Albania, You Border on the Adriatic

During one of our Sunday conversations my dad mentioned that my aunt had gotten a DNA test done. It’s one of those where they scrape your tongue and tell you down to the detailed percentage the nationalities you are made up of.

“We are part Albanian,” he said, “isn’t that neat?”

“Yes, it is neat,” I confirmed.

But being Albanian troubled me, because I had no idea what that entailed.

I’ve always known a lot of people who put a great deal of effort into identifying with their cultural heritage. I knew people who’d never left Lansdale, Pennsylvania and who proudly sported tattoos of Ireland maps on their forearms. Other men wore shirts with Italia printed across the front. I worked at a bookstore with a man who spent his breaks leafing through a Czech dictionary and would speak in Czech to people with remotely Slavic sounding names.

I was sitting on a tram last week when I overheard a conversation between three men. Two of them were obviously American, the third was I think Polish. The Pole asked the two Americans where they were from and without skipping a beat one of them said “Italy” and the other one said “originally Israel.” I glanced up at this point to see that the Pole had narrowed his eyes and was trying to understand what was happening.

He said, “Oh I thought you were from America.”

In unison they hedged: “Oh well, yeah, that’s where my family lives…”

Translation: I was born in America, I grew up in America, I went to kindergarten, grade school, high school, and college in America, I got my driver’s license in America, I have lived in East Orange, New Jersey my whole life, so did my parents, whose parents’ parents’ parents’ parents’ parents’ came there from somewhere across an ocean. But I’m Italian.

Though I did an inward giggle and suppressed the eye-roll of the century, I did understand where they’re coming from. America is a mishmash of cultures and because of that we are somehow encouraged to identify more with those cultures than with America. I sure did.

Before this Albanian affair, I had spent most of my life used to the idea that I was half Italian and half Irish. It was simple and clear. Half and half. I was familiar with those places – Italy and Ireland. Additionally, both of the places, their culture, and their people had charm. The Irish came from an emerald green island and her people were friendly and fiery and had adorable drinking problems. The Italians were from an exotic place where Caesar used to live, they were warm and had tempers, but they could make a pasta dish that you’d sell your soul for.

While my mom looked (and looks) like the textbook version of a round-nosed Irish Leprechaun, she didn’t push her Irish heritage on her kids or anyone else. Sure, we had corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s, but we didn’t sit around doing a family rendition of Danny Boy or telling Irish fairy tales. In fact, due to the demographics in our neighborhood, by my teens my mother had undertaken the culture, the speaking patterns, and the habits of a middle-aged Jewish housewife. This, it could be argued, culminated in her purchase of a delicatessen in Jenkintown.

No, the cultural heritage pumped into me like a hot water enema came from my Italian side. My dad has always had a great deal of pride in his Italian heritage. He spoke to our dogs in Italian accents and bought books in Italian. He couldn’t read them, but he could look at them up on the bookshelf and wistfully note that his study was just a little more like a study in Verona or Naples. He bought Italian language tapes and the family could hear him practicing in his room or in the kitchen. He’d impress me later by telling me to ask him extraordinarily specific questions. “Hey Dame, ask me what color umbrella I should bring to the fair on Thursday.”

My dad called every pasta ‘macaroni’ and we were taught to eat with a fork in one hand and a piece of bread in the other as sort of a pinball bumper. He affected the accent when saying the name of an Italian food item; it was never pastrami, but Pas-Traaaami! He added a sign of the horns to really cap off the Italian-ness of the experience. For thirty years I have heard my dad correct the pronunciation of every waiter who commits the crime of pronouncing the word calamari as calamari. Maddening.

But now I’m Albanian. Albania is one of those countries with which I have exactly no problem, but also no notion of what it might entail to be in. I have had two Albanian students and from them I can surmise that Albanians are very good looking and have enviable, tremendous eyebrows. Otherwise, all I know about Albania is from a song on an episode of Cheers in the mid-1980s. It borders on the Adriatic, and, if I remember the rest of the ditty correctly, its terrain is mostly mountainous and its main export is chrome.

I decided to adapt and spent the weekend on the internet looking for inspiration. How to be Albanian produced no results and probably landed me on a few strange mailing lists. I tried Albanian sports, Albanian cuisine, and Albanian actors. While I will never ever watch and enjoy soccer, I will start watching the careers of Jim Belushi and mourn the untimely passing of my countryman, Paul Walker. My soon to be favorite dish is something called Byrek, a vegetable pie with feta cheese, spinach, cabbage, tomatoes, or even meat. If I squint and drink a bit of alcohol first, I feel like I can trick myself into believing it’s lasagna. There’s another thing called Kungullur, a pastry stuffed with mashed pumpkin. Ah well. Sounds like a ravioli to me.

But don’t you worry about me, we Albanians are (evidently) tough and resilient. I’ll be happy and adjusted in no time, telling waiters how to pronounce kungullur. Once I find out how, that is.

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