Saturday, November 28, 2015

The heart of Albania(ns)

Foreigners are treated like royalty here.
As I wandered the streets of Shkodër, I caught sight of a window overflowing with bikes. Insider the man didn't speak English or German and thus the game of charades began. Figuring out I wanted an inner tube was the first obstacle - not bad - but selecting the right one was something else. We struggled, pointing at various bikes, failing miserably to understand eachother. So he brought me next door to the pharmacist, who adopted the role as translator and soon I paid the 300Lek (about 2€) and was all set.
I wandered on to a cafe where I ordered a piece of cake. The place was empty so the man and I tried to engage in conversation: English? No.. Italiano? No... Deutsch? No such luck! So he pulled up google translate. Later, he refused to let me pay, motioning that it was on him.
At the grocery store, as I search for the (nonexistent) produce section, a couple employees speak in Albanian before they realize I'm clueless. Then she says "you look very beautiful," to me in my blue rain jacket, next to women dressed to the 9's.
The Albanians have a saying that literally translates to "it's raining ropes." Well that's exactly what it was doing as I rode towards Tiranë. Within 10 minutes my pants had transformed into a wetsuit. I stop in at a cafe to contact my couchsurfing host. They don't have internet but the man gives me a personal hotspot. I order a tea and chat with three men, one who's English is better than mine. When I tell them I'm travelling by bike to Greece, there's a course of 'Bravo!'. My tea is on him as he asks if there's any other way they can help.
Back on the road, kids are filing out of overflowing vans that are their school buses. Everyone I pass gives me a huge smile and there's a course of Hello! Hi! Ciao! from every group.
I'm approaching the outskirts of the capital now and the national flag is popping up everywhere. There are more armed authorities. Somehow the vibe feels very right-wing nationalistic.
In the centre now, I'm cruising around, weaving through pedestrians and vehicles when I notice I'm being filmed. And then a woman stops me and asks if she can ask me a question. I hesitate but decide sure, why not. I'm told to wait here a moment as she runs to her van to get a microphone. And suddenly I'm being interviewed - or rather, strategically asked (to prove a point) - whether the fact that the pedestrians walk on the bike lane, makes it hard to navigate Tiranë's streets. She waits until I'm riding away to ask where I'm from, presumably so that she gets a classic look over the shoulder as I say 'Canada!'. You'd think it was staged.
I know the address of my meeting place with Alexandra, but the lack of street name signs is making it very difficult. I ask a girl if she knows where 'Izzy living Cafe' is. After a moment she says she doesn't, but that she has some time and would walk with me to find it. A half hour later, after she's asked about 10 people, we find the bar. Her reply to my Thankyou is 'Of course! What are you supposed to do when you're in a foreign country and can't speak the language?!' As if it was a given. I ask her if she wants to stay for a drink and only then do I learn she has a meeting and I realize that I've probably caused her to be late.
Tiranë is a wonderful city with a funky, cozy cafe on every corner. Alexandra is from Australia and moved to Albania on an overnight decision when she was offered a teaching job. It's interesting listening to her experience as a local foreigner. The next day, I meet Nina from Argentina who has been travelling for 2 years now. Although she's been to Italy, she skipped over Rome because she believes while sights are beautiful, it's the people that make a place truly special. She inspired me to worry less about where I am and more the connections and friendships you create there.

Thanks to Nina for the photos!

On my way to Durrës a couple days later, it's raining again and I take shelter under a gas station. A man approaches me and soon he's telling me about his own cycling trip from Italy when he was 20. He asks if I need any water or want to come inside but I'm not far out. I thank him and ride on.
In the city, I'm on the hunt for DurrësHostel and ask some young girls. She quickly covers me with her umbrella and then laughs, saying hostels are hard to find around here, but that a hotel costs 10€ a night. Then they want to know where I'm from and how I got here and whether I'm all alone... they're smiling and laughing, finding it all quite fascinating! When I eventually find the hostel, I'm greeted by the owner and introduced to everyone in the room. There's people jamming on the guitars and a delicious communal dinner. If you ever end up in Durrës, be sure to stay here!