They say the greatest learning experiences don’t take place in the classroom, but rather out in the world at large. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a strong desire to travel and see the various landscapes and beaches the world has to offer. Since it’s physically and financially impossible to see every single place on the planet, I’ve come to settle on visiting the Balkans every other summer. Unlike previous years, my parents thought I was responsible enough to travel to Europe alone with my younger sister, Odeta (15), and my two cousins, Era (17) and Renisa (20).
Unlike “normal people” that only go on vacation for ten to fourteen days a year, we decided to make a bold statement by going for two whole months. Although it was almost impossible to convince my parents to let us go for such a long time, after months of begging and making PowerPoint presentations, we finally convinced them to let us leave the nest to explore what the world has to offer. When we left JFK, our original plan was to visit Greece, Montenegro, and all of Albania. I can’t explain the pleasurable anxiety I felt waiting for my flight to board; it was like I was about to explore the mysterious world with such high expectations of finding something amazing.
When we arrived, the first two weeks seemed unbearable. The weather was always above 99 degrees and the gyros we kept eating never seemed to satisfy us the way Chipotle did. Although we were at the beach almost every day, it didn’t really feel like we were “living life to the fullest” or making memories that were going to keep me young forever. Not to mention almost all of my childhood friends were married with children, and all I kept hearing from old relatives was “So, Klara, why are you eighteen but still without a husband?” Meanwhile, little did they know, the male species in America can barely use the word “girlfriend” without fear of commitment. Being the witty person that I was born to be, I just laughed it off, or told them I’d get married once I became rich and famous. Their constant reminder about getting married never really affected me before, but this year it was so relentless that it was becoming a bother. I didn’t want to tell them what I thought about their beliefs in early marriage because they would not understand the cultural differences between us. However, I do have to admit, although I do not regret any of my life choices up until this point, their words have begun to echo in my mind ever since I’ve returned.
Towards mid-July we finally decided it was time for us to leave our family and begin traveling by ourselves. We packed our duffle bags and hit the road. Since Albania is mostly known for transportation with vans (not in a creepy way), we decided to hitch hike on the highway until we found a van that was heading towards our destination. Our first destination was to go south and see the coastline of Greece and Albania. The trip would take about five hours, but it had always been a dream of mine to go there.
After walking for a mile on the side of the highway, we finally found a van with youthful souls that were touring Europe. It wasn’t a surprise that the van decided to stop for us, since most vans stop when they see hitchhikers on the highway. It had never been a nuisance to us to travel by vans. However, this van was not exactly luxurious either. The van was very small and everyone was pressed against each other in order to fit. Due to the fact that only one window opened, the heat was trapped inside making it impossible to breathe. It was refreshing being able to converse with the other passengers in English because speaking Albanian all the time was getting tiresome and I was beginning to forget certain words in English. Halfway to our destination, I tried to follow the Albanian motto, “When in Albania, do as the Albanians do,” and flirted with the blonde German boy in order to find a potential husband, but romance was not in God’s plan for me for this summer.
When we finally got to Vlore, which is located on the coastline of Greece and Albania by the Ionian Sea, I was ready for a mojito by the beach. But of course, with our luck, we were dropped off in a shady farm village that was miles above the beach. So, with our strongest instincts, we asked one of the farmers to drive us down to the beach. He was a small, middle aged man, wearing overalls. Most of his front teeth were missing and he had a bald patch on his head. He didn’t seem like a threat, so Renisa approached him to ask if he could give us a ride, and in return, he requested 10 Euros (approximately $15). We were carrying a total of $800 so the $15 was not much of a loss. Let this be a lesson to you all: no matter where you are in the world, never take rides from strangers, especially ones that smell like goat cheese. After ten minutes of being crammed in a small Toyota, we arrived on the beach and my soul spoke to the beach bar and said “There you are, I’ve been looking for you.” No actual words were spoken, but a lot of eye contact occurred.
It was difficult finding a place to check into because all the tourists had already taken the best hotels, so we did the next best thing; we looked around for people that were willing to rent out their summer homes. Most of the people living in this village rent out their homes during the summer because there is a lot of tourism and not enough hotels. Due to the familiar hospitality in Albania, it is a common practice in the majority of cities, especially beaches. The only problem was everyone in that area only spoke Greek. So there we were, four young females, looking for shelter by the beautiful beach instead of having mojitos. After half an hour, we finally found a nice Albanian/Greek household with a “For Rent” sign in the front. The room we rented was huge and the family that owned it had two beautiful five year old fraternal twins with blue eyes and blonde hair. I couldn’t even tell them how beautiful they were because they understood absolutely nothing I was saying.
The next couple of days were spent on the rocky beaches. Lying under the beaming sun and having a refreshing drink was all that we wanted from that vacation; at least I did. Until the day Martin showed up. One morning as my sister and I were swimming, we noticed a familiar face in the opposite side of the water. So we took our chances and we swam in that direction just because we were curious. It was unbelievable when we saw one of our guy friends who lives in Westchester County. The odds of that happening are one in a million, but my sister was that one (as usual). Odeta is usually always timid and closed off, but Martin really changed her. She was happier and having the time of her life. My two cousins even hit it off with Martin’s two cousins, and everyone was head over heels in love, except for me, of course. When it comes to finding love, I’m never as fortunate or lucky as my sister and my cousins because my strong personality can be a little intimidating to guys that try to approach me. There we all were - young, tan, and having the summer of our lives. Odeta with Martin, Era and Renisa with Agron and Aldo, and me with a mojito in my hand. Talk about serendipity!
This summer was by far the best summer of my life. Although I felt like the “odd man out” when the girls were with their summer loves, it somewhat made me realize how much I value myself as a person, that I’m not willing to settle for anything less than I deserve. Before I left for Albania, I had this whole fantasy planned out that I would visit my high school sweetheart in Montenegro and we would fall in love again and spent the whole summer together. Although reality was very disappointing and difficult for me to accept at the beginning of the trip, I learned that being alone does not always mean you’re lonely. This vacation really strengthened my beliefs in first becoming the person I’m meant to become before trying to settle down to find love. Although my relatives’ constant reminder of finding love will never cease until the day I have a ring on my finger, I’ve accepted the fact that love will find me when it’s supposed to, not when I want it to.