My first experience of an Albanian breakfast was not what I was expecting, because there wasn’t one. Breakfast in Albania basically means going for a coffee. I would have to adapt pretty quickly to that. We had:
one ice coffee
two ice teas
Which came to around £3.50.
Then it was time to head north to Burrel. Burrel was the town where nearly all of Ednora’s family live, and the location of Esterina’s wedding. We stopped to get money out of the bank and I casually observed a man at the side of the road who was in full suit, with a bucket of water containing some fish. Another man asked him for one which set the suited man to work on fully gutting, skinning, and preparing the fish in the crowded street. There were scales flicking everywhere and no one seemed bothered at all. I had two questions at this point:
Why did he not invest in a table? Not only would this make your business look more professional by picking it up off the floor, but also less stress on his back
Why was he wearing a full suit? Was this his job before popping into the office? We'll never know.
Before Burrel, we stopped off at a small village just outside Tirane where Esat’s (Ednora’s dad) extended family lived. Ednora’s granddad was blind and partially deaf, who spent most of his time, it seemed, in bed. It was clear to see that the family had a lot of respect for him, the way the children were around him, and the visiting family members’ desire to get some quality time with him. Equally important seemed to be Ednora’s grandmother. She was a tiny, frail woman, who found sitting on the floor more comfortable than chairs. This, to me, was a small insight into her upbringing, perhaps chairs were a luxury when she was a child, so the floor felt more like home, and to further speculate, perhaps this was a strong signifier of her position in the family growing up. Robert Carver’s book The Accursed Mountains, among other research, taught me that historically the men were served their dinners first and ate at tables, whilst the women would eat separately, in a different room, sometimes on the floor. Her face was worn and so fragile. Her skin looked like lots of scrunched up pieces of paper, delicately placed next to each other to create an embodiment of years of hard work with not much return. After shaking all the hands I needed to, and having all the children stare at me like an alien, it was time to get back on the road for Burrel. As we pulled away I silently answered the question I was expecting to be asked, ‘how did you find that?’ accentuating the ‘that’ to suggest that it was nothing like I had experienced before – which was true. My honest answer, I’m really not sure how I felt; I think pretty neutral. They seemed happy enough to me, and if they didn’t know any different, I would have said that they were pretty content. I felt as though perhaps some of the people there felt a sense of embarrassment at their home and lifestyle, yet others felt a sense of pride that they had introduced a ‘non-Albanian’ into the family, and both of these vibes rubbed off on me to make me feel, I guess, appreciative of their custom, and to not come away comparing their life to anyone else’s; which is a common thing to do in Western society. I mean, to them, having a shed attached to the house, ten chickens on the loose, and a new born calf chilling out was a completely natural daily occurrence to them. They grew their own fresh produce which would have fed them well, so there didn’t appear to be a food shortage. There were positives and negatives of both, I felt. But then, who was I to delve deeper. I was a visitor and treated like royalty. And anyway, my eyes were to be further opened later on in the adventure.
We stopped off for food along the way – my first restaurant (in Albania, not in my life). I needed the toilet and wasn’t given the heads up when all of a sudden I was faced with a hole in the floor, as opposed to the sit down toilets I had experienced so far. This needs to be highlighted to travellers. Other tourists may not be able to handle this shit. Fortunately, as an extremely accomplished traveller, ticking France, Liverpool, and Brighton off my list, my aim was good enough to get a direct hit into the hole. The flushing system was effectively a hose shoved in through the window with loads of holes in the pipe, so it basically just sprayed water everywhere. Eventually, by probability, it gathered up any wayward urine, but it made certain it got your shoes and legs first.
We ate and it was heaven. It was basically a plate of salad and a plate of meat (pork in this instance). Perfect. This restaurant, like a large number of the restaurants I visited, only had barbeques, or grills at the least, which meant that all the meats had that charcoal flavour to them. Simple, yet so tasty. I had only had a coffee all day, so I was pretty starving anyway, which could have been an influencer, so I literally would have eaten anything, but nonetheless, it was pretty epic.
Back on the winding, hilly roads of northern Albania and we drove past a few interesting sites such as people on bikes with no helmets taking on corners like a rollercoaster, mini busses full of passengers and holding on for dear life as they raced off far too fast to be called safe, people crossing the road from evidently out of nowhere, and heading to nowhere in sight etc.. But the weirdest thing I saw was a man in a wheelchair pushing himself up a hill backwards in the middle of the road, and not really succeeding. We swerved around him and no one seemed to bat an eyelid. I looked around at our car for any kind of reaction or explanation to the definitely not normal thing we had just encountered. Finally, Leda reassured me, ‘It’s fine, everyone knows him. He always does that, and he’s quite happy.’
We climbed the mountain and made sharp turnings on cliff edges. Everywhere where I looked you could have slapped it on a postcard and sold it by the truckload. A huge lake played the role of the floor and the mountains propped us up, we were simply an extension of the cliffs, and it was a privilege to be there. This neck of the woods was called Mate.
We came into Burrel and met up with Ednora’s family. After dropping off our stuff in a hotel which cost around £3 a night, it was time to head to Ednora’s old home – an experience I had been desperately waiting for. We drove as far as we could along the dusty dirt paths until the Range Rover could do no more. We had to make it on foot through the bushes and dusty pathways. It was so rural. When looking out at the view, you could see the odd house propping its head out of the trees, looking for its nearest neighbour. We made our way down a steep hill to the house, and the first thing I saw were three people standing outside their home - Ednora’s old home - waiting for us. In comparison to the house I had already visited, this seemed much, much poorer. A slight tremor could have knocked this place down. Ednora told me that her Grandfather who we had just met had built this house with his bare hands, and then over the years, his sons had added extensions. This would never have past health and safety regulations in the UK, let alone get planning permission in the first place. In contrast to the building, Ednora and Tia’s face lit up with memories, pointing and smiling at things they recognised. Their uncle told them that the cherry trees were blossoming and so we made our way across their land to get some. Their uncle took his shoes off and sprung up the tree like a monkey. He must have been in his late fifties but climbed the tree like he was still a kid. He threw down cherries for us to take back to the house. We were invited in for Dhalle, a kind of milky, yogurty drink which tasted lovely. However, I could see they were clearly a family of few luxuries, and felt bad taking their dhalle, but perhaps it would have been worse to refuse. It was a sign that they wanted me to feel welcome. I noticed in the corner they had a milk churner, which really put things into perspective for me. The last time I had seen one of these was when I went to Kentwell Hall and everybody dressed and acted like Tudors. This means that a milk churner was used in the Tudor times in England, yet was still used today in the villages of Albania.
Whilst I sipped my dhalle and picked at some cherries, I took a closer look at the family who lived there. There were three of them; Ednora’s aunt and uncle, and their mother. The mother was tiny, and slightly less weathered than Ednora’s grandmother. She still had a zest about her. She looked 100 years old, but seemed as though she could live a hundred more. She struck me as the kind of lady who would still be up for pulling your pants down to give you a smack bottom if you forgot to feed the cow, or something. You could tell from their hands how hard they worked the land. It looked as though their fingers were worn down to the nub, stained with the earth, a truly honourable existence, no shying away from anything. Ednora showed me her part of the house. The property had been initially split into three sections for the brothers, so Ednora and her family got their ‘bit’ of the homemade home. The first thing I noticed was the ceilings. I actually couldn’t stand up straight inside. It would have been a logistical nightmare if I moved in. Also, it would have been quite an awkward conversation to ask them to knock it down and rebuilt it all 30cm higher.
I was told that Ednora shared this room with her entire family, a tiny room not big enough to fit a family. She and her sister explained with a smile but through a sigh. As she showed me the other abandoned rooms in the crumbling house I considered how bad it is that there are people still living here. However, the three residents occupying 30% of the remains of this house were given the chance to live in Burrel, but didn’t like it, so they came back to live here. This made me feel less concerned for them. It’s what they want anyway, the humble existence, living off the land. It was quite refreshing.
We left, and my final sight of the place was the little old lady herding a cockerel and a turkey into a pen, completely normal. I left with mixed emotions, so happy that I’d been given the honour of seeing the house, but sad that they all had to live that life, too far removed from opportunity.
So in the mountains of Albania it seemed like a normal thing to take your cow for walk in the late afternoon. They were all out doing it. It was like a mass dog walking session for cow lovers.
Back in Burrel I shook approximately 10,000 hands. I don’t really have much recollection of the people I met, but they all seemed pretty happy to meet me. The one overriding factor I thought about all of them is that they were all the same height, and all so short! I stuck out even more than I already thought.
That evening we went for dinner with the bride’s family. It was tough to eat it as I was still full from the pork and salad (god that meal was good). The menu was:
Boiled lamb and rice
Some soft cake thing which was also really moist. I have no idea what it was.
This was all without the bride, until she finally turned up at the end of the meal. I was beginning to question whether she was actually in Albania.
So as a bit of advice before this party, I was told that ‘this usually turns into dancing’. This is not true. IT IS DANCING. You know standard English parties, there’s chatting and drinking, then the drunk uncle makes himself look like a twat, then Abba comes on and all the older ladies get in a circle and get those hips moving, then finally the younger generation get involved after a gallonful of booze. Not here. In Albania, you shake a few hands then you hit the D-Floor with some traditional Albanian dancing. Traditional Albanian dancing consists of standing in a circle broken in one place and moving your feet to a beat in a certain way (as lead by the person at the front of the line), not too far removed from some of Michael Flately’s moves. It didn’t take me long to be dragged up there and the pasty, tall English guy gave it his best shot to not look like a twat as much as possible. Here is some of the feedback I received:
It was good, not excellent
You were OK. Don't call yourself a master
I can't believe you picked it up
You hurt my foot
Don't touch me
At least you tried