Five crucial life lessons from the Balkans
My time in the balkans really and truly stole my heart, kicked my ass, and made who I am today. I am moving on to new adventures in Africa but I couldn’t let go of the balkans without one last love letter.
Lesson #1: Everything will work out, just maybe not in the way you expect. My first time truly living abroad sent me without a clue arriving to Pristina, Kosovo in the middle of winter. I had been expecting to be placed in Africa, the balkans were really not even on my radar. I had no idea where to start building a life, how to navigate a city without street signs, more meat than I had ever seen in my life, and fear about finding a rat-free apartment. As I was cruising in my first of many Mercedes taxis with an insane driver and snowcapped dirt mountains in the distance I was thinking about my immediate survival, I could have never predicted that this would really be the beginning of what feels like my true life. Don’t get me wrong, I had a nice life before Pristina – complete with a successful finance career, lots of travel adventures, relationships but it just never felt like the life I was supposed to be living.
Being in Kosovo was like waking up for the first time. The intoxicating feeling of new love came harder and faster than I could have ever expected, I was high on the thrill savory sensations of a warm burek, the sounds of crazed gyspy folk music in secret cave venues, meeting farmers whose lives were changed by small loans and making friends who understood it all.
Who could have known that it would be this tiny country in the middle of a region that I had not given much thought to that would affect me so much?
Lesson #2: Intense loneliness happens – embrace it and can result in really good things
Then came Albania. After the grey of Pristina I was overjoyed by all the colors of the building, the copious outdoor cafes and the street signs. I didn’t expect to start over in a new country so soon after Kosovo, arriving I felt completely lost and alone and had no idea how to navigate this new city. I checked into the Tirana backpackers hostel, it was freezing and I was there only guest, I immediately and intensely missed Pristina and my friendships that had developed so quickly.
I felt extremely lonely, sad about leaving Pristina, not sure where to begin building a new life from scratch. I have a very clear memory of sitting in my freezing cold bunk bed of the empty hostel and making a decision – I was going to throw myself into exploring the new city and finding it’s hidden and wonderful places, I figured if I kept myself busy, kept exploring, being open and finding things to appreciate that friendships would come and they really did. When I left the balkans I knew I had made friendships that would last me the rest of my life.
This strategy of getting out on my own and exploring while being open to conversations and possibilities has continued to guide me and I can say I am not sure I would be as happy or feel as confident in traveling alone or moving to a new place today if I hadn’t made that decision and thrown myself headfirst into a new city.
Lesson #3. Take chances and trust people.
Seattle, my hometown is famous for the Seattle freeze. As a region of people we are untrusting and slightly unfriendly to outsiders. Anyone who is friendly we view with a certain amount of skepticism and assume they must either want our money or want to get us into bed or both. As a Seattleite and also a girl, when I first found myself alone in new cities my natural guards and walls go up extra high.
The balkans time and time again broke down my walls and forced me to step outside my comfort zone and actually approach people, start conversations with strangers and accept invitations. My first weekend in Tirana I accepted a lunch invitation to a turkish couch surfers house – I had no idea what to expect and was a little bit nervous, who just invites someone they don’t know over for lunch? That just does not happen in Seattle. I went and ended up making a great friend.
Taking the chance to trust people led me drink wine in small family vineyards, eat the best cheese and honey I have ever tried in my life in the north of Albania, ride in a crazy assortment of vehicles, explore the Bosnian wilderness and have interactions across cultures that I could have never dreamed possible.
Lesson #4: When times get tough, go on an adventure.
Sundays were always a fun family day while I was growing up and later they became day of adventures with my former partner followed by a nice meal. Nowadays partner-less and in foreign countries, Sunday is the hardest day for me to be alone. Sundays are the day when I feel like why am I in this strange country? Why am I not someplace that is easy and comfortable and doesn’t challenge me? Some sundays are so lonely and depressing, but I found a solution – go on an adventure.
Sunday explorations led me to new cities, new restaurant corners in the city, hidden gardens, and moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The feeling of loneliness was soon replaced by the thrill of discovery, of making a city my own. What is a little loneliness compared with having the feeling that you are the only person who knows about a special place and getting to feel like a first explorer.
You also can meet some great people you would never expect, like this awesome guy in Macedonia who took me on a boat ride of the Matka lake gorge.
Working in developing countries and traveling in the balkans, more often things are more difficult than you would expect and much more challenging than in the states or in western Europe from increased and often ridiculously ineffective bureaucracy, lack of available information, slower pace of things, prolific and intense poverty, environmental degradation and in general a lack of safety standards.
All of that means it is even more important to appreciate the smalls pleasures and successes that come your way. The balkans taught me to slow down, appreciate the little things like starting a day with an espresso and a good chat, eating the best lamb I have ever tasted, sunny days in the park, an ice cream, a walk with a friend, a good run and funny moments.
Noticing and appreciating these things kept me going in the hard moments and kept me focused on the long term. Never underestimate the power of an ice cream cone and a walk with a good friend – I know some days this was what allowed me to hang onto my sanity and try again the next day.