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New Europe

Day Twenty-three: Durrës

The Durrės-Tirana train 
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The Durrės-Tirana train. Ardi Pilaj brings me up to speed on Albania.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThen I met Ardi Pilaj. With his constantly demanding mobile, white trainers with red laces, black velvet jacket, ear studs, and Germany 2006 rubber wristband, he's no different from any young man on the streets of the West, and his attitudes are fresh and well informed, as befits a journalist working for, among others, the BBC.

He's accompanying us on the train to Tirana, and as we've time to spare we go for a coffee near the station. An apologetic waiter is about to serve us when the electrical supply cuts out. He suggests somewhere across the square but just as we get there their supply goes off as well. Ardi says the problem is not the availability of electricity, it's down to a distribution system that hasn't changed since Hoxha's time. Albania has not, like some, made a smooth transition from the days of communism. In 1996 their economy was shattered by the simultaneous collapse of a number of pyramid-selling schemes followed by near-anarchy in the streets.

A small group of children follows us from the café to the station, rubbing their stomachs and putting hands up to their mouths. They can't be more than ten or eleven, but they have the creased, prematurely aged faces of fifty-year-olds. Inside the station itself, a bare, functional slab of a place, people move slowly, dully.

A world at half-speed.

The sparrows, darting and wheeling above our heads, are the only creatures with any energy.

A Czech-built diesel locomotive brings in the train from Tirana and we climb aboard. Though most of the windows are cracked or shattered - children with stones, says Ardi - a team of lady sweepers moves methodically through, brushing up every speck of dust.

Tirana is no more than 25 miles from Durrės and the journey takes a little over an hour. The flat plain rises to low hills crowned with billboards on which the names of Albania's new friends are writ large. 'Vodafone', 'Heineken', 'DHL'.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Twenty-three: Durrës
  • Country/sea: Albania
  • Place: Durrės
  • Book page no: 58

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