When I told people I was going to Albania this past summer, they did two things.
- told me I was brave
- asked if I’ve seen the movie “Taken.”
The third time someone said this, I asked her why people kept asking me that, and she said that in one of the “Taken” movies, the girl who gets “taken” is brought to Albania by her kidnappers.
This association makes about as much sense as if someone were to ask me, “You live in San Francisco?! Have you ever had an alien take over your body?!”
Maybe someday, people will stop writing off entire countries based on the arbitrary locations Hollywood picks for its horror films. However, seeing as just this week, people on Twitter have been swearing off visiting my hometown of Santa Cruz because the psychological thriller “Us” is set there, I feel like that’s about as likely as, y’know. Getting invaded by extraterrestrials.
When I was born, my parents planted a tree in my honor. If that isn’t the most California thing you’ve ever heard, I’m not sure what is. Maybe if they had been eating burritos and talking about recycling as they were doing it.
For a few years, I had wanted to get a tattoo to commemorate my tree, so that no matter where I am in the world, I can be reminded about home and my roots. Pun very much intended.
Because $1 USD is worth 125 Albanian LEK, I figured that Albania would be a great place to get an affordable tattoo. The guy who checked me and my friend into our hostel in Tirana was covered in tattoos, so I thought he might know where to get one. He said his friend was a tattoo artist, and he would ask if he had an opening later that day and let me know.
That night, I was laying around drinking a (delicious) Albanian beer and playing a wrestling video game with my friend (badly). Suddenly, the reception guy ran up to me and said his tattoo artist friend could squeeze me in before he stopped tattooing people for the night, if I left that very second.
He said he didn’t know the name of the place or how to explain how to get there (excellent), but he dropped a pin on my map of a bar “near the place” and said that he would tell the artist that a “blue dress lady is waiting for him.”
(As you can probably glean from context clues, I was wearing a blue dress.)
I didn’t have an international SIM card, so I could only use my phone when I was connected to WiFi. He showed me the artist’s Instagram and said there would be WiFi at the bar so I could message the artist to tell him I’d arrived.
Anyone who associates horror movies with cities would probably not be caught dead getting a tattoo from someone they don’t know at an undisclosed location in Eastern Europe.
I, however, finished my beer, messaged the artist on Instagram to tell him I was on my way, and went off to the bar that was pinned on my map. I don’t watch movies much.
I did take my (male) travel buddy with me. I try to always have a friend in tow when I’m walking around at night in any city I haven’t been to. “Always bring a friend with you when you decide to get a tattoo from a random person off of Instagram in a country you’re not familiar with,” as the old adage goes.
When we got to the bar, 45 minutes later, we discovered that there was no WiFi after all, so I couldn’t tell the artist I arrived. I opened my Instagram to remind myself what his name was…and saw that my message hadn’t even sent. Of course.
His Instagram was entirely pictures of tattoos, so I had no idea what he looked like. I decided to just see if anyone in the nearby vicinity looked like they could conceivably be a tattoo artist. Most of the people at the bar were groups of older women smoking cigarettes, so that was unlikely, but hey, I didn’t want to be presumptuous.
I slowly walked around the bar, making uncomfortably long amounts of eye contact with anyone who looked up at me. I also made sure to swish my blue dress emphatically in their general direction, just in case they happened to be looking for someone who was wearing one.
Failing that, my friend and I went inside the mall next to the bar to see if they had WiFi there. When we didn’t find any, I decided to go back outside for 15 more minutes and wait for the artist to find me, and that if he didn’t, I just wasn’t meant to get a cheap tattoo in Albania.
About five minutes before the 15 minutes were up, a youngish guy ran up to me, said something unintelligible, and then started walking away. I assumed this was the tattoo artist, so we followed him.
As we crossed the street to go into an apartment building, I decided that it was probably wise to double check that the random man who had just approached me and was now apparently leading me into an apartment was indeed the tattoo artist in question. I wasn’t entirely sure how to do this, since I didn’t know if he spoke English. However, I remembered the name on the Instagram account, so I had an idea.
I cleared my throat to get his attention. When he looked at me, I said, “Hi! What’s your name?”
“Albania!” he said.
I shook my head, pointed to myself and said, “My name is Jessica.” I then gestured to him and repeated, “What is your name?”
He understood, we both laughed, and he told me his name, which matched the name on the Instagram account! Hooray!
Armed with the knowledge that this particular stranger was in fact the one that was supposed to put permanent art on my body, we followed him into the apartment building.
Once inside, it became immediately clear from the tattoo equipment and pictures of tattoo designs all over the walls that this was indeed a legit tattoo studio.
About an hour later, I was the proud owner of a tree tattoo. For the grand whopping total of $28 United States dollars. That’s about six times cheaper than any of the tattoos I got in the U.S., and it looks just as good. And nobody got kidnapped. Win-win.
Not only did I successfully get an affordable tattoo, but the rest of my trip in Tirana was awesome. Everyone I met was friendly and kind, the weather was warm, and the city was filled with amazing art installations. Also, everything was cheap, and I don’t just mean their tattoos. Bottles of beer from the supermarket cost around 80 cents USD, and I had a sandwich and a beer for lunch at a restaurant one day for the total equivalent of $2.50! Also, our hostel had not one but four kittens.
If you find yourself being afraid to travel somewhere because of something you saw in a movie, remember this story. Just like with anywhere in the world, trust your instincts, bring a buddy, and always make sure that the name of the stranger you’re about to get a tattoo from matches the name on the artist’s Instagram account. As the old adage goes.