Tirana, Albania Report of what it's like to live there - 05/18/13
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?
Have lived in: San Salvador, Panama City, and Santiago.
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?
Home base is Salt Lake City, Utah. It takes about 24 hours door to door. Most connections are through Vienna, Rome, or Munich -- then on to the U.S.
3. How long have you lived here?
Assigned from 2011-2013
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?
There are three main housing types for Americans with the embassy: Homes for families with young children, plus a few special positions-- like the Ambassador and DCM -- are located on a housing compound. The compound is maintained by the embassy's grounds crew and includes a swimming pool, gym, playground, and lots of green space for the kids to run around in. Nobody can get on or off the compound without going through security, so children often play and roam freely. This has been the most ideal living situation we've experienced with our three young children. Homes were built by Canadian contractors in the 90s and are very American in style, with wood floors, central a/c and heat, drywall instead of concrete walls, carpeting in bedrooms, etc. Housing on the Ridge also includes a garage and a ton of storage space. This is the most storage we've ever had and it is unheard of in Europe. The Ridge is about half a mile from the embassy. Singles, couples, and some families live in large Albanian homes about fifteen minutes' drive away in an older residential area of Tirana. Homes there are larger than those on the Ridge, have nice enclosed yards with citrus trees, and are of Albanian construction. Heating and cooling can be a frustration in some of these homes, but you do have more space. A third area is located next to the large shopping center and Carrefour grocery store. These are very new townhouses and apartments. The apartments in particular seem to have nice amenities, including access to a community swimming pool. They are spacious, and about a ten- to fifteen-minutes' drive from the embassy, but they are located a little further out of town (about 3.5 miles from the embassy). Although housing on the Ridge has been ideal for us, if you don't have children, or if your children are older, you might not appreciate all the children and close encounters with your colleagues from work.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Local produce is very cheap,and is often purchased at small markets near your home. Locally-consumed products, like rice, pasta, tomato sauces, fish and lamb, is all relatively cheap. Imported goods are very expensive. Overall, our grocery bill here is higher than in Washington, but we purchase a lot of imported goods (Italian cheeses, imported produce, imported meats). If you have access to the diplomatic pouch at the embassy, there are few things you won't be able to get here. Some things require a little searching (i.e., horseradish was spotted in a German drug store in the Block neighborhood, vanilla beans are sold at one grocery store on the highway to the airport, and one store near Embassy Row sells cheddar cheese). This is currently a consumables post, but a lot of people think that will change. With the opening of Carrefour last year, a lot of products are now available that weren't before.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Salsa is hard to find, and the stuff they stock in some of the stores is pretty nasty. Chinese ingredients are available but expensive - soy sauce is like liquid gold. If you don't use it much, that is not a problem. Tortillas can be ordered through the pouch, and there are some available on the local market. Vanilla extract is a must. I have never seen any on the local economy - they use powdered vanilla here - and it won't come through the pouch. We use peppermint extract around the holidays a lot, too. The commissary at the embassy has improved drastically and now carries a great selection of everything from holiday baking goods and specialty foods to frozen meats like ground beef, good steaks, roasts, and ribs.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
U.S. fast food is totally non-existent. Even McDonald's has not yet come to Albania. There are a couple of knock-offs -- Albanian Fried Chicken, and Kolonat - like McDonald's -- but my family went once and has not returned. Fast food here really revolves around pizza, gyro-type sandwiches, and local meatballs (qofte). There are also a few rotisserie chicken places that are good and cheap. For nicer restaurants, there is a selection of very good places. 97% of restaurants in Albania serve the same menu of pasta, thin-crust pizza, and grilled meats. The 3% of original offerings, however, are very good and very reasonable. There is good Thai, decent Chinese, very good sushi, semi-terrible-but-not-too-bad-when-you-really-need-a-fix Mexican restaurant, and a handful of very good European continental cuisine restaurants with creative chefs in the kitchen. If you want a nice dinner out, there are places to go to and you won't be disappointed. The most my wife and I have spent on the nicest restaurant we have found for dinner was $75 for both of us, not including wine. It was an amazing meal.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
None that would bother most people. I think we have fewer insect issues here than we did in the U.S. We just discovered this last year that they have lightning bugs in Albania! (Not a problem -- it was fun for the kids). We didn't remember seeing them our first year, but they are out at night during the late spring/early summer evenings.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the Diplomatic Pouch at the embassy. With restrictions on lithium batteries being removed, the Pouch covers about 95% of the things we want shipped. Liquids are still a problem, but we've managed to cope. Mailing out is restrictive - only the size of the smallest USPS flat-rate box. However, product returns can go out in their original packing.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Readily available and not too expensive. Going rates are around $4.00 an hour. Many of the nannies (particularly the younger ones) speak very good English.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
U.S. Embassy employees have access to the gym on the housing compound, although for some people who don't live on the compound it is a hassle. There are a couple of very nice gyms in the cities, but their prices can be exorbitant.
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?
ATMs are all over the city and work fine with U.S. bank cards. We use our debit card at Carrefour, and that's it. Everywhere else we use cash. There is a bank with an ATM inside the embassy.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Some. There is a Christian church near the embassy that does have an English service available. I've heard that the Catholics hold an English mass, but I'm not sure when or where. Mormon services are all in Albanian, but one congregation does provide English interpretation for foreigners.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There is an English-language newspaper, but almost everyone gets news off the internet. AFN is available. More and more people are using internet-based streaming for news and entertainment, either through slingbox or a VPN service.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Inside Tirana, very little. Cashiers at grocery stores and waiters at restaurants all tend to speak a little English or can find somebody that does. The local language can come in handy in some situations, but not generally on a daily basis. If you leave Tirana, though, it becomes a little more necessary.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Tirana would be a very difficult city to live in with physical disabilities. Sidewalks are non-existent in many parts of the city. Many buildings are not reasonably accessible. There is a burgeoning disability awareness, but it is still nascent. Many multi-story buildings have elevators, but they require you to go up a flight of stairs to get into them.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
You can use local taxis. The dispatcher at the embassy can call a taxi for you. There are very few local trains, and they are in deplorable condition. Buses are all over the city, but none of the expats use them.
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?
High clearance is nice, even inside the city. Roads, including major highways, will go from beautifully paved to gravel in the blink of an eye. Construction means lots of potholes, some that would swallow a small sedan's car tires. Missing manhole covers and sewer grates are normal all over the city, making dangerous pitfalls for smaller cars. During the winter, with the rain and the mud, we have used our four-wheel-drive in areas where you wouldn't think it was necessary. However, the power of a larger car with higher clearance has to be balanced with the inconvenience of parking a large American-style SUV in a European city.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, at about $25 per month. Speed varies, though. The Ridge was wired many years ago, and so it cannot accept higher bandwidths and has the slowest connections. But you can still stream movies and television there. Off the compound, you can get slightly faster connections.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
For U.S. Embassy employees and family members, there are plans available through the embassy that are very reasonable. About $15-$20 per month.
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?
Unsure. The biggest concern pet owners seem to have is getting the pets shipped in and out with connecting flights out of Tirana. Airline policies, coupled with State Department restrictions on what airlines you can use, seem to be an enormous headache for pet owners here.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
We don't have pets, but we have heard that the pet hospital is very good, and that the vet/owner is also very good. He speaks perfect English. I believe they may have a boarding/kennel there as well.
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?
Teachers can get jobs, although they don't pay extremely well. There are a handful of jobs at the embassy for spouses.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business with suit and tie at work. Women are generally fond of tight-fitting clothing and the highest heels possible. Older men and women generally dress in suits (men) and black (women), even to go out for a stroll. But the younger generation is definitely dressing like modern Europe.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
No. This was one of the reasons why we selected this post. You can walk around Tirana at any time of day or night without serious concerns. Crime does occur, but Americans are not targeted. It is just a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We have not heard of any Americans being victims of crime here during our two years, except for perhaps minor issues like a bag being taken that was left on a table in a public place or a cell phone getting swiped while you were distracted. Things like carjackings are unheard of. Albanians LOVE LOVE LOVE Americans, almost to an absurd degree. If you ever need help, you'll have no problem finding someone to assist you.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
There are a couple of hospitals that can handle minor and moderate health issues. The Hygeia Hospital outside town is supposed to be very nice. People who have gone there have said the inside looks very modern and nice, just like in the U.S. The American hospital in town is Turkish-run, but has modern equipment for standard issues. Anything serious gets medevac'd to London. Unless you have ongoing serious health issues, I wouldn't let health care necessarily deter you from coming.
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?
Relatively speaking, the air quality in Tirana is excellent. I cannot recall any days when there was such heavy smog from pollution that you could feel it (as in Santiago, Mexico City, or Beijing). If you get out of the city and look down, you can often see the brown haze that hangs over the city, but it is no worse than what I see at home in Salt Lake when we head up the mountains there. Amongst all capital cities where we could be assigned, I would guess Tirana would rank in the top 25%.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
We have four seasons, although conditions are not extreme. Summer can get very hot (into the 90s during some days), accentuated by the fact that air conditioning is not universal in office buildings, restaurants, etc. Obviously, the embassy, shopping malls, theaters, etc. are all cooled very nicely. Fall is short but very pleasant. Leaves on the trees in the mountains do turn colors. Winters are cold, gray, and wet. It snows in Albania, but almost never in Tirana -- and it never sticks in Tirana. During the winter you will get tired of the constant rain and mud. Spring is beautiful but always too short, with very pleasant days.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The Tirana International School has been just okay with our elementary-school children. We have two children that attend, and the oldest is in second grade this year. We have loved the teachers. Administration has been okay, not the best (nor the worst) that we've experienced. The facilities are bad, but a new school campus is already under construction, and this issue should be resolved by next summer, 2014. Classes are small, which we love for our young kids, but we would not be thrilled for high-school children. Available extra curricular activities are limited by the number of students It's hard to have a high-school orchestra if you only have 25 students. On the other hand, some families have said they really enjoy the smaller classes, and their children get a lot more attention. Other than TIS, there are a couple of other options. Embassy families in the past have used GDQ, a local school run by missionaries, but there are no embassy children attending there currently. Embassy kids have also attended the French School. TIS is halfway between the embassy and the Ridge housing compound, about a three-to-four block in from either direction.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
This would be a difficult post for special-needs kids. I do not believe TIS makes many accommodations. I'm not sure about the other schools, but they are all fairly small, and special education is not well-developed in Albania.
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?
Some families have used local preschool and daycare. There is a place behind the embassy that some families have liked. Many families just hire a nanny.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Some. For very young kids, soccer and ballet are offerred by private teachers on the Ridge. I've heard that some families have their kids in Tae Kwon Do or karate. The school has some sports programs as well. If you look, you can find most things here, but they may be a bit inconvenient, and facilities may be something of a compromise.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Medium, maybe? Most of the international community seems to be tied either to another embassy or to a Christian missionary community. There are quite a few other European expat communities here. A lot of the community is centered around the school or work.
2. Morale among expats:
It varies. Most people agree that you need to get out of town at least every few months, even just to Italy, to relax and escape. However, people generally love living here. Family life is excellent. Morale for embassy employees is currently low because of managerial issues at work, but turnover during summer/fall 2013 is going to be huge, and an entire new community will be here. Based on the country: morale is good. Based on work: morale is not great.
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?
A lot of people entertain at home. Couples and singles in the Selite/Dinamo area get together often at local restaurants, bars, and at each other's homes. Families with kids on the Ridge often get together for evening activities, including playground parties, outdoor movies, pool parties, etc. If you have kids, birthday parties are a huge deal, often involving the entire family. For singles, there are a few clubs and pubs that are decent, and a couple of sports bars that aren't bad.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It is excellent for families with young kids but can be difficult for families with high-school children if your kids are very social and enjoy going out. Couples can do a lot of exploring and enjoy some of the travel opportunities. This can be a great city for singles, if they aren't looking for a booming social life. Entertainment in Tirana is limited, making it difficult if your social life is dependent on going out. There are some great restaurants, clubs, bars, etc., but after two years, everything starts to look stale. There just isn't a great variety. A lot of people entertain at home.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
The LGBT social scene is small but very active and very young. Older couples or individuals (i.e., over age 35) may have trouble finding other similarly-aged couples or individuals to socialize with. Most of the active LGBT crowd are in their late teens and early twenties, with a few exceptions. Many of them are still students. The government is very tolerant and goes out of its way to protect the LGBT community, so couples have nothing to worry about with respect to official harassment. Socially, though, Albania is still very conservative, and couples that engage in public displays of affection may attract unwanted comments or attention. As a foreigner, it is extremely unlikely that you would have to worry about physical attacks. If you are a little discreet, you can enjoy the city without any concerns. There are a handful of LGBT expats currently in Tirana, and all of them seem to be enjoying their time here.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not serious ones. Individuals with darker skin (of Indian or Pakistani descent, for example) may be mistaken for Roma, but it isn't serious enough to impact your stay here. African Americans may be stared at somewhat, simply because there are almost none here. Non-white (i.e., African, Asian, Hispanic) expats may get an occasional comment, but for the most part Albanians are very tolerant people. Religion is a non-issue and the Albanians are very tolerant of all religious communities. Gender prejudice can be an issue, but mostly in the home. Women will notice some differences in the way they are treated in comparison with their male colleagues on occasion, but for the most part it is fairly mild, and people get over it quickly once they get to know you.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We loved taking family vacations around Europe while serving at a 20% hardship post -- the best of both worlds. It is surreal to drive out onto a dark blue Mediterranean beach with white pebbles -- not a soul to be seen for miles -- and jump into the Adriatic all by yourself. I wouldn't say that Albanian cuisine is a highlight, but there are specific food items that I have loved here: the olive oil is delicious, the seasonal fruit (particularly the cherries in May-July) is wonderful, the availability of fresh produce, feta cheese, and good Italian cheeses, and charcuterie. We have loved living on "The Ridge" housing compound. It has been a highlight for our family, and we would love to take this housing arrangement with us to every post while we have young children.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Beaches in the summer are beautiful, and the very best ones are only a few hours away from Tirana. There are some old ruins worth exploring, although nothing on par with some other spots in Europe. The mountain communities are beautiful.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Wood carvings and chests. Woven wool rugs. Local artwork. Lacework. I wouldn't say Albania has a huge souvenir market (and a lot of the stuff is imported garbage), but there are a few very nice things you can pick up.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Albania is a cheap European post with excellent travel opportunities. The cost of living here can be fairly low. Flights to much of Europe, particularly Italy, can run $125 round trip. Albania is still off the beaten path, and if you venture out of Tirana, you can find some beautiful and still undiscovered spots. The beaches (the good ones) are a few hours away and can be breathtaking, but good accommodations there are still limited. Eating out is extremely cheap, and there are several good restaurants with very nice ambiance -- although the variety is limited.
11. Can you save money?
Yes, if you don't go crazy with travel. This post will allow you to save a good amount of money or spend it like crazy. A lot depends on your own personal priorities.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
ABSOLUTELY! This has been a wonderful family post. We've managed to save money. We've seen Europe. The Albanians love Americans, and the city gets more accessible and easier to live in every year.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
fancy, low-clearance car.
3. But don't forget your:
patience while behind the wheel, rain boots for the winter, and willingness to go off the beaten path.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Anything by Ismael Kadare.