On belly touching

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This picture is not exactly what I wanted but it’s close enough. My husband is on his way next week and I cannot wait–seriously I’m jumping up and down like a little kid who can’t sleep on Christmas Eve! Well turns out that my friends, neighbors, and even strangers cannot wait as well for him to get here; some of them may even be more excited than me.

To put things into perspective a bit, as I explained before in a few posts, many folks here in Albania have a difficult time comprehending the fact that I live alone. But living alone is just a part of it. That I would come to Albania, for “research” (remember, many people think this is just a front), and be away from my husband, and do all of this as a woman? This is just absurd. Here are some of the things that I have witnessed or heard over the past two months:

My friend Besa’s great-aunt nearly had a breakdown when she learned that I was here in Albania without my husband. She began to physically put me out of the house, telling me to hurry up and leave for the US, and finally Besa and her cousins calmed her down and convinced her that I was okay to stay for a visit. 

While buying bread, a random stranger says to me, “Oh so you’re married huh? To an Albanian? Oh, an American. Well where is he? Not here?!? Well you better hurry up and get back to him, he’s probably already with somebody else.”

Security guard at the grocery store where I shop often: “Good evening, still alone? Are you still here by yourself?” I told him that I was but that my husband is coming soon for a visit. “Well thank God, this situation is not normal, you have to change it.” 

Alright, so folks have their comments and opinions, and yes, most couples don’t do what we are doing and I understand completely when people are taken aback by this. This is not particular to Albanians. However, I will say that as a female researcher I am often criticized for doing research alone here, whether married or not. Now that I am married it has been interesting to compare the reactions that I receive to those I got before. The politics of gender and research are such that it is still more normative for men to do this type of thing. For those who may want to listen, I once gave a talk about this subject that you can find here: http://miresevini.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/are-you-here-to-find-an-albanian-husband/.

So like I said, the comments on the distance and marriage are somewhat expected. BUT, what I did not expect is the number of times that people, neighbors and strangers, would approach me and touch my belly saying, “Inshallah (if God wills it) you will be blessed with a baby boy when your husband comes.” Yes, that’s right, people touching my lower abdomen and wishing that I get pregnant while my husband is here, and in particular that I have a boy! I was surprised/confused/disturbed the first time this happened, when a street vendor, whom I’ve known for a few years, did it. But then it happened a few more times, sometimes people will just say to me on the bus for example, “Hey are you married? Any kids yet? Well may God give you a boy.” Then today, a woman from my neighborhood did it, placing her hand right on my stomach like it was no big deal–then she insisted that my husband and I have a coffee with her when he gets here. Seriously, I have seen this woman all of four times in my life.

To top it off, last week while having coffee at a friend’s place, one of my friends offered to read my fortune in the remains of my Turkish coffee. Depending on where you are in the country and what generation of folks you’re with, this is a very common practice in Albania (for more read here). Well my friend Orkida claimed to have many years reading coffee grounds, and as soon as she got my cup she said, “Hurry home now, your husband is very sad without you!” I then told her that actually he should be here soon for a visit. “Oh, good,” she said. “And now I see that soon you will be pregnant. Inshallah with a boy.”

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.

 

Grief

Grieving is a process.  My father passed away almost two years ago (22.5 months to be exact), and during this time, I have become all too familiar with the wavering emotions and pains of loss.  When I first arrived to Albania this time around, I stayed with a very close friend for a few days, a friend whose mother was very ill.  Two years ago I spent several days with this friend and her family in their village and they treated me like I was their own.  Sadly my friend’s mom died three weeks ago, and my friend has now been thrust into this deep, dark forest of grief.  I have spent many years studying anthropology, many years trying to analyze and think about this term ‘culture’.  For a good amount of the time I have focused on the unique aspects that define a place.  Many of my more recent writings have pointed to specifics of everyday life in Albania, and a search for the things that shape life in this particular place.  Sitting now with my friend, however, I am fixated upon the familiarities and similarities of grief.

Grief is heavy.  Its massive weight can inundate us.  A person’s face, smell, and laugh can linger. We remember their touch.  We see them in dreams.  We hear their calls.  As a social anthropologist, I have been taught not to generalize.  I feel like we are always looking for complexities.  So of course I feel obligated to mention that there are those societies which handle death and grief much different than in the United States.  Everyone in the world does not process loss the same.  But what I am seeing and experiencing here with my friend has me thinking about human interaction, connection, and the tender spaces of melancholia.

After my dad passed away I joined a group for individuals who had experienced the loss of a parent.  On the very first day I just cried.  And cried.  And cried.  Huge tears.  The kind that drop from the eyes of a four-year-old who has just fallen from a bike.  Tears that I remembered being wiped away by the person I longed for the most.  The group lasted about two months, and I ended up crying every time that we met.  But by the end I had also begun sharing words, something that I could not do at the first session.  The pain was very raw then, and in many ways, is still raw now.  But sharing those words helped.

Everyone does not benefit from this type of sharing, but a few days ago I met my friend for lunch and she began to share with me.  I told her about the group I participated in and her face lit up slightly.  Though hesitant at first, she said that perhaps she too could use something like that.  “But this is not our tradition in Albania,” she quickly reminded me.  My friend might be correct, in that I have never heard of this practice, this type of group therapy here in Albania, whether for grief recovery or any other matter.  Since meeting with her, I have reached out to friends here as to the types of outlets available, and while there is such a thing as individual counseling, it is not very popular.  People here do have their ways of coping.  I have already joined my friend’s family for mourning events, and there will be more as her mother is remembered in the next coming months, and later years.

I return now though, to the idea of group discussion.  I guess I am supposed to have some type of conclusion here, to wrap up this post.  But honestly I do not really have one, other than wanting to begin a conversation about loss, and about the ways that we mourn and grieve.  We all process even if we do so differently.  While my friend was quick to inform me that group discussion is not commonly practiced here, she did admit that she liked the notion.  Are there those out there who know of such practices here in Albania? Are there other people who like the idea?  What about the notion of cultural relativism?  I seriously mean that question, as many people who I have asked so far have said, “We do not do that in Albania.” And yes, this is probably true.  But my friends here, just like me and others I know, have feelings that are real. We all respond.  We all experience.  We all react.  We are all human.

I do not have any other way to end but to say that I welcome your thoughts.