Friday, May 21, 2010


In the early 1960's, David McNeil Doren penned a line in his book The Winds of Crete that resonates with me today in Albania:

"I believe that all human beings are inconsistent, that contradiction and paradox are inherent in our nature.  In reality you find generosity and meanness in the same person; brutality and tenderness cheek by jowl; bravery and cowardice commingled."

This inconsistency, this condradictariness, is evident not just in individuals, but in the culture itself.  It surfaces in the language, the traditions, and in the very fabric of Albanian life.  On one hand the language allows for tactful conversation about subjects which may cause embarrassment.  On the other, it provides no alternative other than an expression we Westerners would consider forward or insulting.    The American concept of "political correctness" does not translate into Albanian.

Where an American would refer to a disabled person as 'hearing impaired" or as having a "speech impediment," Albanians call a spade a spade.  Someone who can't hear is shurdh, deaf.  Someone who stutters or stammers is memec.  This term in particular grates on my American sensibilities as it is the onomatopoetic rendition of the sound made by someone with this condition. " ts..ts..ts..ts..m.m.m ...ts..ts..ts."  And it's not just the ignorant masses who use the term and find it funny to mock a disability.  The satellite TV provider Albsat produced a TV commercial where a guy halts before entering the Albsat shop and rehearses his order; "Albsat Gold Card, please."  He enters the shop and draws up short in front of the very attractive salesgirl and starts stuttering and stammering before dashing back outside to rehearse again.  He re-enters and goes through the whole routine once more, "" and dashes out again.  The whole time the salesgirl smiles and laughs like he's the funniest thing she has ever seen. 

The same goes for someone who has a handicap which makes walking difficult.  Whether the result of an accident, birth defect, or disease, one who has an irregular gait is topall - a gimp. Visually disadvantaged people are corr - blind.  The sensitive Western phrase "learning diabled" is rendered as me te meta mendore, literally "missing something mentally."   To add insult to injury it is considered bad luck to see a topall as you walk down the street.  If you do, you must swipe your hand on your friend's shoulder and say "pas topallin" to take away the bad luck.  If you're alone, you make the same swiping motion to the pavement.

The best jokes in Albania are always about sex, handicapped people, or policemen.  While Americans are on board with the first and last categories, the cultural disconnect on the second category is immense.  Not so long ago in Washington, D.C., a well-known Albanian comedian launched into a famous joke about a topall, a memec, and a shurdh.  The Albanians in the audience howled with laughter while the Americans reacted as if Hitler had just told his favorite Jewish joke. 

Yet the same culture that accepts these comments has strict taboos on things most Americans will laugh at.  Just try to make a fart joke in Albania.  Goes over like a lead balloon.  Any discussion of bathroom activity is rigorously avoided.  Even in the confines of all-male environments there is no mention of bodily functions or crude bathroom humor.  If, heaven forbid, an Albanian must relate the details of their medical condition and it requires describing any emission or secretion from the body, they will talk around it or beg your forgiveness before saying the offending term:  "The trip over Qafe Krrabe was so twisty that I eventually.. pardon me for saying this .. vomited."  The sense of shame in having to enunciate the word "vomit" is palpable.  Americans readily relate this activity in graphic detail and the language has a multitude of terms which we use with abandon. "Hurl", "ralph," "blow chow," "yak"  and many more carry no social penalty.  Try describing Stephen Hawking as a "gimp" however, and it's a whole different ball game.

There is no such restriction in Albania on addressing the medical condition of others, particularly in the area of weight.  Complete strangers will remark on it.  The plumber who comes to your house to fix the plumbing will eye you up and down and suggest you need to hit the gym before getting to work on your faucet.  Everyone feels entitled to comment on your weight and give advice.  "Drink lots of vinegar in the morning."  "Buy that Chinese tea that gives you hear palipitations and insomnia." "Start smoking."

In other instances, the linguistic and cultural norms swing to the other extreme.  An Albanian won't come straight out and ask for something they need.  If you hear them say "I'm thirsty," they really mean "Bring me some water."  The rhetorical question, "I wonder what time it is?" means "Tell me the time."  These indirect expression call for immediate action on your part and if you don't deliver, you are being rude and selfish.

This contradiction between hyper-sensitivity to giving offense in some areas and being so blunt in other areas continues to amuse and amaze me.  We truly are a mass of contradictions.  I've learned to temper my reaction to "offensive" remarks by trying to understand what the term used means to them, not what my culture judges it to mean.  I've also cut back drastically on my fart jokes.


M said...

Now I am worrying that I might have said something very offensive while visiting Tirana. A thousand pardons if that is the case. Just learning the language is never enough is it. M

Tabakhone said...

I love your writings about our culture!
As of fart jokes, come to think of it, we don't have any. However, the word fart is used frequently, if not in polite society.
We say, "sa pordhe qe ka filani", literally, that guy is full of farts, but meaning "that guy is full of himself". We also say "ik pirdhu", literally "go fart on yourself" or "go become the fart of somebody else", i'm not sure. The meaning is "go away"

Danuta said...

A luscious disquisition on the Albanian national character. It is thoroughly enjoyable to read your blog. The Albanophile in me feels rewarded with your incisive and comprehensive dissection of the Albanian charm.

Beyond Belief said...

@Tabakhone: Correlates with "What a gasbag." or "he's full of hot air."... I guess those phrases say less about self importance than that the person in question talks too much, usually about things he knows nothing about.