At 3am, there's little activity on the streets of Tirana. The quiet is breathtaking. I don't want to break this silence. I whisper to the dog, I almost tiptoe along the pavement. The city is asleep and its slumber should be respected, as if one is slipping past guards dozing on their watch, as if this foray into the night streets is illicit and if your presence is noticed, you could be challenged.
This is one of the main streets, leading off Tirana's central Scanderbeg Square. During the day it is choked with traffic, and noisy. Buses and cars rev away from lights, frequently sounding their horns. The narrow uneven pavements are thick with pedestrians. This night scene is such a contrast to the day's noise and hum of activity. It is like an abandoned stage set, after the play is over. The tall buildings are still illuminated, after all the players have gone home.
The apartment where I'd been staying is set back from the road, a courtyard in front with leafy shade-giving trees. The entrance is through a doorway in a high metal gate that screens the courtyard from sight. I slip out of the gate, the dog comes out too (it's fine to let him out, he comes and goes, said Olsi) and he trots off, sniffing the pavements. I pull the gate to, walk to the crossroads and the traffic lights just a few metres away, to wait for my lift. I discover a bench beside the university building and sit down.
A friend in Saranda has arranged this lift for me, he knows the driver. He makes this journey every day, leaving at 3am he told me, and assured me that he would be there between then and 3.10am.
An occasional car passes and I scrutinise each one, but they don't slow down and show no interest in me. Two street sweepers are the only pedestrians. They come past me as they move down the street, a woman sweeping and a man pushing the trolley. 'Mir mengjese,' I say. 'Mir mengjese,' she replies. Yes, it is a good morning, solicitous darkness and silent streets. The neon signs on top of the tall buildings look like guardians now, of a sleeping realm.
Balkan time I know, can differ from clock time, but it's exactly 3.10am when a car drives down the street and stops opposite the bench where I'm sitting. It's my lift to Saranda. The driver, Patos, is perfunctory, gets out of the car, I shake his hand, he takes my case, puts it in the back, we climb in, and off we go. We drive through the deserted streets, down the Rruga Durresit.
We've not gone far when he pulls off, turns left into a back street, then right into a courtyard of low rectangular buildings, squat huts of stained concrete. Most of them are windowless and look like warehouses but one is lit up and through the windows I can see three or four women grouped around a table. The strip lighting inside is a dull greenish glow. It looks like a scene from some World War Two movie, the interrogation room designed to provoke instant dread in the prisoner's heart. Yet there's no sense of tension in the group of women; in the poor lighting they look relaxed, in the icy green glow, they look comfortable, as if the stark, chilling strip light of the concrete box is where they feel at home.
Patos pulls up outside the window, gets out of the car and goes inside. He picks up piles of newspapers, bound in bundles with string, loads them in the back of the car. That's when I realise that he's in the service of Mercury and that this hidden-away shack is a distribution centre for newspapers. The venture then becomes quite thrilling. The journalists have written their stories, the newspapers have been printed and now we too are messengers, speeding through the night, to take the papers to the kiosks and shops, ready for people to pick up and read in the morning.
Another van edges between the box buildings, pulls up beside us. Greetings are exchanged. Two men take bundles of papers out of the van and into the green-lit hut. The van has panorama.com painted on the side. Panorama
is one of Albania's daily newspapers. My driver takes some bundles from their van too, we are loaded up, and head off again into the night.
There are several stops after that – behind service stations, in front of unlit shops with grilles fixed over their windows – and once on a deserted flyover devoid of any sign of life – no buildings, no traffic, nothing at all. Yet here, as in the other places, a person materialised out of the darkness, goods were handed over, before the messenger melted away again. Usually it was a car or van that pulled up beside us, sometimes one or two people on foot. Exchanges were brief. We picked up two more passengers, outside the city. Then sped off again.
We passed all the huge building complexes that line the highway from Tirana's outskirts to the Durres turn-off. Silent, illuminated factories, warehouses, depots, hotels, and the insane looking faux-classical building complete with massive Grecian pillars and the whole rococo-esque frontage framed with statues of golden goddesses. (The statues perhaps to induce belief in the backing of the gods particularly Fortuna herself, and her miraculous ability to bring wealth, fortune and the power that comes with it – for I was told the building was a casino.) It slid past us like a signpost marking entry into the dream world.
The driver sped on, racing the night to its end. The road was almost empty but it was clear he was totally familiar with it. When his phone rang (often) he picked it up and spoke briefly. Sometimes he made calls too, holding it in his right hand and using his thumb to touch letters and numbers while his left hand stayed (mostly) on the wheel and his eyes flickered between phone and windscreen. But this is all part of what those who serve Mercury have to do – make contact, check times and places – Where are you? When will you be here? I had complete confidence in him.
I must have dozed off for when we stopped briefly for a coffee break, it was after 5am. After the hit of the strong espresso, I was wide awake. We passed signs for Kavaja, Fier, and beyond that we were into the landscape of the mountainous south. Rents appeared in the dark sky fabric and pale light with bars of pink, gleamed through. The banks of cloud were carrying away the night, revealing the mountain slopes, the river spread across the valley floor, the dark and empty road with just one small vehicle riding the smooth waves of the ribbon of tarmac. Some clouds clung to the mountain tops, curtains refusing to draw open, still claiming the high points of land, damp intermediaries between the kingdoms of sky and earth. I was sitting in the back, behind the passenger's seat, and as the light gathered in the valleys I could see the driver's tanned skin, the muscles shift in his arm as he reached out for the phone, and his long dark eyelashes as his gaze flickered to the phone and back to the road stretching in front of us.
At kiosks in Tepelene and Gjirokaster, Patos gets out and leaves bundles of papers on steps, beside piled crates or boxes, or in front of doorways. Sometimes people are already there, opening up, more often the shops are still shuttered and unlit. We sweep on, into Saranda, (the city of 40 saints) where the last bundles are delivered. Just after 7am, we come to a halt outside the ferry terminal. We all get out, and there is Oresti, to meet me. The night journey is over. A couple of ferry boats are in the port. The ferry from Corfu has not arrived yet. Come and have a coffee, Oresti says, and we cross the road to the cafe with a view overlooking Saranda Bay, and sit down with his friends.