Culture is fun. Integrating into a new one is difficult and strange, not only due of its, well, newness, but also because of your own cultural subjectivity. So here is a list of cultural quirks that I have noticed whiling trying to integrate into Albanian culture (at least from an Americans point of view) and some oddities about American culture that I haven’t really noticed before. Of course this isn’t a complete list. Culture is so more expansive than 10 item. Some of items even fall into both categories, depending on situation and intensity. Enjoy!
*As a note, this is all in good fun and is certainly not meant to speak in generalities or offend anyone. Rather, this is a compilation of culture that I have experienced both in Albania and America. My subjectivity very much determines what I notice, so if you disagree with anything, please let me know!
5 Cultural Quirks that I Probably Shouldn’t Take Back to America with Me
1) “Lets get physical”. There is a lot of cheek kissing, hand holding, and uncomfortably long handshakes in Albanian culture. Unfortunatly, Americans like having their own space when they talk, which, much to our chagrin, does not exist here in Albania. I’ll subdivide this section into three categories
- Handshakes are loose and should last over twenty seconds. Somebody please try that back home in America and see how the handshake recipient reacts.
- Arm holding. Americans want at least two feet between themselves and their interlocutor with no touching. In Albania, it is completely acceptable for two people to hold hands or link arms while talking. I have even found myself grabbing arms when I talk to people. That will definitely make someone uncomfortable when I return home.
- Cheek Kissing: Girls cheek kiss girls, guys cheek kiss guys, and girls can cheek kiss guys. Just make sure to go to the right. Always go to the right. Always. Its strange that Americans are uncomfortable with cheek kissing since we have such a hugging culture. As a wise, fellow volunteer observed, a cheek kiss is simply lips on cheek. A hug is one person touching another person with his/her whole body. Maybe hugs are creepier.
2) Tsk Tsk. This is one habit that I want to bring back with me, but will be pretty heavily frowned upon. You know those hated, awkward moments when the waiter comes over and asks if you want anything while you are in the middle of a conversation? Albania has an answer! You can “tsk tsk” or just waggle your finger. I do both! It seems a little more deliberate that shaking my head no. I know that I am going to struggle to stop it when I’m home and I accept that a waiter is probably going to spit in my food.
3) Bluntness. This is another one that I thought about putting in the “bring back home” section and I believe that it would be good for Americans. However, it probably wouldn’t go over too well. Americans tend to pride themselves on being able to speak their mind, but in reality we have a pretty passive culture when it comes to conversations. In Albania, so much more in on the table. Want to know how much money a stranger makes? No problem! They may not always tell you, but you can always ask. Money, politics, religion. S’ka problem. Looking for a wife? Gjyshe will hook you up (but she probably already offered you one at the beginning of the conversation). After originally being a bit horrifying, it has become pretty fun.
4) Stop! Sorry, I couldn’t think of a clever pun for the title of this section. Actually, my mind couldn’t decide between a terrible MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice pun. I cannot overstate how much I need to stop this habit and how little I understand why it exists. In Albania, if you see someone you know and want to say hello, you can stop and engage in a long handshake pretty much anywhere regardless of who you are getting in the way of. I once saw a car stop in the middle of the street and block all the other cars in order to shake someones hand. Only after the other cars starting honking, did he pull over, all without stopping the uncomfortably long handshake. Peshkopians (and now I do too) regularly stop in the middle of a sidewalk and block everybody. I am not sure if this is acceptable to everyone, but I see it all the time and people generally do not seem to care. They just find a way to go around.
First come, first serve. Much like the topic above, I am not sure if this is generally acceptable, but it happens a lot here. American’s have a very predetermined notion on order and lines. You can even get kicked out of amusement parks for failing to observe the proper order. In Albania, its, uh, a little different. Cashiers often check people out based on who has the smallest basket or if they know someone. This certainly does not happen all the time, but enough to be entertaining. The first time I reach around someone in front of me to pay in the States, I am going to get socked in the nose.
5 Cultural Quirks I Probably Should Take Home
1) Tolerance. I could believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and nobody would care. Albania is an inspiring example of religious tolerance. The country is predominantly Muslim, but has a significant Christian minority, all without religious strife. That is why the pope decided to start his most recent European tour here in Albania.
2) Hospitality. If there is one reason to go to Albania instead of any other country in the world, it would be their hospitality. More than once, I have hitchhiked (sorry parents) and ended up being given coffee or meals. I accidentally bumped into an old lady on a bus and apologized. Her response, “Don’t worry about it, have an apple.” It’s amazing, heart-lifting, and ubiquitous. Lost tourists are often invited, free of charge, to stay at people’s homes. It is really something worth experiencing, not just for the free stuff, but the for the attitude.
3) Xhiro. Once a day, often at dusk, people dress up (or at least make themselves look presentable) and walk up and down a predetermined street. In most towns, the local government takes extra good care of this street and it is often pedestrians only. It is an enjoyable activity in community unification, a fun way to see friends, and an easy way to meet people. This is most likely something I will do at home, even if I will be xhiroing alone.
4) Coffee Time…All the Time? Ok, maybe not all the time. Albania may go a little overboard on coffee time, but it is a great idea. Rather than meeting in an office, it is more normal to go drink a coffee together. This mix of social and professional allows relationships to be created which often help whatever business needs to be accomplished. Eliminating the stress of an office also helps spark ideas. To the dismay of whomever hires me when I return home, I will try and continue professional coffees.
5) Filial Piety. Deference…veneration… eh. To the best of my knowledge, English does not really have a word to describe this, which is kind of the point. Albanians have a large amount of respect for their elder family members, particularly their grandparents. Its existence is obvious in language. To call someone a nënë (mother) means to that that person is a master of something. Instead of sir, you can say xhaxhi (uncle). The words gjyshe and gjysh (grandmother and grandfather) imply a singular amount of respect. This may be an ideology that we want to adopt in America.