By Julie-Ann Sherlock

I have always travelled. My parents moved me from Ireland to Canada as a baby. I joke that I was almost born on an airplane as getting into a hunk of metal and gliding through the sky feels nearly as natural as breathing for me. But then again, as a severe asthmatic, even breathing doesn’t feel very natural sometimes. 

When my youngest son struck out in the big bad world alone (or went to university, as most people not quite so prone to hyperbole might say), I packed a big backpack and hit the trail to live out my dreams as a digital nomad. Asia was my first destination and, as it turned out, pretty much my only one. 

That was 2017, and after a life of bouncing around mainly Southeast Asia (apart from Sri Lanka, India and Nepal and some time in Portugal), using Kuala Lumpur as my base—the dreaded pandemic hit. That put a halt to my gallop. 

Help! My Wings Are Clipped!

I returned to the motherland thinking it would all blow over, and I would soon be dragging my now-upgraded-to-a-huge-wheelie suitcase through airports again. Fool. 

My travelling days were over for almost a year. In the greater scheme of what was happening in the world, I know this should be seen as a mere inconvenience, but to me, it felt like a big chunk of me died. (Remember, Julie-Ann = overly dramatic)

To stave off some of the soul-crushing, unrequited wanderlust, I dreamt, planned and wrote articles about all the places I would visit when the world opened up again. But it wasn’t until late 2021 that finally I broke and decided I couldn’t remain grounded anymore. My mental health was suffering, I struggled to stay optimistic about life. Travelling and what I had experienced for the past 4 years had changed me and framed who I was

So the search began for somewhere I could go where the weather would be a little warmer and less rainy than Ireland in the depths of winter. It also needed to be relatively inexpensive, in Europe to make returning home easy in case of an emergency and with a soothing sea or ocean to iron out my growing anxiety. Oh, and allow me, double vaccinated (now triple, Yay!) and COVID free to enter. Then I found it. Albania

Saranda, My Saviour!

This tiny little country in the Balkans came to my rescue. I researched diligently to find the perfect place and decided on a coastal city called Saranda. It is on what is known as the Albanian Riviera and just a 30-minute boat trip across the Ionian Sea from the Greek Island of Corfu. On a clear day, you can even see a little bit of Italy. 

It wasn’t just the picturesque views, the milder climate, the fact that I could rent a studio apartment for €250 a month or that beer is cheap that won me over. It was the promise of a community of like-minded folks.

During my research, I learned that an American bar in the city acted almost like a community centre for blow-ins like me. Digital nomads, immigrants, tourists and locals all hang out at the American Blue bar, so I knew I would find a ready-made tribe of people who understood me. Turned out the apartment I agreed to rent was right across the street from the bar. Ding, ding! 

For seven glorious weeks, I fell asleep and woke to the sound of waves crashing off rocks just below my balcony, took strolls along the promenade in search of delicious Mediterranean food, and worked while watching some of the most glorious sunsets I have ever seen. And I may have spent some time across the street too…

Saranda turned out to be the best decision I have made in a long time. The people I met, the friendships I made, and the experiences, including basically scaling a castle wall at a UNESCO heritage site, Butrinti, because my friends and I got a little lost, all helped heal my ravaged heart. 

I returned to Ireland for Christmas a renewed, invigorated and happier person. I enjoyed my wonderful family and amazing friends again, knowing that all was not lost. There were still some places I could go, despite a global pandemic. Travel was not entirely a thing of the past. 

In fact, I am writing this with my suitcase open on the bed. I am packing again. I am returning to Saranda for the rest of 2022 and using it as a base to explore the Balkans (and maybe get to make my dream European trip) while enjoying those newfound friendships to the max. First, though, I am making a wee detour to Scotland to hug my niece Poppy on her first birthday, then it’s time to get my travel on again.