Let me say it: I didn’t like Albania
In the summer of 2018, I backpacked for 3 months in Eastern Europe. I am a huge fan of the Balkans, so I was excited to head to Albania for the first time. But when I arrived in the country, I just wanted to leave.
I gave myself time to adjust: I explored Shkodra, moved on to Tirana, but after 5 days in Albania, I found myself in my hostel room browsing the Internet for cheap flights. The soonest and cheapest was headed to Budapest. The next day, I landed in the Hungarian capital.
Saying you don’t like a country is not as simple as saying you don’t like broccoli. You can eat broccoli plain, with sauce, in a soup… but that’s about it. If you don’t like the taste, you don’t. A country is a lot more like an onion: it has so many layers, you can’t simply say you don’t like it.
What don’t you like exactly? The food, the weather, the people, the landscapes, the culture, the architecture, the prices, the local habits, the language? Let’s say you don’t like the food. Do you dislike all foods? Or just a couple of dishes? What if you try those same dishes in another restaurant? Or homemade? What if the seasoning was slightly different, would you like it then?
When visiting a country, you usually spend a few days there, maybe a couple of weeks. Therefore, most things you’ll come across will be circumstantial.
The people you meet? They are an extremely small subset of the whole population.
The restaurants you go to? They are a handful out of the thousand in the country.
The weather? Maybe you are lucky, or maybe it rains every single day of your trip.
In the end, what you have is your experience.
I didn’t like my experience in Albania for several reasons, some of which were circumstantial. At that point, I had been on the road for 2 months straight and was getting tired of traveling non-stop. Was this Albania’s fault? Definitely not. Also, right before, I had visited Montenegro, my favorite country in the world. Anything that would come after it, would be less impressive. Not Albania’s fault. The weather was incredibly hot and mosquitos kept biting me all the time. Again, not Albania’s fault.
But the main reason that made me dislike Albania was that, for the first time in my wandering journey, I felt uncomfortable traveling solo as a woman. In some restaurants, I was the only woman sitting down to eat. Walking on the streets was uncomfortable, as men, sitting on sidewalks, would stare at me as I passed by. Once, I asked for directions from a young guy, who responded not with instructions but with questions about why I was alone and where was my boyfriend. I returned to the hostel later that day to find out a girl also staying there had gotten 2 marriage invitations from strangers on the street.
As a writer, what should you say?
It’s rare to come across travel essays that tear negative comments about a place. I think it comes down to two reasons.
The first is what was stated above: writers know that their experience of a place is exactly that, their experience. And that is different from the place itself, objectively.
The second is that writers know that, being a bridge between the place and the reader, their words have an impact. If a well-known writer states that Albania is the worst place he ever visited, that can negatively influence the country’s reputation and its ability to attract tourists and, therefore, compromise the livelihood of many people who work in the tourism industry. Or it can stigmatize its citizens when they go abroad. It creates a culture of intolerance, judgment, and closure: everything that travel stands against.
However, as a writer, you also have the responsibility of sharing the truth, and the truth is not always rainbows and butterflies. So, how should you do it?
It comes down to how you speak your truth. Words that offend entire countries and cultures are never right. Bringing down a city or region because of a bad experience is a self-centered way to look at the world and shouldn’t be promoted.
But if you provide context, and keep a respectful tone towards the country and the people, if you emphasize that you are writing about your own experience, and if you also mention the good side of your trip (there is always one!), then you’re doing right by your readers when you share what was not so good too.
In Albania’s case, I wouldn’t feel right to recommend it as a destination, especially to a woman, without warning her about the male-oriented culture that is deeply rooted in the country. But I would also tell her about the beautiful scenery, the great southern weather, and the helpful ways of many locals.
One thing doesn’t invalidate the other, they both exist and should be acknowledged. In 2018, Dear Alyne, traveler and videomaker, posted a video where she stated Albania was her favorite country. Just a week later, she posted another video where she shared her terrible experience in an Albanian tv show. She was a guest with her boyfriend, Nas Daily, and the host asked him whether he travels to meet girls. In front of Alyne. She burst out in anger, which transformed into tears, and morphed into that video where she calls out the sexism of that society.
This is also part of being a travel writer: standing up when you need to. Don’t call out an entire country because a waiter was rude to you. That doesn’t make you a truth-teller, it makes you an oversensitive prick. But don’t shy away from your responsibility either. Travel writing is not about making people feel we all live in a perfectly wonderful little world. We don’t, and we all know this. Travel writing is about showing the world as it is, with all the multitudes it contains: the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Do you know what’s funny? When I look at pictures from that long trip across Eastern Europe, some of the most beautiful ones were shot in Albania. I was almost shocked when, months later, I realized how pretty those places were, and how different they were from the images I had kept in my mind.
I would like to visit Albania again. Maybe some things will have changed by then. Or maybe not, but my circumstances will be different. Being a travel writer is also this: having an insatiable appetite for the world, in whatever form it comes to you. And knowing that, places, as people, always deserve a second chance.