Saturday, Sept. 17: After an 11 hour plane ride, I arrived in Tirana, Albania around 2:30 in the afternoon. I had WiFi/Internet in Chicago and Vienna, so I had been in contact with Nick for most of the day. However, once I landed in Tirana, I was without it and I panicked... Anne had warned me about customs and I was nervous. Once I got to the customs window, I presented my passport- the lady looked at it, asked, "is this your first time in Albania?" Hesitantly, I said "yes" thinking she'd have me searched or something but she handed my book back and said "enjoy your trip"... then I walked through the gate, took a slight left, and there he was in a crowd of people with a bouquet of white and peach roses. He motioned for me to meet him outside the crowd and we hugged (honestly, can't remember if I kissed him- don't think so), and we went to get my bag and walked out to his car. Nick's city's soccer team (KF Tirana) had a game that afternoon he wanted to get to so we left soon after. The skies were clear until we got into the stadium and buckets of rain started falling. I have never seen such torrential downpours of rain. The fans didn't care though- the boys took off their shirts and the cheering only got louder as the thunder and lightening moved in. Eventually, the rain got too heavy, so we walked [ran] back to the car. However, on the way back to the car, we ran into his dad, uncle, and cousin who were headed to the soccer game; despite the rain.The entire car ride (from the airport to soccer game, then soccer game to apartment), I was taking pictures and absorbing as much of the landscape as I could. Tirana is the capitol so it's a lot of buildings, but they're all different [bright] colors: purples, greens, blues, pinks... it's really gorgeous! His sister's best friend agreed to let us stay in her apartment for the week so we decided to head over there and check it out. It was such an adorable space: two bedrooms and a bathroom, kitchen attached to the living room, and a balcony overlooking the street/cafe. After unpacking, and getting settled, we fell asleep and didn't wake up until late the next morning.
Sunday, September 18: *my birthday* Nick was adorable because all of the sudden, after popping the champagne cork, he went into the hallway and came back in the apartment with a box, asking "what time is?" I had legitimately forgotten the day/date and was like "somewhere around midnight, probably?" so I checked the clock and it was 12:06 am and he presented the box which had an absolutely gorgeous gold and silver bracelet with two diamond hearts at the center. The next morning, we woke up and decided to go to Tirana Lake: it's a man made lake in the middle of the city. Surrounding the lake is a walking path and a park. Coffee cafes are very popular in Albanian culture and it's customary to "take a coffee" with friends in the morning (any time of day, really)... it's a very small [tea] cup filled with a bitter espresso like coffee.. it's thick and dark brown. To be honest, I really didn't like it that first day. Nick even gave me sugar to put in it, and I didn't like it. So then we walked around the lake and walking path/bike path for an hour or two-- just talking. After the lake, Nick wanted to show me downtown Tirana- the President's house, Parliament, the Prime Minister's house. We toured the national museum, he showed me the opera house, and the national clock tower, and Skanderbeg Square- which is, unfortunately, under construction. Skanderbeg is an Albanian hero who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in 1443-1447. Tirana also has a pyramid in the middle of the city which used to be a museum about the communist leader of Albania in the 1980's, but has since been closed. Although people do climb to the top, we did not.
Tuesday, September 20: Everyday seemed like paradise, but this day will forever be one of my favorite days (of my entire life). We woke up in his parent's house and he made me a frappuccino to go; it even had milk in it! This tasted much more like what I am used to drinking in the states. It had sugar, milk, and coffee; there was nothing bitter about it! This is the day we visited Kruja castle and the Skanderbeg National museum. We had no real timeline, but getting to the castle was sort of a guessing game: unlike many places in the states, there's really only one road which takes you from one town to another in Albania. However, once you reach the mountain which the castle is sat upon, the roads become less and less clear. It's such a rural part of Albania that it left us questioning if we were headed in the right direction. The road was paved but there were no cars on it, goats and chickens everywhere, and seemingly the only people around were local farmers on their land. So we kept climbing the mountain: going until we couldn't go any further. We decided to park the car and walk the remaining way up the mountain. On the walk to the castle, there was a small market that sold Albanian souvenirs (we stopped and bought some on the way back down the mountain). Once we had climbed to the top, there was a portion of the old castle that hadn't been reconstructed- we explored that area some: climbed stairs to no where, took cute pictures on the rocks, enjoyed the views. The museum is like any other: it chronicles the battle between Skanderbeg and the Ottoman sultan Murad II. Murad is reported to have had 100,000 men and Skanderbeg only 17,500, yet he defeated the sultan after four months of battle. After the museum, we walked around the grounds some more and decided to have lunch. Our table overlooked the valley from which we'd come. However, just below us was a group of people who we concluded were shooting a music video: a man in a top hat was riding a small merry-go-round. We couldn't exactly figure out what was going on but their behavior was such that not much else made sense.. there was a man with a camera following the man in the top hat and a group of others sitting at a laptop off to the side. This was the first time I'd eaten traditional Albanian, aside from the soup and cheese at his parents. We ordered: salad with olives, lemon, cucumbers, onions, and feta, cornbread (it wasn't sweet like American cornbread, but still very good), tave dheu (chicken or beef liver in a tomato sauce), white cheese, and "mixed meat" which consisted of pork chops, ribs, beef patties, sausage. My favorite thing was a pancake with beef and cheese in the middle. If I am ever on death row, I will be ordering traditional Albanian food as my last meal. On the drive back down the mountain, we came to a fork in the road and weren't sure which way to go, so I said to go left (I always choose left). Unfortunately, this was the wrong direction and we found ourselves dead ended into a gentleman's farmland. After turning around, we realized that another car had followed us and it became clear that both cars were not going to fit on the road. It was small insignificant moments like this one that made me fall even deeper in love with Nick: not once did he get frustrated or angry that I'd told him to go left. I could tell he was a little annoyed, but not at me, we laughed about it and he took my hand and kissed it, as he always did when he was driving. Once we got back to the apartment, Nick went out and picked up bagel chips, sunflower seeds, and beer while I showered. Nick had sent me photos of 'Birra Tirana' (Tirana's local beer), so it was only appropriate that I try it. I don't drink a lot, and I definitely don't drink a lot of beer, so it didn't taste any different from other's I'd tasted. He can shuck sunflower seeds with his teeth at an alarming rate. I could have spent every night next to him on the couch talking for hours; it may be my favorite night that we spent together.
It was delicious and I could have eaten it forever. To drink, I always order water and I think Nick ordered coke (which is the exact same as American coke). After the cable cars we went back to the apartment and took a nap. I always love hanging out with his sister (Albana) and her sons, so that evening we went to the soccer field built by his brother in law. It's built in a small valley surrounded by cow fields and country houses; it's really quaint, actually. There was a camp going on so we sat in the clubhouse and watched. Albana's husband stopped by for a few minutes and then his mother came to sit with us- she didn't know any English but Nick and Albana were able to translate. As everyone else who met us had done, she wished me and Nick the best of luck together. Albana and I sat and talked about my trip thus far, she asked about future plans between Nick and I... it was really nice to sit and talk with her, as women and as mothers. After the camp ended, Nick and his nephews took the field and shot around until it got dark. Initially, I stayed off the field but once most everyone had left, I joined the boys.Once it got dark, we drove his cousins home and hung out at his parent's house before returning to the apartment, split a bottle of wine, and watched a movie until bedtime.
Thursday, Sept. 22: We probably should have gone to the beach earlier in the week because Thursday morning was rainy and cold. But we decided to go anyway. The beach is in Durres which is about 40 minutes east of Tirana; along the Adriatic sea. The 'highway' to get there is more the comparable to a two lane boulevard in America: but in it's defense, there are a lot less vehicles on the road. I also did not see any semi-trucks; only buses. By the time we reached the beach, the weather had changed back to sunny and warm enough for a t-shirt and shorts. There weren't too many people there so we walked along the boardwalk. Once at the end of the boardwalk, there were large concrete stairs that we climbed for a better view. The water was beautiful- a bright aqua blue- but Nick said the water was clear and even more lovey in the south of Albania (maybe one day I'll get there). There was a fisherman statue that Nick asked me to take pictures with. He took more pictures of me while I was unaware of it than I would have preferred. Even though I hate my picture taken, I knew it would be a long time before he saw me again, so I obliged. After walking the boardwalk, we stopped for dessert and coffee. The dessert we ate wasn't tiramisu but was more of a sponge cake with chocolate frosting and syrup poured over it (I think it's called ravani but I am not sure). At any rate, it was delicious. As always, the conversation flowed and we laughed a lot. We drove to a cafe called 'Bar-Tirana' which backed onto the beach and from there we walked up and down, hand in hand. There were a few sunbathers on the beach- some of them looked like regulars- skin like leather while others seemed to just be enjoying the day. It was too cold for either of us to go in the water but some others ventured in. Although there weren't many people on the beach, some restaurants still had their colorful umbrellas out. And we passed a place to rent dune buggies and pedal boats. It seems like all we did is eat, and it's probably a fair assessment: eat and rest... but at the beach I finally got to eat fish and shrimp (my favorite)! Mom asked what kind the fish was but he wasn't able to think of the correct English translation so we're still not sure. It was white and mild though; very good! The fish came whole: head attached, scales on, eye balls in the socket (which Nick sucked out and ate). Nick taught me how to eat the fish in such a way that I wasn't eating bone and yet I got the most meat possible. We also had salad, and bread. Nick and his friends took vacation to Durres earlier in the summer and on the way home they stopped at a beautiful scenic cafe that overlooked a dam and a ravine. Being the romantic that he is, wanted to take me there, so we drove the scenic route home. This is where I finally tried the traditional Albanian coffee for the second time and really enjoyed it! I don't know if it was the atmosphere or the recipe, but with enough sugar (two packs), it's was good! Back at the apartment I showered and got ready to go out while Nick ran some errands. I packed a dress I planned to wear out, but decided it was too formal so I wore black pleather pants and a blue tank, and heels. We drove around for a good half hour looking for parking spots downtown, but when we got out, we walked around an area where families could bring their kids to jump on trampolines, play in an arcade, watch a movie... all outside; it was like a mini-fair in the middle of the city.I will never forget what he said to me as we were walking together. Out of the blue he said, "I am so proud to walk through my city with you" I could have died: it's a moment every girl waits her entire lifetime for. What's more is that he has no idea what it meant to me; he was just being Nick, thinking out loud. He says those kind of things all the time and it turns my world upside down.After walking for some time, we went to a bar where I ordered a drink and Nick got a redbull and people watched (which is always fun in a country where the people are some of the most gorgeous in the world). The culture in Albania is such that people dress however they choose. It's a parliamentary representative democratic republic where 60% of the population is Muslim while 17% is Christianity, and atheism was at one point the national religion so there's no dress code imposed on anyone.In fact, it's very easy to forget you're not in America while walking the streets of Tirana. I have to be honest and say I don't remember most of what we talked about because whereas my drink was supposed to be mixed, it was basically straight alcohol and I drank the entire thing. But of course I remember that we went to eat afterward: I will never get tired of ordering the same foods in Albania but this time we ordered beers and different meats. Nick's friends had been begging him to hang out all week so we went back to the apartment where I crawled into bed and he went to play cards with his boys. He wanted me to include the part of this night where he came home (around 2:00/2:30 in the morning) and woke me up-- he swears I was scared out of my skin and had a panic attack.The combination of tipsy, and recently awoken, makes it hard to remember specific details, but I do remember he couldn't stop laughing, and am grateful that it was Nick and no one else in the apartment.
Friday, Sept 23: Nick's uncle had a job to do in a different city, so he had the car. We missed the first bus so we walked, for a long time, into the city. We walked through a large street market; I'd never seen these before (aside from on tv), but venders were selling clothing and souvenirs: everything from tennis shoes, shirts, underpants, to dishes, magnets, and key chains. We stopped in a booth of knickknacks but didn't end up buying anything there. I had been talking about wanting to get a band, as a promise to wait for him in the states. After we walked through the marketplace, he took me into a jewelry store and bought me a white gold band with inlaid with diamonds that I picked out; it's really beautiful. The jeweler asked where I was from and when he told her America, she said I was adorable and I thanked her in the best Albanian I could. We still had some time before we were going to meet his friends for lunch so we went to a roof-top cafe which overlooked the city of Tirana. He ordered an orange soda (which was more like a tango drink we have in the states), We finished our drinks and continued our walk to the bus stop where we caught a bus headed to the mall. Orlando, Nick's friend, picked us up from there and took us to lunch with more friends. It was a gorgeous restaurant where we met his friends: we had our own private gazebo and ordered food to share. His friends ordered wine, but having remembered how silly I get when I drink wine, Nick teased that I wasn't allowed any. Aside from Orlando, his only other friend who understands English is Dana. However, she said I spoke too fast (even when I slowed down) for her to completely understand me. It was awesome how comfortable I felt around them, even though I didn't know the language- over the week I grew accustomed to not understanding the language but instead to pay attention to body language and social cues. I could tell Nick was enjoying himself, telling his friends all about our week together- I think he also got a few jokes out about me without me understanding. But he never allowed it to be awkward; he included me in everything he did: translated the best he could, and enjoyed my company. It was a new, and wonderful feeling, to feel so accepted. I drank a little too much wine (just as I had done a few nights before) but no one minded. Orlando drove everyone home: the boys' girlfriends crammed into the backseat and I sat on Nick's lap for the ride. I really hated to leave because I know, given the chance, we'd all be friends. We changed clothes and headed out to his parents house for my last dinner in Albania. His sister and nephews were there, his aunt, uncle, and cousins were there, as well as his younger brother and parents. While waiting for dinner, Nick asked me to get him some water so I went into the kitchen where is mom was cooking. She wanted me to sample the food, so I tasted a fried something that she had handed me. It was delicious but she didn't know English and wasn't able to tell me what it was. When I asked Nick he said "insides" -- so I am taking that to mean intestines and organs of whatever animal she'd been cooking. His mom also made pasta, cucumber yogurt, grilled chicken, and a sweet bread dessert. It was a bittersweet dinner - everyone was making jokes and having a good time but we also all knew I was leaving in the morning. Albana asked me about the girls, my flight home, and how I'd enjoyed my trip. I miss his her tremendously: she and Nick are close in age, so they are very much alike, and we get on well. I know that if we lived close, we'd be good friends and our kids would be too.
Finally by Friday, Nick's four year old nephew, Seadi, was willing to sit with me and take a picture. We had been working, all week, to get him aquainted with me so I was happy when he agreed. Nick's dad asked about my drive home, from Chicago- although he spoke in Albanian, I immediately knew what he was asking. I sincerely miss the language... it's not a romance language, and it's [honestly] not the most elegant or beautiful, but I fell in love with it and I miss it. **Thankfully, I have an app which allows me to listen to radio stations from around the world so I often turn on Tirana's top radio station. One night. after dinner, (it was not Friday, but I can't remember when it was) everyone filed downstairs (to his uncle's house) to watch one a tv show series that airs every week: the show was in Turkish with Albanian subtitles: witho
ut the picture, I had no idea what was happening. But,I wasn't paying enough attention to follow it either way. After dinner, I said my goodbyes: was able to get pictures with Nick's parents, and Albana took us back to the apartment. My idea of packing for a trip home is to dump everything [dirty] into one compartment of the suitcase, close it up, and go home. Apparently, this horrified Nick becuase he insisted on re-packing for me. However, it was getting late so we decided to save the packing for the morning and head to bed.
Saturday: Sept. 24: My flight left Tirana at 3pm (15:00) so I wanted to be at the airport by 1pm (13:00) which means we had to wake early and pack. Nick made sure to carefully wrap my souvenirs in between t-shirts. Albana gave the girls a soccer ball from the field so Nick found a way to make that fit as well. Furthermore, his mom had made candies and sweet bread for me to take home so those were packed. Traveling to Albania, my suitcase weighed 41lbs (18kg) and returning to the states, it weighed 52lbs (23kg). But, Nick was able to make everything fit. We took a coffee for the last time that morning- I had a frappe and Nick had his usual Albanian coffee. I remember that we didn't say much- I was already struggling with the inevitable separation. As he always does, Nick was trying to cheer me up: making me laugh, kissing my hand and eyes, singing in the car, and making me laugh. He was wonderful when I was in the worst moods of my life. In hindsight, I should have ignored my sadness about having to leave and been present in the moment but my mind was too clouded. At the airport, we ate (as always) and hung outside the departure gates waiting for my flight. When that time came, we hugged and kissed and I started down the hallway for security. I could see Nick watching me as I went through the motions. I also watched him turn and walk away as I passed through security and onto my gate. Before arriving at my gate, I ducked into the bathroom and cried, as hard as I could, in the first stall I came to. And then I cried on the plane, for the entire hour and a half to Vienna. I sat in an aisle seat and am sure my seat mates thought I was crazy, but they never said anything to me. Once in Vienna, I had to go through passport screening (without incident), and then I was stuck there for 16 hours, overnight. This wait time still makes Nick upset, and I wish I could have spent one more night with him too, but I purchased the cheapest tickets available and this layover was probably why they were so reasonable. I had every intention of sleeping; the Vienna airport had actual beds. However, there were no blankets or pillows. I realize I sound very spoiled, but it was freezing, I was sleep deprived, and emotionally unstable. Within the hour of arriving in Vienna, Nick called and that was very helpful. Perhaps people don't know, but airports shut down just like every other business... for nearly 12 hours I was the only passenger in one wing of the Vienna airport. For much of those hours, I danced to Albanian music on the moving sidewalks and in the empty hallways. I finally had internet again, so I trolled Instagram and facebook, ect... I laid down but was never able to actually fall asleep. I drank coffees and ate croissants, walked around different wings of the airport... just trying to kill time. Since I didn't get any sleep in the airport, I hoped to sleep on the plane but that didn't happen either. Instead, I watched four movies, and ate breakfast and lunch. I flew into Chicago, and immediately drove to Anne's house in Glencoe. I debated about whether to drive home or take a nap, and I decided to nap for a few hours. I woke up and went downstairs to tell Anne about my trip. I remember Larry (my brother-in-law) and his dad came to watch the Bears game on the couch, but I fell asleep soon after they sat down. The next morning, I woke up, ate breakfast, chatted with Anne for a while and then drove five hours home. I was able to get in a short nap before having to report at work at 11pm (23:00). I fell asleep at work that night- a nurse politely tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up. And I spent the next week in a depression I really wasn't sure I'd get out of. It wasn't until Nick skyped me on Saturday (?) that I was able to be myself again.
After thoughts: I wish I had taken the time to make every second last just a little longer: held his hand more, kiss him a few more times, made him laugh more often (I'd die to hear that man laugh just one more time). I wish I could have stopped time, and in the moment, I thought I was doing everything to make it last.
Every chance I got, I was taking video and/or pictures of the streets. Since he lives in the capitol, it's quite Americanized. There aren't too many [visible] cultural differences, although their driving is something out of a horror film. The city is compact, so most everyone walks everywhere. The climate is mid to high '70s, so people were in summer clothes. The temperature rarely drops below 45°, even in the winter nights.
There were many times when we hung out at the apartment, talking, or watching movies, sometimes just playing games on our phones. These were my favorite. One of the earlier days, we laid in bed and watched a Kevin Hart comedy show. It's hard not to fall in love with someone when he's cry-laughing at jokes he's heard a thousand times. There's something so pure and innocent in those moments that I couldn't help but love him.
Nothing was ever forced, or awkward, between us. It was as if I got off the plane and my soul said, "oh there he is; I've been looking for him my whole life." I've never felt more myself, comfortable, better understood, or more deeply loved by anyone in my entire life. I felt home, safe, complete... I wish I had the words to describe it. I immediately felt like I was right where I belonged... His sister told me he and I acted as if we'd known each other our whole lives. I told her I think we have; our spirits are too familiar.
Nick-isms: "Why do I love you so much? You still haven't told me"
- He teases me and says, "you're so damn ugly!" (I know he really means the exact opposite). He told me one time "you're probably really ugly, but my love-struck eyes see you as the most beautiful girl"