Albania’s Manhattan

After our crazy Albanian wedding, we got to spend an entire month travelling around Albania (with side-steps to Montenegro and Croatia), seeing more of this gorgeous country.

Hands down the highlight of our trip was Thethi.

Getting there was an adventure alone. The only road into the village travels through the Shala mountains – Albania’s Alps – in bone-rattling, terror-inducing style. It’s very difficult to get any vehicle in unless it’s a solid 4WD, or one of Albania’s indestructible furgons (mini-vans). We chose this option, leaving our car in Shkodra and putting our lives in the very competent hands of our furgon driver. (Although, rumour has it, road improvements mean from August the road is accessible by ‘normal cars’ until the rain comes in the autumn!)

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Weirdly, arriving in Thethi felt a little like the first time I arrived in downtown Manhattan – claustrophobic. The village is nestled deep in a narrow valley surrounded by huge mountains, instead of sky-scrapers. During the winter months it’s not unusual for the village to be completely cut off from the outside world and many residents relocate to warmer climes and wait for the spring. In fact it’s so isolated that according to the locals, the village was founded by Catholics escaping the Ottomans, which seemed to work as they were largely left alone.

It’s completely stunning…

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Tourism is big business in Thethi. It attracts close to 10,000 visitors a year – many walk there from Valbona (8 hours), or more ambitiously, through the tracks opened by the Balkans Peace Park Project through Kosovo and Montenegro.

We spent two nights there, staying is one of many guesthouses in the valley. Foreign investment has enabled a number of guesthouses to modernise and we enjoyed very comfortable, modern accommodation – much-needed after a long day trekking up and down the valley!

The day before we left for Thethi I had a little panic attack about the trip ahead. Everything I had read warned me about the isolation and the perils of travelling there and here I was dragging my husband and my parents to quite possibly the remotest area of Europe. I was sure we’d end up plunging off a cliff! Oh it was so worth it. I almost hope that they never properly finish that road. That way it will never become just another one of Europe’s over-touristy beauty spots.

Half-way mark

Almost without noticing, earlier this month it was six months since we arrived in Albania and started our adventure. It feels like forever and yesterday all at the same time.

Our crazy life has become so normal to us. This was brought home to me when my parents came to stay in June. Their reactions to the everyday madness of life in Tirana reminded me of how I first reacted when I arrived – before it all just became normal!

Hands down what I’ve treasured most is that I’ve spent pretty much all day every day of the last six months with my husband. Who gets to do that these days?! We’ve been able to have the best of each other’s time – not the bits left over after a long day at work. It’s pretty much been the best way to start married life ever! That I’ve not driven him completely crazy is a testament to how amazing he is!

The next best thing is the ‘not working’ bit! It is amazing to have eliminated work stress from our lives – which isn’t to say that it hasn’t been replaced by other stresses, like money stress!

Looking back at my strategic plan, put together in December last year, I’ve been able to tick off six of my ten objectives. Not a bad effort! My biggest failing has been in (not) mastering the Albanian language. My understanding isn’t too bad at all – I can follow most conversations – but my speaking is terrible. It’s been too easy to rely on English-speakers around me and it’s definitely made me lazy!

It’s also been disappointing how little time we’ve been able to invest in the farm house. A lesson for me in how things aren’t quite so easy to achieve here as they may be in the UK or NZ.

I have definitely improved my Albanian housewife skills. There is always a supply of drinks and snacks in my cupboards that can be served up to unexpected guests. The house is never more than a few minutes away from extreme tidiness (although I should confess this is more due to the efforts of my husband than me – oops). I can prepare the guest bedroom in mere minutes.

I have come to love Albania – although I am not blind to its faults. This country has so much potential but too many of its citizens have little sense of their civic responsibilities. (Yet who can blame them after generations of politicians and leaders have repeatedly ripped them off.)

I find myself screaming in frustration on an almost daily basis at the bizarre bureaucracy. It is not unusual for us to spend a day walking between four or five government buildings before we’re finally directed to the one we’re supposed to be at. Or, turning up at the visa office to collect my visa only to discover that almost overnight the visa office has been relocated to a town outside of Tirana! And don’t get me started on the driving…

It has been a challenge to live in a culture where there are prevailing views that seem so out of step with what I am familiar with. I particularly struggle with the societal position women are shoe-horned into.

But I am embracing the simplicity of life… the locally sourced, deliciously fresh and tasty food, the companionship of family, the relentlessly beautiful weather, the lazy coffees that last for hours, the evening walks through the mountains behind our apartment building. It’s not a bad way to live.

Dajti is conveniently located behind our apartment!

Six months brings us to our half-way mark on our one year adventure. But plans always change and the next six months are certainly bringing some new challenges as we figure out where to next.

One summer’s day

One late summer’s day, about 13 years ago, my husband was working with his brother and father in their carpentry workshop in Burrel when they heard a massive explosion that shook the building. Across the valley the usual view they had of their farm amongst the trees was obscured by an enormous plume of smoke (my husband described it like the mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion).

They ran into the centre of town to find out what was going on but it wasn’t until many days later that they learnt the full story – that a man living on the land of a former military base at the mouth of the valley had been using a metal grinder, the sparks from which hit the weapons storage area igniting a fire, creating a massive explosion and sending missiles firing across the valley and the flat land.

People ran for their lives, sheltering wherever they could. At the farm the three families, and neighbours, gathered in two rooms that were somewhat protected by concrete roofs.

Leaving his brother in town, my husband went with his father and found a furgon (van) driver who was heading out past the road to the farm to check on his own family. They sped off, persuading the army officers now blocking the road to let them past. The smoke was making it difficult to see the road and there were still missiles firing off in all directions.

The walk from the main road to the farm was desolate – there was absolutely no one outside. My husband and his father were fully expecting to find their family dead. But when they made it to the farm a quick head count confirmed all were safe and sound. At midnight they ventured out to survey the damage to the houses closest to the weapons depot.

Over the next few days the area was swarming with police and army personnel searching the area for damage and bodies. It was nine days after the weapons depot exploded that a trail of ants led searchers to dig down through the ruins of the house on the military base and they found the man with his grinder buried deep under the rubble and burnt almost beyond recognition.

Walking the land was dangerous in the days and months following as there was unexploded ordnance covering the whole area. Searches and clean ups were tentatively carried out – before taking every footstep the ground was closely examined.

Much of the unexploded ordnance was cleared. But not all. It was many months later when my husband’s young cousins took their cows out to graze. And that’s where my other tale begins.