It was Friday when Josh and I rang the door to Tirana Backpackers. No one was answering. I was exhausted at this point—tired from traveling, tired from not eating—it had been almost twelve hours since breakfast. I didn’t have the energy to find my way around an unknown city’s streets in a strange new country. We kept ringing.
Finally, a guest opened the door and led us into a funky courtyard. After a long days travel, a wave of anxiety fell off my shoulders as the door shut behind us. We had made it. Malvina, the Albanian hostel worker greeted us, made sure we sat down at the table. There were three others there: Martin, Ingvild, and Wouter. Malvina came back with a ledger. “I’m not sure if there’s enough room for you,” she said.
Martin spoke up. “Ingvild and I can share a bed if that helps.”
“No, no, no. There are exactly two beds left. I was wrong.” Another two spaces for us. Our luck kept going.
We met the hostelers. Wouter had hitchhiked from his home in the Netherlands to Albania. He was headed to visit a friend in Japan, going over land (and occasionally water) to make it there. His plan was to hitchhike until the sweltering summer temperatures in the Middle East became too dangerous.
Martin and Ingvild, Scandinavians, had wanted to visit to beach for cheap. “It’s so much less expensive than Italy or Croatia but just as beautiful,” Ingvild said. But that couldn’t’ve been the only reason. You had to be adventurous to choose Albania. Once Ingvild mentioned Croatia, I thought back to the origins of my trip. The initial idea had just been to spend a few days in Croatia. It morphed into this Balkan adventure, the Balkan Boogie. The only time I ended up spending on Croatian ground was crossing the border on the bus ride to Sarajevo and pissing in a public toilet shortly afterwards.
After sharing our stories on how we ended up in Tirana, we all left to go to a good kebab shop Martin and Ingvild had tried earlier. “The meat, the cheese, the vegetables—everything is just so fresh here!” she said. With a group, Tirana felt safer, less confusing. Still, the streets were full, the traffic wild. Crossing at crosswalks proved nerve-wracking, only possible for that second when all traffic lights are red.
It was about a fifteen minute walk before we sat down outside the restaurant, taking in the city noises, watching the people and cars. We ordered kebabs, and I’m sure I had a beer. We talked more, though we were just scratching the surface. Eventually, I went inside to find the bathroom. I reached two doors. Do I go in burra or gra? Burra sounded more manly to me, but I went into gra instead. Never doubt your instincts.
Once we got back to the hostel, it was dark. Soon, it was becoming a great night, and I was drinking the cheap hostel beers. Then a glass of raki, homemade at the hostel. Drink slowly, Malvina warned. I listened and didn’t even finish it. Martin was in the shed talking to an Albanian man, staying at the place with his American wife and kids. I found something about Martin interesting, so I went up to check out the conversation.
The Albanian man told stories of the country just a few decades back. Citizens couldn’t drive until the early nineties—it was illegal. He recounted the story of hearing a rumor there was a car in the country. They all went to the main square to see it. Sure enough, there was a car, and the license plate said “001.” I hoped he was telling the truth. It was a good story, anyway.
Though I was content in the courtyard, Malvina was taking us to her friend’s concert, so I reluctantly left, ready for the next step.
I’m glad I did. A rush of endorphins hit me when we walked into Tirana. The streets were quieter, but I took in the different architecture, the lights, the sounds, the wide streets. There was a truly great atmosphere in Tirana, and it felt truly undiscovered. I turned to the young Brit next to me. “This city is amazing. I can’t believe no one knows about this.”
“I know!” he responded, just as enthused. How did I end up here? How was I so lucky?
We made it to the bar, drank, danced, and talked. The tables were segregated by gender. Albania is a conservative country. I looked at a table in front of the stage with six college-aged girls, standing, smoking, talking, watching. I had been warned by a Serb to stay away from Albanian girls in Kotor. “If you do anything with them, ten brothers will come after you, ready to kill you.” I hadn’t believed him. It seemed too extreme. I glanced back at the table. Something should be done. I walked up to a girl in a button down shirt, grabbed her arm and took her to the dance floor.
That dance went fine. “Thank you,” she said as she left. It was thirty minutes later when Martin said, “It’s time we dance with the locals,” and things went sour. The raki hit, hours after drinking it. I was seeing double. But I was confident, cocky even. I was young.
I chose another girl, a smaller one, and started spinning her like a top. That wasn’t enough. I had never gone for the dip, but it seemed time to try my new moves. So I went for it. I noticed it too late—the table. It wasn’t supposed to be there. Her head went down, and I slammed her right into a beer bottle, the ashtray. She groaned.
“I’m so sorry,” I said horrified.
“It’s ok,” she said dazedly but sweetly, probably concussed.
We stayed for the rest of the show, and we hopped onstage during the Nirvana cover, going a little nuts. Unpopular with the men, I imagine. Once it ended, we went back to the hostel and crashed. I tried to be quiet climbing top the bunk since the family was staying in our room. It was past time for things to settle down.