During my time in Albania I’ve kept a list of topics I want to write about. The list has gotten longer and longer but many of the items have sat unaddressed, mainly because they are too slight for an entire blog entry. So, in an attempt to catch up, here’s a mish-mosh of miscellaneous items that I’m pulling together under the umbrella of “Ten Things You Need to Know About Albania.” This list contains the first five items and is in no particular order.
#1 – Greetings
Greetings are a big deal in Albania. In the U.S. the “hello/how are you?” exchange is generally some variation on:
Person #1: Hi — how’s it going?
Person #2: Good. What about you?
Person #1: Good…things are good.
In Albania, “hello/how are you?” is more along the lines of:
Person #1: Good morning (day/evening). How are you? Good? What are you up to? How are things going?
Person #2: Good. Very good. And you? How are you? Good? Did you sleep well?
Person #1: Good. Good. Very good. And you? What are you doing? Are you tired?
Person #2: Good. Very good. Very, very good.
Imagine that Person #1 and Person #2 are talking simultaneously — because they are. Notice that no one actually answers any of the questions. Notice that the word “good” is said frequently. Notice that, no matter what time of day it is, someone is asked if they are tired.
Greetings in Albania are highly ritualized. There are hands to be shook, cheeks to be kissed and questions to be asked but not answered. There is a lot of “good”-ing — both declarative and interrogative. A more experienced Peace Corps volunteer once told me that the secret to successfully navigating the ritual is to keep talking, keep asking questions and keep saying “good,” both with and without question marks. She’s right — there’s no sense in attempting actual conversation and trying to do so just throws people off their rhythm.
I am particularly fascinated by “are you tired?” When I first got to Albania and was living in Shushicë, members of my host family would ask me “are you tired?” when I left each morning. Early on I was confused: I was sleeping well and felt full of energy and couldn’t figure out what it was about my appearance that prompted the question. Pretty quickly, though, I learned that “are you tired?” is just a thing people ask. I’ve been asked “are you tired?” by shopkeepers and furgon drivers. I was once in a cab and each time the cabdriver stopped to ask directions (getting lost is another Albanian ritual!) he asked “are you tired?” before getting down to business.
I have yet to figure out how and/or why this question came to be part of the daily lexicon. For a long time I found the question jarring because I felt that its very existence was somehow an implicit cultural understanding that one is expected to be tired and “being tired” (whether or not I am) is not how I see the world. And so I would answer the question, usually saying either, “No, not at all,” or “Never!” How American of me! Over time, though, I realized that no one really wants an answer to the question — it’s just a thing people say.
Good-byes, particularly on the phone, are a similar phenomenon. Here’s what it sounds like to hear an Albanian person end a phone call: Mirupafshim…ciao, ciao…hajde…hajde. ..ciao…pafshim, pafshim…ciao. Translation: Goodbye….ciao, ciao…come on…come on…ciao…bye, bye…ciao. The hajde part is something I’m still trying to figure out! Hajde is something you say when you want someone to come with you, come to you, or catch up — sort of “c’mon, c’mon.” I have no idea what it has to do with good-bye, but it’s what people say.
#2 – Albanians Love Americans
Albanians LOVE Americans. They really do. I’ve seen people from European countries roll their eyes when they hear this and I know they’re thinking, “Ugh…you Americans…you always think everyone loves you.” But Albanians DO love Americans. They love Americans because Woodrow Wilson prevented the partitioning of Albania in 1919, thereby keeping it intact as a country. They love Americans because, in 1999, during the Kosovo War, Bill Clinton came to the aid of Kosovar Albanians by pushing NATO to intervene. For more than 100 years, Albanians fleeing harsh conditions or persecution have fled to the U.S. (settling mostly in Boston, Detroit and the New York metro area) and these Albanian-Americans have remained closely involved in Albanian affairs, raising awareness of issues, lobbying for humanitarian and other aid and sometimes providing financial support themselves.
Albanians love Americans so much that when George W. Bush visited Albania in 2007 — the first sitting American president ever to do so — Albania renamed the street in front of Parliament for him and issued postage stamps with his image. All this before he even got here! Upon arrival he was awarded the Order of the Flag medal, which is Albania’s highest honor and then-Prime Minister Sali Berisha called Bush “the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all time.” Then in 2011, the town of Fush-Kruje — the one place Bush stopped during his visit (the Prime Minister’s home is nearby) — erected a statue in honor of Bush’s visit.
And the love affair continues…. Just last week, the coastal resort city of Saranda unveiled a bust of Hillary Clinton in its main square. The city has no special ties to Hillary, they simply want to honor her for her “dimension as a woman in politics, as a representative of the old Albania-U.S. friendship, for her contribution to the Albanian nation in different historical moments.” At the unveiling ceremony, Saranda’s mayor (one of only a handful of female mayors in Albania) said, “…Hillary Clinton’s bust, as an emblematic figure of the American diplomacy and politics, with direct contributions to the Albanian people, honors not only Saranda but its citizens and friends worldwide. Clinton gives us the model of women in politics, diplomacy and governing at the most democratic country in the world.”
#3 – “Turp”
“Turp,” pronounced toorp, means shame. In Albania, “turp” is more than a word that gets used from time to time, it’s a deeply rooted part of Albanian culture used for social control. “Turp” is used to indicate that an act/behavior is disgraceful — not just unwelcome or inappropriate, but a full-on loss of honor for both the perpetrator of the act AND for his/her family as well. It’s a form of censure whose goal is to cause remorse, embarrassment and (at the risk of being dramatic) self-loathing. Turp is heavy-duty.
Turp is used in many contexts, one of which is to control the behavior of girls/young women and to limit their choices. Not surprisingly, turp is a bigger deal in small towns and in villages than it is in cities and so it’s a contributing factor (along with job opportunities, of course) in the mass migration of young people to Albania’s urban areas. Away from one’s family, relatives and neighbors, young women are free to dress as they wish, stay out after dark, date, smoke/drink, and so on. But, don’t be misled, turp can be used anytime, anywhere with anybody. I myself have uttered “turp” several times on the streets of Tirana when I’ve seen people throw trash on the ground.
#4 – Money and the Mystery of Old vs. New Lek
Get ready for your head to hurt because what you are about to read makes little to no sense whatsoever.
Lek is the unit of currency in Albania. Right now, one lek is worth .08 cents, meaning that when I purchase a kilo (2.2 pounds) of cherries for 280 Lek (which I do quite frequently since this is cherry season) I am spending $2.27.* For me, the easiest way to do the conversion is simply to add a decimal point and tell myself that 280 Lek (hereafter abbreviated as 280L) means I’m paying $2.80 and leave it at that.
*See item #5 for more about Albania’s incredibly cheap, incredibly delicious fruits and vegetables. Here are cherries for the low, low price of 130L/kilo, which translates to less than 65 cents per pound.
That’s the easy part, now for the head-hurting part…
Many years ago the Albanian currency was revalued by a factor of 10: items that sold for 1,000 “old” Lek now sold for 100 “new” Lek. But, old habits die hard and people continued to price items in old lek, even though they were collecting new lek. Example: one of the fruit stands I frequent posts their prices in new lek, which means the stated price for their fabulous cherries is 280L. The other fruit stand I go to posts their prices in old lek and so their not-quite-as-fabulous cherries cost 2,800L (except that, being less fabulous, they are actually priced at 2,600L…but let’s keep it simple).
So now I take my giant bag of cherries and go to the counter to pay, hoping that four other people won’t cut in front of me while I wait and wondering if I should embarrass them and myself by saying “turp” if they do. Either way, the proprietor writes out the receipt as 2,800L — even when the sign says 280L. Then, the proprietor says, “That will be 2,800 Lek.” Does he say, “That will be 2,800 old Lek”? No, he says “That will be 2,800 Lek” except, knowing I am American and am confused by old vs. new lek, he might say “That will be 280 Lek.” Does he say, “That will be 280 new Lek”? No, he simply says, “That will be 280 Lek.”
Every store and every street vendor does it differently. Official prices posted in chain groceries are nearly always in new lek but that doesn’t mean the cashier won’t tell you the total in old lek. In small mom-and-pop stores, posted prices may or may not be in new lek but it’s very likely that the receipt will be written out using old lek.
Earlier I said that “old habits die hard,” which was a nice way of saying that old folks don’t like to change their ways. I get it when the little old lady who sells flowers on the corner says 1,500L instead of 150. But, I don’t get it when the 20-year-old fruit vendor, who wasn’t even born when the revaluation took place, asks me for 2,800L instead of 280. It appears that old vs. new lek isn’t going away any time soon.
Now that I’ve lived here for more than a year I know what everyday basics — groceries, food in restaurants, electricity — cost and so the confusion factor is much, much less than it was when I first arrived and was confused by signs that said 280L for a kilo of cherries when I knew in my heart that there’s no way cherries could be selling for $1 per pound. But, I can still get caught off-guard because imported items — clothes, appliances, specialty foods — are quite expensive by Albanian standards and so there’s always a moment when my brain gets a little tangled as it tries to convert to dollars even as it’s trying to answer the question “old or new lek?”.
#5 – Produce-a-Palooza
Simply put, the fruits and vegetables in Albania are AMAZING! Until I got here I didn’t realize the extent to which America has nickel-and-dimed itself into tasteless produce in an effort to make fruits and vegetables year-round and nation-wide. I know that the local-food movement is in part a response to that, but in a head-to-head taste competition, I’d bet on Albania. And, no matter whose produce is better, Albania still wins because the prices are probably one-tenth (probably an exaggeration) of what we spend for locally grown produce at U.S. farmers’ markets.
What makes Albanian produce so great is that the flavors are super-charged. Strawberries, for example, taste like the essence of strawberry. Onions and leeks are so strong that I end up reducing the amount called for in the recipe so that their flavor doesn’t drown out anything else. And, pears and zucchini, which are more subtly flavored, have more oomph than I imagined possible. In fact, I have morphed from a zucchini appreciator into a zucchini junkie because I can’t get enough of their sweet flavor.
And then there’s the prices. $1 for a pound of amazing cherries. Five medium-sized zucchini for 75 cents. Several salads worth of super-peppery arugula for less than $1. One pound of fresh (not desiccated and moldy), jumbo-sized chestnuts for less than $2…and on and on… When I would go to the Evanston farmers’ market I had to put myself on a strict budget and stick to a strict list because it was possible to spend $35 or $40 in the blink of an eye. Here, I walk home loaded down with melons, cherries, zucchini, carrots, lettuce, peaches and plums, tomatoes and parsley having paid only $7 total.
There are only two downsides: One is that, because produce here is not engineered to ripen slowly, things go bad within days. I am constantly throwing out half-heads of brown lettuce and this week I left a peach on the counter so that it could finish ripening only to find it both ripe and moldy when I returned home in the evening. The other is that, even though some produce is imported, things are in season when they’re in season and not to be found when they’re not. Right at the height of strawberry season I had a bad case of food poisoning for a week and then spent another week eating bland, basic foods to help my system recover. By the time I got back to my regular diet, strawberries were hard to find. I would see small quantities at the stands on my way to work in the morning, but they were always sold out by the time I returned in the evening.