I never planned on going to Albania. Albania was never on my “Top Ten Places to Visit List” or even on “If I Live to be a 100 Travel Bucket List”. Albania was not even on the radar. Until one evening when Victor and I were both on our computers, tediously reviewing every country’s COVID restrictions for both US and Belarussian citizens, in a desperate attempt to find a country where Victor and his mom can meet and spend a few weeks together. The list of requirements was long – it had to be a country we haven’t visited before, somewhere without a 14-day mandatory quarantine or severe COVID restrictions, with an airport his mom can fly to fairly easily with no stopovers and no visa, and where we could spend at least a week on the beach (his mom’s preferred type of vacation). The final two contenders were Albania and Montenegro. While we were mulling it over, the decision was made for us, swiftly and with no warning, by Victor’s distant aunt. Victor’s mom called her cousin, Irina, who had in the past briefly lived in Albania, to consult with her on this vacation dilemma. Irina immediately convinced Victor’s mom that Albania was the only reasonable choice and that she would personally accompany her cousin to Albania to make sure everything goes smoothly.
If this was 2019, I probably would have declined to tag along on Victor’s family trip to somewhere I had no intention of ever visiting. But this was 2021, a full year and a half of canceled trips, months of quarantine, almost no restaurants, shows, theaters, sporting events, and at this point, I just wanted to get out of my condo. So off we went, Victor with his months of research and planning, fully prepared for what was waiting for us on the other end of the intercontinental flight, and me with no idea what was going on. So basically, same as always. And maybe it was due to this complete lack of preparation, or the jet lag, or having spent over a year basically locked in a one-bedroom condo, that I had a miniature meltdown on our second day in Tirana.
“Stop,” I said dramatically in the middle of the street. “Stop. This makes no sense!”
Victor, his mom, and his aunt all stopped walking and talking and quizzically stared at me.
I slowly breathed in and out.
“You keep telling me 100 leks is 1 dollar?”
Victor and Irina nodded.
“How can that be? That cup of coffee I just had at a fancy coffee shop was 80 cents? A scoop of gelato is 50 cents? This bakery… look!” I ran to the glass display with gorgeous petit fours, eclairs, macaroons, and various cake slices, “That small Nutella Chocolate cake is $1.80! These can’t be the actual prices. We are counting it wrong.”
I grabbed my phone and started typing in “Albania leks to USD.” In the meantime, Irina recounted her story of surprise at Albanian prices when she came to visit ten years ago, right after spending a few years in Norway.
“I couldn’t stop eating sweets!” she giggled, “Everything here is so cheap!”
Google was absolutely adamant that 100 leks were in fact $1. I stared at the display case of delicious pastries and their improbable prices.
“One of everything!” I declared to the baker, as Victor dragged me away from the store.
And this was my introduction to Albania. That evening I ordered what I thought must be a small individual-size pizza on a veranda of a pretty café in the city center, due to its price of $4. A large family-size pizza arrived and filled the entire table. Imagine if we were all hungry for pizza and ordered four of these monstrosities!
Next morning, Victor took a brisk walk to the nearest bakery to buy us traditional Albanian breakfast bureks, phyllo dough pies filled with cheese and spinach.
“Three!” said Victor.
“Ninety!” said the girl behind the counter.
“Threeeee…” said Victor slower, holding up three fingers.
“Ni-ne-ty…” the girl spelled out.
In the end, he pulled a bunch of bills out of his wallet, and she grabbed some coins from his hand and waved him off. One burek was thirty cents.
“One burek!” Victor was telling me at home, indicating the impressive size of one burek with his spread-out hands, “Thirty cents! THIRTY CENTS! ONE BUREK!”
I calmly nodded. I already had this exact breakdown the day before and was feeling much wiser and more experienced by this point. But what drove home for us just exactly how cheap Albania was, happened when Victor’s mom and aunt asked to be dropped off at the supermarket, so they could fill their suitcases with olives, canned fish, and other non-perishable food items to take back to Belarus.
“The quality is so much better here!” they marveled, “And cheaper!”
The idea that Albania was cheaper than Belarus, a country I long considered to be the cheapest in Europe, was astonishing. After all, Belarus is a landlocked country, mostly flat, no beaches or mountains in sight, relying on a few restored castles, ample forests, and beautiful women to drive sparse tourism. Albania, on the other hand, is nothing if not naturally beautiful. Gorgeous mountain ranges crossed the entire country, with soaring Alps in the North offering scenic hikes and breathtaking panoramas, and Albanian Riviera in the south with Llogara mountain pass showing off dizzying views of beaches below to rival those of Greece and Italy.
We have been to plenty of cheap countries before, in South America and Southeast Asia, and managed not to have public breakdowns over prices until we got to Albania. The difference is simple. In Thailand or Vietnam or Cambodia, you can get street food for $1 and it would be an entire meal, delicious and filling. But it would be local food, very different from the usual fare we eat daily at home. And honestly, there are only so many stir-fries or rice dishes or pad thai that one can eat in a week. But if you wanted a cup of drip coffee in an American-type café, or Western food such as pizza, salad, or sandwiches, you would end up paying almost as much as in the US. Albanian food is a mix of Italian, Greek, and Eastern European foods, all very close to what we usually consume, with all ingredients instantly recognizable and many times cheaper than at home. It’s one thing to pick up lemongrass in a Thai street market for pennies, never even having seen this plant in Chicago, and quite another seeing Parisian-quality baked goods on display for a quarter of their usual prices.
Stay tuned next week for the day of reckoning: we visit one of the best restaurants in Albania and pay dearly.