29 fun facts from two months in the Balkans

A big part of travelling is learning new things. I enjoy it so much sometimes I yearn to go back to studying. Yep. I know.

I’ve hit two months on the road and also come to the end of my time in the Balkans. I’m posting this from Turkey. Landing in Istanbul was a big travel dream come true and I have a very exciting three weeks ahead.

Rather than reflect on my ups and downs and so on, I thought I’d share some of the fun, weird and interesting facts I’ve learnt in the last eight weeks. In some cases I’ve generalised and used the term Balkans, even though I didn’t go to every Balkan country. But it’s easier than writing out Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo each time.

Mercedes

Transport

1. There is a LOT of Mercedes in Albania – new and old cars, buses and trucks. Some say as many as 80% of vehicles spot the Mercedes logo, but I don’t know how accurate that is. Private car ownership only became legal in 1991. Former Communist leader Enver Hoxha used to favour Mercedes so that’s the suspected start of the trend.

2. There’s no car sale yards in Albania. Despite all the Mercedes, I never saw a car yard. I saw some cars for sale, but they were usually parked in bus stops.

3. There’s no bus stations in Albania and there aren’t many big buses. The most popular form of public transport in Albania are furgons (mini buses). The furgons leave from different places in the city depending on your destination. For example, in Tirane, furgons for Shkodra leave from the other side of the city to furgons for Berat.

4. Bus drivers always have an assistant, who will help with luggage and walk through the bus checking and selling tickets. Sometimes there’s even a third helper. I don’t know what they did.

5. Passengers avoid bus station tax by boarding the bus around the corner from the bus station. It took me ages to work out why they didn’t just walk 100m to the station.

Bus station

Money

6. Montenegro uses the Euro, but it’s kinda not supposed to. After it split from Serbia it adopted the Deutsche Mark but when the Euro was introduced it switched to that. Nobody seemed to mind at first, and then there was a brief “hey, what do you think you’re doing” moment, but now Montenegro’s a candidate to join the EU so all will most likely be forgiven. Kosovo also uses the Euro, but that was introduced with the cooperation with the European Central Bank.

7. Non-Euro countries will often take the Euro. Often in Serbia, Albania and Macedonia, the price of a hostel or meal was quoted to me in Euros and I had to ask what I owed in the local currency.

8. Shopkeepers will round off your bill instead of bothering with small change. They will nearly always round down, but on the rare occasion they might need to round up they will do so with a lot of apology and an offer to run and get change while you wait. 

Eating and drinking

9. You will drink some of the worst coffee of your life. It’s usually espresso or Turkish coffee. It’s the later you need to worry about. When prepared well it’s delicious. If you buy a cup from the man carrying a tray down a carriage on the Belgrade to Bar Railway, have a chaser of water or juice at the ready. If you have the option of a Macchiato you are definitely not in rural Albania anymore.

10. Tea will usually be herbal. Sometimes my waiter didn’t speak English, so although I could order tea, giving a preference of what kind was out of the question. The result was usually green or a red fruit tea. Often, even when I could ask for a black tea, they didn’t have it.

11. Every country has burek – a pastry usually filled with meat, cheese or spinach – and considers it its own creation.

12. Yoghurt is a popular drink, especially at breakfast. Often people will wash down their burek with a tub of yoghurt, drinking it from the tub instead of eating it with a spoon. It’s also commonly sold in cartons like milk and I saw it listed on a restaurant menu under “soft drinks”.

13. Most cafes don’t serve food. Many are only for drinks and wifi, although some may serve desserts.

14. Some cafes in Albania won’t seat groups of men. A sign reading “Te Shoqeruar” means men can only go to the café if they are with a woman. Cafes in the Balkans, especially in Albania, are very male dominated. But more modern cafes don’t want to attract women as customers so they use the signs to stop the café turning into another men’s club.

Burek

Culture

15. English language films are subtitled but not dubbed because it’s too expensive. Watching a lot of Hollywood movies is how many people I met improved their English.

16. Some kids in Serbia only go to school for half the day. Some grades will attend in the morning and the rest will go in the afternoon. I couldn’t get a detailed explanation, but I think it has something to do with stretching resources, for example only needing half as many classrooms.

17. In Albania many couples date in private, because the pressure to marry is intense if their families find out about the relationship.

18. Hearing Western music is a flashback to the 1990s. Most music that was familiar with was from a long time ago and it was played everywhere. But pop charts feature music from other European and Balkan countries. There’s a lot of different languages on the radio.

19. So many people know the Tassie Devil. Looney Tunes was popular back in the day and even if people don’t know where Tasmania is, they know about the spinning devil.

Cafe

Language

20. Ciao is a common greeting in Serbia. It works for hello and goodbye.

21. Hello is often said when answering the phone in Macedonia, but not as a greeting in person.

22. Some signs will use English words because the word in the local language is too long or complicated.

Krusevo

Random

23. Stuffed bears are hung outside houses in Albania to ward off bad spirits. I’m talking about teddy bears. Of all colours and sizes. Hanging from balconies.

24. Serbia has one of the highest rates of smoking in the world. It is legal to smoke anywhere, so that’s what everyone does.

25. In Albania you can buy individual cigarettes from a kiosk. One girl I met said it stopped her from smoking a lot. I noticed we stopped at kiosks frequently.

26. Smoking inside public buildings is banned in Kosovo. You risk a €50 fine, but it’s a risk a lot of people take.

27. Balkan men carry man bags. They are always black and worn across their body, not just off a shoulder. As far as I can establish, the contents are usually wallet, mobile phone, cigarettes and a lighter.

28. Receipts are given for the smallest of purchases. A bread roll for 20 cents? You’ll get a receipt. At a restaurant a new receipt was brought to the table everytime I ordered something such as another drink. At the end of the meal the waiter counted all of them to give me my bill.

29. Kosovo uses Monaco’s mobile phone network, among others. Landlines are technically Serbian numbers, but mobile numbers will be either from Monaco or Slovenia.