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Why I Still Love Living In Albania

Why I Still Love Living In Albania

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ne: 28-05-2019, 12:47:50

It’s been three years since I first set foot in Albania and decided to make it home. During that time, I have explored far and wide, got on the wrong side of the government, fought them in court and won, and had a baby- my little Shqiptarja Vogel. I have travelled, enjoyed, read, interviewed, photographed, and learned the language (pretty well), and never for one moment have I considered leaving or living elsewhere. Albania is more my home than anywhere else I have ever lived, even the place I was born. I intend to grow old here and while I acknowledge I write this from a position of certain privilege, there are some very simple reasons why I love it.

One of the favourite parts of my day is leaving the house and stopping in a small cafe for a cup of coffee. As I have written at length, coffee has a very special place in Albanian culture. During the latter stages of communism, good coffee was hard to come by and I often think this has something to do with why it’s so popular and loved today. I order an espresso or macchiato and sit somewhere facing the road. As I drink the piping hot rocket fuel, I enjoy not only the taste but watching the world go by. Old men in trilbies eye me with suspicion, well-dressed women in colourful dresses rush past on their way to work, and groups of nonnas gossip and dawdle in groups as they do their daily shopping. I enjoy watching the expensive cars roll past, imagining who is inside and how they got so rich. It also allows me some time to reflect on daily life here, as I observe people from all walks, going about their business. I also enjoy coffee when it’s purpose is to facilitate an important discussion, planning session, or to resolve a dispute. “Meeting for a coffee” has many meanings in Albanian culture and I have grown to fully embrace it.

Right now, if you walk through Tirana or any city in Albania, you cannot help but notice the prevalence of citrus trees, straining under the weight of their annual bounty. In my garden, the air is thick with the smell of lemons and mandarins and I love the way the autumn light dances through the yellowing leaves. I also love the winter months when lemons are replaced by shega- so voluptuous and juice-filled that they burst open while still hanging from the trees. Pockmarked, browning, rough exteriors make way for glistening globules of sweet juice, and I love nothing more than devouring them at their ripest moment. Let us not forget the long summer months spent surviving on watermelons. Pennies per kilo, they are offered on every street, road, and in every shop. Increasing in size and weight as the summer goes on, they bring much-needed refreshment as the temperatures reach 40 degrees. Every season in Albania brings with it much anticipated seasonal fruit- strawberries, blueberries, figs, melons, pomegranate, grapes, oranges and lemons, mana, thana, manafere zi, hurma, and so much more.

Living in Albania brings with it the possibility to enjoy four distinct seasons. The year starts in the grips of midwinter. Sometimes there is snow, other times there is ice, mainly there is rain, wind, and short, dark days. Come spring, the temperature rises, rain is more plentiful, and the days feel lighter and longer. Trees start to sprout the first shoots of the season, and vegetables become more plentiful in the shops. Temperatures continue to rise and freshness can be felt in the air. Hiking, picnics, days in the park, and the relegation of woollen coats to the back of the dollapi signal the fact that summer is just around the corner. By June, the pace of life has slowed down considerably. Weekends are spent at the beach or the pool, the sun begins to tan pasty skin, and the smell of jasmine permeates the streets during nights in the city. The countryside begins to fade in its green lushness and everything becomes dusty and almost diluted in colour. Roses and poppies flourish by the sides of the road and salty skin from seawater or sweat becomes the norm. Then come the first rains, usually announced by a week of almighty thunderstorms. Temperatures remain warm, the air is sticky, but there is a slight chill in the air. Gourds of all shapes and sizes appear in the shops accompanied by onions, root vegetables, and shega. The leaves turn first yellow, then gold, orange, and brown. The sun never reaches its apex in the sky and the nights become cold and long. Perhaps my favourite seasons in this country are autumn and then spring- both offer relief from more extreme temperatures and allow you to explore the cities and countryside, enjoying perfect weather and lighting.

Albanian’s are famous for their hospitality, in fact, to disrespect a guest is (or was) one of the most dishonourable actions an Albanian could commit. Whether you are visiting from a foreign country or going to see a friend at home, the welcome you are extended is like nothing you will have ever seen before. But more than that, it’s the friendliness of people every day that immediately puts you at ease and makes you feel at home. A simple trip to the shops can include explaining your life story several times, accepting gifts of small edible treats, making new friends, joking, and laughing. People in your neighbourhood will soon get to know you and they will be overjoyed that you feel at home and greet them in their own language. It’s this friendliness- conversation with a stranger at the park, exchanging greetings with a shopkeeper, a wave at a neighbour-that helps you feel like you belong. During my darkest times or days when I feel sad or melancholy, it was often the kindness or simple words of strangers that gave me the most happiness.

Albania’s history is complex, bloody, traumatic, and painful. The wounds of what has happened in the past are still visible and continue to shape and marr the makeup of today’s society. I am not Albanian, I have not grown up here and I can never hope to understand all of what has happened, but starting to read about this country’s history has given me more perspective. It has helped me understand, resonate, comprehend, and appreciate why things are how they are and many of the negative, and positive feelings people have towards their home country. As I said, I can never expect to truly understand just from reading books and speaking to people, but every bit of information I take in gives me a new appreciation for the country and the Albanian people. I feel proud to live amongst people who have struggled and fought so much, and many who continue to do so.

Pace of life
I come from a country that is very bureaucratic, very fast-living, and in many ways, very cold and impersonal. I don’t like anything about that way of living which is perhaps why I am drawn to Albania. This country operates on its own schedule and things are done in a very specific way. Yes, this can require some adjusting to but once you have, you may begin to appreciate what is really important in life. There are many things that frustrate me, but there are also many things I would not change. Life is slower and more meaningful here.

Whatever you want to do, whatever you feel like, or whatever your interests are, there is something in Albania to satiate you. Mountains, oceans, white sandy beaches, lakes, rivers, canyons, wilderness, forests, cities, village living, offroading, horse riding, diving, climbing, hiking, watersports, history, culture, food, wine, nature, animals, relaxation- you name it, you can do it in Albania in under a 4-hour drive. I am constantly amazed by the beauty of this place and the countless ways to spend time. From just driving and admiring the views that roll by, to exploring mountains and valleys, visiting fascinating historical sites, abandoned villages, castles, and communist gulags. You can travel through time, relax on some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, or experience authentic ways of life deep in the rural hills. My partner once said to me “what will you do when you’ve been everywhere in Albania?”  and I said, “easy, I will just start from the beginning again.” This is a country where you will never be bored, there is always something to do, and you will constantly find hidden gems and amazing new things to experience.

Since coming here, I have been amazed and enthralled by the work of local artisans. Qilims, filigree, handwoven fabrics, handmade felt, ceramics, embroidery, metalwork, woodwork and carving- the list goes on. There is so much traditional talent in Albania and there are thousands of skilled artisans creating the most beautiful pieces of work. Ateliers can whip you up a dress in the blink of an eye, you can have your home furnishings made by hand on a loom, you can dress and accessories with contemporary items made using traditional techniques- there are so many possibilities. Not only are these items incredibly beautiful and skilful but they represent centuries of passion, knowledge and tradition in one piece of work. Buy local and support artisans!

The way it makes me feel
I can wax lyrical about food, people, countryside, and culture for pages and pages, but the main reason I am still here is a reason I cannot put my finger on. From the moment I arrived in Albania, I felt some kind of indescribable affinity with it. I felt at home, happy, where I was meant to be, like I fitted in, and I felt safe. Despite coming from a totally different culture, not speaking the language (that has changed now), and not knowing many people, I still wanted to make it my home. Despite everything I have been through- good and bad, this has not changed. If anything it has increased. You may think that I am crazy or even fabricating this last point, just for the sake of it, but you would be wrong. The only thing I can liken it to is when you meet your life partner and you just “know” that they are the one and that nothing will ever change that. This is how I feel about my adopted country. In other words, I’m not going anywhere!
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