The fateful night I met My Albanian changed the path of my life forever. However, I staunchly stood by the idea that I was not in love. Had I ever been in love before? Absolutely not, but I had come close to it, believe it or not, with another Albanian. My roommate in Florence called me 'The Albanian Magnet'.
Our First Puth (Kiss)
That night of our first meeting, we eased on over to another club to go dancing. I’d like to point out, for posterity, that at one point in my young life, I was pretty popular around the cool crowd. The “usuals” would shout down the street when they saw me, “Hey Erin, will you be at the club tonight?!” always expecting a yes. What can I say, I was a talented and dancer and fun person. That night at the club, I did everything within my wooing power to draw My Albanian into my web, but he kept his cool and never made a move. All the usual guys whom I had repeatedly told, “I’m not interested. Let’s just be friends,” were there also. Everyone I knew in the room was dumbfounded. Here I was, obviously attracted to My Albanian, flipping my long hair everywhere (the stupid and feminine sign of flirtation) and he wasn’t buying any of it. Of course, this only made me try even harder. Finally, out of exhaustion or possibly defeat, we sat down. After talking and catching my breath, albeit, with a bruised ego, My Albanian turns to me and matter-of-factly states, “I’d really like to be your boyfriend.”
“Okay.” That was my well-thought-out response. I was stunned and elated!! (It worked! Victory!) Then he kissed me for the first time. I will never forget how by the act of our two lips touching, I was cast into an alternative universe from the one I had been only seemingly surviving in. My head filled with what felt like helium, resulting in the feeling of being a bit stoned. From that moment on, I viewed the world in dynamic Technicolor. Yep, all those cheesy metaphors had flooded my life. It was true though, Florence for me, seemed more vibrant and filled with deeper colors that I was not able to experience before. As an artist with a keen eye, I was surprised that I had really been missing out on so much. I was hooked to those lips from that moment on.
The following days we saw each other whenever possible. He would show up in-between my classes just to be by my side for a few minutes. We had lunch together at his favorite hole-in-the-wall trattoria and I would plan late-night dinners in my apartment when he would get off at work around midnight. All evening I would carefully prepare platters full of creamy polenta with rich ragu alla Bolognese, salad, and a bottle of vino. Enough to feed eight hungry men, he would devour it all by himself. He loved and enjoyed my cooking. Like my ex-Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader friend would say, “You just can’t trust a person who can’t eat.”
I would sit across the table from him doe-eyed and enchanted as he enjoyed every morsel of my cooking like it was manna from heaven. I suddenly knew what Julia Child must have felt like when cooking for her husband Paul. As My Albanian would wipe the plate clean with slices of bread, making sure not to miss a single morsel, I could feel myself welling up with happiness and falling very hard for him.
The Moment of Truth
At the end of week one, My Albanian and I took our usual late-night passaggiata through Florence. As we approached Piazza Repubblica, that same fateful spot that threw us together our first night, an elderly gypsy woman was selling red roses. My Albanian did some hard bargaining (because Albanians bargain for everything) over a rose and bought me one. He motioned for me to sit down. “I need to tell you something,” he says seriously. Now, anytime in history when someone has said this, it is always followed by some horrifying news. Hundreds of possible outcomes were running through my mind in a panic-stricken race. He’s dying of cancer, he’s married, he really hates my cooking…Oh! Sweet Jesus!
He speaks, “I’m in love with you. Please don’t leave me.” Tears are falling from his eyes and I am stunned. My first thought is, “Oh shit. I’m in trouble.”
I was barely a month away from finishing school and ready to head back to California. How did I let this happen? I was not in love with him (or so I thought), and I told him so. He was okay with that, but he still didn’t want me to leave Italy.
Albanian Love & Marriage
Interestingly, My Albanian absolutely did not believe in love at first sight. He stubbornly told me so in the several discussions we shared on the topic. He believed that love grew between two people after years of knowing each other.
During this time in Albania, it was still a common tradition for people to be arranged into a marriage. As I found out years later, during this time, his mother was in the works of arranging him with a cute little blond in Rome. This is probably the reason for her lovingly calling me, “Streg,” which is Albanian for “witch.”
From my years of Albanian sociological studies (a.k.a. marriage), I have seen many of his aunt and uncles, cousins, and grandparents all happily married. Divorce in Albania is something that would dishonor a family for making a bad match, and it is never even an option when someone gets married initially. In the States, divorce is used as an escape option from day one when couples get married. I tended to always think like an Albanian on this topic.
I once viewed arranged marriage as a trap for women created by power-hungry men, similar to slavery. However, in Albania, it is much more like the ultimate dating algorithm. The family will make an arrangement configured on multiple factors; the couple should match in mental maturity, personality, beauty, humor, patience and must be willing to marry each other. No one is forced to marry In Albania (at least not in the families I became familiar with, although I know this isn't the case with all marriages in Albania), a prospective bride or groom trusts their family implicitly to match them up with someone who will bring joy, friendship, respect, and possibly love to their marriage. Because, as I know now, love does grow after marriage. A good match brings honor to a family, and the family takes honest joy in seeing those they love happily matched and married. (Weird, I know. Imagine your family actually happy for you?! Crazy talk!) With Albanian families, being so tightly knitted, who else could possibly know you better? These days in Albania, the formalities of arranged marriages are more relaxed and in-step with the modern-day ways. Nevertheless, the families must still agree it’s a good match because, after the marriage, the families must and will work together to help the newlyweds through the normal hiccups and trials. In Western culture, so many folks get married without the support of family, so who is there to stop a problem or help a couple if there was no support in the beginning. Just like when having kids, it takes a village.
What to Do?
The following days turned into weeks and my departure date inched near. We enjoyed going to the San Lorenzo market together and shopping at the same vendor lady for our bananas. She would call him, “Il Latino;” it was our thing. I tasted my first fresh green figs with My Albanian. I was amazed I had never eaten a fresh fig before. I would cook huge pots of the best tasting pasta in his tiny shoebox-sized studio apartment in the shadow of the Duomo, leaving the leftovers for his uncles and cousins who would secretly stop by when I wasn’t around. Before I ever met any of his family members, they would eat my leftovers and tell My Albanian, “I don’t know whoever cooked this, but you should marry her, she is amazing.” Yes, I think I fell in love with his family first.
Finally, a day came, when I couldn’t quell the internal fight within me. I very much did not want to admit that I could possibly be in love; I fought the notion with all that was in me. I was only going to fall in love with that one person who would become my forever. I was only nineteen, too young to really know what love was. Surely, it was lust? Then one day, it all became crystal clear. I figured it all out, I knew that to be happy I had to allow myself this happiness. And so I told him, “I love you. I believe I have loved you since the first moment I met you.” He knowingly responded, “I know.”
To read more about She Married An Albanian, check out the first story here.
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