In many ways Albania is like small town America…50 years ago. So imagine the days your parents explained to you. Those stories they told you about walking to school through the snow, uphill both ways. Those days when you could play with your friends in the street all day and be home in time for super, all without your mother worrying incessantly. You know, those days when people trusted each other and your neighbors knew you by name and the shopkeepers inquired about your parents as you walked in rather than eyeing the security cameras above your head suspiciously.
There are so many reasons why I absolutely love this country, and one of the main ones is that people here are good. Genuinely good. They’re not trying to screw you over or do you wrong. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They want to talk to you and hear every intimate detail about your life and your family. And much to my surprise, I kind of like it.
When I first moved to Albania I obviously didn’t speak the language very well. But no matter, I strutted around all the time attempting to buy things and to survive on the basic Shqip that I could speak. But the shopkeepers rattled off numbers like I’d been living here my whole life and often times I would just stare at them in utter confusion. So I picked up the habit of just opening my wallet and letting them take what I owed them. They would pass over my 50 euro bills and my credit cards and pull out a 20 cent coin, smile, and say goodbye.
And then today, I had another such experience that just reminds me how much I’ll have to get used to in the US. Back to the land of me, me, me, where people are plugged into technology 24/7 and can’t find the time to smile as you pass them on the street. Don’t get me wrong, I’m American myself and proud of it. And I used to be just like this when I live in Washington, D.C. (though I’m ashamed to admit it now).
So anyway, the story begins this morning when I took my bike to the repair shop. It had a busted tire and a rusty gear and with the school season back on, it had to happen. I’d put it off for far too long. But when I got to the shop, it was closed. No way in the world was I going to carry that thing all the way back home (couldn’t roll it obviously, because of the busted tire). So what did I do? I just left it there. That’s right. I propped it against the door and walked away, fully confident that it would be there later when I went back. After about 8 hours of walking around town, meeting up with friends, shopping, and what have you, I wandered back over to the bike shop.
I peered around the corner and didn’t see my bike. Pure panic set in. I can’t afford a new bike! They’re like 100 euros! As I got closer I realized that as luck would have it, the shop was open. Maybe my bike wasn’t stolen after all. I poked my head inside and gently explained to the repairman that I’d left my bike there this morning, did he have it? He gave me a big smile and said (in Albanian), “Yes of course! I remembered your bike. I’ve fixed it before, right?” (that was legitimately 8 months ago, but he still remembered somehow).
Low and behold, he’d brought my bike inside when he’d opened his shop, fixed it up, and set it aside for me for when I returned. Can you even imagine in a million years, that ever happening in any other modern country in the world? Not only did no passersby take advantage of the dumb American that her bike unchained and unlocked, but the shopkeep himself didn’t even think it was weird that there was some random bike outside his shop. He could have easily just left it there and went on with his day. But instead he just looked at the bike and fixed what needed fixing, and got to work without another thought. God, I love this country.
I’m so thankful to be living in a place where you feel totally confident in the people not to steal your bike that you’ve left unlocked. And to be living in a place where people remember you, and your neighbors look out for you (the man next door to the bike shop had apparently told the man that “a young blond girl” had left the bike that morning). I’m so thankful to be living in a place where people are genuinely good to each other and take care of each other.
This is country where you can walk into a store and buy things on credit. And no I don’t mean on a credit card. I mean, if you don’t have the money you can just take the things you want and come back another day to pay. And if you are 5 cents short at the market, no problem; they’ll give it to you for whatever amount you have in your pocket. I regularly have lesson plans printed at a store near my school and walk out without paying because I’m late for class. But the lady at the front doesn’t reprimand me at all. In fact, she tells the others that I’m late for class and forces them to let me cut in line for my printing! Then she waves me off, tells me to hurry before the bell rings, and later in the week when I have the money I wander back in and settle my debt. It’s a beautiful thing. Reminds me of those long ago days my parents talk about. You know, you remember when…
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”