An Unexpected Conversation

Of all the places where I might expect to find a use for my French, the city of Berat in Albania was not high on the list…

I had been in Albania for a few days by the time I arrived in Berat, and had not had any issues communicating, though I knew that many people in the country do not speak English. Hostel Mangalem is housed in an Ottoman-style house in the historic hillside neighborhood of Mangalem in the center of Berat, overlooking the Osum River.

Berat, Albania at Night
The Ottoman-style houses of Berat, stretching up the hillside, give the town the nickname ”The City of 1000 Windows”.

I was welcomed to the hostel with coffee and a shot of raki, and sat down in the kitchen to chat with the owner, Albert. While we were talking, Albert’s father Konstantin stopped by to say përshëndetje (”hello” in Albanian), and I greeted him back, realizing he did not speak any English.

Later in the evening, after I had a chance to explore the Berat fortress and eat dinner, I returned to the hostel to find that another traveler had arrived, and that we would be the only two guests for the night. The new guest was a woman from France, and she was conversing with Albert. I joined in, and after a while, Konstantin arrived again.

Albert introduced us, and told Konstantin in Albanian where we were from. When he heard that, he immediately said ”Bonjour!”, and began to talk to the other guest in French. As he got comfortable in his armchair in the living room, he explained why he had learned French and talked about all of the books he had read to build his impressively large vocabulary, and the two of them began to have a conversation in French.

After a few minutes, I joined in the conversation, to everyone’s surprise. Konstantin asked me a few questions to convince himself that I actually understood what he was saying, and the French woman was surprised that I even remembered my high school French.

My French was rusty though – Konstantin was much more fluent – but I managed to follow along and participate in the conversation for the rest of the evening, as Konstantin told us stories about his childhood, his family, and his life in Berat. It was a great experience that I probably would not have had if the other traveler had not shown up — I would not have thought to ask Konstantin if he spoke French!

Through this experience, I realized that I haven’t used my French in far too long, and this conversation has motivated me to start practicing it again so I don’t miss opportunities like this in the future! Using the Meetup app, I found and attended a few French conversation groups after returning home from Albania. However, an hour or two per week was not going to cut it to bring my French back to life.

So, I decided to make France a stop on my current trip. For a month, I will attend French language classes at the Institut Linguistique Adenet (ILA) in the city of Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast. I’ll also be living living with a French family, so I hope to get a lot of practice speaking French. I’ll post updates later on how it goes!

Update: Read about my experience learning French in Montpellier in my two update posts: French Immersion Update 1: Speaking and French Immersion Update 2: Studying.

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