Ju Befte Mire: Albanian Food 101

Most Albanians I know are experts at cooking large meals and love entertaining guests in the privacy of their own home. Sometimes people will go out to eat for celebrations, but it is common for families to invite each other into their homes as well. Often times things are served “family style” at restaurants, so people will order a bit of everything and people can pick and choose. It is common to get wine, a salad to start, some side dishes, and a main entrée. This can also hold true for when Albanians are cooking at their homes, although they might cook several different foods and then arrange each plate in a fancy manner for each individual guest. Usually salad and bread are served family style at the home. Don’t forget to wish others ju befte mire (bon apetite) during your meals shared together.

I have always felt that a big part of experiencing and integrating into a culture comes from eating their food. Before Peace Corps I was a vegetarian for six years and I enjoyed being a vegetarian. I liked cooking with tofu and tempeh and eating a variety of fruits and veggies. I decided that in order to fully experience Albania that I would eat anything and everything that has been offered to me here. It has led to quite a few interested experiences for my mouth (and my stomach). Here are some dishes I’ve had in Albania.

Pilaf

Pilaf, also known as rice, is a popular dish in Albania. Many people, especially men, eat pilaf in the morning or afternoon at a Mengjezore. Albanians love to cook pilaf with heaps of butter and usually it is served with a thin meat gravy on top. People will often order pilaf with qofte. Qofte are a kind of sausage, but different than breakfast sausage you’d eat back in the states. Often time qofte is grilled and it definitely pairs well with rice for a mid-day snack.

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Pulë me Garniturë 

Since I wanted to experience all Albania had to offer, I put my vegetarian ways aside and tried all the meat. In Kavaje there is a small hole in the wall Mengjezore literally a minute walk away from my work and they serve THE BEST fried chicken ever. I usually order it with garniture (garnish), so it will come with a bit of salad and sauce kosi (yogurt sauce). 

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Fasule

Fasule is hands down my favorite Albanian dish because it is super simple and it is vegetarian. Fasule literally means beans in Shqip, so you can only imagine what fasule is… You guessed right! It is made with beans. Fasule is a bean soup that often has a tomato and onion base. Sometimes when I have received homemade fasule from my student’s parents, they all know that I am obsessed with fasule, it has other vegetables such as carrots. Over the winter it was pretty cold, so I perfected my fasule recipe… still isn’t quite as good as the Albanian’s recipes though.

Fruta dhe perime

Fruits and vegetables are fresh and plentiful in Albania. I will definitely miss stepping outside of my house and literally not even walking a minute to buy produce that would put Whole Foods to shame. My region, central Albania, is full of fresh produce because we have land perfect for farming and many people in the surrounding villages and areas farm. My host family in the village of Pajove would grow most of their own produce in their own backyard. How’s that for sustainability!

Kokë Dele

Sheep head is a popular dish for special occasions. Luckily I had some pretty amazing language teachers during our 10-week pre-service training when I initially moved to Albania back in March 2013. Our language teachers cooked me and the other Peace Corps volunteers in my village sheep head for our end of training celebration. It is custom to eat the entire head – brains, eyes, tongue, EVERYTHING. We all had a pretty interesting time tasting all the different parts of the head. My favorite was definitely the tongue.

Gjellë

Since winters can be just down right cold it is no surprise that soup is a popular and relatively cheap dish to make here. Albanians will often make some sort of gjellë with meat for lunch. All soup must be eaten with bread. It is a must. Albanians each bread with everything, which brings me to…

Bukë 

Albania would be the worst place for someone who is trying to live a gluten free lifestyle because bread is everywhere. And bread is delicious. And bread is ridiculously cheap. You can buy an amazing, fresh loaf of bread straight from the oven for less than 50 cents. What a bargain! I have found an amazing bread in Kavaje that is darker and made with sunflower seeds and other magical ingredients.

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Spec te mbushura

This is another one of my favorite Albanian dishes, and it is usually vegetarian for all you veggie lovers out there. Stuffed peppers are a classic Albanian side dish. Usually the peppers are baked with tons of olive oil and stuffed with rice and other vegetables. Sometimes they are also stuffed with meat. At many Albanian restaurants they will only serve stuffed peppers if you pre-order them several hours ahead of time because they take a while to prepare. 

Byrek 

Mmmmmmmm, I love byrek. And so do most other Americans that I know. I’ve mentioned this amazing gift of food before in my blog. Byrek is made all over the country and it is a flaky pastry made with phylo dough. It is usually made with different kinds of fillings such as spinach (especially during the winter months when it is fresh), tomatoes and onions, meat, or gjize (a crumbly Albanian cheese). Byrek is not only found in Albania, but can also be found in different forms throughout the Balkans.

Baklava

Most people when they think Baklava may think of Turkey, which is a great with amazing Baklava, but Albanians also make a great deal of baklava. Baklava is usually made around New Years Eve and other big holidays. Most families will make baklava in their homes, but you can also find it at grocery stores and pastry shops. I love eating Albanian baklava, but be careful because it might give you a sugar rush. Most baklava I’ve had is covered with homemade sugar-water syrup.

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Patate

It isn’t right for me to have an Albanian food blog without mentioning potatoes because Albanians eat a lot of potatoes. Potatoes can be found year-round at the markets and they are pretty cheap to buy. Usually potatoes are cooked as fries here and they are often doused with a bunch of olive oil. I had to have a conversation with my host family once about how much olive oil they use when cooking potatoes and cooking pretty much everything actually. We talked about how yes, olive oil is good for you, but only in moderation. If you use a cup of olive oil to cook your potatoes it kind of defeats the purpose.

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Tavë kosi

Tave kosi is a dish that is served on special occasions when Albanians have important people over to their house for dinner. Luckily, I have some amazing students who invite me over to their place for dinner occasionally and her mom has made me this dish. Tave kosi is baked lamp in a special yogurt sauce. To be honest it is not my favorite Albanian dish, but it is widely popular and it is considered an honor to be served.

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Pica

For some reason I thought pizza would be one of those food items that I would not be able to find in Albania, but alas pizza is abundant in the land of eagles. There is fast food pizza all over the place and some of them even deliver! I have never gotten a pizza delivered because it would literally only take me ten minutes to just walk to the pizza shop myself and order something. Plus we have an amazing pizza joint in Kavaje that I like to go to for the friendly atmosphere and banging vegetarian pizza. 

Fruta Deti 

Fruta deti translates directly to “sea fruits,” but it is the term used for ordering seafood. If you are near the sea having some fresh seafood is a must! You can find great calamari, cod, and mussels along the coast. The mussels are especially delectable in Saranda because they farm mussels in that region. When out for a nice seafood dinner in Albania I recommend going all out and ordering an arugula salad, white wine, mussels, calamari, a fish, and even seafood pasta. Since the prices are so cheap here you could have a nice meal for four ordering all that food for under sixty dollars. 

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Turshi

Turshi is basically pickled cabbage and is super popular amongst Albanians. You will often see this dish during the winter months when cabbage is cheap and in season. You can also find other pickled vegetables that would fall under the category of turshi. This dish is often accompanied with bread, of course, and/or meat.

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Sallate Greke

Greek salad is a very popular starter dish here because of the access to cheap and delicious produce. This especially holds true for the summer months when you can by a kilo of tomatoes or a kilo of cucumbers for less than fifty cents. Greek salad is usually full of cut up vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers. Along with that there are usually fresh olives and cut up feta cheese. Sometimes you will even get a bit of green lettuce as well, but not always. Salad dressing isn’t really a thing here, so people usually top these salads with a bit of olive oil, vinegar, and salt. Wahlah, the perfect salad.

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Sufflaqe

Most Albanians I talk to think of fast food when they think of America, but Albanians love fast food too (especially the younger generation). Many students grab fast food during their breaks between school or after school for lunch. Sufflaqe is like a gyro. It is served on pita bread with grilled lamb from a rotating skewer, like they serve at the chain gyro restaurant Renzios. Topping the sandwich is usually tomato, onion, lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard, and yogurt sauce.

Akullore

Ice cream is big in Albania. I mean really big. I mean big enough that people literally eat ice cream for breakfast. It is always time for ice cream in Albania during the summer months. There are numerous ice cream parlors and sweet shops all across every city. Even some nicer coffee shops have ice cream for sale because people like ice cream that much. If you’re looking for some good gelato (maybe even better than some Italian gelato) head down to the Vogla beach boardwalk area in Durres and have some scoops at the shop across from the Wild West Restaurant. I can guarantee it will satisfy your taste buds. Sit-down pastry shops/coffee bars are trending in Albania and recently a new bar in Kavaje opened up at Myrizi. It has a bunch of delicious desserts and an atmosphere for the entire family to enjoy.

JU BEFTE MIRE!!!

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Southern Tour of Albania with Dad and Nancy

Have a week to spend in Albania? I suggest you follow this amazing itinerary that I created for my Dad’s first trip outside of North America. My Dad and his partner Nancy recently came to visit me to celebrate the end of my Peace Corps service and to get a taste of the beautiful country I have been inhabiting for the past two years. I wish we could have spent more time together traveling the country (because there are SO MANY WONDERFUL PLACES to visit), but sadly I am extremely busy trying to finish everything up before I officially end my time as a Peace Corps volunteer on May 29th. Luckily, they were both able to take a week off work and we were able to see a good portion of southern Albania. Check out our trip below!

Day One: Arrival in Tirana, Night in Kavaje 

My parents arrived at the Tirana International Airport in the afternoon after a long trip from Colorado and they were pretty tired. We rented a car because public transportation can be unreliable and often tacks on several hours of travel time. We also wanted the freedom to travel in the evening and see things on our own time. I’d definitely recommend renting a car if you can afford it. It is only about thirty euro per day to rent a car here, so it’s pretty cheap.

Our first day we spent exploring the city of Kavaje. This is the city I have been living in for the past two years, so it was a must that my family experience a night in my town and a night living in my apartment. I think they both got a kick out of the layout of my apartment and it was definitely an experience for them using a Turkish toilet for the first time. We went to my favorite seafood place in town with my sitemate before they fell asleep from exhaustion. Kavaje is not a tourist city in Albania, but it could become one in the future because the local government is redoing the entire city center and making everything a lot more bukur (beautiful).

If you’re traveling to Albania I would recommend spending your first (or last) couple of nights in the capital city of Tirana rather than in Kavaje. There is a lot to do there and you can find many delicious restaurants and bars in the block area.

Drove out to Generals Beach, which was deserted at the time. It's a great place to go in the summer near Kavaje

We drove out to Generals Beach, which was deserted at the time. It’s a great place to go in the summer near Kavaje, but you can only reach it by car (unless you’re my athletic sitemate Chuck and bike the entire thing)

Checking out the mural our Outdoor Ambassadors group did in the high school

Checking out the mural our Outdoor Ambassadors group did in the high school

Day Two: Kavaje to Berat 

The second day we traveled down to meet my boyfriend Quinn and visit the UNESCO heritage site of Berat. Berat is a must-see city for tourists because it is full of history, hiking, and beautiful scenery. While in Berat we went on the herbatorium hike up the mountain on the other side of Osum river. To get to the top of the mountain it took about an hour. I was surprised because the trail was actually marked well in the beginning (although towards the end it wasn’t quite as easy to follow). After the hike my parents went up to the castle and then we all had dinner at Mangalemi. My parents also stayed at the Mangalemi hotel and it was very impressive. Mangalemi was the most expensive hotel during the trip, but it also had some of the nicest amenities and all of the rooms have been renovated.

We were happy about the trail being marked

We were happy about the trail being marked

On the hike in Berat

On the hike in Berat

The view from the top

The view from the top

My dad is looking pretty majestic

My dad is looking pretty majestic

Day Three: Berat to Himare, Excursion to Apollonia

We went from Berat to Fier and took a small side-trip to the ancient site of Apollonia. Apollonia was a beautiful place to stop and see some ancient architecture and statues. I am not sure what the normal price is to enter Apollonia because no one actually charged us to enter the sites or the museum. You never know whether you’ll luck out while visiting Albanian castles and historical sites because sometimes you have to pay and sometimes you don’t.

After Apollonia we stopped for pizza in Fier. Peace Corps volunteers love to have pizza in Fier because they have barbeque chicken pizza, which is extremely rare here. It’s always nice to have a taste of home right in our own backyard. Once we filled up on pizza, we continued our way down south to the small beach town of Himare. Himare is on the southern coast in between Vlore and Saranda. It takes a while to travel down to Himare, but the view along the way is beautiful. Most of the drive is along the coast, with a short portion in between the southern mountains. In Himare we stayed at an Airbnb apartment that another volunteer recommended to me. It was absolutely wonderful and had a beautiful panoramic view of the coast and town with breakfast included. We went to dinner at a seafood restaurant in town and had coffee the next morning in the center near the beach. I went for a brief swim, but the water was still pretty cold. I hear it begins to warm up a bit more in late-June and remains that way throughout the summer. Beware though because there are a lot of tourists in July and especially August.

Random boat restaurant in the middle of no where on the road from Berat to Fier

Random boat restaurant in the middle of no where on the road from Berat to Fier

Ancient columns at Apollonia

Ancient columns at Apollonia

Appolonia

Apollonia

Statues at Appolonia

Statues at Apollonia

Inside the church

Inside the church

The outside of the church

The outside of the church

The view from the road between Vlore and Himare

The view from the road between Vlore and Himare

Panoramic of Himare from our bed and breakfast

Panoramic of Himare from our bed and breakfast

Day Four: Himare to Ksamil

On our fourth day we continued driving down the coast to Ksamil which is one of the most southern cities in Albania. On our way down we came across a castle that was built on a small island in the sea. We thought it looked neat and it was only accessible by private vehicle (or by walking from the highway), so we decided to check it out. Before we headed up to the castle I noticed an abandoned building that was decorated with colorful street art. The paintings masked a portion of the cracking exterior of the concrete block structure, so of course that was very intriguing. Me being me, I decided to check out what was inside and was in shock at what I found. Not only was there more street art, but there was also gigantic piles of çaj mali (Albanian mountain tea) everywhere. I was so surprised to find enough tea to supply an entire village for the whole winter. It was so unexpected and I definitely think it was one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in Albania. Then we went to the castle, which was also pretty neat, especially for those historian buffs.

As we continued our way down the winding road I was curious if we’d ever make it to Saranda. Even though Albania is a small country, about the size of Maryland, it sure does take a long time to travel across. We also took the scenic coastal road, which added on several hours of winding roads. After we finally made it to Saranda we had lunch near the port with the volunteer who lives there and she gave us some suggestions on things to do in the area. We made it down to Ksmail in the mid-afternoon and went for a swim and a xhiro around town. The water was crystal clear and pretty warm once you got used to it.

Outside of the building full of traditional Albanian mountain tea and street art

Outside of the building full of traditional Albanian mountain tea and street art

Inside of the castle off the side of the road between Himare and Saranda

Inside of the castle off the side of the road between Himare and Saranda

I still cannot believe I found this in Albania

I still cannot believe I found this in Albania

Hanging out on our hotel balcony

Hanging out on our hotel balcony

Hotel castle is a great deal and beachfront in Ksamil. As you can see Albanians really like their castles

Hotel castle is a great deal and beachfront in Ksamil. As you can see Albanians really like their castles

Day Five: Excursion to Butrint

We stayed an extra night at Hotel Castle in Ksamil so that we could go on a mini day-trip to the best-preserved UNESCO heritage site in Albania. It is another must-see if you are in southern Albania. We spent hours walking around the various sites in Butrint and one could honestly spend an entire day exploring and reading about all the history from that region. My dad even met a new friend, a random sleeping dog, off one of the main roads while we were hiking around Butrint. In the afternoon we went for another swim and then had the best seafood dinners I’ve had in Saranda at Demi Restaurant. One plus to having tons of delicious fresh seafood is pairing it with the tasty, yet cheap, white wine.

The ancient ruins of Butrint

The ancient ruins of Butrint

Amphitheater at Butrint

Amphitheater at Butrint

The beautiful couple

The beautiful couple

Stunning views

Stunning views

Dad met a little friend while we were walking off the main path in Butrint

Dad met a little friend while we were walking off the main path in Butrint

We ate a lot of delicious food on our trip

We ate a lot of delicious food on our trip

Living the life in Saranda

Living the life in Saranda

Day Six: Ksamil, the Blue Eye, and Gjirokaster

The next day we continued our journey back up north to Gjirokaster. Along the way we stopped at the southern blue eye, which was on my Albanian bucket list. Thanks dad! At the blue eye we were able to relax right next to the water and have an afternoon coffee to keep us going for the rest of our drive north.

In Gjirokaster we stayed at an adorable, traditional bed and breakfast. Kotoni BnB was a great deal because it was inexpensive and the hosts were great! Both of them spoke fluent English, gave us tips on things to do in Gjirokaster, and provided a pretty nice breakfast complete with Turkish coffee and mountain tea. Both rooms we had gave us a lovely view of the castle and old town Gjirokaster. Definitely a place that I would recommend staying at!

We toured some traditional houses in the city and also went up to the castle. The city was preparing for the traditional Albanian folk dance festival, so tourist season was just about to begin. If only we had planned their vacation a week later we could have experienced some traditional valle dances from different regions all over the country. Of course we tried lots of traditional Albanian food all throughout our trip and we couldn’t leave Gjirokaster without trying qifqi, rice balls made with egg and seasoning, a dish known in the Gjirokaster region.

Albania <3 USA

Albania

Finally got to experience the blue eye down south

Finally got to experience the blue eye down south

Pretty gorgeous

Pretty gorgeous

Having a nice coffee at the blue eye

Having a nice coffee at the blue eye

Inside my room in Gjirokaster

Inside my room in Gjirokaster

Had a view of old town and the castle from my room

Had a view of old town and the castle from my room

Our tour guide explains how women would sit in the above area because they did not socialize with the men

Our tour guide explains how women would sit in the above area because they did not socialize with the men

The newlyweds room

The newlyweds room

Inside the Gjirokaster castle

Inside the Gjirokaster castle

Hello from one of the best castles in Albania (in my opinion)

Hello from one of the best castles in Albania (in my opinion)

Old town Gjirokaster square at night

Old town Gjirokaster square at night

We had some cute neighbors at our last BnB in Gjirokaster

We had some cute neighbors at our last BnB in Gjirokaster

Day Seven: Back to Tirana

My parents trip came to an end and we traveled back up to Tirana so that they would be ready for their early morning flight at 5am the next day. If you have some time in the Tirana area before you go other places I would recommend checking out are Kruje and Mt Dajlti. There is a cable car that runs up Mt Dajti and there is a traditional market and castle in Kruje (plus there is also a statue of US President George W. Bush).

If you’re staying longer than a week in Albania, I would recommend spending an extra day down south and going to the Benji hot springs near Permet. Northern Albania is also especially beautiful because it is full of mountains and friendly people. Shkoder is a beautiful city with a great evening xhiro and a beautiful lake (plus another castle). And if you like hiking you should check out the hike from Valbona to Thethi in the summer months!

I am so happy that I was able to share a bit of wonderful Albania with my dad, Nancy, and my mom back in March. Now I feel like my family a better understanding of where I have been living these past two years. Goal three of Peace Corps is to share Albanian culture with people back in the states and there was no better way for me to show them with Shqiperia has to offer than by giving them a complete tour. This trip was also very special for me because I am used to living the lifestyle of a volunteer and it was interesting for me to experience Albania as a “tourist.” The country is really making great strides in the tourism industry and I know that in five to ten years Albania will be one of the top spots to visit in the Balkans because of the stunning nature and hospitable locals. Just FYI, Albania was voted #4 of the top 52 places to visit by the New York Times in 2014. So this is me telling you that you should visit Albania while it’s still cheap and undiscovered!

Writers of the Future Conference

Write On! is a regional Peace Corps creative writing contest to develop writing skills, creativity, and give students the ability to just sit down and write something original. In Albania, many students participate in after-school creative writing clubs to warm-up for the actual contest. Last year a student from Kavaje attended the national conference after I opened up the contest to students at the high school. Write On is extremely important here in Albania because creativity can often be left behind in the classroom and many students aren’t encouraged to be original and think outside of the box. It is common for people to plagiarize and copy other students, but having creative writing clubs and contests really allows students to come up with something on their own without the pressure inside of the classroom.

Recently I helped run some sessions at the one-day Writers of the Future conference in Tirana. The Writers of the Future conference was a one-day conference for the students only from Tirana. There is a separate conference for them because many of the schools in the capital city participated in the contest due to the perseverance of an amazing Peace Corps volunteer that lived there. There was also another separate Write On conference held the same weekend for students from around the country. Over a thousand essays were submitted from Tirana alone. Over two thousand were submitted from Albania, which is far more than all the other Write On countries combined.

Four other Peace Corps volunteers, an Albanian counterpart, and I led sessions at the Writers of the Future contest. There were sessions such as comic book writing, theater, dance, lethargic writing, and much more. I facilitated a session about blogging and another game session to liven up the students in the afternoon. The games session was a lot of fun because I made it competitive with a lot of “minute-to-win-it” challenges. The students seemed to enjoy it.

Theater lesson by PCV Mark

Theater lesson by PCV Mark

Reading a blog post during my blogging lesson

Reading a blog post during my blogging lesson

The human knot: one of my favorite teamwork games

The human knot: one of my favorite teamwork games

Trying to make the tallest structure out of ballons in five minutes

Trying to make the tallest structure out of ballons in five minutes

Wrapping TP around the partner with the fastest time without breaking the paper

Wrapping TP around the partner with the fastest time without breaking the paper

Making a cup pyramid only using two pieces of string and a rubber band

Making a cup pyramid only using two pieces of string and a rubber band

Pushing a cup across the table only using a straw without touching the cup

Pushing a cup across the table only using a straw without touching the cup

Some of the literature the participants received

Some of the literature the participants received

Laurel giving a lesson about lethargic writing

Laurel giving a lesson about lethargic writing

Giving my blog presentation to the older group of students

Giving my blog presentation to the older group of students

Getting those creative juices flowing

Getting those creative juices flowing

Marty, the wonderful PCV who coordinated the entire conference, giving some last remarks

Marty, the wonderful PCV who coordinated the entire conference, giving some last remarks

The entire crew!

The entire crew!

AMUN: Albanian Model United Nations

Since September 2014, my site-mate Chuck and I have been working together with a group of nine high school students for Model United Nations. I have mentioned our work before in a previous blog post. For those of you who are not familiar with Model UN, it is “an educational simulation in which students learn about diplomacy, international relations, and the United Nations. MUN involves and teaches research, public speaking, debating, and writing skills in additional to critical thinking, teamwork, and leadership abilities.” I created this video for the opening ceremony for the conference.

The team from Kavaje represented the country of India in three different committees during the conference. The ECOSOC committee debated coordinated action against human trafficking: the costs of human trafficking to development, protecting refugees and marginalized groups, the rule of law in the fight against transnational organized crime and human trafficking; the Security Council debated conflict prevention and mitigation: measures to combat terrorism and trading in illicit markets, preventing regional escalation of internal conflicts in MENA countries, preventing and reducing conflicts over natural resources; and the General Assembly debated achieving sustainable development: prioritization and implementation of the sustainable development goals, enhancing global partnerships through tri-sector development, preconditions of sustainable development.

Each team of students was required to do a community project in their towns. Our team donated over 500 books to the Kavaje Young Adults Center (KYAC). We were able to work together with a Peace Corps volunteer in Tirana to obtain the books from a generous organization called Books Abroad Scotland. Each of the students raised money to help pay for the shipping of the books and now all of them are available to check out from our youth center. We created this video to explain the project.

Throughout the duration of the program, my team met twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays for one hour. The students had to research their topics ahead of time and come prepared to each meeting. They learned about United Nations rules and procedures, current events, and how to represent India in the most accurate way. They also visited the UN House and heard members from different sectors of the United Nations speak about their work. They also had the opportunity to visit and tour the US Embassy. It was really quite an interesting (and educational) program for the students involved.

The Model UN conference was definitely a highlight of my Peace Corps service. It was great to watch my students’ debate with other bright young adults from across the country. I could really tell that all their hard work paid off. The final conference was full of debate and fun activities during the downtime including a picture scavenger hunt, dinner mafia, a talent show, and a student dance.

To celebrate the end of a long six months of Model UN, I took some of the students to Tirana for a fun day out. We went to go see the Fast and the Furious movie and after that we went bowling. It was the first time that everyone had been bowling, so it was nice sharing a part of my culture with them (Peace Corps goal 2 everybody)!

Hanging out in Tirana after our USA Embassy visit.

Hanging out in Tirana after our USA Embassy visit.

On the Durres walking tour before the conference.

On the Durres walking tour before the conference.

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Our group at the Durres Amphitheater.

Our group at the Durres Amphitheater.

Tyler the MUN coordinator in action.

Tyler the MUN coordinator in action.

My group during the photo scavenger hunt:

My group during the photo scavenger hunt: “Take a photo with your whole group in an elevator”

Ramazan on General Assembly

Ramazan on General Assembly

Selma on ECOSOC

Selma on ECOSOC

General Assembly

General Assembly

Security Council

Security Council

ECOSOC

ECOSOC

Before the opening ceremony

Before the opening ceremony

Before the Opening Ceremony at Albanian Parliament

Inside Albanian Parliament

The opening ceremony at Albanian parliament

The opening ceremony at Albanian parliament

Some of the other Peace Corps AMUN group facilitators

Some of the other Peace Corps AMUN group facilitators

Can you spot my students?

Can you spot my students?

The entire AMUN group

The entire AMUN group

Raise your placards

Raise your placards

Unmoderated caucus

Unmoderated caucus

Irida giving a speech in Security Council debates

Irida giving a speech in Security Council debates

Formal debate time

Formal debate time

Muhamed giving his opening statement in General Assembly

Muhamed giving his opening statement in General Assembly

So lucky to work with such an amazing group of girls

So lucky to work with such an amazing group of girls

Everyones first time bowling

Their first time bowling

Hanging out in Tirana at the movies to celebrate the end of AMUN and Ambra's birthday!

Hanging out in Tirana at the movies to celebrate the end of AMUN and Ambra’s birthday!

Now I Am Stronger

Let me preface this blog with the fact that I love Peace Corps and I love Albania. That being said, I need to share something about my service that many people, outside of my close friends and family, don’t really know. I am harassed on the street almost every single day. I wrote a blog about street harassment in the past, but I am not sure if people really understand the struggle. Granted, no one will ever understand my struggle because no one can live in my shoes. Maybe it is because I am obviously foreign; maybe it is because I have blonde hair; maybe it was because I was too free with who I allowed to be friends with me on my old Facebook account. As I write these words, I realize what I am saying. I am blaming myself for someone else making the choice to harass me. I am blaming myself for someone else’s actions. If I heard a friend telling me this, I would console her and comfort her, assure her that this is not her fault and that is the fault of whatever jerk decided to mess with her. This is all true. So why do I continually blame myself for these kind of animalistic acts? These acts that dehumanize me and turn me into some object of desire… something less than human? This idea of shaming women for the behavior of men is common and so deeply engrained in our society that even that strongest feminists, such as myself, sometimes have a hard time reconciling these acts towards them.

Last Friday was the last straw. I was walking alone to a coffee shop nearby my apartment to meet a friend for an evening coffee after she got off work. I had my headphones in (to block out any unwanted comments from men on the street) and my sunglasses on. I was wearing a modest outfit. I was minding my own business. Two older women and a younger girl pass me. The child smiles because she realizes I am foreign and is intrigued by my demeanor. Then two men, in their twenties, walk past me in the opposite direction. The man closest to me reached out his hand and hit me across the head. This was not some friendly tap. This random guy actually just hit me on the side of the head on the sidewalk in the main street of my town during broad daylight. I was shocked and appalled. I yelled at him, but I was left with a hollow pit in my stomach and thought to myself, Why did this person feel it was okay to physically assault me? This, I will never know.

When I met my friend for coffee I told her about what happened and she was also surprised. This is not common in Kavaje, or in Albania. It is extremely out of the ordinary for someone to physically assault another person on the street like that, especially a person that they are not familiar with. Obviously this guy knew me, but I did not know him. Most people in my city know who I am because I am the American. I am the outsider. What is sad about the situation is that I have been harassed so much over these past two years that it didn’t even surprise me.

Once my friend and I were talking, we began to dive into the bigger issue of street harassment and harassment towards women in general. She also feels uncomfortable at times walking near bars that are full of men because of their stares and comments. I have noticed that many women will purposefully walk on the street, or cross the street altogether, to avoid the remarks and gazes from men at loitering or hanging around in coffee shops. Another friend of mine told me that she always drives her car everywhere she goes to avoid harassment from men. Even the younger women are not immune to this problem. Some of my high school students ask to have a male escort or avoid walking in certain areas of town because they do not want to be bothered.

This kind of street harassment needs to stop. Violence against women (and violence against anyone in general) is not okay. After living in Albania for two years, I have realized that bystander intervention is not common and speaking out for what you believe in can often be seen as turp or shameful. The usual advice I receive from people is to just ignore them and continue on. I cannot continue to condone this violence, this blatant disrespect for other people. I urge everyone, men and women, to stand up for what you believe in and what you know is right. If you see something that is unsettling – say something. Until people begin to say something, nothing will ever change.

I reported this incident to our Safety and Security officer in country. She listened to me and comforted me; she has always been great during any security incidents. Peace Corps does a great job responding to these sorts of crimes and they try to do whatever they can to make sure that they don’t reoccur. They cannot be with me every moment of every day at site, but they do try to make sure that all volunteers in country are safe. I do not think that Albania is a unsafe country to serve in and I do not think that Albanians are violent people. There are always duds everywhere in the world.

All I can do at this point is take solace in the fact that all of this has opened my eyes to the kind of gender-based violence that happens all around this world towards women. This experience has made me want to educate people about basic human rights and equal rights. My perspective has changed and broadened because of the things I have experienced. During coffee my friend reminded me of a quote, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Now I am stronger. And your inexcusable behavior can’t bring me down.

Mama Xhilli Visits Albania

The following is a guest post from my mother Analee. She recently visited me in Kavaje for a week to experience Peace Corps life and to observe my life in Albania. It was a pleasure hosting her and teaching her all about Albanian culture. This was her experience. You can check out more of her writing on her personal blog

I felt like a celebrity at Tirana International Airport. I immediately recognized Jill’s friend, Eri, not because I had seen pictures of him, but because of the sign—Welcome Analee! I never knew how much I wanted someone to greet me at the airport with a sign before that moment. Now I don’t know if I can ever go back to being an anonymous traveler. Plus, the gigantic bunch of flowers Jill sent along added to the mystique.

My first pleasant surprise was the drive from Tirana to Kavaje. When Jill first arrived in country two years ago she described some scary furgon rides, so even though I was riding in a nice car, on a nice highway, I still expected to see a herd of sheep crossing, or, at the very least, a New York taxi experience. Didn’t happen. Eri is the best driver, and tour guide, and before I knew it we were in Kavaje.

Day One: Cold, but Happy

Jill, and her good friend, Entela, met us outside one of Jill’s Peace Corps projects–the new, Kavaje Youth Center (KYAC). I just missed the grand opening that day due to flight problems back in the states. (Thanks, United Airlines. See if I fly with you again.) Off we went to Jill’s apartment. I seriously thought Jill was exaggerating when she talked about her freezing cold apartment. Well, she wasn’t. It’s warmer outside than it is inside. Apparently, it’s the same in the summer: cooler outside than inside. Both of us needed a little rest before dinner, so we fired-up the space heater, climbed under the covers, and the sleeping bag, and watched a little Netflix on her computer. Fourteen years ago, who could have predicted mother and daughter would watch their favorite show, Gilmore Girls, in Kavaje, Albania!

Day Two: The Busiest Day Ever

I woke up well rested. I think part of it was due to the grand, yummy, seafood dinner we were treated to by Jill’s site mate, Chuck. In fact, every restaurant I visited in Albania served the freshest, tastiest, multicourse meals at a mere fraction of the cost of eating out back in the states. Maybe I’m a little biased, but my vote for best food is Kavaje. After navigating Jill’s tiny, Turkish toilet, kitchen-bathroom, we were off to: (1) the market right outside Jill’s apartment, where I met her incredibly nice olive guy; (2) the DShP for Jill’s cervical cancer screening project; (3) lunch out at a favorite mengjesore; (4) a Kavaje painter’s art exhibit; (5) a youth center tour; (6) an Outdoor Ambassadors meeting, where after (7) I spoke to the kids about my life and writing; (8) a calm furgon ride to Durres; (9) a tour of said city; (10) a visit to a second century amphitheater; (11) a fast walk to see Durres street art—fast because we were being followed by a harmless, crazy guy; (12) a quick, daytime xhiro along the boardwalk; (13) a coffee by the sea; (14) another fast walk to the restaurant—we were running late, I wonder why?—with a quick stop for a pose with a random, John Lennon statue; (15) a dinner in Durres with other Peace Corps volunteers; (16) a late night, music filled, furgon ride back to Kavaje; (17) and, finally, the long walk from the center of town to Jill’s freezing cold apartment, where we (18) huddled around the computer for another Gilmore Girls episode as I questioned my bold choice to shadow a young, Peace Corps volunteer. Oh, did I mention that this whole day my photographer daughter was having me pose for my close-up at every turn? Actually, without Jill, our family would have very few pictures of the last twenty-three years, not to mention my Albania adventure. Thank you, daughter!

Sitting in on the cervical cancer project.

Sitting in on the cervical cancer project.

Jill's counterpart training the women.

Jill’s counterpart training the women.

Lunch at a mengjesore.

Lunch at a mengjesore.

A painting exhibit by a local artist to celebrate Democracy day.

A painting exhibit by a local artist to celebrate Democracy day.

Met the artist.

Met the artist.

Speaking with the Outdoor Ambassador students at KYAC.

Speaking with the Outdoor Ambassador students at KYAC.

At the ancient amphitheater in Durres.

At the ancient amphitheater in Durres.

Random John Lennon statue.

Random John Lennon statue.

Day Three: Celebration Time!

The first anti-communist protest was held in Kavaje twenty-five years ago, 3/26/1990, thirteen days after Jill was born. Thirteen just happens to be her lucky number. Again, could have never imagined back then that we would be in Albania for her birthday month! Life always has other plans. So, to fast forward to the night time celebration, here’s a quick breakdown of the day: I had my first, and only, hot shower of the trip. (Life had other plans for the water supply during my trip.); breakfast at home; Byrek-fast at the youth center (thanks Gloria’s mom); tour of the Kavaje library; my first Turkish coffee with Shpresa, the librarian; more café’s, more coffee; delicious late lunch of Albanian pilaf; and the ubiquitous long walk home where we were told various, contradictory locations for the night’s festivities. Our confusion didn’t last. We soon saw the stage as we rounded the coliseum, a couple blocks away from Jill’s apartment.

I absolutely adored the celebration concert! To use my daughter’s words, “it was pretty rad to be honest.” However, at first I was very hesitant to climb the many, irregular concrete steps to the top of the coliseum. I’d just had a very successful, quick recovery from a February knee surgery, and thought I might be pushing my luck. But I put on my big girl pants, held on to Jill and Chuck, and pushed forward. I’m so glad I did. Kavaje really put on a show with famous singers, local talent, traditional valle dancers, fire poi, and Albanian rap artists. I couldn’t figure out why Jill was laughing when one of the rappers took the stage. Later, I found out that his name was not Big, as I had thought. Turns out the word “Big” had been strategically placed on his outfit. I’m not dumb, just naïve sometimes.

So, from the early morning hot shower to the ten p.m. after concert dinner and baklava stop, it was a pretty rad day in Kavaje.

Having Turkish coffee in the library before a KYAC MUN meeting.

Having Turkish coffee in the library before a KYAC MUN meeting.

Student performers at the Kavaje concert.

Student performers at the Kavaje concert.

Interesting placement...

Interesting placement…

Democracy Day Concert

Democracy Day Concert

Baklava at the end of the night.

Baklava at the end of the night.

Days Four, Five and Six: Surprises! and New Friends

Jill and I quickly dressed in her best clothing. I basically just brought an empty suitcase so as to take her stuff back to the U.S. Our day was planned—go to neighbor’s apartment for coffee, then Gos for a day with Entela’s family. Soon we heard a knock on her door. It was the neighbor. Apparently we had misunderstood and coffee was at Jill’s place. Surprise! Unfortunately, the apartment looked like a small baggage hold had exploded over it due to our haphazard sorting method. Anyway, her neighbor couldn’t have been sweeter about the whole thing. She brought us homemade fruit juice for all that ails; a small lovely, woven tapestry; and, a kind-of holographic golden picture mounted on a fringed bamboo mat of the “church where Jesus was born.” The last one was so touching because the neighbor is Muslim and she went out of her way to find the picture for me. I will never forget her.

I was so happy to meet Entela’s mom, aunt, sister, uncle, and neighbor-auntie–#Newfriends. Their home was simply lovely, and eat-off-the-floor clean. Albanian women take such good care of their houses. We ate many snacks, delectable cake, and fruit. Then, Surprise!—more beautiful gifts, all hand-tatted and crocheted by Entela’s sweet mom. I took them all back home, even though some of the gifts are for Jill’s “dowry.”

We rounded out the day with a trip to Entela’s childhood school, coffee at an incredibly warm, comfortable café, and a visit to a friend’s beauty shop. Entela’s sister, treated Jill and I to makeup. I love my extremely flattering, bright lipstick. I would have never been able to pick out that shade on my own. Thanks! Then, back to Kavaje for—Surprise!—Jill’s homemade fasule. It took travelling to Albania to make Jill an excellent cook.

The next two days, Berat…ahhh Berat! The very best thing about my Berat weekend vacation: meeting Jill’s boyfriend, Quinn. He is an outstanding young man. We watched Quinn facilitate a thought provoking student movie club discussion, climbed above the gorgeous town of Berat to see an ancient castle, found Jill’s first European geocache, toured the charming city of a thousand windows, and, of course, café coffees and delicious food, out and in. Quinn made Chef Ramsey’s Perfect Scrambled Eggs in his—Surprise!—relatively warm apartment. Apparently, after discussing this with everyone I met, Jill’s apartment wins the prize for coldest place in Albania.

We spent Sunday night with one of Jill’s students and her family. Irida’s mom cooked a traditional Albanian meal of tave kosi, bread, byrek, salad, homemade cake, fruit, carrots, Bravo, and tea. Before dinner, we watched Albania beat Armenia in a futbol game. It was the most exciting soccer match I’ve ever seen, probably because I wanted Albania to win. Irida and I both like to read so she recommended the writings of Ismail Kadare, a famous, prize winning Albanian novelist. After dinner, Irida’s parents told me a little bit about the story of their lives under the dictatorship. I am forever changed by their struggle, and the incredible strength of the Albanian people. I left a piece of my heart in Albania with my new friends.

Coffee time at Entela's house.

Coffee time at Entela’s house.

All the ladies enjoying coffee time together.

All the ladies enjoying coffee time together.

A gift for my dowry.

A gift for my dowry.

New handmade socks.

New handmade socks.

And a little shopping afterwards.

And a little shopping afterwards.

The hidden geocache in the castle wall.

The hidden geocache in the castle wall.

We found it.

We found it.

We met someone who lives in the castle and he became our very own personal tour guide.

We met someone who lives in the castle and he became our very own personal tour guide.

Sunset at the castle.

Sunset at the castle.

The city of Berat.

The city of Berat.

Dinner at Irida's house.

Dinner at Irida’s house.

Tave kosi: an Albanian speciality.

Tave kosi: an Albanian speciality.

Cake Irida's mom made.

Cake Irida’s mom made.

Days 7 and 8: Lost in Translation and Kosovo

I woke up to Jill matter-of-factly telling me we had no water in the apartment. Avash, avash. Our first stop was the DShP. to meet Jill’s counterparts, Elvira and Dorela, for coffee. Jill and Elvira had quite the lively discussion about the disbursement of funds from the cervical cancer grant. I had actually heard quite a bit about Jill’s counterparts over the last two years. However, meeting them explained everything and allowed me to finally put faces to names. Then, off to lunch, the youth center, and the final edits of the student’s Model U.N. position papers. All hands, computers, and phones were on a deck to assist the students. Irida found an anti-plagiarism program and the finished papers were fed into the site, just to make sure everything was in the student’s own words. A task easier said than done. I have to say, the best thing about this experience was getting to see Jill as a teacher. She is tough, but fair. A student can’t get anything over on her; she knows all their tricks. I was extremely impressed, to say the least.

During Model U.N., Erijon, who works for the Bashkia (local government), came in to talk to Jill about the next day’s Kosovo trip. Jill and I had elected not to go because I didn’t know how I would fare on a long bus ride and extensive trip. Erijon assured us that we would be back in Kavaje that afternoon, so we changed our minds and went to honor the young man from Kavaje who lost his life helping the cause of democracy in Kosovo. We left the house at 6:45 a.m. the next day and returned to Kavaje around midnight. I guess we had been lost in translation the day before with Erijon’s timetable. However, the long trip was more than worth it. I saw beautiful Albanian mountain scenery, witnessed the rebuilding of Kosovo, took part in a beautiful, touching, ceremony, and got to experience what Jill calls, “embracing the chaos.” Every time we thought we were doing one thing, we would do another. The strangest part of the day, by far, was when we thought we were visiting the lovely town center of Prizren. Instead, we were dropped off at a Walmart-type store, ETC, for shopping. It was supposed to take only thirty minutes, but ended up taking over an hour. Our bus driver told us that Albanians love to shop at ETC when they visit Kosovo. Finally, we were on the way back to Kavaje, bus music blaring, people partying, singing and dancing the whole ride home. Entela told me the next day that bus parties are part of Albanian culture.

Day 9: Homeward Bound Reflections

Jill and Eri took me back to the Tirana Airport. I’m not going to lie, I kept having to fight back tears, tears that seemed to have a life of their own. I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to Jill because she will be back in the U.S. in a few months, I was sad because I’m going to miss every one of Jill’s students, the Curumi and Shyti families, and Kavaje. This was a challenging trip for me because I’ve never before travelled outside of tourist areas, have only been to Mexico, Tokyo and the U.S. Virgin Islands, plus this was my very first time travelling internationally alone. There’s no question that I’ve been sheltered. Albania opened my eyes. I will never be the same.

Waiting in line for the activity in Tharanda.

Waiting in line for the activity in Tharanda.

The celebration of Indrit Cara's life.

The celebration of Indrit Cara’s life.

A performer.

A performer.

A singing group of men from Kavaje

A singing group of men from Kavaje

Our party bus.

Our party bus.

Hanging around at the restaurant afterwards.

Hanging around at the restaurant afterwards.

Stopped at the Etc.

Stopped at the Etc…. for hours. 

The Traveler’s Guide to Albania

After living in Albania for the past two years during my Peace Corps service I have compiled a list of the thirty best things for travelers to do while visiting Shqiperi.

1. Eat Byrek-fast.

I’ve mentioned byrek in my blog before, and for good reason. Byrek is one of my favorite Albanian foods and it is incredibly cheap. Usually Albanians eat this in the morning for breakfast or a light snack at work or school. Byrek is a flaky pastry made with layers of thin dough stuffed with different fillings such as beans, potatoes, gjize (a sort of Albanian cheese), spinach, tomato, onion, and meat. My personal favorite is byrek me qepe e domate (with tomato and onion). My favorite byrek is on the served on the main boulevard in Elbasan directly next to Skampa Theater and the Vodaphone. You can find versions of byrek all over the Balkans.

2. Dance the night away at Beer Fest in Korca. 

Every summer the city of Korca holds a beer festival, usually sometime in August. This is a great opportunity to see famous Albanian performers and dancers. The festival is free of charge and beer is incredibly cheap (usually under a dollar for a cup). Several breweries from across the country come to serve their beer. I’d recommend trying Korca e zeze, the dark beer from Korca. This beer is hard to find outside of the Korca region, but it is definitely a nice addition to the available drinks in country.

Some of the volunteers at my first day of beer fest - so much fun!

3. Hike from Valbona to Thethi.

Northern Albania is breathtaking. If you have a few weeks in Albania I’d recommend making your way up north to take in the beauty that this region has to offer. You can hike the pass in a day, but camping is available along the way. There are also guesthouses in Valbona and Thethi if you’re not interested in camping. The accursed Albanian Alps are definitely worth the journey. Most of the guesthouses in Theth are actually rooms that Albanians rent out in their homes. It would be a tremendous opportunity to stay with a local family and have them cook you up a delicious, traditional meal after the long hike.

Home cooked Albanian meal after the hike.

The view from our campsite in Thethi.

4. Soak up the sun in Ksamil.

Ksamil is a small town just south of Saranda. The beach in Ksamil is absolutely gorgeous and the water is as clear as glass. Beaches in southern Albania are on par with famous beaches in Greece and Italy, but for a fraction of the price. Many Albanians take their vacation during the month of August, so I’d suggest to hit up the beaches in June or July before they become crowded.

The beautiful sunset. Everyday I am so thankful to live in such a beautiful country.

5. Try raki with a macchiato.

The most common coffee drinks to order at a coffee shop in Albania are kafe express or a macchiato. A macchiato is an express coffee with a bit of steamed milk. I prefer having a macchiato when I am out at coffee, and if you’re visiting Albania it is essential that you have coffee – every single day. It’s a must. While you’re out at coffee you should try raki, Albanian moonshine. It is a very strong drink and after a couple you’ll likely be drunk, so be careful. If you’re a woman traveler you might get strange looks ordering a raki, but it is definitely something you should experience here.

6. Eat at a Mengjesore.

A Mengjesore is usually some hole in the wall restaurant mostly serving men in the community. These places are great places to drop by for some cheap, traditional food. Don’t expect a menu at most of these places, but if you can get past the language barrier usually they are worth it. My favorite things to order are rice pilaf, fasule (a tomato and white bean soup), Greek salad, and spec te mbushura (stuffed peppers). You can find different traditional foods at these restaurants based on the region. Pilaf is usually a safe bet, but if you’re vegetarian be sure to request it pa lenge mish (without meat sauce). If you happen to be in Berat you should check out Angelos.

7. Travel with public transportation. 

The fastest way to travel around Albania on vacation would be to rent a car, which is a great option if you’re planning on spending some time traveling all over the country. Public transportation can sometimes be unreliable, but it is always an adventure. Riding around in furgons (small vans) and buses can be a great way to meet local people. It can also be quite entertaining because half the time the driver will be blasting Albanian and American music throughout the entire journey.

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Back in the furgon! The problem was fixed!

8. Celebrate Albanian Independence Day.

If you’re in Albania in the winter, specifically on November 28th, you should celebrate Independence Day with the locals. Albanians go all out for Independence Day and you’ll see Albanian flags lining the streets. People will decorate their cars, shops, and themselves with the double-headed eagle. There are usually big celebrations in Tirana and Vlore, but you could find festivities in almost every city. Be sure to buy an Albanian flag t-shirt to really get in the fun.

Happy independence day flags!

9. Participate in the pilgrimage to Kulmak.

Every year during the last week of August the Bektashi sect of Islam go on a four-day pilgrimage to Kulmak, located on the south side of Mount Tomori in between Berat and Corovode. During the pilgrimage lambs and sheep are sacrificed. After a lamb is sacrified everyone involved gets a thumbprint of blood on his or her forehead. You can hike up the mountain for the festivities or try to hitchhike with the locals. Us volunteers call this festival blood fest… you can only imagine why.

10. Buy fresh produce on market day.

In Kavaje, and many other cities around Albania, the freshest produce is available to buy at the market on Sunday. Many of the villagers from outside the city come in on Sundays to sell their fruits and vegetables. The produce in Albania is extremely delicious and fresh when it is in season. If you’re around in late-Spring I’d suggest buying a kilo of cherries. Also, the best time to buy produce is in the morning, so the earlier you go – the better.

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11. Play chess with an old man.

Everyday you will likely see many old men on the streets playing chess, cards, and other games on make shift tables in parks and on the streets. These men will sit around for hours with their buddies playing games in the morning and before dinnertime. Challenge an old man to chess if you dare. I bet he’ll give you a run for your money.

12. Climb the pyramid in Tirana.

The pyramid in Tirana used to be an old museum that was once known as the Enver Hoxha museum. Now it is a bizarre looking structure covered with all kinds of graffiti. You can find young boys and teenagers hanging out on the sides of the pyramid during all hours. If you want to climb to the top be sure to wear appropriate footwear because it isn’t exactly the safest of climbs.

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13. Take a selfie with a bunker. 

I have never met anyone that likes to take as many selfies as some of my Albanian students. Selfies are an integral part of Albanian youth culture – selfies in class, selfies here, selfies there, selfies everywhere. There are thousands of bunkers around Albania that were built during the communist Enver Hoxha regime. You can spot these bunkers on beaches, mountains, and roadsides. Take a selfie with a piece of this history.

And of course we found a bunker

14. Explore the streets of Old Town Berat.

Old Town Berat is another one of the cities in Albania that is protected by UNESCO. Explore the city of 1001 windows and see what all the hype is about. The mountainside is full of quaint white houses and the windows of these houses are lit up at night and look absolutely gorgeous from the bridge. The center of the bridge is a great spot to take those much-needed vacation photographs. Stop by the castle on the top of the mountain for only 100 lek (a little less than one dollar).

15. Spend midnight on News Years in Skanderbeg square

New Years is a big holiday for Albanians and many celebrate by giving each other gifts and having a giant family dinner the night of. If you happen to be in Tirana on New Years, I suggest you go to the center of town and spend midnight in the chaos of Skanderbeg Square. The city puts on a decent firework show and many Albanians set off their own fireworks as well. Be careful to not get stuck in the center of the DIY fireworks because there is no age restriction on who can buy fireworks. Often times you will see young boys and teenagers lighting fireworks in a frenzied manner.

Check out all that smoke. What a crazy night. (Photo cred: Alayna)

16. Experience rafting in Corovode. 

There is a rafting company that takes people on rafting trips down through the Osumi Canyon. I have heard that this is not the most exhilarating rafting trips because there are not a lot of higher class rapids, but if you’re interested in a calmer river float then this might be just right for you.

17. Shop second-hand clothes at the treg or bazaar.

Many cities will have a weekly or daily bazaar. At the bazaar you can find plenty of good-quality used clothing that has been imported in from other countries in Europe. I have found some really nice brand-name clothing for less than one US dollar at the bazaar. The only downside is sifting through piles of used clothing, but if you have the patience and the time you might find something worth keeping.

I bought a funny Spice Girls flag at the treg in Elbasan.

18. Go clubbing at Matrix.

Matrix is the best club that I’ve been to in Tirana. You can find famous local musicians or DJs mixing on the weekends. The club has LED lighting on the walls, as well as a pretty sweet laser light show. The night I went clubbing at Matrix reminded me of the fun times that I would spend going clubbing back home. Definitely worth the stop if you’re into partying. Make sure to reserve a table ahead of time.

19. Swim in Ohrid lake near Pogradec.

Ohrid lake is the perfect place to cool off during the hot summer months. The lake is crystal clear and absolutely refreshing after sweating all day. Did I mention that it gets pretty hot during the summer? Especially in July and August. You can take a paddleboat out into the middle of the lake to see the underwater vines that have grown hundreds of feet from the bottom near the surface of the water.

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20. Visit the Gjirokaster castle.

The castle in Gjirokaster is preserved far better than the other castles around Albania. Inside you will find old school artillery, the remnants of an old American plane, the prison, and the festival stage. Every four years there is an Albanian Folk Festival held on that stage to showcase folklore from across the country. While you’re in Gjirokaster also spend some time walking around Old Town.

Inside the castle

The amphitheater in the castle.

The corner of old town Gjirokaster near Tyler's apartment.

21. Take an evening xhiro.

In the evenings, especially during the summer, Albanians take to the streets in the evening before sunset to go on a stroll with their friends and family. During the xhiro you will see people dressed up to perfection walking slowly with their loved ones. If you go on a xhiro make sure to walk slowly and take things avash avash. Some of the best xhiros can be found in Durres, Shkoder, Vlore, and Berat. If you happen to xhiro in Durres you should stop by the ancient amphitheater beforehand and grab gelato on the Volga near the beach afterwards.

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22. Learn the history of Butrint.

Butrint is another UNESCO heritage site just south of Ksamil at the southern tip of the country. Butrint has been around since prehistoric times and has been occupied by the Greeks, Romans, and Venetians. You will be able to explore several different archeological sites at Butrint. Definitely worth the visit if you’re in the south.

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23. Soak in the hot springs of Benja.

The hot springs of Benja are located near the small city of Permet. Benja is a village on the hill near the city and can be reached hiking by foot. The hot springs are known for their therapeutic effects.

24. Take out a paddleboat in Durres.

If you’re in Durres it would be worthwhile rent and paddle boat and get away from the crowded seaside. If you’re looking to swim, I’d suggest General’s Beach near Kavaje (which you need a private vehicle to access) or some of the beaches further south. I would not recommend swimming in some of the waters near Durres, especially during the month of August when the beaches are packed full of tourists from Kosovo.

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When it's warm, Kate and I can get coffee at the beach 15 minutes away by furgon

25. Jump into the blue eye.

There are two blue eyes in Albania. One up north near Theth and the other down south in between Gjirokaster and Saranda. If you’re up for it, you should take the plunge into the blue eye’s pristine water. Just beware that the temperature is extremely cold, but there are definitely worse ways to cool off in the summer though.

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26. Eat seafood at Gazi restaurant in Kavaje. 

I am lucky to live in a city with some of the best restaurants in Albania, in my opinion. Gazi is a great locally owned seafood restaurant. The fish is caught fresh daily and Gazi, the owner, is sure to stop by your table to see how everything is tasting. The restaurant does not have menus, but I’d recommend ordering whatever is fresh. Whenever I eat there I like to have the mussels and makaron me fruta deti (mixed seafood pasta). My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

27. Visit Kruje.

Kruje is your one stop shop for traditional Albanian goods and touristy objects. The city has a castle, several museums, and a bazaar. You can also check out the shrine to Skanderbeg, a national Albanian hero. Also, head to nearby city Fushe-Kruje to see the George W. Bush statue.

28. Walk down George W. Bush Street.

Speaking of George W. Bush, there is also a street named after the former USA president in the capital city of Tirana. George W. Bush was the first, and only, USA president to visit Albania. After his visit, the Albanians commemorated his time here with a street and statue. As you can see, Albanians love Americans.

29. Hold a lamb or baby goat.

There are sheep and goats everywhere in Albania. You can see shepherds and their sheep walking down the streets in the center of town or grazing on the grass in the city park or in the villages just outside the city. I’d recommend taking some time to go on a walk to some of the smaller villages near the cities you’re visiting. If you happen to walk by a shepherd ask if you can hold one of the babies. It’s guaranteed that he will oblige.

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Love the shepherds expression.

30. Circle dance at an Albanian party. 

There are always reason to valle aka circle dance in Albania, whether it be teacher’s day, someone’s birthday, or just a night out at dinner. If you are out celebrating with Albanians suggest circle dancing. It is likely you won’t even need to suggest it when you’re out with Albanians because valle basically happens at every single party. The basic step is quite simple, but some of the more difficult dances, like Valle Kosovare, might take a little longer to master.

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31. Eat sheep head. 

Sheep head is a delicacy in Albania and people will often serve this in their home on special occasions or holidays. This dish is often cooked with yogurt and lots of butter. I have only had this dish once, but I tried all the different parts including the brain, eye, and tongue. For those who have a curious palette, this might be a good choice of cuisine for you.

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32. Try to spot the Dordelec. 

Many Albanians hang dolls or stuffed animals from their homes to protect against the evil eye. Test how observant you are and try to spot some of these relicts hanging from balconies, roofs, etc. You might also see dolls on half-built homes. The idea behind this is to hang something ugly outside the home to keep the emotions of envious onlookers at bay.

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33. Check out the block in Tirana.

When you’re in Tirana be sure to check out the blloku where you can find plenty of bars and upscale restaurants to suit your fancy. Head up to the top of Sky Tower bar to get a 360 rotating view of the entire city. Mon Cherie is a coffee shop that caters to those looking for a foreign coffee feel. They specialize in making frilly drinks, much like those in the states. Radio Bar is my favorite bar. It is decorated with old school radios, records, and photographs. Don’t expect a cheap night out on the blloku though because many of these bars and restaurants have prices comparable to the states and other parts of Europe.

34. Go swimming at the lake in Vau Dejes. 

Vau Dejes is a small village near Shkoder in northern Albania. The village itself is quite small, but it is home to a beautiful and quaint lake. Take a furgon from Shkoder to Vau Dejes for the day to check out this lake. In the summer many of the kids from the village head up to the lake to keep cool from the heat. You can also find a great coffee shop nearby to quench your thirst.

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35. Speak with the locals.

Get to know Albanians while you’re traveling around this gorgeous country. They are some of the friendliest people in the world. Even if they can’t speak your language they will likely try to help you in any way possible. Say hello to people on the street and learn some basic Albanian greetings to impress them with your impeccable language skills. Even if you only know a few words in Albanian, people will likely applaud your effort and your amazing language skills. Some might even say that you’re fluent already. So kick back, relax, and enjoy everything Albania has to offer. It is one of those gems that has yet to be taken over by tourism, so you’ll get the true experience of a Balkans adventure.