Albania: The Readjustment Period

Hello friends, here I sit in my room all these years later. It is now a long time since my trip to Albania in 2014. And yet, believe it or not I have found an old journal with some of my thoughts fresh after that trip that reveal what frame of mind I was in after I got back.

5 3 2014

Back in America. You know there’s no place like home; not America, just your life, your apartment, your bed, your TV, your coffee shops, your room, your car. The life of a guest is no match for your own home.

I was happy to be back and enjoyed many advantages, or creature comforts, as this entry shows.

If you will recall I ended series one by saying, my boring old life in America no longer felt bleak, for now I knew this: America was home. It had a happy ending for every good story must end happily. But that is not the full story. Now that we continue, I can reveal to you although readjusting to the States was easier than after my visit to Albania in 2012, it was still hard. Let me share with you another old journal entry.

5/7/14

What a horrible day. Motivation zero. Exhausted. Miss Albania. Depressed. Why did I come back here? I don’t know what to do with my life. The only happiness I had was going to Albania. Now I’ve lost that, I’ve got nothing to shoot for. I have no purpose, nor any goals, no luck. I am stuck!

As this entry shows readjusting back home was no easy feat. We could argue life is not easy anywhere, but this readjustment period was especially hard.

Moreover, I did suffer some lingering aftereffects of the trip. I was, how to put it, culturally confused. One symptom I felt was a rude coldness. This negative feeling, I know I picked up in Albania, for it was not the normal me. I do remember a few instances where it came to play. Once I went to the gym and I gave this unfriendly vibe to this one girl, with whom I had previously been on warms terms with. We worked out near each other. We knew each other. Well, when she saw me, that I no longer cared for our warm neighborly relations, I read on her face, she was put off by it. I admit I had a bad attitude and I did not even want to improve it. We cannot easily alter our behavior even when we see it go bad. This also happened once or twice in public places where I gave off the same cold vibe. And I must blame Albania! I’m sorry to say, but I felt that the culture there, particularly in the big city, was cold and unfriendly. So, Albania gave me affected me negatively, but I overcame this influence gradually.

Another strange idea I picked up there was walking. I always walked around Tirana, and rode the bus too. So I thought I’ll bring that culture here. One day I decided to walk to my local coffee shop. It took me 30 minutes! Gimme a break! Nobody walks in the suburbs. Distances are way too long. What was I thinking! I was the only one on the sidewalk. Another time I deliberately parked my car far away, not in the lot but in a neighborhood alley, and walked 15 minutes to Starbucks. Again, what was I thinking? Was I trying to reinvent the wheel? Then when my wits returned, I realized something that I probably had known all along, that walking in the US is futile, and gave it up altogether. It is true what they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Likewise, when in the US, never walk!

I did go back to my local coffee shop here where the elegant brunette worked. But no, I never asked her out. I was resigned to my fate as a luckless loner. She always avoided my glance, even though she knew I liked her. There was no breaking through to this girl. Unless she was working the cash register, she would never look at you. But she was cute.

It was not an easy time to be alive. But eventually I did readjust to America. Most of all I felt that whatever problems I had were not caused by living in America. They were just caused by my particular life, the unique challenges that I faced at that time.

Albania: The Amazing Race

I had completed my long awaited trip. I had spent four weeks in Albania. In this time, I had fulfilled my desire to “be in my country, to walk those streets, to eat that food, to breathe that air.” I had reconnected with my grandparents, as well as many relatives who welcomed me. Though I had been bored, and watched too much TV, though some of my relatives rejected me, and though i did not have the creature comforts of home, or the purpose of the natives and was merely a guest, I achieved my mission. The trip served its purpose. I had gotten Albania out of the system. Now it was time for my flight back home. I said goodbye to my grandma and grandpa and my aunt and I passed through security. I took a seat in front of my small gate. There are only two at the Tirana airport. It was early morning. It was dark outside. I had been told by my mom that I would be meeting a friend at the airport. In fact, I was told it was a young lady who was perhaps five years younger than myself who was immigrating to the US, and I was supposed to help her along the way. Wanting to find her, I reached out to my neighbor who was a girl about this age. I leaned over and said to her, excuse me miss. However, this girl who apparently took herself to be very pretty thought that I was trying to hit on her, and she refused to turn her head towards me. I said excuse me miss, once, twice, three times. I could tell she could hear and even see me, but she would not turn her head. I knew at that moment that her behavior was characteristically the new Albania, souless to the very core. Anyhow, be it as it may I gave up on her and sat very quietly. I then got up, walked over to the airport shop and picked up a bottle of water. I sat back down a few seats further out from the unfriendly girl, and perhaps had a sip or two. Meanwhile, another girl sat to the left of me, and soon after yet another girl. The two of them engaged in conversation, and soon enough I leaned over to one of them and asked, excuse me are you Albana? Yes, said she in a friendly and warm way. Albana had no pretensions to great prettiness but was simple, decent and kind. Once the souless chick saw me engaging in conversation with Albana and her friend she finally looked over my way, though she still refused eye contact in order to maintain consistency and her face assumed a friendly look. I thought I even saw a smile play upon her lips. Apparently, now she thought me a harmless young man and wished to be my friend! Hey, perhaps she wished to be friends with all of us. Well, regardless, now it was too late. Albana was moving to Missouri. Her friend, who was with her mother, told me she was immigrating to Germany. As I heard her say that, I could not believe that people were starting immigration anew this day and age. Perhaps I thought Albania was too good to leave. Perhaps, I thought it absurd that someone should begin anew now that my own battle was over. Perhaps, both. But let the record show that immigration in Albania is still fever pitched. Even thirty years after isolation was broken and the border was opened, everybody wants to still leave. Sure, word has gotten out that life in the world out there is no easy feat for an immigrant. But this does not deter Albanians. They are willing to brave the disadvantages of being a newcomer. America is their number one destination followed by western European countries. However, one thing is for sure. The immigrants of today are not the immigrants of the early 1990s. They are much more advanced and better equipped. They have more skills. For one thing they can now drive. Secondly, they know some English. Thirdly, they have more money to start life out with. In a word, they aren’t as desperate as the immigrants of old. I’m not saying my family was desperate; we were just like everybody else. But the situation in the early 1990s was a desperate one. We landed in Vienna. Albana and I were joined by another girl who was immigrating to Canada. We sat for coffee at a nice airport cafe. Here I was among my peers, setting off for a new frontier, and a new life in the new world. I was doing the right thing, the “in thing,” for that is the perception: “Blessed are the ones who leave.” Dismissive and forgetful are Albanians of the difficulties that await them, such as the low pay and fatigue of manual labor. Many Albanians trade in office jobs, or jobs where they lounge around all day, for the American dream. It is better to be struggling in America, than to live like a king in Albania, the thinking goes. I disagree. I personally like Albania. In Washington DC something strange happened. Albana and I got separated. I was standing after her in line at customs check-in and she got ushered along without me. By the way, as soon as my feet landed on solid ground, I felt entirely disoriented. “Where am I? Albania? America? The moon!” You know how those international flights are; the jet lag makes you lose all awareness of your surroundings. I had not slept a wink all flight. I was as if in a dream state where reality lacked all clarity and nothing could be known. In this state of mind, I would lose my very own head if I could… so it’s probably no wonder that I lost Albana, the very person whom I was entrusted to look out for. “I can’t believe this,” thought I, as I exited customs. “That girl went on without me! Albanians are all crazy.” I looked left and I looked right, amidst a large throng of people. Nope, there was no sign of Albana. She did not even thank me. She did not even say goodbye. She plain old ditched me. How soulless of her! Totally, the new Albania… Well, be it as may, thought I, now I have to carry on alone, without her.After all, I have a flight myself to catch or I may have to spend the night sleeping in ditch. After I checked at the front desk, as everyone must re-enter, I began to get ready for security, yet again. And there, as I first approach, I see a person, a girl who just like myself, was totally lost. It was Albana! She had not ditched me… it was all just a terrible misunderstanding. Finally, my faith in humanity had been restored. I thought I knew this girl and I was right. She was decent, simple, and kind. “George, they won’t let me through,” she said. And it was my turn to “strut my stuff” and come to the rescue. Though I am no globe trekker, I know the basics of international travel. I rushed her to the front desk, got her a ticket for Missouri-coincidentally, the very state of this nice girl I had met last time in the DC airport-and we both went back through security. We then said our goodbyes and she was off to her new life in America. Meanwhile, I had lost so much precious time that my flight was departing in just five minutes. I went on a mad dash from security to wherever the hell that gate was, the fastest airport run walk I’ve ever done. By the time I arrive at the gate, there was no one there! The attendant pulled some strings and allowed me to pass. I was the last person on that plane. It pays to hustle. Mom picked me up in Columbus and I was still on the high of travel. In the car, I madly gulped down a sweet frapaccino from a vending machine, as I had been dying of thirst on my last flight. Boy how I regretted throwing out in DC that full bottle of water I bought in Tirana. On the drive home, I dare say I felt better than the locals, for they had spent the month milling about town, while I had raced halfway around the world. I felt energized with the spirit of Albania deep down in my soul. Soon enough, I returned to my aimless life here in America holding down some volunteer positions such as working in an animal shelter, going to the gym three times a week, and to my usual coffee houses almost five days a week. Though my life was not a paradise, certainly not the so-called American dream, now at least after visiting my country, reality, or at least my reality no longer seemed and felt bleak, for I now knew this: America, was my country. I am content to walk these streets, to speak English, to eat American food, to breath American air, and to flirt with American women! I am home.

Albania: Exodus of the early 1990’s

In the early 1990s, after a 47 year isolationist dictatorial regime, Albania was starting to open up. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the USSR had disintegrated, and Romania’s dictator had been promptly executed. All signs pointed to the end of communism. This was the first time that we as a people were allowed to immigrate in almost half a century. And the general mentality in Albania was “Anywhere but here!” In fact, in 1990 when Europe saw that our borders could no longer hold us in, and that we were dying for a breath of air, they opened their doors to us. Embassies from major western European countries like Germany, France, and Italy set up shop and were filled to the brim with people desperate to immigrate. These people had nothing to lose. They tended to be a bit younger in age and perhaps a bit adventurous too. They stood in line, and camped outside from morning till night for days on end, hoping for the embassy doors to open. They did open and everyone was labelled a refugee and got instant political asylum.

At the same time, there were heart wrenching scenes of large cargo ships being stormed by thousands of people who climbed aboard via ropes! These ships were for the daring and desperate. They sailed to the nearby Italian coast; this journey took place a few times until the final one sunk under suspicious circumstances. The most accessible destination was Greece; it was reachable by foot over mountain and field, or by vehicle. Being the most developed nation in the Balkans, and part of the European Union, it was the default destination for countless Albanian refugees, mainly from the south. It is fair to say there was an exodus of Albanian immigrants in the early 1990’s; something that was bound to happen after a nation was forced into isolation, and thus into poverty, for over 45 years.

America was the ultimate dream for us Albanians. There a culture reigned where America was and is beloved. I don’t know when the love of America began; perhaps it began at the very beginning when America defeated Great Britain to become civilization’s final frontier in 1776. Although, historically, I don’t know when the first Albanians started immigrating to America, by 1900, the largest community was in Boston numbering at about 50,000. Other large cities such as New York and Chicago may have had similar sized communities at the time. Then in 1944, our communist government put a stop to all emigration, particularly to America. We were now allied with Russia, and later with China. These Eastern powers became our mentors, and we were made to believe America was our enemy.

Albania has always looked up to America, and with good reason. It can be argued America is Albania’s greatest ally. In 1920, America came to our aid at the end of the first world war. At this time, our Slavic neighbors, and Greece wanted to use the chaotic opportunity to partition Albania altogether and take it for themselves. Their armies invaded the country and and our very existence was threatened. Although, other major European powers like Italy, Austria, and France were actors in the decision as to Albania’s fate, it would be America under the leadership of President Wilson that supported and conclusively reaffirmed our independence. This made our countries allies. In 1999, it would be with the aid and protection of America that Kosovo’s Albanians would survive the Serbian campaign of genocide. In 2008, our alliance was renewed yet again when Kosovo declared independence, with support and recognition from America.

On top that, like it does to much of the world, to us as people, America gave us hope; in the early 1990s Albania was a small eastern nation with a troubled recent past, and bleak immediate future. By contrast, here was America, a big western nation, powerful, with a storied past and a promising future. We were all dying to come here! It was a dream so big that we dare not dream it. America in our eyes was larger than life. Certainly, part of this impression had to do with the fact that no one had ever come to America and lived to tell about it. America was the dream of the unknown. Although, our dictator had tried to brainwash us that America was an evil imperialist who had intentions of invading Albania for decades on end, and he even forced us to build thousands of unsightly “defensive bunkers,” which littered neighborhoods and the countryside alike, by the fall of his regime we were free to think for ourselves.

Our natural inclination was to look up to America. Not Russia, not China; as the communist regime had bade us do all those decades, but America, the forward thinking western super power. We all dreamt of coming to America. Of all possible destinations, America the best; a nation built by immigrants for immigrants. In my family, in the early 1990’s, my dad really wanted out of Albania. But God knows my family was not “the cargo ship” type. Dad was a musicologist. He didn’t have that sort of daring in him. Dad thought of all possible destinations particularly the ones where he had contacts, through work. In Europe, this included Romania, England and Austria. But none of them came to pass.

Like other western embassies, the American embassy also opened in Albania at this time. There were rumors they were even offering Fulbright Grants to those few who dared apply; this was the type of daring appropriate for dad. He was an academic. However, earning a Fulbright was impossible at first. There were none! However, dad got a chance to meet the person in charge of the Fulbright Program in Albania, a man called John. Dad gave him a copy of his book; this gesture, and the fact he even had written a book, I believe impressed John. John was a kind man, but he could not help dad; there simply were no grants left, for any one. It was a game of numbers; too many applicants, too few grants. The small budget was already spent. Yet, as fate goes, after months and months pass, John calls dad with great news. A few Fulbright Grants had come in from America and he told dad to apply. He applied, and the rest is history. In the meanwhile, dad invited John over to our apartment for dinner; it was a celebration. We never heard from John again. As we left for America, he left for Asia.

Contains excerpts from my essay: “How did I get here? Out of the Old country and into the new World.”

Memories from LA

…Then one time our cousin came down from Monterrey to visit us. His name was Angelo, or Avdul, as he was called in Albania. He was 28 years old and he had immigrated six months prior to us here in the States. He had gone to Monterrey because his uncle, Uncle Mersin, as we called him, who was also a relative, had been living there. A quick background story on Uncle Mersin here; when he was a young man, Mersin decided to flee from Albania. This act was something that could not be done. It was illegal under the dictatorship and dangerous. But Mersin was a brave. He fled the border to Greece at night and the guards shot at him repeatedly. When he told this story to us, you could tell he was in moved at how he survived. From there he immigrated to America. That was forty years ago, but now he did have a glass eye as a result of a shard of debris damaging his left eye on that fateful night. So back to our story, when Angelo came to America, Uncle Mersin naturally he took him in, and he helped him get established.

As for Angelo himself, he proved to be one of the most generous relatives I have. When he visited us, it was like Santa Clause came to town. He had filled the back of his car with presents for us all. They were practical things like plates, and peanut butter, some clothes-things a family starting out anew might need. He even brought me my first bike. It was used and old, but hey it was free, and it did the job. I learned how to ride all in one day, on the grass in our backyard. Angelo kept cheering me on. My brother, Besian had more trouble, and it took him several more days. Well, Angelo stayed with us a couple of days. He and my parents exchanged some good stories about the old country, we ate a lot of good food cooked by my mom, and then he had to take off and we had to go on in our new country…

… But I was good at playing Super Nintendo. Have you ever played Street Fighter II? You know the one, the adaptation, of the great fighting arcade game. We went up to Monterrey to visit some relatives of ours, Uncle Mersin’s family, and that’s the first time I had seen the game. Well, before the night was over, I was beating everyone in the company, Mersin’s son included and he was older than me. He wasn’t mad though. It’s just a game. You don’t want to mess with me in Street Fighter II, buddy! Besjan was the king of John Madden football ‘93. That game is stupid. You can only play it on snowy conditions; otherwise the players don’t seem to move at all.

But my favorite video game of all time is Super Mario World. Both Besian and I spent the whole year in LA trying to beat it. It was such great fun. Super Mario World really was a microcosm for our life in LA. Like in the video game, we started all over in a strange new land. It had good things and fun things, but it had difficulties and hard times too. But with every scary castle that Besian and I beat in that game, it seemed our family had gotten a little stronger, wiser, and more established in our new country. Indeed just as the game was challenging, so was our new life, but we knew we had to go on, we had to keep fighting.

(excerpt from How did I get here? Out of the old Country and into the New World)

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.

From Albania to America

In the early 1990’s a lot of foreign visitors were coming and going in our apartment. They were contacts of my dad. And he was kind enough to invite them for dinner. And of course, he was hoping to get something in return! At any rate, my mom was the one who had to bear the brunt of the burden as she was the one who did all the cooking. One of them was an English man from America, named Ian, whom we knew for a long time; another one was an Aromanian man from Romania, and then there was an entire family from England who decided to vacation in Albania in our home! My dad went around the whole country with them, and it was all for naught! Not only did the Englishman not offer any invite to us in England, he brought his neighbor with him!

The American Embassy had really opened shop in Albania at this time. They were even offering Fulbright Grants to those few who dared apply for them. A Fulbright Grant, those of you “not in the business” is essentially a year of university research abroad. And if there is a daring man out there, it is my dad. He really wanted to get out of Albania. I probably would have stayed put! So tipped off by a colleague of his at the Art Institute, my dad heard about these great grants and he headed off right away to the American Embassy. But as these things usually are, once he goes there, he finds out they had already run out. They had only a few. So my dad, I imagine, was very disappointed, but while he was there he met the man in charge of the Fulbright Program in Albania, an American called John. My dad gave him a copy of his book, and this gesture and the fact he even had a book, I believe impressed John. John was a kind man. He felt sympathy for my dad, and he was in a tight spot himself having no Fulbright for him, but he could not help him. Yet, a couple of days more pass, and again as these things usually are, John calls my dad with great news. A couple more Fulbright Grants had come in from America and he told my dad to apply. My dad applied, and the rest is history. In the meanwhile, my dad invited John over to our apartment for dinner; this dinner however was different in that it was a celebration. We never heard from John again. As we left for America, he left for Asia.  (Excerpt from)

Why the Pilgrims?

On this Thanksgiving, let us discuss the Pilgrims, the people who began this tradition. Who were the Pilgrims? The Pilgrims, in fact, were religious extremists, in the sense they were willing to die for their religious beliefs, or at least suffer greatly for them. More so than your average man or woman, i.e. moderate Christians. They were outcasts in England. They were a group of about 100 people, who lived communally, a society segregated from the rest. And were thus dismissed, despised or even threatened by the English government to worship and live in and among ordinary society. This threat was enough to push the Pilgrims to immigrate to Holland.

Once there they settled into their “society within society.” They worked in the factories, and got adjusted to their new home, which was no easy task. They did not know the language, nor the culture. But what they did have was the freedom to live together and worship freely. Again, they went against the norm. They lived in Holland 10 years as a segregated group of citizens. Their project was clearly sustainable in Holland. But as is usually the case with immigration, it was the children that the parents worried about. The adults felt the next generation would be absorbed into larger society and the segregated community with its religious ideals would die out.

The Pilgrims felt they needed total detachment from encroaching society, whether it be Dutch or otherwise. This kind of freedom could only be found in a place that was thought empty: America. They arrived in Cape Cod, losing many members along the journey. But they were aided by their sailors… their colony made it, though they were plagued by illness, hunger and violent clashes with Native American tribes.

Let us conclude by asking this question: Why the Pilgrims? What made them able to become the first successful English colony of settlers in America? Let us remember others had tried but failed. At least one colony before them was lost.

The reason for their success is unique to them: practice. The Pilgrims started colonial life in England, when they separated themselves from ordinary society. They lived this way for several years. When they immigrated to Holland, they gained ten more years of practice living as a colony, under more challenging circumstances. It was this practice that gave them the confidence and intuition for success in an “empty land”. Without prior separate communal life in England and Holland, the Pilgrims would likely have never survived in America.

Within ten years a flood of settlers began to arrive in New England. The Pilgrims were soon absorbed… This time, however, they welcomed integration, for they viewed all newcomers as separatists.

America

A German named America,

But he named it after an Italian,

Yet this all happened in France,

But America was discovered by Spain,

And the most astonishing fact is that

In America we speak English.

 

Today, we have people here from all over the world,

And the whole world looks to us.

A big nation in a big land in the west,

It’s great and all-encompassing,

But most importantly free

We call it America!

 

this poem is from my book Poems for a Good Occasion