As an American teaching English at a foreign university, I was usually treated as an English expert. But although I grew up speaking English, my knowledge of English grammar is shallow. When students would ask me why a phrase is grammatically correct, I often just said, “Because.” In the classroom I used to play a game called Stump the Expert. Students would ask me a question about English grammar. If I could answer the question successfully, I received a point. But if I couldn’t, students received one.
Here were the kinds of questions which students would throw at me:
Which is correct? “There is a man at the door.” Or “A man is at the door.”
Is it better to say “last a month” or “last for a month”?
What’s the difference between saying “I am finished” and “I have finished” ?
Should I say, “I could eat a horse” or “I could have eaten a horse?”
Which is better to say? “there is nothing to do” or “there is nothing to be done.”
What are the English words that Kurt Cobain sings in “Pennyroyal Tea”?
Do I “pull a door handle” or “pull on a door handle?”
Every time we played this game, my students won. Always. I felt lucky if I answered one or two questions correctly. Nowadays I could probably search the Internet for an answer, but way back in the 20th century, people had to think on their feet. Tough times indeed.
At University of Vlore teachers were happy to have me as an English language resource even though it must have infuriated them that the intricacies of English grammar came so effortlessly to a native speaker like me. During Enver Hoxha’s communist regime, Albanian teachers had limited access to English material. Many learned English from visiting Chinese teachers who visited Albania in the 1970s. Any interest in Western cultures was viewed with suspicion. One teacher in Vlore was punished by authorities for trying to have a conversation in English with a foreigner. Many people had been imprisoned arbitrarily, including the man who would later become my supervisor at Vlore University. This man’s name was Abdyli Vasjari.
Adbyli was a short 60 year old man who had spent all his life trying to perfect his understanding of English. Now he was head of the university’s new English department. When I first met him, he was excited to meet an American for the first time. He spoke slowly and self-consciously, constantly interrupting himself to ask, “Is that the correct way to say it?” Despite being physically infirm by diabetes, he was eager to catch up for lost years.
“As you see,” he said, pointing to the two or three books on his bookshelf, “the problem is that we do not have enough books. We need more dictionaries, more learning material. Have you heard of the American Heritage Dictionary?”
“Yes,” I said, “It is a great dictionary. I used to have it at home.”
“Look at my dictionary,” he said, pointing to a well-worn copy of a slim British dictionary. It looked more than 50 years old, and I could see that he had underlined many words and jotted notes in the margins. “This is what I had in prison. It was forbidden, but I used to read my dictionary and my English books to pass the time. Is that correct? Pass the time? Or is it simply ‘pass time?’”
“Pass the time.” I said.
“Robert,” he said with a laugh, “It will be so good to have you here.”
I told him that a friend of mine probably could send the American Heritage Dictionary to me. But because of the international postal system, it could take 2 or 3 months to arrive.
“Three months is nothing,” he said. “Great pleasures always require a long wait.”
“By the way,” I said, “where is the bathroom?”
“The bathroom. The restroom.”
“Oh, you mean the w.c.”
Now I was confused. “No, I have to use the restroom.”
“Yes, yes, yes, the w.c. The water closet.”
“Oh, That’s right. In America, we say “bathroom.”
“Interesting,” he said with perfect seriousness. “Very interesting. You open this door, and walk to the right, and it is…..1, 2, 3 doors. The third door is the …bathroom, you say?”
“And you will go there to pass water, right?”
“Uhhh, we would not say that.”
Abdyli opened his old dictionary and ruffled through the pages. “Aha,” he exclaimed, pointing to a passage. “Pass water— to urinate. Spend a penny.”
“Actually in the US we have an idiom, ‘To take a leak.’”
“Take a leak?” he says, disbelievingly. “So now you will take a leak.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Usually only men will say it.”
“Excellent,” Abdyli said. “Very interesting.”
Abydi was working on a doctorate in linguistics. I did not know a single thing about linguistics. I guessed that Abdyli was behind on the subject too, but as it turns out, Albanians had a very good grasp about certain areas of linguistics (such as morphology, lexicology and linguistic typology) while having almost no exposure to the more common specializations (like sociolinguistics or semiotics). I still remember the subject of his dissertation, “A comparison of medical terminologies of the English, Russian and Albanian languages.” I remember wondering how anyone could write a dissertation on THAT. It struck me as boring. But Abdyli found the subject thrilling and seemed to delight in perusing medical textbooks and dictionaries and writing down his ideas.
Once, Abdyli opened my classroom door and interrupted me during one of my lectures. He held his hand out, pointing to the 4th finger. “What is this?” he asked. “Do Americans refer to this as the ‘ring finger?’”
“Yes” I said.
“Thank you,” he said, closing the door.
Adyli had a slow gait and often you had to be patient to walk with him. He drank a lot of Turkish coffee and liked talking about the communist regime and Bill Clinton (who was very popular in this country). This was before the sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky, so everyone regarded Bill Clinton with admiration. Albania had a leader named Sali Berisha. He was an economist who desired good relations with the United States. I had even heard Berisha speak English on TV. I once mentioned to Abdyli that I thought Berisha’s English was fairly good. Abdyli scowled.
“Sali Berisha doesn’t know English at all.” he said. “If there were a competition between me and Mr. Berisha on English grammar, I could show him where the crabs go in the winter…”
“Crabs…go in the winter? Is that some kind of Albanian idiom?”
“No,” he said, “I just made that phrase up.”
I tried to respect Abdyli’s learning, especially because I knew that Abyli didn’t have opportunities available to most people in his field. He talked often about visiting America, but recognized that his diabetes would make it hard for him to travel. “Sometimes,” he said, “I wish that Americans could experience for a short time what communism was like. Then they would appreciate their freedoms. But soon freedom will be a common thing for Albanians.”
A few months into the school year, a big box arrived for me at the university. It was from a friend back home. I opened it in Abdyli’s presence. The box contained a few magazines, a letter, some cassettes and a gigantic dictionary. It had a big red cover and must have weighed at least 10 pounds. It was not an American Heritage dictionary, but my friend had bought something comparable, presumably because he had found it at a better price. Abdyli immediately took it and started flipping through the pages. “Very nice,” he said, “very beautiful. This is a great day for the university.” A secretary from an adjacent room came in and looked in amazement at the dictionary, which was bigger than any book she had seen. Abdyli spoke to her in Albanian, pointing out some of the book’s features, the tables and the etymologies.
Then, looking at the cover, Adbyli, noticed the dictionary’s name. “It is a very nice gift,” Abdyli said. “But unfortunately, it is not the American Heritage Dictionary. And that is what I need.”
After teaching at the university for one year, I encountered many odd things. Tyrannical secretaries, broken copy machines. Power outages. Students paying no attention to my class so they could watch a school of dolphins from the window (the university was situated along the coast).
But nothing had prepared me for the byzantine rituals surrounding the university entrance exams. The university had a formula for determining which students were admitted. It combined a student’s past grades with the result of an entrance exam. These scores were later posted by the university’s main doors for students or parents to see.
Several times Adbyli mentioned that my help would be needed for the entrance exam. I would be happy to help, I told him. In the USA I used to work for an educational testing foundation. But as the day for the entrance exam approached, Abdyli was still vague about what I was supposed to do. Every time I asked, he gave vague answers. Finally on the day before the exams, he admitted that the entrance exam had already been written and I would be needed only to grade it.
On Saturday morning, I arrived at 8:30 AM (thirty minutes before the exam). Jittery students who wanted to take the English entrance exam stood outside the building. I walked past them and into the English department office, where three Albanian teachers were waiting. Everyone was in formal dress, ready for the big day.
I was curious to see what an Albanian entrance exam would be like, so I asked Abdyli to see the test.
“That is not allowed.” he said.
“That’s right,” another teacher said. “No one can see the test until the time is finished.”
I must have smirked, because the teacher immediately added, “We understand that the American system of administering tests is probably different from our way.”
“Perhaps later we can improve this method,” Adbyli added.
We sat in the room, listening to students being escorted into classrooms.
At about 9:00 AM, Abdyli said solemnly, “The exam will begin any moment now.”
“What is happening now?”
“The educational officials are now in the rector’s office to approve the exam. After the approval, the secretaries will distribute exams to all the rooms.”
We had sat in the room quietly for 20 minutes doing nothing. Finally I excused myself, walked to the rector’s office and peeked through the window to see what was happening. I could see some formal ceremony, with four or five individuals opening the box of exams while another recited a statement in Albanian.
The vice-rector, noticing that I had opened the door to watch, held his hand out to prevent me from watching any further. I just wanted to observe, I told him in Albanian. But the vice-rector repeated that I had to leave; it was forbidden for me to watch any part of this process. I returned to the English department office where the other English teachers were drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.
“So when will we see the exams?” I asked.
“It is forbidden,” Abdyli said. “We must stay here during the whole time. We will see the exams only when it is time to grade them.”
“So I have to stay here?”
“Yes, and at 2:30, we will start grading,” another teacher said.
“I’m going home,” I said, irritated that I had woken up early for no reason. And so I walked home, read a magazine, took a nap and ate lunch. At about 2:00 I walked to the university. When I arrived, the security guard tried to tell me something; he had been searching for me. I understood his words, but not his meaning. He said the students had been asking questions about the test, and that he had been sent by Abdyli to find me. At the department office, I found the same three teachers. They had been sitting wearily all morning and were eager to get the tests graded.
Five minutes later, we were led into a room with the finished exams stacked on a table, ready to be graded.
After all this waiting, I was eager to see the exam. Our job was first to write an answer key and then to grade the exam from it. I had not expected the exam to be perfect; I knew that an English exam in a foreign country would probably have mistakes. But nothing prepared me for what I saw. The three page exam was a mess. A reading passage contained multiple grammatical errors and even included statement that sounded almost racist. (It seemed like a passage from a 19th century British novel about colonialism). The questions about the reading passage were vague, and one of the questions was even missing a few words. On the next section you had to match verbs on left column with the appropriate preposition on the right column. But the person who wrote the test must have forgotten one or two answers, so the items couldn’t be properly matched. The third section covered verb agreement. The sentences themselves had minor grammatical problems, but that was not important. Part of the difficulty was that the test had been handwritten, and one or two words were not legible. Finally there was an essay question. I can’t remember what the essay question was (except that it was strange and artificial). But at least it was written in plain English.
Despite the fact that the university officials had taken elaborate measures to guard the exam from potential cheaters, it had never occurred to anyone to check the exam beforehand for accuracy. The exam had been secretly written by an English teacher in another city and shipped to the University of Vlore unseen by anyone.
I spoke up immediately. I had no idea what answers to give for this test. The test had so many mistakes that perhaps the test as a whole was defective. It would be impossible to judge a student’s competence on the basis of this test. A new test would need to be given.
The other teachers were stunned at my words. Abdyli warned me that redoing the entrance exam was impossible. So I started to go over each question with the teachers to point out why the answers (and the questions themselves) weren’t right. For example, one question in the reading comprehension section asked for information which wasn’t even included in the reading. Perhaps the test creator had accidentally omitted a paragraph. Amazingly, after I started criticizing, the other English teachers started noticing errors — missing words, missing articles, ambiguities in the wording. Once we started criticizing, we could not stop; every time another teacher noticed other defect in the test, we started laughing hysterically. The situation was absurd; that in fact was why so many students had been bothering test monitors and why the security guard had been sent to find me.
Later, the rector (an economist named Sezai) came to check on our progress. Abdyli began to explain the problems with the test. Sezai interrupted him and said, “just grade the test and don’t worry about the errors.” All the teachers began talking at once. I did not speak Albanian very well, but I was fluent enough to explain that in my opinion the test had too many defects to be accurate. After listening, Sezai suggested a compromise: throw out the defective questions and only grade the questions which were fair. Besides, the exam was not the sole factor in determining admission, so a few mistakes on the test were not worth worrying about. Everyone in the room began talking and arguing.
Finally Sezai called for silence and harangued the other teachers with a long speech. My Albanian wasn’t good enough to follow what was being said. But I guessed that Sezai was scolding them for causing a mess; he admitted we might have valid concerns, but there was nothing they could do at this point. The English teachers were there for one reason only: to grade the test. Sezai started talking about principles and obligations and that it was their duty to do a fair a job as they could, that students and parents depended on it. So there was no reason to bicker about minor problems on the test.
The rector paused and let the words sink in. But Adyli spoke up. I could usually understand Abydli’s Albanian, but on this occasion he spoke quickly and with flowery language. Even if I couldn’t understand him, I knew he was saying it with passion and precision and wit. Abdyli didn’t care one bit — not one bit! — about politics or economics or ideology, but one thing he felt genuine passion about was grammar. And if you asked him to compromise on that, he would rather choose death.
So here is the speech I imagine Abdyli saying in reply:
My dear Sezai. I understand that as rector you need us to complete our task in a timely fashion. Nobody here more than I wants to go home and spend the rest of the day with family. But the English expert, our guest from America, has already identified numerous defects in this exam. The other Albanians and I have found many more. We found more than 20 mistakes. We are not here to point fingers or criticize the process which led to this exam. Instead, we want to ask whether this exam could accurately assess English language competence.
You and I are of the same generation. You remember how we were deceived on behalf of an ideology. You remember all the talk about Western imperialism and oppression by the bourgeoisie. Now our duty is to avoid repeating those same mistakes and lying to our young people. But if this exam serves as the determining factor for admission, we are essentially saying that concern for truth is not important. If we choose the easy solution, why should students trust anything that we say?
Foreign language instruction depends on helping students to understand the rules of grammar and how they influence meaning. Perhaps it is of no consequence to you if a student uses the English definite article “the” or indefinite article “a.” But saying “Communism is an ideology” instead of “Communism is the ideology” is the difference between freedom and tyranny.
It is time-consuming and embarrassing for a university to admit that the entrance exam was defective. But if we say nothing, students will start with doubt in their minds. They will wonder if our generation really has any wisdom to give them. As the British poet Alexander Pope said, “To err is human; to forgive is divine.” Now is our opportunity to show parents and students of this city that we are human, and that as humans, we make mistakes and learn from them.
The rector had been smoking his cigarette during Abyli’s long speech. He listened with patience and mild irritation. When the speech was finished, Sezai laughed and said, “Abdyli, your speech has a lot of pretty words, and maybe on another day I would be in a better mood to appreciate it. But this is not a solution, and you know that. We are not here to make speeches but to grade exams. You are making a very simple task sound complicated. Decide which questions are not defective and grade them. That’s all. Are we in agreement here?”
“Yes,” Abydli said with a bit of irritation. All of us were tired, so the English teachers agreed to return Sunday to start the grading. On Sunday I showed up at the university to do that, but after 30 minutes, I became frustrated and started arguing again. But by this time, Abydli was sick of arguing and just wanted to finish. We agreed that it would be easier for the Albanian teachers to grade the exams without my help.
On Monday, I would travel to Tirana. Before I did, I stopped by the university. I found Adbyli drinking Turkish coffee outside the university. I asked him how the grading went.
“It is done. Let us speak no more about it.”
“Robert, I need your help for another urgent matter.”
“Ok,” I said.
“Your American president has decided to visit the city of Vlore. He will be here tomorrow.”
“Here? Tomorrow? That’s impossible.”
“The mayor told me personally that President George Bush will be here tomorrow to visit Vlore.”
“Peace Corps never told me anything like that. Believe me, if an American president were visiting, I would know.”
Abdyli waved in the air. “Maybe. Maybe not. But the mayor has asked me to help him write and translate a short speech for President Bush when he arrives. Also he asked me to be present during the ceremony, in case he needed me to interpret.”
I was speechless. “You must have heard wrong,” I said. “There’s no way that Bush is visiting Albania, much less our small city. And even by some miracle he came, I seriously doubt that he would be listening to speeches from mayors at every single town he visits.”
“You may be right,” Abdyli said. “But this is my assignment. It is good for the mayor — and vital for the city — that we leave a good impression on your president. Our relationship with your country is strong; it must be stronger. Here is the translation I have made so far.”
Your nation is great and undeniable; this city, to which I direct as mayor, has a long and great history, starting with the ancient Illyrians. (“Illyrians? Do you say Illyrians?” he asked. “It’s an exotic word but ok in this case”). We welcome the spirit of your democracy, the kindness of your peoples, the stubbornness of your economic ambitions (Say “determination,” I said). You are a young country, but you can teach us many things: how you control your businesses and how to elect leaders with democratic process. This ancient city of Vlore has always been a place for travelers to relax and laugh and sleep and see dreams of society. We hope that your sojourn in Vlore will be enjoyable and that you will see the beauty of our people and our ancient great land (“Great ancient land,” I added.) “Our struggle against communism was not easy, but we are grateful that you allied with our people during the time when we needed your support.
“Should I give a greeting to Barbara Bush?”
” Like what?”
We wish that you and your Mrs. Barbara Bush will bring to Texas sentimental memories about the beautiful beaches you have seen in Vlore.
“That’s a little too much,” I said.
“Ok then,” Abydli said, pausing to study the pattern of coffee grounds at the bottom of his cup. Abdyli had once said that some people used these patterns to predict the future. “The mayor wants me to insert something about Uji i Ftohte and Llogara. How does this sound?
Ms. Bush, we hope that you will have the possibility to visit our Cold Water and Llogara tourist destinations and see how our businessmen are improving the possibilities for future generations.
“That sounds fine,” I said, trying to take the task seriously.
As it turns out, President George Bush Sr. did visit Vlore. I heard about it later from a Peace Corps staff member in the capitol. Apparently when George Bush was president, he had accepted an invitation from Berisha to visit the presidential villa in Vlore after Bush left office. Bush traveled with Colin Powell to the villa directly from a US naval base in Italy. He stayed at the villa — a few kilometers away from Vlore’s city center — for a day and returned to Italy the next day. Bush never had time to meet the mayor from Vlore.
I was away from Vlore the whole time. I have no idea what George Bush did at the villa. One Albanian student who was walking down the coastal road that morning ran into the U.S. President unexpectedly. Mr. Bush was in jogging shorts, and flanked by a half dozen Secret Service (also in jogging shorts) and a slow-moving military jeep. The student had just gone outside to buy bread and suddenly found himself face-to-face with a sweaty but friendly-looking man who was once the most powerful person on the planet. The sweaty jogger smiled and said “hi” as he passed by. Seconds later, the whole caravan had passed.
As quickly as Bush had arrived in Vlore, he had left for good.
There is a sad ending to this story.
Little did we know it at the time, but the country of Albania was about to be caught up in political upheaval. Fraudulent elections, national strikes and hundreds of thousands of people being cheated out of their money by pyramid schemes. Ironically, the crisis was escalated by the government’s heavy-handed attempt to arrest student protesters at University of Vlore. I waited in the capitol city Tirana for almost a month in the vain hope the situation would stabilize. It did not. Every few days I telephoned Abdyli (who was one of the lucky few in the city with a telephone). Classes had been canceled. Abdyli lived a good distance from the university anyway, so there was no reason to go there — especially because he walked slowly due to his medical condition.
The streets were not safe. An armory had been raided, the police had left town, and all kinds of thugs were around. I’m guessing the professor stayed home. I have no idea what he did to pass the time. Probably he watched TV, took care of his family, worked on his doctoral research. He seemed disconsolate whenever I called him from America. “It’s very bad, Robert, ” he said. “Let us not speak of it.” One reason for my calls (among other things) was to ask the professor’s help in retrieving my things from my Vlore apartment. But Abdyli seemed disconnected from the anarchy outside of his flat. He didn’t want to talk about the political situation. His physical condition had been deteriorating; months later when university classes had resumed, he had trouble just showing up for class.
I did not call him often (at the time phone calls were expensive even for Americans). Once, when I called, his son answered the phone. “Abdyli eshte i vdekur.” The longer I was away from Albania, the easier it was to forget the language. But I definitely recognized the word “vdekur.” It meant “dead.”
I couldn’t believe it, so I telephoned a student who lived nearby Abdyli and asked her if it were true.
“It’s not true,” she said. “If he had died, I surely would have heard about it.” I asked her to check anyway. An hour later I called my student again. “I’m afraid it is the truth. He had been sick for a while.”
So Abdyli had died. I couldn’t believe it. I was both sad and angry. He had spent half his life delving into linguistics and English grammar and culture. It was a pursuit that had brought him to prison and brought poverty to him and his family. A teacher’s life in Albania was not easy. The salary was not good, and it required giving private lessons (and navigating through the tricky ethics of having to help the same students you were supposed to be grading).
And yet during the year and a half I knew Abdyli, he was giddy as a schoolboy both about teaching and the freedoms of academic life. Perhaps his students found linguistics dull, but Abdyli was energized by the opportunity to pursue the subject without ideological control. For various reasons Abdyli never had the opportunity to obtain a doctorate, but the Ministry of Education was now requiring all university teachers to have one. Abdyli in his 60s suddenly found himself needing to write a dissertation. Despite his complaints, Abdyli knew that he finally found his calling: pondering grammatical structures, perusing obscure texts, transcribing handwritten notes to the computer (with a secretary’s assistance). A grant allowed him to attend six weeks of linguistics seminars at a university in Italy. That brief excursion had rejuvenated him; it had also shaken him. “I now see how much remains to be learned,” he told me. “I’m afraid that for someone my age, there will not be enough time. A good part of my life has been wasted.”
These words might sound pessimistic and even bitter, but there was a kind of awe in his voice when he said it. He knew that his students would now have educational opportunities he had never thought possible. He recognized that his specific life had limits; he even accepted them; at the same time he was thrilled to be inundated by new books and foreign visitors; keeping up with it all was an intellectual challenge worth savoring.
Unfortunately during that last year he had also seen things unwind both in his country and his personal life. He had lived to see his country overcome the legacy of a political dictatorship (even though the giant concrete letters H-O-X-H-A on a distant hill were still visible to people of Vlore). He had witnessed firsthand how quickly even the most brutal dictatorships could be toppled. He had also witnessed how the people’s elation at having overthrown a dictator so easily could unleash a destructive force — leading to the senseless destruction of public buildings and parks in his own city. And finally in 1997, he saw how easily social structures crumbled and how legitimate protests still generated violence reactions. As much as he wanted his country to embrace democracy, in his declining years he saw that nothing was guaranteed.
A decade later, it was clear that the political upheavals of 1997 were just a blip on the road to political stability. Albania has moved on. I wish Abdyli could have realized this; maybe he did. The English expert had — for a few years anyway — seen the benefits of intellectual freedoms and paid the price for it. Students of later generations may take such freedoms for granted, but the English expert — the man who spent desolate days in prison with a dictionary and a tattered Somerset Maugham novel — found in this freedom a kind of solace.
Robert Nagle taught at University of Vlore in Albania between 1995-7. More of his essays and reminiscences about Albania are here, here and here. (This comes from the Booby Naked collection of personal stories).