When you find yourself living in a new environment–particularly one drastically different from where you previously lived–it’s really easy to slowly, subtly acquire traits that mimic what you see around you without even noticing it. Because I live in Albania now, I have started to “become Albanian” in many ways: the way that I cross the street, the way I order at restaurants, the way I walk, the way I look (i.e. WEAR ALL THE LIPSTICKS), but especially the way that I communicate. However, a lot of these habits are not only things I would never do in America but behavior that is bizarre or even rude back home. So, if and when I move back, I’m in for lots of dirty looks and funny glances:
1. Finger wagging: Developing this habit is an absolute necessity here. I first discovered this when I started catching furgons from my training site to our hub city. Drivers would pull up to me and yell, “TIRANA? TIRANA?” and I would yell back, “JO!” (“NO!”) But the driver would keep asking “TIRANA? TIRANA?” I witnessed this happening with Albanians, and instead of replying verbally, they would simply raise their index finger and wag it in a sassy back-and-forth motion. The finger wag doesn’t just mean no, it means “NO. MOVE ON WITH YOUR LIFE.” And sure enough, every time I wag my finger, whoever is bothering me turns away.
2. “Tsk”-ing: In addition to the finger wag, there is a little clicking noise Albanians make with their tongue that is a substitute for “no.” It is a little less intense than the finger wag, but is still a denial. A finger wag paired with a “tsk” means “NOT A CHANCE, BRO.”
3. Constantly interrupting/talking over others: My students are really bad about this and I try to discourage them from doing it, but while you can take a teenager out of Albania, you can’t take the Albanian out of a teenager. In many cases, you can’t get a word in edgewise if you’re talking to an Albanian person unless you cut them off or just attempt to speak louder than they are. So, unfortunately, I’ve had to adapt and start yelling over others’ voices in crowded rooms and during heated conversations or be forced to remain silent.
4. Lack of please’s and thank you’s: Albanians tease me all the time about how overly polite I am. It’s a dead giveaway that I’m a foreigner. If it’s a simple transaction, like ordering a drink or paying for a furgon ride, Albanians tend to skip the pleasantries and simply say, “macchiato” with a short glance at the waiter when they want a coffee, or “merre” (“take it”) when they’re ready for the driver to collect their money. I actually don’t mind this habit so much because I think we overuse pleasantries in America, and here in Albania when someone says “thank you” to me, I know that they are genuinely expressing gratitude.
5. Shaking my head “no” when I’m trying to say “yes”: People I’ve Skyped with have noticed this. In Albania, shaking your head from side to side means “yeah, I get it,” instead of nodding your head up and down like we do in America. This movement is so natural for me now that I don’t even notice it anymore, so when I’m listening to an American in person or abroad via video chat describe how to deep-fry a turkey or whatever, I’m rapidly shaking my head as they’re speaking. Not because I’m opposed to deep-frying anything that has the potential to be deep-fried, but because the American in me is very, very lost.
6. Snapping at waiters: Over half of the time I spend out and about in Albania is in coffee bars with friends and colleagues. Once you order a drink and it is brought to you, you’re lucky if you’ll ever see the waiter again. If you want to pay the bill and get out of there, you have to act like a snob and snap at him to get his attention. I feel like I’m some stuck-up wench in an old movie when I do it, but at the same time it’s kind of a nice break from the contrived, over-the-top, tip-pandering service culture in America. (How about just paying people a decent living wage, guys???)
7. “EY!”: I’m not sure if this is something only people at my site do, or if it’s the case with all Albanians, but my counterpart is REALLY good at it. To get someone’s attention, especially in a hectic situation with lots of distractions, people just grunt, “EY!” at each other. I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve begun to do it myself, of course, particularly when I’m in class. Sometimes I’ll accidentally do it to an American, though–either another Volunteer or a friend or family member online–and they stare at me in shock, offended by my crassness. Oops.
8. Cutting in line: This is one Albanian habit that still makes American Me ABSOLUTELY CRAZY even though, like the others, I’ve been forced to adapt to it. One of my least favorite things to do is paying my bills at the post office, because the guy there is really mean and makes fun of my Shqip, but also because there’s about ten people there at a time and they all just shove their way in front of you no matter how long you’ve been standing there waiting. The more time passes and the more people cut me, the feistier I get, until before I know it I’m throwing a poor old gjyshe to the ground so I can slip the utility guy my booklet between the elbows of two men griping that they haven’t received their invalid allotments yet.
9. Staring at people who look different: When I first came to Albania, I was appalled by how many people–men in particular–shamelessly stared at me everywhere I went. I could feel their eyes on me at all times, and for about a month I was terrified and intimidated by it. That was before I learned, however, that 1) it’s normal for men to stare at women, however unfortunate that behavior may be, and 2) it was largely because I was new in town AND I looked super American with my backpack and my Merrell sneakers and my Nalgene bottle. Nowadays, because I’m so used to everything here and everyone is more or less used to me, I find myself doing the exact same thing when I see somebody who sticks out! On a coffee date with a friend, I might spot some tourists and burst out: “SEE THOSE PEOPLE OVER THERE?!! They’re wearing backpacks and hiking shoes! Do you think they’re American?! Do you think they speak English?!” And we watch them go by, whispering excitedly, as the foreigners shake their heads and say, “Albanians are so rude, staring at us like that…”
10. Asking overly personal questions the first time I meet someone: I kinda hate myself for developing this habit. When Albanians first meet you, one of the first things they want to know (other than “Why did you leave America to come to this God-forsaken place???”) is if you’re married, engaged, have a “lover,” or single. It’s totally normal to climb into a furgon, sit next to the driver, and have him ask you, “A je e martuar?” (“Are you married?”) before he even knows your name. Sometimes it’s because they’re interested, sometimes it’s because they want to set you up with someone, but most of the time it’s just because they’re curious. (Imagine how much easier this would make dating in America: you go up to somebody at a bar and ask, “So, what’s your deal? You engaged, or what?”) I once met a woman who works at the Town Hall in Kavajë, and during a lull in conversation, I asked her, “So, are you married?” She then looked at the ground and muttered, “No.” And yeah, I hated myself a little bit for it, because all I could think about were the times when ladies at church would ask me if I had a boyfriend.
I’m already dreading having to re-integrate back into America. RPCVs say that the reverse culture shock is harder than leaving your home country and integrating into a new one. Some days I simply say that I’ll just never leave. But then I remember that there’s bacon, central heating, and orderly lines at the post offices in America and it seems a whole lot more appealing.