Construction Shmunstruction

It’s definitely a positive sign that there’s construction going on all over Shkoder. Development in progress, right?! I can already tell the roads will ook beautiful when they’re finished…but in the meantime I’m living in the middle of a giant construction site. At first I was a little shocked by the lack of protection and safety measures; and then I remembered that I’m in Albania and not America. The workers are wearing everyday clothing. The man with the welder has no sort of face mask on and people are walking right through the sparks to pass by. 

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There aren’t any restrictions on people using the streets that are under construction. The man on the big forklift will even wait for you to pass under the crane on your bike before he spins the vehicle and picks up his next load. It’s super casual, and super off-putting for an American used to rules, regulations, and law suits.

 

The other day I actually walked across a shaky plank of wood that was covered a whole in the street about 6′ deep and 7′ long. What can I say, it was the only way through. The construction men even waved me along like I was the crazy one when I looked at them with terror in my eyes. So I took a deep breath and quickly shuffled across the make-shift bridge as it bent and swayed. But every day I’m getting more and more used to trekking through construction sites to get to the grocery store, my school, restaurants, or anywhere really. I can’t help but think how shocked these people would be with the consequences of waltzing down the street through a construction site in America. 

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

 

 

 

Post-Communist Shopping Spree

There are many aspects of communism that are leftover in Albania still today. One of them, much to my dismay, is the market. For some reason, the idea of superstores and one-stop-shops have not made it to Albania..except for in Tirana (the capital) but that’s too far away for every day shopping needs. So, what do I do instead? I spend approximately 2 hours everyday doing something that should take 20 minutes.

Here in Shkoder, and pretty much every other city in Albania, there is a different store for every item you need. There’s one place to buy cheese, one to buy milk, one to buy produce, one to buy fresh fish, and one to buy meat.

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There’s a separate stand on the corner where you can buy packets of spices for 50 cents each. There’s a little old lady who sits on the curb and sells watermelons in July, figs in August, and whatever solitary fruit happens to be in season as the months go by.

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(This is the man who only sells zippers. Talk about a niche market.)

There’s a separate store for homegoods like ice cub trays, brooms, bowls, dishes, and silverware. Then you have to walk down the street for electronics like blenders, mixers, and televisions. But if you need to fix any appliances, that’s a completely different store too. 

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(This is the cheese man. His stand is right next to the egg stand and across from the olive oil cart.)

Shoes are sold at the same place as clothes, but honey and cheese always seem to be sold at the same stand. Needless to say, there are strange combinations all over the place. 

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What really stands out from a foreigner’s perspective is the number of repeated stores in a row. During communism there were designated streets where people could sell electronics, a different road for produce, and another for where dairy products. That hasn’t gone away. Along the same streets you can find store after store with the same products being sold at the same price. At first I was so confused as to how any of them stayed in business. Under capitalism people would set different prices and one or two stores would go out of business or develop specialty items to keep up. But here, people just sell the same thing over and over for the same price as their neighbor. And they manage to stay in business. I guess sometimes tradition is stronger than economic common sense. 

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

The power of a name

Walking down the streets of Albania you could be fooled into thinking that the place is chock-full of American name brands. But you’d be wrong. If you look closely, nothing is what it seems. The name on the storefront may say “Apple Inc.” or “Subway,” but I promise that once you walk through the doors you will be in unfamiliar territory. The Apple Store sells regular pc computer, Subway sells byrek (Albanian snack food kind of like pie), the Adidas store sells Nike shoes, and the Polo Ralph Lauren store sells Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger knock-offs.

At first I was so confused as to how the stores could literally print the exact same logo from an American company, post it outside their store, sell whatever they want under that name, and now have a lawsuit. But then I realized that I was thinking like an American. In this country, the legal system is almost non-existent. No one will sue you for fals advertisment or copyright infringement. And no one in the U.S. probably even know that little Joe-Schmo down the street in Shkoder is using the Dominoe’s logo to sell his pizzas.

Even more ironic, is that it’s not like these stores get more business because of their American sign fronts and logos. Albanians don’t even know what Subway and Dominoe’s is, so they aren’t fooled into associating the two, I promise you. So why do they do it?

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These stores are usually started by the child or relative of a local Shkodran who has been outside the country, seen these labels, and thought it would drum up some foreign business if they used an American name. So maybe it works on the few foreigners who pass through Shkoder for an exotic vacation. But for the most part, it’s just a tease for the volunteers living here to walk by fake McDonald’s arches every day and not be able to walk in and order a Big Mac.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

It’s a small world after all

It felt really weird to be back in Shkoder all by myself after spending 2 weeks living with 15 teenage girls at the beach in Velipoja. I’m not going to lie, I started to miss them all when I first got back. But then I got back into the swing of things and was enjoying my alone time again…when a strange thing happened. 

I was sitting alone in my kitchen eating dinner, when from below my window I heard “Danielle?” I thought I must be imagining it since my landlord is away in Montenegro. But then I heard it again- “Danielle?” So I opened the door and looked outside and saw one of the girls from my camp standing on my steps smiling up at me. I couldn’t believe it. Mostly because I live on a private compound and I had no idea how she managed to open the locked doors, but that’s besides the point.

I laughed out loud and asked her how she managed to find where I live. She told me that she just walk around town asking people where “Danielle the American” lives and they all pointed her in this direction. It took her about an hour, but Shkoder’s a big city. I couldn’t help but shake my head and laugh at the fact that complete strangers know where my house is. The Peace Corps staff warned us that being an American in a foreign country is like living in a fishbowl, but I never anticipated this. At least it turned out for the best and I got a surprise visit from one of my favorite people in the city!

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

So you want to live in Albania…

You couldn’t move here if you wanted to. The real estate industry in the country truly amazes me. Mostly because it doesn’t exist. The only real ways to have a house in Albania is to either inherit one from a relative, get married and move in with your spouse’s family (grandparents and all), or buy land in the middle of nowhere and build it yourself. 

I was talking with one of my coworkers at the school about buying houses in Albania, just out of curiosity (wouldn’t it be cool to have an apartment in the city so I could come back and visit friends after my service is done?!). She smiled, and her smile turned into a laugh as she tried to explain that it would be very strange for me to buy someone’s house here. It’s just not something that is done. Houses are passed from generation to generation. Maybe it’s something that goes back to the time of communism when possession of anything was hard to come by. People clinged to the few things they did have. 

But now that communism is over, you’d think there would be a more bustling real estate industry as people now have the freedom to travel and move for the first time in 50 years. That’s not the case. When you marry, it’s still traditional for the woman to move into her husband’s house and take care of his parents and entire family. And if the new couple has many children, it is still customary for the youngest son to inherit the house so that he can live with and take care of his parents until they pass away. The other children need to find good families to marry into, immigrate to another country, or build a new house next door to their parents’…usually on the same small plot of land (whether that’s adding a third story to the house or erecting a new building on the side). 

So I guess if I want to have a house in Albania after I finish my service here, I’ll have to find a nice Albanian boy to marry. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come down to that!

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”