Sunday, May 31, 2009

No Ordinary Lunch...

When I was in Theth last week I met up with my friend Pjeter who I hadn't seen in two years. I first met him and his family in the summer of 2006, back when the only things I could say in Albanian were, "how are you?" and "no, I'm not tired." But for long periods of time, hours sometimes, we would attempt all types of conversation as we sat outside the small cafe, drinking Turkish coffee and eating Oregano Potato Chips. Anyhow, Pjeter was so ecstatic to meet me and to speak Albanian that we exchanged phone numbers and he wanted to invite me to Shkoder (where he and his family spend the fall and winter months) to have lunch with the family for the day. He said that I would come up from Tirana for the day, we'd have lunch, take a walk around the city, and then I'd head back home in the evening. Sounds simple right...but that's not exactly what happened.
I got to Shkoder around 11 a.m. that morning and met Pjeter in the center. After a thorough greeting (greetings are always more thorough in Albania, people have to know how EVERYTHING in your life has been going) we headed to his house. First we started walking but then Pjeter was convinced that we should take the bus because I'm used to driving in America (meanwhile I told him that I don't have a car in Tirana and I pretty much walk everywhere here) so we caught the bus. For a moment I didn't really think anything of it because I ride the city bus often here in Tirana, but I forgot that people in Shkoder had probably never seen a Black person on their local bus so after about 5 minutes when I took off my sunglasses and realized that EVERY person was closely watching me, a few with their mouths open (no exaggeration), I remembered that this was a new thing for them. And you should have seen how their faces changed once I started speaking Albanian with Pjeter, just pure shock I guess.
We got to the house, had a tearful reunion with his wife and daughter, looked at about 200 photos, drank lemon soda, and then I found out what we were really going to do that day. It was the birthday of the daughter of Pjeter's brother. Notice I could have simply said Pjeter's niece, but that's not how people talk here in Albania. It's always the daughter of someone of someone's sister, and so on. So we were all going to go to Pavli's house to celebrate his daughter's first birthday and even I had been invited.
I've mentioned before about the importance of hospitality and the role of the guest in Albanian society. But I do not think I have ever had an experience such as the one I did on this day. Because everyone else at the party was family, by default I became the head guest, and basically what this translated into was that everyone was desperately trying to ensure my comfort and make sure that I had everything I needed. I had to sit at the head of the table, the spot normally reserved for the oldest person present. Gjergji (George) the oldest person there and grandfather of the family, sat next to me and entertained me the entire time. From the first moment he saw me, he was fascinated and about lost his mind when he realized that I could understand him and communicate with him. He was already drunk from Raki when he arrived at the house, and continued to drink more as we conversed. Several times other family members pleaded with him to quit talking to me so I could talk to others or enjoy the meal, but then he would just get upset and start yelling, talking about how they were democrats and needed to be a communist like him.
When we sat down to eat the meal, the food was placed in front of us and we all kind of sat around talking. I was waiting on everyone to be seated and comfortable, or just waiting for them to start eating or say something like "ju befte mire" (bon apetite), but nothing, no one said nothing. So I just continued to talk to Gjergji who was telling me all about Albanian history, one that is totally different from the books I've read - very interesting for an anthropologist. But the bad part is that it never occurred to me why no one was eating. Finally after about 20 or 30 minutes one of the younger girls told me in English: "Okay you can start eating now." WHOOPS! Turns out they were all waiting on me, because the minute I lifted my spoon, everyone immediately began to eat! I felt horrible.
I must say that if I never have to see lamb again I think I'll be okay because people kept making me eat it. In the end I felt bad because they have given me three plates of meet (not lying) but I could only eat 1, which I barely finished. This was in addition to salad, bread, and vegetables. Plus I had to drink coke, wine, raki, you name it. And of course there was a huge torte in the end. Gjergji insisted that I had to stay and become a part of his family, and kept making jokes about how his wife was jealous of the amount of time he spent talking to me.
The other guy next to me, an uncle, was telling me how Mississippi's government used to have a communist wing, and that they had ties with Enver Hoxha, the former communist dictator of Albania, back in the 1960s and 1970s. Other areas of conversation included: my experiences in Theth (because this entire family comes from that region), why I don't like Tirana so much but love other parts of Albania, why I live alone, the origin of my name, and so on.
What was supposed to be a 1 or 2 hour lunch became a 6 hour festival at this family's home, I kid you not there were at least 20 people there. In the end I was wondering if I should feel bad or not because if I had not been there, I feel like they would have enjoyed just another family celebration and kept it easy; but I kept wondering if my presence burdened anyone...
I can say that I am truly grateful though for Pjeter's (and Pavli's) invitation because I can say that I truly enjoyed myself and had a fabulous time. Plus this has made for one amazing culturally ethnographic experience

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Independence? Living Alone?

So not only is this the first time for me to live away from Mississippi, it's also the first time for me to live alone. After high school, I lived with the same roommate for 4 years in college (love you Jimmie) and so this is the first time where it's just me - but I like it. Many of the Albanians here however, in fact pretty much all of them, don't understand me. I frequently get questions about why I'm living alone and so far away from my family. Elvisa's mom is ALWAYS concerned about my well-being and is also constantly forcing me to take food because she's so worried, just like Ms. B. Also when I make comments such as, "oh yeah tomorrow I'm taking the bus to Shkoder (or some other city) to meet friends," immediately people want to know, "Alone? Why are you going alone, why isn't someone going with you?" In my mind I always think, "But why does someone need to come with me?"
My neighbor Bulli, an 80ish year-old woman who lives under me is constantly checking on my and giving me stuff to make sure I'm okay, which is great except for the times she spies on me and my friends - plus she can be a bit nosy at time asking too many questions, but hey, I feel like I'm interrogated daily here!

My friend Andi once asked me about life in America and why when people turn 18, they generally leave home and no longer live with their parents or families. He wanted to know why this was the trend in the States, and honestly I had some trouble explaining it. I told him that people just want to leave home to "be on their own," to learn about life, some to make their own rules, and I don't know, just for freedom - but none of this made sense to him. He told me that he feels people can grow up and still live at home. For most people here, the trend is usually to live with their families until they marry, so it is not uncommon to have a family of 6, with the two older kids, who might be 24 and 25, still living at home because they are single. In fact, even my friends that do live apart from their families live with friends and roommates. To live at home is just weird for most people to grasp here, even my Nigerian football friends say the same.

Thing is, I kind of like it. Of course there are times when I'm in my apartment and get a little lonely, but then those are the times that I find something to just occupy my time or I just leave and go meet friends. But I honestly don't have too many qualms about living on my own - but people think I'm strange...

The Land That Holds My Heart

I went to Theth last week for the first time in two years. For those that don't know, Theth is a village in the far north of Albanian, in the mountains of the Shala Valley. When I came to Albania for the first time, in fact the first time I ever left America, I was in Theth with my archaeology professor from Millsaps. He came in town last week with another professor from the school, and the three of us, with an Albanian archaeologist, headed to the valley for 3 days.

So one thing I've realized this year is that my first Albanian experience in the valley was totally different than that of my experience now in Tirana. Not that being in Tirana has been bad, but I realized that I'm definitely made for the small town life, and I particularly like places with less amounts of noise and fewer people. It was amazing to go back to Theth this time and actually be able to talk to people because before I never knew any Albanian beyond greetings and the word for donkey, "gomar"...still not quite sure exactly why that word stuck in my mind!

It's always really funny to share my Thethi experiences with people here in Tirana because very few of them have ever been there and many people don't understand why I like it so much. I must admit that I've never spent a winter there and am not sure I'd survive if I did, but I can say that I feel the most at home in Theth, more so than any other place in Albania. Beyond the wonderful Turkish coffees (I really think they make them the best there), the beauty of its landscape, and the unrivaled hospitality, there's just something about Theth that has become a part of me - and usually I can't really explain.

I can also say that living in Tirana has shaped my anthropological perspective in numerous ways, one of which being that now when I travel around Albania, I'm starting to recognize in more detail the cultural differences and practices throughout the country, and how each region has its own distinct elements. This of course is obviously true of the language and dialectical variations, but also true about interactions between men and women, concepts of family and child-rearing, and ideas about work and earning.
Okay, well below are some pictures, enjoy...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I'm leaving Tirana tomorrow to head off to Theth, a small village in the northern mountains of Albania, my home away from home, the place where I first fell in love with this country. While I'll only be there for 2 days, I'm excited to return after a 2 year hiatus. Hope to have lots to share when I return, until then...

The Music's Calling Me...

This post may come across as kind of random but lately as I've been walking in the street and hearing music blasting from the radios, something strange has been happening. Usually it's traditional Albanian music that I hear but every now and then (which it just happened about 10 minutes ago) a car pulls up at a light, windows down, blasting American hip-hop music, particularly Dirty South Rap. And I don't know why but my head just instantly turns and I just get this huge longing for home! Not in this homesick type sense, but actually, I can't even describe it. Today when these particular guys saw me turn my head they all started putting thumbs up in the hair and clapping as if to say, "yay, yeah, look at us!" They were so excited that I just started smiling and laughing. I don't know why but the music just seems to be calling my name...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Quick Question

Whenever I go with friends to get coffee, someone usually orders bottled water to go with our coffees. Many times, especially if it's a quick coffee, there's water left in the bottle that no one has drunk, and so naturally, since we're paying for it, I grab the water from the table before we leave. I recently did this with Elvisa and I guess it was the first time she'd notice and she asked what I was doing. I said, "What, well I mean we did pay for it right? This is almost half of a bottle that I can drink later." She stared at me for a second then called me strange. But while she thought I was strange, I thought I was thinking practically, especially since it's getting hotter outside lately, it's convenient to have water on you, right? I mean is there something wrong with this? As I conclude this post now I'm going to leave this cafe and take my water with me because I've only finished half of the bottle...

Oh Why Not Sooner???

Sorry it's been a while, been doing some traveling and the only question I'm asking myself is why did I wait so long to go to Korca? Okay I may have said this before about another city but okay seriously, I think I have to live in Korca now!!!

I pretty much spent my time hanging out with locals around the city. I sat and talked with old men in the park about their experiences living in Albania, specifically about times during the Communist Regime. I also went to see the first school for Albanian, from 1887. I ate some fabulous traditional food and then made "Gjiro" in the street. The "Gjiro" in essence is strolling down the street, but it's so much more than walking. The main boulevard is closed to traffic, people put on their best clothes, and walk and talk, greeting one another, stopping for coffee here and there. So though I was wearing a gray t-shirt, my raggedy jeans, and green converse, I strolled with the Korcan women, as though I were a local of the city. In all honesty I felt right at home.

The men kept telling me I was making all of the women jealous, even in my beat-up jeans...ha ha...

Korca has the nickname of "Small Paris" because at one point it was the standout city of Albania, with the nicest landscape, the nicest houses, and was the happenin' spot for traditional culture and life. Though some parts have changed, the city still maintains the traditional culture, especially when it comes to things like weddings or music. Plus as I said, some of the best food comes from Korca, as well as the best cooks - like Ms. B!

So Tirana I love you and all but looks as though there might be a new apple of my eye...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Long Summer Days and Hospitable People

First off thanks to all of you who provided positive feedback for my friend - I really appreciate it.

So in other news, I really love long summer days. And while summer has not officially begun and will not do so for at least another month, it kind of feels like summer now with warmer weather, the conclusion of school drawing near, and days where the sun is out until around 8. Last week, Thursday maybe, I was walking home when I ran into Lilli, a lady who owns a small store* near my house and usually when I walk by we always chat for a minute or two. It's always the same questions about school, my day, how much time I have left here, etc. But on this day right as I was leaving, her sister dropped by and Lilli wanted me to chat with them a little longer so she invited me to stay for a coffee. I had actually just finished a coffee with another friend maybe 10 minutes before, but I could tell that Lilli really wanted me to stay so I agreed. Another neighbor had also dropped by so the four of us sat inside the small store and drank machiatos (how do you spell that?) together. 

I could tell they were really worried about my comfort because they kept checking to make sure that I was okay and didn't need anything. Lilli didn't have any chairs in her store so I sat on a crate of Tirana beer with a piece of cardboard on top, and though she was worried about that, I felt right at home. As we drank our coffee, gradually more and more neighbors came by (kids and older people) to buy things but also to figure out why in the world I was sitting there. It eventually occurred to me that though I've been walking the streets of my neighborhood for about 3 months now, this was actually the first time that I had ever sat somewhere for longer than 10 minutes to drink a coffee and have a discussion. Oh wait, there's the exception of Bulli who lives under me who's always checking on me, literally every day, and who somehow always convinces me to drink coffee with her and look at old photos. BUT I don't think my neighbors who live in the apartments around mine actually knew that I spoke Albanian beyond everyday greetings.  

Once people realized I could talk with them, they kept coming over and telling me all kinds of stuff about their lives. A group of about 8 young girls came over and started telling me their names and ages, and of course I don't remember them now, but hey, until this day they used to all run from me as I smiled at them in the street - now they know that I don't bite. But seriously, I guess on this day I felt more like a resident and not just that strange girl that's always carrying a huge backpack and loads of books around the street at odd times of the day. Lilli was worried that I was spending too much time with older women (because they were all over 60, not that 60 is old!) and that I would rather be with 20ish people, but I reassured her that as a result of my friendship with Ms. B, I pretty much hang out with older Albanian women all of the time!

After I left Lilli's store, I went to a small park area near my apartment to write for a while and this little girl, maybe about 4, came close to me and stared for about 10 minutes, but she didn't say anything. Whenever I would look up she would kind of look away. Then at one point she just ran away. A few seconds later she returned, this time with her mom, and her mom said to me, "Excuse, my daughter wants to sit down next to you and color in her notebook because she sees you writing here and she wants to be like you, is that okay?" Though it may sound kind of cheesy I really thought I was going to cry because sometimes kids say mean things to me, one time a kid even threw a stick, but on this particular day I was so excited to hear what this girl wanted to do that I forgot all about that other stuff. I love my neighborhood! 

*Tirana, and Albania in general, is full of these really small stores in the street where you can get just about anything. They are more than the "corner stores" as my family calls the small stores in Mississippi. Plus if I need to buy just two eggs because I'm right in the middle of cooking something, I can run down to Lilli's in my pajamas and buy them - that or fruit, vegetables or detergent if I need it. Don't know what I'm going to do when I'm forced to go to Wal-Mart again.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Big Apple

My dearest Albanian friend Elvisa has been awarded a grant to study in the States and will be starting graduate school at NYU in the fall '09 (if you remember I started tutoring Elvisa in the fall for the GRE and also I've shared my learning experiences with "cultural differences" that have occurred with her). Anyhow, thing is, she's just a little worried (understatement of the year) about moving to New York. This will be her first time to the States, and in fact asides from a short trip to Italy and Croatia, she's never left Albania. And she's also never lived on her own. 

So basically I'm soliciting advice because I've only been to New York once and the only thing I know is that you shouldn't smile at people on the subway the same way I smile at people in Mississippi. So to all readers, can you all offer any help? 

Also, anyone know anything about Albanian communities in New York?

Monday, May 4, 2009

hittin' the road and back again

Sorry about the week-long absence - I've been in Istanbul the past couple of days. Initially when I moved to Albania, Istanbul (in Turkey) was not on my "places to visit" list, but after hearing so many good things about it, and plus after realizing how close I actually was, I decided to take a trip. It was fascinating, to say the least! 

I could go on for days about many subjects but then that would just resort in a long post with excessive amounts of information and me talking too much - which is something I naturally do. Instead however, I will recap some of the highlights from my trip. I guess like my friend Nanny Garcia I'm really into lists...

1. When walking around the city people always asked, "excuse me, where are you from?" to which I usually replied, "Albania." This was always a very interesting experience because people either thought I said Armenia, and then they were confused. Or they heard correctly and yet still, they were confused. Many times people would then call after me saying things such as, "you're a liar, a liar" or "no no, you look like Obama, you're not from Albania." 
In addition to this many people who wanted to talk to me repeatedly called me "chocolate" in the streets, so it was not uncommon to hear things such as, "Excuse, Miss, Chocolate lady, would you like to buy this bag?"

2. I had forgotten that one side of Istanbul is in Europe and the other side is in Asia, so now I can officially say that I've been to Asia - whoop whoop!

3. Istanbul is an incredible city for walking. I say this not only because the sidewalks and streets are great, but also because it just seemed that there was always something amazing to see, I even enjoyed walking through the neighborhoods and the "non-tourist" kind of places. This however was also quite dangerous because I kept seeing things that I wanted to buy and unfortunately bought many of them. Carpet anyone???

4. The Grand Bazaar is very grand - take precaution when visiting.

5. Whenever we went into a store and hung around for a while (usually trying to figure out if we could afford something or not), the store owner would come out with Turkish tea and we'd sit and chat for while. One guy even offered us wine and coffee as we looked through his come I haven't experienced this more often in America?

6. Fresh corn on the cob and freshly squeezed orange juice in the street...need I say more?

7. While crossing a bridge with a lot of fishermen I somehow got a small fishing hook stuck in the bottom of my shoe and when the police officer came over to help (no it was not that big of a deal but somehow I was "rescued" by an officer), he at first didn't try to help because he kept laughing and saying that I was a fish and someone's perfect catch. 

8. I really like speaking Albanian when I travel because usually people can never understand what we're saying. However, I did learn on this trip that there are way more Turkish words in the Albanian language than I had previously thought. Nevertheless I got many strange looks walking around speaking Albanian - what did they expect me to speak in, English? 

9. I like the number 9 right now so I will end on this note: I really wanted to go and take a Turkish bath but I couldn't because I didn't have any hair products. Now you may think that this is not a big deal BUT, not only did I not have products, but also I had limited means of taking care of my hair afterwards, if I had washed it (I mean they don't call it backpacking for no reason). I mean yeah it sucked that I didn't think about it before hand, but I was content with it. Besides I had just gotten my hair done two days before. Anyhow, we were invited by some Croatian students from our hostel to join them for a trip to the Turkish baths, but when I said that I could not go for hair purposes, and was serious, they didn't know how to respond. This led to about a 30 minute conversation on Black hair - they were really intrigued and told me that they have never experienced an opportunity before to converse with a Black person about hair differences. While I can't speak for all Black people of course, I was happy to be able to share some things with them - in return they shared with me a lot of things about cottage cheese and science.