When I closed the door behind me, and started down Grosslingova, I thought to myself, “well, into the great unknown”. Little did I know that all the “due diligence” I did in the weeks leading up to this trip to Albania really didn’t prepare me for an error due to my nature. I waddled over to Nivy, a shiny new shopping mall that I go to, as it is only a 3-4 block walk. Underneath Nivy the Slovaks built a shiny, new bus station. I made the wise decision to walk over on Friday and buy my ticket for my trip to Vienna airport on Saturday. I was sitting and waiting to board the bus and the people in line, including some Ukrainians (I could tell by the Blue and Gold clothing) were turned away. The seats were sold out. The trip was easy, ..always. The bus was stopped on a pull-out and Austrian Soldiers and Polizei were checking passports. No problems, and we continued on.
The airport was another complete story. I reminded myself to not ever fly on the weekend again. Added to the mad crush was what is going on to the East. I managed to get my bag checked in and realized the long lines were for people going to Germany, Spain, Italy, and France. The airline counters for their respective airlines were hardly visible for all the bodies lined up to go West. I sat at my gate reading a New York Times, the first English-language paper I’d been able to find since my arrival in early December. I was nearly giddy with excitement at being able to do a crossword puzzle on paper. The waiting area around the gate looked like a pre-school. I knew what to expect on the plane. I was hoping we would have a very quick flight to Tirana. I returned to the paper and didn’t give it another thought.
Our flight left Vienna on time. I don’t know what it is with some Eastern Europeans; they just don’t like to follow the rules. A few people were talking loudly on the phone, and our stewardesses were giving the speech about “all elctronic devices off”…these people had to be threatened with being kicked off the flight in order to comply. As we bolted down the runway, the toddlers started crying and fussing. That ignited the fire. I don’t think there was an under-4 year-old that was quiet. I just kept meditiating through it. This was not about me; maybe their ears were affected by the change in altitude.. mine were. After a while, they seemed to engage in some kind of bawling relay-race. a few would stop, and another couple would take up the baton and weep another lap. It was mixed in with the same people yelling into their phones. I turned to look at the young man next to me and he rolled his eyes. He asked what brought me to this “flying Hades”. I could tell by his accent he might have been French. I told him I was heading to Albania to cool my heels for 90 days…per the EU. He was heading to North Macedonia from Tirana, to help with the refugees from the Middle East. He was with Croix-Rouge Francais – the French Red Cross. He said that this flight was nothing. On a flight from Africa (he didn’t say where), there were two fights, babies screaming, people on their phones fro start to finish, and general unruliness. He is going to do his time in North Macedonia and go back to Normandy and work for his father. He has had enough of “seeing the world”. He was 28 and had been doing this since he graduated from University at 21. I told him a bit of my story, he applauded me, wished me good luck, and then somehow dozed off to sleep with the full infant symphony raging at “11”.
Coming down through the clouds into Albania and a steady rain was pretty underwhelming. Looking out of the window, I saw a rocky, muddy, and water-logged land below. I don’t think the pilot had planned on it, but he landed with a fair bit of jolt. He came on the PA and apologized, made the staff aware to check up on us as we taxied to the tiniest “International Airport” I think I may possibly see. A steady, driving rain kept up as we went from the buses on the tarmac (no jetways in most of Europe) to passport control. I was asked two questions, answered politely, and got the stamp without the sentry even looking any more than to see my face when I pulled down my mask. The atms were out, so I headed for the exchange desk, expecting to get fleeced on the remaing 50 Euro I had. I was given 6,000 Albanian Lek for the 50 Euro. 10 Euro equals a little more than 1,200 Lek. I had enough to at least take the bus to Durres..one way – 2,000 Lek/17 Euro.
I asked where to find the bus to Durres and was told to the right outside the sliding doors. Exiting the airport and turning to my right, I saw 5/6 buses, and of course the bus for Duress was the only bus with a line to the door…right in front of me. I relaxed and thought that I was still ok; I knew where to take the bus to to get to my apartment, all I had to do was get on the bus. Just then, a short, older man comes up and asks where I’m going. “Durres” was my reply. “I can take you there, no problem…bus is no good” I asked him how much. “35 Lek” was his response. I looked at him and said that “35 Lek is not much”. He replyed that he was headed that way and would gladly take me for “35 Lek”.
I waited as he pulled up in a muddy Mercedes wagon, lifted the back hatch and I threw my bag inside. We headed out of the airport and after passing police directing traffic, he declared that masks were no longer necessary. We talked for a bit and I told him the address. “Ok..I know where”. “Cool”, I thought..this was easy, but I was still not quite good with his motives. Driving on into Durres was eye-opening, to say the least. I put away any “Western pretensions” about how others lived, what was “normal”, and the obviious difference in cultures. The “main street” was a bumpy, muddy flat area. To call it a street would be an affront to paved streets anywhere in the world. Although, the glaring difference was in the buildings. There were some that shone like South Beach Art Deco treasures, while (in most cases) right next door were two or three naked hulls of buildings. Either a state of dilapidation, or development would be the best way to describe it.
Along the way, my driver would excuse himself and get out to ask directions; looking around, I didn’t see any street-signs or addresses on buildings. At this point, I was beginning to get a little on edge…added to the fact that I still wasn’t able to get in touch with my host. My European phone wasn’t getting through to him and I decided to turn on my iPhone and pay through the nose for data. Still nothing. As we winded through neighborhoods that looked fresh from the Balkan Wars, I was becoming a bit more anxious; everytime my driver stopped for directions, he would announce that I was American from Slovakia and no judgement, some of the characters looked a bit…unsavory. With each direction stop (5 up to this point) we headed in a different direction. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a big beautiful hotel. “Go there!”, I told the driver. He turned into the driveway, and as we approached the guardhouse, I told him to tell the guard I had a room there for the night.
We pulled up to a grand staircase, and standing there was Ali. Head to toe, he looked imposing with sharp black and white outfit. I jumped out and he saw the stress on my face. “Good afternoon Sir, how can I help?” I asked if he had a room, and he walked past me and took my duffel bag out of the back, and after waving the driver off asked me to follow him. I turned and gave the driver 3,000 Lek, I knew to be about 25 Euro…not the “35” we agreed on. He had a befuddled and distracted look on his face. Entering behind Ali (he introduced himself as he pointed to his nametag), the young ladies at the desk stood and asked if I had a reservation. Ali said something to them in Albanian, and they told me that they would take care of me right away. I looked to Ali and thanked him, noticing that the driver was still behind me. I turned and said, “Thank you”. He said something to Ali, who was not happy with him. Pulling money out of his pocket, Ali gave him a 10 Euro note, and sent him away with a curt Albanian wave.
I had landed in a 5-star hotel and it was beautiful. The room cost me 68 euro, plus the 10 that I owed Ali. I thanked the girls profusely and Ali bade me to follow him to the elevator. He slung my 80 pound duffel over his shoulder like a bad loaf of bread. In the elevator he sked me twice if I was alright. I assured him that NOW I was. “I am sorry…this man does not represent the best that Albania has to offer. It was smart that you came here.” “Ali you are a good man”, was all I could muster after telling him what had happened. “Opening the door to my room and turning on the lights, he allowed me to walk by, and he closed the door a little behind him. “I hope you will have a better trip from here on in”, reaching into his vest pocket, he handed me his card. “I am at your disposal, even after your stay here is finished..I work the second shift, he said calmly. I told him that I owed him at least a couple beers on his off-time. “You’ve paid me back already, I am glad to help.” He left and I fell on the bed after getting out of my shoes. I thought about how lucky I was and that from here on in, I was going to work against myself, and be a little less trusting – following my gut.
I was able to contact my host, Bledar; he was extremely apologetic and wanted to pay me back for the hotel room…I refused. As it turned out I was only about 50 meters (50 yards) away from my apartment. Yesterday morning I walked down the beach, met Bledar’s Sister and she showed me the building. We would have never found it on Saturday. There are no addresses, only building names. My building is still under construction, hence the low cost of my stay. Once inside the building, it was a different story…polished marble and sleek, clean lines. My apartment is beautiful. I will move around to the sea-facing side (it was rented when I booked), and I will be here until the middle of April. All in all it has been an adventure. I still consider myself very lucky. I’m looking forward to the weather improving (pouring rain now/ 41F), and possibly a fly fishing trip to the mountains in the Northern mountains. Until my next post, please take care of each other. Thank you for following me.