The Night Of The Chicken

Qerg Muli, Albania

The first Albanian village I had ever spent time in was a tiny village in the northern Tropoja province, high up in the Balkan Alps by the name of Qerg Muli. I wrote about my experience with Albanian hospitality in an earlier post, Hospitality/Albania, which also took place in Qerg Muli. I used the village as part of my novel, Vale of Shadows—you can check out that synopsis at on the hyperlink above.

There is a condition that many who travel to foreign lands experience known as culture shock. In reality culture shock is what happens to someone who is thrust into a significantly different culture, and then find themselves overwhelmed by the differences, knowing that they are not going home anytime soon if ever at all. What most of us who do not stay in the different culture long-term actually experience is culture stress. We are maybe over-whelmed by something in the culture, but our exposure is short-term and we know we will be home soon so we are able to cope with it. The comparison between culture shock and culture stress, however, can seem almost identical when we are in the middle of that particular situation or circumstance.

My personal culture stress came in the form of being so far away from home in an inaccessible mountain region that we flew into by helicopter because there were no roads, and with team mates, that although we became friends later, I didn’t know. The people lived as they had lived hundreds of years ago with no electricity, no running water, no roads, and no consistent contact with the outside world. I got over my culture stress pretty quickly, and very soon I fell in love with the Albanian culture and the people—particularly after the lady cracked the acorns open for me with her teeth (see above mentioned story).

My story this week focuses on my American friend Greg who I didn’t really know until we went into the villages. Our first night after the Jesus Film showing we were invited to stay in the home of a woman who had five daughters. The three guys on the team, Bledi, Greg, and I were placed in the room were we had eaten supper around a low table while seated on the floor. The woman of the house kindly sprawled a mattress on the floor next to a low sill window, and the three of us stretched out with Greg next to the window, Bledi in the middle, and me on the outside. It was well after midnight by the time we went to bed. We had set up taking with the family by the light of my flashlight that I sat on end illuminating the ceiling. It was the first time this family had ever had any kind of electricity, and since they rarely had guests, they were more than willing to stay up and talk. As we dozed off Greg made a comment that this trip was going to be harder than he thought it was going to be. I couldn’t blame him because I was thinking the same thing.

About 3 o’clock in the morning I vaguely became conscious of a commotion outside of the window. I was still in a sleepy stupor in the dark, but I could have sworn that there was a silhouette of something perched on the window sill for a moment, and then the sensation that something had run across my legs. I laid there starring into the dark for a very long time until I finally went back to sleep. The image of that deep, black silhouette haunted my dreams for the rest of the night.

The next morning we were awakened by the crow of a rooster, and by the swarming of one million, two hundred and thirty-thousand, seven hundred and fifty flies buzzing around our faces, up our noses, and in our ears. That, of course is an exaggeration, but the point is there was a large swarm of flies buzzing around us. I stretched into a sitting up position on the edge of the mattress as Bledi and Greg began to stir. Greg looked over at me with blood shot eyes, and then determinedly tried to open the closed window from his seated position. Seeing that the window didn’t budge he let out a sigh of relief and turned back to me saying, “I didn’t sleep at all last night. I dreamed that something jumped through that window and ran across my chest and out the door. I’m glad to see that the window is locked. What a nightmare!” I didn’t say anything about what I thought I had experienced, and continued to put on my socks.

On hearing that we were up the woman rolled in the low table on which we were to eat breakfast, and the rest of our team Nikki, and Keti came in and joined us on the floor around it. As the daughters brought in bread and cosk—yogurt swimming in grease, a staple in northern Albania—the woman casually went over and gave the bottom of the window a little tap with her finger causing it to pop open. Greg watched with growing terror in his eyes. The window had no sooner popped open than a chicken hopped on to the sill from the outside, stood for a moment peering into the room, and then hopped down and strutted across the floor and out the door. Greg’s jaw was practically dragging the floor as his gaze followed the chicken out the door, and then slowly turned toward me. I said, “It was no dream Greg. A chicken hopped through that window ran across your chest, Bledi’s lap, and my legs and then out the door.” Greg shook his head slowly, and said remorsefully, “I don’t think I can do this. I just don’t think I can do this.” Actually Greg did a tremendous job the rest of the trip, but that chicken was a humorous source of culture stress for the both of us. I should point out that Bledi’s simple response with a casual shrug was to say, “We are in the country. What do you expect?”

That was the first and last time I have ever had a chicken run across my legs in the night. I did nearly get stepped on a few years later by a flock of sheep that were being moved out into the pasture at 4 o’clock in the morning. The guys on our team were sleeping out side under the stars. We didn’t realize that we had plopped down right on a sheep trail. The experience startled us, panicked the sheep, and nearly gave the shepherd a heart attack as he was unaware of our presence. By the time this happened, however, I had many village experiences under my belt, so this was just one more interesting story to look back and laugh about.

Sometimes culture stress can be serious, and should not be taken lightly. The first summer of our project in Albania a young American from the Southeast United States went out to the villages and returned to base camp a few days later only to lay on his mat flat on his back and stare at the ceiling all day. He was completely unresponsive to anyone who tried to talk to him. After two days he snapped out of it, got up and went back out into the villages and finished the project.

We all have to process the external stimuli that we are bombarded with everyday. How we process this stimuli can often be instantaneous, or it may take some time to get it all figured out. This processing is normal for anyone traveling to a different culture, and it will determine how we respond. It will determine how we interact with our host culture and its people. If we process incorrectly, or we process this new culture in our minds with preconceived prejudices we will almost always become offensive to our hosts. But if we can get passed the differences, and take a chance on embracing the new culture we can almost always come away with a wonderful life experience.

My next story will be along similar lines concerning culture stress with body language. God Bless you until next time!

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