EXPAT ADVENTURE: ALBANIA THE BEAUTIFUL

by missfootloose on October 3, 2009 · 20 comments

in Albania, Culture and Customs, life abroad

As expats and travelers we all have a list of places where we’d like to live for a while or just go visit and explore. How about Albania? Is that on your list? 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 cafes 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 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.

ALBANIA: AN UPLIFTING EXPERIENCE

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 very nice apartment in the center of town, my mate tells me, and we’re on the tenth floor. I’ve never lived in a high rise apartment so this will be a new experience for me.

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.

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

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 cafes and side-walk coffee shops and Tirana has more than I’ve seen anywhere in the world including Amsterdam and Rome. 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 color 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 they did! And they’re still doing it. Even new buildings get pretty paint.

Photo above by davduf / CC BY NC-ND
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 / CC BY-NC-SA

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.

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.)

The 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 three in the morning to catch an early flight to Rome and then onward to the US where we’ve parked ourselves for a while. 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.

The place is silent as a tomb. Everybody is asleep 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.

* * *

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 don’t want to go?

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Turquoise Diaries October 3, 2009 at 7:45 am

This is a wonderful post. As you said Albania is a country that I am not thinking to visit So reading your observations was great.

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Sean October 3, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Well, this is quite a nice story.

And I know exactly that elevator, believe it or not. It was like that in July-August as well.

As for that section of Tirana you loved, I wonder whether you indeed had any sleep at night. While there, I frequently heard people in the neighborhood complaining about loud music from night-clubs and bars until 3:00 AM in the morning.

Also, I wonder whether you had any chance of visiting the Adriatic sandy coastline. Well, you better had, because next time you visit Albania it might be gone for good.

In fact, the government has bowed to foreign developers’ pressure to build several huge power plants and oil related developments from Vlora in the South to Durrës in the North. A gigantic 1200 MW coal-based power plant is being planned for the ancient Porto Romano harbor 5 miles north of Durrës. Italian state-owned energy giant ENEL is sponsoring it. It will produce electricity for Italy leaving the dust and ashes to Albanians…I wonder whether Mr. Berlusconi is happy about it.

We Americans made sure to do our part in destroying Albanian coastline, too. You could go to Treport Beach in Vlora, where a 120 MW oil-based combined-cycle power plant was just completed…The problem is that it is cheaper to buy energy from abroad than to produce it.

After the beautiful, sandy beach, a few sand dunes and several acres of Mediterranean pines went down the tube, the World Bank, which sponsored the project, can proudly claim that “we are fighting poverty and protecting environment in Albania”.

The problem is that the U.S. holds 25 percent of the voting shares in the Bank’s Board of Directors. And our TDA gave $500 k to two American consultants to prepare the Environmental Impact Statement….

I wonder whether we would have allowed something like that in our National Seashore…

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Minnie October 4, 2009 at 11:10 am

Miss Footloose, I came across your blog by accident – and am so glad I did. I have enjoyed reading about Albania, and am heartened by the mayor’s low-cost but incredibly effective ‘cheerfulness initiative’. Look forward to hearing more.
Thank you. Greetings from Nice, France.

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Mary Witzl October 4, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Every time I go to a new country, I generally find that my preconceived notions, however well informed, are totally off the mark.

What an interesting country Albania sounds, and how I admire the artists who painted those ugly ferroconcrete buildings! And not to make light of that woman’s hard life, but she has in front of her more nutrition than a lot of Americans see in a whole week. Though perhaps she only sells those vegetables and sees precious little of the profits? And at least her shoes look comfortable.

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Mara October 5, 2009 at 5:14 pm

I lived on Sicily for seven months. When I told my Belgian friends they all asked me about Club Med, when I told my Dutch friends, they all asked me about the maffia. Well, I never saw them and certainly never had any dealings with them.
Sicily was a lot drier than expected, but also very beautiful. I don’t think I would like to live there properly though (I lived in a holiday compound), or anywhere in the south of Italy…

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Jungle Mom October 5, 2009 at 5:26 pm

I find most places rarely live up to my expectations. Good or bad.
I love your writing style.

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Elizabeth Bradley October 5, 2009 at 7:38 pm

What a great post. I enjoyed every word. You transported me to Albania! Here in Southern California we have many Albanian workers, (when I had my design business) I was lucky enough to hire a few. They worked HARD. Anyway, it’s funny to think of one elevator as being a donor for the other elevator.

My husband was working in Mexico City, about six years ago, and I decided to join him. Many people told me not to go. My brother-in-law had been there and he didn’t think it was safe. I loved it! I was careful, but did much sightseeing while my husband worked. We were staying in The Four Seasons, (on the company’s dime) for the first week, then when hubby was finished with his job we traveled around on our own and stayed in more basic rooms. We had a great time.

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Aledys Ver October 6, 2009 at 9:09 am

Hi there!
Beautiful post, I enjoyed reading it very much. I’m sure that Albania must be a beautiful country: just by looking at its location, I expect it to have a lot to offer, despite its “Dark Age” of Communism.
I am heading for my own country, Argentina, in a couple of days. Once there, I’ll be visiting a region in the north of the country where I’ve never been before. I expect it to be quite more truly Latin American than the rest (the most densely part of the country is more European actually), rich in native culture and a lot less developed than the big cities. Let’s see what surprise I’ll be in for! I hope it’ll be a pleasant one, just as yours during your visit to Albania. 😉

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GutsyWriter October 6, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Sick elevators seem to be the norm in so many parts of the world. I experienced those in Hungary as a child on holiday. Loved your vivid descriptions and wanted to ask you, if these are the stories you have in your book, you want to publish. Are you giving us various chapters? I do hope you get a book published as your writing transports us into the life of the country.

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Miss Footloose October 6, 2009 at 2:42 pm

@ Turqouise Diaries, you have visited some very interesting places, and I am sure Albania is not a country many people think of as an adventurous destination.

@ Sean, the SAME elevator in the same building! Interesting. What were you doing in Albania?

Your tale of doom is disturbing, of course. There are many stories like it around the world. My blog is about the light side, the fun, and the good stuff mostly. The problem is that in the West we hear a lot of bad news from other parts of the world and many Westerners think that is all there is: Nothing but famine and AIDS and civil war and poverty and corruption. My goal is to show there is some fun and happiness and good stuff to be found in all these “horrible, dangerous, poverty-stricken, godforsaken” places that get so much bad press all the time.

Which is not to say that what you say is not true.

And then there is the American myth about how much money the US spends on foreign aid. It’s less than 0.5% of the budget, and a huge part of that goes to Israel and not to sub-Saharan Africa. Okay, I had to get that in, but you knew that already.

@ Minnie, glad you found me and that you like my blog. Now go tell your friends 😉 I’m looking forward to checking out about your life in the South of France. I love it there!

@ Mary Witzl, as you know, it’s very difficult — if not impossible — to get a true picture of any place without actually going there yourself, and then it takes a while before you see anything but the surface. My biggest surprise came when I lived in Palestine.

About a few heads of lettuce being more nutrition than many Americans see in a week …. well, that’s not because of poverty of money, more like poverty of … well I don’t want to start that discussion 😉

@ Mara, that was interesting, the difference between the Belgian and Dutch response to your trip to Sicily. I hear Sicily is beautiful and does not consider itself “Italy.”
I’ve been to the south of Italy and like Campania, which is very green and not dry like further south.

@ Jungle Mom, we “grow” our misconceptions from only hearing bits and pieces about places, and we never get a balanced image, and even then we never know the reality until we live in a place for a while.
And sometimes even then we never get beyond the surface because we’re foreigners. Still, we are so easy with our judgments. Sigh!

@ Elizabeth Bradley. I am glad you went to Mexico and enjoyed it! So much of what we hear about foreign countries is exaggeration or misinformation. And so much of what is dangerous can be dealt with by being informed and using common sense. Well, you know!

@ Aledys Ver, have a wonderful time in Argentina and find the north as you expect — or not. Should be interesting either way. I would love to go there some time. Well, I may still.

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Miss Footloose October 6, 2009 at 2:59 pm

@ GutsyWriter: Yes, I have a finished book with all my (mis)adventures. The blog posts are excerpts.

I’m in search of an agent and/or publisher but have been told that Americans don’t want to read about places where they wouldn’t go to on vacation . . . Fate, however, took me to Kenya, Ghana, Indonesia, Palestine, and Armenia rather than Italy, France, Mexico or the Caribbean islands.

So the verdict is that “There is no market for this type of book.”

I keep hoping to find a publisher who thinks differently.

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♥ Braja October 6, 2009 at 6:17 pm

You’re not wrong about the democracy thing….I do, after all, live in India ;))

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Typ0 October 8, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Great post. I love the beautiful colourful buildings. :)) Whenever a country surprises me its always a nice treat: a developping country that doesn’t have corrupt cops waiting for a bribe, or kids on a bus in a former communist country who give up their seats for the eldery without being glared at or told to do so.

I read your comment about yoru book. The number of people who visit and post here are proof that there’s a market out there. We love your stories!

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Sietske October 9, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Hi Miss Footloose!
I’m in the same boat as you as far as Frisian goes. Heard it all my life, but grew up in Utrecht/Bunnik, and can’t speak Frisian, even if my life depended on it. My Arabic is much better though, but I speak it with my hands and feet (as they say in Dutch) I decided to send my son to sailing camp (zeilkamp) in Friesland 3 years ago, in the hopes of upgrading his language/mentality/attitude a bit. He’s been going for the past 3 years, and all he learned was curse like a sailor. In Dutch! Not one word of Frisian there.
And the elevators, ah, I can relate to that. I live on the 12th floor, and we have daily power cuts!
Good to read you
Sietske

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Miss Footloose October 10, 2009 at 2:49 am

@ CairoTypo. I was in the country of Georgia (north of Armenia where we lived for years) for a short visit and learned that the cops and their corrupt ways had been cleaned up — most importantly by giving them a living wage so they didn’t have to find other ways to get money to feed their families.

Thank you for your nice comments about my writing!

@ Sietske, fellow Fri(e)sian-Dutch person — nice to find you here! Looking forward to learning more about your life in Lebanon! I lived in Ramallah, Palestine for a while. Loved it there! Groetjes.

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LadyFi October 10, 2009 at 10:22 am

Love the cheerful colours! I vowed that I would never ever come to such a cold country as Sweden with just snow, smelly fish and pine trees for company.

I’m still here after 13 years!

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bathmate December 19, 2009 at 9:33 pm

really a wonderful blog ,its ok type

Bathmate

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Lesley March 17, 2013 at 6:39 am

Hello, We love a bit of a wander round Europe and have now found ourselves settled and living in Hungary… Upon a desicion to come here I had the same fears as you on Albania… We have been here for just under a year now and it is nothing as you would imagine…
Our next visit is right down Croatia so may as well keep going and explore Albania too
🙂
I loved your blog you have opened my eyes to what i had already assumed…Thank you
Lesley In Sunny Hungary (English ex pat)

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missfootloose March 18, 2013 at 10:28 am

Do go to Albania, it’s gorgeous and perfectly fine. I’ve been there twice now. We have (German)friends who have now lived there for 4 or 5 years and they love it there. Happy travels, Lesley.

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Lesley March 19, 2013 at 10:32 am

Thank you for your reply, I am looking forward to all of our travels this year we have no ties here and two beautiful motorcycles, so can come and go as we please we are spending all of May on sunny beach in Bulgaria, and from there who knows…Yan and I are very keep to tavel every country in europe and maybe if we find somewhere perfect settle there forever…how romantic is that …lol
whereis your next planned trip to..?

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