...you're going where?! was the response I got from essentially everyone when I told them that Mike and I would be traveling to Albania this past August. Most people can't even find Albania on a map, let alone conceptualize traveling there, but we are now among the fortunate few who have! For those of you who know me, you know that Mike and I live to travel. We share the same sense of wanderlust and have been fortunate enough to have traveled a fair amount over the past few years. However, we had never done a trip like Albania together before. Aside from the Caribbean and Mexico, this was Mike’s first time abroad. For me, this was part of what made the trip so special. I got to witness him experience Europe for the first time and see everything through his eyes. Just like all our other trips, we traveled together so well. Our trek home was 16 plus hours of travel time; leaving a wedding at 2:30 am to catch a 4:25 AM flight and transferring twice before finally getting on the DCA bound flight, but we did it together effortlessly. I couldn’t have picked a better travel (and life!) companion.
Leading up to the trip, I began to really do my research. After all, we were going to be gone for 11 days, I wanted to be sure we got to experience all that we could. I quickly found out that there really isn't much written or shared about Albanian tourism; in fact, tourism there is almost non-existent. I absolutely loved that! It's this lack of tourism that keeps the country so beautiful. So untouched. The most precious hidden gem. Everything we did, everyone we interacted with -- it was all so authentic.
Back to my pre-trip research, though. Although there wasn't a ton of information out there, I did find some articles online - most of which were from small travel blogs or websites. And of course, I found some Instagram pages. As I was looking at these various articles or pictures I noticed a commonality. The most prevalent titling of articles or hashtag used was something that incorporated "Discover Albania". Honestly, it’s so fitting. Everything about this trip was rooted in a sense of discovery. Discovering such untouched, exquisite beauty. Learning about a rich, albeit not really spoken about, history. Seeing old bunkers everywhere throughout the country. Discovering the truly powerful force of friendship. Discovering more about myself and discovering more about my marriage. Discovering a whole new culture. Discovering, discovering, discovering! There is absolutely no way I can effectively capture our trip and do it justice, but I'm going to try!
Discovering Friendship ~ Jen and I met 10 years ago in college. Ironically, we didn't even like each other at first. In fact, it was quite the opposite. We don't even remember the exact nature of why we disliked each other, but we went on to become sorority sisters (which if you know us is hysterical) and lived together for a semester our junior year. Most importantly, we declared ourselves fraternal twins and had a standing Tuesday night dinner date, usually involving beer and chicken wings. Six years ago, I was taking Jen to get all of her bloodwork done for the Peace Corps in Albania and now I was getting to go visit her in Albania for her wedding! The last time we had seen each other was almost 4 years ago at my wedding (which she came to from Albania!) While we certainly do our best to keep in touch, it's not easy with a 6-hour time difference and busy lives. When Jen told me she was engaged, I was ecstatic. I knew there was absolutely no way that Mike and I weren't going! Within the first 10 seconds of being reunited it was like we had just seen each other yesterday. Jen was the best hostess anyone could ask for. She took such good care of us and showed us all that the city had to offer. She ordered all our meals for us (in Albanian!) and taught us about their unique history. She drew us a map for our 5-hour drive down to the southern Riviera and gave us countless suggestions on things to do. I could go on and on, but you get the picture :) I feel lucky to have such incredible friendships in my life. I can't imagine a cooler thing to do with your best friends than discover their new country and culture. I mean honestly! Jen had never spent any real time with Mike prior, so it was nice for them to get to know each other better. And from the second we met her husband Endri we felt like we had known him our entire lives. He and Mike became fast friends, and have been keeping in touch ever since we got back.
One of the most profound aspects of this trip was meeting new people and the resulting friendships that were formed. There is just something to be said for sharing a very unique or life changing experience with a group of people you never knew prior. I have similar feelings towards our Albania experience as I do towards my study abroad experience on South Caicos. The American guests were Jen’s family and childhood best friends and family friends. Everyone had known each other for such a long time, Mike and I were clearly the newcomers. But everyone was so kind and welcoming and made us feel beyond included.
I always suffer from post vacation blues, but coming home from this trip was particularly difficult. However, I always come back to one of my favorite quotes by Miriam Adeney, "you will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Discovering Beauty ~ We did SO much on our trip, so I’ll just touch on some of the highlights. We explored the capital city Tirana, visited an 18th century Mosque, climbed to the top of the city clock tower and spent hours in the Bunk'Art museum (which was a history museum housed in an old bunker) We ate some of the most incredible food, drank delicious espresso, and relished in how inexpensive everything was! We rented a manual car and using only a map (that was all in Albanian) drove 5 hours south over a 3,200-foot mountain pass where the hairpin turns were so blind you couldn't see a thing coming from the other direction. (Google or youtube the Llogara pass to see more...Mike was a ROCKSTAR driver!) We stayed on the Albanian Riviera in the town of Himara for 4 nights in a little hotel right on the Ionian Sea that was run by the most wonderful couple. We truly felt as if we were guests in their home. Albanians are known for their hospitality, and everyone we met could not have been kinder. The scenery was breathtaking; the crystal blue waters of the sea surrounded by gorgeous, prominent, mountains. We were lucky enough to spend close to four hours on the boat of a native to Himara who showed us the coastline and many secluded and hidden beaches accessible only by boat. He drove the boat into multiple caves and caught us fresh sea urchin eggs. We saw the submarine tunnel from the cold war and the old military base. We went to Porto Palermo, an old castle that resides on its own little island of sorts, and snorkeled the waters surrounding it. We visited the Blue Eye, a natural spring where the water is only 10 degrees Celsius and the final depth of the spring is still unknown. Thus far, divers have only made it down about 50 m. Mike jumped from about 20-25 feet into it. We spent a day in the city of Berat, a world UNESCO Heritage site nestled in the countryside. Most importantly, we celebrated the marriage of Jen and Endri.
Discovering Ourselves ~ On this trip I’d certainly say we learned a lot about ourselves. I was quite anxious in the weeks leading up to the trip which is normally something that NEVER happens to me. I had been very sick a few weeks prior, made worse by my HLHS, and it shattered my confidence. I was afraid that I would be far too tired and wouldn't be able to keep up with everyone or do all I wanted to do. I'm so happy to say I was WRONG! In fact, I'd say I kicked ass. I kept up with the group, in 100-degree temperatures nonetheless. I walked 15,000-20,000 steps a day (thanks Fitbit!) swam endlessly, and adjusted to the time change and lack of sleep with ease. Mentally, I often struggle with resenting my heart for being so broken. On this trip I rediscovered the love, respect and awe that I do have for my heart, despite all things HLHS. I couldn’t be more grateful. I learned that I could overcome my social anxiety and really put myself out there with new people. I discovered how strong Mike and I’s marriage has become and how well we work as a team. I realized that everything I have been working for and dreaming of is truly manifesting itself. The world is so big and there is so much to see. As Yoli Ramazzina says, “adventure is about stepping out of our comfort zone and (re)awakening our sense of wonder. It’s about dreaming and imagining, but also having the courage to chase our dreams”
I can’t wait to see where our next adventure leads us. In the meantime, I encourage you all to go discover! Take a trip, even if its just for one night in a nearby location. I promise you, your soul will thank you. Albania, you will always have a piece of our hearts.