The past month I have met so many incredible strangers. I’ve written about the “kindness of strangers” many times and I have yet to meet someone while traveling who doesn’t bend over backwards for me.
My pedicab coworker from New Orleans, Mark Orfila, had arranged for me to stay with the Iberhysajs. Imer Iberhysaj is Mark’s old landlord when he lived in Decan, Kosova.
Stop right there and imagine sending a friend to stay with your landlord’s family. Not very common right?
As promised, I arrived at the bus stop to find Imer waiting to greet me. We walked together across the street to his conveniently located shop and waited for his daughter, Qendresa, who spoke English.
Language barriers have never been an issue for me. When I travel, there are numerous times where I have to pronounce something several times, usually names of places I’m going or words I memorize of something I need.
Ultimately, not speaking the same language is more fun in many ways. You are forced out of your comfort zone to communicate. You have to use your hands, facial expressions, and move your body. When it is all over, or there is a break, it can feel like a mental and physical work out! Difficult in action but the rewards are immense.
So, Imer and I waited in the shop and he showed me all the things he sold. We said things to each other in English and Albanian knowing that the other didn’t understand the words but we understood the meanings.
A few minutes later, Qendresa walked in with her sister, Manjolla. Qendresa’s English is great and it was quickly resolved that I would leave my bags at the shop and her brother would bring them to the house later. The girls and I said goodbye to Imer and we began to walk home.
“Is there anything you’d like to do? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired?”
“Well, I could always go for a coffee.”
The girls looked at each other to think of a place to stop in and once decided we walked only a few blocks where we reached a small café.
Once inside, what Manjolla and Qendresa had been speaking about in Albanian that I couldn’t understand, became obviously clear to me. The minute we walked in, it felt as if we had hit a wall. I looked around and realized there were only men, and they were all staring at us.
Now this is something that I have grown used to from the countries I have travelled in. Since I am a foreigner, I usually am fearless because my tourist status allows me room for ignorance. However, this time, the only thing that actually stood me apart was the fact that I spoke only English. It was the first time I was assumed a local because my physique was common. Whereas in Morocco, Italy, and the majority of countries I have lived in and/or visited there is no question as to my status as a foreigner.
“I remember now, this is why I do not like coming here.”
“Oh, we can leave if you want.”
“No, no. We will get a drink.”
“It’s ok. Since I’m a foreigner, I can be your excuse.”
We all laughed and sat down. They did not serve coffee. We laughed again. We ordered juice and soda.
When I think back on it, this first awkward scenario was hilarious to the three of us. And from this event, I knew I was with some good people. I mean we full heartedly laughed at the cultural faux pas we had made.
Qendresa explained that it was different in the Pristinha, the capital, where she attends the University with her other sister Fortessa. Only the small towns still have a majority of men who “go out” and sit in the cafes.
When we were done we walked across the street to the house where I was greeted by their mother, Fatmire, at the door.
Fatmire stood there with an extended hand which I took to shake and I went in to greet her with kisses on the cheek. I’d spent the past 2 months in Italy and Morocco, where this is the common greeting. I wasn’t sure about Kosova but I was improvising. Sadly, when I went in to put my cheek to hers there was no response. I quickly retracted and looked to Qendresa for guidance. Qendresa gave me nothing but a wide smile and again we began to laugh.
Later I learned that once Fatmire realized what I was doing, she leaned in but I had already back off and was looking at Qendresa and didn’t see her reciprocation. Days later, Qendresa translated the story to Fatmire and we spent several moments laughing.
What to say about the Iberhysajs? I mean it was all really incredible. I kept thinking about Karim and his family in Morocco. How am I so lucky to be treated like an honored guest in these countries around the world? Both scenarios held several similarities. In Morocco, Karim was my only translator and in Kosova, Qendresa. However, somehow I was able to create meaningful interactions with the entire family even without anyone who spoke English.
In the evening, the Iberhysajs would take a walk down a road and up a hill into the forest where there was an abandoned restaurant from before the war. At the top of the hill, several other community and family members would meet. Once we reached the top, everyone would sit and talk for a while.
I seriously do not know if I have ever met friendlier people. Everyone knew that I was a friend of Mark’s and therefore that meant I was wonderful. For those who knew Mark briefly, I was wonderful because I was from America. With that information about me, nothing else was required for their unconditional love.
I felt grateful. I felt grateful to Mark, for figuring all the details out for me to stay with these incredible people. I felt grateful to the Iberhysajs for having me as their guest and for fully integrating me into their daily lives.
Once back at the house we would all sit in the living room, usually with a futbol game on and chat. Qendresa did lots of translating and there was lots of laughing. Qendresa, Manjolla, and their brother Dervish were absolutely hilarious. Constantly making jokes, telling stories, and some how I fit right in.
At night, Qendresa, Manjolla, and I shared a room. Instantly I was reminded of middle school and of my girlfriends back home. We would lay in our beds and talk about so many silly things. We giggled and laughed loudly just like children. Happily, with little convincing, I stayed an extra day.
I thought about how amazing it was, that within one day I had made some of the greatest friends in my life. It was as if we had been children together and could be silly without any fear of ridicule or judgment.
When there is no common language, eye contact is extremely important. Maybe this is why we all became so close so quickly. We were forced out of our comfort zones to get to know each other. We would look in each others eyes when we would talk. Even when Imer or Fatmire and I were talking, and then usually Qendresa would translate. Some times she wouldn’t even need to because we understood! It was an incredible feeling.
I am forever grateful to the Iberhysajs. I was especially grateful that I missed my bus and was able to spend another night with them.
When I left, Fatmire hugged me and gave me several kisses on the cheek.
So I have a challenge for you….
Do something for a stranger. Do something out of the ordinary. Do something you wouldn’t normally do.
The Iberhysajs showered me with love. No one asked them to do that. Mark had only reached out through a mass message to all the people he knew in Kosova. Imer answered with an invitation for me to stay with him and his family. I am so happy I did because the Iberhysajs became another family to me. I will never forget their hospitality and will try my best to pay it forward.