Thursday, July 19, 2012

Life in the 'Burbs of Tirana

On the heels of my wedding post from earlier this week, I've been thinking about another aspect of Albanian life- multi-generational living.  (We are the only true single family house in our neighborhood.  Prior to being leased by the Embassy, several families resided on the upper floors of our house and a family run store operated out of the first level.  This arrangement is typical of Albania; ours is not).  Whether out of tradition or for financial reasons, multiple generations of a single family often reside under one roof.  In high rises you are likely to find extended family living on different floors of the same building.  For those families fortunate enough to own an entire house, different branches of the family may reside in separate apartments in a communal type of setting.  This is the scenario that seems to play out in our neighborhood.

A classic Albanian multifamily home
Take the house directly across the street from us as an example.  From what I can gather, there are at least three generations living in this house.  The extended family lives on either side of this house with all family members traipsing back and forth from the main compound at all hours of the day and night.  (There is also a separate out building adjacent to the house that has been looking lived in as of late). The house itself, like so many in Albania is a sturdy structure made entirely of concrete and brick.  Constructed without the guidance of permits or building codes, walls have gone up and bricks have been laid as time and money have allowed.  The first floor appears to have two finished apartments with an additional apartment on the second floor. The third and fourth floors are unfinished shells that currently serve as open air storage, recreational space, and the laundry area. (Perhaps these spaces will be finished when some "lucky" daughter-in-law joins the clan).  Like just about every house in the neighborhood save ours, this house has neither air conditioning nor a generator.  This means that on most days, they are without power for several hours.  Year around it is not an uncommon sight to look across the street and see the house enveloped in complete darkness.

Last fall in a flurry of activity, concrete stairs were poured between the second and third floors. During a long Albanian weekend the men rose early each morning and went to work.  While two of them used an archaic pulley system to hoist buckets of wet concrete from the yard up to the third floor, the remaining five men supervised and shouted instructions in between gulps of raki and puffs of cigarettes. This activity went on for three days and in a fit of naivety, Glenn and I thought that the house was finally going to be finished.  Alas, we were wrong since come Monday morning work came to a sudden halt.

So who lives in this house?  The grand matriarch is an elderly woman who simultaneously minds the children running through the street; hangs the hand washed laundry out to dry from lines strung on the unfinished third floor; and sprays down the street every night all while knitting brightly colored scarves.  (I have yet to really see her without her knitting needles).  At other times she is the one who carries the trash the quarter of a mile to the neighborhood dumpsters, shakes out the dusty carpets from the balcony each evening, and manually pulls open the front gate whenever a relative drives up and honks their car horn.  On several occasions I've seen her pruning the grape vines, spraying plants with what I imagine is a completely toxic pesticide, or repairing the stone pavers that cover the yard.   The grandmother is definitely the hardest working member of this family. (On New Years Eve she was also the one who climbed up to the fourth floor to shoot off fireworks).

Two brothers also reside in the house with their respective wives and children.  Both brothers are short, portly men who appear to have jobs outside of the home.  One I only see on occasion; the other drives one of those mobile billboard trucks that he somehow manages to squeeze through the gate each night.  Upon his return home each evening he proceeds to strip out of his work clothes and don only a questionably small pair of shorts to parade around his yard.  (On many summer evenings his appearance causes Sidney to start shrieking "naked! naked!").  The two wives are thin, attractive women who get dressed up to walk to the bus stop each morning. They are friendly to us but always have that tired and run down appearance that is so common on the faces of  many Albanian women my age.

Between all of the children scooting in and out of the yard, I've lost track of who actually lives in the house and who is visiting from next door.  The kids range in age from toddler to early teen.  During the summer months they run around more scantily clothed then their father.  I've reached the point where I can't look when the toddler races up and down the twisting concrete staircase that does not have a railing.  Lacking a real yard, the older kids play football (soccer) in the street where more often than not, the ball lands in our yard.  This results in the younger kids being made to lean incessantly on our door bell until one of us comes out to retrieve the offending object.  On particularly hot evenings, the older kids pick fights with the younger kids.  This goes on until the grandmother appears and intervenes.

This house, like so many in Tirana, is pure chaos.  I can't even begin to imagine coming home to this scene or these conditions at the end of every day.  There is a complete lack of privacy and regardless of the weather or the time of day, someone is always coming or going.  But, all of this is truly Albanian. It makes our solid, single family structure look boring and oh, so solidly middle class American.

A final note...............One of the peculiarities I've noticed in this country is the plethora of what appear to be small, family run hotels with names like White Dream and Sweet Sleep or the always popular Amerika.  (For those of you who knew us when we lived down the street from the infamous pink hotel in Norfolk, you know exactly what I mean).  Since there is a dearth of international, big name hotels in Albania, it is always hard for me to distinguish which of these hotels are legitimate and I would be comfortable staying in and which are fronts for other activities.  We were actually invited to a dinner at one such place and although parts of the place were uniquely Albanian (and not in a good way)-- the rest rooms with only partial doors were in the middle of the parking garage-- the remainder of the place was surprisingly clean and well finished.  A friend at the dinner informed me that these hotels typically rent rooms by the hour to young men and women who live at home with their families and need a private place to escape to.  Not feeling the need to test his theory, I'm apt to think that this does make sense.....................after all, can you imagine bringing home a girlfriend or boyfriend to the chaotic scene I described above?

No comments:

Post a Comment