual puddle of water that creeps out from underneath the washing machine. The kids galloping over our heads remind me that it's a school night, but I have almost gotten to where I forgive them their insanely loud play that rattles my ceilings. Almost.

*Yes, these nicknames are ridiculous.

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