Friday, June 6, 2008

The Grand Park

I got taken to the park, the "Grand Park" when we first arrived. It's huge, where people used to come on holiday during communism. Now it's full of people strolling around, having coffees, playing dominoes, full of football fanatic youths running in groups, and men from the military compound in the middle of the park doing a training run. It always has people in it, but still maintains a peaceful, unhurried, tranquil atmosphere.

Children in Albania only go to school in the morning or the afternoon, not both, so there are always children. Otherwise it's mostly older folk, mostly in single sex groups and mums, or grandparents with toddlers. You see lots of grandfathers actually, with a young child in tow. The extended family unit is very strong here.

Albanians kiss their children a lot. My daughter is always getting accosted in shops by assistants kissing her, much to her indignation. You often see these grandfathers in the park cupping the child's face in their hands and kissing them. It's a curiously feminine gesture I think, but very tender and touching. Conversely the women seem to do more of the cheek pinching and smothering with kisses. It is also a potent reminder that I am not in repressed old England (with the possible exception of my Father-In-Law of course who is very 'Albanian' in this way)
...I digress.

My 1st surprise in the park, was the concrete barriers across the wide tarmaced paths. After enquiring, I discovered these are to stop people driving their cars through the park, as it is a short cut across the bottom of town. Of course it is prohibited to do so, but that is insufficient a deterrent. This was my 1st introduction to the 'anarchy' which to me, a law abiding Brit, colours the driving habits of Albanians. It really is Wild West meets Boy Racers. Not a pleasant combo, particularly if you are caught between the two on a bike. But don't get me started, that's a blog for another day.

The second thing I noticed was that not only were there these concrete barricades, but on either side of the path where the trees were thinner, there were huge ditches dug out. These evidently are to stop the determined Tiranans driving through the trees, 'off road' as it were, to get around the barriers and into the park. It's not just a short cut; I am told that these cars are often occupied by couples looking for a quiet canoodling spot, particularly in a country where 3 generations live together in one apartment. However to my (female) mind, a male suitor dodging barricades in his car (& it is always the men driving)and using trees as slalom posts simply in order to find a quiet, leafy corner, smacks of desperation that is hardly seductive. Perhaps I'm just old fashioned. Then again perhaps I'm just old.

Anyway, the park. I like it. I bike through it 4 times a day to take my daughter to nursery and back. It is leafy, shady, expansive, and full oflots of little off road tracks. Having been in Asia for 2 yrs, it is very different in a very European way(Balkans and Mediterranean combined). There are old men wearing black hats orberets, carrying worry beads, other groups of old men playing dominoes, the women, in the summer carry Japanese style parasols, the older ones are usually dressed in black, and they all pick flowers. Young and old, thewomen all collect the wild flowers; break off stems of blossom, to take home. I know in Britain we can't pick wild flowers and we are conditioned not to do it, but there is something touchingly innocent and refreshing about seeing adults gathering armfuls of such mundane flowers as buttercups and cow parsley, but also appreciating the beauty of all the fabulous wildflowers here, enough to want to take them home and put them in a vase.

You can tell this city is full of apartment-living; people appreciate thepark, it is fully used.. It reminds me of when I lived in Paris and I toomade full use of the sunbathing, book reading facilities laid on by apublic park, when confined to life in a flat.

It is Albanian custom to take a walk; a stroll in the evening is called the xhiver. But if not just walking, there are only two activities laid on inthe park, one is rifle shooting, the other is weighing yourself. The rifle shooting is astonishingly popular amongst the Tirana youth. I amamazed, that this wouldn't seem a bit tame, in a country which until a few years ago was overtly flooded with weapons, and certainly 10 yrs ago it could be dangerous to walk down the street, in town, in daylight. As far as I have heard there are still plenty of weapons knocking around, it's just the gun battles aren't out there on the streets anymore. Well not in the centre, you do hear gunshots occasionally though, in some parts of town, at night.

Anyway the men of Tirana obviously like to keep their eye in I guess with its history you never know when you might have to take upweapons again. I also, rather belatedly, discovered that these 'rifle ranges' are not always set up with concerns for public safety paramount. I was sitting quietly on a park bench on one occasion, when the 'shooting' started. Rather close at hand. I looked over to see that this man had set up his target parallel to, and ½ metre from, the public footpath, and if the customer concerned was even a slightly bad shot, I was 'for it', as they say. Still, I moan about Nanny Britain, and Albania at least is certainly not that.

The other activity, is usually an old-ish man sitting on a park bench witha pair of bathroom scales in front of him. They are not just in the park;these solitary gentlemen are all over town. For some reason, I've never seen a woman doing it. I can see it's a way to make money, but is it? I mean, why? Are there that many people out there who want to weigh themselves regularly??Anyway for now I'm sticking to biking and walking in the park.

Actually my bike provides another activity for people; 'gawping' and occasional closer inspection. You see being a Westerner, with all the concomitant trappings, I have my daughter on the back on a child bike seat. In a country where, like Sri Lanka, people ride side saddle on the cross bar, and certainly you can't buy child seats here, it is clearly a cause for much curiosity and comment as we sail past. One German called out hello and 'where are you from?' when she saw me, knowing I wasn't 'local', saying she thought she was the only one in the city with a child seat.

On one occasion I got flagged down by an old boy asking me to stop. He then walked round my bike, examined how the seat was fixed on, tested its sturdiness, and then smiled politely, said thank you and off he went. It certainly turns heads. Unfortunately it will probably turn my daughter's head too. My diva-in-waiting has probably by now convinced herself that she is indeed a celebrity (-princess no doubt) and people are marvelling at her in her slave drawn carriage. She has been known to yell 'faster, faster mummy', or 'Ride like the wind, cowboy' (Toystory 2) or similar imperious commands. It's all down hill from here, I fear. So to speak.

On other occasions, she completely ignores her audience and simply sits back reading one of her Dora comics, whilst I slog away up the hill. I didn't mention it's a very hilly park did I? Well, it is, and the extra 30kgs on the back, of seat plus princess, makes me empathise greatly with the rickshaw drivers back in Asia.

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