I wander the promenade after sunset, catch a group of local musicians, and then settle in at a nice restaurant for my first Albanian meal. Mare Nostrum has a large covered patio and tonight is teeming with lots of people.
The buzz in the air is a mix of languages, some Greek, Italian, and various Slavic sounds I cannot distinguish. The wine list is modestly priced but what strikes me is that over 90 percent of the wines are Italian. There are three Albanian wines, two red and one white.
“People not want Albanian wines,” he muses. I wonder. Really?
“I think things are changing for Albania,” I explain as if I’m an expert and only in the country for a few hours. “Changing for the good,” I say.
“With good, always comes bad,” he says. I feel I’m on an upward battle with this guy. When he shows up with the only bottle of red Albanian wine they have, he tells me, “you know Italians have many histories making wine.”
I insist that there is good wine here in Albania and wonder why he doesn’t celebrate, or show pride in Albanian culture. I ask him what he sees as bad here in Albania.
“Corruption, violence, and in the mountains, the people, they’re monsters,” he says referring to the ongoing practice of blood feuds, and lawlessness that still is prevalent deep into the mountains or rural Albania. “We want to be in the EU, but we cannot if we have this stuff.”
They make the wine from a red grape, Shesh i Zi which comes from the Berat region, just a couple hours northeast of Sarande. It’s a hearty thick-skinned grape that produces a medium bodied, rich color red wine with smooth tannins and earth and fruit flavors. This wine cost me about $20 at this restaurant, so I assume it’s about a $10 retail value wine.
When my server takes a cigarette break, I engage the busboy in conversation. His family is from Albanian, but his parents fled the country in the late 80s and returned ten years ago. He was born in Greece and studied software development and network engineering, then tells me he’s a hacker—the good kind.
Most people are too cavalier when using the open wifi hotspots all over the world, he explains. They are easily trolled and he knows how to find and sweep them. Yet, he wants to be a teacher—to show people of Albania how to be more secure in computing. Though he doesn’t know much about Albanian wine, he shares that Shesh i Zi is his favorite. I offer him a glass, but he politely declines.
outlook is much more positive than my server, who seems bitter and angry. Working in a tourist resort city like Sarande can take its toll on a server. I’ll give him that. Later I get him to smile with a light joke and again insist that I will find what’s good about Albania as I travel—especially in the wine and food.