Dynamite and the kindness of strangers

Here in Albania it is now officially HOT AS HELL. Each day as the sun shines in the clear Mediterranean blue sky and the humidity rises in our bregdetare (ocean side) location I think, it must have to rain soon. But, to no avail, the weather is perfect beach 95+ degree sunshine each day – great for working on my tan, but I miss my east coast evening thunderstorms to clear the air….and I miss ceiling fans at night. For the first time in my life I am actually tempted to buy a parasol.

As I walk across town to the Bashkia in the mornings sweating through my clothes, I inevitably pass several dyqan (convenience store) owners watering the ground outside their store. Yes – watering the cement. It’s as if in their Albanian obsession with cleanliness they feel that if they turn the dust on the sidewalk into mud, it won’t get up on their produce that’s sitting outside. But really, you are not going to make the world cleaner or cooler by transforming the sidewalk and the roads into muddy slip and slides. Even my landlady regularly waters the cement patio outside our front door. Not good for the environment or for breeding less mosquitoes. To add to the irony, Lezhë is a town that actually has water rationing for many of its apartments.

This conundrum of pavement watering is just one Albanian-ism of many I am now accustomed to seeing everyday. I have to keep reminding myself that I now take for granted as “normal” life is in fact quite different from the life I had before. Besides the nonsensical oddities (in the US we also have plenty of these too) like ground-watering or hanging laundry out next to a construction site or not covering man-holes, here are a few other examples of Albanian-isms that now permeate life as I know it:

1. Çun culture: living outside any semblance of the law
The word çun is one that I’m definitely bringing back to the US of A. It means “boy,” but if you refer to a çun you refer to a specific type of boy that is everywhere in Albania – a greasy haired, usually unemployed, 15-25 year old who travels in a pack and may at any time be whistling at me, driving a Mercedes too fast, sitting at a kafe staring at girls, rolling up his shirt to display his stomach if it is too hot, trying to talk to you and proposition you for a coffee at the beach as you walk by, listening to italian house music on his phone, or smoking and drinking raki while doing any of these things. Saying something like “oh, he’s such a çun” explains a lot.

Çuns in cities like Lezhë are pretty predictable (see above), but this past weekend I had the opportunity to observe some in the wild. I traveled to Peshkopi (close to the border with Macedonia) to visit a few friends and, because of the oppressive heat, we decided to spend the afternoon at the river Drini i zi outside of town. I was with all male PCVs and was pretty much the vetëm vajza (only girl) at the river…and, we were surrounded by several small groups of çuns. Pretty soon after arriving we hear a huge boom and witness the çuns up river laughing about a huge splash – yes, they were throwing small explosives in the river just për qef (for fun). This continued all around us (fishing with dynamite, but without actually collecting any fish?) for the remainder of our time at the river. Kindof amusing to watch from afar, but a bit disconcerting in general. A pack of teenage boys with explosives….what could go wrong? When we left the Drini the çuns followed us up to the road, the whole time yelling explatives in English at us because those are the only words they know. Typical çuns.

2. The kindness of strangers
On a more positive note, in the months I have been in country I have been continually impressed by the absolute hospitality and kindness of Albanians. On hiking or running excursions during training I frequently was invited into the homes of villagers I had never met and who did not speak a word of English to drink coffee and talk about the work I was doing and why I am not married (a question I get asked at least twice a day). Here in Lezhë I regularly eat lunch at a certain Albanian hole-in-the-wall restaurant with excellent pilaf owned by a woman named Victoria. She often offers me my meal for free after I spend a while talking with her in Shqip, even though I know she can’t afford to do so. In addition, the concept of hitch hiking is a non-sketchy, normal thing here (though you still have to be careful) and I have ridden almost the whole length of the country (with a few other male PCVs) with Albanians in their own cars….makes for great language practice and you learn a lot while saving money. Even when I am traveling by myself and take public transportation (furgons and busses), I inevitably get taken care of by drivers and others who insist on waiting with me on the side of the road to catch my next bus or buying me a lemon soda at the “pilaf stop” on long and windy trips. Though I may have to put up with a few questions about why I am not married to an Albanian boy or which is better, America or shqipëria?, Albanians really appreciate the conversation and become very open and welcoming when I use my shqip. This generosity is definitely something I will remember long after my peace corps service.

I could go on about the many other unique oddities to daily life here – like the irony of riding around the block 10 times in a furgon until it fills up (wastes all the gas so actually costs the driver MORE money), or the Albanians’ obsession with Italy (pretty sure the feeling is not mutual). However, in general life here in Lezhë with all it’s bizarre charm continues to be fabulous, and I find myself thankfully quite busy, which is not normal for a new volunteer during an Albanian summer. I have met the one man in the Bashkia who speaks English and seems to be actually motivated to get things done – his name is Hekuron Koka which means “iron head.” We will hopefully start to work on a tourism guide for the region of Lezhë soon. I’m also looking forward to redesigning promotional materials for the Skanderbeg memorial here (last time they were updated was 1989) and working at the kids camp set up by my counterpart that will happen in early July. In the mean time I am meeting lots of Lezhans, drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching the world cup when I can and enjoying sunset walks up to the castle with my roommate.

castle, river, mountains, city, sea

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2 comments
  1. Peter said:

    Laura,

    I enjoy your narratives regarding Albania. I plan on visiting in a couple of weeks, and hope to visit Lezha. Can you tell me whether Lezha has erected a statue of Father Gjergj Fishta? He is the national poet of Albania, and I hope to see some type of memorial in his honor.

    Thanks,

  2. Cailin said:

    I woke up this morning with a determination to catch up on everything I’ve fallen behind in with the craziness of work and busy weekends and your blog was at the top of my list!! I intend to read more frequently from here on out, but please know that I think of you often – still even start typing in your name on my phone before realizing that you probably won’t pick up….Sounds like life is an adventure right now, I envy that. The more I read, the more I think working on my own adventure, whether it be going abroad again, going back to school, or finding something I love to do! All is well here – I’ve got a ton of traveling back and forth to the midwest this summer for weddings and baby showers – Court’s having a girl! Giada Marie Heppner, cutest sonogram baby ever 🙂 Amazing how we’ve all grown up so fast when it feels like yesterday we were grabbing slurpees and heading to the dairy farms! I’ll be watching for updates, until then take care!!

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