Saturday, August 3, 2013

A little side trip to Albania

Do you know your Balkan geography? No. Me neither. Well, I do now, but I didn't. But Jason likes maps and I trusted him when he said, "We're going to go from Dubrovnik, Croatia, through Montenegro, to Albania. It should take about 3 hours." Sure, that's driving through 3 different countries, but these are small countries, right?

The rental car company said we couldn't take the rental car into Albania. That should have been our first hint. But Jason called the hotel we were going to stay at and asked them for a recommendation for a taxi company that wouldn't cheat us. They said they would send a driver to meet us in Podgorica, Montenegro. Podgorica happens to be the capital of Montenegro. You'll thank me the next time you play Trivial Pursuit. They also told us he would be driving a silver Mercedes and gave us the license plate number. This was very helpful, considering the fact that we speak no Albanian and the driver spoke no English, German or French.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. We left Dubrovnik at 12:00 in order to give ourselves 5 hours to meet our taxi at 5:00. Remember, the drive is supposed to take 3 hours. Right? Well, right. Except, if you were paying attention to my last post you'll know our only problem was at immigration. Until 3 weeks prior, the Croatians and the Montenegrens didn't care about people crossing back and forth. They were as friendly as friendly could be for a couple of nations that have been involved in ethnic cleansing. Now, Croatia has to live up to EU standards, which meant it took us almost 2 hours to get across the border.

2 hours. 120 minutes. Oy. Which meant our 3 hour drive was now going to be 5 hours, which meant we would likely be late to meet our taxi driver, who we can't communicate with. Jason emailed the hotel to tell them we'd be late. (Yeah, iPhones!) and they responded that he'd already left and they had no way of reaching him. Jason said, "What kind of taxi driver doesn't have a cell phone?" "An Albanian one," I said.

Despite the lateness of the hour, I reached a point where I was going to have a breakdown if I didn't get fed, so we stopped at a grocery store in the middle of nowhere Montenegro and I ran inside to buy some food. This should have been easy. I'm an expert grocery shopper. I grocery shop every freaking day at home. I wanted some bread, some fruit and a treat. Except you needed to weigh your own fruit, which meant you had to type in a code. Easy-peasy. Except, they didn't have the signs for the fruit in front of the individual fruits. And remember my language skills? Yeah. so, there was all this fruit and I didn't know what the numbers were for any of them. I settled on nectarines because there was a sign for "Nektarinen," and boy that sounded close enough. Then I couldn't figure out how to use the scale (pride goeth before the fall, of course) and an employee came over and did it for me.

After buying lunch I came out to the car and distributed it. "Mom, there's cheese inside this bread!" said Sarah. "Ummm, I did that on purpose!" I said. Then Daniel declared he couldn't eat bread with cheese inside it. This is the boy that judges cheese based on how stinky it is, with the stinkier the better. I think he was just crabby!

But, we made it to the meeting point only 15 minutes late and the driver spotted us and said, "Albanian?" and we said, "Yes! Albania!" and we climbed into his car and, of course, there were only 2 seatbelts in the back seat. So, I buckled the kids in and sat in the middle, and told Jason to buckle in so that, in case of an accident, the kids would have at least one living parent.

The border between Albania and Montenegro was a peace of cake. Our taxi driver chatted with the border guards like they were old friends. Either that or he was saying, "Can you believe how much I'm getting paid to take these yahoos across the border? And who comes on vacation to Albania anyway?" Actually, in case you were wondering, the cost of the taxi ride was 40 Euros (about $53). Considering it was a full hour and he'd had to drive an hour to pick us up, that was an extreme bargain. At one point, the police tried to pull us over, but the driver stuck his head out the window and waved and then they waved us on. Friends in high places!

We arrived at our hotel and realized that even though people don't generally vacation in Albania, they should. This is where we stayed:

We checked in ("No money now! You pay tomorrow!") and went for a walk. And, well, Albania isn't Switzerland. 

But take a look at that greenery! It has such potential. One interesting thing was that houses all had huge walls around them. We thought it was somehow related to the long time Albania spent trying to be more communist than the Soviets, but how, we don't know.

Our stated purpose in coming to Albania was to attend church. There aren't a great many congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the region and this one was actually made the most sense. (There are several branches in northern Croatia, but we were in the south.) 

After locating the church, we headed back to the hotel for dinner. And boy, was that a good idea. If you are ever in Shkoder, Abania, or anywhere near there, you should go. I'm serious. This was the best meal I've had, maybe ever. I didn't get pictures of all of it. The waiter said, "Would you like to see a menu, or should I just bring you something traditional?" We went with the traditional and it was so good. Did I mention it was good? Hotel Tradita Geg & Tosk.

I'm cursing myself for not getting a picture of the meat course. The quality of the produce? Out of this world. You know those heirloom tomatoes that you pay a fortune for at the farmers' markets? These were better than those. I've never tasted food so good. Everything was cooked over an open fire. Amazing. At the end, the big boss (owner? owner's husband? Not sure) came over and asked how it was. We said how fantastic the food was and how much we enjoyed the dinner. He warned us to not over do it because breakfast would be fantastic as well. He was right:

We were able to figure out what just about everything was. They finished it off with a bowl of wild strawberries. Oh boy. We may have to return to Albania just to stay here again.

After breakfast we headed to church. We got there about 5 minutes early and discovered two missionaries (one from Utah and one from Idaho) and one member. One missionary was serving as the branch president with his companion as his counselor. One Elder was attempting to plunk out a hymn using the easy hymn book. I asked if he would like me to play to piano instead and he gratefully accepted, so now I can say I've performed in Albania. (Wouldn't Nellie DeVroom be proud?) 

By the time sacrament  meeting started, there were 2 missionaries, 4 members and us. Never before has our family doubled the population of a sacrament meeting. After sacrament meeting, Jason went to Sunday school and I took the kids into the one other room and taught them a primary lesson. Then church was over. Because it's so small, they don't do priesthood and Relief Society, so it was only an hour and 40 minutes. We may move to Albania. 

After dinner we walked around Shkoder and saw the local mosque and some statues and observed a wedding tradition. The bride and groom ride around in a big, expensive car. The bigger and more expensive the better. Convertibles are the best. In front of them is a car with a guy hanging out the window, videotaping everything. And when I say video taping, I mean that. The cameras looked like they were straight out of 1995. And everyone follows the cars and they all honk. 

We asked a young hotel employee about it and she confirmed and talked about the car she wants when she gets married.

And speaking of cars, Mercedes is the vehicle of choice in Skhoder Albania. They were EVERYWHERE. Mostly old ones. Also, there were lots of car washes. They love their cars. Anyway, we walked around and we bought ice cream cones. That's what we do on vacation--we eat ice cream cones.

Then we needed to get back to Podgorica and we needed another taxi ride. The hotel arranged a taxi for us, which would include a trip to the local castle. It was so hot and since we had a taxi driver waiting for us, we didn't spend a long time at the castle, but if we'd been there on our own we would  have, because it was a very cool castle.

And it turns out that another Skhoder wedding tradition is to come and take pictures at this castle. Which just goes to show that painful, long photo shoots cross cultural lines. We saw numerous happy couples, but this one happens to be the same one in the video above. Talk about a coincidence:

Jason said, to the groom, "I like your car!" and he responded, "Thanks, Buddy," which tells me that they must teach English in the schools.

Also, there were these snails:

Or maybe they are not snails, but they were kind of creepy.

On our trip back to Podgorica we found a language we could communicate to the taxi driver in. (A different driver). Italian! But wait, we don't speak Italian! No problem. It's close enough to Frenh and Spanish that we were able to have a semi conversation with him. And by we, again, I mean Jason, who has no fear whatsoever. I was busy being in a panic because he kept driving in the left hand lane, which would have been fine had there not been oncoming traffic.

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