There was no telling how they knew when to start, but every evening the Tiranans took to the streets. Across the city, apartment blocks emptied and their inhabitants congregated on either side of the river Lana, spreading out through the district known as Blloku or into Rinas Park. This was the xhiro, the Albanian equivalent of the Italian passeggiata, an excitable promenade that went on until nightfall.
Blloku was at the heart of it. Formerly reserved for the exclusive use of Party officials, ‘The Block’ was now a frenetic free market. Subterranean shops at the foot of precipitous steps sold everything from newspapers to airline tickets while, at street level, every low wall was turned into a stall, laid out with rows of CDs, remote controls and secondhand books. In amongst government buildings, embassies and international agencies, cafes and bars were loud with chatter and bleating mobile phones. Families sat amongst gaggles of students and sinister men in leather coats. Dressed up to the nines, raven-haired young women teetered along the disastrous pavements on high heels or stopped to talk with boys leaning casually out of car windows. Oblivious to the throng, two balding men were sitting on folding stools at the edge of the pavement, quietly playing a game of dominos on an upturned cardboard box.
We joined the xhiro too. It was one of the reasons we were still in Albania. If Durrës had made us want to catch the earliest available plane, booking into the International, sitting on its terrace overlooking the ceaseless to-and-fro of Skanderbeg Square and then walking into the xhiro’s ad hoc street party had put that out of mind. ‘I’ve never felt so safe,’ said Kate as we tumbled out of Blloku on the first evening, only a few hours after staring into the muzzle of a Kalashnikov, and now, several days later, Anna and Jim were dragging us down streets whose names we could barely pronounce because they wanted to find a pizza place they’d noticed the night before and because there was a woman selling plastic Skanderbeg swords on one of the footpaths criss-crossing Rinas Park.
We meandered between picnics. At this time of day, Rinas was where families sprawled under trees and those who could afford it took tables around an illuminated fountain that sprayed feathery shafts of water into the air. Parents chased children across the grass until they tripped on roots and fell into a heap; grandparents gnawed charred sweetcorn cobs or bought kitsch pieces of jewellery for girls in pink dresses. The whole park smelt of grilled butter and, over our heads, a flock of starlings swooped and flexed like the illustration of a chaos theory equation, their shrill, persistent shrieks bouncing off the government ministries behind. Only Skanderbeg Square was quiet. As we walked back towards the hotel, a lone dog shambled between what little traffic there was, pausing to look at the policemen in their miniature bunkers and then sniffing around the statue of the great national hero. Over by the vast empty plinth where Hoxha’s statue had once stood, someone was packing potted lemon trees into the back of a Transit van.
From Becoming Europeans