Eye contact. Smile. Speak Shqip. Repeat as needed.

A language school in Boston is named after Noli

By Marie Notcheva

Jet-lagged and jacked up on caffeine, this morning finds me answering interpreter services’ emails and breaking into the kashkaval and fiku reçel stash I brought back with me from Albania. I arrived back at my apartment last night (praise the Lord for teenage sons with drivers’ licenses to pick one up from Logan Airport!); and managed to unpack. Already this morning I have interpreted for a lengthy Bulgarian medical call….and it felt gooood to be back in a language I’m confident in!

(Side-note: Why did I bring a bag of makeup and eyebrow tweezers to camp in Albania? I always do that. It always stays at the bottom of the suitcase.)

My primary purpose in going to Albania was to serve at AEM’s English camp, held every summer for Albanian teens; staffed by British and Albanian volunteer counselors. I have been through a painful several years, and due to recent events in my life I was dealing with a lot of emotions I wanted to escape when I arrived at camp. I am still trying to process what God did through my time at camp – which was very different from what I had experienced in prior years – and will want to write an introspective piece on the spiritual ramifications of that week sometime soon.

However, today is not that day.

After my eleven days at camp, I returned by myself to Tirana (where I had spent three days before camp re-connecting with old friends). After a seven hour bus journey, I disembarked and decided to make the most of it…as a tourist….in a (somewhat) unfamiliar city.

This time, I went it alone. With confidence; a sense of humor; a limited budget; and even more limited command of Albanian. Oh yes I DID.

My Rule of Thumb

There is a Rule of Thumb to getting along in Albania, (or, I suppose, most other places where you are a tourist and do not speak the language well):

Make eye contact. Smile apologetically. Preface your sentence with, “Më falni. Nuk flas Shqip mire, por….” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Albanian well), and then launch into whatever it is you wish to get across. Your mouth, unfortunately, cannot keep up with your brain; while it all seemed a simple matter to conjugate those verbs in kohë e kryer e thjeshte (simple past tense) while doing ushtrime in your textbook, I promise you it is another matter when you are nervously standing before a complete stranger; and you need help, advice, or simply directions to the national museum.

However, never fear!! This is the Secret of the Smile. In my experience (four brief trips to various parts of Albania), people there are friendly; extremely patient with your faltering linguistic attempts; and will actually encourage/compliment you on your efforts. Grammatically speaking, there is very little that will not be forgiven if you smile and are willing to laugh at yourself. (Of course, close friends will correct you and the mild embarrassment will help you to remember the correct way to say something. And if ever you forget to laugh at yourself, they will be happy to laugh at you. Get used to Balkan bluntness). Statistically speaking, there must be a few rude and/or negative people in Albania. All I’m saying is that I have never met them.

Eye contact and friendliness will get you far, my friends……..but there is one exception to this rule:

The Tirana Bus Station.

Until this week, I had always been dependent upon local friends to help me navigate the transport, although I had embarked at camp down in southern Albania and had a straight seven hours on board this time. When I got off in the blazing city heat, I had only two thoughts on my mind: strong Balkan coffee; and avoid eye contact with the taxi drivers who swarm the exiting passengers. This is where my Independent Albania Adventure began.

This photo does not to do justice to the chaos of the Tirana bus station.

Taxi Driver: “Taksi, Zonjushë?”
Me (looking away): “Jo, jo.”
Other Taxi Driver: “Ku po shkoni?”
Me: “Tualet.”

(Hey, seven hours on a bus. I wasn’t joking. This also bought me some time to gather my thoughts and get a coffee.)

Me (entering bus station café; smiling and making contact with waiter): “Mirëdita. Kam nevojë për kafe, ju lutem. Një kafe e madhe…..dy kafe në një gotë, po të duash?”

(I was aware that I accidently switched from polite to informal “you”, but I really needed that coffee and the waiter didn’t seem to mind. He smiled indulgently; I got my coffee. Score, baby!).

Thus fortified with caffeine, I ventured out into the Taxi Driver Madness once again, with my Tough Girl game face on. (Just kidding. I don’t have a “Tough Girl” look. I am many things; but “tough” is not one of them.) However, having lived in Sofia, Bulgaria years ago, I’ve learned to fake it around taxi drivers (as a side note, previous years’ experience has taught me that Tirana taxi drivers are much more honest than their Sofia counterparts. I have never been ripped off by anyone in Tirana, and they tell you the price upfront.)

Here we go again……..

Taksi, Zonjushë?”

I explained that I was going to the American Hospital II (the one corner of Tirana I’d gotten to know well); and asked about the price. “1000 lek” (about $8). I sigh tiredly.

“Eshtë i shtrenjtë” (“it’s expensive”). Taksi driver shrugged and held up seven fingers. “Mirë. 700 lek.”

Check out my bad-ass negotiation skills, y’all!

It got better…..during the drive across Tirana, Taksi Driver ignored the painfully obvious fact that my Albanian was quite poor, and indulged me in a (mostly one-way) conversation about the Ottoman Turkish domination of Albania…which, to my delight, I was somewhat able to follow. After a week at camp which was almost totally in Albanian, my listening skills had improved ever-so-slightly (as had my confidence). I found that smiling and just opening my mouth with the children was appreciated; they laughed but mostly with delight at hearing “Zonja Maria” string basic sentences together, or practicing the imperative mood: “Afroni! Nxitoni! Ejani!”

Gjyshë the Key Lady

Once at the American hospital, I confidently strode down the street and rounded the corner to where I had seen a “Hotel” sign. “I’ve got this,” I told myself. The previous week, I had successfully found and purchased a half kilo of figs, (that elusive delicacy Albanians take for granted until they emigrate abroad) from a grandfatherly street vendor. Looking him straight in the eye and apologizing for my poor command of his language, I smiled winningly and walked off with my prize. He called after me, something about money….I had given him too much money and he was trying to return some. (My math skills are even weaker than my Albanian skills). I decided this time to ask how much a room cost, and to make it clear I wanted one room, with one bed, for two nights. YES, I had been paying attention in lessons! A small office was in the courtyard of the 2-story building, inhabited by an elderly lady in a black dress and apron eating her lunch.

Starting with my usual eye-contact-apologies-for-butchering-her-language-coupled-with-big-friendly-smile, I slowly stated my case. “Gjyshë” (“Grandmother”), like everyone else in Albania, was extremely patient with my explanations and wanted to know where I was from and how many kids I have. She, evidently, has a sister in Detroit and the room for two nights was 3,000 leks ($24 USD). That’s $12 a night; hey, I’ll take it!

My room at Tirona City 

After recording my name and passport number in an ancient-looking ledger, she gave me the key and led me upstairs to a room which, blessedly, had enough hot water in the boiler for a nice, long shower. Gjyshë re-appeared a few minutes later with freshly-ironed sheets for the bed, and a towel right off the line. She instructed me to lock the door, which I deduced mainly from sign language; and helpfully pointed me to the café across the alley when I inquired about the wireless password. (The gentlemen working at the carwash next door to the café actually gave me the password. Boom! Free wifi; Albanian-style.)

“Friends” Bar

Friends in Tirana…But first, let’s take a Selfie!

The 90’s sitcom “Friends” is so insanely popular with the 20-something generation in Albania that it has given rise to a coffee-bar of the same name. Since I met buddies there before going to camp, it seemed a logical meeting place – close to the Center and well-known to people in the age bracket of most of my friends (what is it with me and 20-somethings?) I texted a young friend of mine and had a lovely afternoon chatting at “Friends”. An added bonus is that as with other local cafes, the “Friends” staff understand the need for “kafe e madhe”. As an American, I have a weakness for large coffees – put two small ones in the same cup, please. There you go: “Big coffee”.

One thing about Albanians, although they smile back and appreciate the good-faith effort with their language, is that they rarely plan ahead and plans change on a moment’s notice. I am learning, along with my 19-year-old daughter (who has friends in Bulgaria afflicted by the same condition), not to take it personally and go with the flow. Prior to my traveling to Albania, several friends had made specific plans to meet me in Tirana when I came (none of whom were actually anywhere near the city in August; some weren’t even in the country). Not wanting to inconvenience anyone, I had decided to stay in a hotel the previous week at camp – and was glad I did, upon returning to find everyone out of town.

Not that solitude is a bad thing, mind you – I had had a wonderful time with several close friends two weeks prior in Tirana; followed by a week and a half sleeping in a tent with giggling teenage girls. I was happy to spend a night wandering around Tirana’s center by myself; window-shopping and cheese-shopping. Balkan yellow cheese, or “kashkaval”, is an expensive weakness of mine…..and both sheep’s milk and cow’s milk were available. I realized then that my headache was probably hunger-induced, and braved a fast-food stop.

The Importance of Food…

Wine. Cheese. What more do you need out of life?

Except….I wanted them to wrap up a sandwich for me so I could take it back to the hotel and eat it there. I couldn’t remember if “to go” is best explained by saying “me këmbë” (“on foot”) or “për shtëpi” (“for home”?), but I tried both and elicited both a smile and a “s’ka problem!” from the cashier. Feast intact, I headed home to Tirona City hotel.

Of course, having lived (somewhat) long-term in Bulgaria, the comparisons are inevitable. In an interview done two weeks prior, my online Albanian teacher Elson asked me what some of the similarities and differences are between Bulgaria and Albania. Of course, the language is the biggest difference (Bulgarian is a Slavic language; related to Russian and Serbian; whereas Albanian is a completely separate Indo-European tongue which shares only a few Turkish loan-words with Bulgarian).

…and national identity

There are many more similarities. The infrastructure and architecture of Tirana is reminiscent of Sofia; the food is remarkably similar (although with less cumin and pork than in Bulgaria); and the penchant for asking personal questions seems to be a Balkan thing.


As a neophyte in the language, I have noticed a significant cultural difference between the two countries each of the four times I’ve visited Albania: Bulgarians note you are a foreigner; dismiss your attempts to learn ‘their’ language; and, with some exceptions, generally try to exploit you. Albanians do the opposite: they see you as a guest in their country; patiently indulge your attempts at ‘their’ language; and encourage you to keep at it.

This difference in attitude extends even to national identity.

Typical exchange with Albanian:

“How do you like Albania?”
FOREIGNER: “It’s a very nice country; very beautiful!”
ALBANIAN: “Yes, it is! We have some beautiful beaches here. Have you been to the seaside?”
FOREIGNER: “Yes, I enjoyed it very much.”
ALBANIAN: “Oh, I am glad! And do not miss seeing Berat. It is on the UNESCO list. Beautiful city with much heritage.”

Contrast this with a Typical exchange with Bulgarian, some version of which I have had many, many times over the past 25 years:

“How do you like Bulgaria?”
FOREIGNER: “It is a very nice country; I like it very much!”
BULGARIAN: “Why? It’s awful here.”
FOREIGNER: “No, it isn’t. It attracts much tourism to its ski lodges, and Black Sea resorts. Why do you say that?”
BULGARIAN: “We are a very poor country. Those guys betrayed us. We are the poorest country in Europe.”
FOREIGNER: “But…but….everyone seems to be well-dressed here. The cafes and restaurants are full….everyone and his brother drives a Mercedes….you can’t be that badly off!”
BULGARIAN: “Yes we are. It’s a terrible place; we are all starving and we all need to leave to work somewhere better. Bulgaria sucks.”
After such an exchange, is it any wonder that no one would appreciate one’s efforts to learn their language; insisting only upon English? Once one is safely out of Sofia, eye contact may, indeed, be made; attempts may be more appreciated – but memories of my 21-year-old self being degraded while attempting to speak Bulgarian made me nervous to even try here.

Football Jerseys and the Bazaar

My fears were in vain.

Have you ever been to an Eastern European outdoor bazaar? You can buy anything from plumbing supplies to dental floss there – usually knock-off brands at low prices. I spotted soccer jersey/short sets I thought my boys would like, and took the plunge: Smile. Eye contact. State case. Hope for best. I was short on leks and long on dollars, so I had to ask where to exchange money (without actually knowing the verb for “to exchange”. I’ve since learned it. It is “këmbej”). Since it was early on a Monday, Soccer Shirt Sales Guy escorted me across the street to his friend’s television repair place; but his friend lacked sufficient leks. Alas, I had to go to the official change bureau – during which time, Sales Guy wrapped up my chosen shirts. All was well until later that day…when I unwrapped the outfit, and realized with horror that it would be far too small for my 13-year-old son.

Full-scale panic set in.

How can I exchange it for a bigger size?? This is not Walmart; this is an Albanian street vendor! I thought. What to do…what to do? There was only one thing to do. Return to vendor; smile; state case; hope for best. A woman was there, as it was already afternoon, and I took a deep breath.

“Më falni…nuk flas mire Shqip. Mëngjes, e bleva kete veshje. Eshtë shumë e bukur! S’ka problem,” I reassured. (“I’m sorry….I don’t speak Albanian well. This morning, I bought this outfit. It’s very nice! There’s no problem.”)

Now Elson’s lesson on superlatives kicked in – far different when you’re trying to exchange an item, in 100 degree heat, with an actual Albanian salesperson, than in the air-conditioned comfort of your office when listening to a lesson.

“Problemi është….djali im është më i madh. Kjo bluza është më e vogël….gabim ishtë i imja.” (“The problem is….my son is bigger. This shirt is smaller. The mistake was mine.”)

The saleswomen understood immediately, wagged her head, and said in Albanian (something like) “You want a larger size? No problem.” To say that I was relieved is like saying that the Grand Canyon is a hole. I almost couldn’t believe it….and, no doubt a mother herself, the lady assured me “better a bit bigger than a bit small.”

Correct-sized gift in hand, I went on to the Center, where I was to meet an American missionary couple and travel to a meeting with the publisher of “Ilira”, an Albanian Christian magazine for which I write. I got a bit disoriented trying to find the correct street of the meeting place (The Stephen’s Center), and asked a kindly-looking woman who ran a souvenir kiosk for directions. “Djathas? Majtas? Ose drejt?” (“Right? Left? Or straight?”) I asked, complete with hand gestures. Souvenir Lady recognized me as having bought a doll from her the previous week (for my little girl), and asked me how old my daughter is.

I finally found The Stephen’s Center, right where I remembered it to be…..and watched David Hosaflook exit before six Mormon “elders” (wearing long trousers and backpacks in the sweltering Tirana heat) left the café and took off down the street. Grr. Mormons. Too busy to engage them in a debate, I made it to the meeting and learned I was expected to take on a more editorial role in the magazine’s production. Dream come true? In a beautiful country, six time zones away from where I live. Just….wow. Kathy Church, the current editor of “Ilira”, gave me a precious gift: a textbook she had authored to help me improve my Albanian!

I will learn, and I will speak…with confidence! 

Leaving Tirana

My final night…what to do? After answering several emails, a friend and I decided not to meet up as he lives a half hour away (by taxi) from where I was. I enjoyed the time I had left alone; ventured out; braved a fashion boutique by myself where I bought shirts for my older daughter. (In Albanian. And yes; the shop clerk was patient and polite!) So was the vendor from whom I bought spinach byrek in the morning. Sometimes a little encouragement is all you need to gain confidence enough to open your mouth and talk.

And receive smiles in return.

An hour left in Tirana, Gjyshë calls her grandson who lives up the road, and just so happens to drive a taksi. Very concerned for my physical comfort and well-being, she neither lets me carry my own suitcase down the stairs (Hello?? I’m in my FORTIES. You’re in your EIGHTIES), nor lets me make up the bed with the sheet. We wait together, and entertain some small talk. Gjyshë wants to know what I do for a living (I’m an interpreter); and if they pay me well (they do).

“How much per hour do they pay you?”

My last half-hour in Albania, and finally someone pops the question.

I would have been disappointed if she didn’t.

Balkan people are endlessly fascinated by how much other people are paid, and I assume it only made her day to know my hourly rate of compensation! Off to the airport….she assured me that her taksi driving relative would be happy to accept dollars, and would give me 500 leks change. (Which I used up on Kinder Eggs for my children at the airport.)

The last words spoken to me on Albanian soil were from the baggage check-in woman, who complimented me on my Albanian…..and smiled.

It costs nothing to smile. It may make someone else’s day, and it goes a long way towards helping a foreigner feel like a welcomed guest in your country. Thank you, Shqiperia. Jam e çmendur pas teje!

Skanderbeg Square. The National History Museum is fascinating. 

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