I walked out of the gated yard and into the cobblestone street without shoes on, looking for Joni. It was the summer before my junior year of high school, and I found myself in the country of Albania in Eastern Europe on a mission trip with my church youth group. We were to stay for two weeks, one week of which would be spent playing with children in a program an American missionary family ran in their yard. It was the only playground open to children in the summer, and regardless of their religion, most children in the village of Erseke attended the daily two-hour open playground.
I found Joni kneeling on the sidewalk, pulling weeds and surrounded by a crowd of young girls, some shyly staring at Joni’s freckles while the braver ones chattered on in Albanian accented English. “Joni?” I ventured. She turned quickly, smiling. “Hey girls, do you want to meet my friend Gaby?” A skinny girl, clearly the oldest and the leader, grabbed my shoulder suddenly. Expecting her to give me a hug, I was
surprised when she kissed me on both cheeks. Although I had been advised that this was a common Albanian custom, I was still caught off guard. Introducing herself as Anisa, she gestured at the younger girls clustered behind her. “They don’t speak as much English as I do,” she announced proudly. The other girls then began to introduce themselves, grabbing my arms and pulling me down so they could kiss me on both cheeks.
As I knelt by Joni to begin pulling weeds out of the sidewalk flower beds, the girls closed in around us and attempted to teach us basic Albania words. Joni was a natural; I stumbled over the simplest of words, my American mouth fighting to form the proper sounds. The sun beat down on us as we continued to pull weeds, the girls laughing at our attempts to speak Albanian. A girl of about eight soon
attached herself to me, asking in a soft voice if I could teach her the English equivalent as she replied with their Albanian counterparts. I stood shakily, still feeling the vast time difference. She slipped her hand in mine as I pointed at a tree, the road, a trashcan, a flower. She echoed me, her Albanian twisting in my ears.
As we made our way back into the gated yard, the girl, Nela, stuck to me like glue. We played jump rope, four square, and took pictures of each other with my camera. We spoke slowly and simply in a mixture of English and Albanian, but mostly we didn’t need to speak at all. Nela was trying and I was
trying and it was enough. Over the course of the next week, we played together every afternoon. Her English improved with use; my Albanian vocabulary grew. She was my interpreter when another child and I could not understand each other; I was the one she ran to upon entering the playground. We were the perfect team.
From the moment she latched onto me, I felt like a part of the global community for the very first time. No longer isolated in my own language, I had been stripped bare of the protective bubble a familiar environment had provided for me. I was the minority in Albania; I was the outsider, and theoretically, I should have felt that way. Instead, I felt like I truly belonged in Albania, with Nela.
Albania is one of the poorest and least developed countries in Europe, and it is often painfully evident. Rivers of trash and children begging in the street are common in the big cities, and some places Roma children are not allowed to attend school. There is no fire department, and fires burning on the hillside can be seen in the distance on a clear day. The roads going from city to city are bumpy, and most drivers are erratic- the roads were only built a little over ten years ago. Despite the challenges the people of Albania face, they live an unassuming life filled with joy over the little things. Old men sit and drink coffee together in the early mornings, old women walk to the market arm in arm. Children run down the streets, yelling for each other to come out and play. Every evening in the village of Erseke, the whole village walks the streets of the village, together. The sense of community that pervades Erseke is breathtaking. When we would walk down the street, strangers in a strange land, the Albanians would conspicuously stare at us, not maliciously, but because Americans in Albania are a rare occurrence, and they were curious. Children clung to us, excited that people they had never seen before would be so interested in them. Albania’s poverty has nothing on her spirit.
Once I was back in Los Angeles, it seemed like I had never really lived there in the first place. It was disconcerting to understand every word spoken in my presence and to be able to read every street sign. I wasn’t used to being understood completely when I spoke English and I wasn’t used to receiving strange looks when I accidentally spoke Albanian. I was back in my bubble, only this time I realized it. Before I had left, I hadn’t known how moored in familiarity I was, but now it seemed alarmingly apparent. I knew what it was like to belong when I technically should not, knew what it was like to be a part of the entire world. It seemed like my first Albanian lesson with Nela, the one that made me feel like a part of the world, had been the first day of my life.
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