Road Tripping: Albanian Style

Road Tripping: Albanian Style

Road Tripping: Albanian Style

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***The following article— “Road Tripping: Albanian Style” by Ashley Elizabeth Wood is not an official Albanian Voices article. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of their author and do not necessarily represent the views of Albanian Voices or any of its partner organizations.***


from phone 1

Epic View Entering Tirana One Afternoon

When I think of this past winter in the Balkans, the memories that stand out most in my mind are the times when we traveled between cities or countries. Maybe it is because I think best when I’m on the road. Or maybe it was because the bad weather provided us with the most dramatic sights. On those surprisingly well-maintained Balkan roads, I saw things that I will never forget. I saw storms come rolling in over mountains, clouds rise up from valleys to engulf us in fog and then watched as the sun broke through the atmosphere to reveal dramatic colors and picturesque sights. Not only were the views amazing on my Albanian road trips, but I got to experience a culture of traveling that made me fall deeper in love with the Albanian people than ever before.

When Bora and I were in the Balkans, we wanted to make sure we visited as many “Albanian lands” as we possibly could. Since we had a lot of luggage and public transportation was neither reliable nor practical, we had to take cars everywhere. Due to a number of political reasons, Albania’s borders don’t encompass all the ethnic Albanians living in the Balkans, so when you look at the map and see Albania, you actually don’t see a good representation of where Albanians live. It’s like a bad case of international gerrymandering. This is most evident when you are actually there because you learn that borders don’t matter much. Albanians make it clear where they live, regardless of the country, hanging the red and black flag out of windows, in doorways, on walls and anywhere else it will stick. The road trips were where I grasped the power of the Albanian people and felt the most connected to the land.

Cracker Barrel Logo

Growing up in Atlanta with most of my family in Florida or New Jersey, I am a pro at road trips. The concept of “making good time” is one that I, like so many Americans, am familiar with. My father was pretty intense about how long we would go without stopping. My mom would pack food and drinks for the whole family in a cooler. Stopping for anything other than gas was considered blasphemy. The only religion on the American road is “good time” and you better “make it”. But many of you know that I am part of an intercultural marriage – my husband grew up in Puerto Rico. This means that sometimes one of us thinks that something is totally logical, while the other thinks it is completely insane. Puerto Rico is small and you can get from one side to the other in about three hours. When I met my husband, I was appalled at his “road trip etiquette”. On our first trek to Florida, he suggested we stop and eat at Cracker Barrel. A restaurant? Are you kidding me? He wants to not only stop for food, but also sit down? I couldn’t believe my ears. “How will we make good time?” I practically screamed at him. His answer was “Why do we need to? We are on vacation.” I admit, he had a good point. What was the hurry? Wasn’t life more about the journey than the destination?

My husband and I have since come to a cultural “happy medium” regarding road trips and I’m less intense now than before. When we traveled between Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia, I figured the road trips would be more laid back, kind of like the ones my husband grew up with. I assumed making good time would not be an issue and we would stop to sit down at restaurants. I was partly right and partly wrong.

from phone 5

Leaving Prishtina, Kosovo

In my experience, Albanians do care about making good time and are very conscientious about their and other people’s schedules. Most of my friends from Western Europe criticize Americans for our “fast food” culture and ask why we don’t spend more time sitting around tables talking. I assumed Albania would be the same since it is indeed in Europe. We didn’t linger nearly as much as I expected. I also thought that since there was a strong coffee/cafe culture and a high unemployment rate, Albanians would have a relaxed attitude about time. That was not the case.

The Albanian culture is not one for lazy people. Albanians pride themselves on getting up early, going to bed late, working hard, being clean and keeping things in order. They are highly involved in the lives of their family members and friends, often changing plans last minute to help someone. Since they keep in touch with many family members, the days are never dull and most able-bodied individuals are very busy helping their loved ones get by. The social structure is a highly complex one and seems to require regular meetings with people, usually over coffee. This doesn’t stop when road trips happen, so of course we stopped for coffee. But it wasn’t a lazy, chill coffee stop; it was always very purposed. We drank the coffee, we sat for about 10 minutes and then we left.

So one of the reasons that I think Albanians “make good time” is that they have a lot to do. The second reason is that the Balkans is a mountainous place, prone to landslides on a regular basis. As you travel, you are likely to have to stop to wait for one to be cleared off the roads. People don’t have time to waste and have no idea what the road ahead has in store for them, so they don’t delay in getting on with the trip.

from phone 2

Driving Around The Lake of Shkodër

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were more reasons they made good time. It seemed to me that Albanians didn’t like to be on the road and didn’t feel great about me doing it either. No matter who we were with, I felt a sense of uncomfortableness in the air when I asked an Albanian to take me to another town. First, I could see the hesitation on his or her face – that town? They seemed to say, I don’t know a lot of good people there. Not being able to ensure a guest’s safety with 100% certainty makes every Albanian uneasy. Since the social structures are so tight-knit, Albanians do not usually have contacts in many cities other than their own.

It also seemed to me that people (our drivers included) experienced a lot of discrimination when they were out of their city or town. And everyone seemed to instantly know where everyone was from and which language to speak, but I didn’t know how they were figuring it out. I was told that due to people’s accents, clothing and face structures, no one passed for a local anywhere, unless he or she was one. So there seem to be many reasons why Albanians don’t necessarily love road trips. And why should they? What good memories would they have of traveling in the Balkans? Most Albanians have a horror story of being on road at one point or another in the 1990s. Maybe it is the story of when they were trying to make it from Durrës to Tirana in 1996 or fleeing from the Serbian genocidal killings in Kosovo in 1998. Either way, despite the fact that today it is very safe, Albanians seem just the slightest bit uneasy about traveling between countries, cities and towns that they are unfamiliar with.

from phone 7

Coffee Meeting Where One Driver “Passes” Our Besa To Another

While we traveled through the same lands as Edith Durham had over one hundred years earlier, I couldn’t help but remember some of the things she said. One of the reasons why she fell so completely and deeply in love with Albanians was the way that they led travelers through their lands. Unlike the Serbians or Turks she encountered in the same regions, she said that her Albanian guides could always be trusted because they wouldn’t lead her where they were unwelcome or didn’t know the terrain – no matter what she offered to pay them. In order for her to traverse the entire region of the Balkans, she had to change guides frequently and insist that they keep moving. Albanians take besa so seriously that they are reluctant to allow a guest to leave their protection, for fear that they will be unable to ensure their safety. The same that happened to Edith Durham happened to us.

We did not use the same driver for the entire trip. Partly because that would have been impractical, inconvenient and expensive. And partly because travel in the Balkans is best left to local guides – they know where the cleanest Turkish toilets are :-). When one person “passed us off” to another, there was always coffee involved. Our driver would “interview” the new driver or guide thoroughly before leaving us alone with him. Even though the men knew we were independent, capable, well-connected and smart, an older tradition was taking over. By having a coffee to “pass us off”, they were ensuring that Albanian besa passed along with us everywhere we went. If the first driver knew that the second one would give us a good besa, then he could know that the second driver would make sure that the third one did too, and so on. Edith Durham described this same ritual in her books. But in her time, it could take hours, or even days. Modern Albanians have adapted this cultural tradition and sped it up. The meeting can finish in less than an hour. It was cool to watch a cultural tradition that I had read about in books come to life, right before my eyes, in a modern way.

from phone 6

Typical Roadside Coffee, Dori Sits Elegantly In The Background

When we were in Albania, our “driver” wasn’t a driver at all. He was actually a member of a private security task force who is charged with protecting visiting N.A.T.O. officials. His name was Dori and he is like a character straight out of a book. In his everyday life, he does things that are more poetic than descriptions I have read in the best literature: things like the way he overdresses for the cold, or smokes a cigarette with no hands. I never saw him without a tie, sweater vest and suit jacket on – but he never acted like a snob. He was warm and jovial, while at the same time giving off an unmistakable vibe of “don’t mess with me”. It was great. Dori became our good friend because not only did he take us everywhere, but he told us everything about what we passed on the road. We were never bored when we were with him. His inability to speak English and talkative attitude were a godsend for me and during those drives that lasted for hours. My Albanian improved a lot thanks to him.

When we weren’t with Dori, we were with Fran, Adnoni, Llokman or Fatmir – some of whom spoke Serbian and others Macedonian, as well as Albanian of course. It was a good thing that we were with those people when we crossed borders where English and Albanian weren’t spoken. I got the feeling that if our drivers hadn’t spoken Serbian or Macedonian at those borders, we never would have been able to pass as smoothly and quickly as we did. Most of the border guards were very wary of our massive luggage situation, professional cameras and “Americaness”. What are two young girls doing traveling alone in this area of the world in the winter? Our driver always explained things in a way that made them understand. I can’t imagine what the questions would have been, had we rented our own car and tried to cross alone, speaking English.

Fran lived in Shkodër and took us all around the surrounding villages and to the beach at Vellipojë. Adnoni was his acquaintance and also lived in Shkodër, but was from Montenegro. He took us from Shkodër to Tuzi and back. Llokman and Fatmir lived in Skopjë/Shkup and were able to help us get from Kosovo to Macedonia and from Macedonia to Albania. Going from Macedonia to Albania, we decided to try to make it easier on both our drivers and meet at the border. At least that was the plan. We thought that we would exit Macedonia with Llokman and Fatmir, but not enter Albania. Dori would exit Albania and not enter Macedonia. We planned to meet in that small space of no man’s land – with our cars. But it didn’t exactly work out that way.

from phone 3

Me Pointing At Half The Stuff We Carried Across the Border

As we approached the border, the freezing rain poured down on the car. Once we pulled up to the post where the Macedonian border guard sits, Fatmir and Llokman explained everything to her. They said we were going to cross in the car and wait in the space between the two countries for Dori. She informed the boys in Macedonian that it wasn’t possible and they translated for us. I looked over at Bora. We are going to have to cross the border on foot? By ourselves? It’s like a half kilometer walk and our luggage weighs as much as we do!  But because Llokman and Fatmir spoke Macedonian and are such sweet friends, they convinced the border guards to let them leave the car and walk with us and our luggage to  Albania. The rain poured down even harder once we had all of our stuff out of the car and we hurried to make the walk. The four of us struggled to carry it all in one trip. We shuffled bags between each other and tried our best not to drop anything in the puddles. Little by little, we dragged our 250 pounds of stuff to the other side; awkward, inexperienced and soaking wet.

Once we made it to the Albanian side, Llokman and Fatmir had to rush off because they had to get back for work. Dori was waiting for us just outside the border control post. As we hugged Llokman and Fatmir goodbye, we couldn’t stop saying faleminderit. Ever since I met Bora, she had asked me what it was that would make an outsider love Albanians so much. I never could explain it. But as we got into Dori’s car, she turned to me and said: “Now I get it. Now I understand why you are so in love with Albanians. They do things like that for friends.” I smiled back at her because I didn’t need to say anything else.

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