15 Things That Surprised Me About Albania

15 Things That Surprised Me About Albania

One year ago, I packed up my comfortable life in the US and moved to Albania, a place where I knew no one and had never even been…

Since then, I have a myriad of culture shocks that have been simultaneously startling, amusing, baffling, and delightful. As more and more tourists come to visit this undiscovered Balkan country, I thought it would be helpful to share my impressions with other foreigners planning to come visit. Enjoy!

15 Things that Surprised Me about Albania

  1. Albanians rock their head side to side to indicate “yes”, similar to how an American would shrug indifferently. Interestingly, I have caught myself picking up this habit after a year living here!

    www.awestruckabroad.com Albanian fruit stands
    Some of the colorful produce available in the local farmer’s market
  2. Everyone, even the kids, greet each other with a kiss. It always delights me when I see my toughest teenage boys lean over to greet their younger siblings with a kiss on the cheek. I love this tradition!
  3. It takes a long time to build trust with Albanians. They have struggled through a turbulent history, and as a result, they may only trust their closest kin and take years to warm up to new ideas, methods, or people.
  4. The foreigners here are still mostly missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers. While there is an increase in international tourism in the summer, it is still unusual to see foreigners in Albania in the off-season.www.awestruckabroad.com Two Men in Durres, Albania
  5. There are no female waitresses in a restaurant. Albania maintains traditional gender roles, and it is not always common for women to work outside the home.
  6. The culture is notably homogenous, with the exception of a subpopulation of Roma who live on the outskirts of town.www.awestruckabroad.com Albanian Roma
  7. The villages here have one of the most unique cultural practices for women who do not want to marry the men they are betrothed to. If the girl opposes the marriage, she can declare herself as a “sworn virgin”, and effectively live out the rest of her days as a man. It is one of only a few cases of culturally-sanctioned transgendered living in the world. This practice is dying out however, and today there are only a few “sworn virgins” still living. You can check out this video by National Geographic or see these photos if you’re interested in learning more!
  8. Haircuts here take FOREVER. I mean, hours, for a simple trim. This Albanian quirk encapsulates two pieces of Albanian culture: first of all, they take robust pride in their personal presentation.  Secondly, the pace of life is much slower here. Why rush through a haircut? No one has anywhere to be, and appearances are valued above all else.www.awestruckabroad.com Albanians Celebrating their football team
  9. Coffee is not just coffee- it’s the center of the culture. As I mentioned, Albanians enjoy a slow pace of life, so they will all spend hours nursing an expresso out in the sunshine and watching the world go by. (However, the coffee culture is generally limited to men, as the women are traditionally at home.)

    www.awestruckabroad.com Albanian coffee shops

  10. The evening stroll is the highlight of their entire day. As the mediterranean heat wears off around sunset, Albanians don their best clothes, gather the extended family, and go out for a walk. This is the epitome of the social scene in Albania and forms a strong sense of community spanning all generations.

    www.awestruckabroad.com 3 Albanian Boys at Sunset

  11. There are LOTS of unfinished concrete buildings here. After the fall of communism, Albanians optimistically began building up their country—but in a few short years, many of these businesses found themselves bankrupt or caught up the red tape of the corrupt government. As a result, many of these buildings remain unfinished, indefinitely.

    www.awestruckabroad.com Albanian horse cart

  12. More Albanians live outside Albania than in it. After the fall of communism, huge numbers of Albanians immigrated to neighboring countries like Greece, Italy, and Germany.
  13. To an Albanian, your family is the biggest part of your identity. In these close-knit community where many families have lived for generations, you will find that Albanians are very well-connected. When filing official documents with the bank, I was not asked to provide my middle name, I was asked to provide my father’s name—because my family and kinship is the most important way to identify me. Furthermore, in Albanian, they do not ask, “who are you?” they ask, “whose are you?” to inquire about your kinship and connections.

    www.awestruckabroad.com Albanian Men Walking

  14. There are 700,000 concrete bunkers all over the country. These are remnants of Enver Hoxha’s paranoid communist dictatorship. He was convinced these bunkers would save his country in the event of a nuclear fallout.
  15. Albania is like two countries in one. The northern part of Albania is occupied by the Ghegs, the South occupied by the Tosks, and each of these places has a slightly different dialect, culture, and religious prevalence. However, the outskirts of Albania are still markedly different from the cities, which tend to be more progressive and internationally-minded.

www.awestruckabroad.com Albanian herder

As you can see, Albanian culture is extremely unique and very nuanced. As someone who has lived here for a year, I have definitely learned a lot (mostly through trial and error!) about how and why Albanians interact with the world the way they do. I hope you find these insights helpful if you’re planning a vacation here in the future!

22 thoughts on “15 Things That Surprised Me About Albania

  1. The points about the haircuts, kiss greeting and “yes” gesture are quirks I would have never guessed of any culture. Such a unique people! Their slow paced life seems so easygoing. Kinda jealous over here in California. ?

  2. This was super cool to read through; admittedly I don’t know much about Albania. You should submit this to Matador or something! Very cool read 🙂

  3. Wow, what a unique culture! Thanks so much for sharing these insights and your experiences. What made you decide to move there, esp after never having been there? A job? Good for you for taking such a leap! And will you be staying much longer?

    1. Thanks for stopping by Karla! I came to Albania after I was offered a job teaching here. I really didn’t know much about it, but I’m glad I took the leap! I have been here for one year already and will be staying at least one more. I hope to publish a lot more articles about Albania in meantime!

  4. What a lovely insight into a culture that I knew very little about. A place that embraces coffee, family and a slow pace of life sounds like they have their priorities in order. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. I do recognize a lot of the points you mentioned in the Balkan culture in general. Bulgarians shake their heads in a similar way when they mean “no”, Bosnians have the coffee culture and Romanians greet with kisses on the cheeks also. 🙂

  6. I love that they take time for coffee. I feel like I am always on the go and getting it through a drive-thru or finishing it when its cold due to distractions. I would love if America had a more relaxed pace.

    Great article – I can’t wait to visit.

  7. This was such an interesting read! I must admit, Albania is a country that has always intrigued me, especially since it’s one of the least visited countries in Europe. Love the Mediterranean lifestyle – in fact, point no.10 is very common here in Malta, too.

    1. I am dying to visit Malta!! Any tips or articles on the subject! Malta and Albania are so close, I’m hoping to visit before I move elsewhere!

  8. Tosks and Ghegs are completely different people, sharing only language. Ghegs are the same people as Kosovars. Only them had blood feuds.
    Tosks are very social people, and the ones that build socialism. Ghegs were the persecuted ones. They are actually south slavs, descendats of slaves brought here sicne antiquity, desperately trying to escape their slavic past and become Albanians.
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v456/n7218/images/nature07331-f1.2.jpg
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/files/2011/05/sobpc.jpg
    http://britam.org/Haplogroup-E1b1b.jpg

    1. Wow, sounds like you really know your stuff! Thank you for sharing extra information! It’s great to hear your perspective. Do you have any other articles to share about Albanian culture? Would love to continue learning 🙂

      1. Hi. I’m writing a book about the subject, in English. It’s not a conventional history book with knights and romance, rather, an attempt to explain the current behavior and recent history (like communism, atheism, muslimness, corruption, the fierce internal political conflict, etc.) in terms of culture and the history from which Albanians come from. Albania has such a troubled history, that oscillates from one extreme to the other, because it is holding a mystery that has its roots in antiquity, a mystery that is struggling to get out.

        If you’re curious (and open minded and like to solve puzzles), we can exchange emails. My interest would be in having feedback from a foreigner that comes from a different culture. My email is in this comment. If you like the idea, send me an email so that I get yours.

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