Lunch Language Difficulties
After a relaxing swim, we plonk ourselves in the beachside restaurant's ocean facing seats for some lunch. The menu's in Albanian and the proprietor doesn't seem to speak any English. I start studying the Albanian language section of my guidebook, looking for common words between it, and the menu. There don't seem to be any.
Two local guys walk past who thankfully speak some English. I ask them what the words are for different meats, all the while applying my new knowledge to the menu items. I find a number of dishes that are probably "safe" to order, and after 20 minutes of careful research and planning, call back the waiter. As choice after subsequent choice are rejected, I finally discover that only the top couple of items on the menu are available. I take a shot and pick one. What eventually arrives is some meat and accompanying vegetables. Not spectacular, but not bad either, but certainly a huge amount of work to fill the belly! I'm puzzled as to why a full A4 page of (largely unavailable) menu items was necessary, but through random coincidence an explanation will soon reveal itself.
After lunch we face a walk in the hot sun up the steep and winding hill, back to the main road. We offer money to a local guy who is happy to drive us up in his truck.
We reach the top, only to discover that while it is only early afternoon, all the buses have gone for the day. I've probably answered my prior question about holiday destinations. Everyone goes to beaches in Italy because there are probably still buses after lunchtime. Come to think of it, ordering in a restaurant is probably easier too.
There are a few guys sitting around doing a whole lot of not much, perching on the ledge where the steep Dhërmi access road meets the cliff-side Vlorë to Sarandë road, the men's backs to the sublime blue sky and sparkling water of the Adriatic Sea behind them. While I wait for any sort of transport to go past, I take a few pictures of the men and the surrounds, noting that intense stares are far more popular than smiles in Albanian photos. While I don't know the reason, it does nothing to refute my long held suspicion that living through Communism wipes the smiles off people's faces.
A police car soon pulls up. Emboldened by our successes so far in getting assistance, I immediately corner the policeman and ask how we can get to Sarandë. He asks me to hold on a minute before going over to doing not much intense stare guys to question them about something. Enquiries completed, he offers us a lift. He's only going as far as Himarë, but is happy to take us there. We ask questions about how to get to Greece, where we think we need to be by tomorrow.
We pull in to Himarë Police station. We thank the police, but they are not done with us yet. "You want to know about getting to Greece?" "Yes", I reply. The policeman hands us over to his friend Maximus. I already like the guy, just based on his name. "Go with him. He will help you" offers the policeman. With that we are passed on, and the cycle of Albanian hospitality continues.
Maximus says we should get a coffee, and takes us down to a picturesque spot on the beach. Like our three hosts a day prior, Maximus wants to give us an insight into his country. Albanians seem to be a proud, but not boastful people. Actually many of the people in Himarë are of Greek ethnicity with both Albanian and Greek spoken locally. I think Maximus said he was a government councillor, and we get talking on the half built houses that I've seen everywhere, and the illegally built houses on the coast here. He says there are building rules, but it's very difficult to get people to follow them, with people building where they like.
He's an engaging and likeable character (don't be fooled by his version of the Albanian intense stare!), and we get caught up in the conversation of all things Albania. "Now. You want to go to Greece?" he abruptly enquires. It's almost a shock when he jolts me out of my daydreaming admiration of his country. I'm disappointed that I'm not giving Albania more time in this schedule, which it is definitely worthy of. There's so much more to know. It's Europe, but it's so different. Maximus knows all the different transport routes, times and options. It reinforces the fact that I'm sorry to be leaving. It has only been two days. We wish him well, and are on our way.
We head out for dinner that evening, surprised and amused to see the exact same menu that we had seen at lunchtime. One printed A4 standard issue menu. I wonder whether there's one "businessman" with a computer, printer, and this menu, supplying the whole country! I guess the restaurateurs buy one general menu, and then decide which of the items they want, or have the ability, to cook! After the complications at lunchtime, seeing this menu again is all too much, and we walk straight out and find a place with an English menu.
Albanian Bar and Football Culture
Dinner completed, it doesn't take long to discover out next curiosity - Albanian bar culture. The European Football Championship (Euro 2008) is on, and the local men are fully engaged. Just the men though. There's almost no sign of women in the bars. I presume that they're at home.
Albania has failed to qualify for the 2008 finals but the locals are particularly animated, irrespective. The first thing one needs to do when entering the bar is to pick a side - literally. Rows of chairs are split by a middle aisle, and the patron sits on either the left or right side, depending on which team he wants to support.
Large bets seem to be taking place on tonight's fixture of Italy versus the Netherlands. The owner of the bar has bet on Italy, but the left/right seating ratios prove that the majority of the crowd are supporting the Netherlands. While European football has global appeal, tonight's captivation and reactions to every goal makes me wonder just how much of their financial futures these young Albanian men have staked on the game. The owner shows his humour but increasing displeasure through his emotively wild body language, as Italy concedes goal after goal, eventually losing 3-0. This is our last night in Albania. It's been a whirlwind couple of days, but more than enough time to make a distinct impression. I vow to return.
The following morning we get on a direct bus to Athens. I use my remaining lek to stock up on pastries at the border. It's a good thing. The long distance bus to Athens makes a meal stop at an outpost in the north of Greece. I order a shish kebab, chips and a coke. I'm stunned when it comes to 17 Euro. Whether it's bus company / roadhouse kickbacks or not it doesn't matter. I feel like a trapped tourist sucker again, and taken for granted. I miss Albania already.