The contradictory country

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October 28, 2010 by jessperriam

I try not to arrive in a city/country / small outcrop of sheep-filled islands with preconceived ideas.

Because nothing ever lives up to your expectations. Especially if they’re sky high.

Low expectations = pleasant surprises.

No expectations = the ability to be absolutely amazed.

I honestly had no time to conjure up preconceptions of Albania. For starters, I was busy thinking about everything I saw and experienced in Egypt. Then I was rather taken with Istanbul.

So when I landed in Tirana… well, I discovered it as it was.

And in order to rectify my standard ‘well the beer’s cheap’ response about Albania. I thought I’d try and tell you about some impressions:

1. It seems modern… and then it doesn’t.

Tirana Rinas is an uber modern airport. I thought the plane would pull up next to a 1960s building with scungy yellow moulded plastic chairs… either that or a barn. But it’s clean and tidy, polished tiles and stainless steel.

But then you hop on a bus from the 1970s that ferries you past simple farmland interspersed with shopping complexes.

2. It seems Western… and then it doesn’t

It’s been almost 20 years since capitalism came to Albania. And some things have changed in accordance. The women dress up. A lot. There were short skirts, tight jeans and midriffs on show everywhere. In Gramsh, the town where Amy lives, the newest, shiniest supermarket in town in full of beauty products. The other supermarkets in town look like corner stores.

But on the flipside there’s not enough money going around to satisfy the aspirations that lifelong capitalist countries force on other countries that are desperately trying to catch up.

3. And there are reminders of the communist past.

One of my favourite bits of Albania is that they still have the statues of children leapfrogging one another, of different members of society playing ring-a-rosy, and the odd statues of soldiers toting guns, mid-stride.

I appreciate that there’s been no desire to rip down the old communist monuments or buildings. Some have been left as is, such as the statues, but others are improved on, like the technicolour Blloku area of Tirana.

4. In fact some older Albanians still prefer the communist ways.

Amy and I had coffee one morning with her Albanian teacher’s family. His mother recounted the communist days with some fondness for the certainty of that life.

But she also described how she and her colleagues at the battery factory would tell their children they worked at a chocolate factory instead.

5. There are some fairly nice homes… but then there are slums

The homes I was lucky enough to spend time in were quite nice. Some were a little cramped. But in the main they were nice. They had all most of the creature comforts, but sometimes they lacked things like heating… and cooling. Imagine having a Perth style summer with temperatures in excess of 40 degrees some days… with no air-conditioning. But wait, the winter is a cruel, cruel mistress with snow and… no heating.

But that’s a fairly good station in life. When Amy and I were visiting Durres we were shown around a slum outside of town. There was rubbish everywhere, no sealed roads and homes in various states of (de)construction. Most Albanians who live in these slums originate from other pockets of the country and find it near-impossible to integrate into the city’s community.

6. If you want to catch up with people, all you have to do is walk down the street.

Each evening in Gramsh, the streets are filled with people walking up and down and around the main street, just socialising, talking and being in community. They even close the street to cars so you don’t have to worry about being run over. If walking isn’t your thing, you can arrange to meet your friends for ice-cream. Om nom nom.

The locals are friendly, but if you’re a lady on your own, it’s best not to talk to the gents unless you know them really, really well.

7. Drinking can take you a long time

“Cheers!” in Albanian is “Gëzuar!” But unlike the very English-speaking clinkies-fest that happens when everyone’s drinking, the Albanians have a bit more of an involved process.

It starts with the eldest saying “Gëzuar” to the next eldest and taking a sip, and then onto the next eldest and on and on it goes. I get the feeling the oldest person in the group is the real winner in this.

8. The landscape is amazing… but they trash it

Ian “Keep Australia Beautiful” Kiernan would have a coronary at how much litter there is on the streets, in nature,  anywhere in Albania.

The landscape of mountains, rivers and forests are breathtaking. But it makes it difficult to photograph when there is rubbish in the foreground.

9. It’s a Muslim country… but you’d barely know it.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to pin any particular religion on this nation. Albanians mix and match as they please. Christians marry Muslims and let their kids visit the mosque one week and church the next. They’re highly superstitious to the point where some hang stuffed toys from the awnings on their homes in an attempt to ward off the evil eye from their homes.

But I think one of the best things about Albania in 2010 is its many, many contradictions. And the fact that they tend to exist ok within those contradictions. Gëzuar to that, I say.

This is another adventure in Travel Tales Thursday. It’s also my 100th post. Yay to that!


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