Choosing a Language in Albania

by Ledia Xhoga

A native of Albania travels back to her home country and must choose which language to use, discovering that both English and Albanian will produce very different results.

Whenever I’m about to travel to Albania during the summer, friends and relatives invariably offer the same advice: speak English when you get there, not Albanian. The implication is that in my native country – perhaps in hopes of a better tip or because of fascination with outsiders, a remnant of the Communist isolation from decades ago – foreigners are treated better and given priority during the high season. It’s advice I’ve never followed. I live in Brooklyn, and English is the de-facto language of my life. The weeks I spend in my country are not just an opportunity to catch up with my relatives but also with the language.

After a pleasant conversation with the driver of a van service that transports people from Saranda to Himara, both cities in the south of Albania, the advice to speak English seemed especially unwise.

“Don’t worry,” the man reassured me warmly, marking our instant camaraderie with a tap on my shoulder. “I’ll find seats on the van for your family.”

The driver’s promise was better than nothing. An online or phone reservation system for those personal vans that take care of the bulk of transportation within Albania doesn’t exist. The boardings tend to be erratic, and the passengers are often forced to fight over seats.

I’d been vaguely worried about our decision not to rent a car while traveling along Albania’s coast, but navigating winding, mountainous roads with our five year old as a passenger seemed risky. For days, since riding the 30-minute ferry from Corfu to Saranda, we’d been taking it easy. Our Airbnb apartment boasted expansive views of the Ionian waters, glittery and blue, speckled with the white of sail boats and yachts. We had eaten out every meal – plentiful breakfasts, lunches of decadent seafood salads and fresh fish. We’d indulged in Birra Korça, Italian chardonnay, syrupy desserts, and mid-day naps. Lulled into serenity, neither of us was ready to summon the vigor that driving through Albania required.

The area from where most of the vans departed was near Saranda’s bus terminal, a no-frills building on Flamuri Street. A travel blog had mentioned that the ruins of a synagogue from the 5th or 6th century AD were on that same street. I wanted to get to the station early. My husband, wanting to see the two mosaic pavements the article mentioned, insisted on a detour. But the seven-branched candelabrum, the citron, the ram’s horn, and the animals from Biblical lore were nowhere to be found. They were hidden, it turned out, covered by a layer of sand, for their protection. It was that exceptional case when burying something extended its life, but it did make me wonder if other, more accessible conservation techniques existed.

The ruins of a synagogue from the 5th or 6th century AD in Saranda, Albania

When we got to the van, a group of tourists, most of them young European travelers strapped to large backpacks, had gathered around it. It would take two or three vans to accommodate everyone. I checked my verbal reservation. “You must have talked to my cousin,” the man I’d spoken to the day before said, having forgotten our conversation. To his credit, when the eager crowd encircled the door, he reached toward me, hindering the other passengers with his body and allowing us to enter. Perhaps he remembered our conversation after all, or he helped us because of the child.

My son got on first and ran towards the back of the van. The heat stopped me in my tracks. The temperature outside had reached 97 degrees that day, but it had to be hotter inside the van. Every window was sealed shut. The only ventilation came through the van’s open door.

“Look, mama!” my son said excitedly, lifting up one of the seat cushions.

The seat’s multicolored pattern didn’t distract from its grime. Most of the seat cushions, we discovered, wiggled in place. But this wasn’t a time to be picky. More backpackers were pouring in, eager to catch a ride. A drenched-in-sweat Brit, realizing I spoke Albanian, asked if the driver could turn on the AC.

“The AC is broken,” the driver told me. “But don’t worry, we’ll leave the door open during the trip.”

I interpreted this to the crowd. Visions of our crammed van with its rickety seats and opened door, maneuvering through treacherous roads with no guardrails, appeared in my mind. Judging from the look on everyone’s face, it was an image shared by others.

“That’s not what he said,” said a voice to my left. Startled, I turned to look at the woman contradicting me in front of everyone. Perhaps the heat had gotten to me. What had the driver said? The woman moved away from the door. The breeze brought me back to reality. Since all the seats were taken, I realized the woman had been planning to stand during the drive.

“Do you speak Albanian?” I asked.

“I don’t speak Albanian. But I understand it. And that’s not what he said.”

The rest of the passengers appeared confused and darted glances from me to her. Which one was telling the truth? An Albanian expression came to mind — not only did my donkey die, but now I had to contend with the flies.

“They’re keeping the door open. You shouldn’t stand there,” I said to her as I motioned to my husband. “We’re getting off.” 

The van driver, busy getting even more passengers inside, looked betrayed.

“Why are you getting off? You had seats!”

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We headed toward the station to check if there was a bus to Himara. An energetic man who emphasized his gym teacher looks by wearing nylon shorts and a tank top was standing in the street shouting.

“Buses to Himara and Vlora. Go inside for tickets.”

He didn’t look like an employee of the company, but he had to be. Why else had he taken it upon himself to exert so much effort for something that a simple sign could have accomplished?

“Go in,” he ordered and pointed to the station, which consisted of a single, utilitarian office. Dazed tourists all stood in loose lines, patiently awaiting their turn. A single employee was jotting passengers’ names on a quadrant notebook and dispatching tickets from a roll.

“Can I get a ticket to Himara here?” I asked him.

“To Himara? No. We’re busy.”

“But isn’t this the bus station?”

“It is.”

“Where do I get the tickets then?”

“Go wait for the driver outside. He might have some.”

The man in the street continued to shout, “Himara! Vlora! Go inside for your tickets!”

“They won’t give me tickets,” I told him outside. “They said to wait for the bus driver.”

The man flushed angrily. It crossed my mind that he might slap me. “The man inside the station has the face of the pig and the brains of the pig,” he yelled. But he calmed down quickly.

“Tickets to Himara and Vlora,” he called out zestfully. “Go inside to buy them.”

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Another tourist, a German perhaps, came out of the office holding a bus ticket. Unaware of her good fortune, she was annoyed. “I’m going to Himara, but I paid the same as if I’m going to Vlora, which is twice as far.”

Did they give her the ticket because she had spoken in English? Had my relatives been right? 

I spotted my husband and son in the distance. They had befriended a French couple also going to Himara. They proposed hiring a cab, which cost 1,000 lek each, a fraction more than the van and the same as a bus ticket to Vlora.

In the cab, the driver was attempting to communicate in English. Wanting to withdraw into vacation tranquility, I almost pretended to be a foreigner.

“Your voice is different in Albanian,” remarked the driver. “Deeper. I’m glad you’re Albanian, so we can chat a bit. Two nights ago, I drove three young women to Pristina. I was supposed to drop them off in the city center, but it was late. I have daughters myself. So, I dropped them off at home. It turned out they lived in different places, far away from each other, in the suburbs. Then my phone wasn’t working. I got lost. Ended up paying for a hotel room and for another driver to show me the way out of town in the morning. Didn’t make any money at all.”

I’d read somewhere that having a second language is like having another soul. And souls, like plants, needed nourishing. The sounds of the language offered some comfort, making that earlier absurdity somewhat worth it. Then, my son fell asleep on my chest, and nothing could be heard beside his breathing and the humming of the air conditioner.

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