Act Like an Albanian

Wednesday, May 09, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


CHAPTER 21:  IN WHICH WE LEARN FROM THE BEST

Balkans & Beyond, Days 43-45:  Shkodër, Albania to Berat, Albania.  It's no secret that we have been bowled over by the hospitality that has been extended to us by the people of Albania.  Time after time, they have gone out of their way to offer us assistance with any and every little thing, even down to a taxi driver ignoring possible fares to guide us into a tight parking space.

For fifty years under the Communist regime, Albanians were restricted and oppressed, with virtually every personal freedom stripped away by the ruthless absolute ruler who had a stranglehold on the country.  And yet, through it all, their have remained resilient and seem to be hopeful and, hands down, the friendliest people we have had the pleasure to interact with.  As we've driven around this scenic country, we have realized that there is much we can learn from the little known Albanian people.

1.  Help out anyone you can, every chance you get with no thought of compensation.  
In our experience, Albanians seek out opportunities to help people, and there's no judgment regarding whether you have more or less than the other person.  Afrim, the guy in the photo to the right, was standing near our path talking to a friend when we walked past in the old city area of Berat.  He saw us gazing at a little church up the hill.  It appeared to be closed, but Afrim motioned us up the hill through a small gate and took time to give us a guided tour in his broken English, even including what he thought were good spots to take photos.  Before we parted ways, he insisted on taking a picture of us with the old city of Berat in the background.

2.  When life deals you problems, find a way to cooperate and make things work.
A major road construction project was underway on a narrow street near our Berat hotel.  Rather than closing the street, the construction crew congenially paused and shifted their large equipment to accommodate those who needed to pass through, because the only other option was a lengthy detour.  With just one lane open, drivers seemed glad to move out of the way to let someone else pass before taking their turn.  Unlike the constant blare of horns we heard in Bucharest, even when traffic was at a standstill, the Albanians never uttered a beep and showed remarkable patience.

3.  Remember that what you are unable to finish today can be completed at a later time when circumstances improve.
In our travels around the country, we have seen many, many examples of unfinished construction projects, both residential and commercial, because the money ran out before the job was done.  Most often part of the structure is complete and occupied, such as the ground floor of a two- or three-story home.  The unfinished floors—some with walls, others just framing— are almost always immaculately clean, waiting for a time when funds are available to continue with the project.  Commonly, resourceful owners utilize the unfinished floors for purposes such as hanging laundry or storage.

4.  Always try to look your best.
Walking down the street in Tirana one day, we were approached by Ana, a young Albanian woman in her twenties.  She spoke to us in flawless English and asked if we needed any help with anything.  When we asked her how she knew we were tourists, she pointed to our casual attire—sporty, she called it—and remarked that Albanians always dress more formally.  This was certainly borne out in our observations, especially among older Albanian men.  Gentlemen of retirement age became a familiar sight, walking on the street, drinking coffee and visiting in sidewalk cafes, playing chess and other games in parks, or going to markets.  Almost without exception, they wore dress slacks, button-down shirts and sport coats.  We never saw any wearing ties, but that was all that was missing from a standard business attire.
5.  Even if you don't have the latest and greatest, make the best of what you have.  Albanians just emerged less than 30 years ago from a lifestyle stuck in the mid-twentieth century when their Communist dictator sealed off the country's borders and any trade or communication with the outside world.  No one could be expected to catch up with 50 to 60 years of progress overnight, and Albanians realize that and utilize whatever they have to maximize their quality of life, hoping for a brighter future.

6.  You'll never succeed if you don't try.
Albanian roads are dotted with hundreds of car washes.  Every town we passed through had half a dozen or more along the main artery, and there was no shortage between towns either.  For someone unable to find a job, a car wash is a pretty affordable way to start your own business. All you need is a sign announcing your Lavazh, a source of water, and some soap.  Most are quite simple, often a one-person operation.  No doubt, some fail, but, hey, at least they're trying.

7.  Be nice to people who come to visit you. 
At the border crossing when we entered Albania and in other interactions we've had with public officials, they have been uncommonly kind and welcoming.  Not once but twice, we were flagged down by Albanian police for minor traffic infractions caused by some uncertainty regarding local laws.  Since we picked up our rental car in Sarajevo, it has license plates from Bosnia and Herzegovina.  When the officers have asked to see Ken's passport, they've been surprised when he handed over an American document.  In both cases, he apologized, using the Albanian phrase for "Excuse me" and the policemen have waved us on with a friendly warning to be more cautious.

8.  Make the most of the assets you have.
Though we had heard and read that Albania has a significant problem with garbage, we did not see that in our travels.  Roadside litter was rare, as was road kill.  City streets were neat and tidy.  Though we didn't make it to what is said to be a beautiful coastal area on the Adriatic Sea, we were treated to some stunning mountain scenery as well as fascinating historic sites that date back many centuries.  The old town area of Berat (right) still has many Ottoman style houses, and the city has successfully billed itself as "the city of a thousand windows."

In just a few days, we have developed a respect and appreciation for the Albanian people.  Rather than eyeing people with suspicion, concerned that someone may want to mug us or rob us (we're looking at you, Bucharest), we have found ourselves feeling more relaxed, comforted by the notion that the people around us would jump to our assistance should some Romanian con man in green shorts find his way into the country.

Tomorrow we'll leave Berat and drive northeast to the city of Ohrid, Macedonia, leaving Albania behind for now, glad we'll return to Tirana for our flight to Venice in a couple of weeks.

NOTE:  We saw Alex, the man in the heading photo, running through a park, though he was obviously not dressed for jogging.  It turned out that he saw me taking a photo and was rushing to get out of my way.  When Ken went over to the bench where he was sitting to speak to him, Alex offered to get up and give us the bench.  Those Albanians!

MONDAY, 7 MAY — WEDNESDAY, 9 MAY, 2018
Three-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Shkodër, Albania
    •  Ended in:  Berat, Albania
    •  Miles driven:  150
    •  Miles walked: 17.79
    •  Weather:  61° to 79°, rain, sunny, partly cloudy
    •  Car washes:  1,982
    •  Wagons on the road:  39
    •  Unfinished construction projects:  2,983
    •  Stop signs:  19% of intersections outside major cities
    •  Interactions with Albanian police:  2
    •  Abandoned factories:  31

Loved:  Albania and its people

Lacking:
  We would hate to wish cruise ships on a country we have come to like so much, but Albania has many beautiful areas to see, as well as hospitable people, and its economy could certainly benefit from a tourism boost.

Learned:  As we should all know, you can't always believe what you read or hear about people.  Our experiences with Albanians was a good reminder to reserve judgment until we have interacted with them firsthand.

More Photos from Albania
Our 45th anniversary photo taken by Afrim
Rush hour traffic jam in Tirana.  People squeeze in and give way for others to do the same.
Willful neglect of former mausoleum for Communist leader Hoxha reflects contempt for him and his crimes.
In a downtown park, a red heart structure for love locks hasn't quite caught on yet.
Loved these traffic lights with strings of LEDs reinforcing the light color and time till the next change. 
Giving new meaning to the term street lamps
Albanian national hero Alexander Skanderbeg in Tirana's Skanderbeg Square 
Small farms create a patchwork quilt landscape.
Another view of Berat's old town
Berat old town
Stunning view of an Albanian valley from an abandoned gas station
Albanian shore of Lake Ohrid
Albanians have a sense of humor, too.  Toilet signs at a supermarket in Elbasan