Petrit and I went for a coffee as we watched his car getting washed. I understood that this, again, was to be my breakfast. Great. His car washed, inside and out, cost him £3. We hit the road and it was then I saw something completely mental – a motorcyclist HOLDING his helmet. Although this was the closest I had seen to anyone actually wearing a helmet on their head, it was still very far away from actually being on his head. I assessed his situation and decided that holding his helmet was actually more detrimental to his chances of dying than leaving the helmet at home. Not only was he not wearing the helmet on his head, but by holding the helmet meant that he was having to drive one-handed. This epitomised a lot of the madness I saw in this country. I must add though, if he was in a crash, his hand would have got through it unscathed.

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Then we moved from that madness to another kind of madness - my first dose of corruption. We were pulled over by the police who seem to spend a lot of time chilling by the side of the road, and when they feel like pulling someone over they wave them down with what can only be described as a fly swatter with the Albanian flag on the end. Apparently Petrit was pulled over for overtaking on the wrong part of the road, which was dictated by whether the line in the middle of the road was broken or not. We looked back and, of course, there were no lines at all.

The officer said he would have to give him a fine and six months without a licence, with points put on his licence too. Petrit wrapped up the equivalent of £4 in some paper and walked over to the officer’s car where a second cop waited. All of a sudden the charge was dropped to just the fine. There appeared to be some good cop bad cop stuff going on and Petrit seemed to need to take on both of them. When we drove away we asked why he didn’t argue his case, but he explained that the fine would simply just go up and up and that it was best to just take it on the chin and make it as painless as possible. Criminals in uniform. This frustrated me more than the taxi driver.

We had seen online the night before some great caves to visit, but when we got nearby, the locals had:

  1. Never heard of them

  2. Said they were too difficult/dangerous to get to.

This was another frustration of Albania, so much potential, but this just hadn’t been realised yet.

We rolled into Berat, the city of a thousand windows, and I could see why. One side of the river had a large collection of houses rising up into the mountain, all with an extraordinary large amount of windows. Whether there were 1000 I have no idea, but an apt name nonetheless. We found a cute little restaurant up a tiny cobbled street which was pretty quiet. A nice little place, but the most memorable part was the fat waiter. His brow leaked as he handed us the menus. He rested his hands on his belly as though he was about to chortle at our order. When he poured my drink, he brushed my bare arm with his and it felt like I was having a sticky shower. I’m not sure he noticed it had happened, which means his layer of sweat was so thick, it actually blocked his sense of touch.

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We walked off our meal with a trip up to the castle. We got a bit lost in our trek and it took us off the beaten track. It was a nice walk away from civilization, but would have got progressively worse if it had led us only to the wall of the castle, and not an entrance. Fortunately there was a door, and it led us through to the most impressive castle I had seen so far. It was huge. People still lived in the grounds. There were little (again) old grannies with sheets and clothing on a clothes line which at first I thought they had out to dry, but turns out they were selling them.

After a stroll around the castle grounds, we stopped off at a little shop with a small seating area. Ednora spent most of her time playing with a kitten while Petrit and Leda sat in chewing gum. The shop owner was telling us how her daughter was studying in Singapore, and was soon to move to Australia.

We continued to mosey around the castle, which, unfortunately had no signs or information, we came back down the hill to the main square where preparations were being made for the Prime Minister’s arrival. Banners, posters and people driving around shouting through gramophones were the main signifiers of a political scene. As we headed to the car we met a man up a tree, pulling off twigs to get some of the flowers. He told us that the flowers made lovely tea and he wanted a stash to take home for his own personal supply. Again, everything grows on trees here. It’s impossible to go hungry. As he sat on the grass, plucking away, a young gypsy girl skipped up to us. She wore luminous shorts and t-shirt, and flip flops. She had short, harsh hair and a set of teeth in the early stages of rotting away. The dirt under her finger and toe nails gave me insight into the last time she’d washed. She was the most confident beggar I’d ever come across. She came over and to us and pretty much became a part of the group. She stood in our circle, had casual chit-chat, and seemed as though she wanted to leave with us. Petrit even asked her to leave us alone but she seemed to have hearing problems at that point, and then just continued chatting. Then she caught a bride having some wedding photos and darted over, pretty much photo-bombing everything. And if she wasn’t photo-bombing, she was being the cameraman’s assistant. The bride’s group left and she came back over to us. As we got in the car she held the door open for us; I thought she was going to get in at one moment. As we drove off I felt sorry for her. She seemed desperate to be driven away to somewhere else.

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Next up, after about an hour and a half drive, was Vlore. I finally saw the place where Ednora began her journey to the UK. It was 16 years ago she stood on the same pier where she didn’t know what would happen to her, unknowing of the destiny that lay before her in that very moment – her life at stake for the sake of a new life. I asked her how she felt, ‘I don’t know. I don’t really remember’.

We went for a drink where Petrit told us that he tried to get into the UK eleven times, only succeeding the twelfth time. He told us one particular occasion where he nearly died in a lorry – a novel sits in his mind.

We headed off to find a hotel and went to one that Petrit and Leda knew. When we got there we initially thought the hotel was closed but then a lady, who looked like she could have been a mum to anyone, appeared from nowhere. She gave us a tour of the hotel where we discovered it was empty. It was £12 a night and we could pick any room we wanted. This hotel was up in the mountains with a view of the beach and sunset, silent except for us, and all at a snip price of £12 a room. They were literally giving it away. To get that privilege in London, you have to be Roman Abramovich. We watched from our balcony some parachutists coming over the mountain and landing on the beach. From perfection, we slipped into imperfection in the shape of our dinner that night, which turned out to be the worst restaurant of the holiday. The food came out at different times, and the wine came late. The food wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t as fresh as that by the sea. And comparatively, it was quite expensive, coming in at £31 in total (maybe this place was turning me into a bit of a cheapskate).

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