It was with unexpected pleasure that we were greeted by Albania. Greeted, that is, by a large bull walking nonchalantly down the road. Proceeded not long after by chickens, donkeys, pigs, horses and more. The Albanian people smiled and waved without exception. The children shouted Hello! and drivers honked their horns.
At a hostel in Shkodra where a cat’s claws wreaked havoc on our tent, a gentleman translated a basic message into Albanian for us. It read something like this:
“We have cycled to Albania from the UK. Is there somewhere we can get drinking water? Is there somewhere safe we can pitch our tent for the night? Thank you, Tim & Laura”.
We called it the Magic Letter and with good reason. It really seemed to work magic.
A couple of days after entering the country, we found ourselves struggling up an endless mountainside being pummeled by a huge thunderstorm.
I overtook Laura, made a swiping “Kill it” gesture at my neck which was immediately understood as this:
It’s wet, late, wet, getting dark and wet.
The man later to be known to us as “The Uncle” was, at this point, just a man. He stood in the doorway of his workshop looking down on two drowned rats with bikes who pulled into his driveway and who approached him with wild eyes and a piece of paper in their hands.
I presented said paper to the man.
“We have cycled to Albania from the UK…”
We pointed to a possible camping spot: a patch of dirt beneath a roof of concrete that had the single key feature we required in a camp site for the evening (it was dry). He shook his head. The magic was not working.
Still, he seemed happy to let us sit out the storm and moments later his wife appeared with a bottle of water (the magic worked a little) and two pomegranates.
“Do you know anywhere we could camp?’, we articulated through hand movements.
The head shakes again.
We eat the pomegranates in awkward silence and contemplate the reality of heading back out into the maelstrom. The wife disappears and returns with a girl.
“Hello. How can I help?”, says the girl.
“Oh! You speak English!”, I add pointlessly.
Once The Girl had explained that The Uncle was happy for us to camp outside his workshop and had been trying to express as much through the Albanian tradition of shaking his head to mean Yes, she went on to say that, actually, they’d really rather we stayed in their house.
Of course, it’s not every day that two Brits turn up on bicycles so The Aunt got onto the telephone in a hurry to tell the relatives about their new arrivals. And so, whilst Laura showers, I am faced with a steady stream of family members who have come to see the English people. One of the cousins even missed his son’s first birthday to meet/see us.
The Girl Who Speaks English makes the situation much easier – she speaks English, after all – but when she leaves the room, awkwardness inevitably descends. The Uncle reaches for a wedding video to fill one such void and Laura, back from the shower, struggles to control her giggles at the 1980s special effects.
An hour ago we were wet and cold. Now we are warmed both by showers and by the kindness of strangers. We are also fed like kings before bed. In the morning, we pack up swiftly to avoid abusing the hospitality. The poor Girl is dragged back to the house to interpret and misses the start of the school. I feel bad for her having the burden of translation upon her once again but ask her to translate one last message:
“Please tell your mother”, (who missed out on last night’s entertainment but has made it to see us this morning), “that she has a very kind, intelligent and thoughtful daughter”.
She blushes but proceeds to translate when prompted then replies:
“And can I say something to you? You are absolutely the best people I have ever met!”.
Laura’s eyes well.
Mounted on our bikes, we wheel them to the gate.
“I hope you have enjoyed your stay”, says the girl.
I shake my head.
Yes we have.