Day 190: Albania, land of the warmest smiles

Morning Coffee in Gjirokastra

Didn’t sleep well last night. Not sure what kept us up more: the coffee and raki (aniseed flavoured liquor sipped straight up, this is the albanian vodka) that Mario invited us to, or the thought of leaving this country which unexpectedly became our home away from home, our family away from family.

Like a soulful bowl of chicken soup, Albania is one of the most heartwarming places in this world. I was blown away by how friendly people are. Maybe because we stuck out as Asians, maybe because the country had historic ties with Mao Zedong era China, or maybe simply because Albanians are a welcoming, curious, genuine and sincere bunch.

The Harushas

We felt like we were in Colombia again. All too often, locals would approach us with a genuine interest. Smiles here are contagious – give a little smile to acknowledge the stranger walking by and be guaranteed to receive a warmer one back. Be it on the street, a bus, or in a kebab joint, we received curious stares which always turned into beaming grins after a simple “pershendetie” (hello in Albanian).

Francesco, who da boss?

Friendly Albanians were all over the country. The Harushas in Theth village; Diane in Tirana who found us a place to stay at her friend’s, her friend who also unexpectedly prepared us a simple breakfast the next morning; Siku, Cinderella, Anissia and the other beautiful girls of Berat who were so excited to take pictures with us (actually with KF, not me unfortunately); Franz, Gierz, and Piro, cool dudes I stumbled upon who were rolling up on a dark street, asked me to join, threw me a beer and taught me “gzooar” (cheers!); Rino, an Albanian Bruce Willis who ran the hostel in Saranda with the kindest heart…

Albanian Initiation: Raki for breakfast

And friends were easily made in Gjirokastra. I walked by a small local cafe one early morning when a table of old folks waved me over and sat me down with them. A glass of raki was served, courtesy of the cafe owner. This was the typical Albanian start to the day, an alcoholic breakfast. I couldn’t imagine a better way to initiate myself into Albanian culture.

Nonna, say cheese!

There’s also XL sized Mario and his caring mother we called “nonna” (Italian for grandma) who ran Hotel Castelo. Nonna watched disapprovingly as KF scraped away the cheese from inside her burek (a bread-like pastry), explaining with the funniest body language (and horrific sounds) that it would make her throw up. Nonna frowned and walked away, only to return with a basket of plain bread and dish of cheese on the side. She sat down with us to eat, explaining that this particular cheese was clean and good on the stomach. She gestured us to eat, then forked up a piece, literally forcing it into KF’s mouth. We burst into laughter when nonna said we should leave a comment in her guestbook about how she fed KF like a baby!

XL Mario

XL Mario was like-mother-like-son. He invited us to coffee and raki. Surprised and impressed by a drinking woman, he insisted that KF also smoke a cigarette. I should rephrase: he forced KF to light up. Mario gave KF full instructions – the proper way to hold a cigarette, the right facial expressions to have, when to take a break, “parking” the ciggie on an ashtray… It was Smoking 101 with Professor Mario, the funniest, most hilarious thing ever to watch.

Having ice cream with Arjan

Then there’s businessman Arjan and his two girls Eva and Angel. He took us out to dinner, ordered excessive food, told us about his Chinese friends & biz partners, took us out for ice cream after a day of swimming, and showed us his little workshop warehouse of imported Chinese lamps. He shoved us two bottles of wine to take home to “baba” & “mama”. Disappointed that we were unable to accept his generosity, he ran out to his tiny makeshift farm outside the warehouse and picked the ripest bunch of grapes for us.

Chillin at the pool with Eva

This is the type of warmth that connect people, no matter how different or far apart we are. It’s the type that make us human.

Albanians represent human warmth in the most heart-melting way. I hope tourism, globalization nor commercialism will change this, the way they have changed many many other a people.

Faleminderit Albania and miropavshim!

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  1. Dilly says:

    Eva is so damn hot and sexy

  2. Devan says:

    So cool. I just came back from Colombia and, too, I found the locals to be very warm and gracious. Sadly, I didn't make it out to Salento, though :'(

  3. Leslie says:

    Love this guys! Make me sooo happy that you met such great people and had such an awesome time!

  4. ace says:

    i love this story! so interesting to meet these characters. KF smoking? hahahahaha funny! (sorry i finally got to this post).

    i love how these people treat u like family!

    i miss u guys xo

  5. Al83r7 says:

    I just wanted to congratulate you on this great article and to say that i am glad you had a good experience in my country. Albania is often portrayed in a negative way in the foreign media, especially in the Balkan region but this is mostly to scare off people like you from a place which is by far superior in its warmth and respect for foreigners, regardless of their race or color. Where else you would get the smiles you mentioned, treated as one of the family (despite knowing them for just a few days), offered a drink courtesy of the house or a friendly local??? I do indeed concur with you on the last point you make, when you say “I hope tourism, globalization nor commercialism will change this, the way they have changed many many other a people” because it has already shown signs of it happening in just 20 (more visible in the last 10) years of openness to outside world.

  6. Jacques says:

    Spent a week in Albania, driving around from Tirana to Durres, Vlores, Saranda, Gjirokaster (my favourite) and back to Tirana. What a beautiful country, and such amazing people. The most wonderful help when I had a flat tyre somewhere between Gjirokaster and Fier. I am certainly going back – next time to see more of the mountains to the east of Gjirokaster.
    After having suffered such repression under Enver Hoza, I just think this country will one day become one of the stars of Europe!!!

  7. joni says:

    schie schie my friends, (though I never met you) you’re welcome back anytime, we [albanians] are far from perfect people, that’s true, but I don’t want us to change much either.

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