Life in the Balkans

The Balkan Peninsula is a section of southeastern Europe, bordered by the Mediterranean (Aegean and Ionian), Adriatic, and Black Seas. Albania, where we will be for the month of April, and Montenegro, where we will be for a month in May and June, are both fully within the Balkans. The rest of our time in eastern Europe will be spent in Croatia, about half of which is also considered to be part of this geographical area.

The location of the Balkans is what makes them so unique, as they are positioned above the area known as the Fertile Crescent, yet are surrounded by seas in many directions. Due to this, the Balkan region played a key role as the crossroads through which civilization spread. Farming was first brought to Europe through the Balkans, and the area has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era. The Greeks, Illyrians, Persians, Romans, and Ottomans are just a sampling of the civilizations that have occupied an area of the Balkans at some point in history.

A quick sketch to give you some perspective – the countries outlined in yellow are generally considered to be part of the Balkans, and those in red are also sometimes included.

Their geographic placement as the bridge between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, also means that countless wars have taken place here over the millennia. More recently, the 20th Century saw the Balkan Wars (against the Ottoman Empire), the World Wars, the Cold War, and various wars for independence that have continued even into the 21st Century. Specific to the countries we will be visiting, Croatia joined the European Union in 2013 and Albania and Montenegro are presently working to join as well. Here in Albania, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Eastern Orthodox Church are all common and tolerance seems to be key in managing their relations. (This also means that Albanian residents got two three-day weekends in a row for Easter thanks to the Christian and Orthodox calendars being slightly off from one another.)

This brief and simplified historical overview hopefully helps to give you an idea of the rich and varied backgrounds, as well as strife, that have given the Balkans their unique cultural climate.

Jake and I eased into a Balkan state of mind at a hotel just outside of Dubrovnik. We were coming off of over six months of intense house sitting and traveling, not to mention a grueling 26-hour travel day, and took a much-needed break here. We had planned to spend the month of April at an apartment in Kaštel Štafilić, Croatia. Our host, however, canceled the reservation just five days before we were scheduled to arrive. Airbnb was thankfully understanding of the unfortunate situation we were placed in and was able to give us a coupon to help offset the costs of finding a last-minute apartment to rent for a month. We found a great little place in Durrës, Albania that was both affordable and available for the whole month. Our only requirements were a washer, a kitchen, and wifi. Our host assured us that we would have access to all of these, and even offered to increase the internet speed for us to ensure that it would be strong enough for our online work.

Three Countries in One Day

Our route from Dubrovnik to Durrës

The cheapest way to get from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Durrës, Albania is by a 10-hour bus ride. We were able to book a direct route online and printed our tickets out at the hotel. On the morning of our trip, we showed up at the bus station before 7 am. When we asked the driver if his bus was going to Albania, he basically said, “Yeah, sure.” That’s not exactly the confidence we were looking for, but we rolled with it. 45 minutes later we set off in a coach with a group of boisterous young men who smelled like, well, young men. They smoked on the bus and found it funny to play a game with us where they would point at the ground at our feet and say, “Oh, sorry,” and then laugh when we looked. For the most part, we were able to just ignore them and enjoy the passing scenery, though. The bus followed the beautiful Adriatic Coast for most of the journey from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Kotor, Montenegro. Although the bus had a toilet, it remained locked for the whole ride, and I quickly learned to take advantage of any public toilet I could find on the bus’s occasional stops.

Croatian Flag

For our first border crossing between Croatia and Montenegro, we were all asked to get off the bus, get our passports checked and stamped, and then exit Croatia by foot to meet the bus on the other side of the border. We got back on the bus and then off again at the Montenegrin border to get our passports stamped for entry into Montenegro. This border crossing was fairly uneventful except for Croatia placing their exit stamp directly on top of their own entry stamp in my passport. In their defense, the entry border agent had done a shoddy job on her stamp, and I distinctly remember her squinting at the stamp and shrugging as she stamped me in at the Zagreb airport.

Montenegrin Flag

Our bus took us on a winding and scenic road around the incredible Bay of Kotor. Once in Kotor our bus driver had Jake and I get onto a different bus, telling us that it would take us to Albania. So much for a direct route. We were in our new driver’s hands now, though, for better or worse. This bus took us from the bay where it was a beautiful, sunny day, straight up into the mountains. In a matter of minutes, we were in the clouds and there was snow on the ground. The road was undergoing construction and was partially unpaved. This was a bit concerning considering the thick fog and sheer drop-off to the right. Despite my mind’s protests, I reclined my seat, closed my eyes, and listened to my audiobook, knowing that worrying wouldn’t do me any good. I’ve found that I’m able to get into a particular state of mind on long travel days where I zone out and go with the flow. If I think about the situation too much the only thing that’ll do is give me a useless headache.

Albanian Flag (my favorite)

For the border crossing from Montenegro to Albania, we stayed on the bus while a border agent came onboard to collect our passports. Our bus driver took us to the Albanian border, got off for a few minutes, came back on, and continued driving without returning our passports. About a half hour later a passenger who, up to this point, had been sprawled out across two seats with his pants unbuckled, went up to the front of the bus, took the stack of passports from the driver, and proceeded up the aisle returning them to their owners. As I said, you just gotta go with the flow!

Houses out in the countryside with their wrap-around porches

It wasn’t long before Albania began to reveal to us its uniqueness as we drove through the countryside. Along the road, in no particular order, I saw: horse-drawn plows; horse- and donkey-drawn carts; a man scything his field while wearing a full suit; people walking along the highway carrying scythes as tall as themselves with blades as long as their arms; a flock of sheep with their shepherd in a graveyard; a troubling number of stray dogs; scooters hauling carts piled high with their loads; men wearing suits and women wearing traditional dresses and headscarves; young men and women in fashionable modern clothing; sparkling new buildings; crumbling buildings and rubble; apartments in the cities with laundry hanging from the balconies; large homes in the suburbs with wrap-around porches; sheep blocking the road; more American flags than I’ve seen since we left the US; and oases in the countryside consisting of a gas station, car wash, restaurant, cafe, and/or hotel, reminiscent of Route 66 in the US.

As you can imagine, something like this sticks out when you just passed someone carrying a scythe or leading a donkey.

Once we were 20 minutes outside of Durrës I was finally feeling confident that we were on the right bus. I messaged our host to let him know that we were getting close. Of course, as soon as I sent the message, our bus got stuck in a long line of trucks and coaches navigating a narrow, muddy road with potholes that could swallow a person whole. I just had to shake my head and laugh. 30 minutes later we were back on the highway, no harm done.

Durrës, Albania

The Durrës bus station, and the sign we stood in front of

You may have never heard of Durrës, and neither had we until just a few days before we arrived.

Our host arranged for his dad to meet us at the bus station. He sent me a picture of the sign we should stand in front of at the station, and of his dad’s car. I had been told his dad is 66, short, has white hair, speaks Albanian and some Greek but no English. We walked up to the first car with a driver that met this description, shook hands with who we assumed (and thankfully was) our host’s dad, and enjoyed a pleasant but quiet drive to our new home for the month.

The host’s mom was waiting for us in the apartment. She also spoke very limited English, but through gestures and other nonverbal forms of communication, we were able to get a decent tour of the flat. We noticed her looking at a sheet of paper occasionally before she would say a word or phrase in English. After they left, we took a look at the paper and realized that our host had written out phrases in English using Albanian phonetics for his mom. For example, “Thank you very much,” became, “Thenk ju veri maç” and “Have a nice stay” was, “Hev ë najs stej.” If that doesn’t give you an idea of how serious Albanians are about hospitality, I don’t know what will.

Additional proof is that, about a week into our stay, a tube under the kitchen sink became disconnected. I messaged our host and he arranged for a store owner on the first floor of the building to come up and fix it. He didn’t speak any English, and we don’t speak any Albanian. Despite this, we were able to go into his store and point up towards our apartment, and he knew exactly what to do. Our sink was fixed in just a matter of minutes thanks to the tight-knit nature of the community here.

After they left, we took a look at the paper and realized that our host had written out phrases in English using Albanian phonetics for his mom. For example, “Thank you very much,” became, “Thenk ju veri maç” and “Have a nice stay” was, “Hev ë najs stej.” If that doesn’t give you an idea of how serious Albanians are about hospitality, I don’t know what will.

The view from our balcony

Our apartment is simple but comfortable. It has a nice balcony from which we can see the Adriatic Sea in one direction and snow-capped mountains in the other. We hang our clothes out to dry on the balcony just like I saw the residents of the apartments we passed on our ride through Albania do. We are about a two-and-a-half-mile walk from the city center of Durrës and are staying on a stretch of the beach that is popular with tourists during the summer months. For now, it is relatively quiet though, and we enjoy walking along the one and a half-mile-long stretch of beach that’s just 100 feet from our apartment building (our host measured it).

Durrës on the west, our apartment is located at the red pin. That whole crescent is one long beach! Tirana, Albania (the capital) is to the east

Getting a Job

Since arriving here, I picked up an online job transcribing audio. I haven’t officially held a job since we left in September, which was entirely intentional. I wanted to be sure that when I did work, it was something that would make me happy and would fit into my life, rather than requiring me to structure my life around it. During those six months, I helped Jake a bit on his business and worked hard at our house sits. However, I also spent ample time relaxing, reading, exploring, writing these posts for you, thinking, and watching Netflix. It was actually while watching a show on Netflix that I realized I wanted to try my hand at transcribing, though, so those hours weren’t all for naught.

I like to have the captions on while watching shows, as my reading is better than my listening comprehension. I became interested in the terminology used in the captions and thought that perhaps a grammar nerd like me would be good at captioning shows. After some research, I found that it is easiest to begin as a transcriptionist and gain experience before deciding whether to pursue captioning. Like I said, my auditory comprehension could use some strengthening, but I passed the exams for the position I wanted and tested into a promotion within the first week. My schedule is completely flexible, and I’ve found the work to be rewarding. It is such a cool feeling to read through my transcription one last time with the audio at 1.5x speed and see every utterance captured in writing.

This may seem like quite the jump from my previous work in the disability field, but I see the value of captioning and transcription for all consumers, regardless of the reason they may need it. It is my belief that accommodations are often universally beneficial. This work allows me to help others when also giving me the freedom to decide every morning what I want to do with my day.

Our Neighborhood

We take a nearly daily afternoon “siesta,” during which we walk down the beach and then back to our apartment on the road. We might stop at our favorite fruit and veggie stand, a grocery store, a bakery where we can get a loaf of fresh-baked bread for less than a dollar, and often the store below our apartment, as well. Each place has a unique selection, so we have learned to adapt our shopping habits to fit the environment.

We aren’t the only ones who take a siesta here, or something like it. Our walks on the beach are accompanied by people of all ages and walks of life. Old men in suits with their wives in full skirts and a scarf over their head; groups of young men in the latest fashions and the popular tight-fade hairstyle; young women doing photoshoots with the Adriatic Sea as their backdrop; and families with happy kids playing in the sand. It isn’t uncommon to see women wearing a hijab on the beach right next to men and women sunbathing in swimsuits.

Countless cafes line both the beach and the road, where the custom is to sit outside and drink coffee at all times of the day and night. We’ve noticed that passerby tend to look around as they walk past the cafes to see if they recognize anyone. If they do, they will call out to them and greet them with a hug and a kiss on each cheek. People are rarely too busy to stop and chat with a friend.

Although we regretfully don’t speak the language (we didn’t even know we would be going to Albania until 4 days before we arrived), the locals have been more than willing to help us in any way they can. If we ask someone for help and they don’t know the answer, they will call out the question in Albanian to anyone nearby to answer. It then becomes a group activity to help out the foreigners. Even when we don’t share any language with the people we are interacting with, we find that we can get by fairly well. At the fruit stand, for example, we bring the produce up to the stall tender, she places each item on a scale and notes the weight, and then writes out the total we owe her. We give her the appropriate amount of cash, smile, and go on our way.

Making Friends

We’ve only walked into the city center once, which should tell you how content we are with our new routine and our little apartment by the sea. It takes about 40 minutes to walk into town, but it’s pretty much a straight shot from our apartment. On the day we went into the city, we walked along the beachfront promenade there.

This stretch features carnival rides and games, and people selling various wares on makeshift tables. The beaches are sadly strewn with trash in some areas, and the sidewalks and roads throughout much of the city are in desperate need of repair. However, there were plenty of locals out and about, enjoying the sun, so we followed suit and did the same.

We enjoyed a couple of Coronas on the beach, and then went up to a bar at the top of one of the taller buildings in the city.

Our accent was overheard here by a young woman at the table next to ours. She asked if we were American, which we confirmed, and it turned out that she is from Wisconsin and is a Peace Corps volunteer. She just began her position in Albania but was there with a volunteer who has been here for a couple of years. We turned around to continue our own conversation, but when her tablemate returned, Jake noticed he was wearing a Carolina Panthers hat. Jake’s NFL team is the Panthers, so of course, he was excited to meet a fellow fan. That was how we met Amy and Julian, the Peace Corps volunteers.

Jake and I joined them at their table and were surprised by how nice it was to have a conversation in English with fellow native speakers. It was such a relief to be able to talk as quickly as we wanted, and about any topic we wished. It was also great to be able to learn from Julian’s expertise as someone who has lived in the area for a while. I asked him my burning questions, such as why everyone is always drinking coffee here. His answer was that Albania is a coffee culture. This region has one of the highest numbers of cafes per capita in the world, and life simply happens over coffee. As I mentioned earlier, we had noticed that cafes are the social meeting place for locals. As it turns out, they are also where business happens. With the Peace Corps, although they are supposed to work four days a week, they often show up to work to find that the majority of the day will be spent at the coffee bar making negotiations over a cup of espresso.

Julian also shed light on Albanian gender roles. We had noticed that you often see men and women in separate groups, rarely intermingling except in families and couples. He confirmed that this is common and that they tend to follow more traditional gender roles, although this has been gradually changing. For the most part, locals are happy to make exceptions for foreigners and don’t necessarily expect us to follow their customs. While it is rare for Albanian women to drink in public, it is acceptable for visitors to do so. I asked Julian about how I often felt like I was receiving “looks.” He said that is common for all visitors, and that the locals are just curious. They are looking around for people they know, and when they see someone who looks, speaks, dresses, and drinks differently than them, they might take a second glance. It isn’t hostile, they are simply taking note of the differences. In some cases there has been “rubbernecking” but after our conversation, it has been much easier for me to brush off as a harmless part of the culture. If anything, it speaks to the great value Albanians place on social relationships.

Family and friends are the cornerstones of life here. Julian and Amy explained that, in the villages especially, when you meet people they will invite you to take bread in their home. No matter how little they have, they are always willing to give and to host others. Other customs they explained included that Albanians are very verbal and might sound like they are yelling regardless of their emotion; they use their horns a lot while driving to communicate with other drivers as well as pedestrians; and if a child is begging, you can make a “tsk tsk” noise with your mouth to tell them you aren’t interested.

Julian was shocked that we hadn’t tried raki yet, the local hard alcohol. He led us on an adventure to resolve this. After asking around at about five bars we finally found a place that was serving it. Raki is made from the distilled by-products of wine and has been around since the Ottoman Empire. People drink it straight, sometimes with a coffee as a chaser. Hard alcohol isn’t my thing, but it was a fun cultural lesson. Julian and Amy walked us back to the bus station, and from there we knew how to get home. Before parting, we exchanged contact information so that we might be able to meet up again during our time here. It is always such a joy meeting new people, and Julian and Amy were no exception to that.

If I could sum up life in the Balkans so far, I would say that the people here tend to be kind, hospitable, and social. They value family life and relationships. Although there are struggles with their infrastructure and the economy, and unemployment is high during the tourism offseason, Albanians seem to know how to live and enjoy their lives. It’s easy to look past the rough parts to the beautiful Adriatic Sea with its calm tides and stunning sunsets and get into the Balkan state of mind.