Thursday, June 15, 2006

How to Drive in Tirana

I learned to drive a car relatively late in my life, at the ripe old age of 33, way back in 1992. My motivation at the time was to learn to drive before my kids, and I used that motivation to overcome all the fears I had developed regarding the dreaded automobile. But I did it. I read the driving manual, took some lessons, paid attention and learned to drive. And now give me the wheel and I turn into a speed demon. Just ask Peter, who has bailed me out by paying my speeding tickets on more than one occasion. Now here in Tirana I have to admit to not driving. No. Not Once.

You see, at the same time as I was learning to drive, there were less than 5,000 cars in Albania. A very low number considering the 3.3 million people living in the country. So for comparison's sake let's assume that I have been driving longer than most people in this country, and so I consider myself somewhat of an expert on traffic laws (yes in Canada, but rules are rules). If I decided to drive and to follow the rules, as I know them (I could be a traffic cop if I wanted to), I would probably be considered a huge hazard on the roads here. "Why?" you might well ask. Because it would be rather dangerous to be the only driver following the rules don't you think?

Albanian drivers swerve to the beat of a different drummer. It seems to work for them, but it would be painful for me.

Here are a few useful Albanian Rules of the Road (as observed by me):

Traffic Lights
  1. Green means GO, even if there are pedestrians in your way, even if there are old men on bikes in your way, or old women laden with bags of vegetables trying to cross the road. It means GO even if the intersection is already full of cars, or if there is a policeman in the middle of the road telling you to stop. It always means GO.
  2. Amber means hold on to whatever you can find in your vehicle because I, the driver, am going to step on the gas and make a run for it.
  3. Red is just a suggestion. Stop if you want to. Maybe you need time to light your cigarette, change the radio station, put on some lipstick. But don't stop for no reason at all. Especially don't stop if people are crossing the road in front of you (because they have the little green man telling them it's okay). If the light is red and you want to go just pound on your horn loudly and proceed through the intersection, parting the sea of people.


Horns are a very important part of being a driver in Tirana. Learn to blow your horn for any and every reason possible. Never be afraid to blow your horn at 4:30 in the morning, especially if you are a bus driver. Blow your horn when you see your buddy. Blow your horn when someone is stopped in front of you while trying to make a turn. Blow it when mothers and children are crossing the street, even if they have the green man on their side. Blow it when the car in front of you has stopped at a red light (how dare he?). Blow it when you're going to attempt to pass another car by driving on the other side of the road. Blow it when your team wins the football game. Oh just blow, blow, blow.

The Man With the Biggest CAR Wins (and yes I know what that word means in Albanian)

Don't even think about driving a Smart Car. Nor a nice little sporty BMW. You may drive a Mercedes, but it must be a big one. An SUV is definitely better and will ensure you win almost any on-road competition. If you really feel competitive, get a Hummer. Two were spotted yesterday, so you better hurry. Soon you will need a tank, especially out at Zogu i Zi where it is looking like a real war zone.


If there are two lanes, make three. If there are three, make four. Do whatever you can to be at the front of any line-up. Never wait behind someone else's car, it's so demeaning. Always go around (leftside or right it doesn't matter). Go right to the front of the line, just like with bread. And please don't worry if you can't see the traffic light at this point. Someone will "horn you" and let you know when it is green. Never worry if one lane goes in one direction and the other lane goes the opposite way. If you are important just use the other lane and make it go your way. Flash your lights and just go. And one-way streets are just for pedestrians aren't they?


Only for babies. No wait. Albanian babies and children never wear seatbelts, so why should you, a full grown adult. In fact, why do manufacturer's even bother to put them in cars destined for Albania?

Well you get the picture. I could go on but I'll hold back. I'm never shocked when the local news shows people killed in traffic accidents here, but I am sad, and angry. Learn to drive with respect for other people's lives and your own. Oh Albania, how long will it take you to cherish your new-found freedoms?

You can read a very interesting (albeit old)article from the Wall Street Journal about driving in Albania.


Selfmaderadio said...

You forgot the rainy days. When the streets are full of water and the drivers go right in the middle of it and make the water turn into an unwanted dirty shower for the poor pedestrians.

I also observed that some albanian drivers were blowing horns in the highway. Never understood that. Cheers

Anonymous said...

hahaha!!! do I sense a little frustration there? I don't blame you, for I myself an Albo, couldn't agree more. I did not fully understand the English expression " there is safety in numbers" until I went back for a visit in Tirana. Me and my son had to wait for a respectable number of people to cross the street from Skanderbeg Monument to the Bank of the State sidewalk, so we could stop the c(K)ar by sheer number.

ITS said...

"Oh Albania, how long will it take you to cherish your new-found freedoms?"

-- Fifty to one hundred years! Now, stop asking us to change for the meantime. That's what makes us exotic!

Kristen Beqari said...

Oh my - I could not understand the "rules" of traffic while in Albania. My mother in law had no fear when it came to crossing the street. "fap fap" she would tell me when I would still be on the curb (or lack of) and she was already across.

Writer and Nomad said...

whoa. i thought all those rules of the road only applied to philly. i stopped driving for just that reason. i was sick of being stressed and put upon by demanding people in all terrain vehicles who insist on tailgating.

Anonymous said...

The same rules apply to Greece... each and every one of them!

Romerican said...

Haha, reminds me a bit of Romania... although I must admit that Tirana sounds even more chaotic on some the details. Fun stuff! Vrroooomm...

Anonymous said...

I am going to Albania in June 26(about 2 weeks)

I am staying in Tirana some days and travelling south to Dhermi. I was thinking about driving but then i thought it is better to hire an Albanian crazy driver or a relative of mine since he knows the codes and the "rules" of the streets. I am used to Canadian driving(which is really organized).

Number 1 Rule
With crazy drivers you cant be cautious. You have to be crazy like them to survive or else they'll stomp on you.

Choco Pie said...

Are you absolutely sure you aren't living in Korea, because that all sounds strangely familiar..

Gia-Gina said...

Ha Ha, you have described Italy to a "T" except that Italians are always on the cell phone while driving even though it is illegal. Everything you mentioned goes on daily in Italy too.

Anonymous said...

What you wrote is so true! I am an Albanian who lives in the US. I visited my parents last spring and was trying to stroll around the city with my one year old. No one would ever stop and let me go. Instead, they kept blowing their horn!! Somehow, it was shocking even to me, born and raised in Tirana. I had forgotten about our driving "rules".
I read your blog every day, and I think you live like a block down the street from my parents. Keep it going!!

Miss Kim said...

Selfmade Radio... And the puddles in fact are miniature lakes because the drainage is so poor! And what is that highway horn blowing thing about. Oh yeah... I forgot that you must also blow your horn while kidnapping the bride!

Anon 1... Yes, that exactly how I cross the streets. I wait for a crowd (it's especially helpful if they are a bunch of pretty young girls).

ITS... It's my responsibility as a human being to try to change things which are dangerous or harmful to other human beings.

K-Dot... I am always startled to see people actually laugh when they make it to the otherside unscathed.

April... True April... It's risky driving in any large city nowadays.

Ellasdevil... I know how they drive in Greece! I hav to say that I much prefer our Albanian Taxi Drivers. 300 LEK (3 USD) flat rate gets you anywhere in the city without any sort of hassle.

Romerican... I also lived in Romania and never drove there either, but after living here I shake my head and wonder why I was so hesitant. It would have been far easier in RO.

Anon 2... I too am used to Canadian driving, where the rule is ALWAYS yield to the other car. Unlike here where it is generally NEVER yield to anyone. I'd get a driver if I was you.

Sandra... Haha Sandra. But I bet the people in your city aren't driving about 90% Mercedes? It's a bit of a weird sight.

Gia-Gina... Aren't Italians the #1 cell phone users in the world? Here in Albania we pay such high tarrifs for our cell phones-something like 70 US cents/minute I think that most people hardly use them as phones, merely as SMS machines.

Anon 3... Thanks for reading my blog! I'd love to know where your parents are living! If I had a child here in Tirana I would hold on to them for dear life when I was walking. Once, Peter and I were walking on Myslym Shyri street and he had to jump out of the way as a huge motorcycle came rolling down the SIDEWALK. It's a jungle out there!

CanadianSwiss said...

I'm starting to wonder which is more dangerous in Tirana...Driving, or being a pedestrian?? ;-)

Mia said...

The driving there sounds like driving in any major Latin American city. Actually it reminds me of how everyone drove when I lived in Naples years ago. And is Boston in Albania? The rules sound the same. At least it isn't that bad in DC. And out here in the country, the major worry is tractors....

verniciousknids said...

Hee, that was a fun ride!

Matt Erlandsen said...

Well... it's not very different in South America (with the exeption of Chile and maybe.... nah, just Chile).

I'm taking driving lessons. I'm in the theorical part yet... and I'm afraid of going out sat on a pilot seat!!!.


Cynthia Rae said...

This sounds a lot like driving in Italy! I HATE the fact that I will have to go to driving school ALL OVER again at the age of 32! It was bad enough when I was 15!!!

The rule is, once you have lived in Italy for a year you have to go to driving school to get an Italian driving license! They won't simply change my american one into an Italian one! What really isn't fair is that tourists can come here on vacation and drive on their American license, but as a resident I can't!

One day I will get enough courage to go to driving school. In the meantime, I LOVE my bike!


Sarah Elaine said...

Good for you for learning to drive later in life. I enjoyed your comments about driving in Albania. Glad I don't have to drive there!! Take care.

Corrie said...

very funny! like cyndi and gina said, this is just like italy. it's great that you've made a little 'e-manual' out of it :)! cute!


Ginnie said...

Mexico, too. Don't forget Mexico. I had to laugh reading this because it sounded so familiar. When the Mexicans started driving like that in CA (when we lived in Pasadena), that was REALLY scary! What is it with cars? Macho machines???

olli said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
olli said...

Roundabouts - aka traffic circles - also have their own warped logic here. Instead of traffic entering the roundabout giving way, it is the traffic already in the roundabout that gives way. Also, it seems to be compulsory to exit from the wrong lane.

Brooke said...

wait, wait, I don't know any Albanian, what does "car" mean? I don't want to make any mistakes when I visit!

Anonymous said...

I live in Boston, but visiting Albania for the week. Whoever compares the driving in Albania to something like Boston, or even Italy or Greece, is so wrong. You can't even imagine the chaos on the streets in Albania.

But for some reason, it works very well to a certain degree. I have driven there for years (never been in an accindent), and you are forced to drive like a lunatic, b/c of the bad shape of the roads, missing signs and street lines, not working traffic lights, people chrosing everywhere (yes, pedestrians don't respect any rules too), etc.

My neighbors in Boston always wonder how can I parallel park my car, with only 5 inces of extra length between cars, or how can sqeeze my car within the inch between my roommates car and the wall of the driveway.

Well, I tell them, I learnt it all in Albania. Once you learn driving there, you can drive everywhere with no problem.

I am in albania right now, and I just drove from Vlore back to Tirana. (3hrs,). This very fast BMW whisked by our old benz, creating that third lane in a two lane road.
They were going at least 90-100km/h, and I wondered what happens to people like that, that have no respect for traffic, and no fear when overpassing at such high spead, in a bad shape and narrow word.

Well, I just saw in the news 3 people died, and one ended up in hospital in an accident when a BMW basically missed a curb a just flew in a ditch.
hmmm... I wonder if it was them. It sounds like the Darwin-ian process is still at work.

Anonymous said...

alwyn, roundabouts function in Germany the same as in Albania. In Germany, the one who comes from right has priority and that's always the case in roundabouts. But, that's valid only when there's no sign giving priority to those in the roundabout. As almost all roundabouts have these signs, and thus those who enter the roundabout have to give way.

gagbush said...

Have recently learned driving from Port Macquarie Driving School. They trained me a good driver. Soon have to buy my favorite car so learnt driving to get driving license. Really glad with their services and will recommend to all my friends.

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