After having lived in large American cities my whole life, I was now living in a small town in Albania and I found myself in a kind of double culture shock: Not only that of Albanian culture but of life in a small town which I imagine to some extent isn’t much different than small town life anywhere.
In a large city, the question of “how are all these people related/connected” is an abstract one. In a small Albanian town, it is a very practical question. People seldom move to small towns so everyone there will literally be cousins with everyone else. For me a huge part of integration was figuring out how everyone I knew was related or otherwise connected to everyone else. Even after being out of Albania for many months now I am still figuring out via facebook how people in my small town are related to each other.
The largest difference I’ve found between a big city and small town is the concept of your identity and how people will relate to you. In a large city, people may often only know you personally in the sense that they don’t know your family or extended family. When they think of you, all they have to draw on is their experience of you. By contrast, in a small town people know each other’s family and that family’s history, reputation, etc.
Northern Albania, having the only remaining tribal (in the literal sense of actual tribes) culture in Europe, takes close-knit small town life even farther than we do in America. In fact, that the word tribe, “fis,” is still in use and relevant there.
One way I adapted is, on asking about someone, I ask about their family: who they are, what party they are with, what business they do, any siblings, or government employee connections. In Albanian, “Whose are you?” (i.e. who are your parents? who is your grandfather? what village are you from?) is a normal question to ask. When I was still a “newbie” in Albania, I thought “who are you” sufficed. What a naive western city slicker I was.
Such a tight-knit and even tribal culture becomes very relevant to questions of development and “rule of law.” While no country is free of nepotism, generally in western countries an individual’s merits matter more than who their family are. The opposite is generally true in Albania and the result is that laws are seldom enforced and employment has little to do with an individuals’ capabilities.
Because Albania is a small country with a population of 3 million and with only one big city, it is an entire country with a small town feel. I’ve witnessed Albanians who don’t know each other at all find how they are directly connected with just a few questions. When I visited an Albanian cafe in my hometown in America, I met a guy who used to live in my Albanian apartment building. This didn’t even surprise me. The entire population is connected to each other to an extent we couldn’t imagine in a larger or more modern country.
While there are downsides to this kind of culture such as the fact there is no anonymity and gossip travels faster than you do, I do find myself missing some of the warmer aspects of small town Albanian life. That I came to know an entire town of not only individuals but families over two years made leaving the community a very difficult and very sad experience. I had never been so intimately connected to so many people and I wonder if I ever will again.