Lek, absurdity and contemporary Albania’s cultural inertia

27 Sep

By Ekphrasis Studio

Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist, has claimed that “we inherit the greater part of our belief system at a young age”. This system is supported by cultural practices and shapes us up to the point when we decide to examine and/or challenge it. In Albania, cultural and economic isolation produce a cultural inertia – a resistance to change- manifested in one of the most regular daily exchanges, that of money transaction: the “lek” [the national money introduced in 1926 by King Zog and revaluated by Enver Hoxha in 1965] despite its transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’ is used as ‘new’ while comprehended or communicated as ‘old’. The result is the use of two names [‘old’ and ‘new’], two values and two different types of writing which leads to communication clashes not dissimilar to the theater of the absurd:

A man asks a shopkeeper for 200 lek of cheese, and the shopkeeper struggles to
fill a small container. The man then ‘corrects’ himself by saying “2,000 lek”, to
which the shopkeeper responds, “Oh, I thought you meant 2 lek!” The shopkeeper
then fills the container with ‘2,000 lek’ worth of cheese, and the man pays 200 lek.

Subject to this cultural inertia, Albanians have for decades resisted the ‘new’ face-value lek and have created an un-real experience where 1 is not 1, but is 10. The result is that on a daily basis the consumer must try to decipher if the price talked about is ‘new’ or ‘old’. Conventional logic, where presumably one means what one says, in this case is subverted: there is no conflict when both money users speak the false price, but the consumer who speaks the true number written on the lek is likely to cause confusion. What inevitably ensues is a distrust of language as a means of communication surrounding the use of the lek with its additional ‘new’/‘old’ reference, extra decimal spaces and large numbers. This is particularly true if viewed from the point of view of a foreigner who, witnessing a casual exchange, experiences something akin to watching a piece of absurd theater – the theater of the ‘old’ lek:

A buyer walks into a shop with no prices listed. “How much are the potatoes?” she asks.
“Six-thousand-five hundred-and-fifty-five old lek.” She then pays 655 ‘new’ lek, and
continues on her way.

The ‘old’ lek is still referred to as such by government officials, media outlets, educators, and virtually every business in Albania, let alone by the people. Why such a cultural resistance in allowing language to evolve on this issue? There are several obvious reasons: time, in many ways is stuck in Albania and while many changes occur very quickly, others do not. Many people still live as they did decades ago, and most cannot freely travel to compare the local state of time and place with that of elsewhere. Old mentalities and ‘norms’ still reign supreme. Even today, Albanians remain isolated from the world, as well as within their country. There are visa issues, transportation issues, even a ban on the use of motor boats. The lek is also isolated in that Albania does not produce much to give it value, nor is it a major global currency, thus relatively
unimportant and somewhat idle, along with unemployment rates ranging from 12%-30%.
These social conditions together with culture’s self-reinforcing cycles [to go back to Jung] supported by family, education and social life, result in the recycling of absurd communication patterns such as those surrounding the ‘lek’.

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