Thursday, December 13, 2012

Winter in Tirana, or, I'll Wash Clothes Come Summer

A rainy, cold street in Gjirokaster

It took four days for my clothes to kind-of-but-not-really dry. Each day I would inspect them, grasping and pinching and smoothing the fabric between my hands, checking for dampness. It was always there. The windows in my bedroom were dew dropped and steam covered, casting doubt on the ability of my clothes to ever dry at all. I finally gave up and stripped the drying rack of all my clothes. I put them away, still oddly and irregularly wet around random edges and bits in between.

Most days are wet, the remains from all night long storms with thunder so loud it shakes the building and rattles the windows. The summer was dry and hot, with bare blue skies and almost no clouds; so striking was the lack of them that I remember commenting on the first big batch I saw in the sky. Now that winter’s here it’s not particularly cold, but the dampness permeates everything. I find myself sweating, even when I’m not hot. I wear my snow stomping boots to work and can barely handle the warmth, but it’s better than being wet, so I keep doing it. I still pass the same taxi drivers, but they’ve finally stopped calling out to me. This is not because they are implicitly accepting me into the neighborhood by excusing me from their sales catcalls. This is because they are often huddled in their cars now, the cold keeping them from shouting to me. The familiar stray dogs of the neighborhood are looking leaner, and weather beaten in a way that makes me tense up with empathy. They run with their feet in a tight gait, tails tucked, like old men pulling their jackets a little tighter against the wind. The dogs and I cross streets with potholes overflowing with water and grassless patches of mud turning to slurry, while the shop keepers still diligently heave hot soapy water across the stones. When I get to my nemesis- the Zogu i Zi roundabout- the traffic cop is plastic wrapped and resentful in the rain, waving his lollipop traffic stick and blowing white puffy breaths out of his whistle. He trots stiffly across the crosswalk to wave the stick in the windshield of the inevitable creeper, nosing out into the traffic circle. The men yelling at me to get in their van and go to Durres are still as enthusiastic as ever, but the bank guard holding the AK47 has now retreated to the glass walled lobby. He watches through the foggy pane, casually resting his hand on the gun. Just in case.

Once I get to work I find the playground partially underwater, all the old fashioned metal equipment jutting out of brackish puddles like so many colorful reeds. The rain has washed away the dirt and uncovered a haphazard mosaic of glass pieces that have been waiting patiently to blossom into winter treasure. The children bring it to Mr. Scott and he keeps it somewhere- maybe he throws it away, but I like to think it lives in a pile of sparkle and dirt, heaped carefully behind the science experiment beans he’s trying to keep alive through the winter. I think it would make a great found art project.

When the bell rings for the start of school my students dutifully line up and trudge into the building behind me. I’m followed up the stairs by my row of waddling ducks, overstuffed in thick parkas and snow boots, wrapped in scarves and topped with hats, faces tight and lips wreathed in chapped skin, noses and eyes running. They move slowly under so much padding, but we make it with a bit of cheerleading on my part. Of course, our building isn’t much of a haven from the cold. The heating system consists of big squiggly ceramic wall heaters lazily breathing their heat into resistant, marble hallways and unconquerable, high ceilinged lobbies. When I walk through the hall I pass through pockets of wildly disparate temperatures, and it’s always a surprise if I find my room uncomfortably hot, mildly warm, or damp and chilled. My students drift towards our classroom heater, and as a result the puzzle tables bookending it have gotten exponentially more popular. The book reading rug often produces instinctive snuggling, with students leaning affectionately into one another sharing warmth while they share a book. Yes, it’s adorable. Just remember they’re also sharing lots of coughs and snot in their little puppy dog jumble on the rug.

At the end of the day the sun sets while I walk home, and the mountains, already covered in snow, light up pink and gold and orange- an unnaturally beautiful alpenglow that looks created by someone with a heavy photoshop hand. By 4:30, it’s dusky and heading towards dark; at this point all I want is a hot shower and an early bedtime.  I usually get the former, but the latter seems elusive these days, even when I find myself in pajama pants by 6:00 p.m.  To our apartment Malwine has brought magical things like electric heaters, kettles, and supreme cookie making ability. The house has cozy zones around the kitchen and the heater, and there are warm things to eat or drink. We have been known to crouch appreciatively against the oven door like cats, mocking ourselves by actually meowing and pawing at the glass, while we wait for cookies to bake. Once the cookies come out, we may have been more excited about leaving the door open and catching the leftover heat with our hands than we were about eating the cookies.

I keep going back to reiterating that it’s not that it’s so terribly cold, it’s just that it’s often uncomfortable on a variety of levels. It’s just enough cold to be not warm, and it’s also wet, and oh by the way the puddle your shower made has not dried in 24 hours, so when you stumble sleep drunk to the bathroom in the middle of the night you step in cold water and soak your warmest, fuzziest socks.

And we’ve already talked about how long it takes clothes to dry.


  1. the shower puddle is the worst! I change my socks 3-4 times a day. I have to start wearing shoes inside I think, but now that it is rainy they are muddy and dirty :( What to do?!?!

  2. I think we must break down and buy those plastic shower shoes. Dusty Dude has some!