Tirana, Albania Report of what it's like to live there - 10/01/11
Personal Experiences from Tirana, Albania
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
From Washington DC with connections the trip will take you about 14 hours through Munich or Vienna. There is more to do at the Munich airport if you have a choice between the two.
3. How long have you lived here?
Summer 2009- Summer 2011
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The Embassy compound is nice with a playground and pool and is easy walk to the Embassy. The embassy also offers housing downtown and just outside the city. Traffic can be bad and embassy housing outside the city usually required a 25 minute commute each way.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Most Americans shop at Conad(Italian), Euromax(German)and/or Mercator(Slovenian) grocery stores. The food at these stores is good quality but it can get expensive for Tirana. Unlike many smaller stores, these stores have generators. The power goes out many times a day on some days, so keeping food refrigerated and frozen is an issue.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, salsa, tortilla chips, chicken broth, and any ethnic food items, baby and child meds, Dramamine (for driving through the mountains), Pepto and Immodium.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
People seem to get sick here a lot from food and water, you cannot drink the water. The local fast food is byrek- cheese, spinach or meat baked in phyllo dough. There are not American chains here but some of the Americans like Albanian Fried Chicken (like KFC) and Kolonat (like McDonalds). Eating out here is inexpensive, but groceries can be expensive. There is not a lot of variety here but good food is available. Make sure to look at expiration dates when buying food at the grocery store, you will see expired food being sold. Most food you find in restaurants is Italian.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
There is some variety at the grocery stores mentioned above, but it can be difficult to find ethnic foods. There is also a little German store that tends to carry a lot of difficult to find items. There is also an American store in Selite run mby the missionary community which sells American food items. The embassy is also trying to expand its minimal commissary to offer more foods that are difficult to find here. Vegetarians seem to do well here.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We didn't have any problems with insects, but did find a few scorpions in our house. I'm not sure if they were poisonous.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch mail through the embassy takes about 3 weeks.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Nannies can be hard to find depending on your timing. Domestic help is very affordable and easy to find. Both charge around $3-$4/hour. The Mike Center near the US embassy has a babysitter training and referral program, but expect a babysitter with minimal experience from there.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes but outside gyms can be very expensive if they are decent quality. There is a gym, pool and tennis courts all located on the embassy compound.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Be very careful about using credit cards and ATMs here, there is a risk. There is an ATM at the US embassy, and many places only take cash.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are some English speaking services available at Grace Church in Dinamo and the Catholic Church on the Lana river downtown.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There are some English speaking TV stations on DigiTalb, Albanian cable and on American Forces Network TV if you get a box from the US embassy.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Older people generally do not speak English, but some young do. Knowing basic niceties, phrases to ask directions and grocery store vocabulary will get you by.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
This city is not at all accessible for someone in a wheelchair or with limited mobility.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
There are a few trustworthy taxis, but most will rip you off if you're not a local. We were advised not to take public transportation, but not forbidden to do so.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Roads here are getting much better but can still be pretty rough in some areas. I would also keep the car locked only because there are a lot of beggars knocking on your car windows, but I have not heard of carjacking here. Traffic is crazy, so bring something that will keep you safe, but that you don't mind getting a little banged up.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes but it goes in and out all the time. It costs about $30/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phones are expensive here as are minute plans. The embassy has a good plan for employees and families.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
I don't know the quality but pet care/vets are available.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress code for work is the same as in the states and in public, but Albanian women dress in more revealing, tight clothes and generally wear high heels when out.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There was rioting last January that resulted in 3 deaths revolving around elections. Petty crime is also a concern, I've heard on city buses especially but we never took them. Security here was much more an issue in the past than it is now. I felt relatively safe here as far as crime is concerned. However, Albanians are not particularly safety conscious compared to US standards and driving here is crazy so be prepared for fender benders.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care here is poor and anything major requires a trip outside the country. The embassy health unit is fairly good but small. There are a couple American missionary doctors here that are often used by Americans. The air quality in Tirana is not great. People also frequently get sick from the food and/or water, especially in the summer.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality in Tirana is not great and car exhaust can be nauseating. Move a little outside the city for better air.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Weather here is relatively mild and much like Washington DC. Winters can be wet and snow is very unusual. Summers are hot and can be dry one year and humid the next.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We were very please with Tirana International School, but some families with high school aged children were not. A few people sent their children to GDQ run by the missionary community and were happy with it. There is also a Montessori school.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
The Montessori school has daycare and preschool that appeared to be good. TIS has a preschool that we were very happy with. There is a local preschool with an international program called Topolino that was gaining popularity. There is also an Albanian daycare next to the embassy that some Americans use and seems to have mixed reviews called the Mike Center. The Mike Center planned to open another location with an international program in 2011.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are sports programs for students at TIS. There is a new soccer field on the embassy compound and soccer lessons are offered periodically. I have heard there are martial arts offered in Tirana and there is a dance studio that offers dance lessons by the soccer stadium.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Fairly small, you will know almost everyone. There are also many American missionaries here.
2. Morale among expats:
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There are many bars, clubs, and good restaurants. You can go see the symphony orchestra and the opera. There are art openings and film screenings often. People tend to entertain a lot from home. The cafe scene here is also big and people go out to drink coffee and sit for hours.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Tirana is a rapidly developing city. Most singles and couples without children like it here. There was not a lot to do with young children when we first arrived, but there are increasingly more things to do with children. There are indoor playgrounds for babies and toddlers at most shopping malls and a new mall has an indoor ice skating rink. There are also a number of outdoor cafes and resorts with swimming pools and playgrounds, one with a few zoo animals. There are beaches nearby, although most of the clean beaches are at least a 4 hour drive.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I'm not sure about racial prejudices. If you look different, you will get some looks, only because there aren't many other nationalities here. Albania is mostly Muslim, and there are some Christians. Because Albania was under communism for so long, most people are not very religious. People here seem very religiously tolerant. This is still a very male dominated society, and women in general are not treated equally.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Travel- we have enjoyed traveling quite a bit in and out of Albania. It's probably one of the last places on earth without American chains like McDonalds. You can see amazing historical sites and ruins up close. Albanians love children and you can bring them anywhere, but be ready for strangers to try to hold, hug, and give candy to your children.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
You can visit lots of castles and historic ruins. I've heard of people hiking in the mountains and white water rafting. There are beautiful beaches in the south of the country and traveling around nearby countries is great. The beautiful drive from Albania to Dubrovnik is not to be missed.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Antiques and paintings from Kruje
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Albania is such a great place to travel from. In less than 8 hours you can drive to Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. You can also take the ferry to Italy and Greece, and fly most places in Europe relatively quickly. Hungarian Malev airlines has great deals to many cities from Tirana. Istanbul is a direct 90 minute flight.
11. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Nothing I can think of.
3. But don't forget your:
Patience! Especially driving, and waiting in line anywhere. People will constantly try to cut in front of you.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Albania Bradt travel guide, Lonely Planet Western Balkans, Tirana guide by In Your Pocket
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city: