They were yelling now. It hadn’t taken them very long. I could never tell whether they were on the verge of whipping out the brass knuckles, just arguing, or simply expressing themselves in eager vehemence – each straining to be heard, one over the other. I sat at the table, quietly shoveling food in my mouth as I observed my host family delve into some topic, heretofore unknown to me. It was as likely to be about something as menial as the next door neighbor’s toothpaste preferences as it was to be about God, religion, politics, or any other blood-curdling topic generally considered taboo at the American dinner table.
As a rule, I generally assume that any discussion which doesn’t devolve into broken noses, black eyes, and bloody lips is mostly friendly. However, this assumption doesn’t withstand the burden of proof. That’s because touching, hitting, and slapping translates as true affection here. Even babies and small children are not exempt from the extension of love delivered through the back of a hand. They are loved and smacked around, just as they learn to return such violent expressions of endearment through flailed arms and legs.
Just the other day I met a wonderfully gregarious, slightly intoxicated, older gentleman named Kristo who proclaimed that he would be my teacher, and that I would learn thousands of languages – Greek, Latin, Italian, and countless others – all of which he was fluent in. I shook my head left to right in agreement (in Albania, nodding from side to side means yes, while nodding up and down means no) and told him that, of course, I would be his student. To this he responded with a hardy laugh and a solid, open-handed slap across my face. He was still laughing and smiling, which I guess meant everything was “mire” (good). I smiled and laughed along in unison.
Of course, sometimes the fights aren’t friendly. Sometimes the smacks and hits aren’t products of loving admiration. The confusion lies in the deciphering of intentions. Clearly, the discourse building up to the elections preempted the worst of intentions. This was not going to be a friendly fight…
Day of national election (June 23, 2013): One man killed in Lac, Kosevars using Albanian passports to vote, voter intimidation, voting centers opening late, voting centers losing power in strategic battle grounds, family voting (the patriarch of the family votes on behalf of all members of the family), restrictive voting exclusively for members of one party or the other, minor incidents of violence against election officials, vote buying, voter registration issues, technical problems…and then, quiet. There was nothing left to fight about except the results, which were still pending.
Peace Corps Albania was placed on “StandFast”. The volunteers were restricted from traveling outside their sites and made aware of their region’s respective contingency plan, should things turn ugly. I stayed inside most of that day. I finally got stir crazy, and a little hungry. I went outside. The streets were abandoned. I sat and talked with a few of the locals. I quickly realized that whatever dangers were lurking behind dark corners weren’t lurking around in my neck of the woods. Despite the calm, cool, and collected atmosphere, we remained on “StandFast”. I guess an attempt to make heads or tails of the eerie silence, as well as the incidents of violence and voting mishaps that had been reported.
The next day was quite. A few rumors were flying around that the Socialist Party had won the election. Air traffic control frantically waved their little orange cones as they directed numerous other rumors flying in the opposite direction. It was he said, he said (for the most part, shes don’t have much of an outlet to say anything). The day fell into night, and the night into morning. I woke up to the sound of gunfire! I was still a little groggy. It must have been a massacre going on out there. A look out the window revealed a city in jubilation. Fireworks at 8:00 o’clock in the morning!? “What the hell?”
A short walk to my office greeted me with the news. The Socialist Party leader, Edi Rama had won the parliamentary election and would be the new Prime Minister of Albania. Everyone had expected more of the usual. More violence, more cheating, more lies. Instead, it seems to have been a relatively smooth, democratic process. Fireworks and parades of cars, all honking their horns, all garnishing the Socialist Party flag, have provided constant background noise since the results were announced. Another volunteer, Joe Bonk (someone much better versed in the history, politics, and electoral process of Albania than me) had this to say about the election:
Albania is a new democracy with a troubled track record of democracy and has never had a fair, transparent, conclusive election. Yesterday [June 23] Albania had another chance to prove to themselves and, more importantly, to the European Union, that they are capable and deserving of EU candidate status….Compared to previous elections, this was by far the most peaceful and orderly election Albanian has ever had. Despite one killing and other violence in Lac, perhaps the most violent town in Albania, the elections were conducted peacefully and orderly.
You can read more about the Albanian elections and about Albania more generally by visiting his blog at: dudewheresmygomar.wordpress.com (Note: In Albanian, gomar means donkey). His most recent post about the concession of Sali Berisha, the recently defeated ex-leader of the Democratic Party, is particularly worth a read. I have included an excerpt from it below by way of a segway into my closing remarks.
In America and other long-democratic countries, the changing of political power is common place and expected. The day after an election, life continues much like it had the days before. In a country like Albania which has had only 20 years of a democracy I would describe as luke-warm, a smooth transfer of power and fair elections are serious challenges that makes election time stressful and unsettling….When Sali first came to power in 1992, he represented the dreams of the Albanian people to live in a modern, humane, democratic government. Today, 21 years later, 13 of which [were] under him, Albanian ended the most legitimate election in its history….By conceding today, Sali has, consciously or not, fulfilled a promise made in those last days of communism and those first days of democracy, to build an Albania where a leader such as himself would admit defeat, step down, and let the democracy he in part founded continue on without him….For my Albanian friends and colleagues, today is a day of winners and losers. When I watched Sali Berisha concede defeat today, I saw a day in which Albanian democracy had won.
Happy (early) Fourth of July…and God bless America!