In my experience, people are generally nice. Even if you travel to a country where, because of your pre-conceptions, you imagine that the people might not be so friendly, you are invariably proved wrong. In 2013 as I cycled ‘Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie‘, my route took me through Albania and, to be honest, it was the bit of the trip about which I was most apprehensive. My mind was full of negative stereotypes but the reality of cycling through the country dispelled most of them rather quickly. One evening, after a long, long day of cycling (for much of the time along a motorway – read the book for details), I arrived at the Continental Hotel near the coastal town of Durrës:
Despite the language barrier, I checked in and was charged €15 for the room.
“Fifteen euros?” I queried.
“Fifteen euros,” the receptionist replied, after a short pause to remember his schoolboy English.
“Not fifty euros?” I suggested.
“Fifteen euros,” he repeated and, to confirm it, wrote it on a piece of paper.
The only downside of the hotel was that the restaurant had closed, so I ordered a beer from the bar and bought a couple of packets of crisps. I would survive. Then the owner arrived and the bar staff explained my problem to him. He introduced himself to me and then promptly made a phone call. The phone was then passed to me.
“Hi. My father is the owner of the hotel. You need food?”
“Spaghetti? Tomatoes? Onions? Bread?”
“I will deliver in 20 minutes.”
The owner’s son duly arrived, with an enormous plate of food from his restaurant a few blocks away. He refused my attempts to pay him and was gone as quickly as he had arrived.
I had many similar encounters during my few days in the country back in 2013; it turned out that the Albanians were just as pleasant as me, you and most other people in the world.
Later that same year, Tim and Laura Moss also travelled through Albania albeit in the opposite direction. They were en route for Australia and you may remember me mentioning Tim’s new book – With The Sun On Our Right – last week. It recounts their cycling journey around the world but the focus is very much upon the people they met along the way. Tim and Laura don’t live too far away from me here in West Yorkshire so last weekend we met up in Saltaire for a wander around the park and a chat about Tim’s new book. The full discussion will be the main feature of episode 5 of The Cycling Europe Podcast, which will be available to download later this month. However, in advance of the podcast, below is a short snippet of our chat. I had just made the point to Tim that I have spent much of my time since writing my first book trying to persuade potential readers that they are not books about cycling, but books about journeys that just happen to have been made on a bicycle with the focus being primarily on the places and the people:
Tim’s book is currently available to pre-order via his website, TheNextChallenge.org. I don’t know if what follows is an exclusive – let’s imagine that it is – but here is an exclusive extract from With The Sun On Our Right. Tim and Laura are in Albania and it seems to be a rather wet day… Over to you Tim.
After two months of wall to wall sunshine, interrupted only by a couple of downpours in Croatia, Albania was doing its best to compensate in a single afternoon. We were travelling at a snail’s pace up the steep hill and were drenched within minutes. Cold rain water ran down the back of my neck and I could feel it pouring into my shorts. After enduring it for an hour, I stopped abruptly and turned back towards Laura to make a swiping gesture at my throat.
No. Stop. Give up.
It was time to call it a day. I pointed ahead to a large workshop with a wall of windows overhanging the road.
‘Let’s try the magic letter.’
The magic letter is a letter that works magic. We carried a copy, translated into the local language, through every country in which we travelled. We had used it at a cafe the previous night to suitably magical effect. It read something like:
‘Hello, we are Tim and Laura. We have cycled 2,000 miles from the UK. Is there somewhere safe we can sleep?’
Without batting an eyelid, the cafe owner from the night before had said yes. So fast did the magic work, in fact, that we were not convinced he had really understood that we were asking to camp in his car park. But he really did understand and we really did camp right out the front of his cafe. As such, we thought we would try our luck with the magic letter one more time to see if it could get us out of the horrendous weather we were experiencing on that hill. But things did not work out quite as we expected.
The man we found in the workshop would later be known to us as ‘the uncle’, but at that point, he was just a man in a workshop. A short man, with grey hair and a kind face, he stood in his doorway watching two drowned rats wheel bicycles up his drive. I fumbled in my pocket and handed the man a crumpled piece of paper, blotched with rain drops.
‘Hello, we are Tim and Laura. Is there somewhere safe we can sleep?’
To our disappointment, he shook his head. It looked like ‘no’ but then gestured for us to sit down.
I smiled weakly and sat on a plastic chair. A puddle quickly formed on the floor as water ran off my jacket and out of my shorts. We did not really want to hang around if there was nowhere that we could pitch our tent. It was getting dark and we needed somewhere to sleep. But if we had had the cheek to ask a stranger for help then it seemed only polite that we should accept his invitation to sit.
He made a phone call then we tried again.
‘Is there anywhere we could camp?’ We tried to communicate with some more hand gestures, pointing at some possible patches of grass and concrete in the vicinity. He just shook his head again and smiled in gentle bewilderment.
A lady in her fifties appeared with two pomegranates, which she handed to us, and we presumed her to be the man’s wife. It was terribly kind but did not much help with our predicament. A long period of awkward silence followed as we attempted to extract the tiny pieces of fruit as quickly as possible, without making a mess, so that we could leave and find somewhere to camp. Bottled water appeared too. They were clearly nice people but if there was really nowhere that we could sleep then we needed to get going before nightfall.
We stood to leave, trying one last time to convey our helplessness with shrugs, upturned palms and our best attempts at miming ‘tent’. He looked confused but shook his head emphatically. As we made for the door, a girl appeared. I smiled a greeting.
‘Hello. How can I help you?’ she asked.
‘Oh, you speak English!’ I replied, pointlessly.
From there onwards, things started to make sense. The girl explained that her uncle was quite happy for us to camp on his driveway and had been trying to convey as much through the Albanian tradition of shaking one’s head to say yes. In Albania, it transpired, yes means no and no means yes. However, given the state of the weather, the uncle said that he would really rather have us sleep in his house.
Inside their house, Laura and I perched on the edge of a plush sofa in a warm living room. We felt a little awkward and embarrassed about our invasion of a family home but struggled to suppress smiles. Our fortunes had changed so rapidly since we had been fighting our way up that hill in a storm, just minutes before.
The novelty of the situation was apparently not lost on our hosts either. The aunt had immediately got on the phone and called all her relatives for miles around, to let them know that a couple from England had just landed on their doorstep. We were introduced to family member after family member, with the girl as nominated translator. Her cousin, a stout young bus driver, was apparently missing his son’s first birthday just to see us. The girl, only about 13 herself, had a remarkable grasp of the English language and her bilingualism made our presence much easier.
The cousin spoke to the girl in Albanian and pointed at Laura repeatedly. The girl blushed and tried to dismiss her cousin but eventually acquiesced.
‘My cousin,’ she said to Laura, ‘says your eyes are amazing.’
Laura blushed too, although she does have quite striking blue eyes. The cousin collared the girl again, this time pointing at me through the conversation. She put up the same resistance but, again, lost the battle of wills. Did he like my eyes too? Or was it another of my characteristics that had caught his eye?
‘My cousin,’ she said, ‘asks if they can’t cure baldness in your country either.’
He pulled a sad face and slapped his bald head whilst pointing at my equally balding pate.
We were able to luxuriate under hot showers before dinner was served and, seeing the state of Laura’s sodden socks, she was given a fresh pair, which eventually came with us all the way around the world. An hour beforehand we had been cold and wet, but we were quickly warmed by both showers and kindness. We were fed like royalty and set up with comfortable beds in the living room.
When morning came we packed up swiftly to avoid abusing their hospitality. Nonetheless we were asked to wait for the girl to arrive from her house around the corner. She was driven over by her mum, possibly the only family member that we had not met the night before. I felt bad about the burden that we had placed on the girl for translation – and even worse when we found out that she was missing school to interpret for us that morning – but I asked her to translate one last sentence:
‘Please tell your mother that she has a very kind, intelligent and thoughtful daughter.’
She went red and quiet, but after some prompting, she passed on the message.
‘And can I say something to you?’ she replied. ‘You are absolutely the best people I have ever met!’
Laura’s eyes welled.
We mounted our bikes and wheeled them back down the drive.
‘I hope you enjoyed your stay,’ said the girl.
I shook my head. Yes we had.
You can catch up with Tim and Laura (and me) at the Cycle Touring Festival in Clitheroe in May. More details here.