Tag Archives: adventure

Princess Traveler #sol16 23 of 31

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The other day, over dinner, Mel and I were telling stories of our travels together (we’ve been to Egypt, Myanmar, and Thailand), and the story of our 12-hour overnight bus ride from Inle Lake to Bagan, Myanmar came up. In this story, I play the “princess traveler,” as she tells it.

Over the years, while living abroad, my friends have lovingly joked that I’m a “princess traveler.” Let me clarify this by saying that when compared to typical American travelers, I am far from princess-like, but when compared to backpackers and seasoned international travelers, I tend to fall further along the princess line. I admit that I tend to over pack, but that’s just because I like to be prepared and have options when it comes to fashion. I also admit to preferring (ok…demanding) that the place I stay have hot water. Furthermore, I admit to a minimum standard of food and food cleanliness, which means that I may not eat from that street vendor I saw cooking without washing his hands first. But, I am not sure that these things make me a “princess traveler.” I’ll let you decide.

Let me preface this story by saying that our trip to Myanmar was almost completely unplanned, as we got our visas a day before we were set to leave. That being said, we didn’t research much of the travel between places in Myanmar, nor did we book any accommodation beforehand. See…totally not princess-like! Now back to Mel’s story.

We had already been to Yangon, and had just finished up our stay in Inle Lake. Our last city in Myanmar would be Bagan, the city of a thousand of temples. Our 16-hour bus ride from Yangon to Inle Lake was pretty luxurious, by developing country standards, so we had high hopes for our 12-hour ride to Bagan. Mel got the window on the first bus ride, so this time it was my turn. Unbeknownst to me, Mel had just eaten something that would later disagree with her stomach big time, giving her food poisoning for days to come.

To say this bus was a disappointment would be an understatement. The VIP treatment we received on the Yangon bus was long gone, as were the comfy recliner seats. We were basically on a school bus. For 12 hours. Overnight. On the worst roads ever. But, determined to make the best of it, I settled into my window seat. Using my neck pillow, I nuzzled up next to the window, getting as comfortable as I could. I donned my eye mask to block out the light and my ear buds (playing soothing classical music of course) to block out the sound, and settled in for some sleep.

Mel, who was getting sicker and sicker as time went on, was not as cozy and comfy as me. Her stomach, which was already gurgling and flip flopping all over the place, thanks to the bout of food poisoning settling in, was made worse by the bumpy roads and, as you can imagine, poor quality shocks on our bus. Without a window to lean on, and no neck pillow to use, she was left to try and sleep by laying her head back against the non-reclining seat. Anyone who’s ever ridden a school bus knows this is not really the most conducive position for sleep. To make matters worse, Mel had the unfortunate experience, being on the aisle where a small seat folded down next to her, to be seated next to a Burmese man who thought her shoulder was perfect for sleeping on. So, here she is, sandwiched between two people, one of whom was encroaching on her space by sleeping on her shoulder, on a bumpy bus, with a gurgling stomach, unable to sleep, and she looks over at me, with my neck pillow and eye mask on, snoozing away, while she’s in utter pain, and she is struck by my utter princess-ness. The way she tells it, when we arrived in Bagan at just shy of 5:00 am, I pulled the eye mask off, scrunched up my face, and said in my most whiny voice, “Ugh! I am so tired! I had the worst sleep ever!” I can’t imagine I’d ever do that, but my memory fails me at the moment. 😉 Boiling over, she regales me with her trip, complete with sleeping-on-the-shoulder guy and the fact that she had to have the bus stop twice, in addition to the scheduled rest stops, so she could throw up on the side of the road. OK, she wins. Her ride was worse.

Once in Bagan, with the sun not yet out, we get into the only available taxi- a horse drawn carriage. In case you were wondering, this isn’t an ideal form of transportation for a sick and grumpy passenger. OK, remember when I told you that we were adventurous, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants travelers? Well, that means that here we are at 5:00 am with no place to stay, and no Internet on our phones to look up a place. Huge dilemma. We asked the driver to take us to a nearby hotel, and when he drove up, I was a little taken aback by the look of it. I asked the driver to go ask if they had hot water (yeah, yeah, I know…princess). It turns out they didn’t. Back to the bumpy road we went, in search of a bed and hot water. The next place didn’t have any either. Mel, by this point, had lost her patience with me, and said, in no uncertain terms, that I had one more shot. Remembering I had downloaded an app for Myanmar that worked offline, I found a hotel whose reviews were pretty good. It just so happened it was on the opposite end of town. Mel acquiesced, and off we went. Lucky for me, they had hot water and vacancy! We checked in, had a hot shower, and took a much-needed nap.

Upon waking, we spent the rest of the day in awe of the temples. I wish I could say that the bus ride was the worst thing that happened on our trip, but as it turns out, I was wrong about our return flight times, and we had another adventure!

I’m not that much of a princess, am I?

A Year in Photos- 2015 #sol16 20 of 31

Last year, I wrote a post sharing my favorite photos from 2014. This was a really great way to reflect on my year, and to relive some of my favorite moments. So here goes 2015’s year in photos (in chronological order). I hope you enjoy! 🙂

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All photos copyright of Jennifer Kesler. Please do not use without permission.

Weekend in Thessaloniki #sol16 14 of 31

 I’m writing this slice from the passenger seat of our tiny, stuffed-to-the-gills rental car, as we make our way back to Tirana. We are still on the Greek side, which means smooth, mostly straight roads. Once we pass the border, it’ll be impossible to type, as we avoid potholes and drive through the twisty-turns of the mountainous roads on the way home. It’s raining, as it has most of our time in Thessaloniki. I think I’d really like Thessaloniki, but the weather definitely put a damper on the sightseeing portion of the trip for me. I opted to stay in more than Celeste. She is braver than me when it comes to venturing out in the rain! We’re jamming out to our favorite songs, belting them out, Celeste with perfect pitch, and me, well, not so much. Regardless, we are having a good time. And the trip is much better now that we are driving in daylight. We are able to see the mountains, gorgeous pink flowers adorning the side of the road, and neat little houses with the terra cotta colored roofs.

 We had a lie in on Saturday, easing into the day after getting to bed at 2:00am the night before. I sliced, drank my tea, and shared some of my slices with Celeste. We wandered down toward the sea, in search of a place to eat. Celeste spotted this cute, little spot full of people. It had to be good if it was so popular! We were instantly happy when we walked in and noticed the colorful light fixtures, balloons, and streamers. People were bustling around, bringing plates full of Greek delicacies to other patrons. The menu was full of so many choices, that we opted to order several dishes to share. We had two different salads, tzatziki, pita bread, and breaded, fried feta coated in sesame seeds, covered in honey. Our food arrived in what seemed like minutes, and it was delish! Of course, we couldn’t finish it, but we loved taking a bite of this and a bite of that, mixing the flavors.

We debated whether we should go to IKEA Saturday or wait until Sunday, but since it was pouring, we decided it would be better to go then, in hopes that Sunday would bring a bit of sunshine to explore. It’s a good thing we went on Saturday, because, as we found out later that night, it was a holiday weekend in Greece, and all stores were closed on Sunday and Monday. This news proved to be very disappointing, as we had plans to hit up the grocery store, too, and had been planning on doing this on Sunday. Unfortunately we completely missed out on the grocery store, because in addition to being closed the next two days, the grocery stores closed before 8:00pm on Saturday, so they were closed by the time we finished at IKEA. We had a field day in IKEA, and were like kids in a candy store, ooo-ing and ahhh-ing over the colorful décor, smell-good candles, and vibrant plants and pots. I’m so excited over my goodies, and can’t wait to unpack, organize, and make my apartment more home-y!

Sunday was another rainy day, and while we ventured out a bit, making a necessary stop at Starbucks for a Chai Tea Latte, I opted to spend the afternoon cuddled up at the apartment, slicing, commenting, drinking hot tea, and catching up on Grey’s Anatomy. I felt guilty, for a bit, about spending my time in a new city indoors, but I quickly got over it! We met up with a few friends for dinner, who also happened to be in Thessaloniki. Dinner was divine! Again, Celeste and I shared, which means I get to try more yummy things. We had a lovely salad of rocket, toasted almonds, grapes, tomatoes, and sesame-crusted cream cheese, honeyed orzo pasta with shrimp and a light tomato sauce, and the richest, dark chocolate torte ever. It was the fanciest dinner of the weekend by far, but all the food we had was tasty!

 This brings me back to today, and our road trip back home. After stopping for a last visit at Starbucks (sniff, sniff), filling up the tank, and rearranging our car, Tetris-style, we’re on the road. Next stop, Tirana!

Trouble at the Border #sol16 12 of 31

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Travel can be glamorous, whimsical, magical, eye-opening, fun, adventurous, exciting, and life-changing. These are the parts of travel most people see. We lust after our friend’s Instagram posts of selfies they take in front of the Eiffel Tower, Facebook posts about the adventures they had while zip-lining through the rainforests of Thailand, and blog posts of meeting sweet, Italian men who take them on a private tour of Rome. And while travel is all of these things (and more!), travel can be frustrating, scary, overwhelming, uncomfortable, and awkward. These are the parts of travel most people don’t see. Your friends don’t want to hear about how you walked two hours in the freezing cold, your feet in extreme pain, just to take that selfie at the Eiffel Tower, that you got sick to your stomach while in Thailand and spent part of your holiday cooped up in your hotel, or that prior to meeting the man in Rome, you were ripped off by a taxi driver and had to pay three times the price you should have.

Yesterday, Celeste and I took off after work in our little rental car bound for Thessaloniki, Greece, anticipating our 3-day weekend of shopping, eating, and sight-seeing. Tired and stressed after driving through Albania at night, on two-lane roads, through mountains, dodging the potholes in the roads, hair-pin turn after hair-pin turn, and nearly getting in a head-on collision because of a maniac who passed a vehicle on a curve, we arrived at the Greek border. Passing through the Albanian border patrol with ease, we get to the Greek border patrol booth. Readying the car documents, and our passports, I went up to to the agent. Handing over our passports, she asks for the car documents. I pass over the envelope the rental car company told me I would need to show at the border.

“I asked for the documents. You gave me an envelope,” she says, her tone bordering on rude.

“I don’t read Albanian, so I’m not–” I begin.

“I don’t read Albanian either. I’m Greek,” she spouts.

“No, no, what I’m trying to say is that since I don’t read Albanian, I don’t know what the documents are. I was just told to give this to the border patrol,” I explain, trying to remain calm.

“I don’t care. As the driver of the car, you should be responsible and know which documents I need,” she says, while snatching the envelope out of my hand. She begins rifling through it and pulls out two documents, questioning why the names on the documents don’t match up.

“Ma’am, I’m not sure, as I don’t own the car. I’m happy to call the rental company, and I’m sure they can explain.”

“How do I know who you are calling? You could be calling anyone. I’m not talking to anyone on the phone. And where’s your green card insurance?”

“OK, so what should I do? This is what I was told to do by the rental car company. I was told in Albania that I can buy it at the border for 40 Euros,” I reply.

“Albanians don’t know what they are talking about. They are stupid! You have to have the green card, or I can’t let you pass into Greece. You should have it already. If we are willing to sell you one, which I can’t guarantee, it would be 180 Euros. Are you willing to pay 180 Euros?” she rudely shouts at me.

“Well, if I don’t, what’s the alternative?”

“Go back to Tirana.”

Frustrated beyond belief, I call the rental car company. The woman on the phone is helpful and willing to speak to the agent on my behalf. The Greek woman refuses, saying, “I’m dealing with you, not whoever’s on the phone.” Celeste decides to walk to the Albanian office to see if she can buy a green card there. I continue to be yelled at by this Greek woman, who is so obviously prejudiced against Albania (as many are unfortunately). I try to remain calm, worried that if I put her in her place, as I so desperately want to do, she’ll deny our entry completely. Deciding to go find Celeste, I ask for my documents back, and she doesn’t seem interested in giving them to me. After some cajoling, I get my passport and car documents back.

Documents, phone, keys, and wallet in hand, I begin trying to find out how Celeste is doing. Thinking she’s at the office 100 meters away, I am worried when I can’t find her there. Walking into the dark, silhouettes of men in the distance, smoking and standing in a huddle, I am worried. I call out “CELESTE!!!” My voice is swallowed up by the darkness and the music blaring from the open cabs of 18-wheelers. “CELESTE!!!” Nothing. Phoning her, I get some message in Albanian, meaning that her phone is either off or out of service. “CELESTE!!!” By now, as I continue to walk in the darkness, freezing cold from wearing too few layers, worry begins to really set in. I get to the Albanian side and the man doesn’t let me cross. “CELESTE!!!” I call again. At this point, a huge, aggressive guard dog, who is likely startled by my yelling, begins barking loudly, his leash taut as he lunges toward me.

That was it. The last straw. I crumble. Ugly-crying sets in. Between my tears and sobs, I tell the man who can’t understand me, “I can’t find my friend. I’m worried. The Greek lady is so mean. She’s not going to let us into Greece. I need to find Celeste.” Seeing this outburst of emotions, the kind Albanian border patrol agent, who speaks a bit of English, comes to my rescue. She pulls me into her booth, which is warm and toasty, and assures me it will be OK. She knows where my friend is, and she will take me to her.

Reunited with Celeste, we figure out how to buy a green card for 40 Euros. With the documents in hand, shivering, Celeste and I make our way back to the Greek border. I fill her in on what she missed, and we are both stressed about whether we will be let in. We make a plan. Celeste will do all the talking, since the woman and I are not on good terms. We arrive back to our car and the woman is not there. After much searching, another agent comes to help us. Whew! He lets us in. Beginning the two and a half hour drive to Thessaloniki, Celeste and I try to make sense of what just happened. The only thing we can figure is that the apparent tension between Greece and Albania, and the subsequent prejudice, is what drove her to behave this way. We felt caught in the middle, as Americans who work in Albania. After talking it out, we went back to listening to music and telling each other stories. We are determined not to let this taint our trip to Greece. Today is a new day.

Travel isn’t always easy. It’s messy sometimes, but the challenges you encounter when traveling, especially abroad, are worth it. They stretch you, and make you a better person in the end. Even though I was frustrated, it’s all of my travel experiences that make me love traveling across this big, vast world we all share.

18 Hours in Rome #sol16 9 of 31

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hDuring the summer of 2014, I traveled in Europe for a few weeks- mainly the UK, Ireland, and Greece. On the way from London to Athens, I had an 18 hour layover in Rome, and I decided to make the best of it.

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My first stop, after dropping my stuff off at my hotel, was the Colosseum. To say this structure was awe-inspiring is an understatement. It’s beautiful and breath-taking and powerful. After the Colosseum, I made my way to Trevi Fountain, via the metro.

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Upon exiting the metro, I found myself in this gorgeous piazza. After snapping a few pictures, I sat down on a bench to rest and take it all in. Sitting about a meter away from me, reading, was Maurice, a little, old Italian man dressed in a pressed blue short-sleeve button-down tucked into oversized pleated gray slacks. Somehow, we struck up a conversation. Exchanging pleasantries first, he learned that I lived in Shanghai. “Why would you want to do that?” he asked. I shared a few of the reasons why I loved Shangers, but he wasn’t buying it. That’s when I learned that he was fluent in Mandarin! Like…he can read and write it, too! Obviously intrigued, I asked him if he’d ever been to China, to which he promptly informed me that he hadn’t and that he had no desire to go to China. “Why, then, did you learn Chinese?” “I was bored,” was his reply. Who does that?!? Oh, I’m bored. I think I’ll just become fluent in Mandarin. Needless to say, I was impressed. And bewildered.

Next, the conversation changed. His next question caught me off-guard, and was the sweetest question I’d ever heard. “Do you have a love story?” (Cue the “awwwwww” from the audience.) Not only was I melting from the sincerity and Italian-ness of his question, but I was suddenly sad to answer that, no, I did not, in fact, have a love story.

“I had a love story. But my wife of over 40 years died a few years ago. It’s just me.” Now doesn’t that just hit ya in the gut?

He shared more of his love story and his life in Rome with me before I realized that, while I was enjoying this conversation, I was on a timeline and needed to see more of Rome. The sun was slowly lowering in the sky, reminding me of my dwindling time left in this lovely city. I politely asked Maurice to point me in the direction of Trevi Fountain, a place I’d been told I must see while in Rome. Instead of showing me which way to go, he insisted on walking me there. I realized that putting up a fight didn’t matter. He was going to show me anyway.

Trevi Fountain was unfortunately under construction, so it was a bit of a let-down. Sweet Maurice felt personally responsible for not knowing this. Taking my friend Linner’s advice, we found a gelato place near the fountain where I got the most delicious gelato ever. I tried to pay for it, as a thank you to Maurice, but he insisted, saying this was his city, and I was his guest. Being so independent, it was hard for me to accept. But I eventually just said thank you.

Gelato cups empty, our stomachs wanting more, Maurice asked me what I had planned for the rest of the day. “Ummmm…I’m just gonna wander around and figure things out,” I replied.

“Do you want a tour guide?” he timidly asked.

For a second, I contemplated saying no. What if he’s a serial killer? OK, that’s a bit extreme. But still. He could have ulterior motives or something. Hemming and hawing over the decision, I figured, why not?

Maurice and I then proceeded to have a lovely evening. As we strolled through the cobblestone streets, I was in constant awe of the beautiful buildings, adorable Vespas, and foliage. The only photo I managed to take of Maurice that day was on one of these streets.

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How cute is he? He sorta looks like an Italian version of my grandpa.

I lucked out with my tour guide! Not only did I see the typical touristy stuff in Rome, I got to see the stuff “only Italians do.” One of my favorite experiences was when we tried to throw a coin on the top of the ruins for good luck. I made several attempts, but didn’t quite make it.

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We wandered down by the river, where Maurice helped me bargain for two watercolor paintings- one for me and one for my friend Melissa, who I was meeting up with in Greece. Crossing a bridge, we happened upon a very famous restaurant whose name escapes me at the moment. Anyhow, the door was covered in Michelin and other food awards. The foodie in me really wanted to try it out, but Maurice wanted to see what else there was to eat. After checking out a few places that didn’t seem quite right, we headed back to the Michelin restaurant. This was a good choice for sure.

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We both ordered the spinach ravioli, and let me tell you…it was divine. Italian food in Italy cannot be beat! Seriously. Determined to repay Maurice for his kindness, I tried to pay the (quite pricey) bill. He, again, fought me on it and insisted that it was his treat. It was his city, after all, and I was a visitor. This man was a gentleman! They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

As the night drew to a close, Maurice proved to be a gentleman one last time. After warning me that Rome isn’t that safe at night, he rode with me in a cab to drop me off at my hotel. (He let me pay the taxi ride, so that was good at least.) We said our goodbyes. I thanked him for a lovely day, and I never saw him again.

I had 18 hours in Rome, and you know what? I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it any other way!

Dreaming of Paris #sol16 5 of 31

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Ah, Paris…how I wish I was back there. Two weeks ago I traveled to Paris for the first time. Paris was one of those places that was always on my list, but was never really near the top. There’s too much hype. People build it up too much. I always thought it could never live up to its reputation. Plus I like going to places that are off the beaten track. Paris was just too mainstream for me. Seriously, everyone goes to Paris. Why would I want to go?

Now that I live in Europe, Paris is close enough that I can take a trip for a long weekend. I know, even as I write that I realize how bratty I sound. Anyway…my friend Sally and I decided we’d go to Paris for our four-day holiday, which happened to fall on her birthday. Neither of us had been, so we figured, why not? I didn’t really research the trip much, and other than a visit to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and eating some croissants and macaroons, I hadn’t really planned much else.

When I got to Paris, I realized why it’s hyped up as much as it is. It’s amazing, and deserves every bit of the attention it gets. Even the fact that it was really cold and rainy much of the time, I still fell in love with that city. How could I not? First of all, the architecture is stunning. No matter where you look, the detail cannot be missed. And the Louvre? Holy crap, that place is awe-inspiring! Not only because of the sheer size of the structure and volume of the collection, but the feeling one gets when walking through it is enough to take your breath away.

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Of course, a trip to Paris isn’t complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower. It’s one of the most recognizable structures on Earth, and I’d be remiss not to see it up close and personal. On our first night, we were wandering around in search of a Starbucks (found one!), and decided to stroll by the Seine River on the way back to our hotel. Once we reached the river, I saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance, lit up in a golden glow, beckoning me. I convinced Sally to take a walk and see it at night. Let me tell you something that you may not know. The Eiffel Tower is an optical illusion! It seems close, what with it being so big and all, but don’t let it fool you. Don’t think that you can walk to it quickly. Because you can’t. We walked for an hour, but it still looked the same. We walked for another hour. It still seemed out of reach. By this time my feet were killing me, but stubbornness in me refused to take a taxi. It was right there!! Anyhow, when we reached the base of the tower, all the pain was worth it. The Eiffel Tower, especially lit up at night, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen! I probably took a million pictures of it. I couldn’t get enough!

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And then there’s the food! Oh my gosh, this is a foodie’s paradise. Especially if you like decadent, indulgent, laden-with-so-much-butter-you’ll-clog-an-artery-but-every-bite-is-worth-it food. The food alone is enough reason for me to go back. In my opinion, you need to go for a week just so you have enough time to eat. That was my problem. I wanted to eat all the time, but because the food was so rich, I wasn’t always hungry. Some of my favorites were croissants and hot chocolate from Angelina’s, macaroons from Laduree, bread and butter from anywhere, cheese souffle from Le Souffle…the list goes on. Oh, and Paris has goat cheese! My life was complete.

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I intend to write more about Paris in the future, but suffice it to say, I loved it and will definitely be back! Here’s a short video of my time there…enjoy!

A New Adventure

Moving abroad was the single best decision I have ever made. Five years ago, in 2010, I made the decision to live and teach in Shanghai, China, packing up my life and moving literally halfway across the world. It definitely hasn’t always been easy, and I’m not without my scars, but the benefits of this expat life far outweigh any setback I’ve encountered. I have met some amazing people who will forever be in my life. I’ve experienced life in another culture, challenging my beliefs and giving me a broader perspective on life. And I’ve had the opportunity to travel to incredible places I never would have otherwise. I am a different person, a better person, because of my experiences in China, and I will forever hold this place close to my heart. But my time in China is quickly coming to an end. After five years, and three positions at my school, I have decided to try something different.

This fall, I’m off on a new adventure! Beginning in August 2015, I will move to Tirana, Albania! I am really jazzed by this move, as it provides me with opportunities to challenge myself in many ways. As part of the leadership team, I’ll be opening a new school, Albanian College, which will open its doors to students for the first time on September 1st of this year. I’m the Deputy Head of School/PYP Coordinator, a dual position that will split once enrollment increases. In addition to the excitement of opening a brand-new school, I’m looking forward to the challenge of taking the school through the PYP authorization process.

So, you might be asking yourself….where exactly is Albania? I know I did! 🙂 Albania is in Eastern Europe, near Greece and Italy. It’s not officially part of the EU yet, although they are a candidate. Albania is a small country, roughly the size of Maryland, USA.

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I’ve been doing a lot of research to find out as much as I can about my new country. Here are a few facts I’ve learned. I’m looking forward to learning lots more once I arrive!

  • Size= 28,000 sq. km. or 11,000 sq. miles
  • Total population of Albania is about 3,000,000.
  • Tirana, where I will be, is the capital. Tirana’s population is about 1,000,000. Shanghai is roughly 24,000,000, so it’s going to feel so tiny in comparison! There are about 1 million people living in my neighborhood here! :O
  • Albanian is the official language, and while it’s probably easier to learn than Chinese, it’s a pretty difficult language. English is not widely spoken, so I’ll be taking lessons! I’ve already picked up a few words and phrases.
  • The official currency is Lek. $1 USD= 123 Lek
  • The cost of living is extremely low since Albania is a very poor country.
  • There is only one American chain in the entire country, and it’s not McDonald’s or Starbucks. It’s….Cinnabon! I kinda love this! 🙂
  • Food is a mix of Greek, Turkish, and Italian. Yumm!!
  • The climate is a typical Mediterranean climate. They have heavy annual rainfall. This isn’t my favorite thing, but you can’t win ’em all, right?
  • Apparently they don’t drive well there, but they don’t in China either, so I think I’m ready.
  • They shake their head for yes (‘po’) and nod their head for no (‘jo’). My brain is seriously going to have a hard time with this one. Try it- say “no” while nodding your head. It’s freaking hard!

In addition to finding out random facts about Albania, I’ve been researching pictures…and I must say, Albania is a gorgeous country I cannot wait to explore! Check it out for yourself…

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I’m soooo excited!! 🙂 I suspect I’ll have quite a few visitors in the three years I’ll be living there.

Here’s a video of Tirana, where I will live. Check it out!