The death of communism in Albania brought a flourishing market economy to life just as it did across Central Europe and Russia. On the streets of Tirana people are buying and selling, trading goods and services in predictable, or sometimes novel, ways.
The shops are the most obvious expression of this. The streets are lined with little stores selling almost everything you could want. Freed from the choking grip of state bureaucracy Albanians are now at liberty to buy whatever they can afford. No matter how absurd the demand, someone will create the supply. Hence the preponderance of shoe stores in this city of muddy streets and torn up footpaths. Especially outlandish is the fashion for high heeled white boots - about as impractical a style of footware as could be imagined.
Dotted across the city are the market stalls, sometimes just one person selling bananas, elsewhere a whole street lined with sellers of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and spices. Those who cannot bring their goods to town sell them from roadside stalls that line the main roads between the towns and cities.
Street vendors - mostly Roma - sell chestnuts and corn on the cob roasted over charcoal fires. Young boys sell cigarettes from cardboard boxes; some, who sell to motorists near the Qemal Staffa stadium, do a sideline in car air fresheners. (I have heard though that these boys are selling for others who are taking the profits and whose commitment to a fair and honest market economy leaves something to be desired.) A handful of money changers hang around in Skenderbeg Square waving fistfuls of bank notes, while a great herd of them blocks the footpaths around the national bank.
As well as these expected manifestations of the market, there are other, more unusual enterprises. I have already mentioned the photographers who patrol Rinia Park taking photographs of passers-by. Then there are the older men who sit on the steps of buildings with bathroom scales where you can find out your weight for a small fee. Near our house one man sits at a table made of some upturned crates and a piece of hardboard. On his table are aerosols and a selection of used cigarette lighters. He will sell you a 'pre-owned' lighter or refill your existing one.
Telephone card providers position themselves by public phone booths. These phones don't take cash, and not everyone wants to buy a card. So the card provider makes a card available and after making the call the customer pays the amount used on the card plus a commission. Shoeshine booths are less common than might be expected given the locals' attachment to fashionable shoes and the state of the footpaths. There are some, though, tackling the awesome task of shifting Tirana's clinging mud.
Car washers are more common, tapping into whatever water and electricity supply is available. They do a remarkable job of ensuring that the expensive M-B's and BMW's look shiny and sleek again - just for the few moments it takes to attract a new layer of dirt and dust. In the park you can try your hand at one of the target shooting ranges that appear during the day - not real guns, in case you were wondering. Behind the Dinamo training pitch you can go paint-balling in an improvised complex built from wooden crates, old cars and hay bails.
Sadly, this is only part of the story. No country ever got wealthy through these kinds of activities alone. What is needed is an environment - political, institutional, legal - that enables the creativity of Albanian entrepeneurs to flourish, creating bigger businesses that provide high quality goods and services for the people of Albania and beyond, and that provide employment, wealth and growth that will benefit all Albanians.
In its absence, a darker, uglier Albanian economy - trading in guns, drugs, stolen vehicles, women and children - continues to flourish, bringing the greatest wealth to the least deserving. Albania may have come a long way since the dark days of communism or the collapse of 1997, but it still has a very long way to go before it reaps the full benefits of a market economy.