Monday, September 8, 2008


Sorry for not posting in such a long time. I was out trying on moccasins. You've heard the Native American expression "Don't judge another man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins," right? I had the chance recently.

The longer I stay here, the more I notice I am starting to have a harder time identifying with new arrivals and visitors. Their observations and complaints start to sound trivial and inane to me. I find myself listening while they talk and thinking, "What do you mean you can't find decent meat here? There's at least five good butchers in the Blloku area alone. Not another expat rant about how hard it is to communicate with the Albanians! OK, OK, I get it - you don't like the whole "shake your head no for yes and nod once for no." It really isn't that hard.

Secure in my smug sense of superiority, I went on vaction for a few days recently and found myself squarely in their shoes. That's another of the joys of living in the Balkans. Travel a few hours and you are in an entirely new culture. New language, new alphabet, new food. My role quickly changed from savvy local inhabitant to helpless foreigner.

At the border post there was an issue with my vehicle. After trying Italian, German, and his native Serbo-Croat, the officer resorted to monosyllables of pseudo-Esperanto. "Problem!" "Problem!" I did too. Flapping my hands around and talking louder in English and Albanian didn't help at all.

Somehow I managed to get through the border and head on up the road. Then it struck again. I couldn't read the road signs. The sensation of complete helplessness threatened to overwhelm me. "Can't these people mark the roads clearly?" Through sheer luck and repeated driving around in circles in town centers I made it to my destination, checked in to the hotel, and got some rest.

A few hours later I hopped in the shower and was blessed by a rain of freezing droplets. "Shit, no hot water!" After a much-shortened and thouroughly unenjoyable shower, I marched down to reception and played indignant customer. The clerk was unfazed because be didn't understand a word I said. Or I should say he did understand the problem, I just couldn't understand the solution he was trying to explain. We trooped up to the room and he showed me the switch on the wall with all the other light switches which turned on the water heater. As he left, I recognized the look in his eyes. "Silly foreigner, stop bothering me with your inane problems. Everyone knows enough to turn on the water heater when they arrive."

To be fair, I actually had a great time. Lounging on the beach. Exploring the old cities and new attractions. Getting the feel of a new culture. Listening to music which, while different, still carried the influence of past Ottoman domination of this part of the world. There were other moments when the sense of foreigness intruded and I reacted like a true tourist: internal panic followed by avoidance then a diatribe against the local practice. As I returned to Albania, I had a sly little smile on my face.

I had learned again the meaning of "culture shock" and how strongly it can affect a traveler. I reminded myself how every traveller, no matter how experienced or jaded, is susceptible. I also learned again how it doesn't help when the locals (native or expat) pooh-pooh your reaction. After a short time wearing the moccasins of a new arrival, I promised myself I would remember how it feels to be in that position and refrain from criticizing. I'll work on my patience and my Esperanto.


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