In "Cili eshte me mire?", I will take a look at life in Albania- specifically, one thing about Albania that I will miss when I return to America, and one thing about America I miss while I'm here. Tonight, we head out on the town.
When I return to America, I will miss
When was the last time that you went out on a walk? Not a walk TO any particular destination, not a walk for exercise, and not a hike through the woods, either. Just a walk through your town or neighborhood for the sake of enjoying a pleasant evening and the pleasure of conversation with good company.
I am sure that there are people in America that continue to do this, but I don't think that there are many of them left. I wasn't one of them, and it certainly is not a common community-wide activity. Our lives have become so busy- whether it comes in the form of work or clubs or television or computers- that we don't often make time for quiet and relaxing activities that don't really accomplish anything tangible. “A walk around the block?”, we say. “ I don't have time for that. It simply isn't necessary.”
In some ways, though, I think that there are few things that could be more necessary. Work and progress are wonderful and admirable things, but there should be direction to them, and direction needs perspective, and perspective usually asks for a clear and steady mind. There is no single recipe for how a person can achieve this, but I have found that a good place for me to start is by occasionally stepping away from work, turning off the electronic glow of our modern times, and simply resting my mind in the company of good friends and the fresh air.
Albania may have its problems, but one of the things that it does very well is maintaining a culture that doesn't get too caught up in the hustle and bustle of life. Time is always made for friends and family-- most of whom are rarely allowed out of arm's reach in the first place. One of the ways where you can see this embodied most distinctly is their tradition of an evening stroll. If you venture out to the streets on a warm evening in just about any town or city in the country, you will find that one or two of the main roads are filled with people who have come out for the simple pleasure of walking. They call it the Xhiro (Jeer-oh).
Along with the general relaxed mentality that seems prevalent throughout Europe, the xhiro apparently has some of its roots in the communist era as well. Lacking both the money and venues for other entertainment possibilities, the people would gather on the main roads in the evenings for a couple hours of very cheap and very social activity. It also allowed the women, who were in some ways restricted in their social interactions with men, to make themselves up and promenade in view of their potential suitors who filled the cafes next to the road and kept a careful eye on the passing ladies. (Communism may be gone and the young and restless may have fewer official restrictions in their social comings and goings, but not much has changed in this regard. The girls still dress to impress when they go out for a xhiro and the cafes lining the road are still filled with leer... err... interested boys.)
The hanging tension of awkward young love aside, I am very grateful for the fact that this tradition has continued in modern times. Going out for a xhiro with friends is a fantastic way to spend a couple hours of your evening. Pogradec's xhiro (I'm actually not sure of the proper grammar rules, but in peace corp volunteer lingo, xhiro is both a verb- the evening stroll itself- and a noun- the street on which it happens), I might add, is one of the best that I have seen in Albania. It encircles a long and narrow lake side park that offers green grass and dense trees on the one side and an unobstructed view of the beautiful Lake Ohrid on the other.
When I return to America, I will miss asking my friends if they want to xhiro. I will miss the lazy conversations and the even lazier pace that you fall into while having them. I will miss the street vendors lining the road- the popcorn carts, the snack bars, the trinket stands, the ice cream, the petula (miss x100). I will miss the cafes and the smell of grills. I will miss seeing entire families walking down the road and the groups of friends walking with arms around one another. I will miss the music and the lights, the cool breezes, the setting sun, and the profound feeling of relaxation that usually finds me as I stroll along the xhiro.
Albania, you do this very right.
Now, a brief picture tour!
A mini carnival area sets itself up near the beginning of the xhiro, complete with an inflatable jumping room, a train, and plenty of pay-by-the-ride mechanical horses and cars.
One of the numerous cafes along the xhiro, filled with its usual crowd of boys.
Petula! These stands have a complete mini-donut production line and do non-stop business throughout the summer. Petula is bought by the bag (an example of which can be seen in the left hand of the gentleman dressed in yellow), one of which usually contains in the neighborhood of 8-10 petula pieces. You are given your choice of toppings- honey, chocolate syrup, and powdered sugar on the sweet side, or mayo and ketchup on the savory side (I've never gathered the courage to try them savory style, but many Albanians seem to love them that way. I think it sounds gross.) Best of all? A bag only costs 50 cents.
Formula UNO! Self explanatory, but one of my favorite sights on the xhiro.
I think it worthy to note that these pictures were taken on a random Tuesday evening. There were no special concerts or events drawing these crowds out. For about two months, this road looks like this literally every night-- with even larger crowds on the weekend.
Last, but not least, Hotel Euro Korca. This sleepy and slightly run down hotel awakens in fine style for two months every year. The front lawn of the hotel turns into a huge outdoor cafe in July and August with plenty of beer, food, and nightly live music. Around nine or ten o'clock each night, the band will start playing traditional Albanian folk music and the dance floor in the middle of the lawn quickly fills with eager dancers. Good, good times to be had there.
Here in Albania, I miss:
A comfortable mixing of genders.
Albanians may be very good about getting out of their homes and spending time with their friends, but they do it in a manner that is quite different than that which I came to know in America. I will try to avoid turning this into a long discussion of gender roles in Albania, but suffice to say that Albanian women are much more restricted in their activities outside the home than are men. As a general rule, girls seem to be held to much higher standards than boys. They are expected to spend most of their time at home, studying for school and helping with housework. They do go out, but it is usually only with family or groups of other girls, and only for limited windows of time. Bars and cafes aren't off limits, but they aren't exactly encouraged either.
Boys, on the other hand? They pretty much do what they want. Housework is not expected. Studying is applauded but rarely required. Large amounts of time spent out of the home with friends is practically a given.
This, combined with relatively conservative views on dating and courtship make the approach to mixed gender social outings very different than in America. (Fun fact: According to my dictionary, the word shoqja in Albanian can mean female friend, companion, girlfriend, or wife. The english word “girlfriend” and the connotations that accompany it don't have an exact equivalent in the Albanian language, largely due to the fact that this stage in relationships doesn't really stand on its own in Albanian culture. Up until recent times, if you were publicly dating someone, it was basically assumed that you were going to marry that person. Yes, this is changing, but yes, some of these expectations continue today)
I notice this playing itself out in my day to day life in Albania in two ways. One is that I have noticeably fewer platonic relationships here than I did in America. I enjoy female company (Oh stop it. You know what I mean) greatly and was fortunate enough to have some wonderful platonic relationships in America. I am sure that questions of intent and attraction were occasionally raised by outsiders looking in at those relationships, but I never felt like it was an uncomfortable burden to carry and it never deterred me from continuing them. Here, however, the simple act of walking down the street with a female past the wrong pair of eyes could start a storm of gossip that I would just as soon avoid.
On numerous occasions (usually after female peace corp volunteers come through town for visits) I have come into my office and been approached by my coworkers with questions about a girl that they/their spouse/their neighbor/their grocer saw me with the weekend before. Wink and nudge type questions. It isn't done in an unfriendly manner, (and granted, one of those set of assumptions happily turned true) but with this knowledge that there are eyes watching me everywhere and that gossip is rarely restrained, I sudden have become very conscious of all my interaction with females. Some awareness of this is undoubtedly healthy, but I look forward to the time when I can sit down for a conversation with a girl without the nagging thought in my mind of what everyone around us is thinking.
Albanians themselves seem to be at least somewhat aware of these same eyes. Outside of Tirana and the areas around a few of the larger universities in the country, the groups of friends you see going out for the evening generally come in a single sex variety. And when it comes to the territory of bars and cafes, that sex is almost exclusively male. Albanian males, who, I should note, are some of the most testosterone driven men I have ever seen, see nothing strange with the idea of sitting down at a bar on a Friday night that is quite literally filled with nothing but other men. There is nothing wrong with this, per say, but boys! Invite a couple of girls to join you. They do wonders to the atmosphere, to say nothing of the quality of conversation.
When I return to America and head out with a group of friends, I will be very grateful for the fact that the females in our group won't be worried about what their neighbors will think of them, and for the fact that there will be little concern for who is standing next to who and how that can be read. I have nothing against families looking out for the well being of one another, but when concern turns into gossip and gossip turns into the fear and shame that keeps people (usually women) to the side or in their homes, it robs something from a society. I'm glad that America has, for the most part, moved beyond that.
So cheers, ladies. Glad to have you at the table.