Posts Tagged 'eastern europe'

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.

Kotor Fragments

View from the bus
Little town tumbling—orange roofs and white walls, a piercing spire poking through. They huddle there, like that, against the flat glass of water and the great grey of the mountains, rising up, behind their shoulders, like a fanged phantom in an old movie.

Looking up
An opposite feeling from looking down from a great height—an inverted vertigo—but still something you feel in your throat: a mild choking, the sense of great force, the immensity of rock, a gravity that could crush you, take you, toss you up and swallow you whole—but instead just makes you utter one long “fuuuuck.”

Boy by the bay
Little tough guy, maybe 7 or 8, comes buzzing up on his bicycle. Buzzing because the plastic crate fastened to the handlebars has sagged down and is rubbing against the front wheel. He looks at me as he passes, nods at my arm, then stops—skids his worn sneakers on cement—and circles back.

He juts his chin at my right arm, an international gesture for “show me your tattoos.” I roll up my sleeve and he smiles. He juts his chin at my other arm, and I repeat.

He gives me a broad grin—one molded yellow tooth—and extends his arm in a thumbs up. I smile back with my gleaming row of American white. He nods again, then pushes off, pedals away, is gone.

Something of a little girl still in her, something in the smile and the slouch, that behind the grim skin and grey smile, under the coat-hanger bathrobe and shuffle of slippers, seems vulnerable—breakable but not broken.

Abandoned hotel
Broken glass and shattered tile, ruins of an old hotel—an exquisite home for the ravens.

I like this place better by morning—the umbrellas folded and the stones still wet, the sun a soft thing, haloing from behind the mountains’ immense back. I like the footsteps, the sound of voices, the rattle of stroller wheels. I like the cats in the doorways and the pigeons staring, staring from their stoop between green shutters.

Dubrovnik, I Don’t Hate You

Amid the souvenoir shops, currency exchange offices and endless umbrellas of the tourist restaurants of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, I realized that something in me had changed.

It wasn’t a sudden, burning-bush kind of change, but slower, more subtle. It’s something that’s been changing in me, I suspect, for some time, without me noticing it—a transformation, unfolding gently, quietly, while I wasn’t looking. And it took Dubrovnik to make me aware of it: I no longer hate tourists.

And more than that, I no longer despise hard-partying backpackers, 20-year-olds that sleep all day and drink/cruise for girls all night on mom and dad’s bill. In short, my disapproval of how other people travel, when it isn’t my way of traveling, has dissipated.

I endured the torturous, fluorescent, overly air-conditioned ferry ride from Bari, Italy, in search of sunnier—and cheaper—shores. Well, um, Croatia ain’t it, I’ve discovered. And especially not Dubrovnik.

Yes, really.

My guidebook gushed about the splendor of the city. After I slept off the sleepless ferry ride, I curled up next to my $4 americano and watched the scene parade by: tour groups led by umbrella thrusting guides; middle-aged folks clutching their Rick Steves’; lots and lots of English. Later, at my hostel, I listened to the play-by-play recounting of the previous night’s drunken antics, and who’d made out with the hottest girl (it was Mark, the kid with the Justin Bieber hair).

And the remarkable thing was, I was okay with it all.

Now it could be that I’m getting older. It could be that I’m more well-traveled, and settling into myself. But I think it’s got more to do with something else, with this personal journey I’ve been on lately, entirely unrelated to travel. It’s got to do with taking care of yourself, with stopping using other people as a way of not looking at your own shit; it’s got to do with lovingly detatching from sick people. It’s potent shit, and it’s changing everything. Including, apparently, the way I travel.

No one likes to think of themself as a judgy a-hole, but hey, we all got our faults. In previous years, Dubrovnik would have evoked all my self-righteous better-than-thou-ness: too expensive, too touristy, too too. And it’s true that I’m not really into the scene here; I definitely dig the more obscure, the more offbeat and bizarre.

But it isn’t awful—it’s not theme-park-ish and you don’t get that resentment vibe from the locals. And it is beautiful: smooth stone streets gleaming white; sheets of ancient walls; passageways that lead to startling, sparkling vistas of aqua-clear water that really does live up to the hype.

And I’m letting myself enjoy that without judging it.

As I’ve learned to focus more on accepting myself, I’ve discovered a curious by-product: I’m better able to accept others, better able to let them be themselves, whatever that entails. And this doesn’t just come, apparently, with emotionally unavailable active alcoholics; it apparently also comes with accepting other travelers.

When you’re constantly measuring yourself against other people, when you’re constantly using other people to determine your worth and what exactly it is you are, there isn’t a lot of room left to just be okay, to just sit with yourself and be okay. And I’m learning to do that. I’m learning to go swim off the deck of a jokey tourist bar with a couple dudes I don’t have much in common with, learning to lay out in the Adriatic sun of a destination I’m not nuts about, and let that be okay.

I don’t think I’ll ever be into the big huge tourists destinations. I’ll probably always love the less obvious, the little-off; I’ll probably always love digging around, getting the dirt of a destination under my nails. That’s just what I’m into. It’s not any better or any worse than what anyone else is into. (Including getting black-out drunk and hooking up with random girls.)

Even now, with the chatter from the hostel’s common room filtering up the stairs, through the cracks under the door, over to my glowing light on this rickety bunk, even now it’s okay. Tomorrow I’ll take off for Montenegro, in search of something a little more me.

But Dubrovnik, I gotta say, it was a pretty good day. And I don’t hate you.

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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