Saturday, 29 December 2012

An Albanian in Britain (1) - personal experiences

Observing the English is one of my favourite activities. A little bit similar to what the author of 'Watching the English' does but without the scope of producing an anthropology. 

The material is everywhereI have been living in the UK for four years after spending the ten previous years living between France where I was studying and Albania my home country, so I often compare and have different cultural perspectives. My most common observation spots are the tube, pubs and restaurants, the supermarket or the cinema, and of course playgrounds and the streets. Friends and work colleagues provide another more 'in depth' source of observation.

A wedding present, this rug represents the union of an Albanian with an English. 

Englishness is quite easy to observe as it is quite distinct. By that I mean the collection of behaviours that are quite typically British. There are many such distinctive traits but I am going to concentrate only on three of them: a measured way of participating in conversations, not saying what one thinks and engaging with children as if they were grown ups.

If I was with my Albanian friends at home and we were having a drink and talking there would generally be quite a loud and noisy product with each of us trying to talk and never leaving an empty space in the conversation. Conversations can get loud to the point of giving outsiders the impression of arguments when in fact it is only slightly heated debates. Quite differently with English friends they would be looking around and wait for a moment of pause to make sure no one else is planning to talk which means that they can go ahead. The same can be said about actions. I don't know which way is best, the spontaneous way or the measured one but I can say I often miss the former.

A weekend away with friends in the South of Albania - we are very 'excited'. 

                                          Our wedding British guests 

Other times I feel a natural reaction coming out of me in the form of commentary or confusion 'why do I find it so hard to understand what they (the English friends or colleagues ) think'. The answer 'because they don't like to say clearly what they think' reveals a typical English characteristic. That is it, you may look for clear answers to questions about peoples behaviours or actions and the English will give you a smile or a confused line which they can put together without much effort.

                           Mmmmmm what do you mean? 

I used to find it quite frustrating and difficult when I first started working here to understand how my work was seen, as being good or average or less than that. Despite the outward signs being good, i.e. after the trial period I was hired; people I worked with kept saying I was doing a good job I needed more detail and more direct feedback. I wanted comments on the way I was approaching work and people but they weren't many. I still look for direct commentary but after four years I have stopped being unsure and upset and I assume that I am doing well until someone tells me otherwise. I guess that's a pragmatic type of behaviour I must have picked somewhere around me! People not telling you what they think is normal (if they did that would be very surprising) and the type of feedback I am looking for needs concentration time and an analysis-like type of approach. Not sure who would have the time and inclination to do that. In fact I should get someone else if I needed to, rather than my work colleagues and pay them for it. Quite the opposite that kind of 'unqualified' but personalised type of commentary on my work behaviour would come for free from my Albanian colleagues. They would be more than happy to provide it even without being asked.

People not saying what they think can be frustrating and misleading. But there are occasions especially at work and in meetings when it can be useful. In Albania people generally don't agree with each other and say immediately what they think. From my time working in the public administration I have often heard people in meetings say after someone has spoken 'you are wrong, I don't think you are proposing the best approach to develop our strategic objectives'. Such comments have put the conversation on hold as the two participants spent time clarifying what they meant and others intervened, before another speaker started on a similar fashion. These meetings can be amusing as you see strong characters emerging but can also be very inefficient. A constructive and more 'appeasing' alternative would be to say 'this is a great idea, however I think there are other ways to achieve what we are looking for'. One might not think that but there are other ways and a different time to express a differing opinion. 

In the mix of my 'different' perspectives sometime I will throw in a French regard which reinforces the difference with the English. For instance I have heard my French friends talk to their children using a slightly louder and order-like tone, and I have felt the English eyebrows lifting up in reaction to what they can see as you telling the child off. Instead of 'allez, you stop playing now, it is dinner time' the English form would be 'would you like to stop playing now darling as it is tea time?' The French don't love their children less but they are more direct and conversely they don't think the English love their children more but they seem to view the English way as one where the child is considered more of a king. To the English defence I don't believe that is the case but it is a different form of communication involving the child rather than just giving orders. Again I would be more comfortable with the later (the non English way which is also quite similar to the Albanian form).

So when it comes to my behaviour I oscillate between three different ways. I adjust quite quickly and without much effort. 

I find the differences between the different ways amusing (but sometimes odd) and I realise that there is not one way which is better. I wish more people realised that and stopped believing that the way they the English or the French or the Albanian do things is the best. As a matter of fact Albanians don't have that kind of confidence and always criticise themselves and see the way other people do things and organise themselves as more desirable so they wouldn't say loudly how good their direct style is for example but they would rather say we Albanians are direct. Although they don't recognise their way as being the best deep down they feel most comfortable when operating within their ways.

So to sum up as an Albanian in Britain I am always observing, taking notes and naturally drawing parallels with Albania and France since I spent a long time there too (seven years) and did the same, observed the French. I used to concentrate on the French oddities and keep a critical eye on their sense of superiority - the French cultural exception for example - but again the oddities amused me. Similarly the British ways are amusing although sometimes frustrating too.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

National symbols and unity

I struggled to finish this note, because of lack of time for most of it but also because this isn't an entertaining article. I had given myself the duty to keep away from 'serious' subjects as I wanted to write light hearted and easy to digest stories that could be pleasant to a wide range of people. It proved difficult to keep away from the 'serious' subjects and this time I want to talk about national unity and how it is reflected in people's behaviours during events of national significance. Albanians are people that talk a lot about 'serious' stuff, politics, the economy, origins of law, how do you make people stick to rules, how do you get a functioning democracy etc. For most of them these are questions that one can spend a lifetime exploring without reaching a clear cut conclusion. This may be related to the type of issues Albanians face in their every day lives, injustices, lack of order or the rule of the stronger etc. Whereas for the British things are much easier and mostly people speak about what they consume, what they will consume and of course the news, food, entertainment and other leisurely topics. However both the Albanians and the British are part of a country and have a national sense. I am going to look at that sense for both people at the same time, without wanting however to fall prey to comparisons between two very different groups of people.

2012 has been in Britain a year marked by the Queen's jubilee and the Olympics and Paralympics. Both events were hugely popular, the jubilee saw people celebrating in street parties organised spontaneously by groups of neighbours, waving British flags, wearing the royal family members face masks etc. The Olympics raised that national fervour a notch higher by producing a spotless, safe and pleasant show for millions of people. This in itself was for many an exceptional achievement which was made even better by the highly achieving British team.

I have been following the Queen's jubilee and the Olympics not very closely but from my own distance i.e. being interested but not a fanatic. I am no fanatic of monarchy and neither of sports. Although I made it to the Olympic park once and really enjoyed it.

There is a sense of national pride, showcasing the best of British culture everywhere, in conversations, news editions, newspapers and social media. What strikes me is how united the British are behind what the Union Jack represents for them. Their strong sense of national identity and pride impresses me.

2012 in another part of the world Albania, was also a special year, the 100th anniversary of independence. The festivities for this special event culminated with various activities on the independence day, 28th November although there were other festivities spread in the year. Most of the events were spotless as well, attended and enjoyed by a lot of people.

However there is a feeling that some people might have enjoyed the events more than others, or that some people might have wanted to honour different memorable historic figures.

Some people considered as more important Ismail Qemali, the man that was at the heart of organising the efforts of bringing delegates representing all areas inhabited by Albanians to Vlora, in the south of Albania where he declared the independence on 28th November 1912. And others thought Ahmet Zogu, who was prime minister and later self declared monarch in the 1920s had a more significant influence over building a modern Albania.

I don't think we can choose to celebrate one at the expense of the other because they were both very important. Ismail Qemali is a historic figure engraved in every Albanian as the founding father of an independent Albania. Without him and the other men, that went against many odds and surprised the international forces by their determination to present an Albanian plan at the Conference of Ambassadors in London in 1913, today's Albanian wouldn't exist. The other plans presented at that conference wanted a much smaller Albania and under the protectorate of Italy. However Ismail Qemali representing the Albanian delegation followed up what he started in Vlora and had the agreement of the conference to accept some of the Albanian plan. So despite the Albanian plan not being accepted fully i.e half of territories inhabited by Albanians were left out (territories in the north and east went to Serbia and in the south to Greece) the plan that was agreed was better than the other competing ones and Albania became an independent state. This is a major achievement for which all Albanians are grateful to Ismail Qemali.

Now if we want to talk about the other historic figure Ahmet Zogu he is also as important and has a long lasting influence similarly to that of Ismail Qemali. I don't understand why a choice has to be made between the two, and if is often made it is based on party politics.

Ahmed Zogu played a much bigger role because he was driving Albanian politics for a much longer time from 1920 to 1938 but as to their symbolic importance both are equal. You can neither chose Ismail Qemali at the expense of Zogu because what he left behind in 1913 when he chose to resign from being prime minister was far from an independent Albania. The country was trapped in the middle of the First World War and had many armies invading it, the Austro-Hungarians, Montenegrins, Serbs, Macedonians, Italians and Greeks. The final borders of Albania were only defined after 1921 many years after Ismail Qemali's independence declaration. This coincides with the beginnings of Zogu being in power when there was a lot to do, not least to clear the territory from foreign armies. From that point onwards many things happened (I invite those interested to read Bernd J. Fischer's book King Zogu and the Struggle for Stability in Albania (1984) and Zogu's efforts were numerous and continuous to build a state that could survive without any other stronger country's 'help'. Although it didn't prove possible and at the end of his reign Albania was invaded by Italy, his outstanding efforts and legacy remain.

So instead of choosing sides, depending on political affiliation Albanians should embrace both figures for their equally important influence on the creation and endurance of the independent Albanian state. On such a special occasion as the 100th anniversary of independence, political and social divisions should subside and every Albanian should enjoy and feel proud of being Albanian.

It has been a long and difficult journey to come where we are today. It has been a century of upheavals. In the first 45 years coming out of from five centuries under the Ottoman Empire, creating a state for the first time, forging a national identity, building the economy and uniting and educating a society dominated by poverty and illiteracy. In the second 45 years engaging the whole country into a catastrophic descent into the abysses of a Stalinist dictatorship for years and suddenly coming out of it in a world that had moved forward and where Albanians had not much to be proud of.

But things have got better, people are happier and we are back at a point when we can look back at our history and think that we have achieved a lot and be proud of it. Of course there is still a lot to do, let's not lure ourselves but things can get much better if we are all together and believe in a common dream.

2012 is the year of celebrating our national achievements together beyond the historical divisions and rivalries. There is one thing that is beyond these differences, that is the red two headed eagle which stands out and calls on us. In the same way as the Union Jack calls on the British and their national pride. We should respond and recognise that we make our country better when we are together and celebrate our history as a whole.

This is the 'serious' note. I hope it wasn't too serious bur rather informing for those that don't know much about Albania and a call for agreement to other fellow Albanians who feel the same as me. I promise the next one will be more fun, or perhaps even more serious, perhaps even a piece of political and social engagement? Let's see I will keep you posted.