In my previous field trip research notes, I predominantly employed a positive, yet emotionless tone. However, when it comes to the region with the highest concentration of Albanians, I find it difficult to adhere to the same approach. It is essential to acknowledge my inherent bias, as my interactions have primarily been with specific social groups, and my time in Albania was limited to eleven weeks, with an additional six weeks in Ulcinj, Montenegro. Consequently, my observations might lean towards an overly optimistic perspective and the text is kind of unstructured as a live very personal talk.
When I was planning my Balkan field trip (to discover how local communities in the countryside can be involved to create joint projects with universities) and tried to find particular ecology-related initiatives in Albania’s rural areas, I contacted Ricardo Fahring. Born and raised in Germany, Ricardo worked in IT before moving to the Balkans. He lives in Albania and develops sustainable and meaningful tourism here in neighbouring countries since 2012. Ricardo does it through the company Zbulo, which also employs locals such as Endrit Shima who is actually a Zbulo’s cofounder.
In Shqip (Albanian) “zbuloj” means to discover or explore. It originates from a Vulgar Latin root *disvēlō or from the Latin verb vēlō. The word is pronounced /zbuˈlɔj/.
Ricardo reacted fast to my email and with a great level of exact details. His own story of relocation to Albania with winters spent in snowy Theth and his projects amazed me as well.
Among Ricardo’s recommendations was Tirana’s born Ilir Hysa with his joint initiative with a villager Festim Duqi — The House in the Village. They put their efforts and resources to revitalize Pёllumbas, a village just 20 km away from the capital close to the widely known deep cave. When in May 2022 I finally came to Albania I spent about 5 weeks here volunteering for that project and getting to know the surroundings and meeting guests and other volunteers of the place from around the world. Among them were:
- Tin Dirdamal (born in Mexico) and Christina (born in the US) with their home-schooled (world-schooled) kids. Tin is a director and producer, and Christina is a master of medical herbs.
- Kadar ‘No Country Man’ from India, rides across the world with a motorbike and writes books about it.
- Kristopher Benz, a young software engineer, who already decided to take a sabbatical to ride a bike from Switzerland to India.
Ilir creates a unique atmosphere of contemplation while the things meanwhile go here: the garden is growing, bread is been baked, elders and school kids visit the spot, and tourists give 9 out 10 on Booking.com (Instagram shows the vibe). Festim as a landlord supports the physical dimension of the place and provides jams and olive oil that his family produces. A few times I’ve been to their household and the garden and it amazed me with its grassroots permaculture. Nevertheless, Festim is not actually a farmer, he works in his construction coop and speaks Greek (like many other Albanians he went to work in Greece), Italian (just as many Albanians), and learns English (as his daughters do). While I speak to him in Russian as he learned it in school and still remembers a lot. For Ilir, by the way, it’s also one of the pet projects, Tirana’s University graduate in philology, together with friends started 2005 the first hostel in Albania’s capital, which is now located in the historical villa in the downtown (as well operated mostly by volunteers under supervision by Germany-born Kris).
For my studies and vision of the importance of cooperative frameworks where permaculture spots and ecovillages work close together with academia and universities, it is very insightful to see that at the beginning of the Pellumbas’s House in the Village, it was a collaboration with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (US). I’ve found this 100-page work ‘Community Based Tourism at Pellumbas’ produced as one of the outputs of this research and education story.
Up to this moment, I’ve seen a lot of mixed marriages between Albanians and Western Europeans (a significant number of them I met in ‘the House in the village’), to name a few more: Dia — a Kosovo journalist and Stef from the Netherlands, Lindsey from Canada a teacher in the British School of Tirana who works there because of relocation to be with her Albanian husband, and so on and so forth. Festim’s sister is married to an Italian and they live next house and the property, next to Festim’s one.
My entry point to Albania in terms of geography was Shkoder. Just on occasion, I’ve found here Eco Klub (ECO Mindje), an NGO and a cafe. I’ve talked to one of the team members Jozi Radi about their activities and story (a team of 7 people work for 7 years, and the place is about 4 years).
This initiative could be seen as a kind of spin-off of ‘Mi casa es tu casa’ — an open house and a hostel based in a historical villa, created by Alma Bazhdari Naraci who relocated here from Italy. She told me that, after her husband died she still had love to share, and making this space is the way to channel this love to the World. The hostel is created from recycling, the food that they serve here is organic, produced by villagers whom Alma knows personally, the team includes both permanent staff and volunteers from WorkAway. EkoKlub director Mirsad Basha used to spend time here when he was a child.
Tamarё. The Shepherd’s Way.
After Shkoder it was a short drop into Tamarё mountains, thanks to an invitation from Martine Wolff and the shepherd family of Gazmend Bikaj, that she cooperates with. Martine is an expat who works as a researcher for this indigenous shepherd culture. She tries to save people and their lifestyle from ‘disneylandization’ of their territory.
The professional photos from this region are by Nina Martinelli, grown as a third culture kid with Australian and Oceanian roots she lives in Berlin with quite often visits to Albania. During the past years, she cooperated a lot with Martine (e.g. with the photo exhibition ‘Between River and the Mountain. The Pastoral Life of the Last Illyrians’). In 2023 Nina founded a project to make it a model for sustainable ecotourism in northern Albania — ‘The Shepherd’s Way Albania’.
People in the region… It was really hard to find the words to explain my feeling about them. It’s like they keep the best of ‘homo sapiens‘— conscious people, while the current evolution (in the current context), IMHO, brings us to ‘homo systemus’, people who tend to delegate their consciences, feelings, and responsibilities to the social and technology-based systems. So Albanians still preserve this true ancient humanity, curiosity, and directness.
The current Albanian dynamics reminds me of the modern history of Finland, where people that get their independence just one century ago and who are also still really immersed in their nature, are keeping their contact with nature and themselves while jumping into social, scientific, and tech progress with an internationally known reputation of school’s system education and tech innovations as Nokia did. And combining all of these with being on the top of the happiest country’s rating. Albanians have chances to have quite a similar way in further years if the Balkans and Europe context will not be too tough.
Another allegory comes from self-naming of the Albania — it’s Shqipëri or Shqipëria interpreted as “Land of the Eagles” and “Children of the Eagles”. Climbing mountains there I’ve discovered such bird’s eye views, that you really can feel like an eagle looking down to your village, gardens, fields, and other mountains. That landscape specific could also make a difference.
IT and Innovations Ecosystem
I still didn’t get deep into the Albanian tech and entrepreneurship ecosystem, but you can get its overview and related news thanks to AlbaniaTech portal thanks to Gerti Boshnjaku’s team and the EU funding (Gerti is also the CEO and founder of Business Magazine Albania).
Although, (thanks to Open Labs hackerspace) in Tirana I was attending Open Source Conference Albania (known more as OSCAL) to see its tech scene and to listen to a talk by Lum Ramabaja, a young techie with Kosovo origins introducing Hypersyn — a protocol to create financial systems inspired by the perspective of money as mutual credit and by mycelium ‘trade’ networks (Lum’s bachelor studies were in bioinformatics, currently he studies in Johannes Kepler University in Austria). This approach is an alternative to hyper-hyped blockchain financial systems and it brings security from heavy algorithms (as in blockchains) into the social field.
In 2023 OSCAL will take place in Tirana at the first weekend of September (2–3 September).
One more event I attended was the Tirana Digital Nomad Festival. Perfectly organized in terms of the program and speakers as well as technically it gave an insight into how key people in the national government and the country’s capital administration are involved in opening the country to the world. Beyond the topics of the Festival and its locations (including the local TUMO centre, the Pyramid, and Destil Creative Hub). By the way, the list of coworking spaces in Albania is kept by AlbaniaTech.
One of the brightest impressions was a panel on how to make Albania attractive for digital nomads with three ministers in a raw talking and listening to the nomad community.
At the festival, I also met Lona Alia, head of Revenue at SafetyWing (Y Combinator startup, a fully remote company that provides travel insurance and remote health for digital nomads, with an initiative to create a country on the Internet). Here is what Lona writes about Albania in a brief intro about her favourite country to live and work:
I was born there and have a special connection to it. I love that within an hour drive you can go to crystal clear unspoiled Mediterranean beaches, high mountains and vibrant city center where the quality of life is unmatched for the price you pay.
Albanians have a strong high-tech diaspora worldwide including Mira Murati — OpenAI’s CTO. Another talent example (in politics) could be found in Montenegro, recent Prime Minister Dritan Abazović, who is an ethnic Albanian. Beyond governmental work he is active as a scholar in the field of political philosophy and international relations, the latest book ‘A Critique of Global Ethics’ was published in 2023, and the previous one is available as a pdf). Here is the story of Mergim Cahani — Gjiraffa’s founder, who came back from the US to Kosovo to start an internet portal. Diaspora helps to run DOCU.TECH in Prishtina — an annual event bringing together tech talents with top-tier international future makers, executives, and thinkers.
A new Ireland for global IT businesses?
In July 2023 it was made official that IT workers who get employed in IT companies registered in Albania’s IT Park can entrance the country visa-free and stay there for one year without any additional documents, while
Some time ago, the government approved the tax exemption of these individuals for up to 1 year, as a convenience that makes Albania more attractive “for digital nomads”.
Meanwhile, another decision allows all employees in the IT field, Albanian or not, to pay social contributions only for the minimum salary, even though their salary is usually several times higher.
The source that I quote is Vox Albania.
‘Expats’ that are not expats
Another part of the social ecosystem, I’ve discovered here is ‘Expats Albania’ a community and a service company founded by Denisa Kaca Bradley, actually an Albanian who left the country for Italy and then Canada and returned back and found herself kind of expat in her own country.
Actually, people from Albanian diasporas in Western Europe and the USA significantly contribute to their motherlands, even if it’s not Albania. E.g. Zenepa Lika came back from Germany to Ulcinj in Montenegro, the region she was born. Nowadays she is a director at Dr. Martin Schneider-Jacoby Association (MSJA) an environmental NGO that focuses on the biodiversity of Ulcinj Salina and other neighbouring nature beauties as well as working with youth and activists.
Transborder Cooperations on Ecology
More about Balkan ecological initiatives, thanks to NGO GAIA Kosovo, I’ve found out at the Summer School on Environmental Activism and Climate Change 2022, hosted by Volonterski Centar Vojvodine (VCV) within a 3-party partnership that includes BiH branch of IPSIA and GAIA Kosovo funded by WBF (Western Balkans Fund) and co-funded by the European Union to promote regional cooperation. It was five+ fully packed days of theory, cases, and networking that really helped me to know about the Balkans in general and regional activists in particular places (I’ve written a report and reflections about this school). It was two young Albanians from Kosovo — Mrika and Annea from whom I learned more about activism in Prishtina (SpaceSyntaKs — a community of geo-data enthusiasts, Hackerspace, and Termokiss — a social centre run by a community). The key person and co-founder of GAIA Kosovo is Helena Poučki who works to ease ecological and cross-border tensions. For the last 15 years, she has lived between Croatia, Serbia, and Kosovo, volunteering for peace and nature organizations, but in the last years, she got trapped in Kosovo, in GAIA she is since 2010.
Contacting EcoAlbania and the NGO for Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment — PPNEA (the second organization has accepted my application for volunteering) is my next step to getting into the local context. In the long term, the balance between environmental awareness and general development could advance the region as an example of a conscious approach to co-existing of nature and culture.
Thanks to Kirsi Hyvaerinen (a Finn, who moved to Montenegro 10+ years ago) I know also about steps to make the Albanian fast-growing tourism industry more sustainable e.g. the Balkan Green initiative — to pinpoint solutions that keep responsible tourism at the forefront of the region’s priorities. In Albania, it is represented by Spoonbill Nest Innovation Center where an active role holds another expat Terena Cardwell, who moved from the U.S. While the Balkan Green itself is the representative of Green Destinations a global organization that focuses on strategic tourism management solutions for destinations, businesses and communities that pay attention to integrity and transparency.
I’m curious about the newly started (from 2023 to 2026) ERASMUS+ capacity-building joint project called 1FUTURE. It is designed to lead climate action in higher education institutions in the region and connect different stakeholders for building climate-resilient communities. With 3 Albanian Universities as well as universities in Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia, Lund University (Sweden), Iuav University of Venezia (Italy), University of Novi Sad (Serbia), and Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development (Germany) it aims to establish knowledge hubs for climate and sustainability, raise the related awareness of staff and student community, and increase synergies between academia, business sector and government. The project’s pre-kick off meeting was just on March 2023, and the leading partner is the University of Tirana. The kick-off meeting was held on May 3rd and 4th and its report has all the slides presented by the project’s participants. Here I write more about this project and which communities could be interested to cooperate with it.
The search for activities related to ecovillages brought me to the South of Albania. I did short drop-ins to the Gjipe Eco Campground (Facebook and WorkAway), Lost Paradise camping, and Shkolla Hostel in the Vuno village. By the way, Ilyr Hysa was involved in starting-up Shkolla Hostel.
A bit longer I stayed in Sarandё interviewing Albano Koka who is together with his sister Joleza (mostly involved in Tirana’s youth politic scene) runs Hasta La Vista Hostel (with volunteer help). While doing this project Albano grows a small secret permaculture garden in the backyard and prepares the countryside location to expand his hospitality business and gardening.
The role of the most active expats in this Southern region of Albania (close to the border with Greece) is played by Kyle and Shawn. The two amazing Californians with tons of years in the Los Angeles Entertainment Industry. Shawn also ran an NGO in Animal Welfare in the states.
One day they decided to leave the U.S. and after seashore scouting they have fallen in love with Saranda where they decided to build a new world of agriturismo and give additional enthusiasm to the neighbouring rural area. Their Botё Farm (‘World Farm’) serves as a community concept where volunteers (check the Farm’s WorkAway profile) cultivate the farm and participate in the work processes. During the summer tourist stay in luxury Villas so close to nature the crickets and frogs will lull you to sleep. You can also visit the farm by signing up for a day or night tour where you can visit the gardens, swim in their eco pool and join other like-minded people at the magic table in the sky where you will be served a six-course farm-to-table meal. The animals on the farm are all rescued and only the eggs and milk are used for the meal. Shawn is a vegetarian and the couple, while waiting for their building approval, opened a restaurant in town called “Salad Farm”, where healthy food is served and many vegetarians are made happy.
The restaurant, garden, and villas are to facilitate rural tourism services hosting one-day family programs as well as yoga and writers retreats and training. I would definitely stay longer there, but the visa restrictions didn’t allow me to do it. They are currently hosting a yoga retreat 22 September — 28 September (2023).
Korçë, lake of Ohrid, Pogradec
Although I prefer to pass cities on my way, in Korçë I’ve spent almost three days attracted by its overall atmosphere, the green market, the city park and a new coworking upstairs of the new city library (Tech and Innovation Hub). Here it opened the first school in the Albanian language, now it’s the National Museum of Education. For me, Korçë is a place to return to (usually I escape staying in tourist guest houses, the only exception I did in the Balkans is Korçë’s ‘At home’ hosted by Ilir — a painter/sculptor and his mom).
On my way to Korçë, I swam in Lake Orchid getting into the water close to the city of Pogradec. It is one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes (with max. length — 36.4 km), in the middle of September it was still warm enough, although it’s 700 meters above sea level.
In 2014, the Ohrid-Prespa Transboundary Reserve between Albania and North Macedonia (see the map below) was added to UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Albania’s side of Lake Ohrid was also designated UNESCO world heritage status in 2019.
On my way back to Tirana, I missed the latest bus from Pogradec and stuck hitchhiking (usually ‘autostop’ works perfectly in Albania). At night it was supposed to be about 4–7C, so I was afraid my sleeping back will not be warm enough to stand it, so I went to the nearest small village on my way, and in 20 minutes or so (only speaking English there) I was generously granted with an opportunity to sleep in a mosque. That allowed me to continue my trip safely the next morning.
My experience beyond interactions related to professional interests brings me the same feeling. From hitchhiking and hiking in Albanian villages in Montenegro (including the Chestnut Forest there) to buying local figs, tomatoes, milk, cheese, and gjiza (sort of ricotta) in Shkoder and Tirana, talking to young ladies who sell local sim cards on the border (with perfect English and with care about people, but not about a number of contracts) — in each and every occasions I see the same patterns, features, and energies.
This combination of naturality, curiosity to learn, and can-do attitude make the nation really attractive to those people who share similar features from all over the world. This energy also attracts energetic people from the post-soviet Slavic countries. Russian Telegram chats of those who relocated to Albania are full of people with an entrepreneurial spirit and curiosity. They apply for digital nomad visas, get residence permits, and buy apartments to put their roots in the Albanian ground. This attraction works internationally, so maybe it’s also could be a case to create a program similar to UK’s global talent visa, startup visa or as it was in New Zealand — Global Impact Visa.
The first intro to the nation I got about 3 years ago was by meeting Mirjeta Shatri, a psychologist who was volunteering for GAIA Kosovo at that time and we participated in an event by the Global Ecovillage Network Europe in Sweden related to ERASMUS+ youth exchanges in intentional communities. Recently Mirjeta got her master’s degree in school psychology from the University of Tirana and works as a mountain guide (Zbulo, which I’ve already mentioned is one of the companies she works with). She is also a founder of MOKNA — an initiative to increase the psycho-social well-being of children and young people through educational and sports activities in nature. Now when I recall her speedy and soft energy, openness, and gladness I see that these features were raised in this environment within these people.
In April 2023 the Albanian government didn’t prolong visa-free entrance for citizens of Egypt, India, and Russia (due to policies ‘harmonization’ with the EU). Although it is possible to apply for e-visa to Albania, such a surprise just before the summer season have my plans broken, so I’m thinking to apply for a visa to Kosovo, as anyway, I have to prepare documents for all the formal processes.
My other Balkans ‘reports’
- Interview with Nara Petrovic (Slovenia)
- Reflections on Tivat Tourism Think Tank 2022 — Regeneration for Montenegro and the Western Balkans
- Serbian Ecologists
- Expats in the Montenegro Countryside (in Russian).
- Reflections on Summer School on Environmental Activism and Climate Change. 2022 Novi Sad, Serbia
- Unaware (Unconscious) Violence and Seeds of In-action. Deep Live Gathering 2022 in Montenegro
- Universities and Climate Resilient Communities in the Western Balkans and the EU (1FUTURE Project and Beyond)
- Social Slow Travel: Lowcost&Zerowaste (it’s a more general overview, but it’s heavily based on the latest experience in the Balkans)