Saturday, November 28, 2009

This time last year I was in Albania. Probably the capital of. It's crazy to think about now. On the brink of finishing our Euro leg of the trip. In fact, Albania doesn't even fit in my idea of that. I believe it was the only European country we visited that isn't actually in the EU. And, not only that, a long ways from it. I felt like I'd discovered the Eastern Europe I'd been expecting. And it was awesome.
The entire time we were in the country we ran into only one other traveler. An incredible distinction that I don't think I can claim from any other country. He was a little British ex-office guy who'd suffered some sort of mental stress breakdown and decided just to travel. His route was interesting, if not altogether efficient. He was just on our bus on the way out and got left at a road that was supposed to lead to Macedonia. I hope he held onto the freedom he must have discovered en route.
Originally on the ferry over we started talked to another Brit who was settled in Corfu (a beyond beautiful island with creepy empty hostels in November). An older lady. She noticed Megan reading her bible, and immediately got excited. "Greetings in the Lord!" And all that. Somehow we invited ourselves to the church service she was on her way over for. Amazing hospitality. We met (and attended the service of) a pair of missionaries who were very interesting to talk to regarding the state of Albania. Most cool, we ended up staying in the house of an Albanian pastor. His daughter spoke passable English. Still, there was much we couldn't say or understand. We struggled with the typical culture where this educated girl sat around home all day in her pajamas doing the dishes and waiting to get married. Despite freezing in the unheated guest suite (we never did figure it out) we enjoyed our stay.
This would prove to be the hardest part of Albania. I guess they think they're far enough south that they don't need heat.
Writing this post is making me remember culture. Or, rather, the lack of understanding that goes with traveling in a new one. Everywhere we went there would be things I didn't get, ways I didn't know to act, stuff I just couldn't follow. And I know that even if I integrated with any other society there are just indelible tattoos of my own culture that I could never back out of in order to comprehend the route of thinking many others take. It, quite simply, doesn't make sense to me and my western mindset.
We walked around everywhere we went and, overall, felt extremely welcomed! Going for dinner was often difficult since every cafe seemed packed with men. But it's a man's world. Especially once you leave our modern western life. But bakeries made for amazing, cheap eats.
Once we entered a restaurant and ended up eating at a wooden table with two random guys. They spoke a spattering of English. I'm convinced one of them was more then a touch tipsy. Entertaining and awkward. My favourite was the chef, a regular village men putting his best effort over the open grill directly behind the counter.
I can't even explain. No one will understand my experiences. And this frustrates me.
Discovering back streets you could imagine you were the first pushing into this little curtained off world. We had learned to say "thank-you" and "how much". Two extremally useful phrases. I bought a hand-knit, hand spun sweater vest for about five bucks. The lady from the little stall was so excited that I actually bought it.
Tirana was like stepping into any capital. It doesn't quite function like the rest of the country. But was still a very very long ways from NYC, TO, or London. It was personal. Meg and I would walked most of the city at night with our little LP map. Not once did we feel threatened, or like we ought to turn around. Not bad for a capital at 10:00.
We didn't have enough time, as always. Still, I have a taste for a country that I don't remember knowing existed before Megan said, casually, on an Italian train, "Let's go to Albania." An absurd idea until we made it happen.
It's true, there are little mushroomed shaped bunkers everywhere. It has a deep feeling of ex-communism and an East Europe village. A simple complex life.

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