Years ago, I did some traveling in Eastern Europe. This was back in the “Evil Empire” days when people thought I was a little crazy to be going “behind the Iron Curtain.” I went to Hungary, went to Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia when they were, still, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia … was curious about places most of the people around me knew little about and had no interest in. As I planned a new trip one spring, I got the idea of visiting Albania. The idea of it interested me because I couldn’t find any information about it, couldn’t find any travel accounts, couldn’t find any people who’d been. So sure, I put Albania on my itinerary.
As I continued making my plans — when would I go, where would I go, how long would I stay — someone asked if I needed a visa to go to Albania. Well, I figured I must need one. I’d needed one for every other East Block country I’d visited, so it made sense. How to get one? I tried to find the Albanian Embassy. No dice. I did some hunting and finally came up with a phone number for the Albanian mission to the UN. I called and spoke with a very stern-sounding man who sounded both suprised and annoyed to be on the phone with me.
“Hi, I’m planning to visit your country, and I’m wondering what I need to do to get a visa.” This in my sweet-sweet, agreeable-girl voice.
“You cannot visit.”
“Um, what?” (make voice that much sweeter and more agreeable) “No, see, I’m going to be traveling later this spring, and I’ll be in Yugoslavia, and I thought it would be great to go down to Albania, too.”
“You cannot visit Albania.”
“We have no diplomatic ties with your country?”
(Here is a thing that had never once occurred to me. With everything I knew up to that point, with all the things I’d read and seen, the idea that there would be countries that would be closed to me because of my nationality had never been articulated in my brain. Who doesn’t have diplomatic ties with the US? Well, ok, so you don’t have ties with the US, but … well … what about me? So I played a little dumb.)
“What do you mean? You’re in my country right now.”
“No, we are on Albania soil.”
“But you’re right here in New York.”
“We are part of the UN. It has nothing to do with your country.”
“What would happen if I just showed up at the border?”
“You would be turned away.”
This was such an eye-opener for foolishly naive me. I knew to think about my travel in terms of what language would it be helpful to know some phrases in, in terms of safety as a woman alone, in terms of my color and how I might be treated. But at an American? This was completely outside my ken. It seemed singularly unfair that I should be kept out of any country. I mean, I’m such a nice traveler. I’m curious and respectful, interested in meeting people and learning about new cultures. Who wouldn’t want me to visit?
The Albanians, apparently.
“So, you’re serious.”
“Of course, Miss. There are many other places you can visit. I am sure you will find one.”
And with that, he dismissed me.
Yes, I made alternate plans. Of course I did. But it took a while to get over my hurt feelings.
is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.