Chats, Chums, and Cherry Compote – Loving Life as an Expatriate in Albania
By Karen Espig
Photo by the author — Vincent, the expat-cat enjoying the garden in Pogradec (June 2022)
About two months ago, I wrote an article about my experience and challenges as a new expatriate. The struggle definitely continues and evolves, but I can feel the progress of the time in-between. The response to that article has been wonderful. Thank you to the many people who took the time to reach out to me with responses of, “you’ve got this” or, “this is me, right now!” I am glad that I shared how I was feeling, and honored that some have shared their similar experiences with me.
So here I am again, with updates, some thoughts on integrating, and maybe even some inspiration. Happily, the weather has much improved since I first arrived in February. With the warmer temperature and coming tourist season, Pogradec has transformed. There are wild and cultivated flowers and trees blooming in quick succession, and more businesses opening up. The park area is now a sequence of outdoor patios that overlook the water. It is marvelous and healing.
Photo by the author — The temporary patio for Sherlock Pub in Pogradec
Learning the language
Of course, if you are not staying in one place, you likely won’t be fluent anywhere you go; but I think one should at least learn the basics: “hello/goodbye,” “please/thank-you,” and the really vital “I do not understand,” and “where is the toilet?”. If you are staying long-term, I believe it is important (and respectful) to learn more, even just some grocery items and a few more phrases. There are a few apps (free and otherwise) and plenty of YouTube videos available, and of course finding new friends who are native speakers is even better.
Once I decided that Albania would be my destination country, I began online language lessons with Luli Thomai, a native Albanian speaker and English language teacher. This continues to be a worthwhile investment as she teaches me, not only grammar, but also about the regional culture and history. I won’t lie — it is not easy and sometimes it feels like my brain is going to melt, but I try to focus on what I have already learned and not on what I do not yet know. Six months ago, I knew not one word of Albanian and had not heard it spoken; now I can order several kinds of coffee (Turkish being my new favorite), buy fresh cheese by the kilo, request brown bread, ask the price of things, and tell people where I am going, to name but a few new skills.
Because my language level is that of a five-year-old (okay, maybe seven now), I feel like I am sometimes treated like a child. Keeping in mind that I have decades of life experience and have orchestrated and implemented a move across the ocean, this is more than a little humbling (and irritating). If, however, you find yourself feeling this way, keep in mind that the person is probably trying to help you and make sure you get what you need. Until you can go it alone, grin and bear it goes a long way. Rest assured, there are times when I have had all the Albanian language and help I can take, and I hide out in my apartment on video calls with English-speaking friends and Netflix binge-watching.
If you are trying to integrate, do not underestimate your need for your own culture.
Photo by the author — The boardwalk along lake Ohrid, Pogradec in June.
Tips for connecting
Prior to my move overseas, I joined numerous Facebook and Instagram expat, tourist, and local service sites. There is a wealth of information if you scroll through the posts or do a search in the group to find the answers to your questions. Now I join the expat groups for countries I will visit as a tourist, since I will find practical tips regarding banking, local transport, and events (written in English) this way.
To really get the most from online groups, be sure to participate — ask questions and provide answers.
As a general rule, be open and friendly. Since you will have left many (or all) of your friends and family behind in your home country, you will need to make new ones. This takes time—a lot of it—but it is crucial to enrich both your experience and your ability to adjust. The person you haven’t met is your soon-to-be best friend, language tutor, or travel companion.
Since, and in part because of, that first article, I have begun several new friendships and happily found, not one but two, compatible travel companions. I will be joining one of them (they’re travelling north for the summer) in Hungary in a few weeks. The other new friend passed on some work to me (creating art for a paper shop). One reader even offered me some work writing for an online lifestyle publication, and I have already written eight short articles for them. Having more connections and a few deadlines has been helpful in the process of creating my new life and habits.
Find a new way of doing a familiar favorite
I love my native Canada’s maple syrup. Back home, it was a staple in my kitchen. I used it liberally — some might say excessively — in my coffee and iced tea, and on yoghurt, oatmeal, French toast, fresh fruit, ham, sausages, and tourtière. In Albania, maple syrup is not a thing, but homemade bread and delicious local preserves are. When that delicious bread goes past its prime, I make myself my familiar French toast, but with an Albanian twist: fresh fruit and syrup from whatever preserves I have on the go.
Right now, that is orange sections (they call it marmalade, but the oranges are not diced) that I purchased in Berat; but often it is peach halves in syrup, which are also local. I have sourced maple syrup here, but as it costs about $35 CDN per litre, I consider it a luxury item. Every once in a while, as a treat, my French toast gets a good soak in it.
Photo (and jam!) by the author — French toast with marmalade syrup
Learn to be okay with making mistakes because you are going to make so many mistakes, it will become the new normal. I like to rebrand some mistakes as experiments, especially when buying groceries with labels I cannot read. Maybe the food will be the anticipated delight, or maybe it will be an unexpected new experience. (The tricky part is that not all labels are in Albanian — they might be in Macedonian, Greek, Italian, or Turkish. Once in a blue moon, there is even an English label.)
I purchased butter that I thought was cheese, and fruit concentrate that I thought was juice. I have confidently spoken the incorrect greeting or good-bye at the incorrect time on too many occasions to count. One weird thing that happens is I frequently substitute a French word when I do not know or cannot remember the Albanian one. C’est la vie!
The more you try to re-create your old life, the more you hold yourself back from your new one. If your goal is to integrate (to the degree a foreigner can) into your new community and country, you need to let go of your old life and your old habits, and allow for everything to be different. Not everything will be different, but allow for it just the same. There will be things that are better or more suited to your nature in your new home if you are open to change. For me, I love that in Albania you buy and eat seasonally.
Every week, new fruits come into season, and when they become very abundant, the prices even drop. Most fresh produce is sold by independent sellers with shops side-by-side along the street. In Canada, you can pretty much buy everything all the time, which is
convenient, but the trade-off is that it is mostly sourced from large commercial farms — so, not fresh and not local. Prices, also, do not drop.
I frequently have no idea about what is being said, being asked, or going on around me; but I have got more accustomed to not feeling weird about it, and just going with the flow. I view this as progress. I am at least putting myself in the situation, in the expectation that someday, somehow, it will make sense. I smile, shrug, and gesture a lot.
Photo by the author — Border crossing from North Macedonia
It is not my goal to become Albanian; it is my goal to learn the ways and values of my new home as I present and express who I am: a mix of cultures that, like my art, is a work in progress.
If you are struggling as an expat, please reach out to your friends, groups, or me. You are definitely not alone and it does get better.
If you are interested, below is part one of this series and more, related content.
My main webpage and social media – The Albania Notebooks