An Ode To Albania

When I first came to Albania, I was only intending on staying for three days. I thought I would touch down, explore some museums, get drunk on cheap local wine, do a bit of shopping, and then leave again.

If you had told me that I would never leave and that 18 months later I would be running a successful blog, carrying an Albanian daughter, and enjoying a rather infamous reputation here, I would have said you were quite mad. But here we are.

Every time I meet someone new, or give a talk somewhere for the first time, I am always asked “Why Albania? We all want to leave, and yet you want to stay here?”. My answer is always the same- “I have never felt more at home anywhere than I do here,” and that is the truth. Even in my own country, even in Malta where I lived for 10 years- Albania feels more like my home than all of my previous homes combined.

But why? That question is a little harder to answer.

Of course, the people are friendly, kind, and welcoming and it is easy to make new friends. Whenever I go out, wherever I am, I seem to make friends with locals- taxi drivers, waiters, people sat in the many cafes, random people in the street- everyone is curious and eager to chat to find out where I am from, why I am here, and what I think of their country.

Perhaps it is the weather? Tirana is both one of the wettest and sunniest cities in Europe. Winters are short and mild (snooze and you will miss them), the summers are long and hot (June until October) and the spring and autumn are the most delightful times to walk the city streets or explore the diverse and dramatic countryside. I like the fact that you can pass through four seasons in one day, topped off with an earthquake, and then spend two weeks lounging in almost tropical feeling surroundings on the Albanian riviera. When you come from England, the land of perpetual grey, believe me, this is a welcome change.

Or is it the food? Yeah I’ve gained kilos since I have been here (and no I am not referring to just my unborn daughter) but you know what? It is worth sacrificing a size 12 figure for the joys of the Albanian kitchen. Fresh, seasonal, bio, natural, abundant, wild, simple, and flavourful, Albanian food is based on what people could make do with, but the results are divine. I cannot get enough of flakey byrek, lightly seasoned fergese, meat that melts in the mouth, crisp green salads, and at least three types of cheese with every meal- what is not to love? This combined with the promising local wine industry punctuated by names such as Nurellari, Kantaina Alimani, and Kallmet results in a situation where you just cannot help but indulge.

What about the countryside? Hmm that could be it. There is nothing I love more than heading out of the city in the car or on the back of a motorbike and watching the colours and sights whiz by. Vast plains covered in brightly coloured houses stretch for miles before making way to velvety rolling hills and dramatic mountains. White sand that stretches for miles and hidden beaches you can only access by boat, turquoise water and olive groves that flank the shore- the Albanian coast has to be explored to be believed.

Is it Tirana? Its vast, sprawling, crumbly and chaotic beauty? Street art and chestnut trees, the smell of jasmine in the air on a summer evening, or the hundreds of quirky coffee shops where you can while away an afternoon writing or just watching the world pass by? I love the mismatched architecture and the cheeky street art, I love the street vendors with their colourful wears, and I love the haphazard streets, the honking cars, and the fact you can walk pretty much anywhere meaning you can take it all in at your own leisure and pace.

Or maybe it is the equally volatile and rich history of this country- from Illyrian legends to Ottoman rule, and of course the vile and brutal communist regime that is still recognisable in the political scene of today. It is all fascinating and interweaves together to create a tapestry of traditions, pain, art, resilience, music, morals, fear, hope, and culture that is unlike anything else I have ever seen before.

To be honest, it could be all of these things, or it could be none of them, but whatever it is, this is my home and I love it dearly.

At a talk I gave last week, one student asked me “how can you love Albania so much, and write such nice things about it but then also write about corruption and criticisms?”

It was a very valid question and one that I was happy to answer. Loving someone or something does not mean that you become blind to their flaws- in fact real love means that you acknowledge the bad things, but love them anyway. The same is with my view on Albania. As a writer, a journalist, and an independent woman with her own mind, I would be doing myself and Albania an injustice if I did not write about the good and the bad.

Criticism or tough love is a necessity and without it, nothing will ever change. If your child misbehaves, you do not turn a blind eye and instead praise them only for the things that are good. No, you call attention to the bad behavior and you ask for change, whilst ensuring that positive behavior is reinforced.

I apply the same ethos to my writing. I criticise because I care. I write about corruption and injustice because it hurts me to see people living in poverty and suffering, whilst oligarchs and politicians reap the county for their own gain. It hurts me to see people locked up for not paying their electricity bill whilst those that engage in drug trafficking and murder walk free. It hurts me to see justice only available to those that have the power or influence to command it, whilst the average person is forced to seek their own justice or be quiet. It also hurts me to see people’s freedom of expression quelled and to hear of my friends living in fear of voicing an opinion or conducting their work as a journalist, because they are scared of the consequences on their family or life. This i cannot accept.

So whilst I love Albania dearly with all my heart, and all I do to promote this country is done for free and at financial cost to myself, I reserve the right to call for change as well. Whilst I may not be Albanian, I have chosen to live here for the rest of my life, I am bringing an Albanian child into the world, and I have done all I can to integrate myself into the society- this means I have a right to speak up.

I do it because I see the wonder and beauty that is present here. I do it because I admire and respect the people of this country and I do it because I believe that my words, both positive and critical may, in their own way help to improve things.

My partner jokes with me often, saying that I am more Albanian than him and he will ask me “where are you from?” to which I reply “Albania!” And this is why I do what I do!

This article was originally published on The Balkanista.