Family life is different in Albania than what I was used to in America. Albanian family structure is very tight knit and encompasses not just your mom, dad, and siblings but cousins, in-laws, grandparents. Traditionally, sons stay with their parents while daughters move in with their husband’s families. Several generations tend to live under one roof and everyone knows all of their cousins, uncles, and aunts because they live in the same small, walkable town together.
Since the end of communism, Albanians, specifically young Albanian men, have moved to “the west” to work and raise money because opportunities in Albania pale in comparison financially to those in Western Europe and America. On meeting an Albanian for the first time I am often told of their relatives that live in America. In fact, “kurbeti” (to be abroad as a migrant worker) is one of the first words I learned from listening to Albanian pop music.
The combined effect of traditional Albanian family ties and the “kurbeti” phenomenon results, predictably, in grief stricken parents who miss their sons. Especially mothers.
Enter the 28 year old male American Peace Corps Volunteer who without realizing it, will remind Albanian mothers of their sons who live abroad and will provoke sadness as well as motherly compassion.
My first experience of this phenomenon occurred as I was leaving my office and had to pass some mothers who were sitting on the stairs of the building. With only meager Albanian skills, I gathered after speaking to them that one of these women had a son in Canada who had been there for many years without having returned. Apparently I bear a resemblance to the son and this provoked tears. After some hugs I was on my way. A week or two later, the same lady began crying and embraced me as I left the office. Something about being embraced by a crying middle aged woman made it hard not to cry, so I joined in as well. After all, I missed my mother.
Again on a recent hike, it happened again. Passing through a woman’s yard to continue on our adventure, an older woman gave us not just water but vegetables from her garden. She told us of her sons who work abroad and that she would take care of us in their place.
I’ve been reading recently about how our current desires and fears can be out of alignment with the modern world because we as a species evolved under such different conditions than those of today. In a similar vein, these Albanian mothers have a kind of vestigial love and desire to take care of their sons which has no current target because their sons are abroad. An American young man far away from his own family is, in their eyes, the next best target for the love meant for their sons.
Their sadness in turn makes me sad and, as a young man living very far from my family, reminds me of my own mother in America who thinks about me every day. As a son who is without his mother in the same way that these Albanian mothers are without their sons, I reflect on this connection between us despite the differences of language, culture, and history, and wonder if any son could be of any mother, and any mother of any son. It makes me feel, not only think, that what divides the peoples of the world is much less important than what we share.