Filipino chef Eric Layno shares his expat life in Albania, and the struggles and joys of living in a country which is still quite unpopular to Filipinos.
Chef Eric Layno, 41, came to Albania for love. He gave up his job as a humanitarian missionary in Singapore to be with his then-Albanian girlfriend, Ervina. But from the moment he arrived in Tirana in 2016, he immediately questioned his rash decision.
With the depressing winter, the serious faces of the people and most particularly, the disapproving looks his girlfriend’s parents gave him, Chef Eric, a native of Bataan, felt that Albania was not happy with his presence.
Winning them over with adobo
Living with his girlfriend’s family was challenging. He would hear harsh comments from her parents, questioning why she chose him. But his girlfriend stood by him and would come to his defense.
“I did everything to prove to them that I was the right person for their daughter. When they learned that I was a business professor in the Philippines, their impression of me changed significantly. They had a coffee shop and I also used to be a barista, so I made them coffee. I even cooked for them. I think my coffee and adobo won them over,” says Chef Eric during our Zoom interview in his flat in Tirana. In 2017, he and his girlfriend got married with the blessing of her parents.
After a year of being jobless, he finally found a job as a kitchen assistant in a restaurant with the help of a Filipino chef. Seven months later, he was hired by an Italian owner to be the sushi chef of his restaurant.
Chef Eric describes Albanians as serious but friendly people. When he introduces his wife to me in the middle of the interview, she gives me a shy smile and a short hello. When asked what made him fall in love with her to make him drop everything and move to the other side of the world, “She is very real, a very sweet person,” he answers me, smiling.
Working life in Albania
At the restaurant, Eric worked doubly hard to show that he deserved his position. Working with the locals gave him a wider perspective of the Albanians. “They are honest and frank. A Yes is a Yes and a No is a No.”
But like in any workplace, he also had his share of unpleasant co-workers.
“There are some who backstab to make you appear a bad worker. Initially, I would ignore them but I realized that if I didn’t do anything, our boss would believe their accusations.”
One time, Chef Eric was maliciously accused of nicking money from the till but he didn’t stay quiet. He defended himself and told the boss the truth.
Eventually, Chef Eric has learned to embraced his life in Albania as it slowly opened its arms to give him his delayed welcome. “What I like about Albania is its simplicity. Life here is simple. 100 euros can already be a month-long food supply. A flat costs 150 euros to rent. My salary here is way lower than when I was in Singapore but I can still live comfortably. My wife is a call centre agent. We get by.“
The most expensive soy sauce
After six years, Chef Eric has learned to accept Albania’s imperfections. “It took me years to adjust with the food. I am a rice person and the Albanians aren’t. I lost weight during my first years here.”
But now, he considers Byrek (baked and filled pastry) and Tasqebap (Veal stew) as his favorite Albanian food. “I still miss Filipino food. There is an Asian shop here and a 200 ml toyo is 3 euros and 1 liter is 20 euros! The most expensive toyo in Europe. Some kababayans sell cooked Pinoy meals from their homes.”
Filipinos in Albania
Even if Albania is rich in history and culture, not a few are still unfamiliar with this Southeastern European country. Little is known about Albania among Pinoys. According to the Philippine Consulate in Tirana, there is only an estimated 121 Filipinos in Albania as of 31 December 2020.
Chef Eric laments that the Filipino community in Albania is far from being united. There are only two associations and each one does its function independently. Eric is currently the vice-president of his association, the United Filipino Community in Albania which has 40 members. “We have our assemblies, we organize the Philippine Independence day celebration and Christmas party for other Filipinos in Albania. But our main focus is to help our fellow kababayans in times of need.”
The common problem faced by Filipinos in Albania is domestic violence and labor abuses. “Through our association, we collaborate with the International Humanitarian Organization in Tirana. If in case there is a problem among Filipinos, we go to an international humanitarian lawyer to assist us.”
Chef Eric feels that he has the moral responsibility to help a fellow kababayan against abusive employers. Aside from him and his wife, there are other Filipino-Albanian couples who are willing to give their assistance. “We are lucky that our Albanian spouses understand our plight and are ready to help us.”
A future in Albania
Chef Eric doesn’t regret giving up a more comfortable life and embrace his expat life in Albania. ”I am happy here. I love my job. My family is here. My 4-year-old daughter is our source of joy. Although, at times, due to cultural differences, conflict is inevitable.”
“Sometimes I would say, let’s go to the Philippines so our daughter can experience life there, as a Filipina. My wife is not that sold to the idea for now. But generally, we have learned to accept each other’s cultural differences. My father-in-law is a Muslim, my mother-in-law is an Orthodox Christian, my wife and I are Christians. Religion is not an issue at home.”
Chef Eric believes that the future is brighter for Albania. The economy is picking up, new businesses are opening and more jobs are created. No longer the poorest country in Europe, Albania is ready for significant economic changes in the coming years. So much so that Chef Eric is hopeful that one day he can put up a business of his own.
“A coffee shop maybe. My idea is to bring in the best Asian coffees to Albania. Coffees from Singapore, Malaysia or even our very own Kapeng Barako. Perhaps next year. It’s not difficult to apply for a business license because my wife is a local and soon I will be a citizen.”
For now, Chef Eric is looking forward to visiting the Philippines when everything is close to normal. He wants to take his in-laws to explore his native home. “They saw Palawan and Boracay on TV and they said they wanted to go. It will be my first trip home after I came here six years ago. It will be my wife and my daughter’s first trip to the Philippines so I really want them to see my home to compare life here with the one there.”
Cover Photo: Abenteuer Albanien (https://www.abenteueralbanien.de/)
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Nats Sisma Villaluna has been serving the Filipino community in Spain for more than 13 years. His volunteer works include teaching Spanish to Filipinos, and as artistic director of the Coro Kudyapi, a group of musically inclined young Filipinos in Barcelona. His passion to serve the Filipino community now extends to other countries in his role as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the new The Filipino Expat Magazine.