Saturday, March 27, 2010


When people ask me what it is that draws me to the disorderly chaos that is life in Albania, I normally end up falling back on my favorite catch-phrase: "In chaos lies opportunity."  Usually, that's true.  Sometimes, chaos holds nothing but chaos and the very real possibility of death or dismemberment.  I was reminded of this fact today as I sat on the terrace with a cold Birra Korca and was witness to the spectacle of Albanian tree-doctoring.

The tree in question is a 70-year old eucalyptus that towers over the former Bank of Rome apartment building.  Originally built by the Italians to house the employees of - you guessed it - the Bank of Rome in the early 1930's, the building suffers from lack of maintenance and uncontrolled home improvements.  One of the less attractive additions was the little bar built in the former front garden.  The owner decided he needed to build a sidewalk raki/beer/qofte joint and was not about to let the presence of a massive tree deter him.  His establishment was built around the trunk of the tree.  The tree has suffered for almost 20 years, putting up with nails driven into its bark, a continuous cloud of cigarette smoke, and endless discussions of politics and soccer.  It's no wonder it has developed problems.

The topmost portion had started to deform and lean menacingly over the street. Normally this is no cause for concern as Albanians are accustomed to living under the sword of Damocles; one eyeblink from catastrophe.  However, last year another old eucalyptus dropped a branch from far above down on a new Mercedes SL.  The trendy showoffs who park along this particular section of the Blloku were not about to let their precious rides suffer the same fate.  The end result was a classic example of civic planning, risk mitigation, and hazard abatement as understood in this little corner of the Balkans.  I imagine the planning session went a little like this:

"When's the best time to cut this sucker down?"
"How about Saturday evening on the day of the first decent weather in months?
"What about all the cars parked (nay, double-parked) on the street?"
"Eh, once we start dropping branches, they'll move!"
"What about traffic control?"
"Shut up! Let's ride!"

Just about the time the nightly cruise kicks off on the Blloku, the tree doctors moved in.  The "cherry-picker" truck double parked in front of the ramshackle bar and the shouting commenced.  The owner, who evidently anticipated the event, started tearing down his umbrellas and suggesting his clients might want to move someplace less prone to cranial fractures from falling logs.  One by one the owners of the Mercedes, Audis, and a Hummer arrived to swear at anyone within swearing distance before reluctantly moving off to find another place to flaunt their mobile status symbols. Those few who weren't sitting in local bars were less fortunate.  The city cops arrived with a flatbed tow truck and proceed to yank the last few cars out of harms way.  There's no sound like a Mercedes being winched sideways onto a truck with its alarm blaring and its tires protesting every centimeter of the way.

As the preliminaries were underway, the cast of primary actors assembled.  Cherry-picker operator guy, chainsaw guy, city cops, national cops, drunk guy with very impressive beer belly, gypsy beggar kids.  All present and accounted for. To ensure success, the owner of the bar offered most of the players a tumbler of raki and most of them accepted.    Nothing like a stiff belt before firing up the old McCulloch.  More like a Shanghai Industries Super Power Arm Render, but  a chainsaw is a chainsaw. 

Sufficiently lubricated, chainsaw and operator mount the cherry-picker basket and ascend treeward. Before the main cut is made, underbrush must be cleared.  Brrrrrappp!  Brrrrraaap! The saw is coaxed to life and the obstacles to ascension are cleared.  "Farewell linden branches!"  "Be gone, dangling wisteria vine!"  "Oops, you didn't need internet anway!"

Once they reached the prime target, the limb-lopping begins in earnest.  As each severed branch falls, the crowd of onlookers grows.  The "Vogue Lounge" crowd has stopped admiring themselves in their own sunglasses and anxiously awaits a crushed car or amputated limb.  The cops eventually decide they should divert traffic around the area instead of trying to sychronize circulation with chainsaw guy's cigarette breaks.  The Blloku become eerily empty of cars.

Where once the slow parade of luxury vehicles ruled, the shouting kibbitzer now holds sway.  Chainsaw guy is pelted with advice from amateur forestry experts.  "Oh Petrit!  Cut that one over that way first."  "What are you doing? Don't worry, it will fall like I say it will."  I gotta admit the pressure on chainsaw guy was unrelenting.  How did he deal with it?  Smoking, of course.  During refeuling of the saw!  "What?  Dying in a gasoline vapor explosion can't be any worse than falling 60 feet from the wobbly cherry-picker.  It'll all work out, inshallah."

In the end it was magnificent. A groaning crack.  The swish of descending branches.  The percussive crash of many tons of eucalyptus wood on the pavement elicited some polite applause and little pang of guilt from me.  How many koalas could have been fed from that branch? 

Once the threat of impending doom was neutralized, attitudes changed.  Bystanders who "oohed" and "aahed" at each buzzing cut of the saw now started to complain about the dust.  The police, who minutes before were the heroic guardians of the lives of unsuspecting pedestrians, began to harass the cleanup crew.  "Get this stuff out of the way.  We got cars that want to drive in circles around the Blloku to show off!"  Chainsaw guy realized his 15 minutes were up and zipped up the top his jumpsuit, which previously flaunted his copious chest hair in a testosterone-fueled dispaly of derring-do.  Only drunken beer-belly guy continued to revel in the moment, gazing vacantly skyward in hopes of another epic branch fall. 

This time we were lucky.  Chaos claimed no victims, unless you count koalas with rumbly tummies.  Indeed, this little drama gave me the opportunity to enjoy a few cold Korca beers.  "In chaos there is opportunity!"


ante said...

You may be the most important American blogger on the web about Albania, well at least the most amusing. You're always good-spirited about your observations, and allow us to see many things in Albania we think are quite normal from a very different perspective, one that makes for a very funny blog. Keep it on and let us now if you ever make a book out of this

M said...

How fair can my comments be? I think your blog is assuredly the best ever, biasedly (is that a word?) speaking. Having visited you there, I can place myself near that tree and enjoying the chaos and nonsense that ensued. I, being a tree-lover also would lament its removal, oh well. If nothing else, you will inspire many to visit your beautiful adopted country!! Mom

Beyond Belief said...

Yes, you are by far the most inspiring American blogger in Albania. In fact, you have inspired me to visit at the end of this month... and I'm not joking, just because it's April Fool's day.

Charles Alexander said...

I like your blog. I discovered it not long ago and I like reading it because for me the Albanian mind is an exotic location that deserves a guided tour. You deliver Albania in real context, in very neatly packaged aper├žus. Please keep 'em coming at us. Maybe I'll have the pleasure to meet you someday, looks like we could be neighbours.