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August 1, 2013 / catherinebwrites

ALBANIA 1.

 

Albania is beautiful. You fly over craggy mountains with villages clinging to cliffs and a glorious coastline with turquoise sea.

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This was a country I knew little about. I knew where it was, I knew they’d been part of the Communist block. I knew Enver Hoxha had been their dictator and that it had not been their happiest time. I knew that past elections had been fraught. I knew they wanted to join the E.U. but first  elections had to be free and fair. That’s why 600 odd observers were flying in.  I cannot comment on the conduct of the election but if you’d like to know more go to the Osce/ODIR website.

When you arrive you are partnered with somone of the opposite sex and a different country. You can be lucky or not. I struck it extra lucky. Zsolt, my Hungarian partner, was charming and efficient. Elsa, our interpreter  was  bright, charming and funny and Ergis our driver was a handsome footballer with enough English to discuss the merits of Barcelona F.C and the skills of Lionel Messi.  (I’m a fan.)   On top of that, he was very obliging.

Zsolt and me in our hotel.

Zsolt Elsa and Ergis

Our observation area was a suburb of Tirana.   This for me  was both good and bad.   It meant that I didn’t have to pack up and move  but  I had hoped to see some of the countryside.   However, I wasn’t there for a holiday. Tirana is a very pleasant city with an air of neglect except for The Bloc.  This is where the Communist big-wigs had their houses.   Now it is cool cafes and restaurants filled with even cooler people.

There is little or no public transport and the driving is heart-attack insane.  Think of Italy and multiply it by any number that comes into your head.  Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are a mere indications of intent.  I saw guys double parked on roundabouts.“Albanians don’t like rules.” was what  everyone told me.

I stood nervously on footpaths watching  the cars flashing  past.   Eventually I remembered to  apply my golden rule: Find a sensible looking, middle-aged lady and follow her.  That’s when I discovered the method. You step  into the traffic, hands raised to either side and magically, the cars come to a halt and you arrive on the opposite footpath, heart thumping but still alive.

We spent our first day locating polling stations.   We had a map and a list of addresses.   But addresses in Tirana are a hint vague.  We  spent a lot of time driving  up back alleys and stopping to  ask directions.   But Elsa and Ergis  got us there in the end  and every polling station welcomed us with smiles and charm and good humour.

Our second day was observing the election itself.   Many of the polling stations were in schools and  all of them  had drawings of Mother Theresa on the wall which everyone pointed out to us.  When officials discovered I was from Ireland they lit up.   Some had been here, others had family here.   One man even broke into Gaelic!

The voting  turn-out was somewhere round  70%.   Clearly Albanians were anxious to vote.   I was astonished at the high numbers of  young people queuing to vote and involved in observation.  Everyone I spoke to wanted the election  to go well.    Many of the older people in our area wanted to government to remain unchanged.   Most of the young wanted a change.  “But it is  up to the Albanian people to decide,” they all added.

Later that evening we went to the count centre to observe the delivery of the ballot boxes and the count… but that’s a blog for another day.

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