The Need for Speed

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image by Bartek Wrzesniowski /

It’s springtime, and national pastimes are in full swing all over the world. The English congregate around cricket pitches. The French turn their thoughts to packs of cyclists spinning down country roads. And the Albanians are in the thick of the Hoxha sliding season.

Hoxha sliding is no Olympic event, but don’t let that fool you. The action starts 200 feet up a mammoth triangular monument that has been alternately compared to a crashed flying saucer, a lopsided loaf of bread, and a fist of knuckles. A crazed medley of marble and concrete, it was planted in a Tirana park in 1988 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the birth of Albanian strongman Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985, though local legend suggests Hoxha was born in 1902 and isn’t really dead.

The dates don’t add up, but never mind. The point is that the edifice has a roof that reaches to the ground and resembles a series of toboggan chutes: It’s steeply raked, perfectly smooth, and utterly irresistible to anyone with a thirst for speed.

And speed is very much the point. The rules of Hoxha sliding are simple: Find an empty plastic bottle, preferably a three-liter Pepsi-Cola container, scramble to the top of the slippery slope, sit down on your nonreturnable sled, and slide. Forget about grace or artistic merit; they don’t count.

Clambering up the roof, Klodian Murati gives some pointers. “No technique,” counsels the mop-haired 11-year-old, who is widely regarded as the all-Tirana Hoxha sliding champion. “Go for speed.”

In the field below, a crowd gathers. Lutfi Tota, a 72-year-old farmer, looks up wistfully. “I wish I were young enough to slide,” he says, recalling the days when he went sledding in the mountains near his home village. “If I were 10 years old, I’d be up there with them.”

Tota’s cow, Bardhoshe, lies across the finish line, lowing peacefully. She is an essential safety feature in the game, serving as a bovine backstop to keep sliders from landing in a concrete drainage trench at the bottom of the piste.

Back atop the monument, the young Murati is giving a last-minute, two-dollar lesson to a newcomer. The feet-first slide works best, he advises, even though it offers “no direction control.” The novice squats down on his three-liter sled, grips the neck, and asks what to do next.

“Lift your feet in the air,” Murati says.

With a swoosh and a shout, the rookie is off. But just 50 feet into his slide, he executes an ominous 180-degree turn that launches the sled skyward and ends his shot at the title.

But, hey, there’s always next season, the cow willing.

Excerpted from Mona Lisa’s Pajamas: Diverting Dispatches from a Roving Reporter, © 2009 by A. Craig Copetas, published by Union Square Press; This selection first appeared in the Wall Street Journal (June 2, 1999).

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