More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 32

Over the next few weeks, allmediascotland.com is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

Tirana was better. Although not much. I soon decided in April that I didn’t like the neighbours in Rruga Barrikada (the stirringly-named Street of the Barricades). That was no big deal for me – I was just passing through the capital of benighted Albania as the pampered guest of my girlfriend’s family. But their noisy neighbours really were the end…

The chap next door couldn’t decide whether he was coming or going. It was usually the early hours of the morning – well into the so-called curfew – when he threw open the boot of his Mercedes. It was either already full of – or about to be filled with – AK47 machine guns. Some nights, the Kalashnikovs were being noisily decanted into the house, others they disappeared with a great clatter into the boot and were sped off – doubtless to some eager waiting customer with a bit of personal vengeance to look after. In case of any sudden problems, my purposeful neighbour always had a loaded machine gun on the passenger seat.

We’d just had two days without electricity. That was because the chap at the corner who had a bar-restaurant – actually a particularly dingy joint with a few formica-topped tables – got a bit over-excited after he’d had a few beers. He went out and shot through the overhead electricity supply cable. That was no problem for him – commercial and domestic supplies are on different lines around here – so he disappeared back into his brightly lit bar while the rest of us poor sods sat huddled around the stubs of impossible-to-get candles.

My generous hosts were the Shehus – mother, two daughters, two cats and one dog. The elder daughter, Megan, was a particular friend of mine over a period of many years. We met on an Adria flight out of Ljubljana and were firm friends by the time we reached London. She and her family were incredibly phlegmatic and resourceful in the face of the difficulties of everyday life in the Albanian capital. In the morning, Mrs Shehu would boil me two mugs of hot water on a picnic stove for washing and then light a candle to relieve the gloom of the bathroom. The problem in ‘the washing department’ was that the city authorities only let water into the pipes between the hours of three and four in the morning.

So far, as I could tell, all the women of Tirana got up at three, washed their hair, filled all available containers with water and went back to bed. I’m insufficiently motivated to get up for my ablutions at 3am, so I had to make do with mugs, buckets and balers at eight.

But breakfast was unmarked by compromise. Coffee was made on the picnic stove and bread was toasted by perching it on the bars of the portable gas fire, and then turning the gas up to full.