Mon Chéri, A Third Letter to You,
During our final days in Albania we found the country’s only chain restaurant yet managed to outdo it by indulging in the town’s one-of-a-kind local dish. Walking the streets of Elbasan, we unexpectedly came across a McDonalds and were so tempted to take a juicy chicken directly from the rotating skewers outside the restaurant. Who needs chicken nuggets when you can have the whole poulet?
Deciding that Elbasan’s McDonald’s was much different from those we’d visited in the past, we opted instead to follow the lead of our host and eat ‘pan au pan’ : bread inside of bread. Your stereotypical Frenchman dreams mixed with my (faux) American fried food fetish turned to reality when we were brought to Elbasan’s classic eatery. There, our host ordered us sandwiches found nowhere else in the world outside of this small town. Per request of our host, the cafe’s owner brought out three buns the size of a frisbee two inches thick. He sliced each in half lengthwise and set them aside as he pulled out a large plastic jar. Tipping the jar allowed a lightly colored liquid to pour into a hot metal pan. From under the tray he pulled sheets of phyllo dough pre-cut into rectangles and shining with a freshly-fried glow.
“Normal?” he asked.
In response to our nods, he picked up the pre-fried rectangles and sloshed them around in the hot liquid. Once soaked to the core, he pulled the slimy slices out of the hot butter and placed one inside each of the bread buns. Dripping with grease, he took the gigantic chunks of carbohydrate and wrung them out like wet sponges. He motioned at a bowl of salt. ‘Did we want to clog our arteries any more this morning?’ he seemed to suggest. You looked at me, then back at the waiting chef. Sure, why not.
You and I were both shocked at Elbasan’s traditional breakfast sandwich. Who needs a real McDonald’s fast fried food when you have “Simite and Bugace” to keep your clothes fitting snuggly?
Click on an image to view the photos of Simite and Bugace up close:
Taking three of these sandwiches, we thanked the shop owner and his wife and walked alongside our host to an ancient Turkish bathhouse. You and he spoke in French and at times, Albanian and English were thrown into the mix. We learned that the bathhouse had been turned into a cafe and we were allowed through various small doors en route to unused spaces with domed ceilings. Colorful stars were cut through them, allowing light in from outside, and reliefs were barely visible in each of the rooms’ four corners. You told me how you thought it’d be a dream to have a space like this within your own home one day. Pride radiated through our host’s eyes as he took us to these secret caverns, hidden from view and unbeknownst to most other guests.
After slowly demolishing the gut busting sandwiches (yes, I managed to finish it! Weren’t you proud?!), we aided digestion by mixing in a cup of strong Albanian coffee from the cafe housed within the ancient Turkish bathhouse. Our host said goodbye to us then, and we quickly returned to our rented AirBNB apartment to pack our bags and set out for your long awaited destination: Ohrid, Macedonia.
Click on an image to view the photos of Elbasan, Albania up close:
Traveling to Ohrid by way of a final Albanian highway left in ill repair, we forewent small towns and dodged wild dogs excited to greet every passing car. Our driver was again without English knowledge, and of course we still speak no Albanian, so we communicated the entire time with music, laughter and grand hand gestures. Passing through Albanian’s eastern mountain to Lake Ohrid, we had just one minor mishap.
Minor to our driver at least, who shrugged and slapped his forehead after a dog ran in front of our car and our front tire hit the poor guy. I would have easily started to tear up but luckily you broke the tension and started laughing at our mishap and at our inability to communicate true emotions with each other. We continued without stopping, but you calmly confirmed later that our four legged friend seemed to have survived with a few broken bones. Thank you for sparing me the details. Looking back on that day, I really can’t believe we didn’t stop, but like the driver implied with his gestures, the dogs in Albania are as untamed and unpredictable as the roads they walk on.
Arriving in Macedonia with no other faults, we met a kind young couple who showed us one of their favorite spots on Lake Ohrid. The husband is Macedonian born and raised, and the wife is Australian, having spent much of her free time in Macedonia visiting family and friends and eventually moving there to marry the love of her life. She spoke a mile a minute in a sweet Australian accent which was music to my ears but devastating to your own. Afterward, I translated much of what she’d said in a more calm, clear way, but it didn’t much matter as the experiences we shared were more visual than verbal. We went to a church built into a cliffside and ran our hands under holy water running under the structure’s foundation. We gawked at the massive lake in front of us and grew increasingly excited to reach our final destination.
Click on an image to view the photos of Ohrid, Macedonia up close:
Ohrid didn’t disappoint, did it? With its hilltop castle in pristine condition, our hilltop apartment overlooking the lake, friends’ restaurant recommendations in the Turkish area, and cherry trees blossoming on every corner, we found it a tranquil well preserved town. It’s an escape zone for Macedonians, Albanians, Greeks and outsiders alike. You had finally reached your destination, the one you’d set out for after leaving Tirana but chose to postpone visiting in lieu of surprising me in Berat. In the meantime, we’d gained knowledge of a few cities together and met some spectacular people along the way. We’d eaten some of the most unforgiving local snacks and hiked up some of the most unforgiving mountains to gain the most forgiving perspectives. You made it, finally! And so did I.
Click on an image to view the photos of our church excursion up close: