A big beautiful, spanking new hotel. Very well mannered maitre d’, helpful doormen, great receptionist…and familiar faces. People I have never seen before in my life, but very very familiar. Yep, the receptionist has a clefted chin, the occipici thingie (flat back of the head from being put to bed a certain way when a baby), angled forehead and a unplaceable accent that only I can place. The doorman has the short neck and stock body of my father and the chiselled nose of my late grandfather. So do the busboys (which are not Mexican, surprise, surprise).
I want to ask whether we share a homeland. I do not know why. It is certainly not for lack of Albanians around where I live. It feels nice though to make a connection and compare noses and careers. Even though I will eventually be asked the salary question.
But their eyes are lowered, their faces are concentrated in their work at hand and the communication is exclusively in English. I have a very big badge in my prominent chest which I point at all the assistant waiters who serve us coffee straight from the Highlands, but nobody reacts. Maybe they think that the crazy fat lady has a crimp in her chest. Maybe they are not up to conversation. Maybe they just do not think. Maybe my Albanianness is surrounded by all those American layers that they just can not tell. Yeah, right!
Finally, after three days of internal debate, the curiosity takes priority and I ask the doormen as they help us to the cab. “Yep” they say, “we are Albanians”. We immediately started cramming years of life history in about 2 minutes, in frantic Albanian, while my German and Austrian cab mates look on in wonder. We could be plotting God knows what in our strange gesturing, clicking and hissing savage language.
We say our goodbyes and I get on the cab. That is when the driver, a very pretty and freckled redhead, midwest born and bred, says: ” I did not know Albanian was close to Turkish” “Turkish?- I ask, unable to understand why everybody seems to think that Albanian has to derive from something. (Even in this conference, full of translators/interpreters with extensive linguistic background, a lone Albanian on the language tree caused quite a stirr. Next time I’ll bring a t-shirt with a printed language tree.)
“They are not close.”
“But the guy you were speaking to, he told me he is Turkish.” she insists. HUH? I feel sorry for the poor sod. Who am I to destroy his illusions? “Well,” I say, “Maybe he lived in Turkey for so long that he considers himself Turkish too.” She is unconvinced, but I am a paying fare so she smiles and nods her head.
Why do I have to be the one to hunt Albanians? I mean, I had to tell the supper that the “German” lady on the first floor was not “German” per se, more like a graduate for German Language; I had to disclose to my Primary care MD that the GYN he sent me to was in fact Albanian and not Italian; I had to disillusion all the girls at our Christmas Party that the handsome “Italian” waiters were in fact from a little blob on the map right next to it; that the most favorite Greek Gyro place owner in Astoria is in fact Albanian; that the medical records secretary who looked French, only looked French etc, etc.
And do not get me started on all the bubbles I burst when I greet unknown but familiar faces in Albanian. It is just as if I greeted them in monkey tongue, instead of mother tongue. The most common answer: “How can you tell? Everybody tells me I look …(Insert nationality of deflated ego)” And it is not that these people deny being Albanian. And it is not that I derive particular pleasure in being Albanian. It is just who we are, whether we like it or not. Our Albanianness if you will, is deeply infused, something we cannot easily shake in outer and inner appearance. We can try, sometimes we can even succeed, but it will still be there, the pink elephant in the room, the racy Lucy in the choir, the black on red recognition.
So, on and on I go, identifying Albos at the airport, the restaurants, the drugstore, the hospital, the high school etc, etc. Sometimes we smile knowingly at each-other, sometimes they avert their eyes, (sometimes I avert my eyes) sometimes we start talking and find out that we are thrice removed cousins with parents tanned under the same sun and bathed in the same stream. It is all good, people. I come in peace.