Here begins day 64 away from United States soil. That’s just about two months, but it feels like a lifetime. I feel both ready to come home, and that Albania now is home.
For the first time, I miss a lot of things. Above all else (sorry family and friends, you know I don’t mean this in a bad way) I miss school.
I miss both how otherworldly and routine it feels to read a little book in a the same cranny of the library. I miss the words reaching into my brain and making a home for themselves in my conscious, presumably next to the three-ingredient cooking recipes, Friends quotes, and bike-riding instructions I got floating around in there (basically, the addled-brain of any college student ever).
We are highly influenced by our environment, and when that environment is throwing 1,000 new words and ideas at us a minute, if I’m absorbing 100 of those things I’ll be happy. Humans are pretty cool that way.
We need some cool things to offset all the wars and murdering we do, I suppose.
So, back to my time abroad, as I only have two weeks left before my week-long hiatus to l’Italie (!) before returning to the state of my birth and basically all my life’s accomplishments thus far.
To put it simply, these last few weeks have been crazy. I’ve gotten through two sicknesses, a combined twelve-hour bus ride, hitchhiked (by accident), became best friends with our hostel den mother (as my roommate has endearingly named her in her head), and had an hours-long conversation with a complete stranger, who ventured to inform me that I am “masculine”. And look like someone who needs a wristwatch, no less.
Actually, I kinda like that impression.
My roommate TC and I also got stranded in a cheap resort town in the south. Luckily, not the worst problem to have (who knew?).
So it all started last Friday, when I convinced my roommate (who was sick, and got me sick for the second time) to do a weekend trip with me down to Saranda, Butrint (a UNESCO world heritage site founded by my boss), and maybe the Greek island of Corfu.
Her being a vegan, I employed every tactic I knew of, citing the beauty of Greek Salads in Greece just being salads; the cultural sites and Grecian ruins we would see; and of course, the exotic and beautiful beaches.
She finally caved, so that night after work we headed on what would be a long, arduous, and only slightly ill-begotten trek to the southern border on a furgon. Furgons are Albania’s version of a bus system. “System” is putting it strongly.
The problem is, the buses aren’t really on a schedule, or centralized whatsoever, so we just showed up at the bus station at 4 and wandered aimlessly. We listened for the bus driver that was yelling the right city name, and got on that one.
As you can see, very scientific.
Once that was settled, it was a three-hour journey south before switching buses. The problem is, the new bus was already full, so after a screaming match between bus drivers, we found a comfortable place sitting in the aisle, leaning into our bags as the guy in the seat next to me (and technically above me, as I was sitting in the aisle) asked for my number by throwing his phone in my face.
Naturally, I tried to act casual, shaking my head (which, coincidentally in Albanian means yes) and saying “nuk flas shqip” (I don’t speak Albanian). He spent the rest of time giving me sporadic side glances.
Thanks to the whole shake-head-for-yes nod-head-for-no, I suppose I did give mixed signals.
When the seat next to him opened up halfway through, he enthusiastically tapped me on the shoulder and gestured for me to sit down. Welcoming.
I jumped right on the opportunity – to delegate the seat to TC.
When we finally got to our beach town destination of Saranda (finally!), the hostel was close, so we grabbed food from the nearby market and called it a night. After a day of work and a six-hour bus ride on the floor, we were not feeling anything besides a bed. When we finally felt like humans again, we toured Butrint, a UNESCO site for it’s astounding and well-preserved Grecian ruins dating back to 5th century BC.
Butrint boasts an idyllic bathhouse, an amphitheater, and entire town ruins that were once inhabited by Grecians, Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines – you name it. Aeneas, from Virgil’s Aeneid, stayed in Butrint, as well as the likes of Julius Caesar. After Augustus Caesar’s victory of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, just 100 km south, Butrint came under Roman rule, but it was founded by the Greeks.
The little port of Butrint was bathed in mystique. It just seemed like someplace a Shakespearean love story would come alive. All I could think of the lives of the people who had been born and died there, how they had been forgotten but their houses had physically outlived them by millennia.
We don’t know who they are, but we have what they could make with their hands; pottery, jewelry, sculptures, buildings. To me, that seems unfortunate.
What was it like to see such a fantastical world and without the science to explain it, to believe that the gods were so close and magic existed? The gods were so personified, if a married woman had a child out of wedlock, she would blame it on Zeus, for pete’s sake.
Either husbands were more gullible than today, or they truly believed in the daily and regular presence of the gods in their lives. Probably a little mix of both.
TC-“This looks like someplace where in a video game there would be a lot of stuff to loot.”
After Butrint we saw Ksamil, with aquamarine water, happy children and tequila bars. Typical, touristic, fun. I tried saganaki, a popular type of Grecian cheese. Besides that, not much.
But that’s the beauty of beach going – you’re supposed to do nothing.
And yes, the Greek salads along the border were absolutely delicious. With the thought that feta cheese and hummus would never be cheaper or better, I probably overdid it on both accounts.
On Sunday, we hiked to the Blue Eye, a phenomenon due to the fact that it’s so cold it turns the water a light turquoise, and it was so hot and so much longer than expected to reach it that we worried we would miss our bus back home. Pretty gorgeous, though.
Since it was a dead-end up to the Blue Eye, and a long trek at that, we were more than a little worried about missing our bus back.
We agreed, hitchhiking is not generally safe, but maybe a nice family could take us back to the entrance.
So we threw up our thumbs (in actuality, imagine two giggling girls half-heartedly throwing their thumbs up, then backing out again, going back and forth a couple of times on if it was a good idea or not, and finally TC getting the courage to keep hers up for a painstakingly-long extended period of time while I threw side glances to see if the car was A) full and B) looked safe.
Now, what happened was two young, college age (and English-speaking) guys stopped and offered us a ride all the way back to the city.
This was a tempting offer, because we were planning on waiting for a bus back from Blue Eye to Saranda at God-knows-what-time, only to get another bus to Tirana at God-knows-what-time (maybe never).
So, with me purposely keeping conversation going with the driver, TC discreetly doing reconnaissance (to make sure they were taking the right roads back to Saranda, and not being abducted, naturally), we hitchhiked for the first and last time.
Doing this in the country most known for the movie Taken (a movie literally about an American girl kidnapped by Albanian terrorists), it probably sounds pretty bad. Sorry, mom. I guess this is a good time to ask for forgiveness and not permission.
But hey, at least Albania isn’t known for The Human Centipede.
Because said furgons are super not-regulated and basically go as the wind blows, getting back to Saranda did not get us a bus home like we’d hoped. We were stranded for an extra eight hours longer than planned.
We ended up getting a bus at 10 pm that night and arriving back in Tirana at 3:30 am. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, hence being in a sleepy beach town; but we got to watch the mountains turn pink against the blue water, and watched the night come alive in the city of Saranda one last time.
Being in Albania, I never realized how much my American identity applied to me until I left the US, or being blonde, or tall. Now I’m picked out of a crowd and seen from a mile away, and find camaraderie in others just for sharing the commonality of being from the same country, or even speaking the same mother tongue. I’m excited for school to be back in session, but I’m excited too that I got to be here and be changed because of it.
Of course, my internship is going well; but I’m learning most from the experiences that are happening outside of the white office walls and rolly chairs.
I didn’t die last weekend hitchhiking, and for that truth I am thankful.
Oh, and I bought a wristwatch.