The Albanian Paradigm: Week 10

Graffiti on the Pyramid, a previous Enver Hoxha museum (dictator from 1944-1985) and a communism symbol. The country collectively has no idea what to do with the structure, and it remains deserted to this day.

My heart goes out to Albania. As an intern in the Ministry of Economics, Tourism, Trade, and Entrepreneurship branch of the government, I have both worked and rooted for Albania’s success. Working in tourism, I’ve found intangible success writing grants to secure future funding, and the tangible gratification of marketing, teaching English, and getting to know both the locals and foreign tourists.

Early on in my internship, I remember walking down the street with a fellow intern, noticing a group of elderly Asian tourists, camera in one palm and parasol in the other, making their way past with their tour guide. He barked out directions and facts to the group, like one of the many stray – but benevolent – canines we encounter each day here in Tirana.

“Look! Tourists!” My roommate exclaimed, pointing like they were the faces of Mt. Rushmore and we were the tourists. And for a moment, I forgot that we were not far off from them ourselves, how if anyone walking down the street saw us would think that we too were mere sightseers, speaking American English with backpacks and flip flops.

That was when I knew that the goals and objectives of the National Coastal Authority – promoting and developing sustainable tourism in Albania – had sunk into my inner psyche. I was no longer a sightseer – I had crossed the pond from outsider to insider, at least in my head. I still didn’t speak the language, and no one recognized me as anything near Eastern European, but hey, I still wanted to help.

The cogs of Albania works slowly, and I don’t mean that with a tone of judgement. In a country with such a varied, difficult, absolutely devastating past, with a laundry list of crimes that have lead to great public distrust between the people and their government – Albania has a long way to go. There is a lot of work to be done; 50 years of isolation is just plain hard to recover from. So while various odds and ends – water, internet, and electricity for example – refused to function more often than I would have preferred, Albania is genuinely working in the right direction and has a bright future.

I hope that I was able to contribute to a small part of that this summer, and in return got the privilege to work in the tourism industry promoting a country that only recently opened it’s borders to the outside world. Not many people can say they’ve been to a country that was arguably more closed off to the world than North Korea, the ramifications of which I witnessed in every day life, touring museums committed to memoriam of victims, or felt in the slight quiver of voice when older citizens talked about their experiences.

Luckily, the patient is showing promising recovery.

When I remember Albania, I’ll remember the taste of the turkish coffee, and the colorful graffiti art almost as frequent as the coffee shops posted at every corner. I’ll remember the pastry shops that kneaded fresh dough each morning into artistic lunchtime creations, wafting aromatic, buttery smells all down the street.

I’ll remember the internship where I got to work in an office for the first time (and did what felt like playing dress-up, because I still don’t feel like an adult all the time), doing professional work beyond the many waitressing, cashier, florist, and other odd jobs I’ve worked in my life.

I was once a Santa elf for a department store. And yes, I have been asked, “Aren’t you too tall to be an elf?” You could say this felt like a little bit of an upgrade for me.

Most significantly, I’ll remember doing taekwondo.

As I’ve mentioned before, I found a taekwondo gym while I was here, a little hole-in-the-wall place stationed on the outskirts of town, with no address to my knowledge (my apartment also lacks an address; it’s quite commonplace). My gym is what appears to be a small garage from the outside, but houses trophies of years past and practice mats within. Beyond that, what I found inside was a community that took me in, pushed me athletically and showed me a new side of Albania. My master, a fierce woman by the name of Ola, and her following of young college-age men became both friends and rivals. We trained under her enthusiastically, kicking, sweating, sparring, and collectively honing our martial art ability in the 100-degree weather (heatwaves aren’t cool – pun intended). If that doesn’t bring people closer, I don’t know what can.

They collectively took me in for the summer, refusing compensation or anything in return, and it was them that truly showed me the generosity, amiability, and fighting spirit of the Albanian people. Master Ola and I had trouble conversing, but occasionally she would grab my attention to throw an English anecdote or two at me. And not ancient martial arts wisdom either, although that would’ve have been so funny. I’ll never forget the day when in the middle of practice she suddenly stopped, looked me in the eyes, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Sometime a few weeks later, a policeman I talked to said the same thing to me. Don’t worry, be happy. The Albanian people seem wonderfully concerned with my happiness. Or maybe they just really like Hallmark quotes.

In conclusion, my thoughts on traveling to a new place:

When in a new place, it’s easy to seek out parallels to make it feel like home. In my case, you could call these “Americanisms”. For example, full-sized coffee (espresso is the norm), businesses that take card, and diet coke are not commodities that one can easily find in Albania. But with that mindset, when the local culture deviates from what is comfortable, forcing you to change your habits in one way or another, this can serve as the basis for discontent and resentment.

I know I barely ate wheat products before I came, but it is literally the bread-and-butter of Albania (in addition to meat, which I also wasn’t too big on). With time, I’ve come to realize that seeking out these parallels to home only leads to separation from the local paradigm. By making a conscious effort to adapt to my environment, I was able to more fully appreciate the depth and complexity of Albanian culture in ways that go beyond explanation, inconveniences and all. And I learned that fresh sausage, wrapped in bread without added preservatives, is so good.

In conclusion, it’s easy to see the exterior of a place and point out all its differences; understanding lies in finding the similaritiesI love Albania; and I’m thankful to say I have felt loved in return.

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