Probably asking himself what I hear coming out of my mouth all the time on this trip: is there any wifi here?
Albania is the subject of quite a few different and often not so accurate stories. So I thought I’d share a few observations by comparing this former communist country with southern Italy, which is better known by a lot of Europeans at least, since it’s a popular holiday destination. Either you can scroll down to the first of 15 comparisons, or you can read a little bit about the history of Italian-Albanian relations first:
Before being a part of the Ottoman Empire, the northern Albanian coast was a part of the trading power the Republic of Venice for hundreds of years. In the 1920′s the racist leader Benito Mussolini put more and more pressure on the little country before invading it in 1939. Italy was on the losers’ side in the Second World War, and the reins of Albanian power were overtaken by the so called communists.
Still, the Albanians seem to identify with the Italians, the culture from the boot shaped country is directly or subtly present in everything from architecture to heaps of little cafés with (predominantly) men drinking espressos while talking or reading the newspaper. I knew non of this – neither when I came to Albania nor when I landed in Bari. But the difference between this EU-member state and the 116. poorest country with an agricultural sector employing almost half the population but only accounting for one-fifth of the GDP, surprised me a great deal.
The list is basically made out of the notes from my diary after spending five days in each country. In other words, it’s not a list that offers insight into structural and political problems in the two countries but a list of observations by my eyes and ears.
In Albania they have proper toilets. Okay, the southern style where there’s a little horizontal area so you can study what you left behind. But still.
In Italy they don’t care for toilet seats. In the beginning I thought it was a trick played by restaurants to keep sweaty men with dark insides from taking a dump. But no, it’s everywhere. I still don’t know why and I’m not a fan.
People went mental, when I biked through Albania. They cheered, honked and one guy even slowed down next to me and yelled: “You are super fit. Not just fit. But SUPER fit!” A compliment I had enjoyed more had it not been for the 30 centimeters between his car door and me plus the holes in the road, we both had to avoid with a speed around 30 km/h. No matter where I stopped in Albania, someone would come over and say hi within two minutes.
In Italy, I might get the nod from other cyclists or older men alongside the road. Might. Just like like in Denmark, most people in Italy didn’t approach me directly but they’d often discuss my bicycle in Italian and if I stayed long enough, someone might even ask me what I was up to.
The Italian coast somewhere between Napoli and Rome.
3. Tourism The New York Times recently had the Albanian coast on a list of places to go (they also have Varazdin on the list!). I suspect the reviewer only went to Sarrandë with the ferry from the Greek tourism mekka Corfu, because the Albanians definitely know what tourism is and what it can bring them of newly printed euros. Pro: It’s not at all as touristy as Croatia and Greece. Con: No where can you find a physical list with prices on the coast. Restaurants, hotels and shops – I almost always left with the feeling of having paid double or triple of what the locals pay.
On the western Italian coast tourism is not what it used to be. I passed quite a few ghost towns on the coast and the whole ride left me with the same impression as entering Las Vegas in daylight. Ugly buildings, turned off neon lights and this uncertain feeling when you don’t know whether you’re too late or too early for the party to start. But they have price lists and that made my squared, Danish head happy!
4. Love and disgust
Albanians love Italians. Italian companies hire cheap labor in Albania, and many young Albanians want to go to Italy to work.
Italians don’t have much good to say about Albanians. The few times an Italian has asked me about Albania and I’ve told him or her about this warm and trustful people on the other side of the Adriatic, I’m met by a slow shake of the head and given a new topic to discuss.
Albania and Italy both have a problem with trash. They may have more important things to spend money on but if they want tourists back (Italy) or tourists to try out a new destination (Albania) they probably have to do something about the trash on the beach, along the roads and in random alleys in the cities. In combination with a lot of road kills and wild dogs, this gave me a sense of disease in some areas.
6. Juice of life
Most places in Albania offers wifi. Even in the little cafe where I met Mark (above) and where the veil and apron wearing lady gave an impression of the 1950′s, they offered me a password to the land of eternal time-robbing.
In Italy it’s hard to find wifi in cafés and bars. And sometimes if they have wifi, the staff seem to take my ‘Do you have wifi here?’ as an insult (it’s highly likely that this due to my lack of understanding for Italian drama, gestures and their ‘now I’m insulted’ facial expression).
Albanians learn English in school and though Italian seem like the dominant foreign language, they will always find some colleague or next-door shop owner or random man on the street, who knows a little bit of English and is able to translate.
Southern Italy has been the place on my whole trip with the worst English skills. More people +40 years old seem to know English than young people – but generally it’s almost non-existing. Maybe in rural Western Hungary it was as bad but they at least knew German. When you live in a (at its best) mid-size economical power where jobs is a scarcity, this lack of focus on language seem equally foolish and risky.
Both Albania and Italy get thumbs up for saving me from Turkish coffee (the one with a quarter of the cup left with coffee ground). They like espresso in both countries, and it takes a lot of gestures to get a long brewed coffee with just a bit of milk and no sugar, please.
9. Fashion and dental care
Albanians seem to copy the Italian way of dressing. With the result that they look like the Italians probably did five years ago. In Albania, they also have more important things than dental care to spend their money on.
It’s hard to get my head around how much time young Italian men must spend on their clothes, beard, hair and appearance in general. And shorts, a plain t-shirt, sneakers and a cap is not in fashion anywhere I’ve been in this country. Italian men +40 have great style, but I’m not a big fan of the way boys and girls dress here. Lots of dental care though!
My new Albanian friend Jentor used to go to the mosque to listen to what the imam had to say. Now he goes to church. He shops around and haven’t yet settled on a religion. He might never do that. My hostess was orthodox and married to a muslim. I don’t know how much influence religion has on a political level in Albania, but coming from the catholic Croatia and conservative Montenegro, this was indeed a different story.
An Italian guy told me that religion is important for the older Italians but that the younger generation don’t care. Still, he says, religion has a voice within Italian politics. As a foreigner just traveling through, I was never asked about my religion or had any problems in any of the two countries.
This is another point where my colonial mindset probably interferes with reality because I didn’t expect that many bars and restaurants with ‘No smoking’ in Albania. Officially a new anti-smoking law is being implemented after bribery ruined an earlier attempt, still a lot of bars seem to voluntarily ban smoking. Which is not a minor step in a country where four out of ten smoke. Effective smoking bans weren’t prevalent on the rest of the Balkans.
Italy was one of the first European countries to impose a rather strict smoking ban in restaurants and bars. But it’s still allowed to smoke outside, and since the weather in the south is warm for more than half of the year, smoking is seen everywhere.
12. Inequality and corruption
Albania is a very corrupt place according to this list and from what people tell me. With money you can do pretty much everything in Albania, and I saw a lot of shiny Mercedes and Audis with Albanian registration plates passing horse carts and beggars on the streets.
Italy is placed right above Kuwait but behind Cuba on the list mentioned above. Italy is the best place to live in he world if you have money, a hardworking Kosovo-Albanian man told me in Pisa. Not so much if you have to work and send most the money back to your family, like he does. On the positive side, Italy is beginning to improve when it comes to freedom for the press according to Reports Without Borders.
13. The roads
I was warned about Albanian roads many times down through Europe but the warnings proved to be exaggerated. Although the roads in the bigger cities and in the mountains have giant holes and a few meters without asphalt here and there, I didn’t feel much difference coming from the north. And traffic is pretty relaxed outside the cities.
The roads I took in Southern Italy were often as bad or worse than in Albania. Plus the traffic is bizarre in Italy, where they all must own a car or moped. What goes for drivers in both countries is that they honk when they come from behind. From what I understand, they do this because they have no other idea what to do when they approach a cyclist.
I never really found out, what the Albanian cousins is. “Something like pizza but it’s not pizza”, a guy told me. Well, judging from the cow on he milk, the whole fitness wave haven’t hit Albania yet. And the way this market presents it’s vegetables (picture above)? It doesn’t make me want to eat cauliflower or to be eaten by one, for that matter.
Asking for places to eat in Italy have made me feel like the butt of some well orchestrated Italian joke. Everyone pointed to a pizzeria when I asked for a good place to eat. That would be like an Italian tourist asking me what to buy to keep his head warm during the cold winter in Denmark, and I’d suggest a Viking helmet with horns. They make good pizzas though.
The youth unemployment rate is around 22 percent in Albania. And those who work, doesn’t get paid very well. 120-150 euro is the norm for a waiter, 350 euro for a job in an office when you have a university degree. A two room apartment in Tirana is 108 euro, so the balance between salaries and cost of living is not a healthy one.
“Young Italians have everything but the most essential: work.” This is what Giuseppe (to the left below) said when I – being a bit too cocky – told him about what a puzzling sight it is to see young Italian men spend so much time on their hair, beard and clothes just to do the groceries with their mom. If it comes off as pretentious or extravagant depends on who you are I guess, but my experience is that it covers a lot of frustration in the society. Giuseppe has two teenage sons and he’s encouraging them to go abroad, when they get old enough.
“Albania reminds me of Turkey 20 years ago”, a Turk helping the Albanian army getting fit for the future, told me. “Simple but happy”, he concluded, which is also my impression after five days in this poor, European country. I definitely don’t want to romanticize anything, and I know that a lot of young Albanians dream of getting out, because the living standards are as low as the corruption infiltrates every corner of the bureaucracy. Despite that, the relaxed mentality, curiosity and open arms made a huge impression on me.
If I one day chose to live in Italy, it would take a lot of time for me to get used to the dramatic, Italian way of communicating. Thumb glued to index finger and then shake your hand in front of your mouth or chest. When I just arrived in the south, I was surprised by this seemingly confident and somewhat pretentious appearance but there’s some warm and helpful hearts under that surface.