Random acts of kindness in Albania
By Bob Berwyn
“Some days are leaky,” U2 sang in one of their songs on Zooropa, and today is one of them. Heavy overnight thunderstorms have knocked out the power in parts of Gjirokastër, a historic World Heritage town in the mountains of southern Albania.
Leigh and I pack at 4 a.m. by the light of a single head lamp before heading down the slick cobblestone alley to catch the bus to Vlore, the Adriatic port where we’ll board the ferry for the first leg of the long trip back to Frisco, Colorado.
Victor, the tall, craggy night watchman, rubs his eyes and lights a few candles in the entryway of the medieval mansion where we spent the night. Eerie shadows flicker across the thick walls as he hands us a breakfast packet: Hard-boiled eggs, thick slabs of brown bread and a half-pound chunk of Albanian feta cheese. Then he pulls a couple of umbrellas out of the closet and insists on walking us to the station, where he waits until our bus pulls up.
Some Days, by U2. More, after the break, and real all our travel stories here.
I wipe away a bit of the fog on the window so we can wave goodbye, then settle into my seat and look around as the bus starts to wind down the steep hillside. The roof hatch isn’t sealed quite tight, so water seeps in and runs down the handrail, dripping on to the seats in front of us. The conductor hands out plastic barf bags, but so far nobody has used one — as far as we can tell.
A young black-haired Albanian girl falls asleep on the seat behind us. Her cell phone is blaring Mid-Eastern disco tunes, sort of a techno-belly dancing mix, but the playlist strangely ends with Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again.
With a long trip ahead, I reflect on the random acts of kindness that have marked our stay in Albania, a country with a lingering — and undeserved — reputation for lawlessness and danger. Despite the sometimes-dire advance warnings, we found nothing but warmth and open-armed greetings from people eager to embrace the world outside their recently opened borders.
Just the previous morning in the coastal resort town of Saranda, I took cover from a cloudburst in a tiny cafe. I ordered an espresso but realized I had no small change. I showed the bartender my smallest bill, trying to tell her that I’d run back to the hotel a few blocks away to retrieve some coins.
“No problem,” she said, shaking her head with a smile and pouring the inky froth into a tiny cup at no charge.
Similarly, when Leigh wanted to mail some mementos back home to Colorado, the front desk clerk at the Hotel Royal in Saranda walked her to the post office. It was after-hours, so the front door was closed. But the friendly local walked her around back and found a way in, where the postal clerk made sure the small packet had the correct postage on it.
We also had fun at the bus stop in Gjirokastre on the day we arrived in the hilltop town. As we tried to figure out bus connections, I jotted an Albanian phrase into my travel notebook: “What time do the buses depart to Fier?”
I was hoping that a written version of the question might elicit a more accurate answer than trying to stumble verbally through tricky Albanian phonetics.
I showed the page to a bystander. He scrutinized my scribbling for a moment, then took my pen, crossed out the last vowel of the word and handed the notebook back with a satisfied smile before conferring with a couple of other men to answer my question.
“Must be a teacher,” I thought, appreciating the short grammar lesson.
All is quiet on the bus to Vlore. I turn on my iPod and listen to U2:
“Some days are dry, some days are leaky
Some days come clean, other days are sneaky
Some days take less, but most days take more
Some slip through your fingers and onto the floor …
… Some days are sulky, some days have a grin
And some days have bouncers and won’t let you in
Some days you hear a voice
Taking you to another place
Some days are better than others …”