Cork, pins, string and a few pictures (oh, and a wedding!)

I made a map on a cork board with pins showing where I slept, and string where I rode my bicycle. Then I took the map and a stack of newly printed pictures with me to the Danish Cyclist’s Federation’s shop in Copenhagen. This happened the other evening, when the shop was open late to give busy people the chance to buy Christmas present with a discount.

We served glögg (not ‘gulag’ as the auto correct keeps suggesting) and Christmas cookies, and though neither the shop nor my little exhibition/ask-question event in the back of the room were overrun with people, it was a good and fun experience. That shop is run by great people.

So we’re probably gonna do something similar this spring (maybe launched with a more traditional talk by me – about traveling alone) when the weather gets better and all the thoughts about riding a bicycle for days and weeks actually look realistic and feasible.

But first back to Croatia. I’m very honoured to have been invited to Monica and Matija’s wedding in a little village north of Zagreb this Saturday. Yeeehaw!

The route – and a chance to ask questions

Here’s my route drawn on a map. I don’t know how to embed the actual Google Map, so here’s just a screen dump.

I went from Copenhagen to Igoumenitsa in the northern Greece on my bicycle and then cycled and took trains (initially due to a deadline, and later because of an injury) from Bari and back to the Danish capital. In total my legs covered 4700 kilometres, while the whole route above is around 8000 kilometres long.

You can ask questions and hear more about traveling alone on a bicycle down through Europe, if you pass by Rømersgade 5 in Copenhagen on the 3rd of December. It’s going to be in the Danish Cyclist’s Federation’s shop. The manager of the shop has promised some great discounts, while I’m going to try to answer whatever questions you may have. In Danish or English (und vielleicht Deutsch?).

A very informal and hyggelig, pre-Christmas evening with loads of coffee and biscuits. And maybe even glögg! I hope to see you there.

The final stitch!

I’m back! With 209 hours and 4697 kilometres in the saddle, I returned to Copenhagen approximately two months after I left. Back to the flat country with blond people and a ton of cyclists, five euro coffee and a liquorice trend taken a bit too far (you can now get a jar of honey with liquorice).

My legs didn’t behave exactly like I had hoped for towards the end of my trip, but I got to do the last 125 kilometres from Aarhus to Copenhagen on my bicycle, and in total I visited 15 countries outside Denmark and met so many cool cats and warm people. The mere thought of it is overwhelming.

I have no idea what will happen with this blog but I will at least be back with a few observations from my journey. Couples traveling together on bicycles; the crippling, psychological effect of spending too many hours on the road with no company; and some similarities across nationalities are among the thoughts. I was also asked give a talk or two about traveling alone. I might do that.

For now, a few pictures from my return (which was actually a week ago but, for me, back to real life also means back to forgetfulness.)

 

In Aarhus, Kalle greeted me the exact same way he said goodbye two months earlier: with rye bread porridge. This gesture wasn’t made on purpose but because my dear friend, who happens to be Kalle’s dad, let him choose what to eat both days. The brown porridge is made with beer and served hot with whip cream. The taste of it divides the rye bread raised Danish population, I believe, and I’m fortunately among those who find it very tasty.

Wind turbines and no hills. Standard landscape in Denmark.

Here I’ve walked many kilometres when I was younger. The harbour in Aarhus.

In Denmark we have an expression “the little duck pond”, which figuratively refers to a little, protected and often narrow minded society or country. The figurative versions can probably be found everywhere in Europe, but I actually haven’t seen many of the physical ponds, like this one in the village Vig.

For the next eight months bringing a few coins to a place like this is the only option, if you want to get a tan. I usually choose pale, but you never know.

We also have cool buildings in Denmark.

This bike path – which is connected with the one on the very first picture in this post - is called The Green Path. It goes through residential areas and parks so you, as a cyclist, never have to ride alongside cars. It’s approximately nine kilometres long. Brilliant.

Parking my bicycle outside my new home. The end.

The injured and the fear of flying

Mathias is 54 years old and has never been on an airplane. He feels ill as soon as he gets close to the gate in the airport. – Maybe one day some sort of medicine can cure that anxiety but for now …, Mathias told me in German, while lightly squeezing his throat with his left hand. And then he broke into a laughter suggesting several years of smoking.

So he takes the train from Berlin every time he goes to see his girlfriend in the Swedish town Gothenburg. They visit each other every sixth week, and while she’s on an airplane for fifty minutes, he spends a whole day both going there and coming back. Usually it’s a little less, because he takes the direct route, which includes the ferry (“I like the ferry because I can smoke whenever I want.”) but this time there were several hundred euros to be saved if he went via Hamburg and up through the Danish mainland. I suggested that 13 hours on a train sounded like the perfect cure, but he just shook his head.

I was on the train because of my weak, s***** leg and so we met. On the line going north from Flensburg to Denmark. Mathias had a backpack full of beers and a head full of ‘that reminds me of’ stories. I was never offered any of the former but got plenty of the latter, and this meeting of two lone travelers, seemed like the perfect alternative to being on my bicycle when crossing the border back into Denmark.

Mathias warned me about taking the train from the Spanish-French border to Lisbon because it’s full of party kids; he only uses cash because he doesn’t want the government or banks to know, whenever he buys beers, liquor or whatever else; and in the 1990′s he was fined the equivalent of 900 euros for driving drunk on his bicycle in Berlin.

Licorice is not “my world”, he replied when I offered him the classic Danish Ga-Jol. But I kept on offering him this salty little licorice, and eventually he gave in. He liked it so much, I gave him a whole package. And he was reminded of yet another story.

- In Berlin, when we experience a little moment of something nice or pleasant, we say it’s ‘gajol’.

Nice one.

Return of the lone wolf

I met Rainer again. This time in his home in Düsseldorf. For those of you, who have no idea who this kind gentleman is, I met him in Brno and wrote about him a month and a half ago. You can read ‘Rainer and the lone wolf’ here.

Rainer lives in a small first floor apartment in the center of Düsseldorf situated east of the river Rhein. On the phone from Maastricht, when he realized I was coming over, he laughed of excitement. Him and I laugh a lot. He loves to tell me about who I am, he emphazises his points with gestures (in example he gets up from his chair every time he talks about my cycling, keeps his arms and moves his legs like he’s on a bicycle and even talks like he’s exhausted) and his reaction to my stories is mostly “Der Peter, Der Peter”, while he calmly shakes his head and smiles.

Rainer had a huge bed ready for me, when I arrived and then he took me out for dinner – and also insisted on taking me out for breakfast the next morning, though he himself never eats that time of day.

I never found out what Rainer is doing during a normal day, but he keeps both the local Rheinischen Post and Die Welt (“the world’s best newspaper!”), so he must spend a lot of time reading. This October he has his first English lesson because he’s still dreaming of going to Australia. There’s no family left, so nothing keeps him in Düsseldorf, he says. If he goes, he might stay for good.

When I was heading out after breakfast next morning, Rainer went into the kitchen and came back with two glasses of what looked like soy or almond milk. But no.

- It is a magic mixture. For cyclists, he said before bending over and more than firmly slap both my calfs. And then we synchronically emptied our glasses.

The great irony of this is that I only made it 50 kilometers north before I had to stop with what a very bright doctor-to-be diagnosed as shin splinters. I already felt it coming the day I went to Düsseldorf, and of course it has nothing to do with Rainer or his magic mixture.

Still, I’m not gonna tell him.

Maastricht, hardly** any violence

Vive Le Velo – a bike store in the old, renovated fire station, which also hosts a huge exhibition room and a new, fancy restaurant.

The city Maastricht has for many years created images of riots in my head. Panic in the darkness with nervous shouts and the sound of police guns going off. The adolescent brain is not processing impressions and emotions the same way as an adult, so this has probably played its part, since I was 11 years old when the a trapped Danish police force shot 113 times this 18th day in May.

The European Union is a constant source of conflict between the (often more ideology leaning) political left and the more pragmatic, centered parties in Denmark. To a parliament election in Denmark the EU skeptics (today also containing a relevant player on the right, Dansk Folkeparti) are outnumbered by the rest of the political parties, but when asked about only the EU, the Danish population is roughly divided in two.

In 1992 the margins were on the skeptics’ side, when a little more than half the voters said no to further European integration by turning down the Maastricht treaty. A major victory for the skeptics. The rest of the union, though, could only move forward if all members ratified the treaty, which led to a the Edinburgh agreement and a new referendum less than a year later. Where the Danes voted yes. And then hell broke loose.

So Maastricht, which I couldn’t even place on a map, made me think of this mayhem throughout most of my teenage years and early adulthood. With the wonders of the internet and Google image, this has changed a bit the last years, though I’m sure the drama, shouts and panic will always be present, somewhere, in the back of my mind.

Luckily, a few days ago, and roughly 21 years later, I had the chance to change this automated stream of images in my head, when my bicycle led me to this town, by the river Maas, for the first time in my life*.

And what a great little place. Just like the hip and colorful cafés fit perfectly with the medieval city center, the nearly 16.000 students seem to live in perfect harmony with the thick streams of tourists walking the narrow streets. The town has this big village vibe combined with a certain industriousness and creativity, which can only be found in towns with a university and quite a lot of people who chose to stay after graduating. On that note, you don’t have to talk to many post-graduates to find out that quite a few people are planning on moving, maybe to Berlin or Amsterdam, but … you know, so far it just haven’t happened. A creative and safe town, I sensed.

I liked it.

*Full disclosure: Earlier this year, on a dark winter night, I stayed in the local train station for roughly an hour. I only went twenty meters away from the platform to get a (pretty good) kebab, so I don’t count that as a visit.

**After publishing this I felt guilty for not having defined ‘hardly’. The reason being that, though I didn’t experience anything even close to a crime scene, there could be a lot going on underneath the surface. I heard a few stories about assaults, a little research reveals a crime rate among the higher in Holland and as a place with many tourists pickpocketing is ostensibly a common phenomenon. Some believe that the city’s change of drug policy – where non-residents can’t legally buy marihuana – has led to a darker Maastricht with more pushers and dodgy corners of the streets, but this weed topic is so full of different interests, it’s impossible to navigate as a foreigner.

Here I should probably prove my point about creativity and industriousness by showing something else than Vive Le Velo again. But I forgot to take more pictures, and I also want to praise Dirk (second head from left), who owns this place with his friend Chantelle. He gave me shelter, showed me Maastricht night life and fed me breakfast. Chantelle and him are both art graduates and have had this shop for eight months.

If you like retro style bicycles, check out their web site here. Go!

Too small for such big divisions (you’d think)

Around Bruxelles and in some other areas road signs are written in both French and Flemish. In Wallonia and Flanders they are written in one language, respectively French or Flemish.

This New Years a 20 year old girl, I talked to earlier this year, was harassed and physically attacked by a group of people in the northern part of Belgium. The reason? She spoke French. In the nationwide Flemish bus company De Lijn it is more the rule than the exception that staff treats French speaking passengers in a rude and unreasonable manner, according to my Belgian friend’s personal experience, while a French girl with family in this little country told me, she often feels looked down upon when she orders her food in this neighboring country to the north.

Belgium has in many different ways inspired me to go on this Tour de Europe. I knew about the country’s problems with assembling a government and keeping it alive, since this European wonder beat Iraq in going the longest without an elected government. But I was awestruck, when I nine months ago heard that grownups would dare to attack a 20 year old girl because of what language comes out of her mouth. It made me feel ignorant because I had no idea that a Western European country of only 11 million inhabitants could be this divided.

On this bike trip, outside Belgium I’ve only met five people from this country; an older man and two young couples. The older man refused to give me his opinion on the Belgian divisions, while I didn’t bother the second couple I met with my holiday spoiling questions.

But the first couple. Here the guy in his early twenties gave me his views on the touchy affairs. He told me, he was just giving me a resume of the problems but his carefully picked details about the poor south and the uneven distribution of money in Belgium (the north being unfairly treated, to his opinion), left little doubt about his point of view. And he was of course from Gent in the Flemish part.

Though maybe not to the same degree, his ability to quickly give such a one-sided version of the Belgian crisis reminded me of quite a few experiences from my time in the Middle East. During an introduction speech at my university in Ankara an 18 year old man got inappropriately loud and lost his temper in front of around a 100 students, because the +55 year old Turkish professor welcoming us with a short history lesson didn’t want to call “the Arabs” traitors for their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Or when the Turkish author Ece Temelkuran goes to Armenia to understand the meaning of the atrocities committed by the Turks during the same war, and a nine year old girl asks Temelkuran whether she recognizes the ‘Armenian genocide’ or not.

To hell with the elephant’s splendid memory if all it passes on are the stories from the older mammals in the parade.

Like in France, bread is considered a human right in Belgium. Thus, they have vending machines like this in smaller villages.

To be fair, as a foreigner I’ve mostly met friendly, curious and welcoming people in Belgium. As a cyclist, as a journalist and as a simple tourist. The traffic in Bruxelles reminds me a bit of the one in Beirut, the need for bread seems like in France and the cycling culture is a convincing transition from the south to velo-obsessed Holland. Oh, and they have excellent beer. Only things to adore.

But if you do want to understand a bit more of this odd division, where economy of course plays a big part, here is a few articles. It is as intriguing, as it is strange, I promise.

First, a very entertaining long-read, which is centered around the national football team before the World Cup. It can be read by anyone with just a minor understanding of this wonderful game.

A shorter one about the the language divide.

And what happens when a king links separatism with fascism.

Rough and rich Marseille

It has always been a puzzle to me, why so many main train stations are magnets for miserable people and dodgy scenes. Saint-Charles train station in Marseilles is no exception. – The vibe in Marseilles is a bit like Napoli, just more dangerous, especially around the train station, as a local guy now living in Italy told me.

Marseilles as a whole is amongst other known as the ‘Chicago of France’. Not because of a lively night life as was the case for the neighbor town Toulon 70 years ago (as mentioned here earlier) but thanks to a murder rate five times higher than the average in the country.

Unlike in Napoli, I didn’t feel insecure around the main station, and during my short stay I didn’t experience anything close to the sad statistics mentioned above. To me, it was more a matter of misery. Something that is only enhanced by the huge yachts and seven-euro pints in the harbor area less than a mile away. The city’s port is one of the biggest trade hubs in Europe and every year more than a million passengers enter via big cruisers.

This guy woke up on the staircase outside Saint-Charles and started laughing. And then laughed and laughed.

Before heading out Sunday morning, I stood with my bicycle outside a convenient store close to Saint-Charles for about fifteen minutes. This chubby, unhealthy looking man with long, greasy hair, grey sweat pants and tired, begging eyes tried to get a few coins from every by-passer on the sidewalk. I didn’t understand what he said, but he mumbled the same short sentence, pointed to his mouth and grunted something when he was rejected. In that short time he probably asked between 40 and 50 people, and I didn’t see him get a single coin. At one point, after being rejected, he lowered his shoulders and hung his head like he finally gave up – and then rushed to the next by-passer like nothing had happened. His job did not only seem degrading but also extremely hard.

Just a few meters from him stood a man my age in a big, clean t-shirt, new shoes and a skateboard in his hand. Every time I glanced his way my eyes met his and then he quickly looked in another direction. Like a person you think, you should know but can’t place in the right context. I thought he eventually would ask me for help or food but then arrived the trolley and he was gone.

Before he left, he briefly talked to a 12-13 years old girl, who looked half North African and half Roma. She asked me for my empty water bottle, took of the lid, got of the soft plastic inside and started chewing on it. She didn’t beg for money but she could use some, because she had a rash the size of a small hand on her cheek, which definitely needed treatment.

Maybe she was there as moral support for her friend on the bench in the bus shelter. She was way too young to take care of a child, still she must at least have been six months pregnant. If you see a girl that age pushing a stroller, you can at least try to convince yourself, she’s just her sister, but when a 14 year old skinny girl has a huge belly, it only looks like another life born into a ruthless world. She was wearing a veil and traditional looking clothes, so she could be from a culture with a tradition of strong family bonds. Which, from my humble experience, can either be a huge advantage or the exact opposite.

I actually liked being in Marseilles, but next time I should probably visit some other areas.

Toulon, the dullest place on earth?

So much potential, so little vigor. Toulon left me with the feeling of talking to an old friend, who has given up. He stopped playing drums in the band he started with his best friend, who is now semi-famous and touring the world. His high school love went to Marseilles, so he settled with a decent, medium girl, who was never meant to end up with someone like him. He had pretty much everything but it just didn’t work out his way.

According to my host in what appeared to be the only hostel in this 600.000 inhabitants big town (165.000 without suburbs), the American marines called the old town in Toulon ‘Little Chicago’ in the aftermath of the Second World War. Listening to the stories about the consumption of alcohol, the hookers and the music in these narrow Parisian style allies, creates images in my head that look exactly like some Hollywood movie set in the 1940′s where the disgusted main character sits in the bar and observes his sailor dressed colleagues being so drunk they can sing but not walk straight, they gamble and whore, and they completely lost touch with the bigger questions in the war. Unlike him, of course.

Toulon anno 2014 is nothing like that. I arrived in the afternoon on a Friday and my first tought was that there must be some sort of public holiday here. Half the shops were closed and tourists weren’t present like everywhere else on the coast. After the sun went down the number of people in the streets (Friday night, remember), was reduced to this.

 

The only thing keeping the old town from being completely dead this Friday night were the kebab booths and the Arabic cafés. Toulon is at the same time home to many people with roots in Algeria and a town, where the far-right Front National and it’s fight against immigration stands strong. Dull and racist? Oh, Toulon.

In the end I began noticing the few people I did meet in the streets were carrying plastic bags full of stuff. So, I started walking against the flow and found a huge, sand colored building constituting a mall. And here I finally found them: the people of Toulon. Doing groceries in a ridiculously big Carre Four. At eight o’clock on a Friday night.

I was later told I had missed the part of the habor, which supposedly is packed with tourists on exactly such a Friday night. Still, the season is soon over, so I feel it appropriate to end this wonder in southern France with a riddle:

- No matter how many minutes, hours or days in Toulon, how long do you always and up staying there?

Exactly.

15 reasons to love or hate Italy and Albania

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.

1. Toilets

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.

2. Curiosity

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.

5. Trash

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).

7. Language

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.

8. Coffee

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!

10. Religion

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.

11. Smoking

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.

14. Food

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.

15. Work

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.

Conclusion

“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.