Making New Friends

As I ventured out of my Sarandë hotel room to try to find a way to the beach (not easy when every inch of beach is privately owned), I saw a couple of local kids and thought nothing of it. I kept walking. Then, I noticed they were following me on the other side of the street. I looked like a tourist with a camera around my neck. I waved. One covered his face with his arms and the other waved back. I made it down to the beach and walked along the water; the kids had gone.

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As I went back up towards the street, the two kids appeared again. They said something in Albanian. I laughed. They said something again. I had no idea what they were saying. I said “English” then shrugged so they knew I didn’t understand. Any time I said something, they would turn to each other and burst into laughter.

I thought they were following me to ask for change. I was wrong. Eventually, after a charades-like dialogue of only animated gestures, the bigger of the two kids goes “beep-beep-boop-boop” and pressing his hand like he would a phone. He wanted my phone, I guess? I took out my Galaxy S5, which had the functionality of an mp3 player in Albania with no phone or web service. One kid’s eyes lit up and he nodded.

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Hristo and Riku

At this point, I won’t lie, even though these kids look pretty harmless, I’m still nervous about getting robbed. I was already wallet-less and this phone was extremely important to navigation – more important than everything in my wallet combined. Why are they on the street without supervision anyway? At first, I let him use the touch screen while the phone is still in my hands. Then, he grabs it from me and starts using it. He quickly figures it out even though its in English and one by one opens every game app I have ranging from American football field goal kicking to Monopoly.

Then, he jumps up and runs away with it. The other kid is smaller but follows as best he can and they go down a driveway and around a corner. Uh…I quickly jog to keep up. I see them and there are about 10 other kids playing soccer on a deserted foundation for a building.

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The kid with the phone starts yelling to them in Albanian and they all stop playing and run to him. Everyone crowds around the phone and he shows them some stuff – I’m watching from afar so I don’t really see what. Two of the kids are bigger than the rest and one of them takes the phone away and starts playing something. Then they find the music app and start playing an instrumental from the Great Gatsby that I have on there. They start dancing. The biggest kid (taller than me) gives the phone back to me. Everyone is staring at me and I feel pretty foreign. I wasn’t quite sure whether they had seen a smartphone before with the way they had all crowded around it.

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I give it back to the kid who had it first, as he is pulling on my shirt and beckoning for it, and he finds the camera and starts having fun. I didn’t know he was recording at the time.

Everyone goes back to playing soccer but the two small original kids – presumably, they are too small or not good enough to join in with the others. At this point, I point to myself and say “Max” and I learn that the one with the phone is named Riku and the smaller one is named Hristo. Hristo pulls out a balloon from his pocket and I try to take a picture. But he reaaaaally doesn’t want his photo taken and starts running away. As revenge, Riku starts taking pictures of me. I make funny faces.

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At some point Hristo, who looks like he’s five years old, takes out a box of matches and starts lighting them. No one seems to mind. One gets pretty close to lighting Riku’s shirt on fire and I get nervous when he brings it close to my phone. Hristo starts pointing to the sea and I say “beach.” They laugh and repeat “beach.” At this point, all the soccer players stop playing and the biggest one, Tom, knows broken conversation English. He invites me down to the beach with them. Hristo keeps lighting his matches and then he and one other starting lighting some sticks on fire. Then the following:

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It took about an hour to put it out and I helped as best I could. Everyone wanted me to take a picture of them with my camera, even as they were battling the flames.

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There was a weird back and forth between them posing for photos sometimes and running away and covering their faces in other times.

I give them a photo shoot and promised to post everything on facebook. I was asked for my favorite football team (West Ham) and learned the names (Tom, Aleks, Kevi, Klajdi, Lefter, Hristo, Riku, Erik, Luan, Ernest) and ages (7-15) of as many of them as I could.

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Ramadan Hyko, a city worker, also posed since he wanted his photo taken.

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Everyone learns English in primary school, but only Tom and Luan could really converse. They are out here on the streets playing every day – not something I could even imagine in the world of American homework. I wondered where these kids’ families were. Most of them lived in 5-6 story apartment buildings in the nearby blocks. They were very much like a family: brothers. I was alarmed in the way that they physically abused each other. This was not the typical wrestling that I had imagined to be normal for brothers. There were dragging by the collar, kicking someone on the ground, headlocks to the point where the other would fall to the ground, slaps to the face (even from the youngest), throwing basketballs at others’ heads, throwing rocks, and all of this in the middle of the street.

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That night, I spent about 3 hours with them, taking pictures and talking slowly so they could understand. The next night, I joined them again as the sun was setting – this time without my camera so hopefully I would seem less foreign. They were disappointed that I didn’t bring it, but I joined in on soccer right away. Throughout the night, any time one of the kids was frustrated or fighting with one another, I’d just take the ball and do a juggling trick and everyone would watch in awe and other activity would stop. Football really is the universal language.

Other than lots of soccer (game, keepaway, juggling, one v one), some older local kids (probably high schoolers) came by and joined us. It was a stark difference and a little sobering. While it is adorable for small kids to be playing soccer on the streets, the roughness of the older kids was similar but less adorable. One was particularly erratic – the younger kids made a gesture that led me to believe he had been doing drugs – and insistent on getting me to give him money. He would follow me, grab me, and the only way out of it would be to get the soccer ball and distract everyone. I gained respect from all of them, and the universality of football was very important in this situation. At some point, I decided to leave before anything escalated.

After a few of them adding me on Facebook, I am officially one of the people that makes it possible for everyone to be reachable within 6 steps.

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