Food, Fights, and Family: A weekend in Albania

The flight is at 12:25pm.  My brain by now has its own schedule, waking up at 7:30am every morning, so I start the day with an easy lead before I have to hop on a bus and head to the airport.  Who am I fooling though, I know that extra time will just be eaten up by extra breakfast time and sudden repacking.  Which…is exactly what happens.  Before I know it, it’s after 9:50am and I still have to buy a bus ticket for the 10:10am bus to the airport.  I toss on my sunglasses, grab my keys, and rush out of the house as fast as I can.

Let me tell you something: if you want to buy a ticket at the bus station, you’d better be there darn well early.  On this particular Friday morning there is only one window open for service.  The British guy at the front of the line is indecisive about which package deal he wants to visit the Postojna caves.  I’ll give him a pass though, there are a lot of options.  The next girl has me checking my watch and peering over her shoulder every few seconds to get the eye of the teller, because this girl will just not get off the phone.  I’m getting a little nervous here – the bus leaves in just two minutes, and I still have to pay!  Finally it’s my turn in line, and it turns out that I don’t even have to wait.  The ticket can be bought directly on the bus, which leaves right about….now.  My feet start to carry me out of the station before I even think about moving.  The bus is just ten meters away, and I am not letting that thing go.  The driver pulls away not even ten seconds after I buy my bus ticket, and I try to convince myself again to please, please stop being so late for everything.

The drive to the airport is quite pleasant, actually.  Slovenija is a fascinating place in that half of its population still lives in small villages and towns, deciding rather to commute every day for jobs in more urban centers.  The bus ride takes us down pleasantly paved winding roads, stopping every so often to exchange a passenger or two outside of a hamlet.  Grassy green fields and short croplands extend to the tree line in the distance, and even my beloved mountains appear at the end of the trip.  Forty-seven minutes later we pull up to the airport entrance.

I’ve been wondering during the bus ride where the butterflies are, the ones that tend to appear in my stomach when I’m headed into a new situation and am not sure of what is going to happen.  At 12:25pm I embark for Albania, a country completely different than anything I have yet come to know.  Heck, this is the first time I am going to a country where I will truly have to improvise communication, because in every other country I’ve been to I’ve been able to piece together some sort of understanding based on Spanish or German or Slovene.  Albanian, now that is something different.  You want to know how to say hello?  It’s “mirëmëngjes.”  Thank you?  That’s “faleminderit.”  See what I mean?

Anyways, the plane trip is only an hour long.  Before I know it we’ve already landed, on what I would call the smallest airport I’ve been to, maybe even smaller than Arequipa.  This of course is the airport just outside of the Albanian capital of Tiranë.  Ours is the only plane on the ground, and to reach the inside of the airport we merely walk down the steps of the airplane and walk ten meters from the plane to the door for arrivals.

I’ve read online that a bus takes passengers from the airport to the city, but first I have to figure out where it is.  Turns out I first have to fight my way past half a dozen taxi drivers who are all convinced that I must take a taxi to the city.  “Why wait?” they ask.  “Just 10 euro!”  I’m sticking to my plan though (honestly I think I just like to make everything a challenge) and wait out the extra forty minutes until the bus arrives.

Almost an hour passes before the bus traverses the 8.3 miles to Tiranë city center.  For a country which had only 600 cars in total before 1991, traffic is now almost unnavigable.  I step off the bus and try to decide where to head next.  Luckily I had just downloaded maps.me on my phone right before leaving so as not to be completely lost.  I take to the streets with my pack on my back and confidence on my face, the go-to expression when I need to look like I know exactly what I’m doing.  Of course the pack gives away that I’m a tourist, or maybe it’s my blue eyes and totally different dress style.  Actually no, it might honestly just be because I’m a girl wandering around town by myself.

The streets of Tiranë are actually quite pretty in the city center.  Apparently the city mayor from the early 2000s decided it was time for beautification of the city.  This began a decade of bright paint colors and tree plantings.  These qualities combined with the hundreds of cafes with a naturally cool vibe turn the capital into a cool place to roam around.  The focus on aesthetics during the prior mayor’s term was actually somewhat controversial because this project appeared to have priority over improving access to and quality of electricity and water in the city.

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On my first day in the city I meet a guy in the hostel named Sam.  Sam is a young doctor from Sydney, Australia, taking a month to explore central and southern Europe.  I give up on looking like a local once we head for the city because Sam is committing a cardinal sin in the eyes of Europeans: he’s wearing flip-flops.  After that I’m no longer worried about my exposed shoulders (although I still don’t see a single girl wearing a tank top or even shorts).

For our first stop, we decide to climb the Pyramid.  Let me explain: the Pyramid isn’t actually a pyramid, but more of a cone shape with many steep faces leading to a dome at the top.  This worn down gray facade was once the most expensive building built in Albania and previously served as a museum to commemorate the long-term Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha.  After the fall of Communism the structure assumed a variety of functions before eventually falling for the most part into a state of disrepair.  Today you’ll find more people perched at the top of the Pyramid than inside it (even though it’s a looong and steep way back down!).

Climbing tall structures and staring out at the hazy skyline is a sure way make yourself hungry (and also not eating anything since leaving home at 10 in the morning) so Sam and I venture to the central streets to scout out a snack.  We end up taking the totally wrong street and only pass shoes and jewelry shops before doubling back to a big park and finding a stand with sandwiches for 150 leke.  Need I explain that 134 leke = 1 euro, so we are looking at delicious wurst sandwiches for just over a euro.  This turns out to be the second big challenge of the day however: we must stand not in a line, but in a sort of crowd of chaos, fighting our way to the front with bills crunched in our raised fists to convince the griller to give us a sandwich.  After battling my way to the table (okay, maybe that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration), I finally get to sink my teeth into a fresh loaf of bread filled with meat, tomatoes, and onion.

By nighttime I finally meet the people for whom I have come: Grand Valley alumni.  Surprise, this isn’t just a vacation – GV is hosting an alumni dinner in Albania!  Everyone is a hoot.  We’re the folks who have arrived early.  There’s two people from the Netherlands, three from Albania, two from the US, and one from Italy.  What’s the plan for our first night?  A party, of course.  One of the local guys has reserved a seat for us at a club called the Lollipop.  I’ll let your creative juices decide what that place is supposed to be like.

Okay, so you don’t have to think for that long.  Lollipop is actually pretty cool inside, with ceilings at least 20 feet tall and a raised floor on the left-hand side.  The music is average pop with some latino music thrown in every once in a while (thank goodness).  Every 20 minutes the DJ decides to blast us with a white cloud of air coming so fast I can’t even keep my eyes open.  After about two hours the girl staying at my hostel is ready to go home and so we start our goodbyes.  We’re not quite ready to leave yet however when the who central dance floor turns to the left.  Wham!  A wooden stool comes crashing down on someone’s head.  The guy who’s been hit looks confused, and angry.  His attacker takes the stool and holds it in front of him for protection.  Glass starts flying,  blue LED lamps, whatever the guy can get his hands on because this isn’t just a fist fight, it’s a bar fight – in that they’re using every piece of the bar they can grab to throw at each other.  Once the glass starts raining on the main floor, our friend Olvi basically sweeps his arms around all the girls to push us behind him and keep us from getting hit by any of the debri.  It only takes a minute for everything to cool down, by which time we’ve decided it’s probably time to head home.  Needless to say, it was a pretty exciting first day!

Saturday brings us to the main (culinary) event: the GV Alumni Dinner.  GV is actually home to several international students from Albania, and even the current major of Tiranë studied there for a bit.  Dinner begins on a terrace outside of restaurant Mullixhiu.  Never-ending fresh purple juices and carafes of red wine keep glasses ever full as we munch on a plates of sliced meats and cheeses while mingling with the growing crowd.  Within an hour we are invited to take a seat inside the beautifully decorated wooden interior of the restaurant.  I find myself seated at a table with an Albanian university professor and a U.S. Embassy employee.  New glasses are brought to the table, and then the fun begins.  An event originally scheduled for less than two hours eventually grows to longer than three as the servers spoil us with nine servings of traditional Albanian foods.

The first dish is a light creamy soup adorned with thick slices of brown mushrooms and drizzled with oil.  This is followed by two slices of fresh cheese flavored lightly with a berry sauce.  The next dish I can describe, but truthfully I’m not sure what it is: it appears to be a blend of milk and flour, slowly churned to form an airy and fluffy sort of pudding; edible flowers (pumpkin?) and puffed rice kernels are sprinkled on top.  This is one of my favorite dishes.  Once nothing remains of the brilliant orange blossoms, the plate is whisked away in order to introduce a bit of sauteed meat wrapped in a crunchy baked phyllo dough.  Two bites later, the plate is traded for a bowl of cool creamed (you got me here, I’ve no idea again) laden with small yellow flowers.  Flowers are a continuing trend in the next soup that is brought to the table.  This bowl serves a clear soup filled with chunks of mushrooms and purple flower buds.  Could it be lavender even?  I don’t know, but it tastes great.  The next dish contrasts to the soup with its viscous rice pudding nature adorned with fresh local blackberries.  After seven plates we are finally served what might be considered the main dish: a perfectly roasted leg of (I’m going to guess) quail.  My table companions have long given up on finishing each dish at this point, but I still have room for the closing treat: a flan-type pastry paired with blackberries and a small jar to drizzle blackberry sauce for the final touch.

A few hours of food have left us all full and content; the party isn’t over though, as the mayor then invites for a drink at a locale downtown.  A fifteen minute walk leads us to an outdoor garden.  Cascading vines wind their way among trees and shrubs which turn this spot into a mini hideaway from the busy street.  As the night winds down, we all agree to meet the next day for a trip to the coast.

I rise the next morning early to take a walk through town before meeting the group to drive towards the sea.  The squares on this Sunday are quiet.  This is a great contrast to the day before during which a protest took place in the center city.  The city ordered 1,500 police officers to report and contain the situation.  There were cops on every corner, crowded together in groups of 10, 20, 30 officers.  I have never before seen such a police presence…though of course, I am not so often in large cities.

The trip to the sea is relaxing and exactly what we need after a busy day.  Traffic draws the escape from the city into a 45 minute ordeal, but finally we make it to the open highway.  Durrës lies directly to the west of Tiranë on the Adriatic Coast.  The sun is shining, we have ice cream in hands, and the waves beckon for a good swim.  I hop into the water after ordering lunch, knowing that it will be at least a half hour wait before we receive our meals.  Most beach bathers are young kids, and I appear to be the only girl interested in swimming.  Perhaps it’s the Lake Michigan blood which allows me to think most water is warm enough for a swim.  The food is ready soon enough though, so it becomes time to hop out and sit down to the next serving of Albanian delicacies.  There is no fried octopus on the menu so I decide to try the octopus carpaccio instead.  If you’re ever looking for inexpensive and delicious seafood, definitely take a trip to the Albanian coast!

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Back in Tiranë, I decide the next day to take a furnicular up to a tall hill outside of the city.  I end up sharing a cabin with a woman, her husband, and his father.  None of them speak English, but the wife Mosa speaks some Italian due to the Italian TV which dominates Albanian TV.   Between her Italian and my Spanish we manage to at least trade names and figure out where each of us is from.  They then invite me to a kava, and I of course accept.  I follow them to the small shuttle which takes visitors up to a restaurant high on the hill.  The invite for coffee suddenly becomes a full lunch (I’ve figured out though that asking someone for a coffee is literally the invitation to do anything around here) and I decide to order a grilled trout taken straight from the pond next to the restaurant.  The meal becomes a game of charades until the waiter comes to our rescue to translate.  We learn about our families, about what I am doing in Albania, and what I think of the beautiful country.  By the end of the meal the waiter tells me that the family would like to invite me to their home in Tiranë.  I am always interested in meeting locals and experiencing the local lifestyle, so I gratefully accept.  We head out towards their house on the edge of the city.  As soon as we turn off the main road, the asphalt turns to pothole haven.  The only way the house is even accessible is by first driving through a cemetery.  A few meters farther up the road we pass a small building which I soon learn is the scrap metal company which Mosa’s brother runs.  We then pass a garbage dump.  Mosa mentions that the dump is where she works.  She gestures to a man wading through the sea of rubbish towards the road and says that they work together.  What Mosa really means, as I later find out, is that she spends her days pulling on a pair of rubber boots and gloves, a mask and suit, and forages through the dump to find scrap metal to bring back to her brother’s business.  There house is not even a kilometer away, sitting on the other side of the road and definitely within the range of air drifting from the landfill.

Once we arrive to their house I am immediately introduced to Mosa’s brother who speaks some English.  His mom is a lovely and cheerful woman, and obviously thinks her son and I are destined to be together.  She insists that we go out for a coffee.  The son thankfully assures me that I shouldn’t give any thought to what his mom says, and instead we spend the next couple hours driving from their house to the sea and back while talking about his time in England and mine in the U.S.  I am the first person from the U.S. most of this family has ever met, and certainly the first one they have invited to their home.  The son tells me a story quite common with Albanians – he went to England to work, only to be identified a couple of years later by the police as an illegal resident and sent home.  He now works for his uncle’s scrap business, wishing all the while that he could find his way again to work outside of Albania.  It’s interesting though to talk to guys like this (I met a waiter who had been in a similar situation), and they’re completely open about telling you about their whole experience.  The waiter I met even told me he was leaving in two days so that he could catch a boat and try to return to England, and seemed totally indifferent to speaking to us about this illegal action out in the open.

Despite being a family of low income, we are sitting in a nearly new right-hand drive Mercedes.  The black car is polished to a T and smoothly navigates the treacherous roads which dominate the infrastructure outside of the city.  Mercedes are actually quite popular in Albania.  It is for many I would assume a show of wealth.  I have heard from other travelers here that some families will choose to live in poorly constructed houses, yet have a Mercedes sitting out front.  Researching later while back in Slovenia, I learn that the majority of these cars are stolen from western Europe and driven through the night towards Slovenia, then to the Croatian port of Rijeka with a final location of Durrës (Source: The Independent).  Cars sell for a fraction of their original price (they have to in a country with an income per capita 70% below the EU average (World Bank)) and are almost impossible to return to original owners once in Albania.

Back at the house, I get to meet Mosa’s children.  Her daughters are incredibly outgoing and chat away as Mosa does my hair in a traditional hairstyle.  She said she used to be a hairdresser, but there just weren’t enough customers for her to make the business work.  She now asks me how I can help to get a place for her daughters at a university in the U.S.  The girls are incredibly bright and speak English even better than their uncle.  They dream of musical and law careers, only possible through study at good schools.

I hear many times throughout the night how the family would like to come to the U.S.  They describe it like the promised land, a place where people can find a good job and can work their way up, even from nothing.  They see it as a place where their kids can build a future.  This, they tell me, they cannot much imagine for their children at present in Albania.  I am at a loss for words.  I become acutely aware of the power which lies behind my passport: the permission to travel nearly anywhere I want, the ability to study at a great university, the opportunities to work and network even as a young student to pave a path for success.   I can only hope that Mosa’s daughters are able to find a way to envision and enact such a path for themselves.

Once the sun goes down we head inside to enjoy a dinner of meat, potatoes, and salad.  Beers are on the table, but most of the family chooses to kick back an energy drink.  Energy drinks are everywhere in Tiranë, a phenomenon which one person explained to me as as a consequence of the end of communism – it was a product which for many years was never allowed into Albania, and upon its introduction became madly popular.  We round out the night with Mosa and her sister-in-law showing me their traditional Albanian celebration clothing.  Mosa’s mother’s outfit is an elaborately handmade combination of stockings, skirt, shirt, vest, beaded belt, and headscarf.

The next day is time for me to head home to Slovenia.  The car drives slowly through the dusty heat, passing through two rows of tall palm-like trees on the boulevard leading towards the airport.  I stop for one last coffee on the side of the road as the car is left at a car-wash station (I think these are second only to coffee shops in terms of the prevalence of a business in Tiranë).  Finally I step into the airport with a bag packed full of gifts from this generous family.  I turn and say goodbye to them one last time before passing through the gate and returning to the calm and quiet life of Ljubljana.

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