Albania is the first place I remember being where I realized that hospitality, done too well, can border on violence and if you don’t know what you’re doing you can get hurt. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn this during my Peace Corps training; I learned it in the field, after lots of plates of food.
Part of the problem Albania 001 had was that Albania had isolated itself from the rest of the world. As a result, many of the expats who could conduct our training hadn’t been in Albania for decades. The result was a language textbook so out of date that one trainee tossed his out the window (which luckily had no glass in it yet) after about the 10th “Well, actually, we don’t say that anymore”. Also lost in translation was any sense of manners and protocol.
I guess we were expected to learn that the hard way.
On the first day with my host family, I was given lots of food. As I finished a bowl of noodles, the bowl was quickly refilled. When I stopped to use my four words of Albanian, and left food on my plate, a long discussion ensued about why I didn’t like the food after having only three bowls of it. Finally, I guess my host family lost patience because they brought out beefsteak, and fish, and chicken, and fried potatoes and an oily eggplant dish. (Oddly, I think the only time I’d eaten eggplant had been in at some kind of festival, or food event in Hayden, Colorado, but I don’t remember any more than that). After all that, we got grapes and watermelon with feta cheese. And then they brought dessert.
Finally, jet lag and carbo-load took effect and I requested a nap, which probably saved me from a Mr. Creosote style explosion.
What I didn’t know, because no one thought to tell us, was that leaving food on your plate was a signal that you were ready to move on to the next dish. Cleaning your plate meant you wanted more of the same dish. Of course, there was that “why do you hate it?” game if you left food, but I think we all got pretty good a that, although it was exhausting at times.
One thing we got plenty of was watermelon. When we arrived, watermelon was only about a penny a pound. When served with salty feta cheese–I belong to the “salt your watermelon” school–it was a great summer dish. Except when you have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and snack) every day for two months. After I finally left my host family, I found I couldn’t stand watermelon. That carried over into life after the Peace Corps. In fact, it took me almost 20 years to be able to eat watermelon again. The same thing happened with persimmons, which I’d never had before I went to Albania. To this day I can’t eat fresh persimmon; although I can eat a dried version that’s a regional specialty here in Japan.
The only things that I kept a taste for were fresh figs–which I’d also never had before –and bread dipped in salt, which is pretty much how I liked to eat bread anyway.
I never developed a taste for kos, a kind of warm pre-yogurt with the look and consistency of vomit–I laugh every time someone cites the Daily Kos, because to me it means “Daily Vomit”. I did like pretty much everything else made from yogurt, though. I still miss the ferges–random animal parts cooked in yogurt–at the Taverna Tafaj, which was the first restaurant that became a Peace Corps hangout.
I even kind of miss the hamburger stands, too, even though they put the French fries on the burger itself.