Posts Tagged 'albania'



Transit Fragments: Views from the Window

I. Bar to Ulcinj

Gypsy children at the intersection
bang on the windows
of stopped cars, pleading
/
until the windows roll up
and they see their reflections,
/
dirt-faced
and pleading back.

II. Ulcinj to Shkoder

Carry that girl
through the rubbish
and field of dead,
the rusted carcasses
of cars,
engineless
and humming wind.
/
Take her,
hold her
under your arm
(bare feet and unbroken skin)
/
Carry her
down that road,
carry her,
take her home.

III. Shkoder to Tirana

Mosques and minarets,
half-constructed buildings
(stairways
and skeletons
exposed)
stripped-down cars
left to rust
in lots of dying
/
A boy with the cheekbones
of an ex-boyfriend
huddles, mutters
into the mouthpiece
of his cellphone
and you can only see
half is face
(turn around
and show me the whole thing, honey)
/
Corrugated tin and tires,
teepee piles of hay
that look like the insides of scarecrows
with nothing left to scare
/
Yell your stop
to the driver, and rumble
that big door open
(wrench the metal
from the metal)—
pay him your fare
and be left there
on the roadside
of somewhere
/
a gas station
and a cheap umbrella

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Boys, Boys, Boys: A Solo Female Traveler’s Experience With the Men of Southern Italy, Montenegro and Albania

You know the picture...

“Southern Italy, eh?” He gave me the raised eyebrow of caution. “Watch out for the men.”

This was Alex, his voice lifting above the roar of hair dryers and hip music at the salon, two days before I left on my trip.

A lady friend of his, he continued, had recently spent several weeks in the Mediterranean land of machismo. “Apparently, they all use the same line: ‘I have a girlfriend. But tonight, for you, no girlfriend.’ She said it got really old.”

I laughed. To be honest, it hadn’t crossed my mind yet. Dealing with the men of a country as a solo female traveler is usually one of the first things people ask me about when they hear I travel alone—right after the “is it safe” question. But the truth is, I’ve been doing this sola thing for awhile now, and whether or not the men somewhere will hound me to death doesn’t really factor into my travel considerations. Plus, I’ve done the majority of my traveling in Latin America, where sidewalks can at times feel like catwalks of degradation. As long as the men aren’t physically attacking me, I pretty much feel like I can handle it.

But Alex’s comment did give me pause. When it comes to safety (and drinking tap water), I throw caution to the wind in Europe. It’s the civilized, more highly evolved land of social safety nets and low crime. Hell, the vast majority of Europe is safer than my hometown. My hairdresser’s comment reminded me that, oh yeah, right, I’d be venturing off sola in a scant 48 hours and that maybe I’d ought to mentally prepare.

You stand out as a female solo traveler, and in a way, get to experience a culture more deeply, if no other reason than the fact that its men are talking to you more. My last trip took me to Southern Italy, Montenegro and the capital of Albania (and Croatia, but I only stayed for a day, so I’m not counting it). The men in each these countries treated me totally differently—and, I think, reveal a little something about the culture.

Italy

Oh, Italian men. They have quite the reputation. American women swoon for their accents, their sense of style, their motorinos and chest hair. And they’re known for hitting on pretty much anything that moves, serenading you with sweet odes of professed passion.

I don’t get it. And Italian men, apparently, don’t get me.

During my venture Rome-and-southwards, I was largely ignored by Italian men. Which suited me just fine. Again, having traveled heftily through Latin America and once through Morocco, I’m stoked on anything that isn’t street harassment. I’ll take being ignored over obscene insults any day.

But it did cause me wonder… Who the hell are all these American women who are getting hit on Italian men all the time? I’m a cute enough girl, but do you want to know why I wasn’t getting any attention from the dudes? Because they’re surrounded by Italian women—who are impossibly gorgeous and stylish, with their cascade of curly hair and their moody black eyeliner. I wouldn’t hit on me either.

Traveling through Southern Italy was like an adventure in mutual disinterest—as though every guy I passed on the street exchanged a brief little dialog with me: “Thanks but no thanks.” Italy is a pretty culturally conservative place, and I’m a pretty not culturally conservation person, in appearance or attitude. So it makes sense to me that the Italian men and I didn’t vibe. In person, that is.

While I was in Naples my Couchsurfing inbox got flooded with messages from shirtless dudes in sunglasses asking me if I needed a place to stay. (“Um, no.”) But this was the extent of the Italian sleaze I experienced—an indirect, easily ignored, half-assed attempt.

Maybe that was the secret to the purported flirtations of Italian men: that it’s largely impersonal, having less to do with you and whether or not there’s any real potential for something to happen, and more to do with, I dunno, not having anything else better to do? Hitting on someone just for the sake of hitting on someone?…

Montenegro

If ever a girl was thinking of a place to take advantage of men, Montenegro would be the place to do it. I had more offers for rides, tour guides, free drinks, places to stay, etc than anywhere else I’ve been.

But the curious thing was a) all the attention was from middle-aged men, no guys my own age, and b) they somehow managed to stay just on the right side of appropriate and respectful. I never felt violated or threatened by any of the Montenegrin men; it all just came across as really, really nice.

I was of course only getting the attention because I’m a pretty young(ish) American girl traveling alone. Montenegro is really trying to woo Western tourists, and I think I was something of an anomaly; there weren’t many Americans, weren’t many backpackers, weren’t many women alone. I think I was on the one hand intriguing for this reason; I think Montenegrins in general also really want tourists to feel welcome, want to take care of them. I must have sparked all the paternal instincts of the middle-aged men there. But somehow not in a demeaning way. Most curious.

Albania

At a certain point one night, it got ridiculous. I had to put on my sweater and get the hell off the dance floor.

It was like moths to a lightbulb. I have never received more male attention from males I actually wanted attention from than in Tirana. It was dangerous.

Albanians my age, it seems, really want to be Western. They’ve lived most of their lives in post-Communist Albania, but still relatively isolated from the rest of Europe. They’re ready, it seems, to be a part of the rest of the world.

For most kids, this striving seems to take the form of mainstream culture, the Top-40 kind. Stylistically, Tirana is filled with tons of extremely beautiful nouveau riche girls, who could, at first glance, blend in on Parisian sidewalks. You look a little closer and you realize that they don’t quite have it right yet; they wear a little too much make-up, their clothes not quite expensive enough.

But the point is, they’re trying really really hard. They have the posture, the poise, the carefully cultivated look of class in the arch of their fingers as they lean back and drag their cigarettes. They also don’t seem like a whole lot of fun—a little snobby, to be honest.

So I stood out, and not just for being foreign. There weren’t any other girls in Tirana like me, in sneakers and a band shirt, with short hair and tattoos. I’m a dime-a-dozen in the Bay Area, but in Tirana, I was the only act in town. And every single rock n roll dude, it seemed, was eying me. Or talking to me. Or offering me drinks or asking me out or wanting to dance with me.

Big-fish-in-a-little-pond syndrome. I’d never experienced it. After the initial rush of validation, though, it felt funny. It didn’t seem real and, in a way, it wasn’t.

It was like Genti’s indie rock band. An Albanian turned Brighton boy, Genti was just another dude in a band in England. But in Albania, he was becoming a big deal, selling a ton of albums and appearing on Albanian TV. It would have been easy, he told me, to really make it there. “But, I dunno,” he yelled over the barroom clatter, “do I really want to be the guy who was ‘really big in Albania’?”

I paused, and asked myself the same question. I was pretty damn sure that if all these rocker dudes were suddenly delivered into the Bay Area, they wouldn’t be tripping off me so much. I wanted to tell them, to put my hand gently on their shoulders and let them know, “Honey, there’s a big world out there, and it’s filled with a fuckton of cuter girls with more tattoos than me.”

But they’d have had to take my word for it. Cause it’s so damn hard for an Albanian to get a tourist visa, or to afford to travel anywhere where rock n roll girls live, places steeped in privilege.

So I did all I could do, which was to shake my head and laugh.

The Foreigner at the Party

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.

Tirana, Tirana, The One I’ve Been Waiting For

If Tirana were a boy, it’d be the boy I’ve been waiting to meet.

You rumble across the border, furious windshield wiper and donkeys in the dirt road, hills dripping lush green. You dash from the taxi to the minibus, puddle-footed and soaking-hooded, grab the last seat as a man climbs into the trunk compartment.

You rattle like this through the rainstorm, through a landscape of sheeps and shacks, the smooth round dome of abandoned bunkers, half-built buildings with sleeping bulldozers stuck in the mud, the carcasses of stipped-down cars piled in empty lots. The minibus driver turns on some kind of Albanian butt rock, and you silently thank him for knowing the exact right soundtrack for your entrance into the country.

I’d meant to travel around a bit in Albania, see a UNESCO town or two, climb in a bunker, poke around some old Ottoman castle. Which still all sounds awesome. But four hours in Tirana, and I knew I wouldn’t be going anywhere.

There’s only one other city I’ve walked into and felt this feeling, this long “yeeeesss” coming from some place between my ribs, near my gut, a forgotten organ of intuition. Some places just fit, and you just fit them, and Tirana is one of them.

It’s got a certain electric insanity, that infectious energy, without being a total free-for-all. It’s just dirty enough, has just enough street dogs and decrepit buildings, just enough business men, the click of just enough three-inch heels, attached to smooth legs and slim skirts. It’s like meeting a boy with just enough of “the dark side,” as Luke would say—not a total depraved junkie, but not squeaky clean and wholesome either: a chipped tooth and an ancient wound.

So I walked Tirana’s streets, its run-down markets and posh cafes, past Mercedes Benzes negoitating potholes, 10-years-old smoking cigarettes, old women roasting chestnuts, old men selling gum and lighters, gypsies sitting cross-legged with outstetched palms, the blare of the horns and the hum of the engines and the swoon of the city.

Within a few hours of staggering into the frenetic swarm of this city, I’d fallen in with the artsy, alternative crowd, finding myself at a rock show in a tiny, smokey bar in an otherwise-shuttered mall. The next night was K’tu Ka Art, a weekly show featuring local live music acts. It felt a lot like being at a small show at home, until I had it explained to me.

Apparently, bands in Albania work like this: they play cover songs. God-awful, Top 40, English-language cover songs. A band will book at a certain bar for a year. And every Friday and Saturday, people will go to same bar and hear the same band play the same cover songs.

“Bloody boring as hell,” Ghenti surmised, an indie-rocker dude in a Sonic Youth shirt and a Kurt Cobain sweater. He’d moved to Brighton when he was 16, but came back to Albania every year for a few weeks. So last year he started organizing weekly showcases of local bands, who played their own songs, singing in Albanian.

It’s a small group of people, maybe 30 or so, that are into that scene right now, into something different from the imported cool. And after two nights, I seem to know all of them. Yesterday, I walked around town and kept bumping into people I knew. It’s a funny feeling of belonging, of fitting into a place you just met. (“I feel like I’ve known you for years.”)

Tirana’s also an insanely safe and insanely cheap city. I can’t manage to spend more than $40 a day, and I can’t manage to feel uncomfortable walking its streets, even at 2am. (“Heaven must have sent you from above…”) The people are startlingly friendly, and I haven’t received any street harrassment—just a lot of stares for being the one tattooed girl in the whole city (more on that in another post).

The only drawback of the city, I told Robo, is that I smoke too much. It’s too easy and too cheap ($1.50 for a pack). It was the K’tu Ka Art afterparty, in a basement bar playing a soundtrack of “Vogue,” “Highway to Hell,” and “I Love Rock N Roll.”

“No, I think it’s a good thing,” Robo replied, yelling over the music.

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

“It means you’re having fun.”

“Yeah, I’ll try telling my mom that,” I smiled, leaning in to the flicker of his lighter.

He leaned back, regarded me there: sitting at the bar, happy as could be with my can of Coke, singing along to cheesy hits with Tirana’s tiny clan of rock n roll kids.

He patted me on the shoulder. “You should be an advertisement for ‘Come to Albania.'”

I threw my head back and laughed.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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