Last summer, after months of incessant questions from my mother on my relationship status and rapidly ticking body clock (I was 23!), I finally blurted out that I did in fact have a boyfriend. My outburst, which I regretted soon after, was a result of months of questioning with a hidden, or rather, glaringly transparent agenda.
It was time for me to find my Albanian life partner. Emphasis on the Albanian part.
My parents (well, mostly my mother as my father typically exits the room as soon as this kind of topic comes up) were not wholly unreasonable. Of course, they didn’t expect me to find a suitable match in Kosovo — I had lived most of my life in London, after all. I was too “Westernised,” so I needed to find a nice Albanian man in the West to “wife” me.
Besides, if I were to look for a native Kosovar man, I may be pursued for what was apparently my most attractive asset — my British passport. Forget my other redeeming qualities.
As much as I’m against reinforcing this stereotype, I do distinctly recall being at a distant relative’s wedding when a woman approached my grandmother to ask whether I was a qikë e shpisë (“girl of the house”). She had a son who was interested in finding a nice young lady to bring home and, luckily for me, I seemed to fit the part (an Albanian mother really is your greatest wingman).
She’d asked, without any attempt at subtlety, whether it was true I had British citizenship? You see, her son had always wanted to venture out into the “West” and it looked like I could be both his wife and human visa.
The scandal! The betrayal! The audacity that I, a 'shqiptare,' was not upholding my predestined narrative set out from birth.
According to my mother, I was a hot prospect for a breadth of Albanian bachelors, so I needed to be proactive in finding a suitable Albanian partner. Thankfully, while I was still at university I could still use the excuse that my studies were taking priority over my love life (they usually weren’t) and this was a good enough answer for my mother to use when being grilled by my aunts back in Germany.
However, not long after graduating, the questions grew ever more persistent: “Have you tried finding someone on Facebook? Your aunt knows of a nice Albanian in rural Germany(!), why don’t you just give him a chance? What about this Albanian man in Norway? He’s a solicitor!”
As these needling questions became more frequent, my patience began to wear thin. This patience soon grew into frustration, which led to my aforementioned outburst. After years of skirting around thinly-veiled remarks about my ambiguous love life, I finally came clean to my mother. I was in an almost two-year relationship with a — gasp — non-Albanian man.
The scandal! The betrayal! The audacity that I, a shqiptare, was not upholding my predestined narrative set out from birth. “But how will I speak to my future grandchildren?” asked my mother, a fluent English speaker, after I broke the news and apparently, her heart.
Following on from this slight hiccup in our mother-daughter relationship, it took the best part of a year for her to come around and accept that this was in fact a serious commitment and that no, I was not interested in the Albanian solicitor from Norway, no matter how chiselled he was. As the situation gradually diffused and my mum’s denial began to fade, I began to wonder whether this was a common issue that Albanians in the diaspora face — particularly second-generation immigrants.
Recently, I ended up having drinks with an old childhood friend I hadn’t seen in almost 15 years. His story was the tale of many Albanian immigrants from Kosovo — his family having sought asylum in the UK during the spring of 1999. It was here that he first learnt to read, write and speak and he spoke with a distinct East London twang to prove it.
“Wow!” he answered after I came clean. “You must really love this guy to fall out with your family over him.”
As we caught up on our past and studies and careers, our personal lives naturally came up in conversation. He told me his older sister was now engaged to an Albanian man from Kosovo. He too was in a relationship with an Albanian — a girl from Tirana, whom he’d met online.
I was taken aback slightly at this — what are the chances they both find fellow Albanians to settle down with? He had been native to London far longer than I had, seeing as I spent most of my teenage years in Prishtina.
I knew the question of my love life would soon be brought up, so in a panic, I contemplated lying. What would he think if I told him the truth? That my boyfriend was English? I certainly knew I’d be setting up the foundations for an uncomfortable conversation between my parents and his, as no doubt this little nugget of information would be discussed when they next met.
Yet, I was intrigued to get his reaction, so I was upfront.
“Wow!” he answered after I came clean. “You must really love this guy to fall out with your family over him.” His tone was accusatory, not doing much to help keep my feeling of guilt at bay. It is easy to feel guilt that is not yours, especially when everywhere you go, you are met with accusation and judgement because of your personal choices.
“But,” he added, more sympathetically this time. “I know it’s wrong what our parents expect of us.” This we agreed on, however the difference was that I had strayed from the path I was expected to take.
Now, I’m aware that in our culture, family takes precedence over anything else. As Albanians, we stick together; there is an unspoken sense of camaraderie and brother/sisterhood when you meet a fellow Albanian in the diaspora.
Growing up as a woman in an Albanian household, there is always the expectation to play the role of the dutiful daughter. The words, “Duhet me marr shqiptar” (“You must marry an Albanian”) would immediately be uttered whenever love and romance were discussed, just in case I conveniently forgot my obligation.
I could not shirk the lingering feeling of anxiety. How was I going to hide my boyfriend when I got there?
These words were reiterated throughout my childhood and my young impressionable self easily internalized this belief, so much so that I would immediately discount any sort of feelings I had toward anyone who did not meet this criterion. I wanted so badly to meet an Albanian man who I would fall in love with and also who was as integrated in British society as I was, just to avoid my parents’ disappointment.
Yet, as I entered early adulthood and wrestled with what was expected of me and what (or who) I wanted to do, I realized that no matter my achievements, if I did not follow through with this preordained narrative of my love life, I would be known in my Albanian social circle as that Albanian woman who chose a foreigner. When there were so many potential Albanian men available. The audacity!
To make life harder for myself, I was planning an overdue trip to Kosovo with my boyfriend and a group of university friends. However, as the date inched closer and I found myself cramming holiday clothes into my suitcase, I could not shirk the lingering feeling of anxiety. How was I going to hide my boyfriend when I got there?
My parents had not been overly thrilled with the prospect of telling people who I was dating and none of my family had any idea. So on the journey to Prishtina, on a clunky and overcrowded coach from Budva, I began strategizing a plan to sneak my boyfriend in and out of the house once we arrived, so as to avoid the prying eyes and flitting whispers.
A difficult feat with my Nana living next door. She had a habit of appearing at those exact incriminating moments you wanted to avoid. Anytime I’d tried sneaking out late to attend a party, there she’d be, conveniently watering flowers in her front garden. At night.
I had also made my boyfriend feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. As if I’d dragged him to a party uninvited.
A wig? suggested a friend, his humor doing little to subside the growing pangs of anxiety in my chest. I needn’t have worried. My Nana was impossible to fool so one morning when I went over for tea, I knew she had sussed me out already.
“Are you with that tall English boy?”
There it was. Yet, instead of the judgement I’d prepared myself for, I sensed almost a hopefulness in her voice. I juggled with the truth yet again but came clean. Yes, he was my boyfriend.
What I did not expect were the words of relief that followed. She was happy at the news — positively beaming. Still shocked by her acceptance, I ran back into the house to tell my boyfriend and introduce the two, with me acting as a translator between her lack of English and his very basic Albanian skills.
Later that day, as we made our way toward Rruga B, I thought about all these scenarios I’d built up in my head. I realized that not only had I made my anxiety flare up due to the constant fretting over this now trivial matter, I had also made my boyfriend feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. As if I’d dragged him to a party uninvited, where he knew everyone was talking about him behind his back. It angered me that I had allowed this to be a preconception of my native country.
This whole exchange got me wondering why my Nana, a woman of almost 80 who could barely speak a word of English (apart from the fuck you very much that she’d come out with when asked to say thank you) was so tolerant of my decision?
Your shared Albanian-ness is no guarantee that a relationship will work, as much as this is instilled in us.
I speak from my own experiences when I say that a lot of the diaspora seem to have stagnated with their mindset and views on social issues, particularly compared to their non-diaspora counterparts in Kosovo. Forgive me if I come across too general in my assumptions, but this is a view that I have heard expressed by my friends in Kosovo, many of whom have relatives in the diaspora.
Their schatzi cousins who set off on their annual summer trips to Kosovo, driving around in flashy BMWs and distinctly branded clothing, are encouraged by their families to seek an Albanian partner, despite speaking in fragmented Albanian.
I’ve heard stories of second-generation Albanians married off to pre-approved partners in Kosovo, in line with their parents’ wishes. Yet, after the elaborate weddings are held and the last jingle of the def has been sounded, these couples with nothing but the same heritage in common do not always last. Your shared Albanian-ness is no guarantee that a relationship will work, as much as this is instilled in us.
I understand that there is a desire and duty to protect our Albanian culture that we have fought so hard to retain in the face of adversity and systematic discrimination. I know my parents, like so many other Albanian parents living in the diaspora, fear that their children will forget the country so many of our ancestors fought for and wrote poems about. That we will grow and lose the ability to converse in our native tongue. That our children will not know the history and sacrifices of our people.
My English boyfriend has now learnt the history of Skanderbeg. He can do the intertwined hand eagle and loves mantia.
But is this really the case? Do we not give second-generation immigrants in the diaspora enough faith? I am sure you are aware of the recent global Albanian takeover — in sports, art and music.
The likes of Dua Lipa, Januzaj, Shaqiri, GASHI and Rita Ora may be Westernized, so to speak, but these Albanians who have spent most (if not all) of their lives away from the fatherland still take utmost pride in their roots. A brief scroll through their Instagram feeds and you’ll find numerous posts depicting the universal Albanian symbol of the double-headed eagle as well as Independence Day celebrations and even videos dancing the shota.
They, like all Albanians in the diaspora, carry an unwavering love and connection to their country. We are shqipe, regardless of who we choose to commit to. My decision to date beyond my predestined dating pool does not take away from my Albanian-ness.
My English boyfriend has now learnt the history of Skanderbeg. He can do the intertwined hand eagle and loves mantia. He has downloaded an app to help him learn Albanian and, even more impressive, he can now distinguish an Albanian from a mile away.
So my point is, let’s cut a bit of slack to our fellow Albanians in the diaspora, who fight an internal battle between what they truly desire and what is expected of them. Trying to assimilate and integrate in a foreign country whilst also trying to retain your Albanian identity is no easy feat.
And to the Albanians in the diaspora, let’s try and keep up with our brothers and sisters in Kosovo. If my Nana is accepting of my dating choices, then you should be too.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.