This blog post comes in two parts: the first is a journal entry from April, where I reflect on the realities of living here. The second post is loosely titled, “Understanding Albania through Anecdotes”. I have decided to call this compilation “Albanian Showers Bring May Flowers” because both of these posts were written in early Spring, when it was still raining plenty and we were all wrestling with Spring Fever. You’ll be able to tell that from my tone in especially the first entry. However, now at the date of publication (May), the weather (and my disposition) are sunnier than ever. Five weeks left!
A hundred years ago, I attended sorority chapter meetings in Lilly Pulitzer and pearls. I have traded lives entirely since then. When I moved to Albania, I did not just gain a new job: I gained a new identity. I lost my martial arts, my fitness job, my family connections, my church community, my music. I had to become a new person, one for whom the only quality that mattered was resilience. And although I’ve tried to explain my experiences through my blog, I am daily reminded of the limitations of my stories.
Last summer I came back to the US and an acquaintance asked me, “what’s it like over there?”
I stared at her blankly, unable to come up with the words that could ever help her understand this country, and what it’s like to live there. How can I explain it in a relatable way, to a person who has never left America and never lived outside a comfortable suburbia?
Sometimes it’s easier to give a short description and then change the subject. Albania is so incredibly foreign, sometimes people don’t even know how to respond to my stories.
Truth be told, it is very important to me that my experiences here are not inaccurately romanticized. Sure, I spend my holidays in amazing European destinations– but that is only a small percentage of my time here.
This experience has also brought with it incredible hardships. Had I realized how high a price I’d pay for moving here, perhaps I would’ve been talked out of coming.
But of course, I couldn’t know how hard my first year would be, and it’s better that I didn’t. Because no matter how grueling it was, I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world.
This was always my path to walk. This was the adventure I thirsted for in every corner of my soul. And with this calling so deep in my heart, I had no choice but to answer it.
Even so, it rubs me the wrong way when people tell me I’m “living the dream.” They are only responding to the parts of my life that have been glamorized through social media.
I am living the dream… my dream: the good, the bad, the unbelievable and the downright ugly.
But just because my status updates look good on paper doesn’t mean I’m living “a” dream.
This experience is anything but.
When we travel to wonderful cities on our holidays, I often teasingly beg Max, “oh darling, I just love it here… let’s stay forever. We could disappear into this quaint little village and no one would ever find us again.” I am only ever half joking.
But I am far too dutiful to abandon my job mid year. (Which is more than some of my former coworkers can say… emphasis on the word, former.)
So after each holiday, each adventure, each escape, I have returned again to Albania, albeit sometimes reluctantly.
The resignation of sitting in an airport terminal, surrounded by Albanians, to board the flight into Tirana is an especially bitter feeling after another wonderful vacation abroad. It’s always hard to give up clean air and the amenities of the first world.
I remember where I was when I decided not to renew my teaching contract at my school. I’d been weighing the decision for several weeks already. Most of my friends were planning to renew contracts; and according to the way our IB certifications fell, it was wiser for our careers to stay and teach that third year.
But I was in the back seat of a car roadtripping on fall break, appreciating the smoothness of the paved highway, when I realized I just didn’t want to go back. I just couldn’t spend another year there, even if I was able to save so much money. It was definitely the right choice to leave.
Max and I have, despite generally being happy and satisfied, continued to struggle intermittently with our lifestyle in Albania.
We’d wake up on lazy Saturdays, and faced with the realization of having nothing to do, nowhere to go, no park to walk through or new friends to visit with– we’d get what we called the “Durrës blues”. We’re not the sort of people to binge watch Netflix nor stay out late drinking, so Durrës really had nothing to offer us.
After a few more months, the decision became increasingly certain. The price tag on our lifestyle was fantastic, but yet there still seemed to be such a high cost. Neither of us could thrive here.
So now, April 17, I am preparing for my final two and a half months in Albania. I am counting down each and every day; planning trips on each and every weekend I can to make the most of my time here. After so many months of waiting for this chapter to end, it feels both so painfully close and yet so far away.
Understanding Albania through Anecdotes
One of the funniest memories I have about the quirks of Albania comes from the story of the time we were boarding a plane from London back to Albania. So naturally, everyone sitting around our gate was Albanian, and waiting to load up and head home.
Now the humor from this story comes from the juxtaposition between Albania’s inability to stand in a line, and Britain’s obsession with it. (Some Britons have joked that if they arrive first at an empty bus stop, they will quietly wait in an orderly queue of one.)
As we’re waiting to begin boarding the plane, the British flight attendant announces over the loudspeaker, “We now welcome anyone with priority boarding to please begin boarding the plane.”
You would expect that only the aforementioned passengers would then come forward to the desk. But no, that’s not how we do things in Albania. Immediately, the entire terminal turns into a massive throng of Albanians swarming around incoherently, all fighting to be first. Not forming a line. Never forming a line.
Realizing the chaos unfolding before him, the British attendant picks up the intercom and tries to restore order to the gate:
…SIR, SIT DOWN!
ONLY PRIORITY BOARDING PASSENGERS ARE TO LINE UP!”
The Albanians, either misunderstanding the directions or unwilling to comply with them, ignored his overwhelmed pleas and continued to aggregate in a congested circle around his desk. The poor Londoner looked flabbergasted and appalled by their utter lack of decorum. I’m sure the Brit couldn’t understand why the Albanians were behaving so uncivilized, and the Albanians couldn’t understand what on earth he was so upset over.
And after two or three more attempts to restore order via the intercom, I think he finally gave up and let the chaos unfold naturally.
Another great story with insights into Albanian culture comes from a recent trip to Rome. We were standing in line at the Rome airport to check in for our flight to Tirana; therefore, surrounded by Albanians in line. As I’ve just mentioned, Albanians don’t do lines. Getting in line with Albanians requires making yourself look as large as possible to define your personal space as much as you can, lest someone else just ease their way right around you. Especially if you’re a woman.
So, we’d been standing there a while when Max nudges me and whispers, “check out my personal bubble right now.” I look up to see this Albanian woman basically pressed against his back, her breath on his neck, perhaps trying to edge around him in the huddled mass us Westerners were hopelessly wishing was a line. I swear, from the back of Max’s shoe to the front of her shoe was barely an inch. Had Max not been boxing out, she would have surely skipped him in line, shamelessly.
Then, when we get to the front of the line and the attendant is reviewing our passports, this Albanian guy marches himself to the front of the “line” (ie, swarm) and reaches right across me to hand her his papers!
Ummmmm, excuse me, I was here first!? There’s a line behind me?!!
Fortunately the attendant curtly told him to wait, at which point I turned and gave him a pretty smug smile. I’m getting pretty good at giving smug smiles these days.
But even so, I wish I had been more outspoken. I should have asked the woman behind us to stop crowding, and I should’ve stood up for myself when the man tried to cut us in line. But, even if I had spoken up, I’m not sure they would’ve understood what on earth I was so upset about!
Albanians are utterly convinced that if they are ever at all cold, they’ll get sick.
We’ve known about Albanians’ legendary fear of the cold because last year when Max’s elementary kids would come back from PE, they would frantically hurry to change into a dry set of clothes, fearing that if they wore their sweaty clothes the rest of the morning they would be cold and get sick. Of course, this a pretty harmless cultural quirk, so he humored them and let them promptly change. They probably smelled better that way, too.
But, the cultural fear of being cold is so deeply rooted that Albanians have no problem imposing it on anyone near them. I give you the recent example of Max and I on a flight into Tirana. Planes are notoriously cold anyways, and there was an Albanian woman in the row in front of us with her kindergarten-age child (who was extremely poorly behaved, might I add!). Halfway through the flight, she stands up, leans behind her seat to our overhead air vents, and readjusted them as she saw fit. Then she proceeded to give us a lecture about not letting our air vents point too close to her. (I remind you that these tiny swiveling air vents have a turning radius of barely 20 degrees!) I’m sure she was trying to protect her child, but it is so far outside my cultural understanding to ever go readjust someone else’s personal space and then tell them what to do!
Max is a proper Londoner, and I was raised a Southern lady, which together makes us one of the most polite, unassuming, ridiculously non-confrontational couples in this entire country. I come from a land of passive-aggressive bless your hearts, and he comes from a country whose entire culture is built on suppressing emotions and conflict. So, together, we stared up at her, silently and in shock, for her imposing rudeness.
But one of these days I’m going to work up the nerve to stand up for myself and assert my right to exist unencumbered in my physical space!
A similar story occurred last semester when we walked to the local gym. The gym doesn’t have any AC, so I cracked open the window directly in front of the treadmills so we could have a breeze while we ran. Except for one or two other guys, the gym was totally empty.
After about ten minutes, this guy who had been weightlifting on the other end of the gym (thirty feet away!), comes over to the open window directly in front of my treadmill (1 foot away), and closes it in front of me.
(Background context: there are several big sliding windows in the gym, and anyone at any time of the year is welcome to open or close them. It’s a pretty laissez-faire policy. It’s not like I was violating a de facto rule by having it open.)
I politely asked him to keep it open, since we were sweating pretty hard during our run. He ignored me and kept pulling it closed, and told me it was too cold. (Which it wasn’t, trust me I would know, since I’m ALWAYS cold.)
I politely attempted to compromise with him and asked to keep it half open, motioning with my hands a distance of about 12 inches to leave it open. He ignored my suggestion, and closed it to about 2 inches, again arguing that it was too cold for him all the way on the other side of the room.
We went back and forth a few more times before I finally told him, “If you exercise more, then you won’t be so cold.” He walked away after that, and I got off my treadmill to open it back up to a reasonable, compromised distance.
Does that count for me standing up for myself?