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Albanian Imlosion
CHAPTER XIII

FRAGMENTS OF DAILY LIFE, 1990-1992





The transition from the centralised system of government to a liberal one in conformity with the programme of reform was accompanied with a radical change in the administration of the country. The change did not make people's life easier. The administration was inadequate, to say the least.



Snatches of conversation


Venue: Albania. Tirana. Electricity-Water-Rent Pay Point

Time: 1990 A. D.

Dramatis personae:A pretty young woman

An old woman

An old man


Can you please keep a place in the queue for me? I'll not be long. Just enough time to take the baby to the nursery and back, - said the pretty young woman and flashed a smile.
Certainly I can? And I'll keep it warm, if you wish, - said a man in his late sixties with a roguish smile.
An old woman, covered in her black woolen shawl at the foot of a flight of five concrete steps, turned her head away in disgust.

These young women of nowadays... Pugh. They have no respect for old age. Pushing herself on the poor old man just like that, without a blush. A smile she gives the old man and gets her place in the queue all right. We were different in our time, - the old woman reeled on and on as if speaking to herself.
The young woman turned a deaf ear as she thrust the Electricity-Water and Rent Boks into the open hand of the old man and started pushing the pram with the little one inside.

Be careful, don't be late, - the old man shouted as the young woman and the pram disappeared round the corner of the block. - I cannot keep your place after the door opens.
Don't worry. I'll be back before you know, - was heard the voice of the young woman.

Similar snatches of conversation were not uncommon. One could hear them all over the town. Every ordinary Albanian has been through the humiliating experience of the queuing, which seemed to be devised deliberately in order to grind the people, to waste their time, to squeeze them so that they would have no patience with each other, so that they would have no desire and use their own heads and think. At the end of the day of queuing their nerves would be frayed.

In addition to having to pay the big electricity and water bills for an erratic supply of both they had to queue patiently until the door of the collection office opened. And when it opened the patience of most would have worn thin and the younger ones in the queue would push to get ahead of the others.

We know we should pay our bills, but the electricity and water companies treat us as if we are here to get paid and not to pay. When I walk out of this door, - the old man continued, - I'll be left with near nothing for the rest of the month. What about food and the rest? How on earth can I pay!
The queue was quiet. Not because they disagreed with what the old man was saying. They knew he was right. But there was no point in talking about it. They were in the same plight.

It happened at times that the cashier would not appear until late after 10 in the morning. She had her own queuing to do, as well.

There were queues everywhere for each single item. Queues for kerosene; for a pound of meat a week if you were fortunate to be among the first in the queue because there was never enough to go for the whole lot; queues for half a pound of cheese a week; queues for milk every morning before sunrise... Queues... queues...

A spirited Latvian once told me a joke about queues in her country. All the Eastern Bloc countries were in the same plight. Queues were a curse of the system.

After spending all morning without finding anything to do and with no money in his pocket to buy something to eat, the young man leaned against a blank wall with the warm sun on his back. He felt comfortable and did not move for quite a while.

A few moments later somebody approached the place where the young man was standing still, and without a word stood next to him by the wall.

Then a third person came and a fourth one and another one after the fourth one and so on. Eeach came in silence. No one asked questions. They stood by the blank wall in a neat line.

In an hour's time, the queue was quite long.

Then, the young man at the head of the queue opened his eyes, he turned his head around and asked the man standing next to him:

What are they doing here?
Queuing, - the man second in the queue said.
Queuing for what?
I don't know, - said the man.
The young man returned to his place at the head of the queue.
(Mrs. Mara Lusis, London, 1995)

On the Way to the Milk Queue

Venue: Bedrom of a flat in Tirana
Time: Shortly before midnight

The alarm clock is ringing, darling.
I can hear the dam buzz. It makes me mad. I just managed to get myself to sleep.
Get up, darling. Before you know the queue will be too long and we'll have no milk for the baby again.
Just a moment and I'll be up... I've been going without sleep for two nights now... and at the office they tease me..., - the man grumbled as he struggle to his feet.
How many cases of milk were there yesterday...
This morning is more like it... the day is not yet over... Just twelve all in all. Ten of milk and two of yoghurt. Two milk cases disappeared in the cellar of the shop-keeper and no one had the courage to say a word to the rascal. Two milk cases were put aside for those who have children under one year of age. Two bottles went into the cabin of the driver of the milk car. Another two into the handbag of a young man who helped the shop-keeper to put the cases inside the shop... the remainder was sold the damn queue..., - and he uttered a few three-letter words which made his wife sit up in bed.
You never use such words..., - she said. She was wide awake. - And please don't raise your voice. The little one is asleep. Try and find someone who can watch your place and come back to have a couple of hours' sleep.
I'll try, - he said softly. - The problem is that even when I am lucky and get third or fourth place in the queue, if I leave the queue I find my place pushed further down the line. And when I get angry and protest they have the cheek to say that I had not noticed them in the dark. Men are becoming more quarrelsome than women. They quarrel and cheat...
I am sure they are. They can't help it. They need the bottle of milk just as badly as you do. When there is not enough for everyone they'll try cheating and then they'll quarrel like women, as you said. At least there is another point in which we have gained equality, - she teased him.
If you are keen for that kind of equality, you may have it..., - he said and then, with a shy smile on his face: - Do you know what? I've discovered a way of beating the milk queue?
He paused a moment then continued: - We get a second child started now! Our daughter is two years old and she 's past getting her bottle of milk.

Forget the second child and hurry to the queue. When you come back be careful don't wake the little one. And take the torch. The stairs are so tricky at night without a light. Only yesterday I put a new bulb and someone pinched it again.



A Moment of Work at the Registry

How much is a marriage certificate for use abroad?
The question is repeated a couple of times. The woman behind the barred door of the small shabby office keeps pouring over a birth register as her hand mechanically strokes the dog-eared pages of the old ledger.

Nowadays you should work to earn your wages, my dear, we are a country with a market economy. The way you work you'll be starved, - a young girl this side of the iron bars says humorously.
The woman at the desk carries on regardless. She has her own style. She would not change for the sake of the new ideas. The clients behind the bars can wait. By this time a loud screech of tyres was heard in the courtyard and a moment later a group of fur young men in leather jackets invaded the narrow corridor.

Without even a look at the long queue, they pushed their way towards the barred door of the Registry office.

Hi, Toni's mother. Three birth certificates and another three family certificates, - and listed the names.
The woman at the desk was startled by the sudden noise. She raised her head with the glasses at the tip of her small nose. She recognised the young boorish boys of her neighbourhood and without making them wait she dropped the pen and went up to one of the shelves from which she pulled out an old brown ledger.

In no time the young men had their birth and family certificates in their pockets and made towards the exit.

Wait! - the woman behind the bars shouted. - You must pay...
We gave the money to your son, Toni, at the bar - they shouted back.
What! Who's Toni? - the woman was enraged. - I have no Toni son, - she turned to the queue.



Moment of Work at the Office for the ex-Political Prisoners


Young man, can you tell me how much is the cost of a legalising a statement from the office of the ex-Political Prisoners? - asked a middle-aged man, wearing a hat.
Ten leks, dear, -said the young man who looked bored.
Old or new leks?
New, my dear.
Can you do one for me?
Do you have the statement?
Here it is.
The young man reached for the piece of paper without having to leave his desk. He picked up a form from the drawer of his desk and typed the name of the applicant. He stamped it and handed it together with the statement to the man with the hat. With the other hand he took the money and put it in the same drawer.

"That was easy!" said the man to himself. He put the two sheets of paper into the inside coat pocket and went downstairs whistling a cheerful tune. "Five hundred leks for five minutes' work. That's a fine job for you, old chap! The young man who asked me to do it for him must be loaded. And he must have a problem, too. It's not my business though. Nowadays everyone is rushing to grab what one can. I don't care if this does not look very clean..." the man continued talking to himself as if trying to excuse his greed. One a shadow of the smile at the thought of the easy 500 leks in his wallet was lingering at the corners of his mouth.

"Life is getting so very complicated nowadays, dear Malo," he resumed his apology. There are those who slave all day long in the fields and never manage to earn enough to keep their large families going, and there are those who are up for big money and nice big cars and impressive villas... I can hardly make head or tail of it..."

The man stood a moment at the pavement facing "Flora" Café, waited for the flow of cars to stop at the red lights and crossed the street.

At a table by the large window he saw a group of young men sipping their drinks. He tapped lightly on the window glass and the young man he knew pushed his chair back and hurried to met him half way at the small square in front of the Café.

Did you get it?
I've got it here, - the man said and raised his hand to the inside coat pocket.
Did anyone see you while you showed the papers?
I don't think so.
Did anyone notice anything?
"This one is wet behind the ears," the man said to himself. "And he's loaded too."
I don't think anyone did. Except for the young man in the office. He read it and then wrote something.
What was it?
Just the words in the form here.
The young man was not quite relieved. He tugged at his tie with a quick nervous pull and put the confirmation of his clean record into his pocket after a quick glance.

He was about to rejoin his friends inside of the Café, but changed his mind and turned round to the man who was rubbing his unshaven chin.

Thank's a lot. You've been wonderful. But remember... Everything must remain between you and me! - he tried to make his voice deep.
Between you and me, no doubt. But then you know... Walls have ears. And the young chap in the office he has eyes and he had a pen and paper, too.
The young man put his hand into his pocket nervously.
The face of the man was creased with a greedy smile.
A piece of smooth paper changed hands.
Take this and hold your tongue.
May God give you more, my boy. And when you have a job like this once, I can...
By this time the friends of the young man were at the exit of the Café and were jesturing impatiently in the direction of the two in the small square.

The man saw the chance of making another quick dig into the wallet of the young man. "This dandy is a gold mine," his brain was working perfectly.

Dig up another one and my mouth will be zipped for good.
There was no time to hesitate.
Take it and get out of my sight! You never saw me, remember, - the young man scowled.
Don't you worry. I never saw you and you never saw me. You know my place, When you need me just call...
The young man had left and did not hear the rest.
The man rubbed the bills in his pocket. It was good paper to the touch. Different. He pulled out a corner of the bill and noticed that it was green. He had seen it before in the hands of a merchant.

"Two green fivers and five hundred leks. This is enough to keep you going for a whole month, old man."

Back to his group, the young Tarifa was boasting to his friend about his latest achievement.

With this confirmation in my pocket I can open any doors I like. My old man is working with the American Embassy to get me a visa. That's a job done neatly.