FUN FACTS 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.
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.”
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. 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.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. “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.