Exploring Albania: 5 cultural facts not to miss
Nothing is more refreshing for an interculturalist than to travel to a new country, discovering rules and customs, behaviours and habits of a new place.
I recently had a chance to travel to a country that I barely knew and I felt the excitement of an explorer. In fact, I decided not to read anything about it and not to prepare for the trip, like I usually do, leaving myself an opportunity to experience this new reality in the most authentic way.
Phone in aeroplane mode, eyes wide open, I switched on “discovery mode”. Here is my trip to Albania, in 5 cultural facts:
1. The language
The origins of Albanian language, called by albanians Shqip or Shqipëri (possible meaning: “pronounce clearly, intelligibly”), are still being discussed and are unclear. Albanian belongs to the Indo-European language family but it sits on its own branch. I speak 4 languages but I couldn’t draw anything helpful from my vocabulary, especially with regards to day to day expressions. I managed to remember and successfully use only one (but very important) word: faleminderit - Thank you. Quite a few people I met had good notions of English and many understood and spoke some Italian. In fact, Italian influence in Albania is very strong.
2. The tradition of hospitality
I was amazed by Albanian hospitality, attention to detail and willingness to satisfy the guest. I initially attributed it to the fact that tourism in some places was still a relatively new activity, therefore people were working hard to get good reviews and, consequently, more tourists. However, I discovered later in my readings that hospitality rules were deeply culturally ingrained. The codes of hospitality were expressed in the “Kanun”, a set of Albanian traditional customary laws, written approximately 500 years ago. The guest, in an Albanian's life, represents the supreme ethical category: “Of God and the guest, you see. So before it is the house of its master, it is the house of one's guest”
3. Meeting new people
Making acquaintance with new people could be perceived differently, depending on our cultural preferences and what we are searching for in a first contact. You certainly remember the famous “peach / coconut” cultural classification. “Peaches” would prefer a warmer, “juicier” approach, looking for building proximity from the very first contact. “Coconuts” would initially create a distance, protecting themselves from the unknown, feeding others with their tasty pulpit after some time, when trust and connection are established.
I am initially a “coconut” but I’ve acquired some “peachiness” over the last years, being exposed to the cultures giving preference to close contact from the very beginning.
The Albanian approach sparked curiosity in me: what were they? I noticed a difference depending on the gender. While women seemed to express warmth instantly, men initially gave “cold showers”, showing a no-smile face and a very straight back. After a very short “formal” interaction though, they quickly warmed up, provided help, solutions to problems and directions, and during the “goodbye phase” seemed to be your best friends. This culture remained in my imagination without fruit classification.
British dictionaries give “resourcefulness” and “can do attitude” to the French word “débrouillardise” but I think only the French term can express the nuance of what I want to say about Albanians and Albanian culture. I admired the fact that Albanians found solutions to problems and made things work, however strange their inventions might appear to a Western mind, obsessed with organisation and “rightness” of things and systems. Sometimes these inventions made me smile, sometimes I felt insecure. Whatever the feeling, I experienced cultural “closeness” to it, as débrouillardise is also a trait of Russian culture. Making things work without available resources is considered a bravery of the mind.
5. Communist fight against long beards
In Tirana, I visited the Bunk Art 2 museum, which was created inside a former Cold War bunker. A big section of the exhibition is dedicated to the communist period, which resonated with me more than any other part. Maybe because my mind needed a counterweight information after the horrors of spying, torturing and killing I discovered, there was one fact that made me chuckle. During the communist period, every foreigner entering the country had to go through strict control, including clothing and appearance, to prevent modern influences from spreading in the country. All main border points had a special barbershop and a clothing store to make tourists adapt their style and looks in order to be able to enter the country. I imagined what my hair would look like if I travelled to Albania at that time!