Kosovo and Albania

When I was a little girl and I would be grumpy or angry, my mom would tell me to just smile.  “The corners of your mouth will release endorphins and you will be happy,” she would say.  “Just try it.  I bet you can’t stop once you start.”  She was right.  Once you start, it’s hard to stop.  The endorphins feed themselves.

We had a long day of driving ahead of us, the longest day we would have in total.  We were driving over the Serbian border, into Kosovo, and then ending the day along the Albanian coastline.  In total, it was estimated to take around seven hours, not including the many stops we had.

We hit the road early, knowing that we would drive into Serbia and stop for a coffee.  I have been to Serbia before but it was a new place for both of my sisters.  The border crossing was pretty seamless, minus a short line of cars.  And the town we found just 30 minutes across the border was cute.  We found a nice little café to have our first coffee of the day in, and as we were people watching out the window, we noticed that all of the neighboring cafes and streets were lined with men.  There were only one or two women to be seen, and dozens and dozens of men.  And of course we were the only light haired women, so the eyeballs on us were pretty constant.  After my time in the Middle East, I had adapted to this, but both of my sisters commented on it, expressing the same feelings I had when I first encountered it a few weeks back.

We were using Google Maps to guide us across the Balkans, and when we put in that we wanted to get to Pristina, Kosovo, the app was directing us back into North Macedonia and all the way around Serbia.  We could see that there was a road leading directly into Kosovo from Serbia, only about 20 minutes from where we were having coffee.  No matter how we manipulated the app, it wanted us to go around.  But we didn’t listen or follow it.  We figured we may as well try to get through the road that we could see on the map.

We followed the very small and winding road up and around the mountains, passing by a moderately sized landfill full of plastic, and encountered a line of about five cars waiting to get through border control.  Well, at least there is a border control station here, I thought.  It’s not just a dead end.

We waited our turn, hoping they would let us cross and that this wasn’t just a crossing for locals or those with a special permit.  We pulled up to the window and handed our three passports and packet of ‘car documents’ to the man working.  He took them, looked at them, and handed them to someone else.  He pointed for us to move forward, which we did, where a man approached us with our passports and ‘car documents.’  He asked all of the typical questions you get when going through immigration.  Where are you coming from?  Where are you going?  What are you doing here?  I was crossing my fingers that he would let us through; turning around would add about three hours of driving time to our day.

The gentleman was quite entertaining, joking around with us about giving him a hard time and asking which one of us was single.  It took him about ten minutes of reviewing our documents before he came to the conclusion that we would need to buy an insurance package to enter Kosovo.  I knew this but wasn’t sure what he was looking for in our packet of information so hadn’t communicated it.  We had purchased an international insurance plan for our rental car, but because Kosovo isn’t a UN recognized country, they have their own insurance plan and it costs 15 euro for two weeks (the minimum amount of time you can buy a plan for).

It was interesting to listen to him refer to ‘his’ country – Kosovo – and ‘their’ country – Serbia.  The tensions between the two was evident, to the point that any car entering Kosovo with a Serbian license plate would put tape over the part of the license plate that indicated it was from Serbia.  Our rental car was from Croatia, so we didn’t experience this personally but saw at least a dozen cars park and the driver get out to put white strips of tape over parts of their license plates.

Once we arrived in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, we visited the NEWBORN sign in the city center.  Kosovo would be the youngest European country, hence the sign.  We had coffee near the city center and also visited the library, which is in a historically beautiful building.

The remainder of our drive that day was countryside nestled in the mountains.  It was a very smooth and peaceful drive until we got closer to Durres.  Durres is a small beach town along the coast of the Adriatic Sea where we would be staying in Albania.  On the path to Durres is Albania’s largest city – Tirana.  We had all read that traffic can get pretty intense around the larger cities in Albania, but we had no idea what to expect.  The traffic was incredible.  The drivers did not stay within traffic lines, or stop at lights, or yield to pedestrians.  It was literally every car for himself and they went when they felt like it, expecting anything coming at them to stop.  Ironically, a few days after the drive, we all commented that we had noticed the abundant number of crosses and fresh flowers spectacled along the roadsides.  I’ve never seen so many memorials in my life; it was heartbreaking.

Durres itself is a beach town, and it’s very relaxed.  There’s an Old Town and a city center and a few restaurants along the beach.  I suspect that there are many more attractive beaches within Albania, but this was a good stopping point for us, and the downtime was nice as we casually had breakfast in the morning and cocktails in the evening.  The city itself was quite accessible and I was able to get around by myself, not needing much assistance outside of a few areas with cobblestone and a few larger curbs.

On that note, I’ve had an interesting realization the past few days around needing help.  I spent five weeks alone, relying solely on the help of strangers, asking for it when I needed it and accepting it when they volunteered it to me.  The past two weeks I have been with Tony and now my sisters, and the help I need or don’t need is staring me in the face.  Ironically, I’m coming to the conclusion that I prefer the help of strangers.  A stranger is truly giving me their helping hand, a gift from their heart.  Traveling with someone I know is different.  The help I get feels obligatory, like something they just do when they are with me.  I know – absolutely know – that this isn’t always the case, but relying on someone to help and knowing that they are ‘expected’ to do it is creating a level of guilt within me.  Like so many discoveries on this trip, this is a growing experience for me, and something I need to explore further to understand.  And then, I need to let it go.

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