When I told a friend I was getting ready to publish a post on Albania, she smiled and started singing a song about Albania that I had never heard.
"From 'Cheers'. Don't you remember?" she said.
I didn't, so we looked up Coach's Albania Song from "Cheers" on YouTube, laughed, and sang along with Coach and Sam. Thanks to that little tutorial, I doubt I'll ever have to be reminded that Albania lies along the Adriatic and its major export is chrome.
Naturally, there is much, much more to Albania. It has vistas and beaches that rival the French Riviera. It has an enviable Mediterranean climate. But, sadly, it has had a troubled history.
Until 1991, Albania was under Communist rule for 40 years. Then, in 1998-1999, the war in neighboring Kosovo brought 480,000 ethnic Albanian refugees into Albania, straining the country's resources. ("Shok," a short film nominated for an Academy Award this year, does a masterful job of telling the story of that war's impact on the Albanian population. You can read about the film and that conflict in my two previous posts about Shok).
Millions more Albanians live abroad rather than in Albania. It is a question of survival. Although Albania's largely agricultural economy is growing, life is still hard, as my Albanian contact, Elda, told me.
Elda is the relative of an Albanian gas station attendant in my town. She is 35 years old and married. She lives in Albania's capital, Tirana. She and her husband have two kids.
Elda work five days a week. Her job begins at 8.00 am and ends in time for her to pick up her children from school.
With the exception of the Albanian flag, all photos are Elda's.
MY CONVERSATION WITH ELDA
Look out a window in your home and tell me what you see.
I live in a crowded Tirana neighborhood. This is what most neighborhoods in Tirana city look like. Apartments of 7-10 floors and several 1-3 floor houses. The neighborhood street is old and in a poor condition.
There are holes and bumps almost everywhere on this road, which get worst when it rains. Tirana’s major streets have been repaired and are in good condition; however several secondary streets such as ours are still not regularly maintained by the city’s municipality.
There are very few trees, and not any playground space for the kids to play.
What is a common myth or misconception about Albania that you would like to set straight?
When I would mention to people that I come from Albania, most of them did not know where that is. To keep it simple and give an idea of where Albania is, I would say it is somewhere between Italy and Greece, two well-known countries. It is a Mediterranean country, with a similar climate to that of neighborhood countries.
I haven’t come across any misconception about Albania.
How many languages do you speak? Which ones?
Albanian, English, Turkish.
What do you love the most about your country?
The seas of Albania come first; they offer in my opinion the most beautiful sights in this country. Its rivers and high mountains are also marvelous. I love the forests and good fresh air which you can breathe in when you go to a countryside. I like the Tirana’s center, it is well maintained and looks pretty.
If I came to your home for dinner, what Albanian dish would you serve me?
We have, among other dishes, two special ones. One is called “byrek”, which is baked layers of dough and a certain filling in the middle. I would choose spinach filling, or pumpkin filling. The second dish would probably be “Tavë kosi”, made of a certain cream of mainly yoghurt mixed with eggs, boiled meat juice, and flour to make it thick. It is then baked, and tastes delicious. The dessert all Albanians know is “Baklava” or “Hashure”, which have an oriental origin, but Albanians traditionally make them, too. Baklava is made of layers of dough with a filling of nuts, and wetted with a thick liquid made of sugar and water. Hashure is made by boiling wheat very hard in water until the water thickens. Then we add nuts, raisins, cinnamon, and sugar to make it sweet.
Who or what is Albania most famous for?
Worldwide, Albania is known for Mother Theresa. She was Albanian. We also have our national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu, and Ismail Qemali. They are the two most important people in Albania’s history. Skenderbeu, fought against Turkish invasions around 1400–1500. Qemali declared Albania as a independent nation in 1912.
Our flag symbol, is a two-headed black eagle in a red colored flag. This is the typical Albanian symbol I would recognize as an Albanian anywhere I go.
It is still cold in Chicago. What is it like in Albania?
Cold and humid. It rains often. Temperatures range between 0-15 Celsius degrees (32 to 59 Fahrenheit).
What does your country do well? What do you wish it did better?
I believe my country has very good water resources and sights for tourism. I am very proud for that. It has fresh air, forests, and beautiful nature. I am proud Albania has all these.
What needs improving is our economy. Definitely. It is one of the poorest countries in the Europe. A better management of our money and resources is what I wish we would do better.
What brings you joy? What frightens you?
It brings me joy that I have a place to call home, to have a family and kids. My real joy is watching the kids grow and taking care after them. I work every day to make them live as well as possible.
What frightens me is their future in this country. With a poor economy, I do not know whether they will be able to get paid well in the future so that they can afford having their own house and raising well their own kids. Not everyone has enough income to buy a house in Albania during their entire life. Some, despite having a job, cannot afford even having a car. It would pain me if I saw them frustrated looking for a better paid job and not finding one. Today, this is how the youth are struggling.
Educated young people with no real jobs, and low paychecks. A young person with average income in Tirana can only feed himself and pay the rent. There is not a job for everyone. Unemployment is a major problem in our country and hopelessness is there when you talk to people.
What is your opinion of the United States? Chicago?
United States is a great country. Unlike Albania, it offers many opportunities. Many career paths you may choose, this is what I think is the greatest.
I have been to Chicago in winter. It was very cold. I liked its river and the lake. What I saw, is a great American city, which showed that it had been a very important city in the past, and continues to be in the present. The railways extending along the city was impressive.
Who or what inspires you?
I have always believed that one should try hard in life to survive. Even when there is little or no hope, I believe that hard work will be the best ally and the only option one can have. This is what inspires me, and makes me go forward: the hope that by working hard, one day I will finally achieve what I want. This is what I want to teach my children.
Thanks so much for reading Talking to the World. To date, I have interviewed people in over 30 countries. I still have a long way to go.
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