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Published: September 23rd 2022
Frankfurt Airport Gate Z16
Finally flying to Albania!
Finally, the day came! I arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport 3 hours early as recommended to find no lines. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised! With the help of my TSA Pre-check status, I walked in the front door of the airport, checked my bag, and was through security in less than 15 minutes. I had plenty of time to grab an overpriced dinner at Legal Seafood next to my gate.
Prior to my flight, Lufthansa allowed me to bid on an upgrade to Premium economy which I managed to get. I figured the extra room would be nice on the overnight flight. The seat was a little roomier than the economy seats and had a little more leg room, but it was by no means luxurious. The plane had a 2-4-2 configuration. I’m an aisle seat fan, so I was a little disappointed to be in be assigned a middle seat. After sitting down, I had two people assigned to the same seat next to me, I was a little jealous when one of them got moved up to first class! In hindsight, I think I would have been more comfortable to have paid to choose my seat ahead
On the ground in Albania!
Making my way down the passenger stairs to the bus.
of time and just picked and aisle seat in economy class.
The overnight flight was long, but uneventful. Despite most airlines having removed their mask requirements, Lufthansa held firm and was pretty strict ensuring that the passengers kept their masks on during the flight. I did manage to get a few hours of sleep prior to my Frankfurt arrival.
I had a 5½ hour layover in Frankfurt and it would be 3 hours to until I was able to meet my father's flight. Having had 2 trips to Germany under my belt, I thought I would have no trouble navigating my way around the airport in Frankfurt. Upon arriving in Terminal B, I found it a bit overwhelming to figure out where I was going, especially since I was trying to kill some time until I had to meet my father. I fumbled my way around a bit and eventually figured out that I would have to make my way through a security checkpoint before being able to roam the terminal.
Even though it was only 6am, many of the shops were open so I had plenty to look at including a large duty-free store. I kept reminding
Cousins meeting for the first time!
myself that I was about to spend two weeks in Albania and I didn't need anymore souvenirs from Germany. While exploring Concourse B, I saw a sign for showers. This was just what I needed after a long overnight flight on a cramped plane! When I entered the area, there was no attendant present, but after ringing a bell, the woman arrived within a minute. She provided me with a towel and facecloth and then directed me to a private bathroom with a toilet, sink, shower, & hairdryer. The warm shower and the ability to brush my teeth felt great and were definitely worth the €8! The only downside was the wet tile floor made it difficult to put my socks on. Other than that, I think that every airport should have this amenity!
While roaming around the terminal, I came across some private sleep pods. They were a small room with a bed that you could rent by the hour. I was hoping to grab two hours of sleep, but unfortunately they were reserved and I couldn’t get in. I settled on grabbing a coffee and breakfast at a cafe right across from the gate my father was
scheduled to arrive at. After a leisurely breakfast, I walked over to my father’s arrival gate where they had "Silent Chairs". The chairs have an arched backrest and glass panels to help reduce the noise. There was also a small table with a USB port for me to charge my phone. I plugged my phone into the outlet, set an alarm for 30 minutes, and closed my eyes. Within minutes, my Lufthansa app alerted me to the fact that my father’s gate had changed to Terminal Z. I quickly gathered my belongings and made the very long trip towards Terminal Z.
Prior to our flights departing, I told my Dad that I would be waiting outside of his gate when he arrived. Unfortunately when I arrived in the terminal, I found a passport check at the entrance to the area he was arriving. They were only allowing departing passengers in that area. I sent him a text, a WhatsApp message, and left him a voicemail letting him know where he could find me. I was a little worried and then realized that he is a 74-year-old grown man who knows how to navigate his way through an airport! It wasn’t long after his plane landing until he found me waiting for him.
We made our way to gate Z16 where I saw a sign I had never seen at an airport gate before, “TIRANA”. It hit me that this was really happening….110 years after my great-grandfather left his homeland to make a better life for his family, I was returning.
After a 2 hour flight to Tirana, we were on the ground. I anxiously tried to look out the window to peer upon my ancestral homeland. Tall mountains were visible not far from the airport runway. We exited the plane via a stairway directly to the tarmac, something that it not very common in the US. We jumped on a shuttle bus which transported us approximately 250 feet to the terminal. We laughed that it was such a short distance, but I guess they didn't want people walking on active taxiways.
We arrived in the terminal and went through passport control. They asked for my purpose for being in Albania and that was it. I was disappointed that they didn’t even stamp my passport! Had I not been so excited that my cousins were waiting for me, I probably would have asked for a stamp.
While waiting for our luggage, I went to the airport exchange in the baggage claim area and converted some Dollars to Albanian Lek. I knew that I wasn’t going to get the best rate there, but I wanted a few Lek in my pocket in case we needed it.
Prior to my trip I had purchased a 30-day International Pass through my mobile provider, T-Mobile. For $50 I got unlimited calling, texting, and up to 15GB of high-speed international data. I had looked at purchasing a SIM card upon arrival, but the T-Mobile plan made it easy for me to not only communicate with my family in Albania, I was able to call my family in the US daily with no additional costs or need for WiFi.
As we patiently waited for our luggage, my cousin was texting me through WhatsApp asking me if we were there. I assured her that we were and we would be right out. My excitement was building. I couldn't believe I was actually on the ground in Albania. After 15 minutes or so, we were able to collect our bags and approached customs. I was surprised to see that all that was involved was placing our bags on a large x-ray machine. I collected my bags ready to meet my family and was immediately stopped by a larger man in plain clothes. He stated something to me in Albanian. Initially I was nervous, wondering if I had done something wrong entering this foreign land. I replied,“excuse me?” He stated in a deep voice, “Money. How much money are you bringing into the country?” I replied that I had a few hundred US Dollars. He asked again if I was bringing more than $10,000 and I assured him that I was not. After asking one or two more questions about my purpose in Albania I was free to go. My father wasn't questioned at all.
We came through the doors to the main terminal and saw my cousins waiting for me. It was an amazing moment and I know that my great-grandparents were smiling down on us seeing our family come together. We were greeted with hugs and presented with an Albanian flag. My cousin and I who had been chatting online for almost 4 years each had tears in our eyes. It was quite surreal. I still have difficulty putting it into words.
We had reserved a rental car through Alamo in advance which included unlimited milage. It had been a few years since I had driven a manual transmission, but I figured it was like riding a bike.....more on that later. All of the rental car companies are right outside of the arrival area....literally outside. Each company had their own small wooden "office". After a several minute wait in line, I was presented with my paperwork and given directions to the rental area. We found our Skoda Arona and made arrangements to meet our cousins in near our AirBNB once we got settled. After being given a tour of the vehicle, I took photos of all sides to ensure I wasn't charged for any damages that were already there. We loaded up the car, set up my Google Maps to direct us to the Airbnb, and made our way to the exit. I was fine until I had to put the car in reverse.....I couldn't find it. I eventually got out of the car and yelled to the attendant, "How do I get it in reverse??" He yelled back for me to push the shifter down. I figured it out and we were on our way. I waited to pull out on to the main road and a kind person waved me out into the heavy traffic, where I immediately stalled the car. After a brief moment of being flustered, I regained my composure (as people were honking their horns at me), and got the car underway.
Despite having been to Germany twice, the only time I have ever driven outside of the US was in Canada. There was a strangeness to driving in Albania, I couldn't read the signs, everything was in kilometers, and I had heard many stories about the crazy Albanian drivers. I stuck to the speed limit as we saw no less than 6 speed traps along the 6km drive from the Airport to highway along Rruga e Aeroportit. We arrived on a Sunday, so the traffic was not too bad. I am used to using a GPS whenever I drive and fortunately have Apple CarPlay in my car. Prior to leaving to Albania I knew I would be replying on the GPS, so I bought a $6 windshield phone mount at Walmart-Mart. It ended up being a great investment. I was able to drive and keep and eye on the map and it was even easier with my Dad assisting with the navigation.
I am kind of a map nerd. When I am visiting a new area, I will usually study the route on Google Maps. I will use Street View and check out possible stops, scenic points, and hazards along our route. After settling on an Airbnb right outside of Skanderbeg Square
in Tirana, I studied the map of the area so I had a rough idea of the neighborhood and what we were looking for. As soon as we pulled up to the building, I knew we were in the right spot.I contacted our Airbnb host when we arrived and her father met us outside of the building. He guided us around the corner to a parking garage for the building. We followed him down to the bottom level of the dimly lit garage to a parking space that was ours for the week for €25. We retrieve our bags from the car and we all crammed into a tiny elevator and rode up to the 5th floor.
Although we were tired from a long overnight of travel, we dropped our bags and then headed out to meet our cousins. We figured it would be best to just try an acclimate to our new time zone 6 hours ahead of what we were used to. WhatsApp (an instant messaging application) was our main form of communication with our family while in Albania. It was quite helpful as we could use it for both text messaging and phone calls. We quickly found them waiting for us outside of the building.
We took a brief walk to Skanderbeg Square to stretch our legs. Our cousins told us a brief history of the area and pointed out some of the sites: The National History Museum, The Opera, the Mosque, and the Tirana Clock Tower. They lamented over the construction that seemed to be going on everywhere in the city. It was obvious that they loved their city and were disappointed that these large buildings were taking away from the beauty of the square. They pointed out the stone tiles that covered the entire 40,0000 m2
square. The stones of all different hues along with the trees scattered about were taken from across the entire nation so that the country as a whole could be represented in the capital city.
We eventually walked to an Italian restaurant for some dinner and a few cold beers. It is quite overwhelming when you visit a new country especially until you start to get a feel for the cultural norms, but sitting there eating dinner with family, who we had just met, felt like home. We both slept well that night anticipating the adventure that awaited!
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