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Feature 09 Aug 17

Albanian Work-Life Balance a Big Draw for Expats

Several foreigners living and working in Albania never intended to remain for very long…

Fatjona Mejdini
New Bazar in Tirana. Photo: BIRN/Ivana Dervishi

Twenty-five-year-old French engineer Antoine Avignon first set foot in Albania in 2000. At the time, he was excited to participate in a short-term humanitarian mission.

“Before coming to Albania, I told myself that you have to finish the project soon, get out of the country for a new mission and, of course, not get married,” he said, smiling.

Albania was a mystery to most Europeans in the year 2000. Just three years beforehand, the country had been embroiled in civil unrest and Avignon, now a programme manager for Environment, Energy and Civil Protection with the EU Delegation to Albania, did not know a single word of Albanian.

To makes things more complicated, his assignment was in Peshkopi, a remote town in the north of the country.

Avignon, soon realised that his mission which involved securing water supplies, would just be a small part of his overall workload.

He and other few international friends, along with a humanitarian mission in Peshkopi, decided to take care of other problems plaguing the town. They helped to open roads blocked by snow and made improvements to its general infrastructure.

Avignon is just one of thousands foreigners, who in recent years decided to replace their busy, hectic life for a more easygoing daily routine in Albania. He is among a rich mix of nationalities.

Italians make up the biggest expat community in the country, with some 2,700 Italian businesses and thousands of others studying and working. The second highest number of foreign businesses are Greek, while Kosovan businesses are third, according to Albanian National Employment Service data from 2015.

The same data showed that more than 2,500 foreigners have permanent permission to work in the country, with the most common field of employment being construction (30 per cent). Some 52 per cent of all foreign workers are Turkish, and 12 per cent Chinese. Around 8 per cent of foreigners working in Albania are Canadian.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Berryman.

However, Avignon is far from the lone “western” expat. Rachel Berryman, 32 years old, who has a background in art administration, left Virginia in the US in 2009 to explore new cultures as a Peace Corps volunteer. She accepted the offer to be stationed in Albania – a country she previously knew nothing about, aside from its Balkan location – an interesting region worth exploring.

For the first two and half years, she found herself working with women in the municipality administration of Burrel, a small northern town. She learned the language and culture but towards the end of the program departed to India, to pursue her passion for yoga and get certificated as a teacher.

“After three months in India, the normal thing to do was to return to the US,” she told BIRN. However, this didn’t quite work out. “I felt that I haven't finished with Albania and wanted to explore it more, so decided to return,” she said.

Berryman moved to Tirana, a city where yoga was pretty new, and she, along with some other expats in the country, decided to establish the practice.

“That time only two people were teaching yoga in the whole country … out of passion, a few other internationals and I started to contribute to its spread while training those interested,” she said.

Now, a few years later, Berryman leads and owns ‘Tirana yoga’ – one of the most respected studios in the country. “I'm glad that now Albanian and foreign yoga teachers practice it and the base of those interested has been growing a lot,” she said.

Now, Berryman splits her life between Albania and India. She considers the former a social, spontaneous country, where people are hospitable and treat foreigners very well.

“The opportunity to have a good social life is bigger here than in the US, where people are mainly focused on work. In Albania, people like to spend time with each other and you can create a healthy life-work balance,” she said.

Albania’s borders were sealed for almost 45 years of communist dictatorship. Few citizens were allowed to leave the country, and an equally small number of foreigners were able to enter given the stringent secret service checks.

Since 1991 the country has passed through a difficult political transition. While several positive changes have been made, with Albania achieving NATO member status in 2009, the country remains one of the poorest in Europe (although it is still waiting to open EU accession talks).

With an official unemployment rate of more than 14 percent, younger generations have few opportunities. And while some foreigners such as Berryman value the work-life balance, others can have a difficult time, finding it harsh and hectic.

Kailey Rocker and Jonathan Eaton in Albania. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Eaton.

This laid-back culture, however, also impressed cultural anthropologist Kailey Rocker from Louisiana. She has split her life between Albania and the US since 2010.

She initially arrived in the country to spend summers working on school projects in the northern town of Shkodra. She then decided to move in 2013 and is now conducting PhD research on youth perceptions of communism.

In Albania, Rocker now shares her life with Jonathan Eaton – an American compatriot she says she would never have had the chance to meet in the US.

“We met here, in Shkodra for the first time, introduced by my professors. In the US this would not be possible since he is from Washington state on the west coast and I am from the South,” she said.

For her, Albania is a place where she can also pursue her professional goals, enjoy good friendships with locals, travel easily to other destinations in Europe and make her family feel that she is safe.

“My family feel that I'm totally safe while here – they just start to be a little concerned when I travel to other surrounding countries,” she said.

Her partner, Jonathan Eaton, is fluent in Albanian although he set foot in the country in 2009 for the first time as a Fulbright scholar.

He was impressed by the country’s cultural legacy and now works as a programme officer with Cultural Heritage without Borders – thereby contributing to saving it.

After his Fulbright study, he decided to leave for Toronto, pursuing his master’s studies in anthropology. However, he later took the decision to return Albania and find a job.

“I'm not implying that Canada is a bad place, but that Albania is a good one,” he said, smiling. “Here, I received a real chance to work in my field, and I like the challenges that I face. I really find Albania welcoming and I'm glad to provide a positive contribution to its culture,” he continued.

He knows already that his relationship with Albania will be lifelong.

Antoine Avignon and his wife Raimonda. Photo courtesy of Antoine Avignon.

As for Avignon, he also reneged on his premature decision not to get married. He found his now-wife Raimonda in Albania. She was on a cooperation mission with Danish International Development Aid, based in Tirana, but ended up on Dibra to help the region develop. When they got married, some 200 people arrived from abroad.

The newly created French-Albanian family left the country in 2002, and continued to work for development missions in Romania, France and Africa.

After more than six years with the EU in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo and Bangui, Central African Republic, Avignon was assigned to work on the environment in 2009 in Tirana.

“After several years of harsh conditions in Africa (civil wars, malaria, etc), we were ready for a new challenge in Albania, in the framework of EU accession,” he said.

Avignon’s relationship with the country has grown special. He admires its mountains, sea, culture, the spontaneous life and on the top of everything, its people.

“I have learned a lot about humankind on all my travels, and I have just started to know Albania and its people better ... Albanians really have a big heart,” he said.

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