As I prepared to come to Albania many months ago, I quickly found out how hard it was to find Albanian language (called Shqip) instruction in the States. There’s apparently an intensive course you can take in Arizona. There is one online course that didn’t blow me away. None of the big courses you can buy offer Shqip. So I was stuck with struggling along with whatever I could cobble together from different sources while teaching seven classes at SPC.
I often found myself thinking how easy it would be if I had been posted to a Francophone nation. Now I’m not at all fluent in French, but I had two years in high school and two semesters in college and managed to get along during a few days in Paris with it back in 1984. But Shqip is not related to French. It’s not related to Spanish, either, which I can muddle along in well enough to order food and beer and can read passibly. Shqip is also not related to German, of which I learned a few words and phrases from some childhood neighbors, from a ten-day visit to Germany in 1984 and from a German girlfriend I had for one long St. Petersburg summer. In fact, Shqip is assumed by most scholars to be related to ancient Illyrian, connected to the tribes that occupied Albania before the Tuscans ever started making noise in what is now Italy. So learning Shqip (just say “ship”) involves learning words that don’t have any relation to the languages I know anything about. “Thank-you” is faleminderit. “Good-bye” is mirupafshim. “One” is nje (say “knee”). But there are other words in modern Shqip that are closer to things I know. “Two” sounds like “deux,” “three” sounds like “trey” and four sounds like “quatre.” So I’m very slowly catching on. Mire. (that means good, okay and is also an informal greeting)
However, in the last week or so I’ve had some language experiences here that have made me feel almost European, almost polyglot. Almost. The German bakery downstairs, Backman (or Backmann, depending on which sign you look at) usually has a young Albanian lady behind the bread counter and she is kind and patient with our pointing and using one relevant work of Shqip, buke (bread). But the last time I went in by myself to buy some of these little 100-lek sandwiches, a different woman was behind the counter. She was a little older than the one who is usually there and had long dark hair. I prattled along ordering my stuff in Albanian and then noticed when she was counting out the sandwiches to herself that she said “eine, zwei, drei . . . .” She was speaking German. “You are Deutsche?” I asked. “Ja, ja,” she replied and then asked if I was. We concluded the rest of the transaction in German, which she apparently preferred to Albanian and I certainly spoke better than Albanian. I returned to the apartment with the three sandwiches and an apfel tart and a thrill from being able to converse somewhat well in a secondary language for the first time in two weeks.
Just this past Monday, I had a similar experience. After meeting with the head of the foreign language department at the University of Tirana, I headed toward home with an eye out for the AMC (cell phone company) “M-store.” My cell phone had needed the minutes recharged for some time but the initial purchase of the simm card for the phone had been so confusing that I had some sort of block about returning to the same place. But I came upon a peaceful and quiet looking M-store near the American embassy with a single young woman sitting at a desk. My attempts in Albanian and English to purchase a card to recharge minutes did not work well. When I asked for a card, she held up a simm card. Finally, she asked “can we speak another language? Italian?” I shook my head. “French?” My eyes lit up. “Oui, je peut parle Francais.” Now my French is rusty but I could now understand about 80% of what she was saying and she was understanding maybe that much of what I said, so we were doing statistically much better with French. I was surprised how the vocabulary began coming back, as if a long-dormant computer program was slowly being loaded. Perhaps the young lady was French–she seemed to enjoy speaking the language as much as I did. And I was once again able to discuss something marginally effectively in a secondary language. As I walked home from the M-store in a light rain, my phone charged with 500 lek worth of airtime, I felt for a moment the way I imagine savvy Europeans feel–able to change gears and speak in any of five languages, able to access different businesses and different people and to savor the flavors of different languages of the contintent.
It was only a moment, of course, and then I remembered that I only struggle with a miniscule vocabulary of Shqip, that my German is very limited, that I butcher French grammar, that few people here speak Spanish and that I know very little of Italian. I guess I’ll conquer or surrender to that linqua when we visit Florence.
Goodbye, mirupafshtim, au revoir, auf Weidersehen, Ciao