The Smartest Place on Earth

That odd shape at bottom right is my cafe chair photobombing my morning coffee on the Saranda promenade.  Morning coffee has been a little disappointing ever since.

Albania has been on the tourism radar for a few years now, and no wonder.  Southern Albania has miles of gorgeous coastline, with Greek and Roman ruins to boot, and if you want good hiking, head north to the mountains and lakes.  London to Corfu is pretty easy, and from there it’s just a short ferry ride to Saranda. Don’t even get me started on the food.

Plazhe Pulbardhe, near Ksamil, just south of Saranda. Note the crystal blue waters and the car parked on top of a building.

I can’t recommend Albania enough, especially if you’re looking to avoid the throngs of tourists in the more popular Greek islands.  But it’s not exactly for everyone yet.  Nonetheless, if you’re a little adventurous, and if you can live without things like air conditioning and shower curtains, you should definitely put this scrappy little Balkan nation on your list.

Albania is keen to attract tourists, and it is an absolute diamond in the rough, but the trouble is that the country may very well be too smart for its own good.  I’m no jet-setter, but I’ve traveled a fair bit in my life, and of all the places I’ve visited, Albania is the least forgiving of idiots.  After thousands of years of being ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Ottomans – to say nothing of early 20th-century occupations by a potpourri of European powers – Albania didn’t manage to climb out of the smoldering rubble of the Ottoman Empire and carve out a space for itself on the map by being dumb.  If there’s a rule in Albania, it’s this: adapt and survive. Tourists are expected to do the same.

For one thing, the country isn’t babyproofed.  I remember very clearly walking along the sidewalk at night in Saranda.  Nestled between the coastline and series of hills, the city consists of a network of hairpin turns running parallel to the waterfront promenade, gradually winding up the hills, as if someone left a thumbprint on the hardscrabble landscape.  It wasn’t as steep as the Cinque Terre in Italy, but it was hilly enough to have some sharp drops.  Remarkably to my Western sensibilities, though, there were no railings anywhere.  (A note about driving: Albania isn’t much on guard rails either.) As we walked back home after dinner, a line of colorful apartment buildings made an almost pleasing contrast to the 25-foot drop to my left.

How could there not be a railing?  I didn’t ask my husband or my cousin, but I knew what they would say.  Why would you need one?  Do you not see the mini-cliff to the left?  Just don’t walk near that. Likewise, at dinner, I noticed that the restaurant staircase was absent a railing.  Same point.  If you aren’t capable of walking down a staircase without breaking your neck, you probably shouldn’t be going out to dinner here.  Moderate drinking is fine – my impression was that if you go out at all in Tirana after 5, it’s practically mandatory – but you won’t see Albanians passing out and tumbling off staircases and rocky precipices.

I remembered seeing this tweet from journalist Jo-Ann Barnas during the Sochi Olympics and thinking that, while Sochi clearly had cut corners to make the Olympics happen, an open manhole on a waterfront promenade was more of a cultural difference than deficient infrastructure.  That’s finished by Albanian standards, and, I suspect, by Russian standards as well.  “Is finished!  Don’t walk in hole!”  The Sidewalk of Death in Saranda wasn’t evidence of shoddy workmanship or some kind of bureaucratic holdup.  It was actually evidence of an indisputable truth: Albania is too smart for its own good. Because you know some drunk person, possibly of Anglo extraction, possibly on spring break, would peer over the cliff and go, “Hey, what’s down there?!”

Another reason Albania demands street smarts is the money.  They’re not an EU country, much less part of the Eurozone, so get used to the lek.  Unlike, oh, anywhere else on earth, just knowing the exchange rate isn’t enough, either, because Albanians will – I am not kidding – add a zero when they discuss amounts of money verbally.  I told my husband I had gotten 5000 lek from an ATM, and I asked him how much that was in dollars.  “Like, five bucks,” he said.  Imagine my surprise when I tried to buy a newspaper with a 5000 lek note.  “Really?  For a newspaper?” the astonished shopgirl asked.  Turns out I had actually withdrawn about fifty American bucks, and she couldn’t make change.

“You said this was five bucks!  Five thousand lek!” I said, bewildered, to my husband.

He pulled out a 500 lek note.  “This is five thousand.  Five bucks.”

I proceeded to point out that three zeroes means thousands, and we were holding two different bank notes.

“Yeah…but when it’s a hundred, we call it a thousand,” he explained calmly.  As if it were the most normal thing in the world.

“Wait…so you call a hundred lek a thousand lek? Even though it’s really a hundred lek?”  I needed to hear this again.

“Yeah,” replied my husband.  Upon reflection, he added, “It’s fucked up.”

He may be right, but I love this.  “Thousand” is, as far as I can tell, an affectionate nickname for “hundred” when it comes to money. What a wonderful idea!  I want to do this with everything in my wallet.  I’ve got a twenty?  Boom!  It’s 200, just because I said so.

500 lek, or, as it’s also known in Albania, 5000 lek. Make that make sense.

Now, imagine my confusion when we breezed through a local market to pick up some fruit.  The handwritten signs proclaimed “50 lek” per kg of, oh, whatever thing was in season.  Cherries, I think.  Amazing things, these cherries.  They were the biggest, most succulent berries I have ever had the pleasure of shoving into a shopping bag by the fistful.  The concrete floor of the market was stained with the juice of a few that had fallen out of the crate earlier in the day, or that had been clumsily handled by customers other than me for once.  Splat.  Cherry juice.  That’s how good they were.  But I digress.

50 lek amounts to something like 40 American cents. Albania is cheap, but not that cheap. A kilo of cherries actually cost 500 lek that summer.  But it wasn’t a typo.  Shopkeepers are confident that their customers are well aware of the price of goods, so the last zero is simply left off the sign.  Because who would actually think that cherries were going for 50 lek per kilo?  Probably the woman who thought that 5000 lek actually meant 5000 lek. I have always believed in my own intellect, but I’m caveman stupid by Albanian standards.


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