November 6-14 2021
Rather than a play-by-play of what two western people did on a caravan trip through Albania, I would like to instead reflect on this country as a whole, and what I want to be sure to remember. Despite its prime location, tucked between beloved Greece and Croatia, many people don't know anything about it and if you do, perhaps you've heard bad things.
Albania is a hidden little gem that’s been trying to join the EU since 2003. Just weeks before we were there, leaders gathered in Slovenia to discuss the admission of the “Balkan 6” into the European Union (including Albania). Their verdict, once again, after almost 20 years, was that they are still not ready.
As it stood in late autumn of 2021, Albania felt nothing like the Europe I knew, and that’s exactly what made it so magnificent. It is likely the very fact that they aren’t a part of the EU that this culture still exists in all its peculiar glory– a conundrum, as it is something many Albanians want to change.
One of the few countries left without a single MacDonald’s, (nor H&M, nor Starbucks, nor chain stores at all really, for that matter)… Albania seemed hidden enough that even the greedy claws of global capitalism had yet to find it to drain it of it's identity. Filled with half-abandoned UNESCO sites and the sounds of the call-to-prayer echoing through the ancient city walls, something very old and cherished but also new and neglected lived there all at the same tie. We were *far away* at last.
Albanian has it’s own branch on the linguistic tree. It is neither Slavic, nor Greek, nor Latin-based, and has 10 additional letters than English. It’s the first country I’ve visited that is officially secular, claiming to be “neutral in questions of belief and conscience”. It is therefore filled with refreshing tolerance and chioce for what religion actually looks like in the lives of the people that live there. Sometimes that freedom manifests as atheism, sometimes as Islam, sometimes Judaism, sometimes Catholicism, sometimes Eastern Orthodox, and sometimes as a particularly fascinating branch of Islam called Bektashi.
The Bektashi describes themselves as “European Islam”. They pray very little or not at all, they don’t separate men and women, they don’t have mosques, they drink wine with idols featured on the bottles and gather on top of Mount Tommor once a year to worship with song and dance. They have their own version of the holy trinity, and have “few behavioral prohibitions.” This was unlike any religion I knew of, and especially not what came to mind when I thought of Islam.
Another religion I knew nothing about- Eastern Orthodox, seems to be quite similar to Catholicism, except they don’t believe in the Pope’s infallibility, Immaculate Conception, or original sin/celibacy. I don’t believe in any of those things, either, so I liked them! They had all the pomp and circumstance of Catholics without all the hard to swallow issues.
All of these different beliefs coexist peacefully in Albania, and people pick and choose what works for them and leave the rest. Organized religion never sat well with me, but learning about all of these somewhat “in betweens" opened my eyes to the vastness of human creativity when imagining our own place within the cosmos.
We visited many of the cities from North to South, but experienced the countryside on the drives in between. Shepherds dressed with dignity in their coats and hats as they tended to their flocks, the sun draped over them like a cloak in the fields. Produce was sold exclusively in stands– locally grown and locally distributed, often on the side of these roads. The food from these ingredients was exquisite.
Albania shared a similar landscape with Montenegro ~ ragged and rough around the edges, bursting open with mountains and rivers. We traversed a canyon with thermal springs where Ottomans and Romans used to bathe– blue and babbling with mythical healing powers. Quite a change of pace from traffic and cities for 9 days straight... In nature, things were quiet... until a small but perilous rockslide exploded in echoes up and down the steep walls of the gorge just steps away from where Ben was standing... Albania always felt a bit dangerous, but not too dangerous. Just dangerous enough to make you feel alive again, as a proper adventure should. I refer here more to the infrastructure, than the people. Will that bridge collapse when we drive over it in this big car? Probably not.
It’s hard to fathom what life is like for people with drastically different circumstances than our own, such as a growing up in a place like Albania. It requires both imagination and deep curiosity. This kind of thought exercise is mainly difficult because most of us with access to this blog haven't experienced any type of war that threatens our immediate safety. Despite my utter disdain for the US government, it is still not a literal dictatorship, and despite the fact that we wage war worldwide, it was never happening in my front yard. This is unfortunately not the case for Albanians.
A quick History Lesson:
After World War 2, Albania was in shambles, and a dictator rose to power that did many great and terrible things. He developed the first railway systems and installed electricity throughout the country; he increased the literacy rate 18 FOLD and led the country towards agricultural independence (which it still has today). On the other hand he was a Stalinist, and under his rule foreign travel, religion of any kind, ownership of private property, and drivers’ licenses were almost completely forbidden. (This explains in part why Albanians are such crazy drivers!) To disagree with the dictator was to risk execution or imprisonment in forced labor camps, which was unfortunately the fate of thousands of Albanians during this time.
This regime only fell in 1990– The year before I was born.
After the fall came a time of great economic hardship (as everyone scrambled to have cars and private property), causing a mass movement of Albanians abroad, and a huge uptick in gang and criminal activity. This lead many non-Albanians to hate and mistrust them as a whole, and to this day Albanophobia is a very real thing.
As recently as 1999, hundreds of thousands of Albanian muslims were driven from their homes during the Kosovo war as part of an "ethnic cleansing" by Serbians that robbed, abused, and killed innocent people until NATO finally intervened. Nevertheless, on the other side of it all, after centuries of mistreatment and prejudice (or perhaps because of it) Albanians seemed to be pleasant and welcoming people. This is not surprising, as hospitality is one of the four pillars of their traditional tribal law called the Kanun.
This land felt enchanted but not without heartache and neglect. It was hard to ignore the vast amounts of abandoned, half-built houses, perched like skeletons on the hazy, polluted plains, or the general amount of garbage tossed everywhere we looked… it is not at all a bad thing to be "less developed" than Western countries, but to pollute the land is to disrespect it, and that is a shame to see. To be in Albania, however, was to witness that the beauty and authenticity shined through all the rest.
Our route was Skodër- Krujë- Tirana – Berat – Girokaster - Llixhat e Bënjës and we slept in the RV the whole way. Despite the capital city of Tirana and the terrifying experience of navigating there, every single stop was incredible. When I think back to Albania I will first and foremost remember the absolute reckless chaos that is driving on the roads there. Albanians seem unfamiliar with the very concept of coming to a complete stop before reaching a destination, with a very laissez faire approach to stop signs and red-lights. Not to mention the donkey carts, overtaking on curvy roads, pedestrians and dogs in the street, and parking in the roundabouts. The only alternative– the busses, don’t have specific schedules or guaranteed stops, making traveling there as a whole, entirely unpredictable.
After that, I will think fondly of breathlessly friendly waiters serving life-changing vegetarian food, the national flag that looks like a metal-band t-shirt, Mercedes Benz and self service car washes as far as the eye can see, endless shots of raki, well-dressed old men, roadside produce stands, street dogs that followed us around for 4 hours straight (defending our honor), tatziki chips, castles, and bomb shelters. I’m grateful for our changed plans that allowed us so much time in a unknown place that I very much hope to return to someday.