The civil unrest of 1997, triggered by the Ponzi scheme failures and in which over two thousand people were killed while the country plunged into chaos, did not portray a good image of the country. Images of aggravated protestors, who had nothing but their lives to lose, throwing stones at the police forces, are still vivid in their minds.
If that were not enough, your parents might tell you about the Albanian refugees that migrated in the ‘90s in Europe and elsewhere, after the Communist regime collapsed and borders were opened for the very first time. It could be something not far from “remember those lazy poor kids with no manners that joined your class years ago? Well, they were from Albania”. And again, your parents are not to be blamed because often, that was the case. After the fall of the communist regime when the borders opened, people from all over Albania wanted to flee the country. Many of them, coming from deep rural areas had never seen a TV before, they had only imagined in a very utopist way, this ideal Western world – outside of Albania, but in which they were never permitted to go – where there was enough food, jobs and high salaries for everyone.
If your parents were not convincing enough, then perhaps you should watch the movie Taken, where Albanian human traffickers kidnap a former CIA operative’s daughter. Thus, it is not to be surprised that when you google Albania to do a little research on the country before visiting it, you will be reading all sorts of questions that people ask. For instance, is it safe to fly to Albania on my own since I’m a girl? Which are the safest cities in the country? If I stay in a hostel will my belongings be safe?
On the other hand, you’d be surprised from people’s answers to these questions. Starting from Albania is actually safer to visit than many other European countries, to Albanian people are very friendly and welcoming; and all else in between, you’d be amazed from all the positive comments people have said about the country. If you go a step further and read blogs than westerners have written, sharing their experience while living and working in the country, you definitely would not listen to your parents and would visit this mysterious country yourself.
You will be surprised; I’m sure, on how warm and welcoming Albanians are. You will be surprised to see that there is very little (not to say none) personal space, to see how random people will talk to you and ask you the weirdest (personal) questions, how they will insist on feeding you, to have you try Albanian cuisine, to tell you proudly about the country’s history and you will be surprised for sure to see the large number of bunkers all over the country!
Nevertheless, what you will be even more surprised of, if you have not kept up with the news, is to see the enormous progress that the country’s government has made lately.
For instance, for the very first time government officials talked openly about Lazarat, the country’s illegal drug city, last year. They did not only talk about it, the government finally took Lazarati under control and stopped the illegal growth of marijuana, turning it into a normal safe city. The operation took weeks, but the new government was firm to stamp out the marijuana economy once and forever. As a result of the government’s determination to fight against grey economy, corruption, and to work towards reforming the judicial and administration system, Albania was granted the candidate status for the EU in 2014.
At the same time, the country has made serious progress when it comes to foreign policy and diplomacy. Pope Francis’s historical visit to Albania, where he praised the country’s religious pluralism calling it “a precious gift in today’s world” not only encouraged the people to continue working towards EU integration but it also helped Albania gain more respect in the international arena. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s visits and public speeches abroad, where he continuously calls for unity have given the country more credibility than ever in their path of joining the Eu family where Albania can eventually become a viable part not only of the Balkans but also of the EU itself.
Albania really is a land of contradictions. There are a lot of prejudices associated with the country some of them are right but many of them are wrong. Yet, it is worth giving the country a chance to prove itself. For those of you who have not been to Albania yet but want to visit the country don’t let people’s perceptions discourage you. After all, there must be a reason why eagles fly up high in Albania.