What to Expect When You’re Not Supposed to Have Expectations

The cultural adaptations that you should prepare to make in Albania are extremely diverse and cover almost every aspect of your lives. But don’t freak out because it’s not nearly as bad as what some people or books might tell you.

  1. The people of Albania are some of the sweetest, most wonderful, oppressively nice humans you could ever hope to meet. I say this with love and also as a warning. you’re going to feel so loved and so uncomfortable for the first few weeks/months in this country. People will give you fruit, bread, coffee, the best seat on the furgon, soda’s, raki, beer, wine, and any other alcohol thay can think of. It’s nice and it is also wildy out of an American’s comfort zone. At some point you will want, or even feel you need to repay this kindness and you simply won’t be able to. Not in the way you might expect anyway. Albanian’s view your time as the most valuble thing you own and who you choose to spend your time with says a lot to them. So when someone gives you a ton of bread, fruit, or raki ect. The best way to repay them is to sit down with them, and try to talk to them (Sometimes that can be hard when it’s an old man who uses a dialect you’ve never heard before). Use your best judgement and try if you can. They will love you for it.  but just as Albanian’s value the time you spend with them, they will want you to spend all of it with you. and it can be a lot for an American. We love our space. We have all kinds of ‘just me in my room’ time, and Albanian’s don’t get that. Not for one second. Don’t be surprised if you’re host family barges into your room and asks you is you’re bored in Shqip. They will. And the only way I have found to combat this is to tell them you are taking a pushim (a nap or break in Shqip). That they get. And I have used it many times when I just need to rest after a long day of speaking Shqip.
  2. The gender roles are real, but they have a way of sneaking up on you so you only see them when you’re looking for them. And trust me once you start looking you see it everywhere. Women in Albania work, take care of the family, and are expected to do all of this while keeping a spotless house. My host mom’s day consisted of waking up at 5 am, opening the coffee shop, cooking breakfast, getting the kids ready for school, crunching the numbers of the buisness, cleaning the house, taking food to her in-laws, gardening, milking goats, cooking dinner, helping kids with homework and then finally at 11 going to bed. And my host dad, who is wonderful, just worked at the coffee shop (though later he went to work in Greece for a few months). He got up around 5:30 but I never saw him in the garden. He was also a bit of an anomolly since he was known to cook from time to time. What I learned in Albania is that men don’t cook, clean, or do any sort of housework. Women are expected to do all these things and have a job. And most have a hobby- which is almost always knitting. Girls and young women are never out running around and playing past 5-6. Older girls help their mother with the cooking and the cleaning and the boys are never expected to do any of this. There is no real dating culture in Albania except for big cities like Tirana so most dating is done in secret or online. Women are allowed to like wine but never alcohol…unless you’re being offered raki and even then it’s best to pretend to be hesitant. The good news is they understand that American’s are used to a differenet set of rules and American women get to be a bit more like the boys, so I’ve definitely taken a raki after a long day and my host parents didn’t bat an eye. And neither would my community at my permenant site.
  3. You’re going to hate, and then love, and then hate the ‘Avash avash’ (slowly, slowly) culture. You’ll want to have a meeting, or go somewhere in Albania at some point; this is going to take way more time than you could possibly expect. If you have a meeting with someone they probably won’t be on time, and then they probably won’t think that you can do whatever it is that you are trying to do, they’ll say ‘oh no one will go to that’ or ‘that can’t be done’ and it is hard to hear. You’re going to learn to be resilient and block out/ rephrase everything you hear from people in this country. I like to switch what people say to me to more positive sentences like ‘no one’s ever offered something like that here,’ and ‘we should ask other community members for help on this.’ Obviously, there are times where the people of your town will have the best information, just remember to ask yourself ‘how does this person know what they are telling me?’ You will begin to love going for a coffee and ending up staying at the lokal for hours without a single dirty look from the barista. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to reintegrate back into the go, go, go of the restaurant culture in the States.
  4. Speaking of coffee, you are not going to believe how good the coffee is here! I’m milk-shy so I avoid the cappuccino’s, macchiato’s, and the like but a good turkish coffee, or espresso is beyond easy to find. There’s this drink they call a frappe which is one of the few ‘speciality’ drinks I’ve been able to safely imbibe; it’s incredible. All  a frappe is is coffee whipped up with a milkshake mixer within an inch of its life. These simple pleasures keep me from missing a good American style coffee…most of the time.
  5. Farm animals are everywhere and everyone somehow knows who’s are who’s. It’s got to be a super power of Albanian’s but you will see a huge group of chickens out on one of the back roads, or in the school yard for that matter, and you could ask any Albanian and he can tell you which one’s belong to his family and which ones are a neighbors’ bird. I’m still not certain how they figure out the egg situation but that’s another conversation for another time.
  6. Schools are controlled chaos. I use the term ‘controlled’ loosely here. In Albanian schools the kids stay in one place and the teachers move around from room to room. In my American brain this just doesn’t compute. The kids are all too comfortable with this set-up and it makes the power dynamic in the classroom a bit twisted. The rowdy kids in the classrooms take advantage of this set-up and I have a hard time watching it. In Albanian schools there isn’t a lot a teacher can do to reign in these kids for many, sometimes political, reasons. This leaves the teacher to search for a way to convince these children to behave through purely diplomatic measures.
  7. The roads are something else. There’s nothing quite like looking at another town and thinking ‘oh this will take 30 minutes’ and finding out from a local that it takes a good 2 hours to get there. This is much worse in the south since many government officials still have grudges against the south as it was valued more highly in communist times. And even though it’s been nearly 30 years, the roads here have still not been developed. Classic Albania. The root of the problem is that the road system looks like spider legs that all extend from Tirana. Great for Tirana, kind of awful for any other city. There are almost no roads that go east/west in Albania which makes a traveler take a fun zig-zag route that takes about 3 times as long as it should.
  8. The language is something you will be extremely proud of and also feel completely inadequate in; sometimes within the same day. The language learning process is simply tough. There are days where I feel like I can do and say anything I need to and then the next hour I feel completely locked into myself. It’s an incredibly humbling experience and I have learned so much about myself from this aspect of Peace Corps alone. Pre-departure I wouldn’t worry too much about learning the language and I would focus my time being with my family. I personally made sticky notes and put them up all over my house which helped a lot. Mostly with stress to be honest. I could go through any room and I was practicing the language.
  9. Hug your puppy. The treatment of animals here is especially difficult for me to think about and more often to see in the streets. Dogs and cats are viewed as a nuisance and are often abused by the boys in Albania. And then there are people who own pets as well. It’s another strange dichotomy that is difficult for me to fully comprehend; but then again I have a pretty strong bias. The advice I can offer you is to keep some bread scraps or extra hard boiled eggs in your pocket for the times when you pass a sweet little street puppy that you want to show some love to. But do be careful, some of the village dogs are quite mean and WILL come at you. You will probably know which ones are which from a ways away which gives you time to grab a rock so you can scare the dog off. I would never hurt a dog in the States but here, I had to throw a rock at a dog so that I could get by him and make it home. In an American mindset it makes me so sad that I caused a dog, who no one has shown love to harm, but I know that in this instance it was the only way to keep myself safe.
  10. How cold 40 degrees can be! It’s technically 50 degrees right now in my town, but it’s been raining and I can feel the chill deep into my bones. My apartment has communist era windows that are essentially wind-stoppers and that’s it. The Cement and brick construction of nearly all the homes in Albania do not hold the heat in and are actually pretty good at keeping the cold in. I have already worn my late fall jacket to school and it always seems to be warmer outside.

Good luck!

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