To say Albania is a fascinating place would be a bit of an understatement. The whole country is a dichotomy, a paradox, and a mish-mash of contradictions. When I touched down in Tirana, I readily admit to not knowing anything about the place or its people. Now I live here, I have had a crash course in the truly unique way of living and the fascinating idiosyncrasies of everyday life, and it is these things that I have learned during my short time here that I will share with you now.
1. The people are incredibly friendly.
I am going to jump right in and address the elephant in the room when it comes to the European perception of Albanians. As with many Eastern European/Balkan/anywhere-which-isn’t-UK-France-Italy-or-Germany, the media and some governments have painted a less than complimentary picture of the Albanian people. Whilst I am never one to pre-judge anyone, I must say that I was not quite sure what to expect.
So far, I have found Albanians to be incredibly polite and welcoming. I can sit alone, enjoying a coffee and waiters or random strangers will start a conversation with me, wanting to know where I am from, what I am doing here, and what I think of their country. I am inundated with invitations and out of the Albanians that I have met, all of them have bent over backwards to help, give advice, and to just make me feel welcome. After living in Cyprus which I found a terribly lonely experience, it is wonderful to come to a place and to acquire new friends, acquaintances, and coffee buddies on an almost daily basis.
2. You can experience four seasons in one day.
Tirana is the only place where you can wake up to grey skies and chilly air, be in a t-shirt basking in the sun by lunchtime, experience an earth-shaking thunderstorm by mid-afternoon, and then have the temperatures drop to below zero in the evening. Weather forecasts are generally useless so the only way you can plan your outfit or your day is to prepare for quite literally, any eventuality. On the whole, the weather is generally pretty good- I love the crisp winter days where the skies are blue and cloudless, and even the tumultuous storms are welcome and comforting- especially when you are curled up at home in hibernation mode.
3. Raw prawns are a thing, and they taste great!
Albanian food is nothing short of incredible. Fresh, clean, simple, delicious, and in perfect sized portions, the American-influenced European mindset of “quantity over quality” does not exist here. I have been here for four months and I am yet to have a truly bad meal, which is quite impressive when you eat out seven days a week.
But the one thing that really makes Albanian food special is the prevalence of fresh, deliciously prepared, well-priced fish. Before coming here, I had never eaten a raw shrimp, yet now I have become so enamoured with them that some days I wake up craving them. Crudo is everywhere- a variety of fresh fish and shellfish, raw but marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. Frozen fish does not seem to exist and almost every restaurant you go to will have a wide selection of delicious, local and seasonal seafood. The best thing is, for a two-course meal for two, with a bottle of wine, you can expect to pay around €20.
4. Raki is the cure for pretty much anything.
Got a cold? Have a raki. Hungover from last night? Have a raki. Feeling stressed/depressed/happy/any human emotion? Have a raki. You will quickly realise that in Albania, Raki makes the world go around. Raki is similar to grappa and is made in slightly different variations throughout the whole of the Balkans and some of the Middle East. Made from grapes, plums, or various other fruits, its strength can vary drastically from 35% up to…well put it this way, when I spilled some on my Gellish manicure, it melted.
Raki is drunk in the morning with coffee, at work as “pick me up”, before physical activity, before dinner, after dinner, as a toast, before bed, and to cure a whole range of ailments. To me, the taste is a little strong for my liking but if you head over to Komiteti, you can try it in a variety of different flavors and strengths, with my favourite being the honey and cinnamon one which tastes like Christmas in your mouth.
5. There is a huge gulf between rich and poor
Coming from Western Europe and having only travelled throughout the continent, I have not really seen much in the way of real poverty, so coming here was a bit of a shock. The average wage is around €200 a month (if you are lucky) and many families outside of the capital survive on significantly less. Unemployment is around 40%, there is no welfare system, and it seems to me that very little is done to support those who are living way below the poverty line. The divide between rich and poor here is incredible. You can see small children begging on the street whilst Lamborghinis and Hummers speed past, and women in fur coats, dripping in expensive jewellery, totter down the street in vertiginous heels.
Many Albanians want to leave, to travel to Europe to get a better job, to earn more money, and to have a better quality of life. I have met so many smart, educated, and clever citizens who are trapped here surviving on a pittance, unable to put their education and intelligence to use due to the lack of opportunities and well-paying jobs. I guess in time, things will balance themselves out a little more. I have to remember that this Albania is a new one that is slowly rebuilding itself and that these things do not happen in a couple of decades.
6. The language will confuse the hell out of you.
The Albanian language is as unique as the country and its inhabitants. “Shqip” or “gjuha shqipe” is a part of the Indo-European family of languages, but it occupies its own independent branch. An official language of both Albania, and Kosovo, it is also used in Macedonia, Romania, Italy, Montenegro, Serbia, and throughout the rest of the Albanian diaspora. It comprises of two dialects- Gheg which is mainly spoken in the North, and Tosk which is more prevalent in the South.
This language is like no other and it bears no significant similarities to any other language including, Latin or Ancient Greek. Its alphabet contains 36 different letters, many with sounds that are unheard of in English, and its grammar is enough to give you a pretty sore head. Another thing worth noting is the fact that how you read it, and how it is pronounced are completely different things, meaning as a foreigner trying to pick up the language, I am finding it rather difficult.
But avash avash, I am getting there and am starting to be able to communicate on a basic level and can even pick up the theme of conversations at times. I am trying to learn a new word once a week, so perhaps in about a decade, I will be able to hold a full conversation.
7. Driving and parking rules are merely suggestions.
When it comes to driving in Albania, it seems that the mantra of all motorists is “every man for themselves”. I don’t drive as I wasn’t blessed with the patience, tolerance, reaction times, or coordination to be put in charge of a vehicle, but it seems that these traits do not stand in the way of Tirana’s many road users. Roundabouts require a “survival of the fittest” mentality, road signs are open to interpretation, if you aren’t triple parked then you aren’t doing it properly, and traffic lights are mere decorations. As a pedestrian, I learned within the first few days that a green light at a pedestrian crossing does not mean “it is safe to walk”, it means “now is the time to run for your life and hope for the best”. But I sort of like this attitude towards road safety, it keeps me on my toes.
8. It is a country designed for the shorter person.
I am around 188 cm in flat shoes and regardless of what country I travel to, I often find that many places are not designed for those with a stature like mine. This however is taken to a new level in Albania. There are only a handful of coffee shops that have tables I can fit my leg under, forget being able to sit cross-legged, and I can safely say this is the only place where I have repeatedly hit my head on road signs, and once, a traffic light. Another situation I encounter all too frequently is in clothing shop changing rooms where the doors are at a height which means my head and shoulders are visible above the top of it, meaning I get to make eye contact with other shoppers whilst I am almost naked. Also, you can forget being able to buy any kind of trousers here (inside leg of 36″) or any nice shoes, as finding anything I like in my size (40) is all but completely impossible. #TallGirlProblems.
9. Albanians are incredibly proud to be Albanian.
Tell an Albanian how much you love the country, or how beautiful you think it is and you will see their face light up with pride and happiness. Whilst they are more than happy to complain and point out all the countries flaws, there is nothing they like more than to hear a foreigner sing its praises. You will get a similar reaction if you take the time to learn a couple of Albanian phrases- a simple “faliminderit” or “naten e mire” will result in a beaming smile and a look of surprise. Albanian flags are everywhere, eagle tattoos are common, and they love to dance to traditional music and sing traditional songs. This country has been through so much, and for many years had its culture and spirit suppressed so savagely, that it is no wonder they are so proud to be Albanian now. This pride and patriotism brings a big smile to my face as I love to see such pride in one’s origins, whilst being so curious and accepting of foreigners at the same time. Europe could learn a few things from this type of mentality.
10.It is a safe country.
Whilst Albania has problems with drug trafficking, organised crime, and of course, corruption, it is generally a safe country to live in. As a woman living in a capital city, there has only been one occasion where I have felt endangered, and the gentleman in question was not a local. There is no reason why you cannot walk around the city centre alone at night, and I have never been harassed on the street here, whereas, in Malta, it happened on a daily basis. You don’t get cars stopping and making licking faces out of the window at you (like in the aforementioned other country), and statistics show that instances of mugging and assault on the street are pretty much non-existent. As long as you are not in the mafia, or involved in money laundering, or drug dealing, the chances of you getting into any trouble are slim to none.
I am sure there is a lot more to learn and I am really looking forward to discovering what else this country has in store for me.Follow The Balkanista!