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So far the process had been normal. Nothing unusual. Nothing different. No wild animals running around or criminals escaping from the police. The pipe-lined procedure of arrival and baggage collection were normal. I had been lulled into a sense of normality, until I walked through the doors and saw the scenery which was...well...anything but normal. It was as if I had stepped out of the Tardis and landed in a different dimension.
There was that unique welcoming aroma of a different life and land, with bare fields stretching out for miles. Houses, small wooden shops and broken stands stood lonely in scattered parts of roads and fields, placed randomly.
Yet this lack of order did not seem to matter to the Albanians; they were in their habitat, selling wild fruit and vegetables.
The shouting and laughter, that to a stranger would've seemed rude, was acceptable here as communication. Market-goers would understand the intentions behind the flamboyant lingo.
Mingling with the chatter coming from the scattered buildings, the market created a harmonious din situated amongst long wide rivers that flowed and divided lands and crazy drivers that seemed to live in ignorant bliss about road safety. Through all of this, the tall, wide mountains stood proudly in the distance. This was what was normal for them.
The wild babble of conversation from relatives - a language that was unfamiliar after a decade - grabbed my attention, as I struggled to remember and become accustomed to its new rhythm and pace. The unfamiliar code was like the beat of a new heart given to a dying patient who re-learns the use of an organ.
This was my home. This...was Albania.
How can you describe the feelings of returning back to the place you used to once call 'home'? Now it's merely a strange collection of bricks and mortar standing in a void between the ageing trees and the ever changing town surrounding it.
Did it always feel this...old and lonely? Did it always look so distant and separated from the rest of the busy town?
An answer was impossible but perhaps in the light of day the building would expose its secrets to us.
Despite its alien appearance, upon entry, it unveiled sights and sounds that had been locked away. The rooms panged of familiarity.
I recognised a traditional balcony, extended to give the family more freedom, with a small round table and two chairs facing towards the dark sky.
The building opened up to me upon exploration, evoking images of a large family gathered in the front entrance of the coffee shop. Small tables with chairs filled the space. Drinks and food spread out like a banquet amongst them. A little girl with oval glasses, wearing a white dress and hat, stood by the bar taking a few sips from her prized beverage that was held firmly. It was enough to cool her in the blazing summer evening that was enough to stifle Homo sapiens. The laughter at her antics filled the patio as the glass was carefully removed from her hands and placed back on the bar where it had sat moments before, with heads shaking in silent amusement. Her enthusiastic desperation to acquire the beer was taken as a sign of 'growing up'.
I felt myself returning back to the present with a gasp of air upon being transported back to a different age and era.
My bed was still by the small window, from which, scanning from a Northerly direction, the magnificent views of Maja e Papingut, Mount Korab, Tomorr and the unforgettable Valbona Valley mountains flashed into view behind the giant pine trees and white painted bars. I couldn't help but wonder at how beautiful the scene was in the moonlight.
After settling back into my old roots, I thought I was at home, until I ventured out into the town of Elbasan.
They're a funny collection of objects, Zebra crossings, traffic lights and road signs. You don't appreciate or respect them...that is until you're placed in the middle of no-man's-land with no safety. The main difficulty lies in crossing roads without beginning an intimate affair with the gravel.
Many Albanians didn't seem to notice the danger. After all...this was normal for them.
I experienced a typical Albanian incident that to a British pedestrian would have been alien. Imagine you and your mum are crossing the road. Remember, no road safety, so she's moving you from side to side, stopping cars like an experienced traffic policewoman.
The painstakingly quick spurts required to reach the other side are laughable. It's like crossing a river with crocodiles or sharks...not a road.
'Thank God!' a policeman appears: a knight in shining armour in this bloodthirsty torrent. They do have road safety after all. Thank the Lord I was wrong!
Unfortunately, God works in mysterious and this may be the reason why quite often Albanians say Zoti para, ti Prapa ['God first, you after'].
In the midst of confusion, our saviour, far from aiding our survival, decides he needs a lift - probably back home for a quick shower and nap - so flags down a taxi and whistles away. That's it. That was Albanian law and order.
After eventually crossing safely, a fishmonger confirmed that this was...again...normal to them.
Land of Language
In Albania, the language was their own. They could treat it as they saw fit. The international greeting 'hello' of the taxi driver was an effort to show that he knew something more than from his own universe, knew something of the wider world.
When one hears the English language spoken by the natives of a foreign country, it's hard to laugh at them or even begin describing what one feels when one sees their struggle. You can only attempt to make them feel more comfortable. The most interesting thing that I noticed in Albania were the varieties of English.
The people from the north spoke English in a stronger and deeper voice, with a tone similar to that of German speakers, whereas those from the south spoke in a softer tone, reminiscent of the Italian or Spanish.
The people in the middle of the country spoke, with some difficulty, as they thought the English must do. However, they were mistaken. Far from being Received Pronunciation, their accent was more pronounced than any other region, but was also softer in tone. It was more like the Canadian or American English that one hears on TV, possibly an attempted impersonation of Hollywood...I think.
Regardless of the way, shape or form they spoke, they tried to communicate with me through my language. That, I believe, is the most important thing. Some people experience going abroad and meeting others who rebuff them because they do not speak their language. In Albania this was not the case as Italian, English and German were accepted. Another thing that I learnt in my stay was the Albanians' passion for languages. So many of them took great pleasure in borrowing words and transferring them into their everyday speech. It was not forced, nor were there pressures to learn other tongues. It was the simple motivation of enjoyment.
In terms of the Albanians' own language, the most salient thing is their use of metaphors. Their language is full of metaphors. Seriously, it is! One of my favourite ones was Ke rÑ‘nÑ‘ nÑ‘ dashuri me malet ['You have fallen in love with the mountains']. This is to say that when one becomes lost in their own universe, one loses touch with reality. This is certainly a metaphor I can now relate to.
The Albanian language also contains some interesting proverbs such as Një gur, s'bën mur ['One stone cannot build a wall']. This proverb brings some interesting points of language into focus, as in another dialect it is written Nja gur, s'ban mur, with the 'u' sound becoming long and the 'ë' changing to an 'a'. This is one example of dialectal variation, subtle changes which characterise the language of the different regions.
So, that is the end of my travel diary so far. I hope you enjoyed it and that you will be able to join me in my next instalment as I continue to further my knowledge of life and language in my native country.