Why I Took a Bus, a Bath, and a Break
Experiences of a new expat in AlbaniaPhoto by Cosiela Borta on Unsplash
I recently moved from Canada to Albania and applied for residency. I have learned many valuable things over the past 48 days, not the least of which is that it is easier to be a tourist than a newcomer. As a tourist, the rules are more or less known. You arrive in a place, see the sights, try the food, and learn how to say “please,” “thank you,” “where is the toilet,” and “I do not understand.” When you move to a place, you survey the neighbourhood you’ve chosen (in my case, arbitrarily, as I had never been to Albania), buy groceries labelled in a foreign language, and hope the few words you know mean what you intend and get you what you need. There is also internal pressure to find your way into your new community.
When you are a tourist, you expect to be stared at in curiosity and amusement. It is not a concern when you know that in a few days or weeks, you will be back in your comfortable surroundings, interacting with people you know. When you relocate, however, to a new town in a new country, it is very different. You are viewed the same way by locals at first, but when you start buying pots and towels, they realize you will be staying — and then you can bet you are being spoken about. Not in any malicious way, but it is still uncomfortable — for this introvert in any case. In the long run, this is actually a good thing: I want my neighbours to gossip enough about me to know when something is amiss. At some point I might need help, and the chatter on the street about that Canadian lady with the pink glasses might serve me well.
Within a week of my arrival in Pogradec, it became apparent that I could engage with my new environment — whether dealing with my landlady, market vendors, or even just scanning the items at the grocery store — for only a couple of hours per day before needing a nap or at least some quiet time. Every time I went out, I had anxiety symptoms (for me, pressure in the chest and heart palpitations). Once I recognized this pattern, I stopped trying to accomplish so much every day. I planned only short forays into the neighbourhood — only one per day and not every day. This helped, but after three weeks or so, I realized that I was inside too much and still really tired, very often.
I sought out information about culture shock. I really do not like the term itself, nor do I like the idea that I am experiencing it. That is pride though; I feel that I was prepared for this change. I do not feel shocked, alarmed, or homesick. I have felt isolated and frustrated, but mostly tired. It is not so shocking that I feel this way. After all, it is a lot to adjust to, and it is just me here, figuring it out. (As an aside, many articles state that it takes six months to a year to adapt, so possibly, this is not my last word on this issue.)
One of the coping strategies the article by Dr Marianne Pogosyan in Psychology Today suggests, is to adopt a tourist mindset. This approach resonates with me and I have embraced it. I now have at least one outing per month planned with an expatriate group in Tirana (the capital city), and for my birthday in two months, I have arranged a trip to Venice. Late last week, I needed to go to the immigration office in the nearby town of Korçë, so I booked an overnight stay at an Airbnb, boarded a local bus and made a mini-vacation of it. My room had a huge clawfoot bathtub. It was marvellous. I do my best thinking in the bath, so decompressing with a long soak definitely helped my mental state.Photo by the author – Royal Korçë Suite, Korçë, Albania, April 2022
Yesterday, a few days after my “retreat,” I went out several times. It was not planned. I needed to get some visa documents scanned and buy some groceries. The office supply shop where I made the scans, had received some good-quality canvases, so instead of getting fruits and vegetables, I bought a canvas and took it back to my apartment. I did a mental “how am I doing” check, and decided to go back out for the produce. Once home again, I repeated the assessment and then went out for a walk on the beach to take some photos.Photo by the author – Lake Ohrid, Pogradec, Albania, April 2022
It was quite cold, but the colour of the water was amazing. Three excursions into my new world and no major anxiety. Tomorrow, who knows? I will gauge my state of comfort and let the day evolve. I believe moving to Albania was a really good choice for me. It took me a year to research, plan, and execute this life-change. And despite the difficult moments, at no time have I wished to move back to Canada or to try a different country. I like it here; I just need to be patient. It will take as long as it takes to feel at home and build the life I envision.
Culture shock aside, in the short time I have been here, I have learned a variety of interesting things. I have expanded my Albanian vocabulary, learned that walking for 10km is my daily limit (for now), oil paint gets thick in the cold and is difficult to work with. I like tzatziki on potatoes, sandwiches, and qofte (Albanian meatballs, pronounced chofta), love Turkish coffee, and can break open walnuts with my hands.Photo by the author — Turkish sand coffee
In the story I wrote in August of last year, I outline everything I thought Albania was going to be for me. Happily, I was pretty on-target. The only thing I got quite incorrect, was the amount of English spoken here: there really is not much. I am remedying that with a language teacher for an hour, twice per week.
As a final note — to calm or ground myself, I need only walk 100 meters to the shore of Lake Ohrid and listen to the waves and the birds. I can go farther afield to neighbouring villages or countries. There is so much I do not know and have not seen yet. I am so fortunate to be here.
Far from where I was born, I feel closer to who I am.
If you are interested in seeing my photos and artwork created in Albania, you will find it all at my main website.
Other stories on the process of relocating: