Life and death in Albania

It’s been two months now since I arrived in Albania and in that time I’ve had so many new customs and rituals to get my head around, especially as we plan our Albanian wedding in June – an event overloaded with ritual!

So it’s been a privilege over the past week to have witnessed and participated in some of the rituals around birth and death in Albania. More than once I found myself way out of my depth and just hoping I wasn’t deeply offending anybody by doing or saying the wrong thing!

A few days ago we paid our respects at the family home of a distant relative of hubby’s only a few hours after we learned of his death in Italy. There were a lot of people already there. On our arrival they all lined up outside the house to greet us and we walked down the line shaking hands with each of them. (It reminded me of a lot of being welcomed onto a marae in New Zealand.) No words were spoken – mercifully, as I had no idea what I was supposed to say. We all went into the house and sat in the living room where we were served coffee (Turkish style) and/or raki.

Understandably absent was the friendly chatter and smiles that you will always find in the Albanian home. It was a brief visit. But all the family again lined up outside the house as we prepared to leave and we again shook hands all the way down the line.

Funerals happen very quickly in Albania, (commonly within 24-48 hours of death) both in the Muslim and Catholic tradition. The family congregates at the family home with the body of the deceased and will spend the night in the house. The women of the family will wear black – sometimes for very long periods of time – years even – if they lose their husband or a child.

Notice of a death is often posted on A4 printed notices pasted on walls in a prominent area of town. This harks back to the old days when it was difficult to get the news to people – particularly in the less forgiving terrain of northern Albania.

Today we joined in the celebration of the birth of the first grandchild born to hubby’s cousin’s husband’s family! When the first child is born to a son in the family there is a huge party. (It doesn’t count if the first grandchild is born to your daughter – she’s not considered to be in your family any more once she’s married).

As the family of the baby’s mother, we drove in convoy to the house and arrived together. Again the family had lined up outside the house to greet us. But before I knew it, hubby had been whisked away as the men enter first, followed by the women, for more greetings and handshaking. We entered the house and men and women sat in separate rooms. We got to drink coffee, coo over the new baby and leave gifts while the men drank raki and left money for the family.

Then it was time for the party! We headed off to the restaurant. The rest of the afternoon was a blur of food, food, more food, drinking, toasts, and cuddling the world’s most tolerant baby who slept through 40 people all taking turns for cuddles and loud pumping music. Because of course, there was dancing! (Albanian housewife achievement of the day was being complimented on my Albanian dancing by my mother-in-law! Result!)

It’s all got us planning and talking about what will happen over the two-day wedding bonanza in June! In effect it represents me leaving my family and joining my hubby’s family. (My dad is quite excited that he will no longer have any responsibility for me!) I’m finding the whole thing very male-dominated. In fact, being a woman in Albania is so different to being a woman in NZ and the UK so I think I’ll save this topic up for a future blog post!

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