When I first received my invitation to join the Peace Corps last winter, I was given an information packet all about Albanian culture and history and the challenges volunteers face in country. After leafing through this very frank and not at all sugar coated document (keep in mind this was the first thing I had ever really read about Albania), I did not want to accept my invitation.
I think you know from reading my blog that I am very glad that I didn’t actually turn this opportunity down. However, recently I’ve been thinking back to those original feelings of “no way jose” as I am having a difficult time dealing with one thing that was a big concern in that document and throughout our training – all the extra/unwanted attention that being female and American attracts in this country. It’s definitely a man’s world here.
After 6 months in Albania (yes, it has now been 6!), I have yet to adjust fully to the different cultural definition of “personal space.” It seems that for every Albanian expression of extreme hospitality and generosity I receive, there are three or four instances of unwanted attention. All the little cat calls, stares, invitations to coffee with creepy men, insistence on joining someone at coffee, requests for visas, screams of “fuck your sister” (the only thing some kids know in English), questions about whether I am married and where I live and do I want to marry an Albanian boy, and pleads to give someone free private English lessons that I receive every day really add up over time. In addition, Albanian men seem to not understand caller ID – once they have your number and want something they will call until you pick up the phone…literally every two minutes. Like I can’t see that it is you calling me over and over and over. If I didn’t pick up, I probably won’t two minutes later.
I have now been living in Lezhe for four months and can no longer even pretend to be anonymous as one of four foreigners in a town of around 30,000. And I have found that as work picks up and life starts to be a bit more routine and stressful, all this attention has really started to wear on me. It’s exhausting being on guard all the time.
This attention is not like when I visited Kathmandu, where kids literally followed me around in packs and I stuck out like a sore thumb by just wearing pants and a t-shirt. But even though I can wear the same clothes (or similar clothes) to Albanians, look Albanian and (sometimes) speak Albanian, I am very plainly NOT Albanian… Every day when I leave the house and make the walk across town to the Bashkia, I walk by 15 or so coffee bars where the men sit outside and stare as you walk by (Albanian men have very flexible necks), often throwing a comment in as well. If I go to eat lunch or to have a coffee by myself, people assume something is wrong and will sometimes try and sit at my table, not taking “jo faleminderit” as an answer.
It’s one thing when this attention happens in Tirana or in a furgon somewhere or in another town in Albania – I can just pretend to not understand or be really firm about denying someone and be on my way. I don’t live there. In Lezhe it’s another matter entirely. Everyone knows who I am and where I live and everyone is related. I haven’t quite figured out the appropriate way to turn down a creepy coffee (or facebook friend) request without the person who asks me getting personally offended. I think this is partly my American passive aggressiveness showing and that I should just be more direct with the person (NO THANKS), but it’s hard when the person is related to your boss, and you really should have coffee even if you don’t want to. And, it’s amazing how fast things can get out of hand…what begins as staring and an occasional cat call can progress to something a lot more invasive. And, you never know when that person will show up again, or how your reputation in the community will change if you accidentally snub them.
The delicate balance of living and working as a young American abroad is something stressful in ways I didn’t quite understand when I arrived in Albania. While in some ways it may seem like Albania is culturally similar to the US (it’s in Europe, right?), the fact is that gender roles and the concept of personal space and information are very different. After a few months in site, I am starting to feel like the lone goldfish in the bowl with everyone’s fingers tapping the glass….and I guess that’s something I will just have to get used to.