Albania: Culture Shock

Albania in 2012 was special. In 2014 the lustre of Albania had worn off. It no longer felt wondrous or special. Now it all just felt messy. Moreover, often times I was struck by the sentiment that I hated being a guest. “I wouldn’t wish being a guest on anybody,” thought I. “My relatives go about their lives, and here I am, sitting on the couch, doing nothing, or even worse, watching too much TV.” Part of the problem was this trip came “out of time” My previous visits to Albania had all been spaced four years apart.  I rushed this return home, reappearing on home soil less than a year and a half later. My relatives felt my return too sudden, and did not yet miss me enough, to feel warmly towards me.

I don’t want to sound like sour grapes, but in Tirana, I felt no one welcomed me. Sure, my grandparents loved and welcomed me. But not my aunt and her twin sons. They worked all day, came home late, ate dinner and left early in the morning, without even saying good bye; they were not to be found till Sundays, their day off. I also felt a few other relatives in town made no effort to see me, or even call me. I suppose when one lives so far, for so long, the ties that bind weaken…or apparently break altogether. The mood of the country felt very foreign and cold to me. It wasn’t just “long lost relatives” such as myself that were being forgotten and dismissed. It was everyone!

Today Albania leaves you cold. Nobody cares for family anymore. Everybody was cold and it was the norm to be cold. This fact was true particularly of the new generation, my generation that is. I was not asking my relatives to go out  of their way; all I was asking for was that they acknowledge my visit; even a phone call would have done the trick. When this did not happen, the rejection fell on my mind, and it stung. That being said, even in these hard social times, good people are still good and will always be so under any social order; only the bad turn cold.

Nowadays, the people of the old school, the elderly, are the only warm generation. By nature the elderly are kinder and more loving towards the young. Moreover, they grew up under a different social system. Say what you will of communism economically, but it was a warm and decent society where people upheld their duties and obligations towards one another. In the Albania of Communism, no one could have gotten away with snubbing a relative who is visiting from halfway around the world. In the new Albania, snubbing immigrant, long lost relatives is common practice. Some people perhaps are petty enough to even relish it. In this sense I could not believe what was happening. This is not the Albania I left. It was my experience with culture shock.

But is not every immigrant who returns to his beloved home in for a rude awakening? Faik Konica, the early 20th century Albanian writer and politician when visiting Albania in 1913 was in for a rude awakening:

“I decided to set off for Albania, convinced that I would find as likable and becoming a world as the one I had described to outsiders. My awakening was horribly rude-and laughable. After a few months of strolling among sour and unshaven faces, one morning in the late fall of 1913, I was handed an “official” ticket in Durrës that was strange, and this ticket, still written in Turkish and in a military style, ordered me to, “break your neck and get on the ship heading for Brindisi today because we have no need for your kind” … Such wounds never heal completely and if they close, they leave an eternal scar in the soul. But there’s one good thing about them: They become a lesson for the future.”

Of course, because when one is away for so long his memories of home turn romantic. And he forgets the reality. Moreover, he has evolved into some other being inconsistent with the land that bore him; while his home has also evolved into some other being that knows not. He is naturally impressed by its progress, yet upset by its regress; for both processes happen over time. But he does not want his home to change! He wants his home to stay the same, as he always remembered it, a good and kind place.

 

Motivational Quotes 3/20/20

Everybody’s got something to suffer about; everybody’s got something to be happy about.

Build a new personality!

Return good for evil -the gospel

The worst enemy in life is not a person; it is a place you don’t belong. The best ally is home.

You act your way into a new way of thinking, not the other way around -Pastor Richard Wing

The task poorly begun is better than that left perfectly undone.

Children begin the world anew -Thoreau

I want to live and celebrate my life – Taio Cruz

Life is the journey. Heaven is the destination.

Albania: history of Tirana

I was first stationed in Tirana. It was there that I would spend the following two weeks, the bulk of my stay, at my grandparents house, and when I say house, I mean is apartment because the vast majority of residents live in apartments. Tirana is a city in the absolute sense, not in the suburban sense. I grew up in Tirana till age 9, so I am most familiar with it, but before I give you my impressions of it during this visit, and a bit of my memories of it growing up there, let us delve back in time and discuss its history from its humble beginnings to the present.

Tirana is the capital of Albania. It is centrally located bridging the gap between the north and the south, two distinct geographical regions with two cultures and dialects: the northern Highlanders we call the Ghegs, and the southerners which we call the Tosks. Although both regions are mountainous, the north is the more rugged, while the South is the more refined, if i’m not mistaken. Tirana itself is very near the north and is more sharp than sweet. It’s also nestled between rugged mountains, the most prominent being Mount Dajti.

Tirana was proclaimed the modern capital in 1920, 8 years after Albania declared independence from the Ottoman Empire. The region has had settlements perhaps dating back to the bronze age, though the evidence is ever so vague when we go so far back in time. All we have is tools, ceramics, artifacts; the earliest near Mount Dajti and The Cave of Pellumbas. We do have a mosaic from the first century and evidence of a Christian from the fifth century.

It was 400 years ago, in 1614, that Tirana became officially established as a city of the Ottoman Empire. At that time a feudal Lord from the nearby town of Mullet built a mosque, a bakery and a Turkish bath in this city of 7000 people. But it is true that Tirana existed well before 1614. Marin Bartletti the Albanian Byzantine historian refers to Tirana in the 15th century. Since then, the population in fact decreased. Tirana lost 13000 residents from 1583 to the date of its Ottoman founding, in 1614, a very substantial loss, leaving it with only a third of its population.

The decrease continued and the population appears to have bottomed out at 4000 residents in 1703. From then it grew gradually reaching 12000 in 1820 and there appears to be no decline since. By 1945 the population had boomed to 60000. Considering it was the capital, Tirana has always been a favorite city of residence for all Albanians. During communism it was particularly difficult to move here. Housing and job opportunities were scarce. Moreover, the authorities did not wish to promote villagers into city dwellers. At the same time, they did build drab but sufficient apartments for Tirana’s residents, establishing an acceptable living standard.

Today, Tirana’s population has boomed exponentially to over 500,000 residents. The drab old apartments have often in central streets, turned colorful, thanks to a creative former mayor, an artist by training. But it is a cramped city. The open spaces that once were even a decade ago are no more. There is always something being built every day, it appears. Tirana has begun to sprawl in the surrounding counties, once considered outside its realm, and even is growing up the mountainside of Mount Dajti, an absurdity in and of itself. But that is Tirana: an absurd and eclectic city.

 

Sources:

http://www.visit-tirana.com/explore-tirana/good-to-know

NY Times

http://www.worldmayor.com/worldmayor_2004/tirana_history.html

photo: Visit-tirana.com

Motivational Quotes 3/6/20

An equal start is everything*

there is momentum to both success and failure*

a small difference makes a big difference*

Man, whom rational we call, is pleased with nothing if not blessed with all -Alexander Pope

Fate never kicks a down and out man into high places

A revolution might land me on top -Fitzgerald

Now there are philosophy professors, but no philosophers -Thoreau

On him whom scorns the world, the scorned world takes its revenge -Emerson

The best revenge is living well -popular

Earn your happiness!

*Malcolm Gladwell

History: The Illyrians

Why must one be interested in the land he comes from? Perhaps, it is self-evident. The place you come from holds secrets to your identity. I think this is what draws people to learn about their roots, the discovery of themselves. In life, we are born without identity and as we grow, we seek to discover it; the ultimate discovery is that of the self. Thus an expat is drawn to visit his homeland or at least to learn of its history. What has happened to his ancestors, one thinks, must have some impact on his own destiny. Thus, here I am, teaching myself Albanian history, to learn about my roots and thus myself.

The illyrians, the predecessors to modern Albanians, first footsteps in the Balkans dates back to 1000 BC. Their neighbors to the north were the Celts, who at this time, had yet to migrate to the outer fringe of Europe. To the south, lay Macedon and Greece. Thrace lay to the East, where Romania, and Bulgaria is today. The Slavs were still in North eastern Europe and would not arrive in the Balkans for over 1600 years. Today, of these ancient people, only the Illyrians-now we are called Albanians-and the Greeks have survived. The Macedonians and Thracians have been assimilated.

The first evidence is archaeological. We do not have any written texts in Illyrian. If they had great thinkers, or writers, they probably wrote in Greek or Latin. The Illyrians did not rise into an early civilization. No Parthenon, or Colosseum was on their lands. Moreover, they had problems with a lack of unity, factionalism and even civil war between the various tribes. But owing to a fortuitous location, neighboring Greece and Rome, they must have benefited in culture and trade. Indeed they played a sometimes major role in the Roman Empire.

They had their little settlements, tribes and small kingdoms, such as those of Kings Bardhylis, Clitus, and Glaucus in the 4th century BCE along the eastern coast of the Adriatic sea. But they were not a military power beyond their own kind, other than winning or losing land to their immediate neighbors.  They won Durres from the Greeks and lost land near Lake Ohrid in the east to Macedon under Phillip II, Alexander’s the Great’s father, and later to Alexander himself. However, oppression was accompanied by opportunity; many Illyrian leaders and soldiers joined Alexander’s army on his conquest of the east, a major event in world history. 

After 700 years of independent self-rule, the Illyrians were conquered by Rome something they provoked by attacking settlements on both coasts of the Adriatic and Greek colonies as far as Sicily.  Rome sent a large fleet and took over the coastal Illyrian settlements of Queen Teuta in 228 BC. 11 years later a second Roman expedition was sent to capture the interior. The Illyrians became allied with the Macedonians and the war between the two sides lasted 51 long years. Genthius, the last Illyrian king surrendered in 168 BCE. 

At the end of the war, the whole Balkan Peninsula became Roman territory. The Romans called Illyria the provence of Illyricum; it stretched all the way to Istria, modern Slovenia in the North down to the river Drin, in central Albania in the south; its capital city, Salona, was in modern Croatia, near today’s Split. Dalmatia and Pannonia were its two states.

The Romans held Illyria for four centuries. While there they brought much civilization such as the construction of the Via Ignatia, the army road, aqueducts and an ampitheatre, still standing today. They heavily influenced the population, by colonizing the coast. I myself am half Arumunian, (Vlach) of the very people descended from the Roman colonists. Today. the Arumunians are a large Balkan minority whose language is derived from Latin.

Many Illyrian soldiers joined the Roman legion and distinguished themselves reaching the high ranks of the Praetorian guard and a few even entered history as Roman emperors, such as Claudius II, Aurelian, Diocletian, and Constantine the  Great, the first Christian emperor and founder of Byzantium, and later Byzantine emperor Justinian who built the Hagia Sophia, the model for all Greek Orthodox churches. St Paul himself preached in Illyricum, and though Albania today is thought of as predominantly Muslim, historically, it was Christian for over 1000 years.

Selected Sources:

  • The Albanians: A Country Study, Robert Elsie / Walter Iskaw
  • Encyclopedia Brittanica: Illyria
  • Wikipedia: Illyria

Motivational Quotes 1/10/20

God is a poet. He puts everyone and everything in the right place and the right time

You are author of your own destiny

A resolution is not a quick fix that comes true upon declaration. It is an ongoing process that must be managed, and monitored over time. 

Why is my life the way it is today? 

Everyone wants to be more fortunate than what they are 

His parents viewed the breaking of the will as the cornerstone of education – Herman hesse 

The ability to listen is a skill

What I feel I know to believe; what I merely think I know to doubt

If you can’t enjoy the little things you can’t enjoy life

Past a certain point in life, every year is a celebration 

Albania: it’s about the journey, not the destination

Recalling the details of a trip that occurred 5 years ago with any certainty seems impossible; i feel more like a historian than a writer. Moreover the emotions have faded, the memories are no longer vivid; thus even if I could recall the details, it would sound like history, not good writing. Nevertheless, I will tell you a few things, as much as my ailing  memory still allows. I will begin with the flight itself, because in international trips where you cross two continents, in particular, I feel it’s about the journey, not just about the destination.

 I flew from Columbus, Ohio, my home, to Tirana, Albania on Tuesday April 2, 2014; this I know for sure. It’s written down in an old ticket that I somehow found.  I had a long layover at Dulles Airport, in Washington DC. I remember being particularly nervous. It was my first trip alone overseas, even though I was a full adult. I was late. Many college kids do study abroad at 18. I was 30. I wasn’t even going to a truly foreign country. I was going to visit my grandparents in a country whose nature and language I knew. 

What else can i remember? Oh, yes, while at the airport, I met a nice girl at a Starbucks near my gate. We were sitting on a bench near each other. She was cute, and had on these sneakers that caught my eye. But i could tell she was a bit shy. And I knew how to draw her out. I was talking on the phone, and spoke well aware that I was being heard. Once I hung up,  she warmed up to me and asked to borrow my phone charger. That’s all the opening I needed! We got to talking. She had an attractive quiet manner. She told me she was originally from Morocco; that vouched for her accent. But she was a modern girl. Her clothes were fashionable and western.

She looked white but was of brunette features and mysteriously pretty; but there was no chance for me. She was newly married, she said. Moreover, she lived in Missouri whereas i lived in Ohio. Another good reason why we could not belong together. Curiously enough as I later flew over the Atlantic listening to music half asleep I hear a song with the refrain: “We could, we could belong together.”  At that moment, I truly felt as if I could belong with any girl from anywhere. Now, I can say this is one pleasure of travel; relating to a stranger of a different background, and observing and liking the “little cultural differences” between us. 

I also made friends with a fellow Albanian. He, in fact, became my travel companion and we hung out much of the trip. I swear to you, and I am not lying, at the next airport, in Vienna, a place with a sterile all white interior, him, myself, and two fellow compatriots sat around a table and sipped coffee for an uninterrupted four hour block. I’m serious. This was the longest coffee session of my life! I finished my cup in like 15 minutes. The rest of the time, I mostly looked around, and heard them talk. They were true Albanians. They lived there. I was the fake; the American hybrid, for though I sound like the insider and expert, I must admit, I am not a pure Albanian. I feel there is a cultural difference between myself and true Albanians. It’s impossible for there not to be. I left Albania when I was nine. Now, when I go back there, I admit I feel foreign. The place has changed so much. And yet at times, it feels exactly as I remember it.

My travel buddy, as I call him, was a businessman. He made periodic trips to the US to obtain merchandise. “I come here often,” he told me, “but I could never live here. I don’t like it.” At that moment, as he said those words, I knew exactly what he meant. I too had felt what he had felt about America. I think he was referring to is the fact that America is not a joyous country. It is a serious place. It’s free, it’s fair, it’s great, but it’s not fun. Albania is cheerful! There’s never a dull moment. It’s hectic, noisy, messy; these qualities the very characteristics that make it bad, make it fun; for a chaotic joy is the soul of Albania.