Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Albanian Realizations

Several days ago, I returned from a whirlwind weekend of traveling in one place I had never even considered: Albania. In fact, the only thing I knew about the country was that Voldemort's essence fled to a dark, lonely forest in Albania when it was ripped from his body by his spell that had rebounded off of Harry Potter. And somehow I didn't think that pertinent piece of information was going to be super useful in Tirana, the capital.

So why did I follow Voldemort to such a small country I'd barely even heard of? To see some of my wonderful Mizzou friends as my good Albanian friend got married. And so I could show off my new dress of course.

As I readied myself for the voyage, I learned several slightly more useful facts about Albania. Apparently about 80 percent of the population is Muslim; however, unlike Jordan, the country has separated church and state and is located in Europe. Okay, so staying in the Islamic way of life but boy howdy was I getting the heck out of the Middle East for a weekend. Or so I thought.

My first preparation was deciding on finances. Three hundred dinar should do it, I thought. I consciously packed up 300 dinar and boarded the plan, set to stop in Istanbul. Although Albania probably wants nothing to do with my strange, colored Monopoly money, Istanbul, another Islamic, Middle-Easternish country should of course be able to change my dinars into something usable, right?

It turns out that no, Istanbul will NOT change Jordanian dinars at the airport. So all the sudden I went from having tons of money to having a handful of colored paper good for nothing except possibly rolling tobacco, except that sounds superbly unhealthy. Funny how monetary values and personal wealth can change in the blink of an eye.

Fortunately, after arriving in Albania, I was able to find an Internet cafe and Skype my mom for more money in my bank account, so the crisis was averted. But more about money troubles later.

As my plane touched down onto the wet concrete in Tirana, the first thing I noticed, seeing as how I live in a desert, was how GREEN everything was. The rural countryside on the outskirts of the capital was a brilliant verdigris, speckled with beige and red farmhouses and multiple forests creeping up into civilization. It reminded me of both the Italian and German countryside but with even more trees and forests. No wonder Voldemort ran for the forests here.

I got off the plane and through customs, with the guard there pretty much waving me through and, much to my disappointment, forgetting to stamp my passport. I found my German friend Sarah after about half an hour of waiting (the airport is about as big as a shopping mall, so locating her after her flight wasn't exactly hard), and together with two other German wedding guests, we headed for our hotel.

It was about a 45 minute drive, and afterward, everyone was talking about how crazy the drivers were and all the honking they did. But wait, I thought. That's what I think about Jordan. The driving and honking in Albania was positively mundane compared to what I am used to. However, they had a point. It was way worse than in Germany or the other European countries I've been to. This was my first inkling that perhaps this wasn't quite as far away from a Middle Eastern experience as I had thought.

Our first task was to find some freaking food because we were starving. We headed out toward the center of Tirana, a very small town that you could walk through given about an hour, and found a delightful little creperie. Unfortunately, we couldn't read the menus. This was when I realized, surprise surprise, I didn't speak any Albanian. No. Actually, I was aware that I didn't speak Albanian from the start. However, what was unusual was that I had come to Albania without learning any of the language, something I have NEVER done in all my travels. I always learn some token phrases first to get in good with the locals and ease my way into the culture. Way to be unprepared, Gretchen.

After a bit, we discovered some words that looked similar to our languages and figured out one that could be Four Cheese. I ordered it and thus learned the Albanian word for cheese. I then realized what was keeping me from learning a lot more Arabic. It's not the fact that Arabic is freakishly hard, even though it is. It's that I can't learn words by seeing them constantly on menus or on signs or in brochures like I can in other countries. Silly Arabic alphabet.

The other thing I noticed on the menu was, and it took me a minute to realize its significance, ham. Prosciutto. Jambon. Bacon. Pig. Pig, in an 80 percent Muslim country. It had been so long since I saw ham on a menu, I wasn't even sure what to make of it.

We ate our delicious crepes, said hi to our beautiful bride and called it a day. The next morning, we set off to explore the city. Halfway through the town, my friend was remarking on all the birds in cages in front of every shop. Once again, I was confused. I thought that was a Jordanian thing? No, it appeared that the custom of keeping birds in cages as pets or for good luck had followed me to Albania as well. We'll have our pigs and keep our birds, too.

The streets of Tirana were a cross between Europe and the Middle East. They were tighter and taller, like European villages, but the shops and open bazaars looked distinctly Middle Eastern. However, unlike in Jordan, there were plenty of stray dogs or people out with their beloved canine pets, just like in Europe.

The wedding that night was absolutely amazing. The ceremony was a mixture of Albanian and German traditions (nothing in English, sadly), and the bride and groom couldn't have looked happier. The reception consisted of much dancing and many MANY courses of food. I finally learned a version of the Arabic dance, the Dabka, and I rocked out to both Armenian and German tunes. We sampled some of the universal Ozo (in Greece) Arak (in Jordan), that strong licorice drink that makes people act silly. And we all stayed up WAY past our bedtimes.

The next morning, a group of us went to a nearby town to visit an Albanian castle and a bazaar. The castle was much smaller than we thought, but we had fun eating together and enjoying the beautiful Albanian countryside. Once again, I was just thrilled about the amount of greenery in the area.

However, it was on this day that I realized just how conservative about clothing I've become. My German friend, noting the heat and humidy threatening to confine us to our rooms, put on a tank top and shorts to wear on our day trip. I jumped into my jeans and a spaghetti-strap, white t-shirt combo. As we grabbed the last of our possessions in preparation for boarding the bus, my German friend made sure I didn't want to put on shorts before I left. "Sarah," I said, laughing. "I don't even own any shorts at this point."

And even if I did, after a year of hiding my legs and making sure my necklines are way past conservative, I honestly can't see myself jumping back into short shorts or skirts even once I'm back in the U.S. Jordan has taught me that I don't need to let it all hang out just to be in style; you can dress conservatively and still look great: long dresses, such as what I wore to the wedding; long skirts; tube tops to bring my necklines up. After a year of being looked up and down, even when completely covered, has totally nixed my desire to be stared at by guys. Who knew.

As my new friends and I hunted through the bazaar for anything worth buying, my friends suddenly ran to me and said, "Gretchen, Gretchen, is that the call to prayer?" I listened for a second, and sure enough that slow, haunting call was echoing up through the valley. I hadn't even heard it until the mentioned it. I am so used to hearing the call to prayer so many times a day that I don't even register it as a noise I need to listen for anymore. "Yep, that would be the call to prayer," I replied to my delighted new friends, who were sure they'd just experienced something extremely rare and culture. I'm surprised I didn't notice the LACK of a call to prayer while in Tirana. It's four in the morning! What's that noise? Silence? How quaint and odd!

That night, I had my second bout of money problems. I wanted to get enough Albanian Lek out of the ATMs to change into Euro to change into Turkish Lira for my four hours of sightseeing time during my layover in Istanbul the next day. This involved much muttering frantically to myself and about ten minutes with a calculator. I also had to switch my brain wildly back and forth between three different currencies: the Lek is about 130 Lek to the Euro / 100 Lek to the dollar; the Turkish Lira is about 2 Lira to the dinar. Talk about crunching numbers... or in this case, the other way around.

Thus ended my one-and-only trip to Albania, one I shan't soon forget. More than anything else, it allowed me a breath of fresh air, a chance to get away from the Middle East, just for a couple of days, and reevaluate everything I've learned here, both the good and the bad.

Silly Arabic alphabet...

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