Wow – when my academic mojo gets going, my blogging really slows down. Last week was a good work week. This week I’m going to try working on potty training again so will probably not get any work done.
I’m really excited because we got invited to a wedding! People have been telling us for ages that Albanian weddings are a Big Deal. The hotel we stayed at in Vlora hosted a wedding party one night while we were there. It was very loud, and lasted all night long. Luckily the one we’ve been invited to will take place while my in-laws are here visiting so we have built-in overnight babysitters! We’ll actually be able to put the kids to bed before we go.
I bought a second-hand gown for $15 and now just have to find a slip to wear under it, and a shawl or jacket to wear over it. I have shoes and jewelry. I’ll probably get my hair done. Considering how nicely Albanian women dress just to go out for coffee or to go to work, I expect the bar will be pretty high for a wedding.
I’m also thinking I might try to lose some weight – kind of laughing at myself because I keep hearing this Romy and Michelle dialogue in my head:
Romy: So all we really need are better jobs and boyfriends!
Michelle: Yeah! But wait. If those things were so easy to get, wouldn’t we already have them by now?
Romy: Well we never really tried before. I mean, we never had a real reason, like a reunion, to motivate us. And I hate to say this, but I really think we should lose some weight. [Pointedly removes a Dorito bag and half-eaten Dorito from Michelle’s hands]
Michelle: [under her breath] Ok so it was only like one chip. And it wasn’t even a whole chip.
I love that movie.
I left the house in a hurry, Gimli practically shoving me out the door as he took over putting the kids to bed. I had dithered over what necklace to wear – the first time I have worn jewelry at all, other than my wedding ring, since Oscar was born – and finally chose a paua shell pendant I picked up in New Zealand on our honeymoon, that I used to wear a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I had swapped out my ballet flats for low heels, my usual funky-ethnic-embroidered shoulder bag from Mongolia for a grown-up black purse, and had on my nicest dress (a sleeveless turquoise-colored cotton with an empire waist and cleverly hidden openings for nursing a baby); the paua shell was a gesture towards my hippie persona and an identity anchor because dressed as I was, I hardly felt like myself – or, at least, I felt like a version of myself that I haven’t seen in such a long time I scarcely recognized her.
So I was running a little late.
It didn’t matter; Zana – one of the many women my husband works with – was running even later since she had to cross the city to drop her kids off at her mom’s house before meeting me downtown. So about an hour later we were sitting at an outdoor café with a beer (her), a red wine (me), and a plate of sliced apples watching the full moon rise over the Blloku – former restricted zone under communism, now the focal point for Tirana night-life – talking about our lives.
It was really, really nice. Zana was easy to talk to – her English is excellent, and she tolerated my lame Shqip very kindly – I joked to Gimli later that he’s going to get really sick of hearing me begin every third sentence for the next few weeks with “Zana says…” – and it was just fun to be out late at night. Normally it’s not even within the realm of conceivability for me to leave the house after 7 p.m. and here I was out past 10:00! But Tirana’s such a small town in some ways – Zana’s younger brother buzzed by on his motorcycle at one point, and later came to pick us up in his car (it was nice to get dropped off at home instead of having to walk alone late at night, even though it wasn’t far – maybe 5 minutes’ walk? – it would have felt silly to take a taxi for such a short distance). It was exhilarating to dash across the street in high heels, slightly tipsy, after being dropped off – I felt young.
I have another friend date pending for next week with another of his coworkers, Irina (who is currently going through a divorce – oh the awkwardness of knowing more about people than you probably should because of office gossip), and a girl’s night out with some American women on Tuesday evening. So it feels like my dance card is pretty full at the moment.
It’s a nice feeling.
I’ve been trying to write this post for, like, ever, and it’s not truly complete – I’m sure I’ll circle back to this again – but this is part of the friends puzzle that I’ve been pondering in my peripatetic life.
I’ll start with the confession that sometimes it’s hard for me to stay motivated to make friends in Albania, knowing that we’re here for a relatively short time – but at the same time, two years is far too long NOT to make friends. I do have one good friend – our nanny, who is a lovely woman a few years older than me, with two teenaged sons. She has worked for missionaries for years and years (that’s how I found her – recommendation from another American woman she works for part-time) and so although she doesn’t speak English, she’s adept at speaking very simple Albanian and at deciphering what I’m trying to say in my broken attempts at her language. She is generous, compassionate, kind, caring, and funny. I love her, and I already know it’s going to be really, really hard to say goodbye to her when we leave. She loves my children without reservation and they love her.
But it is kind of weird that the best friend I have here is someone I pay to come to my house. Occasionally money has become a source of friction, but not very often – it’s just really, really awkward when it does.
So far, the other friend options I’ve found have been either through Gimli’s work, or through the church we attend (and there’s some overlap between the two, since one of his co-workers introduced us to the church to begin with). There are three American women in particular who have little children who have been friendly towards me. One lives very close, less than a block away (she just had a baby). My main reservation in building these friendships has to do with the persistent feeling of hypocrisy that haunts me – not theirs, mine! All mine. I feel like I’m living a lie in letting them think I believe the same things they do. I was raised in this tradition, but I no longer believe a lot of it – although I do consider myself a Christian, I don’t believe that Jesus is the only path to God, or that homosexuality is a sin, or that God answers prayer. And I vote Democrat. So I know that all those things would be points of contention – and I don’t know if they’d still want to be my friends if they knew that. (Ummm… I’m not assuming all my readers here agree with me on these points either, so I’m hesitant even here to disclose these facts about myself, but I probably won’t feel as rejected if some of you stop reading/commenting than if some of the women here started to give me the cold shoulder – not that they would, but that’s what I’m afraid of, I guess.) There’s really only one woman I feel enough affinity for here that I’d risk being open with her about these things anyway, I just haven’t pursued it, because, also, isn’t it kind of lame to only make friends with other expats??? I haven’t made overtures towards the Albanian women I’ve met at church because they all work outside the home, so our schedules don’t really mesh, and they’re even more conservative even than the Americans. Like I’ve been shocked and repulsed by some of the things I’ve heard them say.
I’ve been hesitant to make overtures towards any of my husband’s more liberal, intellectual Albanian coworkers in part due to shyness, and in part because of the same working-mom/SAHM dilemma (language is not an issue since they speak English quite well). But I did bite the bullet this week and e-mail two of them about getting together for coffee and now I have a “friend date” at 6 p.m. tonight, which is not typically what I’d be doing at 6 p.m. but heck, it’s Friday, and the kids will survive supper with the nanny for once in their lives. So… hopefully I’ll be able to develop some kind of a social life here before we leave… just in time to cut ties and move again. But we’ll process that later, I guess.
…is good. But wow, it’s work, isn’t it?
Just got back from a lunchtime sit-down with Gimli, ostensibly about vacation plans but with ramifying, as these things do, into what is becoming familiar territory around our shifting roles, perspectives on child-rearing, and general approaches to life.
So, easy stuff.
I’ve often said that every time we fight it’s the same argument over and over again in different guises; I still think that’s the case, but I’m understanding more deeply what is implicated in that argument. It’s really some basic personality differences – differences that make us a great match, but also cause friction. Isn’t that always the case? For us, it’s how each of us responds differently to stress – I get still and quiet like a rabbit (freeze), while he starts giving orders and trying to control the situation (fight). So he gets mad that I’m not doing anything, and I get mad that he keeps telling me what to do, because it makes me feel like he thinks the situation is my fault.
Right now the stress in our life is by and large good stress – the children, living abroad – these are good things in both our books – but he’s frustrated with me because he feels like I’m not fully plunging into life in Albania, and I’m frustrated because he keeps wanting to run around and do all this stuff – big family excursions – and keeps pushing me to be more social. The running around part makes me feel like he doesn’t care about the needs of our little ones, and the social part – well, it’s just scary for me with my social anxieties. I also end up feeling defensive, like how am I not good enough/doing enough for you???
So we needed to talk things out, and I feel like we understand each other better now. We also made a few minor decisions (like, no big family excursion until my in-laws come to visit in about 3.5 weeks, and he’s going to start trying to come home earlier in the evenings), and that feels a little bit better too. The sucky part was I ended up crying in the middle of the restaurant where we met for lunch. And I lost a good hour of work time. But hopefully overall this will help maintain domestic harmony.
When we were dating, we both read a book titled Two Years Before the Mast – a memoir from the days of sailing ships, written by a Harvard student who for health reasons worked as a lowly sailor and visited California when it was still part of Mexico. Gimli and I both marveled at the descriptions in the book of the tedious work sailors had to do, like scraping the rust off of chains or tightening jibs, and we made it a metaphor for our relationship. You have to do the small maintenance daily – at least weekly – to be storm-ready. I did a counted cross-stitch of a sailing ship that we hung in our bathroom at home in the States as a reminder to do this.
We were due for some good jib-tightening. It’s not fun, but it’s better than the alternative.
Read part I here.
The next morning before dawn I heard running feet outside my window. Something small and light flew in. Startled, I sat bolt upright in bed, then got up and looked all around on the floor. There, underneath the bench that sat pushed up against the wall was a folded-up 100-peso bill. I felt like crying.
I was eating breakfast and drinking coffee, wondering what to do next, when Roberto Centeno suddenly filled up my open door, leaning in. “Good morning,” he said. Centeno had married into the Maigua family, who together controlled a good 15 percent of the land in San Rafael. This year he had been elected president of the community, a role he seemed to fill with plenty of himself left over.
“Good morning,” I replied.
“So what happened? Who stole your money?” he demanded, sitting on my bench, looking stern.
“I don’t know. People think it was Betty or Marina. But this is really strange—I asked Betty yesterday if she took it, and she said no, but I said that if she did, I wouldn’t get her in trouble, if she just gave it back.” He frowned, and I went on. “Then this morning someone threw this in the window.” I held out the folded-up piece of money. That was enough for Centeno.
“Well, that proves it, then!” His loud voice filled my small room. “They had to have taken it! You told Betty yesterday to give it back, and here it is! No, no sir. I won’t be having this kind of thing in my community. We can’t have these kinds of people here. We’re going to demand that they give it back, all of it. Not just what they have left, all of it, or we’re taking her parents to the police.”
My heart sank, and I wished desperately that I had said nothing to Centeno at all. That they had tried to give what was left of the money back was enough for me, and that this attempt to rectify matters actually sealed their fate, broke my heart.
“No, not the police,” I pleaded. “Let me go talk to the parents myself.”
“No, no sir,” he repeated. “This needs to be taken care of right away.” He got up and I watched anxiously through the window as he strode towards the schoolteacher’s house.
Seriously distressed, I went out after him, pulling the door shut behind me. I arrived as he was explaining his plan to the schoolteacher, who was already pulling out a typewriter and scrolling blank paper into it.
“No, Doña Ely, we can’t just let this go,” said the schoolteacher to me. “Don Roberto is right. We need to sue her parents so they give back the money—they have to learn to control their daughters better. Those girls are trouble! I asked Marina, you know, where she got that money for the school fees—I don’t trust her one little bit.”
“But just let me talk to her parents first,” I said. “Why do we need to get the police involved?”
“We have to scare them!” said Centeno. “They’re stupid illiterates! They’ll never listen if you just talk to them! You have to show force!”
I was beginning to figure out that these men were not going to listen to me. So I went to find Octaviana.