First Impressions – Albania

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I’m not used to seeing poor white people.  Actually, I’m not used to seeing white people at all. A couple of times my first day in Albania I saw a white person alone – eating in a café or walking down the street or riding a bike – and I got a bit excited, like I used to in Sham Shui Po every time I saw a white person besides us. But I’m not in Sham Shui Po anymore – not even close. I’m in Tirana, Albania, or more precisely in a hotel in the mountains above Tirana, Albania.

The view from Dajti Park Hotel on Dajti Mountain

From my balcony I can see the mountains, green with chapprel–esque vegetation. It seems like the soil is not very thick, as the tan earth shows through the mountainside here and there. In the foreground of my panorama I see three cows, one spotted and two the color of caramel. They are wearing cow bells and I can hear them clanking over the constant buzz of insects that sound like grasshoppers in the middle of the day.

Small plots of farm land dotted with red tile roofs unfold down the mountainside before giving way to the city of Tirana, which appears to be in a valley with hazy mountains rising on the other side. Maybe that’s why it reminds me of a European Cochabamba, Bolivia; a smallish city in a developing nation in a valley that traps its own haze.

The people seem to be undyingly friendly; I am sure that I received more hugs yesterday than the entire time 10 months I lived in Hong Kong. The typical greeting is a hug and two kisses – one on each cheek for men, women and children, whose hugs are especially precious.

It’s nice to see children running around outside playing. In the groom’s neighborhood there are a pack of young boys and a pack of young girls that run together, made up mostly of cousins with a few neighborhood kids thrown in the mix. They are all tan and light-haired from the summer sun and wearing ridiculous clothing like shirts with English phrases such as “I am The Best”, which I’m sure they don’t understand. All but a few people have very limited English-speaking abilities, but my Albanian is equally nill so we resort to hand gestures and the good old smile-and-nod to communicate.

The majority of yesterday’s activities involved the foreigners sitting on the groom’s family’s patio/driveway area under trellises covered in grape vines dripping with bunches of perfectly small green grapes. Every Albanian family has grapes, I am assured by the groom, so that they can make their own raki – the national drink of Albania that smells like a mix of rubbing alcohol and hangover waiting to happen.

Grape vines for making Raki, the national drink of Albania

Before yesterday I had tasted Turkish delight only once in my life, and I didn’t love it. But the matriarch offers us a glass dish full of Turkish delight on a silver tray each time we enter the premise, so now I have had the gooey sweet concoction covered in powered sugar a total of four times – a number surely to increase as we spend more and more time at wedding celebrations at The House.

Wedding celebrations in Albania typically last a week I’m told, with nightly parties at the family home every night for 6 nights leading up to the wedding day itself. As this is a hybrid American/Albanian affair the real celebrations will only start on Wednesday and go until Sunday. The groom’s family didn’t think the American contingent of friends and family of the bride could take a whole week of Raki guzzling fun. They may be right.

*Please excuse the lack of photographic evidence of this trip, as my camera decided to retire upon arrival in Albania.

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