Finding Harmony on an Accordion in Shkodër, Albania

The moment we stepped into the tiny Albanian bar bearing mint-green walls, I regretted having not been more studious in Italian class years before. The five gentlemen inside the Shkodër establishment spoke Albanian of course, but between the two of us, Shawn and I only knew about five Albanian words.

The seven of us rapidly defaulted to Italian, soon learning that we really only needed to use the universal language to communicate.

Music that is.

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“Music is the universal language of mankind.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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The warm sound of an accordion is what lured us into the bar, after all. Then came the contagious laughter of the men inside and the promise of an authentic experience, in a country not yet on the tourist radar.

The owner, Nikola, pulled out two chilled cans of B52, an energy drink that would have us buzzing for hours to come. He set them on our table, and made it known that this was his treat. There was no way that he was going to let us pay.

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Luigi’s music had everyone in the nautical-themed establishment doing toe tapping, with Luigi’s black, pointy shoe leading the way. The men sang. Shawn and I didn’t know the lyrics, but still we hummed and we swayed.

The expressive looks on Luigi’s face were priceless. During more passionate measures, he looked as if he were about to cry, but then there came a brilliant, merry crescendo, and his face sported a wide-eyed grin. I believe that music has the power to bring happiness into anyone’s life, but I suspect that during Albania’s brutal chapter under dictator Enver Hoxha, it was one of the only pleasures that citizens could savor. I imagined Luigi during those decades, belting out a tune on the same accordion.

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Two older gentlemen, smartly dressed in sport coats and button up shirts, sat at Luigi’s table. One of them was a violinist. That fellow only stayed for a few songs, then bid his friends goodbye, pedaling off on his little bike. I wondered for how many decades he’d had the same Saturday ritual?

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Long appreciative of the charm an accordionist’s music adds to Europe’s Old World ambience, I’d always wanted to tickle the ivories of an accordion. I asked Luigi if I could play a tune. He obliged, helping me strap on the accordion and offering his muscle power to pump the bellows.

I got a diplomatic response from my international audience for my rendition of Scott Joplin’s ragtime tune, The Entertainer. Americans probably recognize this song from the film, the Sting, or as one often belted out of ice cream trucks, but for the Southeastern Europeans, I think it was an unknown jingle. When I played the Italian classic, La Donna è Mobile, the reaction was instantly enthusiastic. The men were swaying and singing. I couldn’t keep from laughing.

Without Luigi, I wouldn’t have been able to play the accordion at all though, because I couldn’t muster up the coordination or the muscle to pump the instrument’s bellows. And so it was that an Albanian man chivalrously pumped the bellows on the left, and an American girl played its more keyboard-like side on the right. Forget about high profile meetings between world leaders, this was citizen diplomacy at work.

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Feeling sufficiently energized by now, thanks to the lively music and the caffeine and sugar swimming in our veins, Shawn and I decided it was time to walk off some calories on Shkoder’s streets. Ever the generous host, Nikola didn’t let us go so easily. He walked us down the street to his son-in-law’s brand new seafood restaurant, insisting on treating us to yet another drink.

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When we tried to pick up the tab, Nikola playfully said, “No, it’s my turn. When I come to California to see you, then it’s your turn.”

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • The city of Shkodër is located in northwestern Albania, about 110 kilometers (65 miles) from Kotor, Montenegro. Shawn and I first stayed overnight in the town of Ulcinj, Montenegro before crossing the border into Albania. We traveled by bus.
  • During our week spent in Shkodër, we stayed at Florian’s Guesthouse (affiliate link), an authentic homestay managed by Florian and his family. Spending time there allowed us to get a feel for what life is like in a semi-rural, residential Albanian neighborhood. (The homestay is located in the outskirts of Shkodër, about 30 minutes away on foot, but you can borrow a bicycle from the guesthouse to make the journey quicker.) Florian’s mother, Age, and sister, Emanuela, made hearty, traditional meals from scratch, incorporating heaps of fresh vegetables from the family’s garden. The ladies were eager to demonstrate how to make Albanian dishes like Byrek, and Emanuela even made me homemade, gluten-free cornbread, something that paired quite well with the vegetable soup. Father Zef treated us to his homemade wine, lovingly made from grapes grown across the street from the family home. He also showed off one of the bunkers he’d built, about a three-minute walk from the family’s property. And aunts, uncles, and cousins stopped by, sharing photo albums and wedding tales with us. Fellow guests from the Netherlands, Poland, and England also helped make our stay there enjoyable. As an update from our 2013 visit, we’ve since heard that Florian has opened an additional hostel in Shkodër’s city center.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

34 thoughts on “Finding Harmony on an Accordion in Shkodër, Albania

      1. Yes as a young girl on Korcula, Croatia, before we left for Australia in early 1960’s, couldn’t carry it with us etc and then life got too busy with learning English, doing the hard slog at school so I could do well etc but am often in company of friends who play still and we throw a song or two. The accordions are getting harder and harder to obtain…but we have one or two in my neighbourhood…button & key ones :)

      2. It’s so nice to see/hear that musicians are still embracing the accordion, at least throughout Europe. For many years, I lived high above a main square in Heidelberg, Germany, and from it, I’d always hear the lovely sounds of accordionists playing. For me, it created one of the soundtracks of the city.

  1. Tricia, what a fun post!! Loved the video:-). In 2nd grade my mom signed me and my older brother up for accordion lessons. I hated it and later took up piano. He loved it and played for years. When I was in college many years later I took his old, dusty accordion out of the basement and sold it for $50 spending money. I think it was the only time in our 60-year sibling friendship that he was ever really, truly mad at me! I laughed about it again when I read your post. Thanks for the memory :-)

    1. Tina, what a great anecdote, which brought a smile to my face! I think you’re the first person I’ve ever met that took accordion lessons as a child. Did you and your brother ever play duets with your respective instruments? Do you still play the piano now? (That’s something I greatly miss doing while being on the road.)

      Shawn, my hubby/the filmmaker, was happy to hear that you enjoyed his video too. Thank you.

      1. No honestly I abandoned the accordion immediately! I played piano for years then quit in college. At about age 35 my husband surprised me w a baby grand Steinway and lessons as he knew I missed it. I loved both the teacher and the piano and took it up again w enthusiasm. I still play.

      2. Tina, what a fantastic birthday present and opportunity to fine tune skills learned in childhood! I’ll have to plant this idea in Shawn’s mind. :)

        I also took up piano lessons many years after doing so as a child, and enjoyed them immensely. Once we get back ‘home’ to my piano, I can’t wait to play again, though I’m certain my fingers will be quite rusty after so much time away!

    1. Thank you, Marilyn. I also love the expression on Luigi’s face in that opening picture – his expressiveness is not something that can be taught, rather you can sense that he just feels the music.

      I look forward to sharing the photo/video files with Luigi and his family as a way of saying thank you for that wonderful afternoon full of music.

  2. Tricia, that was such a delight your post. While I was strolling through your great images I wished for the sound of the accordion and than there it was!!! And you got to play too!! Wow that must have been such a wonderful experience to share with the locals. I loved that music. Thank you for sharing the happiness of music and the Albanian people. xoxo Cornelia

    1. Cornelia, it’s a pleasure to not only share the images of favorite sites around the world, but the stories of the special people that really make a place come alive.

      It’s also perfect that Shawn is able to make the experiences come to life even more with his videos. They’re something he’s been passionate about since his childhood.

    1. It’s nice of you to say that, Carol. It is the interactions with the locals that make a place come alive. I think that since Albania is not yet on the tourist radar, visitors are still very novel to the locals, making them really open to interactions. That characteristic made our time in Albania particularly special!

    1. Gerard, thanks so much! The interaction was one I couldn’t resist sharing – we encountered such great hospitality!

      I’ll pass along your kind video comment to my husband, Shawn. He’s the video specialist and will be pleased to hear you enjoyed it.

  3. Tricia, you are a woman of amazing and endless talents! I was fascinated because my mother (the “whistler”) also played the accordion. Like you she learned the piano first and talked about being disoriented going from a horizontal keyboard to a vertical one. And she said getting the hang of pumping the bellows was tricky. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I see that you’re now in Greece. Are you going to wander around there for a while? ~Terri

    1. Terri, what a compliment, but I might have been misleading in my narrative. :) I only played half of the accordion that afternoon in Albania, because, unlike your mother, I couldn’t pump the bellows and push the other buttons! It’s so complex. Have you ever given it a whirl?

      Yes, we are now gallivanting about Greece. We’ve gone farther south than originally anticipated. Even going to Meteora and Ohrid were delightful surprise diversions from our original path, which we thought would end in Albania.

      I have so much content to share, but as you know, when you’re on the road one wants to savor moments and not spend too much time on the computer! We’re now in Santorini, and it brings to mind your series of posts from there. Do you have any suggestions? We’ll be here for another 8 days. We’re so lucky.

      1. Hi Tricia, I haven’t had the pleasure of trying an accordion … yet! :) We really enjoyed Santorini, particularly hiking the Santorini Cliff Trail between Fira and Imerovigli and beyond. Your travel path has been so wonderful to follow. Are you continuing your journey to other areas of Greece? ~Terri

      2. Terri, we did a bit of that hike between Fira and Imerovigli, even walking out to Skaros Rock, which was stunning! We’re also contemplating the hike from Imerovigli to Oia. I hear it’s a great workout, but that the views are quite special.

        Even with 10 days here, there’s so much to see and do. After Santorini, we’ll return to Athens for 2 days, then fly to Brussels. Will be sad to leave this part of the world.

    1. Otto, ‘takk’ for your comment. It’s rare to have such authentic experiences while traveling, and for that reason, our afternoon in Shkoder was quite memorable.

      I’m also happy to have finally tried the accordion, though I’ll admittedly need to work on my coordination skills before I give it a whirl again.

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