Expat Adventure: Somewhere Surprising

by Miss Footloose

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:


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.


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 do not want to go?

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Well, this was VERY adventurous of you, Karen. Back when we were travelling – in the mid-’60s – Albania was the only nation in Europe where private travellers (i.e. not on a group tour) were forbidden entry. So it was the only nation in Europe we did not get to! I’m very glad for you, that you made it.

Merry Xmas to you.

You’ve changed my mind about Albania. I also thought it was dark and scary! Glad you had a lovely experience and found wonderful people.
One of the countries I know I don’t want to visit is India. I know it has wonderful monuments, and I’m sure wonderful people, but I can’t come to terms with so much poverty, misery and dirt.

You’ve changed my mind about Albania!

This was a pleasure to read. Thanks so much for sharing it. Sorry to hear about the second elevator breaking, but then without that you wouldn’t have found out that your taxi driver was so willing to come to your rescue! So in the end, it left you with a nice taste in your mouth (I hope!).

What a great story about an interesting country I love the buildings being painted brightly and yes it will take a long time for the people to get over communism although capitalism has a lot of flaws too
What a nice driver to help you down the stairs. Things always happen when you least need it.


Your Albania vignette was delightful…I would chaulk that adventure up as an uplifting experience. You must come to Manila….the Filipinos are wonderful people….

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