Every month Exit speaks to an expat who has chosen to make Tirana, or Albania home. This month we spoke to Siobhan, a tech-guru and owner of two Albanian rescue cats. She gives us the lowdown on Tirana, culture, exploring, and burek.
Can you introduce yourself- where are you from, what is your job, how long have you been here?
My name is Siobhan and I originally come from York, Pennsylvania. I work remotely as a Support Manager leading a small intentional team and I’ve been in Tirana since April but have lived in various places in Europe for three years.
How did you end up in Albania?
I was between countries and trying to figure out what my next step was. A co-worker and his family who are digital/home-school nomads posted about finding their “home” for next year in Albania. I didn’t know Americans had such a generous tourist visa allowance here as in most places we only have 90 days with all of the Schengen zone being counted as a single place. I thought it seemed like a good place to set up a base and do more short trips due to its location so I thought, why not, let’s give it a go!
What preconceptions, if any, did you have before coming and how have these changed since you have been here?
I wasn’t entirely sure I knew Albania was its own country and I’m apparently the only person who hasn’t seen ‘Taken’ so I didn’t really have any preconceptions. I knew it was a post-Communist country but little else. I had been in other Eastern European countries and figured it would be similar.
I’m often surprised that this is actually a country still recovering from what I now know was the harshest Communist dictatorship. It faces many of the same issues as any major cities- urban planning, tourists, people living rough, but it has so many green areas and people are always out enjoying them- it’s a bustling and vibrant place.
List three things you love about Albania and life here?
Burek Burek Burek. Just kidding- although seriously, it is great.
Also, I have to be honest, it is inexpensive for me and that’s allowing me to save up some money and live a life I wouldn’t be able to elsewhere. I keep this is mind and tip well along with helping support local charities and NGO organisations through donating and partaking in fundraising activities.
I love that everyone is so friendly. I have a couple Albanian friends as well. That’s amazing to me and makes me feel like this is really home and not just a place where I only interact with other expats.
I do the most random things here that make my life seem like a novel. I got a ball gown made to attend a reception held by the Austrian Embassy for Austria’s National Day and I get to wear it again to the gala event for the Mary Loreto Foundation Gala this Friday, which is also my 40th birthday. I’m finding Albanians use any excuse to have a good party and dress to the nines and I love it!
I am also part of group that goes to dinner at a different restaurant every week- it’s people from all over as well as Albania and we always have a great time. On the other hand, I can also end up with friends dancing to some amazing Albanian rock bands at Charls until the wee hours which is also fun
That’s more than 3 reasons but Albanians don’t follow the rules so I guess we’ll have to let that slide.
List three things you don’t like about Albania and life here?
There’s still a great deal of poverty, especially in the rural areas. People take care of each other more and will keep extended family together but it’s still often a hard life. Communism and the aftermath was not even a generation ago and it’s a difficult economic recovery.
International companies who are based here don’t always pay their Albanian employees the same as the employees they post from other countries. That is unfair to those who are working just as hard.
The sidewalks are terrible!
How does Albania compare with other EU cities that you have lived in?
It’s much friendlier and it’s so easy to strike up a conversation. People are laid back for the most part and it’s also incredibly safe. While there is the shocking prevalence of domestic violence as there is anywhere in the world, I’ve never been followed or harassed by strange men which was a daily occurrence in the US and some other European countries. I’ve found many Albanians are shocked to hear that.
Compared to other EU cities, it’s a hidden gem. So don’t publish this and tell everyone! It’s not overrun with tourists yet and it still feels very Albanian- not yet another generic European capital.
What do you perceive as the biggest problems facing Albanian society? Do you feel that steps are being taken to find a solution?
Attracting industry for blue collar workers. It seems there are jobs for highly skilled and professionals but not the average person. Someone who worked in a factory for 20 years can’t become an IT professional overnight and shouldn’t need to. I’m not sure there is enough being done to attract or create jobs for everyone.
Do you think that scars from Albania’s past are still impacting society today? If so, have you identified any in particular?
For me it was realizing just how recent that past was. When communism fell it didn’t suddenly fix broken infrastructure and government- it has had to be built. The culture and people as well, they are finding themselves again. People my age – even your age – grew up under the rule and aftermath of a severe dictatorship that I’ve heard compared in severity only to North Korea.
To have that be your very recent past as a people and an individual is very difficult. If you can look at a street and remember tanks rolling down it or remember that store being the place you and your family stood for hours in the cold to get meagre rations, this would probably a very depressing place to live.
Many people are trying though and that is amazing to see. I think some Albanians might do very well if they had the means to start over elsewhere. A change of mental and emotional scenery. I don’t want them to give up their culture or language, but rather, I want them to thrive. If they need to go away to find that part of themselves again, I wish I could help.
How to people react to you as a foreigner?
They wonder why I’m here and why I bother learning any Albanian at all. They say they love America and want to go. They also usually laugh and ask what I think of Trump.
Have you started learning the language? What are your thoughts on Shqip?
Yes I’m trying to pick up what I can. It’s important to know at least some of the language for daily interactions in cafes and shops, no matter where you live. Please, thank you, and “glass of white wine” go very far!
What are your favourite places in Tirana?
Radio, Tony’s American Restaurant, LaVeen, T39, Shamrock (of course), Rogner, the Park by artificial lake and the small park by my house. I also like Skanderberg square especially now during the holiday season and it is home to Adrion Books- another favorite.
What is your favourite Albanian food and drink?
Burek. Raki. There’s a ton of fantastic Albanian wine as well. I love a dry light-to-medium bodied wine and there are many available here. And the food is good almost anywhere, I find that even a disappointing meal is way ahead of other places in Europe- basically a bad Albanian meal would be like a decent meal in many other places I have been to.
Where do you get your local news from in Albania? Do you feel confident you are aware of the reality of what is happening?
I follow your Facebook (The Balkanista)! I also check out Balkan Insight and the Guardian seems to have some coverage as well. With regard to sources, it’s like any other media- it’s owned by someone with a view and they make it for others who share that view. In the US, Fox and Washington Post report the same thing very differently. It’s the same here.
If you could change one thing about Albania, what would it be?
That people had jobs and education and all the help they needed to let the past behind. Of course, I think that about America too.
Do you see yourself staying here for the long-term?
Yes, this feels like the home I’ve been looking for, my friends here have quickly made this my home. I never lack for something to do socially or culturally and in the past few months I’ve attended an Austrian celebration, a Gypsy Klemzer Band (they refer to themselves as such), a German Oktoberfest, the ballet to see Gisele, and the opera to see La Traviata. That was an amazing production with high-calibre performers, a joint effort of Serbian and Albanian groups and it surpassed other productions I have seen outside of Albania.Follow The Balkanista!