Category Archives: European Countries

Images of Tirana, Albania

Tirana reminded us of many places. The footpaths and trees growing out of the concrete reminded us of the bigger cities in Vietnam, the mosques conjured up memories of those found in Turkey and the funky young kids out on the town at night could have been picked out of any modern European city.

Albania? Albania? Why on earth would you want to go there?? – Yet another city, in another country that is talked down in the West. For the short time we were there, we loved it.


Cooking for yourself, on the road & on a budget

Visiting local food markets is a favourite pastime of ours when we are in other countries. We could spend hours wandering around, tasting, people watching, asking questions. Our best memories of such times are when we have had a reason to actually shop at the markets rather than simply be a spectator. These are the times when we have had a kitchen to go back to.

Where we can, we’ll book a cheap, self-catering apartment, a guesthouse or a hostel with a shared kitchen. We have been able to join in on the fun of shopping with locals, try some local recipes and save lots of money. These are some of the places we have used our preferred BYO lunch method:

  • Aeolian Islands: We booked a cheap self-catered apartment and bought food such as mince, veges, rice, pasta, chillies, condiments and wine over from the Sicilan mainland. This was much cheaper than purchasing food on the island. We used the plastic bowls and cutlery from the apartment as take-away containers allowing us to eat like kings, on the beach, in front of 50euro/head restaurants, plastic wine glass in hand, smile on face!
  • Dubrovnik: Another expensive place in the summer time. We secured an old apartment that looked like something your Great, Great Grand Mother lived in! That said, it had a fully functioning kitchen and laundry. We made stuffed capsicums and pan fried sardines, (and drank wine in the sun).
  • Cadiz: We were lucky to share an apartment with family during a summer. What impressed us was the surprising amount of quality canned and jarred foods in the area we were in. Of course, we enjoyed cooking fresh foods for the family but a bowl of  glass jarred green beans, corn kernals, Spanish anchovies and boiled eggs were the perfect take-away lunch to have amongst the touristy sites we visited during our days

Our Tips for eating cheap, home-made, local and healthy:

  • Try and book places that have condiments such as olive oil, salt, pepper & vinegar included in the kitchen. This may be difficult but we found that these things were vital (and difficult to carry with you!)
  • If you are heading to an island or somewhere remote, try and bring as much food with you as possible from the nearest city
  • Eat local produce. Buy at the markets. Ask questions.
  • Bring a bottle opener with you and take a bottle of local wine with you on daytrips (or a hipflask) Why not? If you’re going to Asia on a short holiday, pack some decent wine in your check-in luggage. It has been wonderful sipping iced white wine at roadside stalls in Bangkok!
  • Don’t forget to vary what you eat. It’s easy to eat ready-made.
  • If there are no plastic bowls or take-away containers where you are staying, buy one. You can use it as storage for something already in your backpack and then clean and use it for take-away, home-made meals on the road!

“But you’re not Macedonian?” Visiting where my friends come from

As I’ve mentioned previously, growing up with friends of different backgrounds at times left me feeling on the outer. However, a stronger emotion I felt, (and continue to feel) is one of wonder & intrigue rather than isolation. Essentially, I’ve been very lucky to grow up with a mixture of cultures surrounding me. It has made me want to explore these cultures and learn more.

Back then, my Friends’ Fathers stories about swimming in the Adriatic and diving off some bridge into a cold river did not hold my interest. I didn’t know it then, but these stories, the cevapi offered from lunchboxes & sandwiches filled with Ajvar in the playground were just the beginnings of  a life of cultural & culinary intrigue for me.

Smoked Ribs and Hams used in a lot of Croatian and Macedonian meals such as Sarma (Cabbage Rolls)

Most of my friends were born in Australia, their parents had traveled here from Macedonia and Croatia to begin new lives. Although my friends weren’t actually born in these countries, they join their parents in continuing the traditions of their homelands here in Sydney.

I have been to many Macedonian & Croatian Weddings, Christenings, Name Days. I’ve eaten truck loads of food from these places & I’ve learned some Macedonian & Croatian words, (i’ve also learned quite a few more bad words too!).  I’ve danced in circles and I now understand more about the countries’ recent past, their different religions and their geography than I would by reading any text book.  It seemed only natural to visit the two nations when I was in that part of the world.

My Husband and I were warned, “be careful, they can be a bit dodgy over there” and “don’t get ripped off.” With regards to Macedonia, other people whom we did not know so well could not understand why we would want to go there if we were not Macedonian ourselves – “but everyone only goes there to visit family!”

Men chatting in Skopje’s Old Town, in much the same way they do in certain suburbs of Sydney

We had always been told that it was like going back in time, and in places, it was just like that. Macedonia had a surprising amount of Ottoman architecture and the market in Skopje felt more middle eastern than Balkan. The food was very seasonal. We wanted to try our favourite dish, Sarma, (cabbage rolls) but no restaurant we visited had them. The cabbages weren’t ready, not in season. After the initial disappointment, we realised that this was good to hear. They simply didn’t ship cabbages in, they used them when they were ready locally.

The other thing we knew about the region, (from experience with friends), was the fact that the people of the Balkans smoke a lot. This is an understatement. We have never been anywhere where we have noticed and been annoyed by people smoking as much as Macedonia. It was exceptionally cold so we were indoors, often in local joints that lacked ventilation and open windows so it was probably worse than ‘usual’ – we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt!

In the end, as is often the case, it was a happy experience that has left us with many stories to tell. Stories our Friends’ Fathers are happy to go over again and again in their suburban Sydney backyard with a shot glass of home made Rakia in hand, next to the chillies & barrels of pickled cabbages as Qantas flies loudly overhead.

Here are a few photos of our time in the region. For the Croatian leg, we traveled from Split, through Mostar (Bosnia & Hertz) and back into Dubrovnik. We entered Macedonia via Albania, first into Lake Orchid, then Bitola and finally Skopje. We averaged about $100AUD as a couple per day including all meals, private homestay-style accommodation and public transport during October.

The beautiful coastal town of Split, CROATIA

Looking over the Old Town, Split

Mostar, in between Split & Dubrovnik

View over Dubrovnik’s Old Town

St Jovan’s Church, Lake Orchid Macedonia

A Cafe in Bitola, Macedonia

Market in Skopje, Macedonia. It’s all very seasonal. We were there during red pepper season (obviously!)

Is this why Aussies travel so much?

It’s a running joke, “What’s the main difference between Australia and Yoghurt?” The answer: Yoghurt has more culture than Australia.”

Australians may laugh at this joke, others may be offended. For me, it’s symbolic of the way I feel living in Australia & how I feel about my country. It’s cheeky, it’s fun and, in my eyes, it’s literally true.

On the one hand, I have grown up alongside friends of Macedonian, Lebanese, Croatian, Vietnamese & Chinese descent. In my adulthood, I have visited these countries as a result of my blessed time with these people. I now cook balkan cabbage rolls and I always have sumac in my pantry. I find their stories about their culture and their religions fascinating and I often acknowledge know how lucky I am.

On the other hand, (and this is difficult for me to acknowledge), I often feel “on the outer”. This sounds harsh but it’s the only way I can describe it. I have felt this way ever since I was the only one without colour-dyed eggs to bring to school during Orthodox Easter! I guess it’s the sense of belonging that accompanies being part of a culture or a nation more than 200 years old.

If I was of aboriginal descent, I would have 40,000 years of rich history and culture to learn about and feel a part of. The culture has had thousands of years to develop. Aside from what has happened in recent times, I would feel ‘part’ of something deep, something special. “Part of” a culture, a history, a people.

If I was Chinese, there would be endless cultural events I would partake in that would ensure I always felt Chinese! If I was Vietnamese, there would be endless extended family gatherings around hotpots and karaoke!

Some people may say that all of these things are tiresome, that it may look rosy from the outside but it’s not all hotpots and festivities. This may be true, but like it or not, if Anglo-Australians like myself have only meatpies, Phar Lap (actually, he was a Kiwi), Pavlova (possibily Kiwi too), Shane Warne & Russle Crowe (Kiwi!) to rely on when someone asks me about my ‘culture,’ then I think I have a valid reason to sometimes feel a little underwhelmed and on the cultural ‘outer.’

This blog celebrates the absorption of the cultures around me, both near by and far away. I make no apologies for my enthusiasm in soaking up all that the people of different nationalities I live with have to offer. I also make no apologies for sometimes wishing my food shopping had to be done at a market in northern Thailand or that I could live in that little village in Syria, where everyone knows everyone’s name and where no one starts eating until Babba sits down.

Ultimately, while I comfortably blog about different cultures & travel to other countries, I know it is a privilege to do so. Most people in the world worry about where their next meal will come from. This is always top of my mind and always puts my feelings of being on the Aussie cultural ‘outer’ into very clear perspective.

Near Homs, SYRIA