Monday, June 28, 2010


So on Saturday night at a local pub I walked up to Ndricim Xhepa, a very famous Albanian actor, and asked him to borrow a chair from his table because we were one short at ours. I had no idea who he was. My Albanian friends freaked out, apparently I need to watch some more films!

Accepting Difference

Albanians often times ask me whether or not I like it in Albania. Sometimes I find that a silly question but people really are curious and so I reply, "Yes, I like here a lot" or "Albania has become a second home to me." Many times people follow up with, "What is your favorite place in Albania and I always say, "Anywhere outside of Tirana." When I'm in Tirana, people always make sad or even surprised faces and respond, "Oh really, why is that?" And I say, "Well in small cities people are usually surprised when they see a Black woman and are really curious to learn who I am or where I'm from. People point, stare, even make fun of me by calling out names but after a few days or weeks, it stops because soon everyone is just used to me and people know who I am. But in Tirana with 1 - 1.3 million people, every single day I have to battle being singled out as different and meet new faces who don't know how to receive me. I never know who will yell out an offensive comment or make inappropriate faces. It gets frustrating."

Now let me explain - I'm not simply whining or complaining about Tirana, never once do I begin a conversation about not liking it in Tirana, I only reply to people when they inquire and this is the truth; it's harder living in this city. Residents in Tirana however, always say that people in smaller places are close-minded and aren't as welcoming, but in fact, I argue the exact opposite. For me I prefer to be in smaller places.

As I said, this comes as a surprise to many Albanians and tonight I had a conversation with a young Albanian woman, she said, "Well I mean, I just thought that our people (referencing Albanians) were accepting of everyone. We have a Roma community and they are different but we all live together." Now not only did I inform her that I'm not Roma and different from the Roma community but I wanted to ask her if she really thought the Albanians and Roma in this country are living on equal footing - however I didn't go there. I did however tell her that it's different for me, that when I walk the streets people not only stare and point, but they make rude comments, they come and touch my hair, they may follow me, and I wasn't necessarily complaining but just explaining that in Tirana, it can get difficult to have to keep doing this every day. She said that once I made some friends it would change but when I told her that I've been here in Tirana for as long as I have, and things are pretty much the same, she just looked as if she did not understand.

This is just it, she did not understand. It's not that Albanians don't accept people that are different. For the most part people are really really curious about me when they meet me and I am frequently accepted into peoples' homes and invited for coffee just because they want to know more about me. Albanians are ridiculously hospitable, seriously. In terms of experiences of outright racism, they have been few, though yes, ignorance is everywhere. The thing is, to be a Black woman and to be a Black American woman from Mississippi, I inhabit a different position here that many people (most people in fact) just cannot understand. When situations occur here that some people interpret simply as "oh they were just making fun of you it's a part of the culture," or "oh that's not a big deal" what they don't realize is that those instances are layered with more meanings, layered with gendered and racial meanings that most people just don't see. Oftentimes other people just don't realize their privilege so when people talk about blending in and looking Albanian, I joke about it because I know I never blend it, but truth is, some days I wish people didn't stare as much because there are just those times where I just want to blend in.

I do not write these things because I desire to bash Albania nor in any way am I writing negative things about people here - in fact though I experience difficulties, I always learn from them. I write because it gives me time to clear my mind but also express these thoughts. When I decided to be an ethnographer here I knew that "the field" would present challenges, but I just don't think I was ready for those that have come my way.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

From Mississippi to Texas

This summer I've decided to tell people that I'm from Texas and not Mississippi. Since I'm living in Texas now and going to school there, and since many people always thought I was living in a river before ("Ah Mississippi yes, the river, that's where you're from??"), I'm running a new experiment to see what reactions I receive when people learn I'm "from" Texas. So far people have said:

- Texas, yes, land of cowboys
- Oh, George Bush is from Texas!
- Texas, wow, is very big!
- Texas, ah yes I have a cousin in Dallas
- Texas, oh with John Wayne
- Do you know how to play Texas Hold 'Em?

Stayed tuned for more on Texas...

Oh There's Always a Towel

My friend Teuta has arrived in Tirana and will be one of my housemates for the summer. When she came last week, she had a huge piece of luggage with her and when I inquired about it, I learned that the suitcase was for her brother's new wife and needed to be delivered to Kosovo. You see, Teuta was born and raised in the States and now lives in Michigan, but her family is from Peja, Kosovo and her brother recently made a trip there and fell in love, which resulted in a marriage. The wife, or "nusja" (Albanian word for new bride) is still waiting on the final processing of her paperwork but Teuta needed to deliver this suitcase which was basically the bride dowry. In addition, Teuta needed to meet her new sister-in-law for the first time. When she asked if I was up for a trip to Kosovo of course I was!

We sat out for our journey on Friday afternoon and just before pulling off from the square (because Tirana has no bus station, you just gotta figure out where all the buses leave from in the city) I realized that I had forgotten a critical item: my passport. So we hurriedly got up and got off the bus, explaining to the driver the situation. He informed us that the bus needed to make a trip to Durres first before hitting the road and so we could take a taxi, go back home, get the passport and then meet the same bus in F. Kruje. We really needed to take that bus because it was direct to Teuta's hometown so we found a taxi.

Our driver, turns out, was not only a taxi driver but also a former police officer and and currently performs songs at weddings. He asked me all kinds of questions about the US and said that Texas had the best police force in the world - someone should check on this. Anyhow, this guy was very talkative and once he learned Teuta was from Kosovo, he basically started talking noise about her people. He also was offensive when speaking about people who live in villages and mountains, but then when Teuta called him out on it, he pretended as though it was all jokes and lighthearted. By the time we reached F. Kruje we were both thankful to be getting out of the car.

Did I mention that we had to meet the bus at a random cafe on the side of the road?

Yep that was what the driver had decided and Teuta had given her number to some man that we were hoping was on the bus. Well after being at the cafe for about 8 minutes and catching a glimpse of the world cup match between the U.S. and Slovenia, Teuta's phone begins to ring as the bus pulls up. Finally we were able to begin our trip.

Some of you may remember me blogging about going to Kosovo last year and complaining about the 12 hour journey on horrible roads but nope, not anymore, Albania has a new major 4-lane highway, complete with an amazing tunnel that's 3.6 miles long!

The highway was wonderful but the tunnel isn't completely ready yet and only one lane is open inside. Therefore cops stand on either side and direct the flow of traffic. As a result people have to wait so what have Albanians done? Opened cafes of course while people wait for the tunnel to allow cars to move through. So our bus stopped and people had a coffee on the side of the road.

After getting through the tunnel we continued along and after a total of about 5.5 hours, we made it to Peja - amazing, seriously. We exited the bus and Teuta lugged the suitcase to her aunt's house and up the stairs to her aunt's house.

Thankfully her aunt lived near the bus station. Peja has a bus station. We stayed at the aunt's house for the night. The next morning we woke up and a young waiter from the cafe downstairs delivered coffee to us in the house - love the personal service. We later got dressed and set out to meet the Nusja. Once we met up with her in the center, we had a coffee at a cafe and then sat out to visit all of the family.

Six houses and five Turkish coffees later, we found ourselves making our way back towards the center. Teuta, her cousin and I decided to have dinner at this qebatore and I ate my first "gys e pese" which was more than delicious.

Afterwards we drank Peja beer (what else would we drink?) and made our way back home. Initially there were plans to go out to a concert but the rain kept us in for the night, which was quite alright because we had our own party in the house. And who was the host? Grape raki of course! Teuta's uncle started it all, he brought out the raki and kept toasting and refilling my glass. Plus one of Teuta's younger cousins continually brought out plates of cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes, I mean how was the night ever going to conclude?

We had ourselves a good ole time, at one point I found myself saying "Mashalla si molle" - I apologize, translation unavailable!

Sunday we woke kinda early to head to Prishtina for the day. Prishtina is the capital city of Kosovo and has recently erected a new statue for Bill Clinton on Bill Clinton blvd. All weekend people had been calling me Bill Clinton's daughter after they learned my name so Teuta said it was only fitting that I go and pay my "dad" a visit.

On the way to Prishtina however, our bus was pulled over by the cops. Perhaps I driver was speeding in the road, however from my window, I was unable to fully understand the exchange between the driver and the police.

We got to Prishtina, walked around for a bit and visited Skanderbeg and Mother Theresa in Kosovo. We also saw many signs like this one about Kosovo's freedom - I'll have to further write about these at some other time.

Finally after a few hours we made our way back to Tirana, where we dropped of not at a bus station Wondering what was in the suitcase? Well there were items such as a fancy dress, nice shoes, other pieces of clothing for the Nusja, a few household items, decorative soap, and also some really nice lace because Teuta's aunt is going to properly prepare the package and then dress it with the lace before delivering it to the Nusja. Last but not least, there was a towel on top of everything. I asked Teuta what the towel was for and she replied, "Oh there's always a towel." And that's that I guess, mission accomplished.

Monday, June 14, 2010

chaning my name

I've changed my name. It's no longer Chelsi, it's now Donika. That was the wife of Skanderbeg. What do you think?
And I'm telling people that I"m from Shkodra.

An Albanian Party

So I realize that I haven't posted in about a week but it's been because:

A. I have too much Albanian language homework
B. There's been some serious partying going on lately

Seriously the lack of writing is probably more closely related to the second and not first but hey I'm doing homework too! Anyhow, on the subject of partying I've decided to post about the party I went to recently. A friend of my has finished her stint in Albania working for the World Bank and so her office came together and threw a party in her honor. My friend DB and I were invited to join and I just don't think I was ready for everything in store. First off I was informed that there would only be light refreshments as it was a cocktail party. So when we arrived and found plates with meet, cheese and small pieces of bread, I thought to myself, great, glad I ate dinner before coming. However, after that round of food out came salads. Then some kind of unrecognizable fish in a creamy butter sauce. Then some uncooked (yes uncooked) shrimp. And another fish we didn't recognize. Then came out octupus and squid. Then another round of shrimp, this time small and lightly fried. Followed by mussels. Followed by crab cakes. This kind of seafood kept going on and then finally when I thought it was all over, they brought this out for each person:

Well I wasn't very hungry when I got there but really, after all that food to begin with, who was going to be able to eat that whole fish and potatoes? The next time anyone mentions a light meal (just like at Ms. B's) I'm just going to have to starve myself beforehand. I'd really be curious to see what a big meal is!

After all the eating it was time to dance and man y'all should see DB's moves on the floor! We two-stepped, did the twist, danced to the Beatles, pulled out some moves from Saturday Night Fever, at one point I kinda felt like a flapper from the 20s. But everyone there loved it, at one point we got a standing ovation and whistles for our dancing! Here's a picture of us doing some traditional Albanian moves:

And the dancing went on and on and on, here are some more pictures and a clip:

People even got up and recited poems, I love it when Albanians get up and start reciting poetry from Albanian literature, I'm going to start memorizing more poems, especially by Naim Frasheri (if I can memorize the Albanian first).

At the end of the night, or at least when we had to call it quits early Sunday morning, we were going to just walk home but then one of the ministers (and nope not from church, from the Albanian government) insisted that his driver send us home. Well you just can't be that!

Monday, June 7, 2010

A small lunch

Mrs. B. invited Ikuko and I over today for what she called a "small lunch":

Salad with tomatoes and cauliflower
Grilled eggplant
Soup with vegetables
Rice with vegetables
Stuffed peppers and stuffed tomatoes (by stuffed I mean meat and rice)
Toasted Bread
Turkish Coffee at the end

I guess we'll call this the Albanian small lunch. And speaking of lunches, I learned never to bring kumlat (or at least I think that's what these are called, see photo below) to someone's house for a meal. I was completely rejected, everyone just laughed at me, is this fruit just not appropriate???

Saturday, June 5, 2010

names and origin

I had lunch with Mrs. B. and her friends yesterday (I'm still working on a name for this club, but trust me, I definitely feel that I am a card-carrying member of an official ladies lunch group) and while eating, they asked the typical questions of how my family was doing back in the States. FYI, we only speak in Albanian during these lunches, so I always have to explain as much as I can but sometimes I actually have more to say, I'm just not able to. One of her friends, Jolanda, asked why my brother's name was Alexander, inquiring whether we had Greek or Macedonian heritage in our family. I laughed at the question and explained that no, we didn't have any to my knowledge. Illiria, another friend of Mrs. B, then asked how Alex got his name, to which I responded that I had picked it out when I was a little girl. They asked me if I had a classmate whose name was Alex and I said no. So then they wanted to know how I came up with that name. "I just liked it," I said. This answer did not suffice. They nodded their heads but I could tell that they were not satisfied.

Illiria continued and wanted to know what exactly was my "origin". I have written about this before, how oftentimes, many Albanians want to know where I'm "really" from. When introducing myself, I explain that I'm from the States and that I'm from Mississippi but this is never enough to answer their questions, they don't believe that I would have my origin in the States. It is true that asides from Native American Indians, no one has their "origin" in the States, but many times people only ask me this question. For example I was once with a group of students and I was the only Black American (everyone else was white) and the Albanian family who was hosting us would not believe that I was from the States, they kept questioning where I was really from - only me.

So yesterday I tried telling Illiria that my mother's family, all the way back to the 18th century or so (because we have records from one family tree) comes from Mississippi. But then she wanted to know where I really came from before that. Then Mrs. B interrupts and says, "she doesn't know." "Well why wouldn't you know?" asked Illiira. At this point I was confused about how I would answer the question. You see, the way American history is often taught internationally is that a group of white Europeans "discovered" this land and claimed it as America. At some point much later some Black people came and there has been some racial tension but that's about it. The one history book that I've found didn't even mention slavery. Blacks aren't actually from America though, they are from Africa. Somehow people have forgotten that whites aren't really from America either.

I decided to just say that when people were first coming to the United States in earlier centuries, they did not maintain good records and therefore, a lot of information was lost. As a result, my family doesn't actually know where our ancestors are originally from. Even as I said the answer though, I felt torn in two directions because though I'm very proud of my heritage and who I am, who my people are, at the same time, I know that many people here don't see me as a "real" American and for lack of better words, it pisses me off. I know that this concept of "origin" is ripe with potential for research questions but right now, I just get frustrated and annoyed when I'm singled out.

Let the hair questions begin

My friend Adam from grad school asked me what my experience in Albania was going to be like this time around because of my recent hair changes. For the majority of my life, my hair has been chemically relaxed (some of y'all might say "permed") and for the first time since I was a small child, I've decided to let it be natural. I cut it all off (it was really short at first) and now it's growing out, like a fro. I'm loving my natural hair - though my dad isn't - and for those of you who remember the hair experiences from last time (you can see the infamous youtube videos here on the blog) then you'll know how much easier it is for me with my hair at this length.



Well Adam was right though in his thinking that Albanians would have odd responses to my hair because already people are touching it more in the street, asking me questions about it, even how I "got it" this way - I grew it:) But it's funny because I don't think they are used to seeing Black women with natural hair. Of course many are still getting used to Black women as I frequently write about, but the new hair addition is causing lots of questions. Also I visited Klodi, my former hair stylist, yesterday and he's disappointed now because he said all we can do is have coffees together. There's no more hair for him to straighten or at least not until it grows out more! I guess that was the highlight of our time together. He really did look sad. I however cannot express more strongly how glad I am not to have long hair to straighten or relax every 6 - 8 weeks!

Anyhow, I went out with some friends to Tirana Rock last night (who needs The Hard Rock Cafe?) and when I got there, I met the first Albanian person who I've ever seen with twists in his hair! Basically this guy's hair looked a lot like mine especially when I twist it, of course the texture is different, but it looked as though he's trying to lock up (what many refer to as dreadlocks). I was surprised, and went right up to him in true Albanian style, and started asking him questions. I just wanted to know what motivated him to change his hair style, to which he said, he liked the looked and wanted to try it. Sometimes people here give me the simplest answers! I guess I had just never seen an Albanian person who had tried anything like twists or locks before but now I'm definitely going to pay more attention because I'm curious. He commented on how much he liked my hair haha! So below is a picture, I wonder if people walk up to him and touch his hair in the street...