Reflections on relationships in the diaspora.
Being born or raised in a country that is not that of your parents brings numerous benefits.
You are lucky to grow up bilingual. You speak one language at home and another as soon as you go out on the street. Being able to manage two languages from a young age is like having two pairs of eyes. It allows you to see things better, broader and deeper. You grow up observing and touching two different cultures. Two ways of living, behaving, eating, celebrating and seeing the world that in theory have nothing to do with each other.
But then you discover that there are meeting points. You look in the mirror and understand that you are one of them. You are both countries, you represent them in the best way possible and can be proud of being something different from the masses.
In short: we’re perfect and they are the devil to stay away from.
It’s nice to grow up in this way, but it’s not all roses and flowers. There are also negative aspects, and today I would like to talk about what I consider to be the worst of them. (A previous piece, by Eliza Adriani, treated this same topic, from a woman’s perspective.)
We, children of Kosovar Albanians, grow up with a pressure that is imposed on us by our family, relatives as well as by Albanian culture: The person we decide to marry should be Albanian. There are no compromises.
To have a partner of another nationality, and therefore most probably of another religion, would be sullying the honor of the family. Especially for those like me, who grew up in a foreign country, it would be like destroying years of sacrifices made by our parents. And nobody knows how tough it has been for them to leave their home, to move abroad and live for most of their lives in a foreign country in order to provide a better future for their children.
We grew up hearing from an early age that an Albanian wife or husband is better. That those who mix these kinds of things have an unhappy life. I’ve heard Europeans being described as people who marry exclusively for money-related interests. They divorce, but we don’t. Their men have lovers, ours don’t. Their women go for anyone, ours don’t.
In short: We’re perfect and they’re the devil to stay away from.
I grew up trusting those words blindly. I was small, Kosovo was my favorite place and I dreamed of going back to live there. I trusted the words of my relatives. You would have believed those words too.
But then I grew up, I reached that age at which a boy starts to look at members of the other sex with interest and pleasure, and discovers the magic of falling in love. I stopped, and told myself that I couldn’t.
I grew up in Italy, and more than 90% of the girls I saw every day were Italian. I couldn’t and shouldn’t fall in love with them.
I didn’t let myself become overcome by that condition, because every summer I went back to Kosovo. I always stayed between one and three months. Enough time to fall in love with a pretty Albanian girl. I would find my wife in Kosovo, I repeated to myself while watching my Italian friends begin their first relationships without any problems.
But then something huge happened, something you can’t and won’t control. The lightning strike, the sudden falling in love. The one that strikes your feet off the ground, that makes you sit on a bench until five in the morning, just to stay in her embrace.
There was a problem: She wasn’t Albanian — but it was as if I had forgotten.
It's not customary to talk about these topics between an Albanian father and son.
The initial period went on like that, harmlessly. I was in love, I had nothing on my mind but her. But then the story went even better, it was more than just enjoying each other and spending time together.
And so came the day when I had to tell my mother. If only because I no longer knew where to hide the presents I received, and because I was almost ashamed of doing so.
There was nothing to hide: I had met a girl, I liked her, I had fallen in love and I felt like the happiest guy in the world. I hadn’t killed anyone, I wasn’t taking drugs, I wasn’t doing badly at school. Why would I have to feel shame?
One late evening I came home with the gifts she had given to me. I had to get my mother to start the conversation, and that’s what happened. She asked me who those things belonged to. I told her that a girl had given them to me. Then, I calmly explained to her that we had been together for a couple of months, that I liked her and that she was not Albanian.
She took it well, in fact, she seemed happy for me. Every day, she asked me with interest how things were going. I couldn’t believe it — I was breaking the unwritten rules of my culture and it wasn’t a problem.
Then the best and most unbelievable part happened. I told my father. It’s not customary to talk about these topics between an Albanian father and son. I realized at the age of 18 that I had never approached this subject with my father.
He reacted even better than my mother, and I saw happiness in his eyes — he even told me to invite her home. I couldn’t believe this was possible. My girlfriend came over a couple of times, she met my mother and things seemed to be going well.
Then the story ended and the chapter closed. This experience, theoretically, should have taken away any doubt or hesitation in my mind concerning this topic. In fact, after this story, the opposite happened.
Regularly, during the last couple of summers, one or more of my cousins have gotten married. My parents would tell me how beautiful the marriage was, how pretty the bride was, and then they would always end the speech in the same manner: “They removed one worry.” Because that’s what marriage is in our culture, getting rid of a worry from the path of life. As if it were an obstacle, which the sooner you overcome, the better.
In Kosovo, marriage is seen differently, there’s no concept of taking your time before making such a decision, on the contrary, you are pressured to hurry up and do it.
I keep hearing stories of acquaintances who get married within a year, and the following year they already have a baby. How do you know who you’re marrying within one year? How do you bring a new being into the world after such a short relationship?
But they’re still seen as “better” by society. Me, single at 26, attending a master’s degree program in a foreign language and capable of speaking four tongues, I am seen as “worse.” Because a man who, at 25 years old, is already married, works and has a baby — preferably a boy — is the ideal type of a Albanian man to be proud of.
I still remember when in Italy, as a child, in the street where I lived I saw a banner hanging on the wall of the house in front of mine. It was a fun message that the friends of a groom had prepared for him. They had written something along the lines of, “Today, you will make one of the most important decisions of your life — but if you have any doubts, there is still time to step back!”
That banner upset my existence. In Kosovo, marriage is seen differently, there’s no concept of taking your time before making such a decision; on the contrary, you are pressured to hurry up and do it. In Italy, when people talked about marriage, I heard phrases like, “Be calm, it’s an important step, you have to think about it 1,000 times.” This is something I’ve never heard from my people yet.
Growing up, I began to focus on the differences between Italy and Kosovo in terms of understanding life, in particular concerning this topic. There’s a phrase that has always been used by Albanian people and that I sometimes still hear. When a boy gets married, the parents and relatives say, “We married him.” That doesn’t make any sense conceptually, one decides to get married and does it. It’s not the others who decide for you.
I wanted to understand this way of defining things, so I decided to read Lek Dukagjini’s “Kanun.” In this text, I guess I found an answer. In one of the articles, it says that everyone deals with marriage except for the couple. That’s why it makes sense to say that “we married him.” Because at that time, all decisions were in the hands of the two families concerned. The couple didn’t take care of anything, sometimes they didn’t even choose or like each other.
I realized that all the stereotypes by which Europeans were described also applied to us.
Times have changed and you don’t hear about cases like those anymore — at least, I hope not. But a germ of that mentality has remained. The pressure exerted by the family and relatives conditions you and leads you to make such a decision.
What has remained widespread is the idea of “giving” or “taking” a girl. The female sex is still seen as an object. Even today, girls still hear from their families that it is good for them to learn to do certain things at home, because when they leave for their husbands they won’t have to look bad. Things such as cleaning the house, preparing food, serving çaj (tea) and so on.
The idea that the woman is the object of the man is still there. A thing that a father decides to give away or not. That is what leads many to get married after a short time of knowing each other, because it often happens that a girl’s father appears and tells the boy to decide what to do — get married or stop — because his daughter is not a toy.
Growing up, I also realized that all the stereotypes by which Europeans were described also applied to us. People started divorcing, fortunately. I say that because I imagine the life of a woman, given in marriage or maybe even married by her own will, locked up in the house by the stereotypical Albanian man, who prevents you from going out and performing normal social activities. I imagine this woman finding the courage — thanks to a more open society — to leave that house and return to freedom.
The concept of divorce almost did not exist for us, because women did not dare to leave the man they married. But I discovered that our people also have lovers, that our people also marry for personal gain. In short, that we are not better than others. We are not perfect and the “others” are not the devil.
I am aware that if I marry an Albanian girl, everything would be marvelous.
In addition to having been lucky enough to grow up in a developed country like Italy, having been able to study and not having had to live through the war, I have the enormous fortune of having two parents who have never made me feel this kind of pressure. But I feel it anyway, because that worry was born in my head a long time ago.
If I get married to a non-Albanian girl, how will my parents be seen? How will I be considered? Who can come to my house as a guest if my wife doesn’t speak Albanian? Will she ever travel to Kosovo? How will we name our children? Will our children speak Albanian?
All these things are considered more important than a person’s happiness by our people. And even if you don’t care, like me, the pressure keeps playing its role in your mind.
Over time, I wonder how I can handle this pressure, but I have not yet found an answer. I’m aware that if I were to marry an Albanian girl, everything would be marvelous. My parents could sleep peacefully and I would be well regarded by all my relatives. While if she weren’t Albanian, my parents would accept my choice, but I know that they would never be 100% happy, that my daily life with relatives would be difficult and that I would probably end up isolated from the family and mocked.
That’s why one summer night, I slept in the airport of Stuttgart to catch a plane at 6 a.m. and traveled for more than 1,000 kilometers, just to meet a girl. Why did I do it? Because I liked her and in particular because she was Albanian. If she had been of any other nationality, I obviously wouldn’t have done it.
In any case, it didn’t work.
But every day I keep asking myself, if tomorrow I meet another girl, will I fall in love with her because I like her, or will I let myself be conditioned by the fact that she is Albanian?
Feature: Arrita Katona / K2.0.