During the winter of 2016/2017, I hitchhiked from Salzburg, Austria to Athens, Greece. Starting in a beautiful snow covered Salzburg end of January, and longing for Greece, spring and higher temperature, I had planned to visit one city in each country, for one week. My plan was to arrive in Athens in April, my final destination being the ‘Free and Real Community’ in the village of Aghios on Evia, an island close to Athens.
In the last week of March, I left Bar, on a Saturday afternoon. I walked through the city centre to the road just outside of town. This road would take me further south, to the Albanian border. I found a bus stop, put down my stuff and with the border being only 30 kilometres from Bar, I wrote ‘Albania’ on my cardboard. It was a sunny day again, nice and warm. A lot of cars passing by, some with Albanian license plates, for me the confirmation that I would enter another unknown country today: Albania.
After one hour, a black Mercedes with two men passed, Albanian license plate. Initially, the car drove on, but after a few minutes, it was at the opposite side of the road, both men looking at me. The car turned and stopped, the men looked like father and son.
The older man opened the window. “Where you from?”. “I’m from Holland”, I replied. The man smiled and said: “Ah, futbol, Ajax, Croif. Come with us”. I grabbed my stuff, got into the back of the car and we drove off.
Initially, the narrow two-lane road followed the winding coastline. After fifteen minutes, the car took a sharp turn left, entering the mountainous, interior part of Montenegro. The men spoke very little English. “You want to smoke?“. “Yes, nice. Thank you”.
While we approached the border, the music the men played in the car struck me. Not the traditional Balkan music I had got used to the past weeks. It was an Albanian version of rap music, tough sounding men, in some of the songs combined with nice female voices. And then, I heard a song distinguishably different from the others, like a beautiful anthem. I asked the men what it was and handed the older guy a piece of paper, so I could look it up later. He wrote: ‘KUQ E ZI’.
After one hour, we crossed the Albanian border. Just after Shkodër, we stopped for coffee. And around 5 o’clock we entered Durrës, a city with a large seaport, I saw big cargo ships and ferries. The car stopped near a bus station, I stepped out of the car. As I had told the men that my final destination was Greece, they probably figured I would take the bus from here. The driver pointed to the bus station: “Greece, you go there”. I felt a little disappointed. Taking the bus was no option and it would take me a long walk and a lot of time to get back to the highway to pick up the hitchhiking trail again. I asked the two men if it was OK to take their picture. It was.
I walked to the bus station and asked people how to get to Greece. No one understood English, but on hearing ‘Greece’ everyone pointed in the direction from where I came. I walked back down the road and after a sharp turn to the right, the two-lane road changed into a highway. In spite of the risk, I followed the highway. After 20 minutes, a petrol station appeared on the horizon, my next hitchhiking spot. I arrived at the petrol station in a beautiful evening twilight.
Olsi, the pump attendant understood and spoke English very well, as he had been working in Great Britain for three years. He told me the best way to travel was to Korçë, an Albanian city close to the Greek border, 300 kilometres from Durrës. So I wrote ‘Korçë’ on my cardboard and posted myself at the entrance of the petrol station.
Cars passed with high speed and soon it became fully dark. No other option than to sleep at Olsi’s petrol station. He bought me a coffee and we chatted the whole evening. Around 11, I put my sleeping bag outside next to Olsi’s office and asked him to wake me up the next morning at six, just before his colleague would take over his shift.
Sunday morning at 6 AM, Olsi woke me up. I put on my clothes and packed. At first sunrise, I was on the roadside and after 20 minutes a car stopped. I ran to Olsi to say goodbye and hurried to the car. Thinking this could be my lucky Sunday, the idea grew to skip Albania. After all, it was no love at first sight with what looked to me like a third world country. And time was on my side, I had a whole Sunday to travel 300 kilometres to Greece.
We had barely driven half an hour when the man pulled over at a gas station and stopped. “Me there, Korçë there”. He pointed to a junction ahead, left was direction Korçë. I optimistically placed myself just passed the petrol station, A perfect spot, I was both visible for cars driving by and had the opportunity to ask people who stopped for gas.
Five hours passed by. My hope to get to Greece slowly fainted. It must have been the middle of the afternoon when a young woman walked up to me and looked at my cardboard sign. “From here, to Korçë not good. You go there”. She pointed to the junction ahead, to the left. As it was a narrow two-lane road, difficult for cars to stop I hesitated. But eventually, I remembered that listening to locals was key. She knew this area, I was the stranger.
While walking along the road, I put up my sign each time a car approached. After ten minutes a parking place entered my sight, I would try my luck from there. Behind me, another car approached and I put up my sign. A brown seventies model Mercedes passed by. I saw how the Mercedes reduced speed and stopped at the parking place. A man got out and lit a cigarette.
I speeded up my pace. If I would be quick enough, I could ask the man to take me to Korçë. Fortunately, he wasn’t in a hurry. When I entered the parking lot, he offered me a cigarette and told me I could come with him.
“Where are you going?” I asked him when we drove off. “I live in Elbasan”. This sounded great to me, like some sort of Mexican village: El Basan. “How far from here?“ I asked hopefully. “Thirty”, the man replied, and after twenty minutes he pointed to the right, to a city in a valley. “This my city, Elbasan”. We turned right, entered the city and suddenly, just before a roundabout the man stopped. “You must be here, Korçë there”. He pointed to the road straight ahead.
It must have been around 5 PM when I entered the city centre of Elbasan. My hope to make it to Korçë was still alive. I still had one or two hours to find a place to hitchhike and get a ride. I looked around, this town and her atmosphere were different from what I had seen so far. Lots of people on terraces enjoying themselves, a vibrant spring atmosphere. I liked it.
I kept walking, but no sign saying ‘Korçë’. Doubt entered my mind. I recalled the way in which the man had told me, with emphasis: you must be here. Could that be true? The desire to skip Albania fainted with each terrace I passed.
So I decided to stay, maybe just one night? It would be wise to use the remaining daylight to find a place to sleep. From my experience in Aachen and Ljubljana, looking for a soccer stadium would likely lead to a park, with a good chance on a remote spot to spend the night.
Just after the city centre I turned left and saw the light poles of a soccer stadium in the distance. After ten minutes I reached the stadium and found a park on my left-hand side.
A small fun fair in the park with bumper cars, lots of people enjoying the park. I entered the park and saw a restaurant to my right. One of the waiters noticed me and yelled: “Hello sir, where are you from?” I yelled back: “I’m from Amsterdam” and walked towards the restaurant. The waiter introduced himself as Murat: “Welcome to Elbasan.” He offered me coffee and we sat down. I was no longer in a hurry to get to Greece. Later that night, in the darkness of Elbasan, I found a good place to sleep.
The next morning, my working week started. I was welcome to sit in the restaurant. As Murat saw me with my laptop he asked me if he could look up some music on YouTube. Which reminded me of the note in my pocket. I took it out. ‘Kuq e Zi’, did he know this song? His looked at me with surprise. “Of course. Every Albanian knows this song”.
The song ‘Kuq e Zi Je Ti’’ is strongly connected to Elbasan, football, and Albanian national pride. In 2015, in the soccer stadium of Elbasan, Albania beat Armenia in a very important match. It was a qualifier for the EURO 2016 Championship and it was the first time in history that Albania qualified for a European championship, so the victory was a very big deal for Albanians.
During the run-up to the game, the Albanian national team released a song called “Kuq e Zi Je Ti” (“Red and Blacks are you”). Because the Albanian flag is red and black with the image of an eagle, the national team is known as “Kuq e Zinjte” (The Red and Blacks). After the Albanian soccer team qualified, the song immediately grew into a nationwide anthem played on all radio and TV-stations around the country.
The song never mentions soccer, but is mainly about national pride and the love for the Albanian flag, which has the image of a black eagle. In the video, images of Albania, soccer fans and people symbolizing the eagle are alternated with the two artists, singer Elvana Gjata and composer Flori Mumajesi.