Albania – the Other Side of the World

16 Aug

As soon as I got back  to Britain, Albania started fading like a dream.  When I’m in the UK, Albania seems like a crazy, imaginary place, and when I’m over there the West just seems like a story.  They are two different  worlds and it seems impossible that they could both be true.  Before the last rays of sunshine trickle from my memory I’ll set down a few of my favourite, and least favourite, thing about Albania.

A Roadside Building in Albania

A Roadside Building in Albania

+ve Buildings with bold geometric shapes and contrasting colours, with supporting columns thrown out at energetic angles.   These are typically roadside garages or “kompleks” (small service stations) but you also get hotels and apartment blocks in this form.  I think it’s probably a combination of the survival from the communist era of an appreciation for strong, clean lines, with a post-communist rebellion against the constant grey and lack of decoration,  but I’m hardly an expert on architectural psychology.  The photo is terrible, taken from a moving car with a phone camera, but it gives you an idea.  It may not be to your taste, of course – after all, I’m one of those people who like wind turbines.

+ve The food.  I love Albanian food, generally speaking.  That’s not to say I haven’t had any number of bad meals in Albania, but when it’s done well, Albanian cuisine is amazing.  This, like the buildings, is also a matter of taste.  It tends to be greasy and salty and generally bad for you – but then, I’m Scottish, I’m designed to like that kind of stuff.  My favourite kind of Albanian food is the fast food – byrek me gjise (salty white soft cheese inside flaky filo pastry) and sufllaqe (pork, salad, and chips in a pitta, with lashings of  ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise).  I always make a beeline to my friend Dajana’s sufllaqe shop whenever I return to the town of Lushnje.

+ve and -ve  Sunshine.  Now, this looks like it should be a clear-cut positve, but you can have too much of a good thing.  When you’ve been suffering through Scotland’s excuse for a summer, constant hot sunshine is great, and that’s true up to about 35 degrees (in the sun).  Once it starts to climb above that, however, you start to remember that the sun can kill you – and indeed it feels like it will when you’re struggling through the blazing 40 degree sunshine, gasping for the next patch of shade and glugging litres of water.  Most of the time this trip the weather was perfect – hot enough to persuade you into the sea / lake / river, not hot enough to make you want to drown yourself there.

+ve and -ve  Another plus and minus combined is the driving.  On the one hand I love the freedom of not having to wear a seatbelt and the innovative way people deal with road regulations, such as improvising their own contraflows (when I’m being driven – driving myself would be fairly terrifying).  On the other hand, most people do seem  to drive like idiots, park in the daftest places, and accidents are accepted as a natural hazard.  I saw two while I was out there in less than two weeks.  Neither was serious, but it gives you some idea of the condition cars and bikes – and, in some cases, people – end up in.

-ve But if you think driving conditions are bad, you should try being a pedestrian.  There’s a reason why people walk down the roads, despite the crazy driving, and it’s that the pavements are more hazardous.  The slabs are often broken or missing, and in some places there are uncovered manholes and drains (although this problem is not as bad as it used to be).  It’s not that bad in sensible shoes in the daytime, but throw in the complication of high heels, or nightime, or both, and things get very hairy indeed.

-ve Worse than the broken pavements was the broken sleep. Now this isn’t a typical Albanian thing like the others on the list, it’s more a result of being there in the holidays when people are coming and going and everyone wants to fit as much in as possible.  So there were 4am wake up calls to go fishing, the husband coming in from a local bar in the early hours, relatives arriving from Greece at three in the morning – and sometimes more than one interruption in a night.  I spent a week without a whole night’s sleep and I would have become homicidal if it wasn’t for the siestas.

+ve Affection.  In Albania, your friends show you that they love you, and you can do the same back without fear of being misunderstood.  There’s so much more platonic touching – holding hands, kissing on both cheeks, walking arm in arm.  It’s also true that people can fake affection, particularly when circumstances dictate that they’re supposed to love you, but don’t.  However, that is more than made up for by the genuinely warm welcome my old friends give me (especially my Christian friends), and the sheer joy of spending time with people who truly care about you and aren’t afraid to show it.

(f you’re interested in visiting Albania, you might want to check out my article on Albania as a holiday destination.  Be aware, though, that the advice on visas and using credit cards is a bit out of date – things have moved on and it’s easier to visit and to use plastic than it used to be.)

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