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