Albania, a country still in transition- economic, political, moral – has managed to still hold on to many of its traditions and norms. However, many of these traditions are becoming amorphous, being reshaped and redefined with each passing day. Much like the physical country is in a physical advancement process, so are its norms. And this incomplete formality of life, physical and moral, makes the country so elusive, so difficult to define, behold and categorize. It is fluid. It is elusive. It is still as enigmatic as Edward Gibbon thought it was in the 18th century: “A land within sight of Italy and less known than the interior of America.”
Being a country in a developmental stage, the general behavior of the Albanians is also informal, though, as I mentioned, there are still strict moral codes of conduct that regulate daily life and are quite solid. Still, the infrastructure, transport, and lifestyle of the country do contribute to a kind of informality. I have been crammed on small minibuses that transport from town to town and have struck up conversations with other travelers on so many occasions. Once, the window was too open and my hair was nearly flying out; A young man on the other side just got up, smiled and muttered something and helped me close it. He didn’t say much and he didn’t feel the need to do an introductory dance either. He just did what needed to be done at the moment, without being overly formal.
Also on minibuses, I have encountered many Italians traveling to and fro, many of them visitors, some of them residents of cities such as Durres or Tirana. One day, to my surprise, I chatted with an elderly Italian couple for a good 40 minutes until we reached our destination.
The lady at the jewelry store will tell me what is ailing her or how her kids are. The girl at another store shared her financial woes with me and gave me her own perspective on life here. Yet again, another young woman was happy to share a story of hers while I was browsing for boots.
People will come to your assistance. They might offer unsolicited advice. They might tell you how you look, what you should change or what you shouldn’t, but it’s all in good will, never done to offend.
And while thinking about this informality of interaction, I realized that it is more than just a result of transition. It is a result of culture. Of having been raised informally in multigenerational families and having a wide circle of friends. Social life in Albania is one of the most developed. Hardly ever will one find a socially awkward or socially undeveloped Albanian.
Then there is the Mediterranean factor. It’s no secret that save for about 50 years of Communist isolation, Albania and Italy have had an ongoing flirtation, since antiquity. There are even physical monuments and artifacts to prove that relationship. It may help explain why Italian expats feel very comfortable living in Albania. And Albanians in Italy.
Just a couple of months ago I chanced upon a young Italian couple who had moved to Durres indefinitely and had both tattooed the double-headed Albanian eagle on their arms. I asked why. The young woman said she did it out of love for the country and the people whilst her young husband said he did it in honor of his soon to be born baby.
I reflect on all this when I think I must return to New York and I do get a little sad. I know I wont find closeness and warmth and informality in New York. And having been here for quite a bit, I am sure I will miss it and need it.
As for the definitive answer as to why all this warm informality? I am not entirely sure, but I think all the above reasons are sufficient for now. Do visit this warm, lovely place before all settles in a rigid way of life and formality. Here’s your chance to see a European society morphing into something unknown and to experience the fluidity of life before it disappears in the arms of globalization.
Among many of its historical sites – from antiquity to medieval times- and beautiful beaches and mountains, one will find a hospitable, kind people still trying to figure out where they are going yet never losing sight of kindness.