For those of you who didn’t know, yesterday was my birthday. This is not some sly plea for attention or gifts in the mail (but if you were so inclined my address is literally “the american girl in Shkoder, Albania”) or facebook posts, I promise. But I would like to take this opportunity to make a small cultural comparison of how we celebrate this wonderful day of the year here in Shkoder and back home in D.C. (please feel free to extrapolate that to Albania at large and whatever U.S. city you are from of course).
In the U.S. birthday parties a chance for your friends to prove their love for you by either a.) throwing you a spectacular surprise party, b.) buying you expensive gifts, c.) baking cakes for you, or d.) bursting out in song whenever they see you to cause general embarrassment and sheer enjoyment as they make fools of themselves singing “Happy Birthday”. I knew things would be a little different this year, seeing as how I live in Albania and everything, but honestly a lot was the same.
The new generation in this country is slowing bringing Albania into the global communal culture that is spread through the internet, social networking, and modern media outlets. Aka a lot of things they do and want to do here are the same as teens in America. So at midnight I got a phone call from my students telling me to look out my window. Ok, that may sound creepy but it was actually endearing. They had snuck into my family compound with champagne and cake and candles and were singing Happy Birthday at the top of their lungs. I’m sure you can imagine the smile on my face.
The next day at school people shouted “Happy Birthday!” at me whenever I walked by and they started singing every time I walked into a classroom to start the lesson. All wonderful things, mind you, and very similar to my past American-style high school birthdays.
The main difference between how these two cultures celebrate birthdays, is that in Albania your birthday is a time for you to shower your friends with gifts, not vice versa. I’m trying to be more Albanian, so I brought a huge cake to school and served it to the teachers in honor of my birthday. That’s right, I stood behind a table and served them rather than the other way around. Then some of my students wanted to go out for coffee with me (for which I had to pay, of course) so I happily obliged. Then another group of students wanted to do the same. How could I say no? Then all the teachers wanted to go to dinner with me (again, for which I had to pay) so I obliged to that as well. It’s amazing how quickly your birthday becomes all about other people, right?
But I genuinely didn’t mind. These people have given me everything this year. They have made this experience so incredible I can barely put it into words. The least they deserve is a free coffee. And in their eyes, it’s actually an honor for me to buy them a coffee. No exaggeration. People here literally argue over who will pay the bill at the end of a meal and take real pleasure of paying for everyone at the table. It’s a competition of sorts to see who’s the most generous and most respected (for example, when having coffee with the principal of our school we always “let” her pay)..and I’ve yet to buy so I guess I’m way over due.
In America I remember inviting as many people as possible to birthday parties so that you could get as many gifts as possible. Now I feel ashamed when I think about it, and for good reason of course. Albanians are just so much more giving, and I’ve learned a lot from them. American birthdays are all about honoring you but Albanian birthdays are all about honoring the people around you instead. I’ll take it.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”