The coke cans that made us dream of capitalism

The coke cans that made us dream of capitalism: In Socialist Albania, where people queued for days to buy milk, even an empty Western drinks can was a status symbol. But when ‘freedom’ 来了, was life really any better?

  • An empty can of Coca-Cola was a status symbol in 1990s socialist Albania
  • New book shows reveals how Albanians longed to emigrate to a better life after fall of socialism as a result of ‘disastrouscapitalism after December 1990
  • Lea Ypi reveals reproduces pages from her diary describing gunshots, looting, curfews, school closures, fear and chaos
  • 本周书

    自由

    by Lea Ypi (Allen Lane £20, 336pp)

    A bitter falling-out between two sets of close family friends, 过度 . . . the disappearance of an empty Coca-Cola can?

    It sounds crazy, but this was life in Socialist Albania in early 1990. The Coca-Cola can was one family’s most prized possession. It sat on top of the television in the living room, under the photo of the late, lamented communist Prime Minister Enver Hoxha, known by all as ‘Uncle Enver’.

    Not that Albanians ever drank Coke. That exotic, fizzy elixir was unattainable by locals, only available in the forbidden tourist shops. Empty cans dropped by visitors from the West were scavenged, and shown off.

    So when 11-year-old Lea Ypi’s neighbours, the Papas, found their can missing from the top of their TV, the mother came round to Lea’s house, screaming with rage, pointing at the Ypisown newly installed can, and accusing them of stealing it, which they hadn’t. Peaceable Lea hid at the top of a tree all afternoon, until her mother was reduced to howling sobs of anguish and the Papas took pity on her. The rift was healed.

    Abiding love: Lea Ypi as a child with her grandmother

    Abiding love: Lea Ypi as a child with her grandmother

    What Lea hated most about that falling out was the two mothers ‘ignoring each other in the queues’. The queues! Rarely have I read such a vivid account of the queuing conventions of Socialist Eastern Europe as in this gripping childhood memoir by Lea Ypi, who was born in Albania in 1979 and is now a professor of Political Theory at the LSE.

    Queues for milk or kerosene started in the middle of the night, and could go on all day and into the next night. You were allowed to leave the queue intermittently, but you had to replace yourself with a stone to ‘represent’ 你. As soon as the supplies arrived and the queue started shuffling forward, the stone left to represent you lost its function. Lifelong friendships were forged and broken through acts of kindness or selfishness in those queues.

    We might laugh now at the quaint hopelessness of Socialism, but what an inhumane disaster it all was!

    No foreign holidays allowed, no career promotion for your whole life if your antecedents were known to have been bourgeois, power cuts every day, religion banned, deportations, imprisonment or death if you dared to voice your dislike for Uncle Enver, or got found out for fiddling with the TV aerial and picking up an Italian signal so you could have a few hoursrest from the dreary local coverage of yet another co-operative that had exceeded its five-year-plan target.

    But as this fascinating memoir shows, in its absurd way the system somehow worked, and schoolchildren like Lea were indoctrinated with the notion that it was infinitely preferable to the evil system of the imperialist West. It was when the one-party state ended in December 1990, the statue of Hoxha was toppled, and the country was suddenly declared ‘free’, that everything around her started to crumble. Her parents lost their jobs when the state enterprises they’d worked for closed down.

    It sounds crazy, but this was life in Socialist Albania in early 1990. The Coca-Cola can was one family's most prized possession. It sat on top of the television in the living room, under the photo of the late, lamented communist Prime Minister Enver Hoxha, known by all as 'Uncle Enver'.

    It sounds crazy, but this was life in Socialist Albania in early 1990. The Coca-Cola can was one family’s most prized possession. It sat on top of the television in the living room, under the photo of the late, lamented communist Prime Minister Enver Hoxha, known by all as ‘Uncle Enver’.

    And it was at that moment Lea discovered the truth about her parents: 那, secretly, they had never supported ‘the Party’, and it was for good reason they had always procrastinated hanging up that photo of Uncle Enver.

    Her mother’s affluent family had actually owned property in the town, including the building that became the Party HQ. Lea herself, with a ‘biographylike that, would never have achieved promotion in her future career. She’d noticed that her mother always looked up at a fifth-floor window when they walked past the Party HQ. It turned out that her mother’s grandfather, a so-called ‘enemy of the people’, had thrown himself out of that window in 1947, to escape torture.

    Her mother’s father had been imprisoned for 15 years for ‘agitation and propaganda’. Lea’s parents had only survived in their lowly jobs by keeping their heads down and pretending to disassociate themselves from their parents.

    Things must surely have got better, 你会想, with the end of that terrifying one-party system in December 1990? 好, in a way they did. At last, Lea was allowed to travel abroad; she and her grandmother flew to Athens, where Lea encountered her first chewing gum, and her first loo that had a seat. They kept the white plastic cutlery from the flight, to use at home on special occasions.

    But how freeing was this so-called ‘freedom’? Albanians longed to emigrate to a better life, but Western countries would not let them in. Her father did eventually get a new job and worked his way up to being general director of the biggest port in Albania. It broke his heart to have to fire hundreds of Roma workers who had worked at the port for decades, but he had no choice. Roma families crowded into the family’s garden, begging him to keep their jobs.

    Books of political theory can be turgid; this is a book of political reality as lived from day to day by a young girl coming of age. It shows what can arrive all too easily in the void left by a suddenly discarded political system.

    Lea’s best school friend even went off in her mid-teens to be a sex worker in Milan, her baby left in an Albanian orphanage full of pitiful tiny children similarly abandoned.

    Much worse was to come, as a result of the ultimate ‘capitalist’ 灾害. Albanians were positively encouraged by the government to invest their money in doomed pyramid schemes. About half the population lost their savings through these, 包括她自己的家人.

    The calamity sparked the civil war of 1997. Lea reproduces pages from her diary describing gunshots, looting, curfews, school closures, fear and chaos. '在 1990 we had nothing but hope,’ 她写道. '在 1997 we lost that too.

    She waved goodbye to her father and grandmother on the shore, sailed across to Italy, and never returned. In this unforgettable book, her abiding love for her family and her country, as well as her exasperation with them, is felt in every word.

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