Smoking in Albania is a little out of control. I don’t think this is something unique or special about this country, but it’s definitely something that affects me on a daily basis. Believe me, when I lived in Madrid it was just as bad, but bare with me while I relate this awesome story of cigarettes, classrooms, and women power. It’s gets good eventually, just wait for it.
Okay, so during the summer I must have somehow forgotten or ignored the high quantity of cigarette smokers in Shkoder. Probably because I spent the whole day outside where the smoke doesn’t stagnate and soak into my lungs, hair, and every fiber of my clothes. But during the winter, all the bars and restaurants close their outdoor seating and I’m forced to remain indoors to thaw out my fingers while sipping on my macchiato. And because it’s so cold outside, most places keep their windows shut tight and don’t let fresh air in or smoky air out. All in all, this makes for a pretty abrasive coffee drinking experience for an American who is used to people having to stand 100 yards away from the entrance of a building or public space before lighting up their cigarette. I never realized how much I appreciate that law or the public shaming of smokers until I came to a society that does the exact opposite.
In fact, there is a “no smoking inside” law in Albania, but like most laws here it is not enforced in the slightest. Which makes for some pretty ironic, head-shaking moments as you enter a bar covered in no-smoking signs that are barely visible for the smog of cigarette smoke billowing around them.
So anyway, I started writing this post about smoking because the greatest moment happened at school the other day. We have this makeshift teacher’s lounge where everyone gathers in between classes to regroup and gossip. Now this might shock you as much as it did me when I first started teaching here, but smoking in schools is not exactly rare or frowned upon. Teachers walk up and down the hallways with lit cigarettes in their hand on a regular basis. And all too often the teacher’s lounge is full of people quickly getting their nicotine fix in between lessons.
Even though I find it outrageous that in a place of education where people are supposed to be enriching their brains, we are filling their lungs with toxins, I’ve never said anything. I just try to sit by a window and hope that after 2 years of second-hand smoke I don’t go back to America with lung cancer. Unfortunately, the dangers of cigarettes and second-hand smoke are not very well known to Albanians and many people chalk it up to superstitions not medical facts when I say smoking will kill them.
But back to my story. So this one day, a female teacher and close friend of mine had just had enough. She walked into the teacher’s lounge and said “Ugh the air in here is terrible. Why do they smoke in here?!” And then the greatest thing happened. She a wry smile appeared on her face, she walked over to the ashtray sitting in the middle of the room, winked at me, and quickly hid the ashtray where no one could find it. Not a minute later the vice principal (side note: he’s one of the biggest smoking offenders of the school) walked in. “Where’s the ashtray?!” he demanded (another side note: he spends most of his day patrolling the halls and yelling at people for no reason so this was not unusual behavior). She turned to him and said “Do you see that sign on the door? There’s no smoking in here. So you don’t need the ashtray.”
The whole room immediately got silent. All the teachers stopped talking, turned and looked at her with terror in their eyes, fearing what the vice principal was going to say to her in return. He immediately started screaming in Albanian and I only caught pieces of what he said, but it wasn’t nice. She didn’t back down though. She refused to show him where she had hidden the ashtray and insisted that he stop smoking in the teacher’s lounge. I couldn’t help but smile awkwardly as she said (on her own accord without my prompting) everything I’d been thinking for the last year and half.
And then it got even better. Much to my surprise, another female teacher quickly chimed in and came to her rescue. “That’s right! No smoking! We don’t want the smoke in here!” And for the remainder of the 5 minute break, I sat there with my eyes wide open and my jaw on the floor as these teachers unleashed on the vice director and shamed him for smoking in the teacher’s room. It was a beautiful thing to witness. When the bell finally rang he huffed and puffed and stormed out with the unlit cigarette dangling from his fingers.
Granted, I don’t think he got the message because his response to their onslaught was “Well you guys wear so much perfume that I can’t breathe so you can breathe this smoke!” First of all, what?! How is that a comeback? Second of all, perfume doesn’t kill you. But whatever, totally beside the point. Ironically I’ve given up on wearing perfume in Albania because the stench of cigarette smoke has seeped into every item of clothes and every strand of my hair that it’s just not worth it. But I’ll kindly kept that opinion to myself. Anyway, until the ashtray magically reappears it looks like he’ll be keeping his smoking to his private office and away from the rest of us.
I’m so proud to work with such forward thinking and strong women who can stand up for their rights. They are the reason I love my job and think this country has a bright future ahead of it. If you’ve been following along with my posts for the last year you’ll understand how intense it is for a woman to stand up to a man, let alone a man who is a director and a solid 30 years older in a position of authority. So it looks like I’ll be breathing easily for the last 5 months of my service in Shkoder. Bravo ladies, bravo.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”