My name is Ashley Wood and I’m the executive director of Albanian Voices. Our organization aims to record Albanian oral history, preserve its culture and teach others about it. Recently, we raised enough money through Indiegogo to fund a trip to Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia to research and document the Albanian culture there. I went with my Albanian-American friend and vice director of the organization, Bora Shehu. We were there one month and the amount we saw and did is incredible. As we put together a book documenting our experiences, I will release articles like these to give you a glimpse into our amazing adventures in these Albanian lands.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again: Albanians are the most mindful people I have ever met. They are constantly aware of and tending to other people’s physical needs. They will always make sure you are physically comfortable when you’re with them. They’ll ask you if you’ve got work, if you’ve slept well, feel good, if you’ve talked to your family, and how they are doing. Then they’ll make sure you’ve had coffee and if you haven’t, they’ll offer to go get one with or for you. They’ll make sure you’ve eaten, if you smoke cigarettes, they’ll offer you one and if you don’t want that, they’ll offer you gum. Albanians make sure you are happy before they even start a conversation with you.
In Albania, the concept of hospitality or mikpritja is sacred and guests are treated with a high honor. They take this concept very seriously and because of that, the generosity and friendliness that Albanians show to their guests is beyond anything I have ever seen in any other culture. One example of this is the custom with shoes. Every time Bora and I entered a home, we took off our shoes (as did everyone else). The hosts of the house would then distribute slippers for everyone’s feet. At first it seemed weird as the slippers were used over and over again for each guest, but I quickly got used to it because I needed them. Most of the floors were made of Spanish tile and really held in the cold. I had only experienced those kinds of tiles in Latin America and was shocked at how much cold they absorbed now that I was in a different climate. Luckily, my feet were never cold in Albania because I was always offered some kind of slippers, shoes or socks.
As you leave America and travel east, you will probably notice that the preference for an individualistic mentality shifts to a more group-focused one. This idea became much clearer to me on my recent trip to the Balkans. When I think of the lessons I learned concerning that mindset, only one word comes to mind: “ftoftë.”
I had studied a great deal of Albanian before I traveled to the Balkans for the first time, so I knew what “ftoftë” meant. However, even if I didn’t, I would have learned it during my first week there. “Ftoftë” means “cold” in Albanian. Since we arrived mid-November and left mid-December, I heard that word every day in one expression or another. “Është ftoftë!” they would say, or “It’s cold!” and then they would follow it up with a gesture such as shivering or wrapping their arms around their bodies to make sure I understood. I understood just fine. The problem was that I didn’t really consider it to be all that cold outside in the first place. The temperature fluctuated between 35 and 70 degrees the whole time we were there, usually hanging out in the mid to upper 40s. I would shed my layers as we came inside, even dart from one building to the next without my coat on and leave my scarf dangling around my neck, not even wrapping it around myself once. That seemed to bother people a lot.
I didn’t get it. My father is from New Jersey and always teased me that I should be tougher in the cold, especially when I was little. He’s the kind of guy who rides in his convertible with only a t-shirt and shorts in 35 degrees. Every time I said it was cold outside, he would comment that when he was a kid growing up in Jersey, (then began his whole “two miles uphill both ways in the snow” speech). My mom being from Florida would just laugh when he told that story, while she pulled out another layer from the coat closet for me. I spend most of my childhood trying to show my dad that I wasn’t afraid to be cold. When I grew up and became an adult, I married a man from Puerto Rico and then had to do a 180˚ to prove that I could keep my cool in the tropics. No matter what I do, I cannot seem to be graceful like the Puerto Rican women, who barely break a sweat, even on the hottest nights.
Before I went to Albania, I was used to fending for myself temperature wise. Fending for yourself is a concept that American culture reinforces over and over. With my childhood consumed with learning how to not be cold and my adulthood focused on learning how to not be hot, I thought my temperature lessons were complete for this lifetime. I never knew there would come a time that I would have to “over bundle up” in weather that I didn’t consider to be that cold. And believe it or not, it was through this particular cultural phenomenon that I learned a great deal of my Albanian vocabulary as well as culture.
Sometimes, we would be in situations where someone was convinced we didn’t have enough clothing on. They would either take off something they were wearing or go to their room and get a scarf, sweater or blanket, handing it to me simply and saying “merr”, or “take”. When they didn’t know me well, they would say “merrni” and that’s how I finally internalized the difference between the formal and informal command forms. Every time Bora and I were with other Albanians and we stepped outside in the cold, someone would remark “Oooooh, sa ftoftë!” or “How cold!” Another would say, “Duhet te perdoresh shalla sepse do ftofesh”, meaning, “You should use [that] scarf because you’ll get cold [if you don’t]”. I repeated the words to myself, trying to internalize the grammar involved in using the modal word, “must” or “duhet”. We would quickly wrap ourselves in scarves and coats to heed their warning, having figured out fast that if we didn’t, people thought we were literally insane.
I began to notice that in every situation where a woman (and sometimes even a man) was seen with bare arms, legs or scarf-less, that same warning was issued: “Do ftofesh”, which I came to learn, was also used as a backhanded insult when they thought the person (usually a woman) was not dressed appropriately. I even heard some people say things like, “ka [pjesë e trupit] jashtë!” or “she has [body part] outside/exposed” when someone was showing a lot of skin. Older women in particular were extremely concerned with our state of health. If I didn’t have my jacket zipped up, they would say something like, “po ftofesh” or “do merrdhitesh” or “do ngrihesh”, to warn me, following it with the quintessential Albanian nod from side to side, indicating that this information was true. I eventually came to learn that all of those phrases meant more or less the same thing: “You’re going to get cold”. I also learned that the unusual movement of tipping the head side-to-side meant “yes” or “this is true”.
In extreme situations, the older women would accompany their warnings by shoving an article of clothing in my hand secretively, as if they were passing me something contraband. It became clear that when I wasn’t properly dressed, I was actually embarrassing myself. I was giving the impression that no one loved me enough to stop me before I left the house. It wasn’t like in America where people saw it as a personal choice of mine. The women took pity on me and were sneaky about giving me clothes as a way to spare my reputation.
As time went on, I began to learn other words in Albanian as I saw this tradition extended even high into the mountains of Montenegro. Up there, they interchanged the word “ftoftë” with “krit” as Bora and I found out while hiking with a family one day through some of the most beautiful terrain I have ever seen. The custom remained the same, even when the word changed. I was learning fast that being cold was a serious concern in these Albanian lands. Needless to say, the custom was everywhere we went. People always asked Bora and me if we had scarves: “A keni shalle?” By the end of the trip, if we didn’t have them on us at the time, you better believe they were close by. Then they would ask if we had jackets or coats: “A keni xhaketa?” Lastly, (and this one took me some time to understand), I finally learned that they were asking if I wanted more “layers” when they said “A doni më shtresa” (and not if I wanted more “stress”). The answer to all of these must, at all times, be yes. Yes, you always want more layers. Just say yes.
At first I will admit that I hated it because I felt like I had no personal freedom. I wanted to respect their culture, but it was practically impossible to keep so many clothes on! I hated how in the poorer homes where there were no extra slippers for guests; the grandmothers would give me the slippers off their feet and the sweaters off their backs. I hated it because I felt incredibly guilty for not being able to reciprocate and foolish for not having planned my wardrobe better. To make matters worse, I hated that when they gave me their shoes, none fit! I have feet the size of the average man in Albania, not woman. The whole time I was there, I felt out of place and huge (except in Montenegro where everyone is so tall!). I knew that people were being nice, but all that love and warmth felt strange to me and my first reaction was to reject it. I was never used to people being so concerned with my physical well-being and I felt like I didn’t deserve their attention or love.
Not only that, but their habits forced me to examine how much I valued being an individual. At first, I hated how when we were having coffee, the women we were with would hug me unexpectedly and ask me if I was cold, curling up with me and holding my hand. It annoyed me to walk arm in arm down the street with women who were so much shorter than me because I had to modify my stride. It seemed insecure, weak and codependent to me, not to mention smothering. But then suddenly I realized something. Despite all its deserts and beaches, America is a very cold place. We value those who do things on their own, alone and solitary. America demands you stand on your own two feet, survive without support, and focus only on securing resources for yourself and yourself alone. In America, we don’t touch each other that much, so I didn’t understand how to appreciate it. I was so used to dealing with the temperature on my own that this attention to clothing and reliance on shared body heat was strange to me.
But, as the days went by, they slowly broke me down with their warm disposition. As November turned to December, the temperature dropped and it got colder and colder in the region. We bundled up and snuggled together at coffee even more. Each day the Albanian people showed me what it meant to be part of a group mentality; by sharing their clothes, food and drinks with each other and me. Even the coffee shops and restaurants had blankets for people who were sitting outside or near windows. It was incredible how many resources were available to stay warm. Much to my disbelief, as I learned to appreciate bundling up and being surrounded by people at all times, I got colder. I mean to say that my tolerance for the cold declined and I started to need the extra scarves and layers. I don’t remember exactly which day it started, but I remember that I felt like a completely different person one night in Macedonia. We were at the house of the Halimi’s; the family of a good friend of mine in Atlanta. They had a wood burning stove in their living room. By Balkan standards, it was cold and miserable outside, so I welcomed the warmth of the stove. And for some reason, instead of fearing it, I began to long for the closeness and the touch that Albanian people receive you with. I needed a family that night. At their house, I welcomed the extra sweater and the warm slippers, curling up next to the wood burning stove and listening to stories about my friend when he was younger.
Now that I’m back in America, I think back to that attentiveness of the people in all the Albanian lands we visited and it makes me smile. These days, I’m more aware of my own body’s needs and I don’t try so hard to tough out the cold. Then again, maybe it’s not so much about the physical but rather the emotional. The Albanian people taught me that it’s ok to love and to receive love. Even though by opening my heart , I take in the good and the bad, the cold and the hot, I know I can handle that cold. I have confidence that I will be warm because I have Albanian friends! And when I’m far from them, I can remember what they taught me and try to teach my friends. It’s more fun to rely on shared body heat or more layers than to tough it out in the cold alone. Part of me will always believe that it was the warm spirit of the Albanian people that taught me these lessons. I now can appreciate actions that I once viewed as smothering. Because, in Albania it just feels different. There is something eternally warming about the Albanian lands. /albanianvoices.org