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Living in Albania, a Balkan Treasure

My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.

Dhërmi, Albania

Dhërmi, Albania

Albania? What Is That?

As many of you know, I lived in Albania. I remember when I was preparing for the move, many of my friends had questions: What state is Albania in? Is Albania a country? Where is Albania?

Well, folks, after living here for 15 months, I can assure you that not only is it a country, but it is a little-known country located in the Balkans, nestled between Montenegro to the northwest, Kosovo to the northeast, North Macedonia to the east, Greece to the southeast and south, and the Adriatic and Ionian seas to the west and southwest, respectively.

A Bit About Albania

Albania has an interesting, but amazingly, little-known history. As with many other countries, Albania has been inhabited by different civilizations over time, such as the Illyrians, Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans. After World War II, Albania became a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Enver Hoxha became the leader of the new People's Republic of Albania.

At this point, the country started to develop foreign relations with other communist countries, including the People's Republic of China, and to this day, products on sale are often labeled PRC. After 40 years of communism and isolation, as well as the revolutions of 1989, people, most notably students became politically active and campaigned against the government led to the transformation of the existing order.

(I have a very good friend that was one of these students. She was one amongst 30, who climbed the wall to the Italian Embassy seeking asylum).

So, after the fall of Communism in 1992, Albania began its climb into the modern, semi-free world. In the big picture of the history of the world, 1992 wasn't that long ago. Today, there are still remnants of the old regime; over 173,000 bunkers still exist in Albania, some right in the city centers; many of the government buildings are old Communist-era structures and the hierarchy of society bears remnants of the old regime.

Today, Albania is still considered a third-world country—though I prefer to refer to it as a "developing country." There are challenges as an American living here, but trust me, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. (More on that later in this article.)

The landscape of Albania is unique, to say the least. It ranges from the snow-capped mountains in the Albanian Alps as well as the Korab, Skanderbeg, Pindus, and Ceraunian Mountains, to the hot, humid, and very sunny coasts of the Albanian Adriatic and Ionian Sea along the Mediterranean. Interestingly enough, when my father left Greece to immigrate to the United States in, yes, 1923, he crossed the Pindus Mountains on foot into Albania. What a different country Albania is today than what I'm sure he witnessed in 1923!

So, Why Albania?

Albania may be a small country (population 2.8 million—fewer than the city of Rome) but there is a lot to see and do in this exciting up-and-coming location.

While Albania has slowly become more popular with tourists, it remains relatively undiscovered. Albania offers some of the best examples of Ottoman architecture in the world, along with clean Mediterranean air and some of the most fabulous beaches.

Cost of Living

The cost of living here is 65% less than in the United States and about 30% less than in the EU. The following prices are all noted according to the United States dollar; in Albania, the currency is the lek. So, for some examples, a luxury hotel room with full amenities is about $65 per night, and an Airbnb can be rented short-term for about $25 a night.

Food and drink are cheaper as well: a cup of coffee is about $1.50, a 16-ounce draft beer is about $2, a glass of wine is $3, and a nice meal for two, with wine or drinks, is about $20. To rent an apartment with a view of the sea and in the city center is roughly $350, fully furnished. I bought an orange yesterday for a recipe and it was 20 cents! How's that for value?

Destinations Within Albania

But, aside from cost, which is important, there are so many beautiful places to visit in the country and there truly is something for everyone! From enjoying life on the beach on the Albanian Riviera (Saranda Ksamil), hiking or camping in the mountains (Theth is very popular), the hot springs of Permet, the cosmopolitan city of Tirana, Llogara Pass, Vlore (where I have lived), the ancient Apollonia, and much more. The list goes on and on!

Ksamil, Albania

Ksamil, Albania

The three islands of Ksamil

The three islands of Ksamil

Challenges and Cultural Differences

Now, onto some of the differences I've experienced living in Albania versus living in the United States.

Language

One challenge of living here is the language which is difficult to learn—trust me I've been taking private language classes for months, and am nowhere fluent, though I have become comfortable shopping, ordering in a restaurant, etc. It's different than any language you've ever heard.

Being fluent in Greek, when my brain hears a foreign language, it defaults to Greek. While this served me well living on the Albanian Rivera, now that I've moved a bit further north, Italian is more broadly spoken by those who don't speak Shqip (the language spoken in the Balkans). Let me emphasize . . . the southern part of Albania is still very much influenced by Greek culture and further north, by Italian culture.

Shopping

Another challenge is shopping for things I am used to and have always taken for granted; sometimes simple things like baking powder, measuring spoons, and cornmeal aren't easy to get. Though as I have become more comfortable with the language, I am beginning to locate these items.

I plan my trips to Tirana for clothes shopping and household goods. Embracing these challenges makes living as an ex-pat a daily adventure. Groceries are very inexpensive, but weekly or bi-weekly shopping isn't done here. Since the cuisine is based on local and fresh ingredients, people shop daily, and oftentimes, that shopping is done in different locally-owned stores.

For example, produce is purchased at a produce market, groceries at a supermarket, and meat at a butcher shop. Not everything is purchased in one massive grocery store like in the United States. The cuisine is based on lots of seafood and fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables. I will soon publish a recipe for a typical Albanian dish to give you a better idea of the cuisine.

Typical Vegetable Plate in Albania

Typical Vegetable Plate in Albania

Traveling and Family Life

Living, traveling, and/or vacationing here displays a simple type of living. There is only an international airport in Tirana, but flights to other parts of Europe are inexpensive and short.

Family values are hugely important here as well. The norm is to see families walking together, oftentimes holding hands, kids on bikes or non-motorized scooters, or picnics by the sea. Friendships are lifelong. Newcomers and tourists are freely welcomed, making it truly refreshing.

Culture

The culture is one I am still learning about. It's not much different than the Greek culture in which I grew up, but I always strive to be respectful. For example, I have a friend who had a family member pass away. Before making any move of condolence, I checked with a trusted person to learn how this is handled. I'm glad I did because death is attended only by family and very close friends. Instead, a friend like myself would give the family a few leks to assist with final expenses.

All in all, I had no regrets about choosing to live the ex-pat lifestyle after moving to Albania. It's been a beautiful experience and I look forward to many more years here. As I said earlier, traveling is very easy from here. Since I have lived here, I've had the pleasure of traveling to:

  • Greece (four times)
  • Spain
  • Italy
  • Sardinia
  • North Macedonia

With that said, I hope you will plan a trip to Albania. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by this hidden Balkan gem!

Until next time, friends, remember, "To Travel is to Live"

© 2022 Dee Nicolou Serkin