The Heart and Face of Albania
By Catherine Wayland
As I stand with Maria watching our children, playing side by side in the water streams of the park, I notice the beauty of her face. The canvas of her face has high-cheek bones and dark eyes. But it is the strength in Maria’s face that makes the bones more defined, the eyes more penetrating. It is no surprise that we speak about the face of her family and her upbringing in Queens that was traditional Albanian. The word “face” gets played over and over in our conversation. It is as strong as Maria’s face. It is everything to understanding what is Albanian to her.
In Maria’s traditional Albanian upbringing, it is the face of the family to their community that is very important. In the small rituals of receiving guests, the coffee and rraki (moonshine) is served. Soon after the coffee and moonshine are poured, out come the dried meats, cheeses and pickled products. This is how the house is presented in a gesture to the community. It is as if they are saying, “Here we are comfortable and we want to extend that comfort to you as our guest.”
Maria was the oldest of two daughters and two sons, four in all. It was expected that she would marry a man from Albania, and that she did. Maria married an Albanian from Albania, and that was something different than what she had known. Maria’s family is Albanian from Yugoslavia. Her husband George is Albanian from Albania. What is interesting is that her family growing up in Queens held faster to the traditions than Maria’s husband or his family. George’s family came from Albania in the last 2 decades and they had westernized before emigrating. His family came to the United States for the modern world that they had imagined before coming.
Maria’s family in Queens was still holding the older ways that her parents had known. Before coming to the U.S., there had been no westernizing, no modernizing for Maria’s family. The West offered the promise of a better, easier life. But there was nothing wrong with the way the tradition and culture had been so “why break what is not broken?” Why break traditions that had kept families and communities together for hundreds of years before? Two Albanian families, two very different perspectives.
On some things Maria and George agreed. In order to marry, the husband’s family still asks the elders of the family on the woman’s side of the family. They may return two weeks later for the answer. The wedding itself is filled with traditions. There are two ceremonies, the brides and the grooms. The bride’s family celebrates in the morning hours while the bride is preparing herself. A tribe of men from the groom’s side attends the bridal family’s celebration with the many bridesmaids, and elders and friends. Then the tribe of men appears in the bridal suite to offer a gift and bring the bride to the groom.
After the presentation of the gift, the bride is taken to the church and a traditional Catholic ceremony takes place. From the church, the guests all go to the reception for the groom’s side to offer the celebration of the coupling and the ceremony. The bride goes to the marital head table and stands still for the entire duration of the celebration. Sometime after the newly married couple has been announced, the man from the tribe of the groom’s family will unveil the face of the newly married woman. The bride, the wife is to remain perfectly still. Hers is a composed face of pride and joy in the celebration of the new family that has joined two families in front of their community.
Divorce is frowned upon in the traditions of the Albanian community. If the marriage comes to some terrible demise, the elders will get together to decide what is best. Those wise enough to know what is right for everyone counsel the families in how to face their community in what follows. Even in 21 st century America, as I stand next to Maria, all these traditions are very real and very “today” for her. I watch her face and envy her strength. I do not know what it is like to grow up with those cultural restraints and guidelines. I believe they must be both a blessing and a curse. I ask Maria and she admits when she was younger she struggled to be free. She says she has found “liberty” with her husband who is more modern. They are their own family now and may decide how to face the community together. But Maria also says how grateful she is as well. She knows the importance of family, the face of its love and respect and commitment.