As the conductor on the ÖBB NightJet came to check tickets, he smiled at us after looking at our passports:
“English is best, yes?”
Was he mocking us?
“It is for us…” I replied, “danke”, I hastily added to prove that I had some linguistic ability beyond my native tongue.
We were comfortably set up on our third train, and the first of the overnight journeys, of our flight free travel from the UK to Albania. With several trains, buses and ferry journeys across Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro still to come, we rested with the familiar mix of excitement and anticipation, which on this occasion sat just above our Brauhaus dinner from earlier that evening in Cologne.
Albania remains notably missed off many a discerning traveller’s hit list, largely thanks to a reputation of crime and drugs that continues to linger despite the best efforts of a country whose natural resources boast some of the most staggering landscapes in Europe. Whether you’re hiking in the mountains of the north or soaking up the sun on the southern beaches, Albania has a richness that defies its status as one of the poorest countries in the region.
As frequent visitors to the city I once called home, we spend much of our time there seeing friends and enjoying the cosmopolitan and varied sights, as Tirana is very much a city on the ascent. With bars such as Kino and restaurants like Uka Farm, it would be hard to not approve of the variety and excellence of Albanian hospitality – particularly when it comes to food and drink.
However, it quickly became apparent on this occasion that the global situation was rapidly changing around us.
“Have you heard of the Coronavirus?” We were asked by a waitress in Komiteti, a favourite coffee shop of mine, as reason for their early closure and the source of my inability to slowly sip a mug of steaming mountain tea, locally known as çaj malli, with my third book of the trip.
Our plans rapidly changed after that, as Tirana became a city on lockdown, followed by the country en masse. We hotfooted our way back to Montenegro the evening before Albania closed all borders, both land and maritime. This crossing offering another brief insight into our privilege as White, British passport holders; for our only other bus companion, a French resident travelling on a Chinese passport, was questioned in detail, whilst we were waved on with hardly a cursory glance.
“I was expecting it, it’s fine”, she said whilst slipping her passport back into her bag.
Borders closed around us one by one as we limped back to the UK, and we were joined by a creeping realisation that travel was about to look very different for the foreseeable future. We had so often taken our freedom of movement for granted, with our favoured passports and globalised language, that we had forgotten how precious it is. Alas, it had to take a pandemic for that lesson in humility to be learned.