The scene: 1970s, inner city projects with a well-known Albanian pizza joint owner yelling and running out of a building brandishing his handgun. A pre-twenties, pre-police-academy-cop whips his head around to focus on the action. As my dad starts to yell, “drop your weapon, drop your weapon!” an undercover cop slinks out from behind the bushes and clocks Mr. Albania in the back of the head. As Mr. Albania gets cuffed, he shouts, ” he owes me $2.50!” Great. In Jersey, we don’t play.
Fast forward several decades and you’d find my mom and I nestled inside this same pizza joint, grabbing two sausage and peppers, chatting with Mr. Albania. We do a slip of the lip and let him know that, OMG we are going to Albania in two weeks! In quintessentially broken English, he emphatically tells us about the Caddy he still owns in his small, southern Albanian town that will be available to us, should we find the need. Along with his sister and her entire home. Hilarious as this is, we look at one another, intrigued. Who doesn’t love a local?
As we turned back to him, he was already speaking Albanian to his nephew, on the phone, who goes to Albania once a year and is also a local cop in town. Albanian Nephew is a familiar face to us, which is typical in a small working-class town (or, what was a working class town and is now yuppie central). Next thing we know, we have a name and Viber number of the relatives living in Tirana, awaiting notice of our arrival. They, (of course), own a now vacant hotel, but can still accommodate us. Also, said relatives will take us on a small tour if their jobs allow and so on. What the hell?
Fast forward another month and mom and I are waiting at a bus station in Ohrid, Macedonia hoping not to hear that our bus is running late due to thunderstormy weather. Which, it is. With no wi-fi service, we can’t let the relatives know that we will inevitably be five hours later than anticipated -__-. When we do get on the bus, it’s not the big, full-sized we were expecting, yet a small one with maybe 20 seats and 30 passengers. We are the last passengers, again, obvious. No one speaks English. There is maybe a boxed area the size of your dirty laundry basket as a trunk with luggage of all sizes trying their mightiest to fit, pretending they’re not going to clip the handle and all tumble out once the driver accelerates. The bus driver flashes us his colgates and motions that our bags shall fit even he has to take all the passengers out to do so!
Thus, he harshly asks all the passengers to get out so we can place about four pieces of luggage (not just ours) in the walkway of the bus. Five people end up sitting on said pieces as well as the middle of the dashboard, chatting amicably and chomping on snacks. No one takes much notice or care of the questionably-blonde-blue-eyed-possibly-German-or-maybe-even-American-woman-sitting-next-to-the-younger-brown-skinned-curly-haired-girl-that-could-be-the-daughter-but-something-or-someone-is-missing-from-this-interracial-equation. In fact, when we make a bathroom break, mom is chatted up by a young Albanian guy and she rushes back to me on the bus to talk about how she mentioned me, and he now wants to talk to me. He’s in sports marketing and management for their national futbol team and simply wants to speak some English. I shrug my shoulders. After a border crossing, we make a dinner stop and are approached by this young Albanian gentleman. He speaks perfect English and starts asking me about my American life, buys mom and I our dinner and sits with us at a table. We were touched by his hospitality and we said so. Gentleman Albania said that it would be a disgrace if he wasn’t hospitable to foreigners; his countrymen are all equally proud, courteous and gracious people.
Mom and I exited the bus in the evening on a random city street to the unblinking eyes of every passenger on the bus, wondering who we were, where we were going and why. How did we even end up in Albania, they’re begging to ask us in a language we understand. Gentleman Albania offers to call our ride and wait with us…of course he knows who the Albanian Relatives are that we’re to meet with when we provide him their names. I want to say small world, as cliche as it is, but let us face it shall we?! Friggin small.
When our ride arrives, Gentleman Albania walks us to Albanian relatives and tells us to call him that night so we can enjoy a nightcap. We’re then swept up by the Relatives and talked to at a mile a minute about what we should do, where we should go and how they will finagle the rides considering work the next morning. We’re sent to the literally vacant hotel, where not one other soul is. Wifi is a no-go and the restaurant is totally set up to receive patrons…yet absolutely no one is in the building. It is, The Shining. I feel no more needs to be said on this subject.
Next day, we’re picked up in the pouring rain, hail and friggin freezing apocalyptic weather to head to a lookout (really?) in Kruje. We’re high in the clouds by the time we get there, actually frozen and struggling to walk up wet cobblestones in boots that are entirely too slippery for this to be anywhere near safe. Let’s again face it, the museum is slightly lame, but it was a wonderfully gracious gesture to bring us there. We decide to leave because it’s just too damn cold and have an early dinner, again, paid for by the Mrs. Albanian Relative. We have offered to pay at every occasion, but she’s not having it. It’s amazing. Their means are less than ours in a country racked with civil strife, spill-over wars, and ethnic intolerance, and she refuses to allow us to pay for things that we want to do for the two days we’re in her country. We were shown an absolutely wonderful time by the Albanian people and I just wanted to ensure that that be known in this post.
Considering where our Albanian connections stemmed from, our little urban city in Jersey, it is hilarious to think about! This is so utterly typical of my travel life, seriously. Thank you Albania for your pride, hospitality, generosity, and culture.