People often ask me what I do everyday, how I spend my time here in Tirana. Many times I am making observations and taking fieldnotes, but those unfamiliar with cultural anthropology or ethnography may not know exactly what that looks like. This type of practice is extremely important for producing ethnographic literature, essentially for answering whatever theoretical questions about social and cultural formations. So for this post today I am providing some excerpts from my fieldnotes about a community I work with here. Note, I use single letter abbreviations for names rather than the actual names of interlocutors.
I told O and D that I would visit their neighborhood at some point in the afternoon. When I left my house for the bus station the clouds were graying and I only hoped that the sky would not burst with the spastic Tirana rain for which this city is known. I hopped the bus near the intersection of the Lana River and Elbasan Road. I had seen a white bus go by earlier with “Uzina e Traktoreve” written on it but I actually forgot to check and see if this was written on the bus that I had just grabbed. I was too busy trying to get a seat in the back, which proved to be a bad idea because this area was even more crowded than the middle. Usually the back is a good place to sneak a seat, but instead I was squished in between three or four folks, staring in disbelief as somehow at least seven or eight people got on after me. One man even slid bags of fruit and vegetables under seats as he somehow snaked in between stubborn passengers. We headed towards the area known as Ali Demi which comforted my thoughts, as I knew this was the right way; but just be sure, I asked the man near me if in fact this was the Uzina bus and he shook his head no, meaning yes. That tricky head nodding has gotten the best of many foreigners here, who often get confused as to what folks are saying. I tried to relax a bit knowing that I was on the correct bus, but I struggled to do so because my head was uncomfortably bent low so as to not hit the top of the bus. I soon became worried that due to the number of people aboard I would not be able to see clearly out of the window to know which stop was mine. Thankfully, a few folks soon began to disembark and I was able to snag a seat near the window.
When we got to my stop I fought my way off the bus and walked along the side of the road where a sidewalk maybe once was but no longer existed. I trekked over the gravel in the schoolyard and made my way to the dirt path nestled in between patches of grass. I followed the path until it led to a concrete road near the houses with vines peaking through the cracks. I remembered this as the turnoff point for the neighborhood. As I passed the back of the schoolyard I heard kids playing, football perhaps. I saw a couple of small children walking from a store, and a small car passed me on the road. “It’s O’s sister!” a group of kids began to exclaim as they ran towards me. Ever since my first visit to the neighborhood everyone referred to me as O’s sister because they thought we had similar skin complexions. My husband and I are not convinced that O and I look anything alike but everyone in the neighborhood seems to think so. Even the bus drivers, who often remark how much we resemble when we ride the bus together, say the same thing. O does not identify as Roma, she is Egyptian, a different socioracial and ethnic group in Albania that traces their lineage through Egypt rather than India. She is married though to a Roma man, and lives in a predominately Roma community. “Wow my sister,” I heard, as I turned to see O coming to meet me, her small daughter following barefoot behind her. She kissed me four times, an action I usually associate with people who have not seen each other for a very long time, as kissing twice is the norm. O always kisses me four times though, even if I just saw her four days prior. “D is waiting at her house, let’s go there and have a coffee,” she told me. She pulled out one cigarette from her pocket, a cigarette that she had just bought from the shop around the corner for 10 lekë (about 10 US cents). She never buys a pack, just one or two at a time.
We walked to the other end of the community in the direction of D’s barrack. We walked past the six, tall, colorful, empty apartment buildings, all connected around a grassy plaza area. As I have been told the apartments were designed for a community living space. I stopped for a minute to hear the kids screaming as they ran up and down the stairs and around the buildings. The apartments were built in 2010 and since then have been empty — not one single apartment is occupied nor have any of them ever been. They tower over this group of people that live inside of badly built barracks along the river shore. Over fifty families reside in squalor, in poorly constructed shacks with blankets and flags that serve as doors, and these new apartments sit right beside them. The apartments were designed for community living just not for this community.
We arrived at D’s house and she came over to greet me. She ordered her daughter-in-law to make me a coffee as I sat near two other women. One of the women, A, had just put a pan of water on top of the small gas pipe. The water slowly began to heat. D’s daughter had just married A’s son last week and everyone was still talking about the wedding. A’s younger daughter ran into the house and A barked at her, “Did Esa arrive yet?” “No,” said the young girl, chasing her cousin around. “Well go back out there and wait for her,” A said, “Ishalla she will have a diaper.” The water on top of the pipe was getting hotter, as small bubbles began rising to the top. Neither D nor A had a stove in their house so they all shared this gas pipe that they used for cooking and warming water. D’s daughter-in-law, referred to as the nuse (meaning bride), brought me a Turkish coffee and a gummy piece of candy that was sure to give me heartburn. Before the water reached a boil, A walked over to turn it off. She pulled her cranky baby from the makeshift hammock (a blanked strung to the ceiling by two large pieces of rope) and began to undress him. He cried and yelled as she softly began to wipe off his body, and then slowly his face and hair with the warm water. She cleaned him with such precision and care, both gentle and thorough. She sighed as she wiped his body.
D said that she was exhausted from the day’s work. She had traveled all the way to the center of town to collect cans and scraps. She also looked for used clothes. She said that she made close to $8, all of which went directly to food, for the eight people in her house. Today’s collection yielded a higher return than the previous day. As we talked D’s nuse was already using the recently purchased oil to fry eggs. D’s oldest granddaughter ate her egg on top of a piece of bread with a green onion that she consumed straight. They had jugs of water from a spout that the municipality installed two years ago. Another child said she was hungry and a woman fixed her a piece of bread with olive oil and sugar. Meanwhile A was still holding her young baby, swaddled in a towel. She stared in the direction of the television though her eyes seemed to be looking past it, fixated, but not necessarily on one thing particularly. Her demeanor was wistful and melancholic.
An hour or passed. A’s daughter ran back into the house with a single diaper and A immediately muttered, “Shyqyr (thank God)”. She took the towel off her baby and began to fasten his diaper. I was not sure whom Esa was but she had come through today. As I watched A with the diaper I was reminded of the first time I noticed packs of yogurt in stores that were missing a carton or two. In the beginning it took me a while to realize that oftentimes things can be sold individually, in a way that does not usually occur in the US (things like yogurt, cigarettes, pens/pencils, sponges, etc). This observation may come across as mundane or very ordinary, but it is connected to larger questions of socioeconomic disparities and “getting by” in everyday life. On this day Esa was able to buy that one diaper but I did not know how A’s family would get a diaper the next day. However they would manage to do so, it would more than likely be a single diaper, and not multiple ones or even a pack of them. They did not have money for them. They would somehow find a way to just keep going, to get by one day at a time. People often ask folks in the neighborhood about future plans, about long-term solutions, but as A reiterated many times that day, the only thing that consumed her thoughts was whether she would be able to find that diaper.