Sunday, June 22, 2014

Albania: We Did It!

When I was a background investigator, my main job requirement was to gather information. Subject and source interviews, of course, were key components of my investigations. Unlike records checks, however, the people whom I interviewed did not have a standard, unchanging presentation of information—the information that they provided would vary with a multitude of factors: their mood that day, their goals for the interview, their sense of comfort and rapport with the investigator. I quickly learned to evaluate my source and change my self-presentation in order to increase the likelihood of the source feeling comfortable and unguarded with me. For example, when I interviewed a formerly successful businessman about his financial difficulties or a proud man about his moral failures, my best option was to be professional and detached, so there was no hint of judgment or pity; these men were not speaking with a woman, only with an unfeeling government drone little different from a computer or the forms on which they originally had disclosed their problems. Others in similar situations telegraphed that they felt more comfortable opening up to a sympathetic witness, so that is exactly what they got from me. When I interviewed a young soldier about his record of misbehavior while under the influence of alcohol, I smiled and laughed at his antics along with him, all the while discreetly taking copious notes and encouraging him to tell me more. When I left these interviews, I reverted to neutral—to myself, unchanged from my brief metamorphosis into whomever I needed to be for that interview.

One of my investigations involved a young man, a first generation American; his parents had immigrated to the United States from Albania. He was highly involved in an Albanian cultural center, and many of my source interviews were of others who were passionate about Albania, Albanian culture, and the welfare of the Albanian people. The day I interviewed the leader of the cultural center, I came into the room cautiously, ready to figure out whom I needed to be for this interview, but expecting that I would need to show some interest in Albania in order to help this man feel comfortable with me. I had extra time in my schedule that day, so I assumed that my best course of action would be to allow him to extol the virtues of Albania for several minutes before guiding the conversation to the subject of the interview. I was right in that assumption, but I was wrong in my assumption that I would be able to speak with this man about Albania and leave the room caring as little about it as I had when I walked in. He was so eloquent and descriptive in his praise of his beloved homeland—he made it sound like a fairytale land full of friendly people, stunning natural beauty, and rich historical sites that simply begged to be explored. I did eventually work the conversation around to my subject and got the information I needed, but I left that room with more than just information about my subject: I left it with a burning desire to visit Albania.

That night, I asked Jeff what the possibility was of us being able to travel to Albania one day. “Slim to none.” I sighed and set about my business of doing interviews, putting Albania out of my mind.

Yesterday, we visited Albania.

Part of the castle from which Skanderbeg defended Albania from the Ottomans
It was a simple day trip. A 3-hour drive from Prishtina to Kruje. A drive on a good highway through the stunning beauty of the mountains separating Kosovo and Albania. A short drive on a well-maintained highway through the plains, skirting the mountain range that rose majestically just a few miles away. A steep and winding drive on a narrow road from the plains high into the mountains. A walk along a rough cobblestone street lined with souvenir shops and continuing up a steep, slippery path to an ancient fortress. Lunch in the most picturesque of locations—under a canopy, with a view of the mountainside dropping away into plains, and the sweetest outdoor playground I’ve ever seen nestled safely in the courtyard of an ancient stone building that has been converted into a restaurant. Then a walk around a surprisingly small ancient fortress situated atop the hill, with stunning views in every direction. A short tour of a beautiful museum featuring a gorgeous terrace. A slow walk back down to the car, stopping in multiple shops and picking up some new treasures … and some ice cream. A drive back down the mountain—with some exploration of a few narrow, steep, dirt “roads” before we decided to ignore the GPS until we made our own way back to the main road down. Then a three hour drive back to Prishtina, where we capped off the day with an indulgent meal at the best Albanian restaurant we’ve ever visited: Tiffany’s, in case you’re ever in the area and want to taste Albanian food at its finest.

A depiction of Skanderbeg and his army

And the refrain running through my mind now, as I reflect on a day that seemed so unlikely all those years ago when I first asked Jeff if we could visit Albania one day? Well, my daughter is watching Dora the Explorer right now, and her song seems to fit the situation: “We did it!”

Our new treasures: a Kosovar woman and an Illyrian soldier


  1. I'm so happy you visited Beautiful Albania!!! Did you visit the ethnographic museum inside the castle at Kruje? It's the old residence that is set up to show how the ancient (and not-so-ancient) Albanians lived, including the separate quarters for men and women. It's very interesting, but not clearly marked, so many people miss it.

    1. I saw the sign for the ethnographic museum. I wanted to go see it, but I'd tweaked my ankle on the way up and didn't like the looks of the incline to get there and back, especially knowing that I'd already climbed up to the watchtower with it sore and that I needed to navigate those cobblestones again on the way down. So Jeff, a friend, and Alexa went down to see it while I sat on a bench with a friend waiting for the main museum to reopen after their lunch break. If we make it back there, I'd like to go see it.


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