Have you ever been really surprised when you arrived in a new place?

As expats and travelers we all have a list of places where we’d like to live for a while or to just visit and explore. How about Albania? Is that on your list? Probably not.

It never was on mine. Mostly because I hardly ever thought about Albania, a small, formerly communist country that faces the heel of Italy’s boot across the Adriatic Sea. And when I did think about Albania, what came to mind was not the fun stuff, not images of gorgeous beaches, perfect weather, street cafés with people whiling away the afternoon drinking espresso, nor buildings painted in all colors of the rainbow.

What came to mind was dark stuff — communism, cruel oppression, abject poverty. So when a few years ago the opportunity to spend a month in Albania presented itself, I was immediately interested. Because, well, I like to see how wrong I can be about a place. The fact is, I am usually wrong. It’s what keeps me so humble. Here’s the story:

Albania: An Uplifting Experience

(PS: Remember the word ‘lift’ as you read on)

I arrive in Tirana, the capital, on a warm October evening to join my husband, who has already been here for a couple of weeks, laboring away on a business development project. Having spent some time in chilly Holland before arriving here, I’m loaded down with two heavy suitcases filled with clothing for weather of every sort. Traveling light is not my talent. It’s not in my genes. Genes are handy. You can blame them for lots of things.

It’s already dark so I don’t see much of the town as we drive to the apartment that we have been given to use during our sojourn. It’s a snazzy place in the center of town, my prince tells me, and we’re on the tenth floor. I’ve never lived in a highrise apartment building so this will be a new experience for me. And, as it turns out, not one I’m likely ever to forget.

Two elevators are at our disposal as we arrive with my luggage in the lobby. But no, I am wrong: One is not functioning. I make a comment to the effect that I sure hope they’ll get the other one fixed soon.

However, this is not in the forecast. My husband tells me the elevator has not been operational in the two weeks he’s been here and after some inquiry he has discovered that it will never be again. Its function in life now is to serve as an organ donor for the other one. It is my sincere wish that in the days that we will be here the functioning one will keep operating. (I should have prayed harder.)

It is, indeed, a nice apartment. It has a better kitchen than I’ve had anywhere. It also flaunts two fancy bathrooms (one with a spa tub), a huge balcony and a note of dire warning on the inside of the front door:

CITIZENS! IT IS ABSOLUTELY FORBIDEN TO MAKE ANY KIND OF NOISE! IN CASE YOU ACT CONTRARY TO THE RULE WE WILL CALL THE POLICE. ADMINISTRATA

Albania Tirana

The view from our apartment

 As I explore the town in the next few days I find that the center of Tirana has a somewhat European look about it. Well, Albania is Europe, be it the poorest member of the tribe. But the center of town does not look poor, the reason being that it is not. The elite and the wealthy live here. Like in our apartment building. I see them in the (one single) elevator and they smell well-washed and look well-dressed indeed. They drive fancy cars and wear designer clothes. Other folks live in less attractive neighborhoods and in shabby villages in the countryside, as I discovered while wandering around and on trips out of town.

I love open-air cafés and side-walk coffee shops and Tirana has more than I’ve seen anywhere in the world including Amsterdam and Rome.

Albania terrass

The national non-alcoholic beverage is espresso. Italian espresso. The nearby supermarket is Conad, an Italian chain I am familiar with from my various trips to Italy. Very helpful for my shopping, since – not surprisingly — much of the merchandise is imported from Italy-just-across-the-water and I can read enough Italian so as not to end up washing my hair with toilet cleaner.

Many of Tirana’s buildings bloom with vibrant rainbow colors which gives the city a unique character. Here’s the story: After the Albanians decided to give up on communism and try democracy and a cheerier way of life, the distinctly un-cheery, drab and gray Stalinist apartment buildings stayed behind. When Edi Rama, an artist cum politician, was elected mayor of Tirana, he had a solution: Paint them ugly suckers! And paint them they did! And they’re still doing it. Even new buildings get pretty paint.

Photo above by davduf
Click on the photographer’s name and find more great photos like this one.

Of course not all is cheery in Albania, and not everyone strolls the pavement wearing designer jeans and fancy footwear. For those of you not in the know, democracy does not automatically create wealth and prosperity for all. Many people struggle to make a living, sitting on the sidewalks selling cheap toys, watches, cigarettes, snacks or produce, as this woman on the photo. She should be playing bingo, get her hair curled on occasion, have coffee and cake with her friends and brag about her brilliant grandchildren. Unfortunately, I don’t see much of that in her face.

Photo by CharlesFred

I am a lucky person. I do what I enjoy doing. I wander around town, I shop, I cook, I write, I eat out in restaurants, dance at a party. I talk to people and hear many a gruesome story about the bad old days. During a couple of trips out of town I witness olives being processed into oil, peppers being stuffed with cheese and packed into jars. I have a simple but delicious lunch in a village house. I drink many cups of espresso.

Stuffing Peppers in Albania
Stuffing peppers

And day after day, without any mishap at all, I go up and down in the (single) elevator, often along with other apartment dwellers, and wonder why these well-off tenants and owners so passively accept this single-elevator situation in an upscale 14-floor building. Perhaps it has something to do with having grown up in an oppressive communist regime. Democracy and using your voice as a citizen is not just a set of clothes you put on. It’s a Learning Experience. (This is my deep thought for the day.)

Albania's CoastThe time of our departure arrives. The toiling husband has finished his job and my month of loitering comes to an end. I have had a wonderful time in Albania, met some lovely people, seen stunning countryside. I have learned many things including, once again, that I was wrong about the country: Albania is not a dark, depressing place.

We have to leave for the airport at the ungodly hour of three in the morning to catch an early flight to Rome and then onward to the US. A car and driver will pick us up and deliver us to the airport.

We pack our bags. We go to bed. We don’t sleep. We get up. Get ready. Haul our luggage out the door, into the dimly lit hallway – four heavy suitcases and two carry-ons. Before coming here we’d been on the road a while.

The place is silent as a tomb. Everybody is asleep in their designer pajamas in their fancy apartments.

We push the elevator button.

Nothing.

We push it again. Nothing. The elevator is dead. Very, very dead.

We look at each other. We look at our heavy, heavy, luggage. We look down the deep, deep, deep stairwell.

We look some more. Notice some movement.

Someone is climbing the stairs! The driver! The driver!

Did he have to do this? No. His job is to drive us to the airport. Not risk a heart attack and climb ten flights of stairs and go down again carrying two heavy suitcases. He smiles, he says no problem.

I told you, Albanian people are wonderful.

And broken elevators or not, much is being fixed and Albania is moving up and smiling.

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Have you ever visited a country or a city and been taken by surprise? Found it different than you had expected? Is there a place you “know” you do not want to go?

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Have you ever seen, right in front of your car, a person crossing a road crawling on all fours? As an expat or a foreigner traveling in alien lands you get lots of opportunities to get into trouble. Some trouble is more fun than others, but it’s wise to keep an eye out for signs and warnings and to pay attention to whatever the locals tell you.

I’ve gathered some photos here that should give you some idea of what to look out for in some of the countries I am familiar with. If this is helpful to even one person, my efforts will have been worth it.

While on the island of Phuket in Thailand, where trouble found us in the form of an ear ache afflicting our number two daughter (see: Hunting Down the Doctor) we were careful about the medicine we were given by a sleepy doctor wearing shorts and a Micky Mouse T-shirt. There was more trouble to be found as you can see on the sign above, but fortunately we managed to avoid running over an inebriated person crawling across the road. I should clarify that Phuket Island is a tourist place, and the people ending up on all fours are usually not the locals.

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In Armenia, a small country hiding in the Caucasus Mountains, be prepared to get lost. This is easy to do and there are various ways: First there is the unique alphabet (այբուբեն) which renders you an instant illiterate. Then there is the spoken language itself which is unique as well and completely unintelligible. This then makes you as helpless as a baby. Then to really let you get lost in the wilds of the Caucasus Mountains, the locals offer you road signs like this one:

 

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Costa Rica is a beautiful country with lovely, warm people. Only sometimes apparently they get too warm . . .

FLICKR_CR_NoSmooching


In restaurants, parks and other public places you’ll find signs like this: Amorous scenes forbidden. In other words, no smooching here!

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In Ghana, West Africa, where we lived for a number of years, we had a bar in our neighborhood, the No. 1 choice for many. It was a lively place.


Lots of good fun, loud music, lots of beer. Still, looking at the sign, you should ask yourself, do I really want to go to this place?

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While living in Indonesia, I visited Bali, island of smiles, festivals and temples. I encountered signs on the temples similar to the one below.

FLICKR_Bali_TempleSign_dominiqueBergeron_600x407

So if you are a woman, you may wish to check your calendar before planning a visit to a temple. Then again, you may not.

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If you’ve brought along your beloved dog to my native Holland, you’ll want to pay attention to the sign on the photo below.

My people are known to be a practical, down-to-earth lot, so this sign is graphic and to the point and needs no words in any language.

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In Albania, where I spent a short time living in an upscale apartment in the snazzy downtown area of Tirana, a sign on the inside of our front door warned us we’d better be quiet as a mouse or else! It made me wonder what warning was posted on the doors of less fancy apartments.

Spending time in an Albanian jail was not be part of your travel plans, so we whispered a lot.

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And last but not least, expats beware of what the natives may do to your children! You may not recognize your own flesh and blood when they get done with them.


Here a photo of what happened to my number one daughter in Indonesia when invited to partake in a local fashion show. She’s in the middle with two of her friends, a Dutch girl (right on photo) and a German girl (left). All three Caucasian blondes.

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Tell me what fun, interesting or scary signs or warnings you have come across in your travels. I’m waiting!

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