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.

 

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

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.

Albania: The Fulbright Application

I got an idea. This time around I wasn’t going to go to Albania just to visit. I was going to go there with a purpose; a purpose would sweeten the deal. My big idea: I imagined teaching English and perhaps American culture to local students in Tirana. I found a program called the Fulbright Foreign Exchange program which offers grants to do teaching and research abroad. I was not a professor, but Fulbright had a program for students or new graduates. I was thirty at the time but I fit the requirements because I graduated college late, at twenty seven. 

Fulbright for Students was a prestigious government program.  But I thought I had several qualifications. First of all I was Albanian. That should count for something; I mean I knew the language, I was born there, and I was well acquainted with the country. I had been there on three previous visits and had lived there until  age 9. Secondly, I was a writer; granted I had never written a scholarly work before, but nevertheless I had already written a poetry book and 2 novels. That certainly ought to count for something, and most of all, I had the strong desire to reconnect with Albania. Any immigrant who goes to a new country can never forget his motherland. The older I grew the more I became interested in my roots. Thus I thought that Fulbright would be the perfect opportunity for me to go and live in the place that gave birth to me, Albania.

I filled out the online application, I gathered letters of recommendation, I scooped up transcripts from my alma mater and I wrote a project statement. About six months later I got a reply from the Fulbright student program: “Mr. George Shetuni, you are a terrible writer; how dare you apply! Please, never talk to us, write to us, or even think of us ever again.” Kidding!  Nuk ja mbusha syrin, as they say in Albanian. “I did not fulfill their vision.” Maybe I was too qualified for their taste. Maybe they wanted someone the opposite of me, a slacker who partied his way through college with a D average, skipping all classes, attending all football games, and who can’t even locate Mexico on the map, let alone Albania.  Well, anyhow, be it as it may, being a writer, I can handle rejection. I’m used to literary agents rejecting me all the time. It doesn’t bother me. OK, maybe it does, for a day, but it gradually wears off.

My dreams of going to Albania and being officially affiliated with an Albanian university blew up in smoke. That achievement would have boosted my ego, given me a sense of pride, purpose and accomplishment and practically speaking, a lot of money. But I was not going to receive a grant; nor was i going to receive a class of students to guide; nor was I was going to live in Albania for nine months. But I would go there under my own initiative, independently, for one month, with my own money, and have no one to teach but my own self.

Today’s Albania video:

Jemima in Albania

Albania: The Persuasion to Visit

Where should I begin? Let’s begin where I last left off. “I was depressed, for one whole month,” wrote I at the end of my essay, “Albania: A Visit Back Home,” which recounted my last visit to Albania in 2012. I was depressed for one whole month? That was not enough or even accurate; try for one whole year and half, for it is true, friends, I missed my country, and i wanted to go back there.

I kept leading an aimless life here in America holding down some volunteer positions in the meanwhile. I worked as a librarian, shelving DVDs. Other than picking up a movie after work to reward myself, it wasn’t very rewarding. I worked in an animal shelter, and got to pet cats and walk dogs, but that wasn’t my passion. I went to the gym three times a week, but it was all for show. I was no body builder, nor a fitness buff. I went to coffee houses almost five days a week, to the point of boredom. I always sat alone, even though I would have preferred friends. At my favorite shop, there was an elegant brunette making coffee behind the counter who I always looked at. She knew I liked her, so she made sure to avoid my glance. There was no point in attempting to ask her out. I would certainly have been denied and so I never did.
All the while reality, or at least my reality seemed and felt bleak, for what I desired was to be back in my country, to walk those streets, to speak that language, to taste that food, and to be denied by those women! I suppose I just felt things would be better there. I couldn’t wait and so I made sure to go back there a year and a half later in April of 2014; to Albania, that I thought was a beautiful place. i thought i would have a wonderful time.

However this time around, unlike my previous visit in 2012 nothing was the same. It appears that history is a sequence of opposites. While everything went wonderful then and it was the vacation of a life time, the vacation in 2014 was anything but, and perhaps that is why i have yet to write it down until now, 5 years after the fact. But today I’m writing it down because I’m bored and what do writers do when they get bored? They do the same thing everyone does. They practice their craft, and so I will practice mine.

to be continued…

***

Today’s historical reading:

excerpt from Lord Byron’s letter to his mother (1809)

To me he (Ali Pasha, Albanian tribal chief) was indeed a father, giving me letters, guards, and every possible accommodation. Our next conversations were of war and travelling, politics and England. He called my Albanian soldier who attends me, and told him to protect me at all hazards. His name is Viscillie and like all the Albanians, he is brave, rigidly honest, and faithful, but they are cruel though not treacherous, and have several vices, but no meannesses. They are perhaps the most beautiful race in point of countenance in the world, their women are sometimes handsome also, but they are treated like slaves, beaten and in short complete beasts of burthen, they plough, dig and sow, I found them carrying wood and actually repairing the highways. The men are all soldiers, and war and the chase their sole occupations. The women are the labourers, which after all is no great hardship in so delightful a climate.

I could tell you I know not how many incidents that I think would amuse you, but they crowd on my mind as much as would swell my paper, and I can neither arrange them in the one, or put them down on the other, except in the greatest confusion and in my usual horrible hand. I like the Albanians much, they are not all Turks, some tribes are Christians, but their religion makes little difference in their manner or conduct; they are esteemed the best troops in the Turkish service. I lived on my route two days at once, and three days again in a Barrack at Salora, and never found soldiers so tolerable, though I have been in the garrisons of Gibraltar and Malta and seen Spanish, French, Sicilian and British troops in abundance.

Full Letter: Albanianhistory.net

Today’s Albania travel video: Jack and Gab in Durres, Albania

photo: AdventurousKate

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)