Did you ever think you might visit or go on vacation to, say, Albania? No? Well, neither did I. But one of the good parts of living the expat life is that you end up living or traveling in places you’d never given much thought to and might not have been able to find on a map. Places you very well might have had negative mental images of, like Albania.
Albania is a beautiful, mountainous, Mediterranean country. It’s located on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas across from Italy’s heel and has a dramatic coast line and wonderful beaches. It’s not dark, dangerous or depressing, as so many people who’ve never been there seem to think.
Earlier this month I was there for the second time. I spent some time in Albania a couple of years ago and arrived with a truck load of preconceived ideas and old prejudices. You know, all these horrible dark stories of the Hoxha the Dictator and his oppressive communist regime. Well, much of that was true in the past, but it’s over now. The younger generation never lived under that regime and is happily trying out capitalism and consumerism wearing skimpy clothes, high heels and iPods. Cell phones, of course, are everywhere. I was happy to be back to have another look and spend time with old Hash House Harrier friends (see last week’s post).
The easiest thing in the world is to generalize. So I will: Albanians are friendly people. They like to talk to foreigners and find out about life in other places. They know their country is often considered to be the poorest country in Europe, but they’re in competition with Moldova for that dubious distinction. (Moldova is where I live right now, but I’m not making any judgments.)
At first glance you wouldn’t think poverty when you arrive in the center of Tirana with its many sidewalk cafés, trendy shops and modern buildings. This was the view from the window of my hotel room. The hotel was first class with beautiful gardens, a swimming pool, great service and excellent food.
Then you travel out of the center of town and you see that things aren’t all gleamy glass and steel.
Out in the country you see scenes like this:
I was hoping these beasts weren’t going to come for me when I took their picture, but fortunately they didn’t move.
I had the opportunity to visit several olive-curing and oil-pressing plants the first time I was there, during the harvest time. We were a few hours drive out of Tirana.
At one of the plants we were offered a light lunch prepared by the owner’s wife, who took part in the olive–oil discussion, but sat apart from us while we ate. I found this a bit uncomfortable and was tempted to tell her to join us at the table, but of course this was not my place, not my country, not my culture and not my business, so I shut up.
Did you know that during communist times, Hoxha the Dictator managed to terrify everybody with the image of the evil Americans coming to invade and conquer? So he had thousands and thousands of bunkers built in the countryside where soldiers and civilians were supposed to hide and fight the Americans when they invaded.
Everywhere you go you see these bunkers, and some are now being decorated and painted, making lemonade out of lemons so to speak. I’m suggesting designing routes and trails and fitting them out for backpackers and other tourists.
And may I finish with this photo below. In Tirana there are many fashionable and trendy shops where you can buy lovely clothes and shoes. However, many people cannot afford those, but no worries: There are lots of more modest shops as well.
Want an interesting vacation? Try Albania.
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Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by a place you visited? What preconceived ideas or prejudices did you have and found to be wrong?