The other day I was having coffee with my counterpart and her mom when the topic of communism came up. Don’t ask me how, I couldn’t even begin to explain the twists and turns our conversations take. You all know how it is. Regardless, I left that coffee in complete disbelief. I’ve heard so many different stories about communism and Albania during the 50 year rule of Enver Hoxha (dictator from 1944 until his death in 1985) that I didn’t think anything could phase me. It kind of felt like high school history lessons about the Holocaust in which I’m just too far removed to understand the reality and too jaded or desensitized by History Channel specials. But what really got to me was hearing stories of the day-to-day life of Albanian citizens, who I know so well today. Putting a face and a name to the facts makes all the difference in the world.
The fact that they all survived this harsh communist dictatorship and are thriving today continuously astounds me. And makes me a little more sympathetic to the cultural nuances and oddities that confound me. It really does make me appreciate the struggles of these people and this country and cut them a little slack instead of jumping to conclusions and judging to quickly about why some people call them a “backwards country” or a “developing nation.” These are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. True survivors.
Back then, families had rations for everything. The state decided how much they should eat and when. My counterpart’s mom told me this story-
She remembers waiting in line starting at 3am to get a loaf of bread and a carton of milk once a week, because if she got in line just 30 minutes later everything would be gone by the time it was her turn. That’s how desperate they were for food. So she waited. And waited. And waited. Each week she was given a ration of 10 eggs to feed her family of four. She would divide the eggs into the yolks and the whites so she could give her kids the yolks and her husband the whites. And she went without. Once a month she’d get a ratio for 100 g of coffee (just to think that I drink that in a few days probably), 1 kilo of meat, and 1 kilo of cheese if she could manage to find a store that carried it. And that was it.
She jokes that we Albanians “looked like we were living in Ethiopia or something” compared to what you see today. Everyone was skin and bones because there wasn’t enough to go around. Imagine a government starving its own people. For 50 years. The government decided when they would eat, what they would eat, and how much. It decided where the would work, when, and with what salary. It decided where they would live and what they could decorate their house with. She laughed to herself and she describe the couch in her living room. Every single person across the entire nation had the same couch. The same rug. The same table. The same chairs. They were given them by the government without a choice and without options.
It’s stories like this that give me so much respect for all the old men and women walking the streets of Albania with their heads held high. They still dress in the traditional clothes and they often still go to work the same way they did under communism. What else can they do? They don’t know anything else.
So I’ll be damned if I judge them ever again for being stuck in their ways or overly traditional and difficult to work with. They’re strict for a reason. They question my intentions for a reason. They are protective of their families and their traditions for a reason.
There are very few places left in the world where you can talk to people from each generation who have suffered through such a communist dictatorship and come out the other side. So stop and listen to their stories before it’s too late and the memories are gone. They have a lot to tell. And we have a lot to learn.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”