Blue, crystal-clear waters. Majestic green mountains…. Aquamarine skies. I haven’t started a blog post yet with pictures before words, but in the case of Albania, I feel that it just might be appropriate. You’re lying to me right now if you said this is the vision you had in your head of this country…the strange isolated land in the south-western Balkans, closed off to the world for 50 years under the tyrannical and unusual rule of Enver Hoxha.
Arriving in Tirana 7 years after first visiting I was immediately confronted with the dizzying modern pace that this country has taken. The airport sparkles and our luggage was waiting for us before we even cleared immigration, even though we only waited about 5 minutes for our entry stamps. With that… “Welcome to Albania.”
Walking around the first day, it soon became evident that it was more difficult to identify buildings and sights that were the same as they were 7 years ago than anything else. When you come into a new country or city you get a feeling either that the place is “on the up,” or that it is in a state of decline… Tirana, and Albania are most definitely “on the up.”
After a day spent around the city…doing a little shopping to refresh the wardrobe after 8 or so months on the road we ended up back relaxing at our hotel. Walking the city earlier, we had noticed a Shawarma shop nearby that looked good, so I figured I’d go out and grab us some dinner. Albania at night still has a certain unique quality in that it’s really really dark. Like no streetlights and minimal signs. That would be all good and fine as it’s a very safe country these days, however every once in a while manhole covers and other grates are missing in sidewalks, so if you aren’t careful, you just might visit the underworld of Albania. Thankfully my short walk to the local Shawarma shop was uneventful…
As I walked into the restaurant, I was greeted by a half-hearted smile by the man behind the counter, but a robust man sitting in the restaurant with a friend immediately turned to me and welcomed me in English. In no way is this suprising in Albania…somehow most of the population seems to speak nearly perfect English, however this man had a certain charm to him and I could tell it would be more than a passing encounter.
I started my order with the man behind the counter trying to convey what I wanted…but the friendly man in the restaurant kept chiming in and helping. What a welcome surprise I thought at the time…I finally find the one Albanian that doesn’t speak English (behind the counter) and another more than makes up for him! While the gentleman behind the counter prepared my Shawarma, the man in the restaurant and I began to chat…..I asked him where he was from and was a bit surprised to hear “TRIPOLI! This is in LIBYA. I come from LIBYA.” It’s a bit hard to convey the exchange, but I assure you that he had a booming voice.
At this point I was obviously more than a bit intrigued, so I inquired further…. “How long have you lived in Albania?”… I didn’t want to ask how he got there directly in case it might be some difficult story. Instead he began to tell it… “My friends all leave Libya…they tell me to come with them to Italy for better life….. I say FUCK THIS.. I go to ALBANIA.” Welll…. OK? This is going an interesting direction…. He goes on: “You know what happens now my friend? They are all beggars on the street and me?? ME??? I own my own FUCKING BUSINESS.”
Needless to say at this point, this was not what I was expecting out of the trip to the Shawaramama shop. I started to think that this was going to be REALLY good Shawarama, as I imagined the Libyans know their Shawarama though…
We conversed for a few more moments and as the man behind the counter went to hand me my sandwiches I pulled out a 1,000 LEK bill (around $8) to hand it to him. The bill barely came into view before the friendly Libyan I’d been speaking to in the restaurant announced in a booming voice: “YOUR MONEY IS NO GOOD HERE.” I mean…we’ve all heard that as a joke in the movies, but when it happens in real life….trust me, you are a bit confounded as what to do next. With my American sensibilities, I kept pushing…. No of course I will pay…thank you SO much, but…
I was practically cut off as the man boomed: “IT WOULD BE AN INSULT TO ACCEPT YOUR MONEY.” Well Ok man, I don’t intend to offend…. I backed off… He continued: “Five years ago I come to this country…Albania..this GREAT COUNTRY…it is my home. You repay me simply by spending money here as a tourist in my new country…my home.”
If there had been a candid camera, or some idiot with a GoPro filiming this whole thing, I must have looked like a deer in the headlights at this moment. Ok… this is happening, I must just accept his generosity. I went to shake his hand and thank him for his profound kindness and turned to leave. Just as I was about to walk out the door his voice boomed once again: “Take BEERS, take DRINKS…. Whatever you need.” I thanked him again and assured him that I had adequate beverages in the room already.
Reflecting back on this story it makes me think of two things in particular. One is the unbelievable hospitality of the Albanian people. Whether it was this man, who literally wouldn’t allow me to pay for my dinner… or Jorgo, our host in Himare who seemed to magically know when we would come down to make our breakfast each morning in his B&B so that he could make me a coffee and pour me morning shots of Raki. Hospitality is quite literally in the blood of the Albanian people…in fact, I remember reading years ago about the ancient code of Kanun, which quite literally dictates that an Albanian host go as far as enter into a Blood Feud for his guest to ensure his or her safety. The second is something I eluded to earlier in this post…just how “up and coming” this country feels! We heard stories of Greeks returning to their ethnic homeland in Albania to work “for better opportunity,” and even a careless observer would notice that Albanians seem to have a certain spring in their step these days….their country is going places. It’s not without problems and Albanian-style chaos….George Castanza could have his dream job of “City Planner” in Vlore as it’s VERY clear that there is no one in that role. Roads don’t logically connect to other roads and there doesn’t appear to be a formal address system. That certainly doesn’t stop everyone from building new homes and enjoying the beautiful setting where where they live on the sea though.
The increasingly globalized world that we live in is ever-changing. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would have met Italians who were looking to move to Warsaw, Poland for better work opportunities…or that Greeks would be returning to their ethnic homeland in Albania even I would have told you that you are nuts. For all the alarmist and isolationist stories we read in the US about immigration, and the horrible daily tales of boats from Libya sinking on their way to Sicily, it’s good every once in a while to meet an immigrant living their version of the proverbial “American dream.” Perhaps in this new century more and more will find their dream not through the closed doors of Ellis Island, but in new and “exotic” lands such as Albania, Poland, Czechia, China…..
I’ll end with this…. I recently read an article by fixr.com about the words most “Googled” by people in various countries. They looked at data for people Googling “How much does (x) cost” and published the top result for each country by number of hits. Perhaps it’s telling that Albania’s result is: “Nose Jobs,” – as they’ve seen some recently economic success comparative to EU basket-cases like Spain, who are Googling “Food.” Before you think that might just be due to Jamon Iberico and the culinary delights of the country…France Googled “Croissants,” so I think “Food” in general is not a positive answer.
My own heritage? Poland most frequently googled “How much does it cost to travel.” The Czechs? “How much does beer cost.” Ya…. I think that sums me up…..
**As an aside, I realize it’s absurd I’m referring to the two guys as “the man behind the counter” and “the man in the restaurant” but I was so taken by all of this I didn’t get a chance to ask their names….apologies