OBSERVATIONS ABOUT ALBANIA
1. Watering the pavement
- Albanian people are often watering the pavement. Everywhere. All the time. They love watering the streets, the sidewalks, and anything resembling pavement. When I first noticed this I found it quite strange and a complete waste of water. I guess that the idea behind watering the pavement is to keep the sidewalks clean, but really I think it is just a nice breeding ground for mosquitoes.
2. Opposite head shake
- Now this was REALLY confusing to me at first because in Albanian people will shake there head side-to-side to mean yes or to acknowledge that they are listening to you. This is the opposite of the up-to-down head shake that I am used to in America. When I was originally introducing myself to people in my training village and they were shaking their heads “no” I thought they didn’t like me, but shortly after I realized the opposite-head shake custom and things started to make a bit more sense.
- Albania has a lot of bunkers. And the bunkers are everywhere, over 700,000 in the country to be exact. There are around 24 bunkers for every square kilometer of the country. Albania underwent “bunkerisation” during the communist rule of Enver Hoxha and bunkers were built all over the country in small villages to the corners of larger cities.
Bunkers on the side of a hill behind my host-home in the village.
Bunkers are all over the place.4.
- It is common to compare people, saying you are better or worse than another or something. This can definitely cause some uncomfortable or hurtful conversations. Some Albanians might tell you if you are fatter, smarter, prettier, etc. to other people around. This has been a small problem for my language progression because I became extremely discouraged at one point when people were constantly comparing me to my site-mate’s amazing language progression, but now I use those comments as motivation to continue building my vocabulary and language capacity.
5. After you get a haircut you get slapped on the neck
- One of the health sector training staff showed me this tradition with a nice, big slap to back of the neck after I chopped off all my hair. At first I was a little shocked because I thought it was rude to slap me (granted she has a big-personality) and I thought she was joking. I think that it is usually a tap to the back of the neck, but a slap also suffices. After you get slapped, the slapper will see “me shëndet” meaning “on your health.”
- According to the Albanian Constitution, there is no official religion and all religions are considered equal. The CIA World Factbook gives a distribution of 70% Muslims, 20% Eastern Orthodox, and 10% Roman Catholics. However, the country is often considered a Muslim country. Many of those who do follow the Muslim religion are often not practicing Muslims, like my host-family in Pajovë, similar to cultural Christians in the U.S. who only attend church on Christmas or Easter. From my observations, religions here in Albania live together in peace and there is barely any persecution towards those with different beliefs (wouldn’t it be nice if we could say the same about religion in America). The government is secular, the schools are secular, and religion is not taught in public schools.
Inside an Orthodox Catholic church in Elbasan.
The mosque in the center of Kavajë.
7. Coffee Culture
- Coffee culture is huge here – I mean HUGE! I could probably devote a whole blog to this subject alone. Many Albanians start their days here with a nice cup of Turkish coffee, complete with yummy sludge on the bottom of every cup, and some men may accompany that coffee with a nice shot of raki. At work, many women will make Turkish coffee in the office or occasionally go out to coffee bars (localles) for drinks. A lot of work in Albania is not done in the office, but done over coffee outside of the actual work building. Taking dates to coffee is also common here in Albania and we heard the phrase over and over again through training that sometimes, “coffee is not JUST coffee.” Coffee can mean many things including engagement and marriage. We often joke that men here may assume that you are dating after one coffee and engaged after three coffees. I personally try to steer clear of these kind of situations, but I am sure that over the next 22 months I will encounter several interesting coffee experiences. Sadly, the coffee in Albania is not quite the same as our “non-fat, vente, lattes” that we get from our local baristas. Coffee in Albania is pretty much only espresso and Albanians will spend hours drinking their half-shots of cafe express.
Having one of our many coffee breaks during training.
- Furgons are the main source of transportation for Albanians who do not own private vehicles, and that luckily includes us Peace Corps volunteers. Furgons have definitely provided some of the most interesting moments that I have experienced in Albania thus far. Furgons are scary, but fun….kind of. Since being in Albania, I have already been in two furgon accidents. One time a furgon I was in with 10 other volunteers was rear-ended on the mountain pass from Tirana to Elbasan during training. Another time, a furgon that I was in hit a donkey it the street head-on… it was a very traumatic experience and I am not sure if the donkey survived the crash, but luckily no one in the car was injured. Besides the accidents I have been in, furgons have been pretty amusing. They are not necessarily reliable, but they will get you from point-A to point-B and they are a way to meet many Albanians. I have met many interesting people in this country traveling around on furgons by myself, and honestly I really enjoy chatting and talking with different people on these furgon trips around the country. If you are expecting a furgon schedule or bus schedule though you will be highly disappointed. These mode of transportation can be hit-or-miss. My site-mate Kate actually wrote a great blog regarding furgons in Albania.
Trying to squeeze into this furgon all our bags when first moving in with our host-families.
My training group inside a furgon after our swearing-in ceremony.
9. The plumbing
- Like many other countries around the world outside the United States, the plumbing here is different and sometimes unreliablet. I found this out the hard way during my first few weeks living with my host family, but I will spare you all the embarrassing details of those endeavors. In Albania you cannot put toilet paper down the toilet in most bathrooms. Almost every bathroom has a separate waste bin to throw your toilet paper into. Also, some toilets here (especially in public places along travel routes) are Turkish toilets. Turkish toilets are squat toilets, which are actually better for your health than WC toilets. I actually used to be extremely scared of using a Turkish toilet, until I found out that my apartment was one of three apartments in my volunteer group with a turkish toilet. I have actually begun to prefer this method because it is a daily workout without the videos (I will have thighs of steal by the end of my service) and pouring a bucket to flush my Turkish toilet has been more reliable than some other plumbing that I have encountered within the country. Generally, most toilets in Albania are WC toilets.
This is my turkish toilet, which also doubles as a shower.
- Before coming into the Peace Corps I had my doubts regarding whether or not I would even have the opportunity to drink while living in Albania, but boy were those doubts really off. Albania definitely has a drinking culture, it isn’t quite as big as some other countries in the world, but it is definitely still present. In Albania, people manufacture their own unique brand of liquor called raki. Raki is basically poison (but not really, just kind of tastes like it). It is a strong liquor, stronger than anything I have ever tasted in America, made from grapes. Raki is definitely an acquired taste as well. Many people that I have met traveling through Albania will not even touch the stuff because it tastes so awful, but I have actually grown fond to it. Plus it usually only costs 50 leke (or 50 cents), so that is a up-side as well since I am on a limited volunteer budget. The one downside of being a female and ordering raki, is that I AM a female and I am ordering raki. Waitors usually look at me like I am crazy and that I couldn’t actually be ordering raki – a male’s drink. Raki is usually only drank by men in this society, and it is often seen as strange for women to drink openly in public. Maybe a beer in at the occasional social function. It is much more acceptable for women to publicly drink in some of the larger cities like Vlore, Durrës, and Tirana. Luckily since I am American, I can get away with pushing cultural norms in my smaller site a little more than the average Albanian woman could.
Kate and me sharing our first raki together as site-mates.
11. The Xhiro
- In the evenings Albanians will get dressed up to the nines and go for a walk around the city. This walk is usually done on the main drag in town and it is referred to as the xhiro. Xhiroing is a major part of the culture in many cities here and many people take part in this tradition every night. However, it is kind of odd for one to xhiro solo (especially if you are female), but I often will xhiro alone to get out of the house in the evenings when the weather is more tolerable.
- Staring is sometimes normal in the city I volunteer in, especially if something seems to be out of place. Having blonde hair and blue eyes doesn’t necessarily help me blend in, so I am constantly a source of a good stare-fest. When I am walking around in town, especially in smaller villages, I sometimes feel like I am the center of attention. Men will often sit at coffee bars along the main roads and have coffee for hours as they just watch people walk around town. This does not happen to me as much in larger cities, especially cities like Tirana.
13. Showers, or lack-thereof
- Real showers are few and far between here. In America, showers are normally in closed-off areas, but here there are no enclosed showers. There is just a shower head in the bathroom, often over the toilet. The annoying thing about not having an enclosed shower or at least a shower curtain is that one has to mop up the floor after every shower. And showers can sometimes be somewhat chilly in a larger room without warm water.
14. Eggs don’t come in a dozen
- I found this somewhat odd at first. I used to buy eggs by the dozen, sometimes in packages of six or 24. Here eggs are sold in packages of ten. Not that exciting, but different. Most eggs are sold by the egg and are super fresh and delicious!
15. How they open bananas
- People in Albania open their bananas differently than I did in America. I used to open the banana from the stem (which is the harder way to do it), but Albanians showed me the correct way! Many volunteers have tried it and swear that it is easier. Next time you pick up some bananas from the store you should try it out.
16. Modes of transportation
- In Albania it isn’t uncommon to see an old man moving slowly down the road in a donkey cart next to someone speeding down the road in a Mercedes.
The infamous donkey cart, next to a bus.17. “Fresh” meat
- Meat here could be considered fresh to some standards. Some of the meat is literally killed on the street right before the buyer takes it home. I have the wonderful view of this phenomenon every morning. Seeing lambs hanging upside down and bleeding out all over the street isn’t necessarily the most appetizing thing to witness first thing everyday, but after a while I have learned to just look away. Poor animals… kills my sudo-vegetarian soul.
The sheep… waiting to die.
18. Phone plans
- In America, people are often coerced into buying long-term phone plans that have contracts spanning over a year or two, sometimes even longer. Here contracts only last a month and people often do not have money on their phone to call friends and family. I have even run into this problem a couple times because it also costs extra money to call people who have a different cell phone carrier. My cell phone plan is 1000 leke (ten dollars) a month and I get 3000 units to use within the vodaphone club and 30 units to use with other carriers. Once my plan is over each month I have to go back to the vodaphone store and buy a new offer. It can be kind of obnoxious at times, especially when I need to call people but have no money! I honestly prefer not being sucked into a long-term contract though.
My Peace Corps issued phone. Reminds me of what I used back in middle school!
19. Domesticated animals vs. stray animals
- Having a dog or cat as a house-pet is an odd occurrence here, but it is beginning to become more popular is larger cities. Many people will keeps dogs or cats as animals for security purposes or to kill the mice around their homes. Many dogs that people own here are trained to attack intruders and are incredibly vicious. Treating an animal like a companion is very strange concept, but it becoming more common in the larger cities. On the other hand, there are many stray dogs and cats that are living around every city and village. I have observed them in many villages, towns, and cities. I often see cats and dogs laying around on the street and eating out of the trash cans around town. At night, the dogs come together in big packs and roam the city I live in. I have often heard dogs fighting late into the night. Many of these stray animals are living in abysmal conditions, but some seem to be doing just fine. A lot of the animals have open, infected wounds from fights that they are in with others strays in town. There are no such thing as animal shelters here, so these stray (often diseased) animals have no safe place to go.
Most animals are strays living on the streets off of trash.
20. Living with extended families
- Besides in the larger cities, extended families often live together. It is not uncommon to find several generations all living under one roof. Since several generations live together, it is not unusual to have people sleeping in the main-quarters on couches or on the floor. Children do not move out of the house until they are married, but occasionally they do live with roommates during their university studies. Once engaged, the female will sometimes spend at-least half her time living and working within her fiances home and they will often continue to live with their in-laws after marriage. Family is very important and it can be strange for anyone to live alone in this society. So, as you can imagine, many Albanians are shocked when they find that I am a single girl, living alone and they often ask if I am “merzitur” which can mean many things including “bored, lonely, fed-up, annoyed.” Having privacy is not a priority for some people here like it is in America. It is common to spend all of your day with coworkers, friends, and family with little to no alone-time.
21. The Treg
- In previous blogs I referred to the treg as the gabi. The treg is a type of market that you can find in many cities around Albania. The treg is a market that sells clothes, home-goods, trinkets, and other items. I find it amazing how the vendors in the treg put-up and take-down their whole store-front everyday. At the treg you can also buy used clothing. Many of the Roma or Egyptian people will buy used clothes in bulk from other European countries. It is like shopping at a better Good-Will, but instead of sifting through racks you sift through giant piles of clothes. I am very lucky and have found some really cute bargains – gotta love buying cute clothes for 200 leke (two dollars) or less!
I bought a funny Spice Girls flag at the treg in Elbasan.
- Many young albanian boys and men, will often be seen around town carting around drums and playing them to their hearts desire. They will walk around the whole town bringing music to everyone’s ears. While most of the time I really enjoy the drumming, I am not the biggest fan when they play outside my apartment complex every night as I am trying to go to sleep. These drum rolls mainly took place in my city during the month of Ramadan.
23. Afternoon nap time for all
- Many countries around the world often close up shop around mid-afternoon when the day is at the hottest and life outside comes to a hault. Albania is no different. A lot of shops around town will close from around 1pm to 4pm, so that people can take a break, go home, eat lunch, take a nap, and escape the heat. Walking around during these hours of the day sometimes feels like walking around in a ghost town.
24. Cheating is sharing
- The concept of cheating is unknown to Albanian culture. Cheating is thought of more-so as sharing and helping. These ideals go back to the times of communism when everything was shared for the common good of everyone. This idea of “sharing” can prove to be a problem for the schooling system here because some teachers in this society can also be bribed to “help” the students get a better grade. I even ran into this problem while students were taking the Matura (a test that students must take to graduate from high school). A girl and her father were at the cultural center and asked me to “help” them. I wasn’t quite sure how they wanted me to help and I told them that they needed to have something written first and then I would help edit. Turns out that the girl and her father were looking up information for their cousin who was taking the test at the school during that very moment. They were relaying information to the test-taker via text message. This idea of cheating also brings up problems with validity regarding people’s positions in society. It can be a bit discerning to know that many of the doctors, teachers, and other professionals in this society may have made it through school with others “help.”
- Byreke deserves it’s own category because it is an amazing food that is served all over Albania. Byreke is a flaky, delicious pastry that is served with many different fillings including cheese, spinach, tomatoes, meat, etc. It is so amazing and pretty cheap. Definitely a food that I can afford on my volunteer budget.
26. Albanians LOVE America
- Albanians love America more than any other country in the world. They have even named several streets and landmarks after American leaders and previous presidents. A road in Tirana is named after George Bush just because he came and visited Albania during his presidency. The United States ambassador to Albania is practically a celebrity to those here. Since Albanians love Americans so much, this definitely gives me an advantage to getting to know people here. When people find out that I am American (usually people think that I am German or Italian) they perk up and ask me questions about George Bush and Obama. “George Bush, mire?! Obama, mire?!” It is ironic that Albanians love America so much, but many Americans wouldn’t even know Albania is a country.
The statue of George Bush located in Albania.
27. Dolls to ward off evil spirits
- Scary dolls, moldy teddy bears, and other figures are often hung or displayed outside homes to help ward away evil spirits. These dolls help ward away the “evil eye.” I think they give each home character and I personally enjoy seeing the different items people have placed outside their homes for luck.
A stuffed animal outside a local door to protect from the evil eye.
28. Here a sheep, there a sheep, everywhere a herd of sheep
- I have observed sheep all over the place in Albania. You will see them in some of the most random places. And they will often be accompanied by an older Albanian male in traditional dress. I have seen sheep in remote areas in the hills, next to the train tracks, feeding on the grassy areas roads in the middle of cities, and even traveling on the highway next to the dangerous cars speeding by.
29. They keep immaculate homes
- Albanians love to keep extremely clean houses. Many families do not even allow outside shoes in the home and you have to take them off outside before entering. When I speak with my Albanian counterparts and ask them about their daily routines, they inform me of all the cleaning and housework that they did during their free time. I found this to be true from my host-home experience in the village as well. My host-sister and the other females in the home would wake up around 5am or 6am to begin mopping all the floors everyday and cleaning off all the surfaces. I find it worthy to note how much Albanians take pride in their homes, but they are not as interested in preserving their outside environment.
30. Slippers for different rooms in the home
- Since many homes in Albania do not allow guests and family members to wear their outdoor shoes in the home, they often wear rubber slippers indoors. They have different slippers meant to wear specifically in the bathroom, shoes to wear in the front yard, and shoes to wear in other areas of the home. Many of these shoes are made of croc-like material or have a rubber bottom. If you do not have these shoes, then it is appropriate to wear clean socks within the home. During the colder months, my host-family was always very concerned about how I did not wear socks or specific shoes because they felt the floors would make me feet cold and I would in-turn get sick.
Here are the special shoes that I wear around the house.
31. Dating culture
- Albania does not really have much of a dating culture and many Albanians can be conservative when it comes to dating. This could be because there are not many places in general to have a “date.” Most dates consists of having a coffee, and like I mentioned coffee can get tricky because you could unknowingly be engaged after the second or third coffee. Secret dating is common until the couple decides to become engaged. Women often play “hard to get” and will say no to the first invitation, even if they want to say yes. This often leads to further advances, which can be seen as romantic to many Albanian women (or overbearing to some American girls who venture into the dating culture here).
32. Going out to eat
- Some restaurants in Albania do not have menus, especially in smaller villages. If they do happen to have a menu, a customer usually has to ask for it before it is handed to the table. Instead of providing menus for each individual at the table, the waiter usually gives the table one menu to share. After you order, you may end up waiting for a long time and people will be served their food whenever it is ready. This often means an awkward situation for those at the table who have food vs those who do not have food. Sometimes everyone will be handed a menu and get their food as the same time, but that is rare. This observation has been primarily from smaller restaurants that are owned and run by a local family.
- Looking good is a priority for many Albanians, especially for Albanian women. Most of the outfits look like something from FT Casuals, or the like. From an Americans viewpoint many of the outfits may be considered “trashy” with fake jewels, animal prints, copious amounts of glitter, and tacky English sayings that do not make any sense. However, while some may not be incredibly fond of the bright pink lipstick, heavy makeup, high heels, and colorful clothing, I think that many Albanian women are extremely stylish and they pull off the clothing well. I like to put on my bright pink lipstick every now and then for a special xhiro.
34. Road safety
- So road safety is a little sketchy here…. Street signs, traffic lights, and road signs are pretty much non-existent anywhere besides some of the major cities. It is not necessarily a priority in Albania and many Albanians actually find it offensive if you were a seat belt in their cars, so naturally furgons are usually not equipped with such safety features. Albanians do not wear seat-belts.
35. Circle dancing / Valle
- Circle dancing, known as Valle, is a huge part of many different celebrations here in Albania including weddings, parties, women’s day, political rallys, etc. One person will often lead the dance and choose the specific variety of steps for the song. That person will often wave a scarf or handkerchief. The rest of the participants hold hands and follow suit to the leader in a circular pattern around the room. Circle dancing is a major tradition of Albania and it is always a fun addition to any party!
Circle dancing at my host-sisters engagement party.
- Albanian weddings are HUGE celebrations, usually consisting of several days of festivities. One day is dedicated to the bride’s family and another to the groom’s family. People usually give money ($10 to $20/1000 to 2000 leke) in lieu of a gift. Abundant amounts of food and spirits are served to guests. The party will usually begin in the evening and go until early hours of the morning. When I lived in the village, I would often hear the music from these parties until 4 or 5am in the morning. The brides do not smile during their wedding because it signifies the sadness she feels leaving her family. Weddings often consist of at least 100-300 guests. Having several (expensive) wedding dresses is also common for these gatherings. Even guests besides the bride will change outfits several times during the party.
37. Free coffee
- One of the nice perks to coffee culture is that as volunteers we receive a lot of free coffee. Albanians do not split the bill and it is seen as an honor to pay for others. Many people here will argue over who gets to fit the bill, but I personally just enjoy receiving a free coffee ever now and then on my modest Peace Corps budget. And of course, I get the bill occasionally as well.
38. Birthday tradition
- In Albania when it is your birthday you are expected to pay. If you go out with friends for coffee or dinner or whatever, it is your responsibility to pay the bill on your birthday. I honestly prefer for people to shower me with gifts on my birthday, but to each culture their own.
39. Home decor
- Some home decor here is bold. Many homes have giant flower bouquets, doilies, moving waterfall pictures accompanied with traditional frames, and other strange knick-knacks. One of my friends commented that the decor in my home is much like that of a nursing home, but I enjoy the eccentric atmosphere of my living quarters.
- Albanians are extremely hospitably. When you enter an Albanian home you are immediately offered caramels, fruits, drinks, etc. They want to make sure you are having a good time and feel at home. This also extends outside the home. Albanians love to treat guests well and will usually go above and beyond to help me out if need be. My friend traveling through Albania who speaks no Shqip pantomimed with several people in my community and they eventually were able to give him a ride on the back of their motorcycle directly to my apartment.
Part of the delicious lunch Dan’s host-mom made for us during training.
Mark’s host family knew how to prepare a healthy study-session snack.
41. Summer vacation
- It is REALLY hot in Albania during the summer. I used to think that Colorado summers were dreadful, but it is so much worse here. I think it is probably because most buildings are not equipped with air conditioning, so there is no escaping the heat. Also, it is more humid here so after walking a block or two I am usually dripping sweat – TMI gross I know! But since it is so hot here many Albanians take vacation during the summer for at least a couple weeks and those who are working are not actually doing much “work.” It is pretty difficult to work with people during the summer because they are either at the beach or their mindset is at the beach. That is why I am taking this opportunity to travel around the country and enjoy my summer.
Hooping by the sea.
42. Shqip – the Albanian language
- Learning Shqip has been a slow and difficult process because the language is full of many rules and many exceptions to those rules. It is an Indo-European language that shares it’s branch with no other languages. It adopted some Latin script. Shqip has a total of 36 letters – 7 vowels and 29 consonants. The nouns are inflected by gender and number. There are five declensions with six cases. Learning this language has been an uphill battle, but when I am able to successfully communicate with a local (after having no previous language experience) I always feel a sense of accomplishment. However, there are different dialects between Northern and Southern Albania, so even if you Shqip skills are fluent you may not be able to understand someone from another region of the country.
My language teachers during training. I miss them so!
43. Privacy and gossip
- Albanians share a lot of their private lives with others and ask a lot of private questions. It is not uncommon upon first meeting someone for them to ask you questions regarding marital status, income, love-life, etc. Gossip is also common because Albanians live in extended families and personal space is not a priority. This is more common in smaller areas of Albania. I have been asked many questions including, “How many boyfriends did you have in America?” “Are you engaged?” “Do you want to marry an Albanian boy?” “How much money do you make?” “How much do you pay for rent?” Etc, etc.
44. “Avash avash” mentality
- You have probably heard me use the phrase “avash, avash” in many of my previous blogs which means “slowly slowly” in Turkish. This phrase is often used here to explain a variety of situations including the government, work, and my language skills. Sometimes this mentality can be overwhelming for me because in America we usually want to quick fix, but here it takes time to get projects and other things in place. There is a hierarchy one has to go through before many things can be implemented. So avash avash…
- Bad luck: to cut your nails at night, if your eye twitches something bad will happen, to throw away bread, to enter a new house with the left foot, Tuesday is unlucky
- Good luck: if a bird poops on you, if a baby pees on you
- Health superstitions: if you go outside with wet hair you will get a cold, eating lemons will cure nausea, exposure to wind through an open window will result in headaches, sore throats, or other health problems
- Evil eye: There are special people with special powers. These powers come from the eye and they can endanger others with their evil eyes.
50. ALBANIA IS BEAUTIFUL!
- Albania is a beautiful place to be. It is full of beautiful beaches and majestic mountains. Albania is a gorgeous secret of the Balkans.
- I LOVE ALBANIA!