With its post-Communist mentality, coupled with Turkish influence left over from the Ottoman invasion of the 15th century, Albania is much like my home country of Kyrgyzstan. As in my country, markets line the streets of Tirana where foreigners must be wary of a “good” deal. I hear the same music and catch familiar words in the language. Even celebrations are conducted in the same fashion. I feel at home here, but still a little out of place.
Living outside my country for so long has changed me. I find myself acting more and more like a westerner. This is no more apparent than when I’m walking down the street and I look up at the person walking towards me — I have to resist the strong urge to smile. You see, in the U.S., smiling is a constant. You smile to the grocery clerk, you smile to the gas station attendant, you smile to pretty much everybody you pass by, whether they be a friend or somebody you’ve never seen before. This is polite, and to not do so would be considered an insult.
Albania, however, is more like my country. Here, smiling at strangers takes on a completely different connotation — suddenly you feel the awkwardness and hear the catcalls as you pass. Women smiling at strangers is not accepted. Yet still I can’t help myself. It’s a beautiful morning, the sun is out, and the streets are bustling with people, how can I not smile? So I have to ask myself, what makes me more uncomfortable, getting awkward stares, or not smiling?
When in Tirana do as Tiranans do.