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***The following article— “Trying To Pay for Stuff When You’re With Albanians” by Ashley Elizabeth Wood is not an official Albanian Voices article. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of their author and do not necessarily represent the views of Albanian Voices or any of its partner organizations.***
It’s a familiar scene. You’re with your Albanian friends at a coffee shop, having fun, talking about life, when suddenly, it’s time to leave and the stress level rises significantly. In most coffee shops in the Balkans, the bill has been on the table since you received your order, sitting upside-down in a little shot glass, just begging someone to pick it up. No one has. Why is that? Because no one is ready for the fight.
Paying for food in public with Albanians is an exhausting task because Albanians are “too nice”.
Honor is one of the most important concepts in Albanian culture. In ancient times, back when inviting someone to coffee was unheard of because everyone ate at home, Albanians had their own special way of treating guests. They would light a candle and place it in the highest window of their homes to signal to all travelers from far and wide, that they had food to share and a warm place for guests to sleep. Even if a family had very little to share, they would share their last piece of bread with a stranger. Because for Albanians, the word stranger doesn’t mean much. If you are foreign and non-threatening, you are a guest. The only other option would be to be foreign and hostile, which would make you an enemy. Foreign strangers don’t exist for Albanians; only guests. In modern times, this extreme kindness that Albanians display towards guests – almost an idolization – is shown by a custom they call qeras. It is the English equivalent of “treating someone to something”.
Who would have thought that my most stressful moments in the Balkans would be when the bill came at the coffee shop or restaurant? I would cringe thinking of all the back and forth that was going to happen. I’d nervously play with the money in my pocket that I had specifically gotten out of my wallet early, to be able to hand it over to the waiter faster than my friend. It was almost like a game, and I knew I was losing.
Albanians always pay for their guests. And even though in most situations, I had invited an Albanian to eat or drink with me, they almost always found a way to justify me a guest and pay for me – even in the United States. Even in my own hometown. It made, and to this day, makes me feel like a huge swirling vortex of awesome and awful all at the same time.
It’s not so crazy, if you know about Albanian history. The concept of mikpritje is something I’ve mentioned before. It means hospitality and is formed by using the word for “friend”, mik and the noun for “wait”, pritje. This is also tied in with the concept of besa, which dictates that a guest is the most honorable of all. I first became accustomed to this tradition in the Dominican Republic. Embarrassingly, the men who saved my life ended up paying for the very beers that I had offered to buy them. And that’s where my lessons began.
For Albanians, it is a source of pride to pay for something. The less well you know someone, the more likely they will be to pay for things for you, especially when you are a woman. Only when you’ve been friends with someone for a long time will they allow you to pick up the bill. And once you “graduate” into being allowed to pay, then the skill and craftiness come in. You have to develop a ninja-like quickness in order to pay for things before your friend does. It’s also even more complicated when you’re a woman as the “new” rule only extends to situations where you are spending time with the same sex. When you are a woman who is friends with an Albanian man, and you want to have coffee with him on a regular basis, you have to allow your male friend pay publicly almost 100% of the time, while somehow figuring out a way to reimburse him. You can either slip him some money before or after the bill comes, but it’s best to do it away from the coffee shop or restaurant.
Now, this kindness isn’t totally unusual to me, even though I am American. In most other cultures, like my husband’s, we rarely split the bill down the middle. That’s a purely American tradition, in my experience. However, with my Latino friends, the dialogue is much more calm and we simply discuss the options. We say things like, “No, I’ll pay because you got the last one.” and then the other person will usually respond calmly with “Are you sure? – Ok, then drinks tonight are on me”. With Albanians, there is very little give and take. It seems to always require an aggressive (but obviously friendly) fight. Even though I said it was friendly, I still don’t know how to read it correctly. Are they truly angry with me for trying to pay? I have observed other people truly get angry with one another when one won’t let the other pay, but I’m not sure how “real” this anger is. It gets so bad that some Albanians (and even myself admittedly) have paid the tab while other people are in the restroom, before they can even see the bill.
So when I’m with an Albanian, I usually have my credit card or money ready, in my front pocket and not with my purse. Fumbling around in my purse is bad for two reasons: 1) It slows me down and 2) I make a clear sign to the other person that I’m preparing to pay, in which case, they’ll usually whip out their form of payment faster than I can. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to take martial arts training so you can cartwheel under the table like Chuck Norris and put your money in the waiter’s hand first.
If I knew that every bill an Albanian picked up was not going to financially hinder him or her, I wouldn’t even be writing this article. The issue is that many times that someone has paid for me, I knew they didn’t have the money to spare. I don’t ever want my presence to cause more hardship, but the situation is complicated. You have to tread delicately through a minefield of conflicting social cues, finding a balance. When you let someone pay, you need to have an idea of how to reimburse him or her. For example, knowing that you can buy them a gift or give them cash later in a card is a good way to find a happy medium.
When Bora and I were in the Balkans, it was even more difficult, because we couldn’t argue that we were not guests. We were the definition of guests and everyone wanted to pay for us. However, in the Balkans, most people were spending a week’s salary on buying us lunch. When we wanted to treat people, we assumed we could use our usual tactics and pay secretly, like while someone was in the restroom. We didn’t think about honor or besa or mikpritje or anything. We just thought about how our friend had already paid five times and we wanted to pay this time. Keep in mind though, (which we did not) that towns are small in Albania and everyone knows everyone. In Shkodër, we learned that if we paid secretly when we were with men, we would embarrass and dishonor them because they knew the waiters and everyone in the town talks. In fact, that night in Shkodër was the first time I made a vodka-soda last for three hours. That extra three dollars that it would have cost our friends to buy us another round would have broken the bank for them.
After a while, I couldn’t take it. We started refusing coffee dates with people unless they allowed us to pay. As a foreigner, I felt like they were taking kindness to an uncomfortable level. However, when it comes down to it, they were trying to be the best hosts they could be, even when they paid in inappropriate ways (like for example, the driver we hired, refusing to take our payment when he had spend $100 of his own money on gas). Ultimately, they are trying to show their appreciation for your visit with them.
In the end, I became really good at backwards pick-pocketing. I would slip money in people’s pockets, or hide it in the seats of their car. I found ways to return the favors to my friends, by buying a few packs of their favorite cigarettes, grabbing them some gum or “accidentally leaving” a possession of mine with them. Sometimes when we would be sitting at the coffee shop and I knew the “fight” was about to come, I would look around at the other tables and wonder if anyone else was as anxious as I was. “Maybe that’s why they spend so much time in coffee shops.” I would say to myself. “No one wants to be the one to start the fight!”
We had an amazing experience in the Balkans and are forever grateful to our Albanian friends and family who were so generous with us. If we had been the type to take advantage of people, we could have gotten almost everything for free, which is not necessarily a good thing. If Albania is to emerge as a leader in tourism in the Balkans, they will have to change some of their kind ways towards strangers and, like the rest of Europe, overcharge tourists for food, lodging, directions and advice.
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