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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Weird Albania: 5 oddities to notice while passing through

This article originally appeared as a guest post on the travel blog

by Cynthia Ord

A “deeply weird place” is how New York TImes travel columnist Seth Kugel aptly described Albania in 2006.  While still coming of age as destination itself, it attracts more adventurous travelers who treat it as an odd little piece of the larger western Balkans puzzle.  Some quirks of note in Albania:

1) Bunker madness
            If good data existed about military bunkers worldwide, Albania would probably top the list for bunker density.  By some high estimates, the 750,000 bunkers built during communism translate to 28 bunkers per square km and one bunker for every 4-5 citizens.  The numbers square away with the landscape -- these “concrete mushrooms” are ubiquitous.

Bunker albania

2) Car washes and Mercedes Benz
            The chaotic traffic in capital city Tirana is Benz-heavy.  Old ones, new ones, even the taxis are Mercedes Benz.  Why?  By one account, the Benz went out of style in the rest of Europe in the mid-90s when more fuel-efficient vehicles were introduced, so Albanians bought them at clearance sale prices.  Others chalk it up to theft and corruption.
            To keep the Benz fleet shiny where roads are gritty, an industry of car washes has sprung up.  These “lavazh” stations are about every 100 meters. The fully automated car wash is still a thing of the future. Here, it’s usually a guy with a high pressure hose in a covered parking spot.

3) Nodding “no” and shaking “yes”
            This source of endless confusion can be enchanting.  Shaking one’s head from side to side does not mean “no” here.  It means “right, I agree, I’m listening” while someone else is talking.  Conversely, nodding one’s head up and down does not mean “yes” here.  It means “sorry, I’m afraid not” and seems to accompany bad news.
            Talk with the older generations to get these reversed gestures.  Younger and more urban Albanians have caught on to more international non-verbals.

4) Stuffed animals at construction sites.
            Where there are unfinished buildings, there are also large teddy bears hanging eerily for all to see.  This is pure superstition -- it wards off the evil eye.  Other superstition on construction sites: mixing ram’s blood into the foundations and hanging horseshoes over the front door.
            Occasionally you can spot dolls hanging in gardens and crop fields.  This is for the more practical purpose of scaring off birds, but can have the added effect of spooking tourists.

5) Boxy buildings painted in technicolor.
            Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, is also an artist.  His efforts to beautify the capital have been recognised internationally.  His most famous endeavor is the vibrant painting of Tirana’s previously uniform buildings with “Edi Rama colors” such as violet, green, and orange.


Some buildings are even painted in fantastic patterns like colorful plaid and argyle.
Albania is growing steadily as a destination so check it out soon.  This off-beat place will only be off-the-beaten-path for so much longer.


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