Tirana, Albania Report of what it's like to live there - 12/27/12
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?
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?
Our home base is DC, and it takes about 16 hours with one layover in Europe, usually Vienna, Munich, Frankfort, or Rome.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
(The contributor is affiliated with the U.S. Embassy and has been living in Tirana for two years, a first expat experience.)
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We live on the Ridge, the U.S. Embassy compound that is like 1950s America. The grass is always cut, the kids run free, there is a playground, a pool and a soccer field. For families with kids, this is somewhat ideal. Some people don't like it because it is such an American bubble, and your neighbors are right there all the time, but we have loved it. It is about a 5-minute commute from the Embassy. There is other housing - some in the city (big Albanian houses) and some in the Blur neighborhood about 10 minutes past the Ridge. It's nice and is right next to the big, new shopping mall and local Chuck-E-Cheese-type kids play area.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Fruit and vegetables and cheap and good. It's very nice. Everything else isn't that much more expensive, if at all. You can find most things.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Since this is a consumables post, I recommend people bringing any of these they use a lot: mostly canned goods items - black beans, refried beans, chili beans, canned green chilis, salsa (anything Mexican related - it's hard to find a pepper spicier than a green pepper if you like heat, though some can be found if you try hard enough), soups, cream of mushroom/chicken if you cook with that, marinades, bbq sauce, salad dressings, creamed corn if you cook with that, peanut butter, syrup and anything liquid used in baking. Laundry detergent and stain removers for clothes/carpet. Deodorant that you know works for you.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
This is one of the downfalls of Albania. There is not much food variety. If you like thin crust pizza and pasta, you should be good. And it is usually pretty cheap. Besides that, you have to search a little harder. There are a few places that are different, and they deliver! Chinese, Thai, and a new Mexican restaurant that just opened and is ok.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not at all. I've seen fewer bugs here in my house than I did back in the States. I have heard of a couple of scorpion sightings, but have not experienced that myself.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch. We can get pretty much anything that isn't liquid, has a lithium battery, or supersized. Mailing out is the main problem. You can only send out envelopes and book-sized packages.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Nannies and housekeepers are available, and relatively inexpensive, about 500 leke an hour (100 leke ~ 1 dollar)
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
On the Ridge there is a gym. I've heard of other gyms in the city, but I think they are pretty expensive.
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?
We've used credit cards occasionally at the big stores, but that's about it. There's an ATM at the Embassy, and there are a few others in malls that have been used without any incidents.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I know the Catholic church has an English mass and the Mormon church has English translation. There are some other churches. I know there's a big missionary community, I just don't know where their churches are or if they are in English.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
AFN is available, most people have VPN to stream Hulu, Netflix, and other websites.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Not much. Most of the people at the stores know enough English to get by. Hand gestures work for those who don't. Learn a couple basic phrases, and you should be fine.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Bad sidewalks, no ramps, not great.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Not recommended. Don't use them because of pickpockets.
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?
Four-wheel drive, high clearance. Some people have small cars, and they are fine for the city, but it you want to get out and about, we'd recommend bigger cars.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is available, and the speed is fine. Though there are times in the evening when you know everyone is streaming because it gets a little choppy and slow. Internet goes out occasionally, but overall it's decent.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Through the Embassy, they have plans.
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?
I don't know about this one, but I've heard both good and bad stories about people getting their pet into the country.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Someone just took their dog to the vet when he was sick, and I think it was a good experience. There are pet sitters available.
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?
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Most people wear normal DC standards of business dress.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not really. People love Americans here. There are no "bad" parts of town. Just be as conscious as you would in any major city, and you should be fine.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
This is probabaly why this post is still considered a "Hardship" post. There is the Health Unit at the embassy, which is great for the average cold and random doctor visit. Anything else that is considered major would probably require you to be medivac'd to London. Just don't get seriously sick or injured here and you should be fine.
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?
I hear that the air quality isn't the best, and there are some days where there is smoke in the air, so you can see the pollution. But over all, the air quality has not been an issue. We also live on a hill, so that might make a difference.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Climate is great. Really hot in July and August. Rainy in Nov-Jan. Beautiful the rest of the time.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
All of the kids I know of go to Tirana International School, which is right behind the Ridge. For younger kids it's fine. As kids get older, it is harder for them because there are smaller classes of higher grades, and the curriculum isn't what it should be, or so I've heard.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Not many. There are stairs up to most of the classrooms. One child had broken her foot and was on crutches, and before she got the hang of them, she couldn't make it up the stairs for half of her classes and just went home for that half. I have heard of an Albanian woman who has worked with Autistic children.
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?
Both are available, but like most places, it is pretty expensive. I hear they are decent. There are options for English or Albanian-speaking classes.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There have been ballet, Tae Kwan Do, and soccer classes offered. There are tennis courts and people have had a private instructor come and teach.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Not very big.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
It is what you make it. I think it's decent at the moment.
3. Morale among expats:
I think it depends on who you ask. Home/ community morale is pretty good. Work morale is currently pretty low.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
You can make it the expereince you want it to be. I don't know how good it is (or is not) for singles, but some of the couples I know of get out a lot and really look into all the events that are offered. It's a little more difficult with families. Overall, there just isn't a lot to do. It's a small city for a capital. Things are changing, but it's still small. You can get out and about in the country, and there are some neat things to see.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
There has been a big push in the LGBT community, but that is about all I know. I don't have a feel for what it is like for that community.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
It is a pretty homogenous, patriarchal, country, so if you aren't white, you stick out, and if you aren't male, they may think you somewhat incompetent. But I haven't heard of much racial prejudice, nor have I experienced overt gender prejudice. People seem to be pretty accepting of religion, maybe because there hadn't been religion during the communist era.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Highlights have been the great travel opportunities. We've been to 11 contries since we've been here, plus a couple trips back to the States.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are beaches, mountains, caves, historical ruins/cities, and lakes. If you travel within Albania, there are some pretty places to visit. One of the best things about Albania is its close proximity to the rest of Europe and realitively inexpensive flights - Have fun!
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Antique dowry chests (beautiful!) Venecian Masks (The guy who makes them has a factory here where you can pick them up for cheaper prices than in Venice) Tablecloths, and other random things
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
This is a great post to live in for many reasons. The best part for us is that Albania is an inexpensive country to live in, so you can save, but the having rest of Europe right at our fingertips has given us some great travel opportunities.
11. Can you save money?
If you are overindulgent about when, and how often, you travel, maybe not. But yes, I think it is very possible to save. It is also currently at 20%, so the student loans coverage is available.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yup, though two years was enough. Maybe if the work moral was better would we have wanted to stay longer.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
American standards for order, organization, and obeying rules.
3. But don't forget your:
patience, car horn, rain boots, Mexican food cooking supplies, and gumption. This will be needed when driving around, and trying to get those Albanian grannies from getting in front of you in line since queuing is not yet a thing here.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you have any other comments?
While there is some traffic, it's really not bad at all, especially compared to some of the other countries you may be coming from. Our commissary is getting more and more organized, so runs to the commissary in Kosovo are getting better items stocked up like meats and cheeses. This is a great post if you have young kids!