Our last Balkan country! Sitting quietly on the Adriatic Sea between Greece and Montenegro, Albania is a sleepy place still waiting to blossom, with mountain villages, country farms, and its own Riviera coastline. We rented a lakeside apartment on Lake Ohrid and couldn’t believe how inexpensive it was, or how much we liked it there. Albania is not in the EU and its lower income status is clear, but there are restaurants, coffee shops, history, and wildflowers blooming everywhere. Travel takes a little more effort because of the language barrier, but a smile still works in every language!
Speaking of language, the Albanian language was an odd one; some kind of Romance mixed with Turkish? This was our Smart TV.
Lake Ohrid, on the border between North Macedonia and Albania, is an eastern European travel destination, and one of the oldest lakes in the world. We decided to go to the Albania side of the lake, and you know you’re off the beaten path when North Macedonia is considered the “modern” part. Driving through the countryside it all looks beautiful, with rolling fields of flowers and horse-drawn carts, but from a traveler perspective, it’s new enough that the service industry doesn’t exist.
Neighbors like Greece and Turkey run their economies on tourism, and their vacation destinations overflow with resorts, restaurants, and souvenirs to take home. In Pogradec, where we spent our Lake Ohrid weekend, there wasn’t much more than imported cookies and frozen animals in the grocery stores. Most people still grow their own food or buy it directly from farmers, and cook and eat at home. So shopping for groceries (my favorite tourist activity!) wasn’t as fun, but it was also a real-life Community Supported Agriculture dreamland!
One night for dinner we had Italian, which wasn’t a gamble considering that Italy is just a ferry ride away. Another night we went to a nice place with white tablecloths to learn about the cuisine. Albania is a muslim country, so the menu was primarily stewed goat, lamb, yogurt, salty cheese, braised vegetables, olives, dried meat, and bread. There was also a carafe of homemade red wine that I shared with Mike, and the most delicious salad any of us have ever had. It’s hard to explain, if you’ve never eaten a fresh tomato or cucumber picked directly from someone’s garden, but It made me realize I have not actually tasted these vegetables before. In Bulgaria, my friends lament that joining the EU changed the food supply and say the vegetables no longer taste good. I thought the vegetables were great, but now I understand what they mean!
In the mornings, we woke up early to walk through the city and see the sunrise over the lake. Older people were already out on their front steps, smoking cigarettes and sharing a coffee with their friends. Europe is so good at cigarettes and coffee. I know smoking is not super good for you, but neither is processed food or spending two hours a day sitting in a car. Friendship and community are also linked to longevity, so maybe smoking is not as terrible as some of the other things we humans do? We walked past schools, a mosque, some excited dogs, so many flowers, and clotheslines full of laundry.
One afternoon we rented a paddle boat. With two teenage boys who want to do all the paddling, Mike and I just hung out in back and kept the music going. Until the boat started to sink! Is it us or the boat? We are kind of big, so it could be us, but judging by the boat, it could also be the boat. A few frantic minutes later, all was okay… Mike and I offloaded while the boys kept paddling, and in the end, nobody ruined their Jordans. We found a little cabana to wait, thankfully gin and tonic exists everywhere.
Like Bulgaria and othering burgeoning countries, we could see the brain drain in the population that was mostly ether very young or very old. It’s mind-blowing, to think of the lottery we won at birth by simply being born in America. Most of the world lives in a gritty reality and quiet simplicity, far removed from air-conditioned houses and hungry capitalism. Although on the other side of that equation, America has a problem with satiety. There is never enough, and we always want more, because what we’re missing can’t be found in capitalism.
And so we are blessed with one more weekend of traveling, learning, and opening our eyes to a version of the world that is so close, but so far, and so true but so invisible. It reminded me that to whom much is given, much is expected. I’m glad the boys are getting old enough to understand this too.