Tending a Blaze of Beautiful Words

“Isn’t it so beautiful?” Eva shrieked as Whitney Houston crooned her latest song on the Voice of America radio station.

I nodded, not really liking Whitney Houston so much, but unable to keep from breaking into a smile at Eva’s enthusiasm. And her choice of words.

As I’ve noticed in the three months since I moved to Tirana, the capital of Albania, “beautiful” is the adjective used to describe everything from puppies to shoes to music to food.

Albanians say “beautiful” the way Americans use “great” or “good” or “fine” They have their own words for those, of course, but something moves them – and this is not just an Eva-ism – to pick “beautiful” as their word of choice.

From what I can detect, with only a childlike grasp of this difficult language, Albanian is itself very beautiful, both in the nuances of the words’ meanings and the way in which they are spoken. What is memorable about an Albanian storytelling experience isn’t the use of gestures or body movements, but the teller’s tone of voice.

The voice rises and falls as if in song. The volume increases as the climax nears. The tongue forms the complicated, multi-syllabic words at an ever-quickening pace. The solo voice is joined by protests or a chorus of approval. When the symphony of conversation comes to a close, laughter fills the air rather than applause.

Perhaps the dramatic presentation also lends itself to a more dramatic word choice, and it makes sense for the Albanian speaker to choose “bukor” instead of “mire,” that is “beautiful” instead of “good,” even in describing the most commonplace items or experiences.

But at the same time that I listen to the pure vowels, the lilting phrases and think of beauty, I can’t help opening my eyes and being surrounded by sights more ugly than I could have dreamed.

The people in Albania are worn and tired looking. They wear poorly fitting clothes sent to them by family in America, Italy, and Germany. Hand-me-downs. They have dirt under their fingernails, and their hair cannot easily be cleaned because water runs into people’s houses only at certain times of the day, and at certain times of year.

Tirana is tattered.

The rows of apartment buildings, all the same, are like a child’s cardboard and paint creation that has been left out in the rain: paint washing away, sides coming apart at the seams. Trash lines the streets and the small, straight Lana Canal. A soda can brought from Greece bobs in the water, and a Turkish candy wrapper skids across the pavement, powered by the wind. Color has been sucked out as if with a syringe. The brown grass is trampled down. A coating of dust mutes the brilliance of now-green shoots popping out of Tirana’s few trees.

Given what I see, I wonder how Albanians can speak of beauty at all. The landscape is scrubby. Stiff, silver-leafed olive trees grow in rows like gravestones in a cemetery. The earth is rocky. The seaside near Tirana is industrialized. My eyes are starved.

And my mind is left marveling at how the Albanian language has resisted being dull and sluggish, a reflection of the country’s sights. Perhaps Albanians don’t know what beauty really is. Their small country across the Adriatic Sea from Italy was, after all, isolated from all foreigners and foreign lands by a tyrannical dictator for 50 years.

Or perhaps they know something I don’t, something I overlook, because in the United States my mind is constantly filled with beautiful images.

Perhaps they know how to make beauty.

Not with their hands – there are few exotic handicrafts made here and few national artists – but with their words. They do have famous writers and strong storytelling traditions.

It is the Albanian language, a unique language, stemming not from Latin or German or Slavic, but from Illyrian, a culture of ancient, isolated people, that brings beauty to a world all but devoid of it.

This form of beauty was something not taken away from the Albanian people despite their stormy history of countless conquerors – the Turks, the Italians, Hitler, and their iron-fisted Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha. Albanian, like all languages, has changed and shifted over the years, but not to the point where Albanians have forgotten their source of beauty.

They spoke their phrases of lace throughout the time when it was illegal to speak for certain things and against others. And it is probably because of the perils of speaking out freely that the Albanian way of expressing ideas is markedly circuitous. But for someone who has spent years learning that direct declarative sentences are the key to communication, I have to admire the poetry that creeps in with the ramble.

The basic words and the simple conversations are the most delightful. A conversation about buying bread raises voices. At first, I feared an argument was ensuing and I couldn’t image what about. Now I know to sit back and enjoy the emotion, the vocal dance.

The words repeated day in and day out – like “thank you” – are probably said without thought to their meanings, as is true in other cultures. But when analyzed, “thank you” in Albanian doesn’t just mean “I am grateful for your gift or act of kindness.” The word is “falemnderit” or, literally, “I pray for your honesty.”

Many Albanian phrases imply such beautiful sentiments.

I can’t say that all the sounds I hear in Tirana – the poor-quality cars chugging down unevenly paved streets, the grating crows of roosters all night and morning, the incessant barking of roaming packs of dogs – are musical.

But the words I hear are a relief to my soul, living so far away from all the beauty I have grown up with. And the Albanian language reaffirms my faith in the constancy of beauty. If it is absent in one way, it will be present in another.

Most of all, though, Albania’s daily orchestral score gives me respect for an ancient people who had the insight to create a source of beauty, like lighting a fire, and the modern people with enough resolve to tend the blaze.

So the next time I hear my sandwich described as “beautiful,” I will be thankful that the speaker, with his choice of words, opened a window and let me experience the beauty of Tirana.

This essay first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor in December 1993.