An Albanian Home-Stay


A fun night in!

A fun night in!

Picture a scene:  You’re sitting in a small living room trying to watch a potentially interesting television show in Turkish, a language that you don’t know.  Your viewing companion doesn’t know Turkish either but has the advantage of subtitles in her own language, Albanian.  But she doesn’t speak English.  The one Albanian-English speaker in the house is occupied with housework a few rooms over but is more than willing to translate the translated translation while continuing to fold laundry in the back room. The family’s golden lab, who is in the midst of a heavy shedding phase, has decided that you are the weakest link in the snack food chain and is sitting on (not at) your feet.  His tongue is all drooly from a combination of treat anticipation and a non-working air-conditioner.  The family toddler, not nearly as drooly as the lab but just as certain of your weakness, has targeted you for a babbling conversation that defies translation in any language yet clearly focuses on the gathering of your hair into some sort of fashion. She commences with the twisting.  Somehow, amongst the various levels of communication being attempted a bit of the show’s plot is coming through, the dog is succeeding in getting more than just crumbs and the impromptu beauty makeover is resulting in a style never before seen.

On a success scale of one to ten, this evening’s activities were about a 9.5 for me.  Only if I had been able to retain a few more of the treats for myself would the night have been perfect.  Two weeks of living with my host family had brought us to a level of comfort with one another that allowed for silliness and confusion and chores and slobber to all blend into a wonderfully enjoyable night in. 

Happy Birthday Amir!!!

Happy Birthday Amir!!!

It was an amazing stroke of luck that had led me to try a home-stay rather than a hotel or hostel for this adventure.  I had initially been skeptical about the idea, but concerns for privacy or miscommunication were quickly replaced with regular home-cooked meals and friendship building.  Grocery shopping, babysitting, a sweet 16 birthday, a relative’s wedding, gas station runs, lunch hour visits, neighborhood hair salons, normal everyday errands…the nuance added to these experiences by the family perspective was tremendous. 

I fell in love with the day to day.  I started recognizing neighbors.  I learned shortcuts to the vegetable market.  I played on the floor with the baby.  I got advice on sausages.  I played laser tag, and won!  I took part in family parties.  My shopping trips were frequent enough that I became familiar with which stores had the best tasting bread or the lowest price for olive oil. Each family member offered a unique perspective on the most appropriate walking route to take to the museum, how I should dress for the weather, where I could find an internet café, which butter would be better for me to try or which roads we could take to get to the seaside. 

Rigo!

Rigo!

The home I stayed in was a particularly lively one.  A small and modern apartment, its family consisted of momma and papa with four grown daughters. Esi, the eldest of the sisters, was visiting from abroad with her teenage son Amir.  Suela, the next in line, owns and runs her own travel agency and was in the midst of ‘high season’ during my visit.  Laura’s little girl Gracie delighted us all with her playful spirit and pixie-like mannerisms.  Eva, the youngest sister, was newly engaged and in process of setting up her future home.  Papa is a retired civil servant and educator with stories that span the decades from WW2 thru to the post-communist upheavals. Momma kept us fortified with a steady stream of victuals, whether we were hungry or not.  Oh, and when not coating us all with his blond hair, Rigo the family dog kept our fingers clean and our eyes on the door. 

Conversations were always spirited.  Road trips were packed with excitement and humor.  Even the ‘down times’ were full of bonding moments. Evenings brought everyone back to the house and conversations swirled as chores were completed, plans were made for tomorrow, opinions were offered on events of the day and we all jostled for the chair that sat opposite the air conditioner...when it worked, that is.

The final week of my stay, during the last installment of the Turkish tv drama, pretty much each of the household’s members took turns trying to fill me in on the story line, cramming in as many last-minute details as possible, making connections between the plot and local history, arguing about character motives while feeding scraps to Rigo and trying to keep Gracie away from the newly folded piles of laundry.  Between the multiple layers of activities and conversations I started to feel homesick.  I was only days away from being back in my own bed and surrounded by own family, but it wasn’t my home I was feeling a pull towards.  I was already beginning to miss the sense of family and familiarity that I had been a growing part of during my Albanian journey. 

Arranging a home-stay requires extra legwork during the trip planning process, and seeking out a suitable family is not the same as selecting a perfectly located hotel.  Different characters and dynamics provide unique flavor to each experience.  Yet, this is a major part of the beauty you get to experience when making the effort.  Cookie cutter vacations are not possible when immersing yourself in a household.  You cannot escape a personal connection with the community you are exploring.  The resulting ache in your heart as you ride to the airport for your departure is one that you will not regret.  It will inspire your future travels and will feed your soul as you relish in the kinship developed with people and places. 

Post-wedding relaxation.  The family at sunset.

Post-wedding relaxation.  The family at sunset.

My Favorite Albanian Breast

I’ll be the first to admit that my 12 years of living in the Middle East has overly sensitized me to skin issues.  There are numerous elements to consider when dressing to go out and about.  There is, of course, the Sun-Safety Factor: living in a desert inspires certain cancer prevention precautions.  The Comfort Factor is an important one: through trial and error I’ve learned that covering up is actually cooler than baring it all.  And then there’s the Eyeball Factor:  how much of a reaction do you wish to garner over the course of the day?  Egypt is one of the more liberal Middle Eastern countries, but for the male population low cut necklines are the equivalent of a birdfeeder to a squirrel. 

Approaching the site of Butrint from the east

So when I arrived in Albania’s capital city, Tirana, in the middle of a sweltering July, I was a bit taken aback by the quantity of cleavage on display.  Practically everywhere I walked or ate or swam or shopped, my own eyeballs would gravitate to some generous display of mammary glands.  Everyone else seemed fine with it.  It appeared to be the cultural norm.  There is even a medieval castle dedicated to a woman who had been walled into the fortifications willingly, as long as her breasts remained exposed to sustain her nursing child.  Young or old, female or even male, the breastage area seemed to be very comfortable in the open air.

I adapted.  I adjusted my own sensitivities and occasionally my eyelids to the community’s standards and even attempted a few revealing shirts of my own.  There was one overly disturbing occasion when I was getting a pedicure and the 70-something salon employee, who had also chosen not to wear a bra that day, was vigorously scrubbing while leaning at the same time.  That took me a while to get over.  But overall, I became accustomed to the sight and even stopped gawking after a while.

Walls from the ancient forum

Until Butrint.  I should say upfront that the historical site of Butrint is not famous for the chests of its current citizenry, but for the beautiful and extensive archeological remains of its past inhabitants.  The peninsular-ly shaped tourist destination is reached by crossing a segment of the river that winds around it.  The ferrying is accomplished by a mechanical rope pulley and a floating platform that carts about four automobiles at a time.  We were lucky enough that the queue was short when we arrived.  It looked to be about a 15 minute wait. 

Hovering off to the side was a crowd of shirtless young men relaxing and goofing around.  Ostensibly they were there to herd the cars and offer assistance with the loading process, but since it was clearly a slow day with not much going on, the cigarettes had come out and the dress code loosened. 

And that’s when we saw it.  Even just a glimpse of it from the side looked fascinating.  I elbowed the driver of our car and she followed my gaze.  Our companions in the back seat started to notice and leaned up for a closer look: four sets of eyes all gaping at this uniquely tattooed, finely sculpted, perfectly tanned male breast.  

We may as well have been shooting darts instead of stares because he immediately sensed the attention and turned to face us, directing a confident smirk, and both of his nipplige areas, towards our car.  Provided with a full frontal we were quickly able to determine that the ink crossed from one side of his chest to the other in star and script patterns.  Intrigued we mumbled amongst ourselves what could be written, debating what language the words were in, amazed at the originality of the shapes. 

Remains of the Roman bathhouse, Butrint, Albania

Clearly enjoying the objectification, our visual target threw his shoulders back, flexed his pecks and made it a point that all of his companions knew what was going on.  Not to be out bolded, our precocious driver gestured for him to come towards us.  He sauntered over with a growing grin, reached the widow, placed his hands at the base of the open window and leaned down. 

I should pause at this moment to mention that throughout our road trip I had developed a reputation for taking pictures of just about anything: bugs, walls, bushes, clouds, broken pavement, burning garbage, telephone poles, you name it.  I had the camera constantly in my hand and clicking away.  My Albanian friends found it quite entertaining the things I chose to photograph.  I ignored their jibes and continued to snap at anything that moved, and most of what didn’t. 

At this very moment, as my intrepid friend explained our curiosity for his skin art, the sweaty chest quickly straightened and slammed itself up against the side of the car, firmly and centrally placing the tattoo smack in the middle of the open window.  Between the thud of body meeting metal and the collective lurch backward of the car’s occupants, we drew the attention of even the neighboring tourists. 

For a few awkward moments we all stared silently with bulging eyes at the breast filled window, until one of my friends composed herself enough to utter an appreciation for the detail of the work and thanked the young man for sharing.  Quite pleased with himself he strutted back to his own companions who greeted him with high fives and hoots. 

Back in the car, all eyes, including my own, slowly turned to the camera in my hand.  It was aimed and focused on the window, with my normally trigger-happy finger at the ready.  Curses and laughter erupted simultaneously as we realized that I had not managed to click a single shot.

A few minutes later our turn for the ferry arrived.  Still shell-shocked we got the car into place, and as we floated slowly away from the impromptu and blunt display of bravado we tried to refocus our thoughts on the ancient.  Once on site we explored ruins from Roman on through Ottoman times.  We wandered through thousands of years’ worth of history and wooded beauty, attempting to honor the generations who toiled and defended and lived and died on the mound.  But alas, it was not to be.  For the rest of our journey, we constantly referred to that location by the action we had witnessed.  Citadels and bathhouses, monasteries and ramparts all crumble eventually, but the memory of that breast in the window will always and forevermore be emblazoned on my mind.  No photographs needed. 

 (Winner of the "inTravel Magazine" writing competition, Dec 2012!)

Scanning the horizon, seeking the Ionian Sea like thousands before us, Butrint, Albania