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
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The culture is notably homogenous, with the exception of a subpopulation of Roma who live on the outskirts of town.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!