365 Days in Albania

Lifestyle Opinion Society

366 days ago I booked a last minute, spur of the moment flight to Tirana. I knew nothing about the country or its people, and the quick Google search I did before clicking “book” didn’t tell me much. My plane was due to leave at 6 am from Larnaca airport and when I opened my eyes to the first light of morning, i realised with a panic that I had overslept. Glancing at my watch as I jumped up from the bed, the time said 4:30 am and realising I lived one hour away from the airport and might not make the flight, I considered just going back to bed. But having paid around EUR700 for my last minute ticket, I called a taxi and bundled myself and my handluggage out of the door and into a whole new adventure.

Six hours later, my feet touched the ground at Nene Tereza International Airport and as I gazed around at my surroundings, I felt decidedly discombobulated by this unknown territory. I hailed a taxi from outside the terminal and a smiling face answered me in broken English. Taking my luggage and opening the car door for me, my driver smiled and welcomed me to Albania. Curious to know the purpose of my visit, he assured me that Albanians were incredibly friendly and there was no doubt that I would have a lovely time in his country.

As we began our drive into Tirana, I noted a sort of desolate bleakness in my surroundings. The sky was black with just a hint of sunlight behind dark clouds, and the horizon was a mass of mountains with jagged snow-capped peaks that loomed in an almost threatening manner. But as we got closer towards Tirana, life and colour began to pop up amongst the single-storey greyness of the suburbs. People jostled at bus stops, others sold fruit and vegetables by the side of the road, colourful high-rises protruded from the concrete and the tooting of horns and sounds of voices infiltrated the cab. I started to become engrossed in the world that was passing me by- this place was so alive and interesting and in an instant, I became fascinated.

After checking into the hotel- and all but ignoring the presence that I was sharing a space with- I took myself off for a walk through the surrounding streets The first thing that I noticed was the vast, tree-lined avenues which burst with the colours of autumn; yellows, reds, oranges, and browns assaulted my senses in the most wonderful way, and the crunching of leaves under my feet reminded me of my journey home from school as a child.

The architecture enthralled me- such a mish-mash of imposing Italian-style buildings in the brightest colours, combined with crumbling communist-era Lego blocks, and the silver and glass monoliths that protruded every so often- nothing fitted together, yet somehow it all worked in a way that greatly pleased my eye.

Over the next few days, I wandered the streets of Tirana, I got drunk on raki with old men and women who didn’t speak English, I ate traditional food until I almost burst, and I made a handful of friends who invited me to all sorts of exciting events. I felt inspired and happy, calm and creative. Here I felt like a new version of myself and I was hungry to discover more of what this country had to offer. For the first time in what could have possibly been forever, I felt like I belonged.

My three days turned into three weeks and it was then that I made the decision to come and live in Tirana. I returned to Malta, packed everything I owned, including my two cats, and bought a one-way ticket back to Albania.

Over the last 12 months, my life has changed more than I could have ever comprehended. I have visited what I consider to be some of the most beautiful places on earth; Theth, Lake Ohrid, Castle Rozafa, Himara, Drymadhes, Butrint, the crumbling backstreets of Tirana- a whole new world has been opened to me and I have enjoyed every second of discovering it. I have experienced wonderful traditional dishes, local wine from family-run kantinas, and discovered I have a big interest in agritourism. I have interviewed the most fascinating people from artists to former mob hitmen, politicians to musicians and activists, and I have met many other wonderful and fascinating human beings along the way. I’ve been on TV more times I can count, run a 10km race, given a TEDXTalks, spoken at protests, “gone viral”, been kayaking in caves, watched wonderful operas an ballets, cleaned tonnes of trash from beaches, protested, and toured winding mountain roads on the back of a Harley Davidson. There are times that I feel truly overwhelmed by the people I interact with and the experiences I have, many of the things that have happened to me over the last 12 months, I couldn’t have even dreamt of 12 months and a day ago.

Then, feeling inspired and overwhelmed by everything I was discovering about this country I had previously known so little about, I decided to write a blog. It was a snap decision, whilst I am a writer, I have never blogged before, but knowing that I wanted to share what I was experiencing, with my friends and family, I set up The Balkanista. It took me around two hours to design the original site and write my first post. I then shared it across social media and went out for a drink, not giving it more than a second thought. When I logged on to check my blog the next morning, I had 2000 hits, and from that moment, there was no looking back. I now have almost 140,000 visitors and counting, and the simple act of writing about my experiences has opened so many doors, that sometimes I find it hard to catch my breath.

Then, of course, I met my partner Eri who is celebrating his 34th birthday on the same day as my 1-year Albanian anniversary. I cannot play down the influence that he has had on my life- it was after meeting him that I started my blog and it is with him that I explore every corner of the country and drink in the experiences that are presented to us.

But what about the future? Many people assume that I am here for work or that I will leave after a year or so, but I don’t believe that to be the case. I love this country and I love my life here, there is very little that I would want to change. I have been welcomed here and enveloped into the community in a way that is alien to someone from Western Europe. I also feel that I have so much more to explore and so many more stories to tell. Albania is my home now and I look forward to many more years as wonderful as this last one.

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