Tirana, Albania Report of what it's like to live there - 08/12/14
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?
Our previous post was in Manila, Philippines.
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?
Florida. Depending on your travel route, the trip could take either one or two days. From Dulles, we took Austrian Air to Vienna, had a 5 hour layover in Vienna, and then a direct flight to Tirana. When returning to Florida, we prefer to use our overnight stop to make the trip easier. We take Austrian or Lufthansa to Vienna, Vienna to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt to Orlando. These are United code shares. Other options include Alitalia (Delta code share) through Rome, but I do not recommend flying Alitalia if you can avoid it. Friends and family have found flights on Turkish Airlines through Istanbul and Lufthansa through Munich.
3. How long have you lived here?
A year and a half.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
U.S. Embassy - our second Foreign Service tour.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Post housing is generally very good. There are four neighborhoods in which Embassy personnel are housed:
The Ridge - first choice for families with children and dogs. This is the Embassy compound, with comfortable houses, easy access to the pool, gym, and playground, and lots of green space. Children aged 4 and over can run free. The driving commute to the Embassy is 5-10 minutes, and walking is 15-20 minutes. The big park with the artificial lake is within walking distance.
Blur - second choice for families with children and dogs. Newly constructed townhouses inside a gated neighborhood with small yards and a community pool. There are several families who live here, and it is next to TEG, the big shopping mall with a movie theater, Carrefour, etc. There is also a bowling alley and rec center close by. Commute to Embassy is 15-20 minutes.
Touch of Sun - great choice for singles, couples, and people with cats. Very nice, newly constructed apartments with a pool and a playground. A lot of expats live in these apartments.
Selite/Dianamo - suitable for all types of families. These are nice, big houses that are built in the Albanian style in an Albanian neighborhood. Request this area if you are looking for an Albanian experience. Couples, families, singles, and people with pets all live in this neighborhood, and they seem to be generally pretty happy.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are relatively cheap, even at the most expensive stores (Conad and Carrefour). Produce and staples such as eegs purchased from the local markets are clean, high quality, and very inexpensive. You can find almost everything you need.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We are a consumables post (for the present time). We shipped peanut butter, Mexican food, unscented laundry detergent and stain removers, and toiletries. You do not need to ship anything typical of Italian cooking.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are suflaque (greek style pita sandwiches), pizza, and byrek (greek style pastries filled with meat, cheese, spinach) take-away stands all over. There is also Kolonat, which is a fake McDonald's. A Cinnabon just opened up in the Blok. There are plenty of good restaurants, including Asian and Indian. A few places will deliver. There is a bagel place close to the Embassy that has decent bagels and bagel sandwiches, especially if you can't remember what a NY style bagel actually tastes like.
It is hard to get a good steak here, but there are a couple of restaurants that bring their beef in from Western Europe. A restaurant called D-Town recently opened that specializes in American food and is the only place in town for Sunday brunch.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Bees and wasps!!! Termites & ants, but insect treatments are available. Mosquitos. I've heard of scorpions, but they are the little ones all over the mediterranean region.
However, these are all normal insect problems. Nothing dramatic around here.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We have diplomatic pouch. There are rumors of getting a DPO at some point in the future.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help averages at US$3-5/hour.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The Ridge gym is great and is access is included with your AERA membership. There is a big park with lots of paths for runners, including those who like to run on uneven terrain. There are two yoga studios close to the Embassy.
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 use our credit card in many places and the ATM at the Embassy. We have also used ATMs around town on occasion, especially if we need euros.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It depends on how much you want to converse with the locals, but you can definitely get by with only knowing a few phrases and greetings. Speaking more Albanian makes life easier, but is not absolutely necessary in Tirana. It is necessary in the villages.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes - sidewalks are intermittent and uneven. Elevators are occasional. There are open man holes scattered around like traps for the unwary.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis, yes, although they are not cheap. I don't know if buses are approved by RSO, but expats use them all the time. Albania is not on Eurorail. Most locals take a mini-bus called a furgone for long distance trips.
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?
I strongly recommend bringing a SUV with good ground clearance for the roads, and a high safety rating. The driving here is erratic and traffic rules are optional. However, the driving is not so bad that it will keep you at home.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes and it is more or less reliable.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
AERA sells good plans with data. Bring an unlocked smart phone and you'll be able to use it.
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?
No and yes; good vet care is available. The kennel varies in quality of care, but there are housekeepers and babysitters who are happy to also be dog sitters and walkers.
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?
Yes! But you have to search for them. This has been a great post for me in finding opportunities to work in my field. If you have a graduate degree look into teaching classes at the local English-speaking universities.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Many spouses volunteer at a local orphanage.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business dress at work (suits, etc.). In public, workout clothes and sneakers would be out of place, but in general, there is no dress code.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Snakes on the Ridge.
In general, no. Tirana is a very safe city. Last year there were a couple of car bombs, but they had nothing to do with the U.S. Embassy. There are long standing blood feuds and we have been instructed not to go to certain coffee shops owned by certain families.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The medical care in Albania is in general very poor, but the Embassy's health unit is very good and is currently staffed by a FSHP and a NP who is an EFM. For mid-pregnancy OB ultrasounds you are sent to Hygeia, a relatively new Greek hospital, and there is at least one good doctor who does these screenings. There is a good dentist here, and the cost is much lower. I have heard mixed reviews about a new dermatologist.
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?
The air quality is, in general, good. It can get dusty in the summer and smoky in the winter, but the air quality has rarely kept me indoors. Seasonal allergies abound at certain times of the year.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
There are four seasons, with beautiful springs and falls and relatively mild winters* and summers. This is mediterranean climate. The sun is STRONG. Bring sun gear and sunscreen for protection.
*The winter before we arrived was reported to be extremely rainy and cold, but it rarely snowed.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Embassy children go to Tirana International School, World Academy of Tirana, and Viktor Hygo (the French school). Parents report that they are generally pleased with all of these options. We do have a few high school-aged children at post, but the population is mostly children under age 13.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Special needs children will have challenges finding support in this country, but there are some resources available.
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?
My son went to Puzzles Preschool, located immediately outside the Ridge gates. I cannot recommend this school enough. Daily half day rate is 20 euros, 5 half days/week are 300 euros/month, and full time is 400 euros/month. There is an English speaking and an Albanian speaking program. The English speaking teachers (one teaches preschool and another kindergarten) are the owners and are both fantastic.
Babysitters charge US$5 (500 leke) per hour. There are some wonderful babysitters whom I would absolutely recommend, and others who will keep your children safe but pretty much let them do whatever they want. Albanians are not big on rules. Many of the babysitters speak English, but some do not.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
TIS offers sports programs, and AERA organizes swim, soccer, and ballet lessons.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
This is a medium-sized Embassy with around 50 direct hires. However, there is a relatively large expat community here in Tirana, and expat social groups are very active. Morale is generally high, and has significantly improved within the Embassy community in the last year and a half.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Albanians do not in general accept homosexuality, but I have not been aware of any incidences of violence. There is an active LGBT group that holds events unmolested. I'd say it is a good post for LGBT community members.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Other than non-violent intolerance of homosexuals, Albanians are incredibly accepting of diversity. This is a secular country where religion is a personal choice. There are not very many people of color living in this country.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Travel - we have been to Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Vienna, Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and a few places in Albania thus far. All with a toddler in tow. We hope to make it to Greece and Istanbul before we leave in a few months.
Food - the grocery shopping is straightforward at Carrefour and Conad, and the local markets are wonderful. The fresh produce is AMAZING. This is a good post for anyone who likes to cook. As for restaurants, Albanian food is good but menus are repetitive.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Cable cars up Mt. Dajti, which is 15 minutes from the Ridge; walking in the big park with the lake. There are also wineries and nice clean beaches within day trip distance of Tirana.
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Albania is a wonderful country and a great post. Special advantages include fantastic fresh produce, friendly locals, great weather (4 distinct seasons and mild winters), and many opportunities to take trips outside of the city in the Balkans by car and Western Europe by plane. Driving in Albania can be a trial--bring a nice, comfortable SUV with good ground clearance and lots of air bags. You can definitely save money here, especially if you do not travel.
8. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely - we would have extended if we had had that option.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
3. But don't forget your:
Patience for the roads and driving. And bring a SUV.
4. Do you have any other comments?
I have loved our time here, and hope to make it back someday! This is a fantastic post for small children, especially at the Ridge.