As any of you who actually try to follow my blog (all two of you- I know who you are!) know, I’m usually pretty crap at updating this thing. Lately, though, I’ve been predisposed to writing a lot. I don’t know if it’s because #1 – a lot of interesting things have been happening lately, or #2 – it’s that time of the month and I’m all emotional and feel like everything’s a big deal.
Your guess is as good as mine. Either way, internet is cheap here and I’m rocking out to the Far East Movement while the rest of the city of Tirana shuffles about in the rain and wind. The Balkans in the winter are beautiful and untouristed, which is nice, but I didn’t exactly come prepared for the bitter cold, having spent 80% of my time traveling in super-tropical countries. In the effort to keep my possessions to a minimum, I have been trying to make do with my normal selection of beach-oriented clothes. However, this means that I went out to a fancy dinner last night with a pair of fluorescent yellow pants wrapped around my neck and pink pinstriped pajamas peeping out from under my ordinary black trousers. That flies here, doesn’t it?
My trip from Sevilla to Tirana was thoroughly horrific, and I feel as if I deserve no less than a god damn medal for managing to do it the way that I did. Sevilla to Madrid on a night bus, metro, half a day of unsuccessfully trying to sleep in the airport, a flight to Rome, a full night of unsuccessfully trying to sleep in the airport, a bus, a train, a bus, a ferry, a night of semi-successfully sleeping on the boat, a bus, and 2 or so hours of walking about trying to find a hostel in Tirana. This was all in one go. 3 nights without a bed, and 4 days without a shower! I think that is probably my record for non-essential disregard for hygiene. The blog I originally started writing was a detailed account of the things I saw in the shattered mess of a week that I spent in Western Europe, but after reading it over, I realized that it didn’t matter to anyone except me, and the only reason it mattered to me is because I love to complain. To hell with it.
One thing I wanted to mention was that I loved Italy. I haven’t spent as much time there as I would like (about a week in 2006, and less than a day in 2013!), but I’ve arrived at some conclusions, nonetheless. And they’re nice conclusions, so I’m going to publish them. Spain is nice, and beautiful, and the people are friendly and helpful and warm. Italy and Italians, though, seem to have the most pronounced, country-wide case of empty-nest syndrome I have ever seen. In less than 24 hours in the country, I was coddled by my bus driver, given extra-big portions by restaurant staff (and pressured to “Eat! Eat! You must eat!”), and offered a ticket price that I’m pretty sure isn’t meant for customers by a very sympathetic booth attendant who saw me shuffle through my remaining euro, go red in the face, and ask timidly if there was a ticket for people who were happy to sleep on the floor of the deck (it was raining).
Italians generally have a pretty poor command of English, and only a rudimentary grasp of Spanish, but that doesn’t keep them from chatting you up and fussing over you when they think you aren’t taking care of yourself. This is remarkably uncommon in the developed world, and only now do I understand why the Italians have developed the term, “familia solaria,” which essentially means, “family that is like the rays of the sun.” They, themselves, embody this, and I felt it… even in less than 24 hours in the middle of the winter. I love the Italians. I love them all.
Anyway, I arrived in Tirana pretty beat up, but alive and jubilant that I’d managed to get here from Spain so quickly.
I have really, really liked Albania. To be honest, I was kind of afraid of travel in the Balkans. To be even more honest, it’s not because I thought it would be any harder than anywhere else I’ve traveled, but because I had only ever met a handful of Eastern Europeans (Estonians and Russians in particular) and they had always either straight-up terrified me, or given me a mad case of the heebie-jeebies. After all, they’re awfully tall. They roll their “r”s and drink hard liquor and squash small, loud Americans like me with the heels of their perfectly polished boots. I dunno. Anyway, travel, in some ways, is about getting out of your comfort zone, so I arrived with a smile, basic knowledge of the layout of the land, and a keen desire to prove myself wrong.
How easy it was!
I don’t mean that travel here has been easy. Oh no no. ZERO English. ZERO Spanish, Italian, French, and even zero understanding of what most (what I thought were) common hand gestures mean. They’ve got their own way of doing things, and you will learn them. You will learn them, God dammit! You want to say no? Nod your head. You want to say yes? Shake it while squinting your eyes and making the “shoo!” motion with your hand. Want to ask “how much?” Don’t rub your fingers together… take out a wad of notes and coins and let them sift through until they find the ones that they want.
No, travel has not been so easy… but it’s been a piece of cake to fall in love with the people, and that Eastern European accent that I used to find so scary in the past is now just a reminder of happy nights out at the bar, the warm insides of cars that immediately stopped to pick me up thumbing, and shopkeepers that sent me home with free booty because they couldn’t be bothered to weigh out half of a clove of garlic, or one shriveled carrot.
Albania’s history is a complicated one. The language is one of the oldest on Earth. They were the first to stand up against the Ottomans and spark the wave that eventually brought the empire down. They lived under strict communist rule that obliterated ties with Communist China because they thought that the latter had gone soft. There was no religion in the country for 50 years because, after all, why do you need a god? Your party is your god. In 1991, the country emerged from its red seclusion and began to become the modern republic that I visited in 2013. The people have overflown over the borders and now inhabit dozens of countries spanning Western Europe to the Americas, as well as large swaths of Montenegro and nearly all of Kosovo, but, at the end of the day, consider themselves A.L.B.A.N.I.A.N. … and why wouldn’t they want to? They have an impressive history, eye-popping terrain, and some of the hottest women I’ve seen in months.
I don’t want to crap on what I just said about the Italians, because the Italians are truly an anomaly in the first world, but Albanians are fucking incredible. I can’t list every instance, because that’s just not possible, but I’ll just say that it’s a miracle I made it out of there without damn well marrying one of them. The guy that took me into Kosovo today: #1 – was the very first car that drove by, #2 – took me 20 kilometers out of his way to get me to my final destination, #3 – wouldn’t accept a PENNY for anything, and even hushed me with a frantic wave and a “Please! Don’t offend me!” when I offered, #4 – sneakily got out and bought me a chocolate croissant and a Fanta when we pulled over for the toilet, and #5 – had a prolonged discussion with border control so that they would stamp where I asked them to even though they don’t normally give stamps, didn’t understand why I wanted one, and were titchy about the fact that we were backing up traffic for kilometers so that I could find just the right page for it.
The guy was a legend, and it also doesn’t hurt that he was really good-looking and had a great personality. Jackpot!
Anyway, that’s all for now. I am in Kosovo in time for their Independence Day (5 years!), and there is an ice sculpture contest going on that I want to see. I’m going to leave you with a video that I took of one of the other hostel guests in Tirana. His name is James Warren.
“The map is not the territory.” – Alfred Korzybski