My life has changed dramatically since this time last year. A year ago, I was prepping for a trip to the Dominican Republic as a representative of the University of Georgia. I researched only Spanish related linguistic questions and was so consumed with school that I barely had time to eat. I dreaded the trip there and felt trapped by my scholarship and award money, instead of proud. I felt forced to do research that did not interest me using a method I did not approve of and with equipment that was not appropriate, all of which put me in danger and made me feel abandoned by the institution who was funding the research.
When I arrived in Juan Dolio (about 30 km east of Santo Domingo), I realized that although my accommodations were more than enough, my research would be near impossible. Where I was staying, my race, apparent wealth, clothing, accent and research equipment were dead giveaways of my foreignness. No one would talk to me and I had no car to go anywhere else. Everyone was either suspicious of why I was there (being a woman on my own) or they figured I must have made a mistake talking to someone of a lower class. Either way, I was completely shut out of every-day Dominican society and my research came to a screeching halt.
After a few days, I had given up on talking to anyone in my building. The guards, lawn maintenance and cleaning personnel shied away from me and it was made very clear that they felt that they should be seen and not heard. By trying to interview them, I was committing a social faux pas that put their jobs in danger. I was being treated as a queen, but I had never felt so alone, so undeservingly elite or so uncomfortable in my life. I knew nothing of the town, had no idea know where to go for anything, had no one to go with and did not dare do it alone.
One day, I resolved to walk the beach for as long as it took to find someone I could talk to. I figured it was safer than the streets and I was going to do it during the day. I had given up carrying around my equipment as interviewing someone upon meeting them was not the social order of things. Meet and greets were necessary in order to secure research participants.
I consider the next decision I made the decision that changed my life. As all beach walks begin, you go left or right. I consciously thought about it for more than a few seconds, contemplating what I knew of the town and which way would be safer. I walked a few paces to the left, got a strange sensation, did an about-face, and decided on the course that led me straight to the Albanians: due west.
As I walked down the beach, the landscape alternating between trash piles with rummaging stray dogs and beautiful million dollar condos with manicured lawns complete with beach chairs and fluffy cushions, I realized that the Dominican Republic was a complex place. I either saw the very poor or the very rich and neither group wanted anything to do with each other or me. When I spotted two boys in the water about 100 yards in front of me whose skin was too dark for a rich Dominican and too light for a poor Dominican, I got excited and walked faster, hoping they would not leave. It turned out to be E and E, two Albanian boys who had lived in the United States for the past 10 years or so, but who had been living there for 6 months, which explained the tans. When I approached, they introduced themselves and we talked a bit about why they were there and where they lived in Juan Dolio. We exchanged contact information and I walked back home feeling instantly less depressed. However, since I had been so miserable and desperate for research, I had already contacted people and reinforcements were on the way to assist me. The next day, I was whisked off to Santo Domingo by friends of my family, who finally helped me complete my research in a safe way (by offering themselves up as test subjects).
After finishing the research in Santo Domingo, I returned to the beach to enjoy the last 5 days of my trip and hopefully try to record some Dominicans speaking who were of a lower socioeconomic status. I met up with the Albanians and quickly became good friends with them. They were foreigners in this foreign land, yet they had been there long enough to know their way around. They also knew a lot of locals and I was determined to talk to them. I immediately enlisted their help and we started doing more research. They took me in as one of them, treated me with respect and taught me how to play cards and dominoes Albanian style. They told me where to get the cheapest water and how much I should be paying for it. I found out that I had been paying upwards of 4 times what I should.
I started picking up Albanian right away because M did not speak English. I realized the meaning of Albanian loyalty one night in a bar when a group of men suspected me of being DEA, CIA or an undercover cop. Things got very tense and I was physically threatened, but E and P immediately got in the middle and started trying to reason with the men. M and E were right behind them and calmly pointed for me to get out of the room. After a few tense moments, it was all over. In no small terms I owed them my life.
I left the island in awe of it, the Dominicans, the Albanians and myself. I realized that I had spent my entire life learning about people who learn about languages instead of learning them myself. It felt so good to be immersed in another culture and to learn by experience instead of by books. I resolved then and there to quit my PhD and start my own business, write and explore the world on my terms.
I returned to the island in August to continue researching and filming educational videos. My friends were still there and so I enlisted their help with my projects. They were my proverbial cameramen, co-stars, bodyguards, tour guides and drivers. I studied Albanian at night and drove around looking for things to film during the day. I returned to Atlanta a new person and began my new life.
Since then, I have read a substantial amount of books on Albania and have been shocked by what I have learned. To say that the history of Albania has been misrepresented historically in the United States is an understatement. I gobbled up information on politics, culture, food, dance, music, religion, language, geography and history. I began speaking to friends of friends, expanding my network, to try to understand the Albanian experience which was seemingly so complex.
What I found in my search uncovered the tip of a huge iceberg. Albania is the most mysterious land I have ever studied. Its people embrace foreigners with the warmth that was reserved for travelers in medieval times, yet they quarrel violently among themselves. They tolerate more than three major religions in the country, but feuds between neighbors in the same town are not uncommon. Albanians are secretive by nature, for their own protection and survival, but they are open and loving friends. It is only by the sheer stubbornness and ferocity of the Albanian people that they even have a country to call their own today. The country they have does not even encompass all ethnic Albanians, as many live in Kosovo, Montenegro, Greece, and Macedonia. The Albanian language is one of the oldest and closest surviving relatives to Proto-Indo European, the mother of most Eurasian languages, including English. Most importantly, the Albanian experience has been traditionally passed on orally. A standard script using Latin letters (as opposed to Greek or Cyrillic) has been in use since 1908, so any writings before that time are not standardized and therefore difficult to read.
Every Albanian I have met has an amazing story to tell. So many people have left Albania in search of a better life or to escape Albanian blood-feuds, which make Shakespeare’s Montague-Capulet dispute look like a child’s playground fight. I want to write these stories down. I want people in the United States and Europe to understand Albania in a different context. Behind the intimidating exterior of an Albanian is a deep love of his/her people, his/her country, his/her language and above all his/her family. Because Albania is the poorest country in Europe, more Albanians actually live abroad than at home. Due to the fact that almost everyone emigrates, or wants to, most Albanians are at least bilingual, adding mostly English and Italian to their linguistic repertoire. Despite long distances, time zone differences and excruciatingly long periods of separation, Albanians persevere and work together to give their family (and friends!) a better life than they had or currently have. On paper, this is nothing unique, as many people migrate and send money home. However, I can tell you that the Albanians do it with a special flare. Maybe it’s the menacing flag, with the black eagle so boldly sprawled across its red background. Maybe it’s their intensity or loyalty or kindness that intrigues me, but I really do not care. This feeling I cannot explain what has inspired me to write a book about immigration experiences of Albanians all over the world.
So for all of you who keep asking me: “why Albania?”, here’s why.
If you want to read other things I’ve written about Albania, visit my other blog about music and culture. Specifically, this article on the 100 year anniversary of Albanian independence and this article on understanding Albanian hip hop.