Monday, August 18, 2008

A Dance With The Devil

It has been compared with the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Survivors refer to it as "a Tango with Satan." Others refuse to speak of it, hoping that ignoring it will make it disappear. No one leaves Tirana without being touched by it. Once touched, you're changed forever. Crossing the street here is a life-altering experience!

I've lived in several countries around the Mediterranean and have come to know well the perils of crossing the street on foot. Athens, Naples, Istanbul. Each new city had traffic rules slightly different than the others yet they shared a common factor. Successfully crossing the street requires adapting your behavior. If you stood waiting for a traffic light to change and cars to stop, you could very well grow old and die in one spot. Stepping out onto the crosswalk and expecting cars to stop would have the same result, only you wouldn't have to wait so long. No, you have to play by the local rules.

In Tirana this means learning to play "Frogger." Remember the video game where you had to hop your frog across a river without getting drowned, munched, or squished by the various denizens of what looked a lot like a five-lane highway? That's the Boulevard of The Martyrs of the Nation (Bulevard e Deshmoret e Kombit). Six lanes of speeding death which occasionally turns into eight... or twelve. I cross it at least twice a day and have learned the rules.

First, try to make eye contact with drivers. It's harder for them to kill you if they have seen your eyes and recognize your basic humanity. The flip side of this rule applies to driving: Never make eye contact. You can't be held responsible for hitting something you didn't see.

Second, realize and accept that traffic will not stop for you. You are the twig tossed on the torrent. Find the space, use it, move on. Just as it won't stop, the traffic won't alter course to hit you. If you're on the center line you can remain still and read the smallest print on the bus ads as they whoosh by, confident that you're in your space and completely safe.

Third, hesitate and you're done. There's no second chance. The quick and the dead.

Fourth, ignore the policeman and the traffic signal. He's only there for decoration. In the event of an emergency such as traffic actually flowing smoothly, the police will intervene. Mostly they just observe and chat with passing friends.

The internal dialogue sounds something like this: "OK, he's turning right... three steps across the first lane, wait for Mercedes .... three quick steps ... stop, wait for the very clean Porsche ... step, step, step and we're halfway ... look right ... six steps across two lanes ... ignore the horn ... two taxis pass and then three more steps to the curb."

It's easy to spot the newbies. They look apprehensive, tense. Like a young wildebeest approaching the Mara River for the first time. They know about the crocodiles are there but don't yet know how many times the crossing can be safely made. Experienced crossers don't even break stride. Cell phone on the ear and staring straight ahead they step into the stream and glide effortlessly across. They take the same risks as everyone else but have learned to live with, and minimize, the risk. I admire them.

So, like the annual migration across the perils of the Serengeti, street crossing in Tirana has evolved and achieved balance. Then something changes and chaos ensues. I noted before that the surest way to screw up traffic is to get the police involved. Make the policeman a German and the results are even more hilarious. Unless you're a driver who actually has someplace to be.

Earlier this decade, the EU sponsored a police training program to help Albania bring their law enforcment operations up to Western standards. I would have loved to have been at the meeting where each country staked out their area of "specialization."

The Italians: "We'uh shalla teacha thema to fightuh the corrupzione!"
The French: "Mes amis! We take les customehr relacions departmahn!"
The Germans: "Ve vill brink order to zee traffik!"

OK, I could buy the first two. Barely. But, please, Hans, you have no idea...

Sure enough, August of 2000 found teams of one Albanian and one German traffic cop standing at almost every major intersection in Tirana. As I sat in the snarled mess that resulted I had a ringside seat to the spectacle. The Albanian cop knew better than to exert himself too much in the 40+ degree heat. Spent most of his time trying to stay in the shade of the German who flapped, whistled, and waved like a madman with the veins popping out in his forehead. His directions were ignored faster than he gave them and all he got for his efforts was a lot of honking and a mild case of heat stroke. The "training" program was mercifully short and by October things were back to normal.

Since then, change has slowly occured. Most of the traffic lights work most of the time and most of the drivers obey them. Most of the time. Lately I'm noticing people waiting for the walk signal and crossing when the little green man gives his consent. That's a good thing. I know it will cut down on traffic accidents and is yet another sign of the development of a culture of rule of law. Little changes in behavior build up into the solid foundation of modern society. But, every now and then I get nostalgic for the good old days.

When I approach the Boulevard and see the signals are out I am secretly pleased. I take a deep breath and smell the sulphur. My awareness peaks, my pulse pounds, and I step off the curb.

"OK, Old Scratch, let's dance!"



nela said...

Compliments for the blog! :) I have been reading it since the beginning and I look forward to read your new write ups. It is a "dance with the devil" for sure here in Tirana. Yep, it's really dangerous crossing that boulevard, and sometimes you can even feel the touch of death. What a satisfaction when you reach the other curb safe and sound and take a deep breath! Finally, even we Albanians can rest a little bit, walk lazily in the street when the green light is on, and not run like horses. Anyway, there is indeed some fun when you can’t wait but cross the street and jump and run in front of cars, ok, I mean when you are in good mood "to dance". :)

ante said...

I couldn't agree more. In Albania the driver should check left and right at the crossroads, no matter what the roadsign says. Stopping at the red light seem to be the exception, not the rule and don't get me started on the safety belt. Also honking seems to be recommended as a response to the slightest "provocation". Beautiful blog. Looking forward to your next one.