Don’t Forget to Tell the American


October 21, 2014 by theloneblonde

Let me start by saying this is a sad story. One that I was not really prepared for and one that was somewhat coming yet at the same time but it still took me by surprise. You never know what will happen during your service as a PC Volunteer, they try to prepare you for everything but around the world the subject of loss is never an easy one. PC tries to prepare you for life in Albania through traditions and celebrations, but they don’t teach you about the sad things during Pre-Service Training (PST), so this was a battle that I learned to fight on my own.


I awoke this morning to my neighbors, just like every morning, but today at 8am they were yelling about me.



Neighbor 1: HEYYYYYY Did someone talk to the American?

Neighbor 2: HUH? What? The American?

Neighbor 1: YES the AMERICCCAANNNNN, did ANYONE talk to her?

Neighbor 3: WELLLL, NO?



Who needs an alarm clock when you have neighbors?


This week it comes with a very heavy heart that my neighbor Reko known to many as Nene (an endearing term for mother) passed away. My yelling neighbors wanted to let me know apparently at 8am that my dear sweet neighbor had passed away two days ago. I was clearly aware due to the fact Monday morning I was trying to run out of my house, after a fanatic phone call from my site mate that the local high school basketball court/football field was being torn up and well I was somewhat responsible. There were some dead giveaways such as the fact that I had been blocked in by half of a casket leaning up against my doorway, or perhaps a loud harmonic like guttural melody a sound that you could not mistake as someone or many some ones were grieving.


It was all too real when the town death tree (not to be confused with the town event notification tree or health promotion tree) was plastered with a mug shot of her face, and the time of the funeral. I honestly did not even know what to do, I have only ever been to one funeral before and that was for my Great Aunt, I was 12. Nene was like an Albanian grandmother to me, and out of respect, tradition, and proximity and some very hard thoughts I knew I could not ignore the fact that she was gone, and I needed to figure out a way to deal with it. However, Albania is a society that is built on culture and tradition and I really had no clue what was going to happen, what to say, or how to conduct myself.


Calling on my students, who had pointed on the notice on the death tree and asked if it was my neighbor, I discussed with them what I needed to do and what was going to happen, and what was that noise! They assured me and ran me through the process as much as they could. “Oh Heather, I am so sorry, don’t be sad, she was old.” Well yes she was old but she was part of my Albanian circle! They convinced me that a funeral was a funeral and that it was followed by a lunch with the closest 100 members of the family. The Albanian language has a word or phrase for every occasion and they taught me the words, however they gave significant warning because the words gulsherime (my condolences) and urime (congratulations) are ridiculously close. They walked me back to my house having me repeat the word over and over again, to make sure I would not screw it up.


The mourning takes place over 24 hours where family and friends are invited to come and see the body. The closest members of the family sit beside the body for 24 hours and watch over her crying, grieving for their loss. Many members of the family engage in what I can only call “active crying,” harmonic and loud, and guttural the sounds of mourning. My students warned me that it can get very loud, and suggested that I go and stay with their families that night or with my site mate, because of the noise. “Heather don’t stay alone tonight, I will make up the couch at my place, don’t be around that sadness, it is too sad” my closest Albanian family begged of me.


In Albania, Death is a scary topic, because it often comes announced and even through it is unavoidable and ever present, it still is the loss of family. “ It makes my skin crawl,” one of my students mentioned in passing in regards to the crying that happens. The first day I did not even know what to do, I walked out of the house in a bright blue sequined jacket I clearly was not prepared. I ran through the crowds of mourners pretending that I did not understand what was happening, I internalized the event and then watched the entire ordeal unfold through the little hole in my door. I had to sleep on it.


The next morning I awoke to my neighbors yelling about the fact that no one told me. You would think I would have figured it out. So I geared up the courage to walk out the door, throwing on all the black items that I could find to try to make an outfit, I waited for the most opportune moment to great my neighbors and tell them I was sorry for their loss. I was running off to a quick morning meeting and I had decided that I must attend the funeral, because Nena was always there, and this was a time when I needed to be there for her.


My neighbor was standing in a group of women, all mourning the loss of their beloved friend and neighbor. She took one look at me, and for once I felt that she approved of what I was wearing, I tried to look straight into her eyes but my eyes found it hard to meet hers. Remembering the words my students made me repeat, I told her Me Vjen Shume Keq, Gulsireme, te rreje ne famivje, I am so sorry, my condolences, may you be with family (not sure of the exact translation, or spelling, but it worked out). She took one look at me, and grabbed me into a warm embrace, shaking her head, crying, and told me that tani ai eshte me zot (she is now with god). I told her I would return shortly to attend the funeral, as I lost it. I had to get out of there; I put my sunglasses on and ran to my meeting, trying to hold back the tears. It was a mix of sadness and acceptance, it was an acknowledgement of respect and humanity, for once I did the right thing and she was not yelling at me for leaving the water on in my apartment or wearing ugly shoes.


When the funeral was about to begin, I walked down stairs before the casket came out of the house. Waiting outside of my building for the procession to begin, a woman approached me. She was from my neighborhood and I had seen her around town. She was friendly, and looked up at me, and turns to me to announce in a big smile among all the black and tears that we were going together. Today, I would be part of her family and she was going to guide me through the process of attending an Albanian funeral, a spirit guide of sorts. It just reminded me that in Albania you are never alone.


As the buses began to arrive, my new found friend dragged me on to one of the busses provided. The city provides a busses and the family provides mini-buses to bring the mourners to the cemetery. The town cemetery is about 2km away on top of the hill over looking the mountains. As we boarded the bus and embarked on our 20-minute trip up the hill it shocked me how orderly the process was. No one pushed or shoved, no one demanded the seats in the front of the bus, and everyone filed in politely and took the next available seat, or passed out klenex to those with tears in their eyes. We drove in first gear with the doors open just in case anyone was late and needed to jump in or wanted to hitch a ride.


We paraded off the bus up to the top of the cemetery where the new plots were being made. Everyone crowded around the already crowded cemetery making our way to the plot where she would be laid to rest. Her family the closest and her friends all around, they brought in her casket and laid her in the ground. No fancy machines, no equipment to lower her slowly, a group of men young and old eased her in to her final resting place.


Albanian society is governed on tradition and family and religion does not play a big part. Her eldest son spoke delivering a eulogy, telling of her life in the village and what she lived through but highlighting her biggest accomplishment, her family. Then even mentioned her love of her foreign friends. As her family and friends watched and listened, everyone was silent, with the exception of a few people who don’t know how to put their phones on vibrate. There was a moment of silence and then a charge, te rreje me famivje. It was a powerful shockwave and for a second it was like she was still there slapping me on the back. The family then each takes turns shoveling a bit of the earth to form her grave, and walks to the front of the cemetery.


Everyone gets a chance to meet the family on the way out, shaking their hands, and kissing everyone who came. When I made it to the front of the receiving line my neighbor looks at me and though he was met with grief over the loss of his mother, he looks at me and a faint smile appears and a little chuckle, “Oh my dear neighbor, thank you for coming, join us for lunch, ok?” His wife conquering the sentiment, I was invited to lunch with the family. His little smile was like a little light in the dark, he was glad I came.


We filed down to the hotel and restaurant, which has just been erected, very proximal to the cemetery, walking down the hill, still with my new found friend and spirit guide, she told me how proud of me she was. I barely know this woman, and she was so excited about how much respect that I have for culture, and tradition, though I did not feel the same way. For me it was more of confusion, and duty. As we filed into the patio, everyone was waiting in line to wash their hands, this was a first, and everyone washed their hands with a ferocious spirit, even with soap. I don’t think this is a funeral thing, this was just a strange site to see mass groups of people washing their hands, so I am pointing it out.


My neighbors returned asking my new found friend, to watch over me. She is also related to the family the wife of the brother of the husband of Reko. Not to mention her husband and I who also showed up at this point work in the same office at the municipality. Lunch was traditional yet simple, fruit on the table, laughter and multiple courses of meat. Everything was back to normal; the sadness was over. Though many will go honor her memory in her village this weekend at her accessorial to stay with her family, cook, drink and eat and most of all remember her spirit, something she was never lacking.


My spirit guide, along with her son walked home, down the hill gazing to the panoramic views of the mountains, valleys, fields and rivers that we are surrounded by the flowers that were still in bloom and the crisp fall air to our backs. She then turned to me and asked if I believed in heaven, this is somewhat of a complicated conversation and one that I don’t think I could have in a foreign language defiantly not today, so I went with my most culturally appropriate response, smile, nod and say yes.

“Do you think it will be anything like this?”


Reko was 77 she passed away on Sunday October 19, she had been sick for some time and she went in peace. I half imagine she climbed into her own casket and announced to the world that her time had come, because she was that kind of lady. She is survived by her sister, her sons specifically my neighbor Fiku and his wife, and their grandchildren. She was an ever-present staple in my apartment building and beloved member of society. Anyone who has ever visited my place knows her well. She was the sweet little old lady who sat on the stoop of my stairs waiting for me to come home, or watching the world go by. You could not leave my house without her trying to figure out what you were up to, and when she heard my door open she would run out and automatically ask what I was up to.


Her message in Albanian was uplifting; she thanked me for my work, and blessed my hands for the assistance I was bringing to her country. She had lived through unspeakable events, and the observant lady she was I took this as a compliment. Even for her age she tried to be the life of the party, the first time I met me she tried to tell me a joke. She loved jokes; even though not everyone thought they were funny she always thought they were hilarious. Sometimes she would even fall out of her chair laughing.


Though she was ripe with age, she was young at heart. She would block the stairs to my apartment to make sure you said hi and asked her about her day and interrogate you on your whereabouts. Though she would normally make a crack about how old she was, she called herself Plaku (dead wood) but in an endearing way that even she laughed about. Once her sister came to visit from their village, and all of a sudden she was Leverne to her sister’s Shirley. Full of life the two of them ran around for about a week playing pranks on the family, sliding around on the clean floors in their socks, and cackling the way only sisters can.


When I first arrived, she would stop me and want to chat for hours. Her Albanian, often colloquial, at first was hard to understand, but she just wanted to express herself. After time wore on and days got longer and work become more complex, I ran out of time. I would be gone for 8-hour days and sitting around chatting was something that went to the wayside. The relationships you have as a PC Volunteer are ones that are transient, this relationship was not only mine but one of all the ones who have come and to come and as ridiculous as it sounds but for my country as well. She was always there. She was there for me, and for K. and I am sure she was there for L. and L., I. , and for everyone who came before us.


And the worst part of today was the fact I came home today, after everything and she was not there. I half expected her to be there waiting, but her chair was empty.


DSC_0733 Nene, In all her Glory.

This Post is Dedicated to: Reko Korcari (1937-2014)

(This post may NOT be rebloged without the written permission of the author)


3 thoughts on “Don’t Forget to Tell the American

  1. Kate says:

    Heather, this was beautifully written. I really appreciated it because I lost my great-grandmother two days ago and a lot of what you say about Nene reminds me of her. Ngushellimet e mia.

  2. Mary says:

    Oh Heather, this was really beautiful. What a lovely tribute to a truly lovely woman. Thinking of you this week.

  3. Patti Wield says:

    gulsherime 😦

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