Friday, July 11, 2008

What's in a Name?

Rember Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction? He's changing clothes in the back of the cab with the Colombian beauty driving after having killed his opponent in the boxing ring. Their conversation goes:

BUTCH: ...Esmarelda Villalobos -- is that Mexican?
ESMARELDA: The name is Spanish, but I'm Colombian.
BUTCH: It's a very pretty name.
ESMARELDA: It means "Esmarelda of the wolves."
BUTCH: That's one hell of a name you got there, sister.
ESMARELDA: Thank you. And what is your name?
BUTCH: Butch.
ESMARELDA: Butch. What does it mean?
BUTCH: I'm an American, our names don't mean shit.

That last line always runs through my mind when I talk about names here in Albania.

When I first arrived, I noticed was how foreign so many of the names appeared. OK, Albanian is as foreign language to me, but I kept being suprised by how strange and unpronounceable the name appeared in print. "Ylli?" How the hell do you say that? What's with all the X's?

Then I started to hear people pronounce the names and was amazed again. "Your Minister of Defense is really a guy named Lou Ann? And a former president (now Prime Minister) is a dude named Sally?"

After a few months of language lessons, it starts to make more sense. And, thankfully, I learn that many of the people with hard to pronounce names go by shorter versions. I meet lots of Beni's, Tani's, Sebi's, and Dini's. I also start to get curious about where the names come from and what they mean since in my country Butch's last line is pretty much accepted truth.

Lots of names come from other cultures: Ismael, Ahmet, Sebahadin and many more were brough by the Turks. Filip, Artur, Stefan, and Gjergj share the same origin as the English Phillip, Arthur, Stephen, and George. Then there's Skender which comes from the Turkish version of the Macedonian Alexander (as in .. the Great). He was half-Albanian according to some historians and Angelina Jolie. Finally, there are those names that drifted in after the country opened up like Wendy, Max, and suprisingly, Elvis.

It's the pure Albanian names that stand out most. So many of them mean something. Mira (the good), Shpresa (hope), Besa (oath), Fatmir (good luck), Fatjon (our luck), Gezim (happiness), Besnik (loyal), Flutura (butterfly), Ilir (free), Drita (light), Lule (flower), Pranvera (spring), Agim (dawn), and Bashkim (unity). "How nice," I thought, "that Albanian parents loved their children so much as to give them names reflecting the most positive aspects of life." It turns out that parental patriotism was not the only reason so many Albanians of a certain age are named Ilir.

During the communist period, there was a list of "acceptable" names at the civil registry. If the name you wanted for your child was not on the list, you had to choose one that was. The communist leadership built up on the tradition of giving meaningful names and used it to tie the people closer to their movement. As a result you can meet today with Perparim (progress), Clirim (liberation), Fitore (victory), Flamur (flag), Lavdrim (glory), and Luftar (warrior). I've heard stories of parents in more rural areas adopting this mindset so intensely that there were children named Shkence (science) and Traktor (.... I guess you can figure that one out!).

Now, as I meet more Albanians, I keep my suprise in check when I hear a new name. I don't giggle when meeting yet another man named Luan (the lion), but it will be hard surpressing the urge to chuckle when I eventually meet Traktor!

Oh, and Ylli? It means "star".


Anonymous said...

you must be kidding about Traktor right??

Thomas F. said...

Hey, nice to follow your blog. I'm a Danish dude moving to Tirana (again) this tuesday, btw.

As for the names: I will never forget the day I met my first Fatlinda. She was not obese in the slightest. But apparently, "born lucky".

traveler one said...

That was really interesting!

I like my name in Albanian-- Kimmi means 'chemistry', or so I'vebeen told!

The Meksi Clan said...

Interesting entry...

I found your blog thanks to "traveler one". I look forward to reading more regularly about your experience in my dear country. There is a freshness in the "shock" and extreme curiosity that the newly arrived foreigners in Albania express, so this should be a lot of fun. Keep asking questions, digging, diving into the culture, laughing, learning, and blogging about it.

Again, welcome to Albania (even though I am not there physically)!!!

kimi in mo said...

I am so happy that I came upon your site. I look forward to reading more when I have time. So far I absolutely LOVE your site. I love keeping in touch with Albania. My husband is from Permet and his family now lives in Tirana. I have been there twice so far and look forward to visiting more. I fell in love with the country!