Hammersmith Town Hall, 7pm. A quartet of chuckling senior management suits strides out into the cold. In the atrium men in jeans shift to and fro, barking a language into mobiles, mothers chasten excited children.
It was a year since Kosovo declared independence, and London’s Albanians were celebrating, £10 a ticket to cover venue rental costs. The two countries share history, culture, language, I will be told later. A glum, pensionable shirtsleeves and bow tie at reception repeats directions down the corridor and up the stairs.
I’m with the editor of an Albanian newspaper, based near Finsbury Park. I’d seen a copy of the freesheet in a Cypriot food and wine shop, phoned up and went by his office on an afternoon. It was in the back of a travel agent, just him and a designer in a room, a 5,000-copy print run around east London. He told me he was a well-respected film maker in Albania, that journalism here in London was just a hobby. The occasional email, and he invited me to this tonight.
Going up the stairs he whispers that the ticket price was controversial, there are those now holding their own event elsewhere. On the way through doors, shaking hands with middle-aged community leaders, all men. A table staffed by two Albanians with an impressive selection of leaflets, booklets, brochures, pens, mouse mats, being stuffed into branded plastic bags: International Organization for Migration: assisting voluntary return home.
Inside the main hall, regiments of chairs. On a stage men in suits walk up and down, issuing instructions to mobile phones. Young women herd children clad in red and white national costume up steps at the side of the stage, through half-drawn curtains. Traditional music, strings, drums, start up loud from large civic speakers. A giant white paper banner hovering over the stage proclaims Gezuar Pavaresine Kosove! Happy the Independence Kosove! in handwritten red and black with sellotaped lightweight Albanian and Kosovan flags. The former is blood red, with a black two-headed eagle. The latter is EU-yellow-on-blue, a squirt of colour beneath semicircling stars. A corner droops, flops forward. Panic, the ambassadors are expected imminently. A giant of a man perches on a chair clutching tape, nearly crashes through the banner. Held at the knees by an accomplice, the job is done.
We sit in the front row, a large open space before the stage: I fear dancing. My companion introduces me to a bald, grinning man with strong glasses and huge eyes. One of only two translators of Albanian literature into English, apparently. He tells me he went out to Kosovo to teach English, and stayed five years. He lives in Stoke Newington.
The ambassadors arrive. The representative for Albania is mid-40s, middle height, short dark curly hair, glasses, bears a striking resemblance to former England football manager Fabio Capello. The Kosovan is probably younger, but looks older with grey hair. I ask my companion about this word Shqiptare I hear everywhere and see in his newspaper. It is the real word for Albanian, he tells me, because Albania is the name the invading Ottoman Turks gave the country. I look behind, the hall is full, mainly families with young children.
A gaunt man in a brown suit, and a young, long black-haired woman with sturdy legs in boots appear on stage with microphones, Eurovision-esque. They speak in Albanian, I applaud when everyone else does, frequently. They depart, replaced by children in costume bearing flags. Lads in baggy white shirts and trousers, short white waistcoats with black stitching. Girls in loose red headscarves, a gipsy melange of flowing coloured skirts. The solitary adult, the knee-holder from earlier, dances, also in costume, same as the lads. Music erupts, from keyboards and systems at the side of the stage, and the man makes a brief, gesticulatory dance. Then the speeches, at a lectern.
Community leaders I recognise from earlier march on stage with unfolded sheets. Punctuated by regular applause. The Albanian ambassador strides up manfully with his notes. The background roar from the children in the audience grows. He makes a good fist of it, while a second microphone is thrust ineffectually in his face. The Kosovan ambassador looks haunted, is brief.
The translator is next. His grinning syllables belted out: a comic interlude. By the conclusion of his few minutes, however, he shakes with zeal, humour forgotten. John Grogan, MP for Selby, talks in swift, soundbitten English of his hopes of EU membership for Albania and Kosovo, to thunderous approval. Then an old writer, helped on stage, presents books to ambassadors and dignitaries. And a final community leader, whose lingering oration never fully escapes the children’s racket.
Then, the dancing. Groups of youngsters and teenagers perform sweet routines to a throbbing blend of east European, Mediterranean sounds.
The space in front fills with younger siblings and parents, circle-dancing. Adults shifting seats, exchanging congratulations. A young girl, perhaps 12 or 13 years old, appears, and my companion writes my name on a piece of paper. She produces a small paperback and writes in it, dedicating it to me. The book is written by her, stories and experiences of arriving and settling in the UK. Published by Hounslow Refugee Forum. Her father’s smiling face creases with pride. She moves on, and I sit, really rather moved, staring at the book. The dancing continues.
After 9.30pm. The dancing still underway, the translator takes his leave, as do I. We go our separate ways into the cold Hammersmith night.
First published May, 2009, in Lucid Magazine; available in This Is The World That We Live In, a collection of Lucid Magazine articles (2010): http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/sylvia-arthur-and-athena-kugblenu-and-paul-knipe-and-james-willsher/this-is-the-world-that-we-live-in/paperback/product-12034251.html