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.

Petro Marko (Albanian Writer)

“What are memories? Life lived with emotions, with all the weapons that keep it alive, with all the norms and canons which the assembly of centuries has created.
Once I have written eight stanzas about MEMORIES. And, as far as I remember, I said:
“O memories, o my life! Come out of there from where you’ve been thrown gathered with your determination, without any crush or threat, come out just as you were registered on the unending reel of my magnetic-brain. I need you now!”

Why did I ask for my memories to come out, to come out just as they were gathered from the emotions, visions, images, scenes, dramas, tragedies, tragi-comedies of my life? Because then when I wrote these stanzas, I was interned on the deserted island of Ustica, there on that lonesome bank, far from Sicily, far from Palermo. And the person separated from life, or better termed dead, because dead is he that lives with memories, winds his magnetic-brain and passes time quietly, by counting the steps of his feet and of his thought, of his heart and of his experience.

What remains in memory, has passed through the screen of years, of worries, and of dreams, of bare reality and of the deep footprints of emotions, images, visions, landscapes, hands, eyes, hearts, voices, lamentations, songs, dances, intrigues, passions, preoccupations, loves, flirtations, languages, sounds, daily shows on the endless screen of life . . .”

-Petro Marko, excerpt from autobiography, Interview with Myself

***

Across the street, mom and I saw a big sign that read: Petro Marko Library. We mentioned it to Uncle Ibrahim who proudly and confidently said Petro Marko is from Vlora. But who is Petro Marko anyway? Petro Marko (1913 – 1991) is an Albanian writer. I have read his autobiography. It is full of adventure. His opinion of himself is that he is a special person, shrouded in mystery. He is also a rebel. And no one can have Petro Marko. For example, one day, after graduating high school, he was leaning up against a wall in Tirana. He was jobless, sharing a shack with a few buddies, and next to starving. A government official, a big shot, pulled up to him with his car driven by a chauffeur.

He rolled down the window and said to Petro: “Sonny, why aren’t you eating lunch?” Petro replied: “May you eat for all of us, your Excellency!” But that big shot had a big heart. He was impressed and he made arrangements for Petro to go to a village in the south and work as a teacher. Later in life, Petro found himself in France. While there he got an innocent English girl to fall in love with him. But of course that could not work. She cried after him in letters, he says, and sadly, she wound up living in a huge estate with her wealthy grandma, a lonely maid for her entire life. But enough about Petro Marko. This is about me! We made it off the main street. It was dark but from what I could see Vlora did not look pretty on that night; broken sidewalks, dirty roads, and old, decaying apartments.

excerpt from my travel diary: Albania: A Visit Back Home (2012)

on Tirana, Albania

Tirana, the capital and the heart of modern Albania, is not a bad city. Nor is it good. But plagued by problems as it is, if we judge the society by its people, this is a good society. Amidst the open sewers, and abundant litter, you will find very respectable looking men and women. Likewise, in a square of old apartments with decaying facades in desperate need of upkeep, you will find little neighborhood kids playing with each other. Tirana is ugly but at the same time it is a human city. It is very walkable, and it has a sense of community. Albania has a walking culture. People walk out and about. Walking is good, because people get physical exercise and they feel surrounded and not alone. In America, we do not have “a walking culture.”

At the same time, Tirana is a mess. It has no town planning, and no order. It has countless alleyways that run in all directions; in other words, no direction at all. It has a lot of traffic and no rules. You just get out there, and be fearless. Everyone here is fearless but surprisingly dispassionate. The prevailing attitude here is, “Who cares? It’s no big deal.” This is a very liberating attitude, but it is a significant cultural difference from the States. It must be taken in healthy doses, or it may just feel like plain old apathy.

People require less space for comfort here. Living quarters are smaller. The primary city dwelling is the apartment. Cars are smaller, leaner, and clothes fit tighter. Americans, who live in a country known for its great size, might find these facts a bit disconcerting, but trust me, when you’re here everything seems just about right.

Indeed Tirana and Albania can seem elegant at times, even sophisticated, and with attention to detail; but even so, it is just one big mess. It is a place that defies characterization. It has nothing in common with America. I cannot interpret it because it does not have order or defining qualities. You may look out the balcony and see poor people digging through trash and yet right near them a brand new Mercedes is driving by. Then you go walking and pass by several stray dogs, and yet the people you walk next to are wearing suits and ties. The place is shooting off in all directions at once. If one can embrace the noise, the dirt and dust, the hectic atmosphere and the total absence of order and direction, or rather can manage to tolerate them, one can live here.

excerpted from my travel essay Albania: A Visit Back Home. Wanna buy it? Get it on Amazon.