As expats and travelers we all have a list of places where we’d like to live for a while or just go visit and explore. How about Albania? Is that on your list? 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 cafes 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 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.
ALBANIA: AN UPLIFTING EXPERIENCE
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 very nice apartment in the center of town, my mate tells me, and we’re on the tenth floor. I’ve never lived in a high rise apartment so this will be a new experience for me.
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.
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: CITIZENS! IT IS ABSOLUTELY FORBIDEN TO MAKE ANY KIND OF NOISE! IN CASE YOU ACT CONTRARY TO THE RULE WE WILL CALL THE POLICE. ADMINISTRATA
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 cafes and side-walk coffee shops and Tirana has more than I’ve seen anywhere in the world including Amsterdam and Rome. 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 color 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 they did! And they’re still doing it. Even new buildings get pretty paint.
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.
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.
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.)
The 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 three in the morning to catch an early flight to Rome and then onward to the US where we’ve parked ourselves for a while. 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.
The place is silent as a tomb. Everybody is asleep 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.
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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 don’t want to go?