A recap of last week’s party

Here’s a recap from the party last weekend:

1. As instructed I showed up to Mrs. B.’s house and we ate our “small” lunch before going to the 80th birthday party. We ate soup, salad, veggies, and byrek with leeks which was really good. She did a great job making it, and as usual talked about how wonderful it all came out as we ate. After lunch we had Turkish coffee and then headed to the event. 

2. On the way to the party Mrs. B. informed me that it was not necessary to really talk about exactly what I do here in Albania, as folks didn’t need to know all of that (sometimes she acts like I work for the CIA or something, which surprisingly folks do ask from time to time; why the CIA would send a Black woman here “undercover” I’m not sure). Anyhow, she informed me that she had already told most of the women that I was here studying the Albanian language. She considered this to be a suitable response but of course throughout the party folks kept asking what I was doing here, as they thought it odd that I would seemingly come here for many years just to learn Albanian. 

3. The first plate of food that came (key word, first) included: various types of salami, cheeses, olives, eggs, yogurt sauce, beef cuts, bread, salad, tomatoes, sliced carrots, grilled peppers, and cabbage. I ate a few things here and there but of course I was already stuffed. People started whispering and then asking Mrs. B. if her American friend was hungry or not. She then said, “Oh we already ate, Chelsi loves byrek so much and wanted me to make one before we came.” I almost choked on an olive. She smiled as she said this and patted my back. “So you like byrek, huh,” my neighbor asked, and I simply smiled and nodded my head. I later heard Mrs. B. yelling across the table to someone explaining that because I loved byrek so much, she just had to make one earlier for me. “She even takes some home with her!” All the ladies marveled at my apparent love of byrek. 

4. Later the second plate of beef steak and potatoes arrived, and I ate what I could but again, I was very full. Mrs. B. did not even touch hers but no one paid attention to her plate — instead they were fixated on mine. And of course there was fruit and dessert afterwards. Thankfully I did not have much time to think about these as folks were dancing more and Mrs. B. kept making me get up to dance with her. Sidenote: Albanians really like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”. I swear I hear it at every party and wedding with a DJ. And it’s usually mixed in with Albanian music and that Americana song that folks love so much. So we did the twist. We did traditional Albanian “Valle”, we danced in and out of circles, making lines all over the place. 

5. Later I went back to my seat to catch my breath for a second and give my feet a rest. The lady next to me heard the next song and got ready to get up a dance. She grabbed my hand and motioned towards the dance floor. At first I said, “No, no, I’ll wait until the next one,” but she grabbed me anyway and said, “Come on, you’ll lose a little weight,” and smiled. Right, I thought to myself. Time to dance off that byrek that I love so much. 

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The Albanian Hunger Games Part II: A Better Fire in the Kitchen?

While my blog primarily focuses on questions of belonging, race, and identity, I am also exploring ways to capture stories from my  fieldwork experiences and connecting them to larger questions about ethnography. That being said, I share here some interactions with one of my closest friends. 

I mentioned Mrs. B. in my previous post about the hunger games, the one in which I I first termed the phrase “Albanian Hunger Games.” Well I’m back now with what I’m calling Part Two, and almost named “Catching Qofte” (qofte is an Albanian meatball). 

So Mrs. B. loves to cook — really she lives for it. I’m not sure if there is anything in this world that makes her happier than cooking, and she’s wonderful at it. Here’s a typical recap of lunch at her house:

Mrs. B.: Mireserdhe! (Good that you’ve come, or welcome). The table is ready and I’m just heating the soup, it’s such a good soup. Full of vegetables, a very light soup. 

We do the usual questions and updates: family check, health, how work is going, what we have done the past couple of days, comments on the weather. I ask her if I can help her prepare and she shoots me down as always, and acts so surprised that I would even ask, as her guest. We have been friends for almost six years. 

Mrs. B: We’re ready now. Only a small lunch today: soup, salad, byrek (like a pie) with beans, fish, cabbage, and peppers. Ju bëftë të mirë (bon appetite). 

Me: Bless your hands for preparing. 

And then we start eating. 

Mrs. B: (After eating a few bites) Look at how wonderful this soup is, such a good soup. And the vegetables came out beautiful. Chelsi, make sure you eat all that salad, it’s so fresh. I walked far to get it, from a village woman who you can trust. You can’t trust everybody when it comes to buying salad. 

I take more salad. 

Mrs. B: And finish those peppers too, because I won’t eat them later. You are hardly eating anything. Don’t forget I made a lot of byrek so you can take some home with you. And I made it by hand, none of that store-bought stuff. And this fish, isn’t this fish good? I prepared it well. I got it special, and at such a good rate. 

She continues eating, smiling, and singing to herself. She loves to feed people and gets so much joy out of food. The only time she stops to speak about something else is to point and yell at the political commentators on TV, for being so corrupt and betraying the people of Albania. There’s one woman in particular that she always calls a witch. I don’t even know her name but whenever I see her now on TV, I too think ‘witch’. 

Alright, so that’s what a lot of our lunches look like. We eat, catch up, she tells me stories about her childhood and her late husband. And we conclude with Turkish coffee or mountain tea. Now Mrs. B. is involved with a retired woman’s group, which consists mostly of women age 65 years and older. They meet at a center near her house, for casual conversations and activities. Sometimes they have coffee together, other times they take walks, and every now and then they take organized trips. Well one day one of the women suggested that they have a group outing to a restaurant here in Tirana. Her son is the manager there, and she claimed they had some of the best food in Tirana. All of the women had to agree to pay a fixed price and they would organize the meal with the cooks. When I saw Mrs. B. a couple of days before the outing she was excited about it, though I know that at times she, like many Albanians and especially older ones, are skeptical of eating out. What I mean is, Americans in comparison eat out often (and not necessarily just those with more money), whereas relatively speaking, Albanians do not do so as much, though many more are doing it now than were twenty years ago. My mom and I once took Mrs. B to a restaurant here in Tirana and she put on a front there, raving about how good everything was, but then a few weeks later asked me if I went to get my money back because the food was so awful. 

So, when I went back to her house the week following her group outing, and asked her how it turned out, she said, “Terrible!” The food was just unacceptable, completely subpar. She said that the woman tricked her, and that she could have made everything better at her house. Apparently it was so bad that in the end, Mrs. B. only ate pilaf (rice) because she couldn’t stand the food. After this occurred she told the story to everybody, and I mean everybody. I have heard it at least five times. Now, perhaps she was being a bit overdramatic, but I must say that I admire her passion for food. And in many ways it’s funny, especially this story she keeps retelling. The food gets worse every time the story is retold.  

This weekend though? I share all of this because Mrs. B. has set me up to play the hunger games and I don’t think I am ready to compete. For you see, Mrs. B. has invited me to her friend’s 80th birthday party, and I am delighted to be her guest. For this party, the family has rented out a place in Tirana, complete with a large dance floor and live musicians. Mrs. B. is really excited because she loves to dance. There’s just one problem though — she doesn’t trust their food to be any good. Word on the street is that it is not. So what’s her solution? I’m going to arrive at her house two hours before the party and we’ll have lunch together, a “light” lunch that she’s preparing, so as to not take any chances. BUT, this is not good for me, because I have been to parties and weddings before, and like usual, people are going to watch to see what I eat, and how much I eat of it. I have heard people whisper things like, “The American, does she like our food?” or “Let’s hope to God she is pleased with the food we serve.” When I do not eat, whether at an event or someone’s house, especially at someone’s house, then the host tries to find something that I would prefer to eat instead, since I must eat something (i.e. see the first post on the hunger games). And as many of you already know, even when you’ve even a lot, people think you haven’t eaten anything. Not to mention how people will make you eat and eat, but then tell you how much weight you have gained (I’ll save that for another post). Mrs. B. has already set the plans for Saturday though, and called me today to ensure that I will be over early. Let’s see what happens.  

 

I share this with trepidation: The story of Kuqi

I am sharing this post knowing that my mother will probably yell at me later but I am going to take a risk. For a few years now a rather strange man has followed me around Tirana when I have stayed here for research periods. I’m not sure why but this gentleman would approach me often and ramble incoherent sentences about only God knows what, and while at first I thought he was a drunk with a few loose screws, several incidents from last fall forced me to contact the police as he had begun to stalk me, at times aggressively. Now I know it may sound crazy that the first time this man ever came up to me was in 2009, and that the first time I ever contacted the police was in 2013, but seriously it was only until last fall that it turned into stalking and verbal harassment.

So I am sharing this post now for a few reasons. First off, this situation with Kuqi, that’s his nickname, has become one of anthropological inquiry, as many of my friends, neighbors, and the police here did not (and maybe still do not) quite comprehend the situation as I did, or if they did, they never saw it as dangerous. Annoying, maybe. Bothersome, sure. But never dangerous. Even though my friends helped, just yesterday one of them was saying that I blew the entire thing out of proportion. As such, part of the reason I am blogging is to dig deeper into categories, phenomena, and how people make sense of their worlds. This especially comes out in the video as various people in the story try to help me understand what’s really going on, as if I don’t know. This brings me to the video. I am now experimenting with what I’m terming for the moment “performance ethnography”, and I’m doing so through the use of video. I envision this as part storytelling, part ethnography, and a way to get anthropology off of paper. I’m not exactly sure where this is headed but some friends encouraged me to try this out, so I am. I will say that the story is pretty long, so just know that beforehand. Also, it has taken some time for me to be able to blog about this, and yes now many parts of the story are very comical but they weren’t always so.

I think this story though sheds light on many aspects that need further examination, including the fact that many of my friends were more concerned about how this matter would cloud my view of Albania and Albanians; still when some friends hear about it they immediately get worried that I might think badly of the entire country, or worse, tell others that this is what Albania is like. Also this story opens the question of how people handle notions of verbal harassment and stalking. This especially comes out with multiple people telling me that there was nothing they could actually “do” about the situation. I also think that maybe cases such as this one really problematize the concept of “the ordinary” or “the everyday life”.  It’s really made me question things that I might think of as extraordinary that others do not.

Here it is the story of Kuqi:

 

Small talk at star box

 

 

 

 

Today I stopped to have a coffee at small cafe near my house.  

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Yep folks you read correctly, “Star Box” it is.  And coffee with only one “e”.  I’ve always found the name hilarious, ever since I noticed this cafe five years ago. Now that I live nearby, I speak to the owner here and there, and one night had a talk with him as I was heading home. He told me to stop by anytime for coffee, so this evening I finally did.  Gjovalin, the owner, immediately welcomed me in and ushered me to a table near a computer outlet as I told him that I was planning to write for a while. After I got situated I ordered a macchiato and started watching the news. There was a large police operation today in Albania, something to do with explosives. Gjovalin later told me that a well-known criminal in Durres was even shot and killed, and as he said, “The police have done very well today.” I made a mental note to buy a newspaper and look into this further. 

After my coffee arrived Gjovalin came over to sit with me and chat for a while (called muhabeti in Albanian). His employees and friends stared at me from afar, their eyes inside my mouth as I talked. I find that people are often so surprised by my Albanian that they cannot look away yet become shy or nervous when I speak to them. Or my favorite, the people who choose not to talk to me, but talk about me and around me, asking questions about me, rather than ask me directly. Side note for those that don’t know, Albanians rarely, if ever, expect foreigners to speak Albanian. This is the case because so few do, and Albanian (known as “Shqip”) is a rather difficult language. I can’t tell you how many times people start speaking to me in French or Italian and then get upset when I stare back blankly, indicating incoherence. One night a man started speaking to me in French and I replied, in Albanian, “I’m sorry but I don’t speak French” to which he angrily asked, “Then what do you speak then?” I laughed, and said, “Albanian. I just spoke to you.” 

Anyhow, Gjovalin and I talked about the basics, the usual conversations that folks want to know. About my family, my husband, what kind of job he has, why in the hell I’m here in Albania without him. I explained to Gjovalin that I was working on a book about Albania, and that’s why I’ve been coming back and forth for so many years. I recently just started saying “book” to folks as dissertation thesis can be difficult to articulate. Plus, inshallah, I will write a book some day. Even if no one ever reads it. Gjovalin told me that I better not write any bad things about Albania, something I hear often. As I talked about briefly in my last post, Albanians are very weary of the “Western” and “traveler” gaze, as well as any type of literature that they feel may taint their country’s honor. While this is not unique to Albanians, their fears do manifest in particular ways. However, I need several more blog posts to discuss this subject, so more on that later, promise. Once I mentioned writing, Gjovalin asked me who I was working for and I explained that I have a grant to study here. He then wanted to know what I do each day, as my neighbors ask me all the time. I laughed and told him that I have a lot of coffees, and do lots of interviews. I also write tons of notes and go through archival material. This only made some sense to him but he was happy that I had chosen Albania and smiled widely. 

He told me about his son in Germany, and his experiences there working in the tourist arena. He asked me if I had any kids and I told him not yet, and he laughed. At this point a friend of mine called to see where I was. I told her and she exclaimed in shock, embarrassed that I was there, at this cafe that she was ashamed of. My friend’s shame mostly arises from her beliefs in Albania’s inferiority, in the weak attempts she sees to be like the States. Or like anywhere not Albania. And this friend has lived in the States for a few years, has had coffee at an actual Starbucks. I told her that the quality of coffee was definitely better at Star Box but she scoffed at this notion. I just laughed. I think almost anyone in a taste test would choose coffee in Albania over that of New York but there is something about that American brand, American name, that draws attraction. Also, I know, this is a very weighty subject. Will definitely return to it in later posts.  

We continued talking about Albania, about politics. While Gjovalin said that he’s not very political, in his heart he’s with the democratic party. But with politics comes corruption and disagreements, and there’s no need to get into that. “Albania needs to be more like the US” he said, which I continually hear from folks. I explained that politics is also corrupt in the US. He seemed surprised. “Well then like Germany, Germany is good.” I couldn’t really dispute, as I am not very aware of German politics. I do know though that corruption exists everywhere. Either way most Albanians go on and on about the model states of the US and Germany. I find it amusing and also intriguing; Germany nor the US could ever do anything wrong in the eyes of many here. 

Turns out that a group of Germans drinks often at Star Box and next week, for Gjovalin’s birthday, they are having a small fest with beer and dancing. He invited me to come, said that he would be honored to have me as his guest. He also told me that two of his employees are the best dancers in Tirana and that we would have a dance off to judge which one is the very best. I’m just hoping that I can be on the judging and not dancing side. Contrary to all of the stereotypes, and much to my Albanian friends’ disappointment, I can neither sing nor dance well.  This does not stop women at the club from telling me that I move just like Beyonce. 

When I got ready to pay Gjovalin told me to put my money away, that my coffee was on the house. That was very sweet of him. “It’s the Albanian way,” he said. “We are very hospitable.” This statement is very true, people are very hospitable, which is why I think some of my friends here get so upset when I am critical of socioeconomic issues such as racism or prejudice. When I went to speak on the television show about race last fall, some of my friends asked me if I was trying to say that I Albanians were bad or that they had not treated me well. Other people reminded me of how well they have treated me, and encouraged me to write about that in my book so that people will know. This gets me thinking about a previous post on the dangers of telling a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us. You see, I first think that large generalizations can be problematic, about any group. But more so, just because I may be critical of social relations, or of discrimination, does not negate hospitality. Albania and Albanians do not have to be labeled one type of way. So my quest is to tell more than one story. We’re all humans, we’re all multidimensional. I am trying to capture that multidimensionality with my ethnographic studies, as best as I can. This does not mean that I am without bias either, which is why I often invite conversation and dialogue (bashkebisedim).  

The ways to tell a story

I know that was a rather long winter break hiatus but I’m back to Albania and back to blogging.  I just recently finished a novel by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and have since become an instant fan of her work.  Reading her work about race and belonging was truly inspiring, and I only hope to be able some day to articulate my writings have as well she does.

I began more searches about Adichie’s work and came across a Ted talk that she gave several years ago entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” I am sharing a link to the talk below, and encourage all of you to have a listen when you can.  I feel that it is very relevant to my work here in Albania, as I somehow try to ethnographically capture the stories of the people and places here.  Now I know that for those of us that are anthropologists or social theorists, we discuss these topics regularly, but I do not think that these conversations occur enough in non-specialist realms.  For example, for my master’s thesis I did a lot of research on travel narratives about Albania and the Balkans, many of which have painted a one-sided picture of Albania for the world to see.  These narratives have often been over simplifications of people, of culture, and of history.  Many of them are also filled with prejudiced and offensive language, particularly the ways in which Albania has been constructed as Europe’s other.  A scan of some of this literature reveals how the danger of the single story operates, and continues to shape both people and places, as these stories are often told more regularly than those that present multiple views and voices.

The Danger of a Single Story

 

As always I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

The Hunger Games – Albanian Style

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Last week I went to my friend Mrs. B.’s house for lunch. Those of you who have followed my blog before might remember her. We met over five years ago and began what were supposed to be Albanian cooking lessons.  These “lessons” soon turned into once a week meetings where she would cook for me, and I would eat. She liked to do all of the cooking. I often say that she’s the best cook in Tirana — she really enjoys food.  Mrs. B. does not know much English and at that time I did not speak much Albanian. Over time, however, we began to communicate more and more, and eventually became close friends.  I started going to her house more regularly, sometimes for meals, other times for tea or coffee.  Her husband had passed away shortly before I arrived in Tirana that year, in 2008, and her kids both live abroad.  As I did not know very many people in Tirana at that time, we were good company for one another. 

Last week when I went over for lunch, her great-niece Arta was at the house visiting with her toddler.  I have Arta for a few years, and hers was the first Albanian wedding that I attended. Now I was at the house that day for lunch but Arta insisted that she only stopped by to say hello, and to bring her son over for a visit.  As I sat down at the table, Mrs. B. instructed Arta to join us to eat.  Arta said that she was not hungry.  At this point, the hunger games ensued. 

Mrs. B: Arta, hajde (come)! Come to the table.

Arta: No, I don’t want anything. I’m not hungry. We already ate.

Mrs. B: Don’t have shame, come get food.

Arta: No, I swear to God, I have eaten already.

Mrs. B: We have lots of food. Look at all this food.

Arta: No, in God’s name, I have eaten. I ate at home.

Mrs. B: God will give us more food, please, come and eat.

Arta: No, thank you, we both already ate just now at my mom’s. 

At this point, Mrs. B. sits down and passes me the soup.  She says to me, “Te befte mire” (bon appetite) and then the two of us start eating. I find mysef playing this game often in Albania when visiting someone’s home but I was shocked at this display because I have learned that when someone involves God and says something like, “For God’s sake, I have eaten,” usually people back off a bit.  As I watched Arta playing with Mrs. B., I started to think about my mother’s visit to Albania in 2009 when Mrs. B. kept putting food on my mom’s plate even though she was not eating fast enough.  She kept insisting that my mom eat more and more food.  Over the years I have tried to figure out how to play this game better; how to be grateful for someone’s hospitality and kindness but also convey that when I am full or not hungry, I really mean that and not out of disrespect.  My other friend’s mom frequently tells me not to be ashamed, or not to be anxious, that I can feel free to eat at their house. I always respond that I do feel free, truly, but that I am not always hungry every single time she sees me.  This friend’s mom has known me almost six years and she still does not believe me.  She is really good at playing this game. 

Mrs. B. and I kept eating. After we finished the soup, we started with the salad.

Mrs. B: Arta, please, for God’s sake, have some salad.

Arta: No, no, I do not want any.

Mrs. B: Look at how beautiful this salad is, how fresh these tomatoes are. Please have some.

Arta: No, thank you. I already ate. We ate at my mother’s right before we came here.

Mrs. B: But your son, doesn’t he want to eat?

Arta: (looking at her son): Are you hungry?

Toddler: No (his answers were all simple).

Mrs. B. looks away, feeling rather dejected. She starts telling me stories about WWII, and about the German invasion of Albania.  She recounted stories of her childhood, of communist Albania, and stories about her husband.  Our typical conversations. We began eating the stuffed peppers.

Mrs. B: Arta, look how beautiful these peppers are. They are so delicious.  (She looks to me as though I am supposed to help convince Arta to eat. I intentionally look away. I’m not getting involved).

Arta: Yes, I see, but I promise, I’m not hungry.

Mrs. B: Don’t promise in vain, there’s no reason for that.

Arta: I already ate.

Mrs. B: If you don’t want this, I can make some pasta. How about some spaghetti?  Or some potatoes, I can make potatoes.

Arta: No, I don’t want any. 

Mrs. B: But what about this meat? I got this from the butcher, he’s the best butcher in Tirana. It’s so good, so tender.

Arta: No really, I am fine. 

Shortly after this exchange we began wrapping up our meal. Arta’s son was running around playing on the phones and we were all discussing a recent news story out of Durres.  At this point Mrs. B asked me if I wanted mountain tea.  I told her that I did.  She then looked to Arta:

Mrs. B: Arta, do you want tea?

Arta: Okay, yes.

Mrs. B: Shyqyr! (Thank God!). What about a mandarin, do you want some fruit?

Arta: No, I do not.

Mrs. B: What about him, does he want any?

Toddler: (reaches out hand for mandarin)

Mrs. B: Shyqyr! (Thank God!)

 

Checkmate: Mrs. B.