and when the evenings draw in and the mountain backdrop to Tirana takes on a pinkish-mauve hue the romance of the folklore and struggles of this Balkan nation take the place of its more pressing concerns. Until the sound of gun fire echoes out, that is.
There can be few European countries where the poppopping of Kalashnikov rounds fired off a few yards from a cafe at the capital's airport fails to raise an eyebrow or send armed police into an hysteric response. But in Albania, everyone just sips their espresso and carries on chatting. Everyone but me, although I was reassured to know that this time we were hearing friendly fire: the trigger man was providing a one-gun salute at a nearby wedding.
A young man at my table at the airport café told me that I could buy one of the Russian assault rifles looted from government stores for just $200, although he was loath to part with it. "I take it to the mountains for target practice," he said. "During the troubles last year, sometimes the people would practice on each other."
Gun amnesties have begun the long process of arresting the lawlessness that began one year ago with the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes, when millions of dollars of the precious savings of ordinary Albanians disappeared into thin air or into the pockets of politicians, as is popularly believed and any faith in the post-Communist political class dissolved.
Enver Hoxha's ultra-isolationist post-war regime deified Stalin and sent thousands of honest, decent people to concentration camps for crimes as apparently treasonable as listening to the BBC World Service. In karmaesque (or should that be Kafkaesque) fashion the dictatorship subjected their families to life as second class citizens, forcing them into hard labour. One traitor in the family was enough to condemn the whole family to a joyless life. Some
times an illegal prayer, in this country of Orthodox, Muslim and Catholic peoples, was all they had to hold on to.
The only betrayal of Albania was by its dictator. In 1990 five years after Hoxha's death the regime fell, but many of the same faces who governed Albania's three million people by fear are now prominent in the ruling Socialists and pyramid-culprit Sali Berisha's opposition Democratic party. There is a commonly-held incredulity at this, and to describe Albaniam as paranoid in the wake of these totalitarian and freemarket disasters is not overstating the matter. As a waiter in a bar on one of the leafy boulevards in Tirana told me: "You must tell lies if you write about the politics of Albania. If you tell the truth, no one will believe you."
The gripe of Albanians today is that neither party is prepared to address the most basic needs of the country, so it is falling to foreign nongovernmental organisations to rebuild an infrastructure put to shame by many countries in Africa and Asia. Cafod, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, is among those who have accepted this challenge, establishing Cafod Albania in 1993. Its offices in the capital, Tirana, the southern town of Lushnje and in Malesi e Madhe, in the north, run projects as diverse as lessons in hairdressing and English, and self-build schemes, which give families building materials in return for a commitment to build or repair their own homes.
But trust is a scarce commodity in Albania, as Jerome Piercy, Cafod's Special Projects Manager for Eastern Europe, found out. "At first it was hard work convincing people that we weren't just in it for ourselves," he told me. "They wanted to know how much I personally was going to take from the money we were granted by sponsors." Curiously, while Communism robbed Albanians of initiative and entrepreneurial drive, many surprisingly failed to understand the profoundly socialist concept of working for common goals. Once Cafod proved that it could keep its promises it won the trust and understanding of those it sought to help. After this experience. life became easier for its staff. who are all, Jerome Piercy apart, Albanians equipped with the organisational skills of Cafod's slick and efficient London operation.
Now churches in Gloucestershire are fund-raising to help to complete a project that in a few weeks will bring running water to Savre, a village of formerly persecuted people, in the south of Albania. Why, I asked organiser Fr Peter Slocombe, choose Albania? "It's the Third World on our doorstep," he said, "closer even than the holiday beaches of Greece." When I visited Savre, a huddle of high-rise blocks of flats surrounded by fields, the reception was not friendly. Four years from its inception, the project is only now close to completion. But then, everything takes time in this country of crippling bureaucracy and crime. I asked an irate old man who he thought had done more for Savre; the government or Cafod? "Cafod, of course," he replied. "The government only steals from us."
millions ARE starving millions in Africa,
we know, and they deserve our help and prayers. But we should be just as concerned that in a notso-distant corner of Europe there are educated, articulate people who earn less each month than my taxi fare home from Heathrow. Only when the men in power learn that it is in their long-term interest to emulate the work of organisations like Cafod will Albanians be able to enjoy their recently-won freedom and put down their Kalashnikovs.
• lb support the work of Cafod Albania write to Cajod, Romero Close, Stockwell Road, London SW9 9TY or reiepittute 0/71-733 7900