Tirana and Rome don’t have much in common—except that it’s absurdly easy to stand out as a tourist.
They come at it from different angles—Rome because there’s so many goddamn tourists (really, do Americans realize that there’s other countries in the world?), and Tirana because there’s so few goddamn tourists (really, do people realize how amazing it is?). But the effect is the same either way: you aren’t ever, ever going to blend in.
Some travelers get bummed out by this, and do everything within their power to fool themselves (and themselves only), acquiring affected accents and scarves for the local football team. But I say fuck it—no one’s gonna buy it anyway. So you may as well just dance.
Friday night felt like a riot in Tirana: chanting crowds, police sirens, streets shut off, smoke billowing and fireworks flashing. It wasn’t a riot, just the Albania-Bosnia football match. The insane energy of it all is a little anxiety-provoking for an American—if it were Oakland, someone would have gotten shot.
Our little clan from the hostel walked through the raucous roads; some had picked up Albanian flags along the way, but it wasn’t any use. We were varied races and ethnicities, all speaking English, and the stares we ellicted became almost laughable, necks craning and feet stopping cold.
“Hello, hello,” shouted a voice from a drunken crowd, as though to point out that we were different and didn’t belong.
Everyone got quiet and a little uncomfortable. I gave a stupidly exaggerated wave. “Howdy!” I exclaimed in a Southern accent. “How y’all doin’?”
And we all had a laugh.
We didn’t end up getting into the stadium. It’s my absolute fate with football—I’ve never managed to actually see a match. So we marched across town to a bar to watch it on TV, amusing everyone with our mispronounciation of “Shqipëri,” the Albanian name for Albania. One of the waiters was so amused he bought everyone at our table—fourteen of us—a round of drinks. Sometimes it pays to stand out.
After the match we went to another bar, an underground spot near the Opera House, walls covered in the photos of the artists that used to hang out there (as well as a healthy layer of cigarette smoke). A DJ was playing drum and bass from his glowing white laptop and everyone was dancing, arms raising to graze the low ceiling.
Again, we were the only foreigners. But the good news is, the language of dance is universal.
So universal, in fact, that everyone was shacking up, disappearing from the dark room in hand-holding couples. At one am, it was just me and the gay Dutch dude left. “We’re dropping like flies!” I screamed over the music.
He kissed me on the cheek.
Saturday took me back to Rome, throat sore and heart heavy, sad and actually a little ill to be leaving. I met up with my couchsurfing host in the evening; we got in the car and drove. And drove and drove, into the damp-smelling dark, street lights thinning and stars appearing. A friend of his was having a birthday party at his parents’ country home.
My first clue that I was somewhere I seriously didn’t belong should have been “country home.” Or the red-candle-lit driveway, that rambled on for half a block. It was dark, so I couldn’t see the house I walking into, but I could sense its presence—something large and sturdy and stately.
We walked into a huge living room, exposed wooden beams and tasteful vases. The crowd was art-opening-hip, wine glasses and expensive haircuts. There was a DJ. There was actual porchetta—a whole pig—being sliced by a little old lady in an apron.
I was in Toms and (again) a Talk Is Poison shirt. I still stank from Tirana’s cigarette smoke, dirty hair stuffed under a beanie. Even in the States, I’d stand out in a party like this.
But I didn’t get any snotty vibes from anyone, so I shrugged and grabbed a plate. I couldn’t really talk to anyone, but I smiled a lot, and people smiled back. No one seemed to mind me too much. It was one of those isn’t-it-funny-where-travel-takes-you moments: if you’d ever asked me, “Hey, do you think you’ll ever end up at a super posh party in a villa outside of Rome?”, I’d have answered, “no.”
After the pig was picked apart, the lights went down and the dance songs started cranking. Good time stuff: “Surfin USA,” “Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun,” some old rock n roll hits and a couple Italian songs to round it out.
And I danced again. It didn’t matter that I was dirty and foreign and didn’t belong. There was a good time to be had, and sometimes, in the midst of a really good party, the only thing the really “belongs,” so to speak, is fun—the boom of the bass and the way your shoulder dips to the beat.