Backroom banter with my curious Albanian co-worker

By Nicole Bauke, Medill, Immigrant Connect

The backroom of the drug store operates as a supply room, recycling center, and our kitchen and break room all at once. The microwave is hidden behind a stack of cardboard and the fridge sits alongside shelves stuffed with boxes of new, orange, plastic prescription bottles and white safety caps. Sitting in the middle of the floor is our folding lunch table and two rolling chairs. It’s cramped, but it’s comfortable. We can hear the bustling atmosphere of the store, the phone ringing off the hook, and customers asking questions about why their insurance wouldn’t pay for a three-month supply. But in the back, there’s a sense of serenity. Someone else will run to answer the phone. Right now we can put our feet up, if only for a moment.

I’m sitting with Ida, a thirty-something year old who emigrated from Albania a decade ago. She speaks in broken English, and regardless of how many times I show her how to order a product, she will always ask me to show her again. In Albania she was a grade school teacher, although there wasn’t much need; able hands for farm work were valued much above literacy in her hometown. Now, rooted in a small but strong Eastern European neighborhood in her Massachusetts town, her priorities are her family and their education. She talks a lot, and sometimes I pretend to be heavily engrossed in my book because this half hour is the only time I have to not engage in small talk during the day. It doesn’t work well; she’s very persistent.

She tells me about a customer who came in this morning: a big man, with graying hair but bulging muscles. Apparently, he gave her a box of condoms and a vibrating ring and said, “my wife and I are going on vacation this weekend,” with a smile. She tells me this with her little schoolgirl laugh. And then stops and asks me, what exactly is a vibrating ring?

This is not the conversation I thought I would be entertaining during my lunch break. A bit of a curve ball, really. This is one of those moments in which I wish she wasn’t so curious. She always asks me to explain the uses of different products, like the difference between back brace brands, or which cough syrups have caffeine in them. She asks me at least once every other week if I have managed to order her favorite shampoo. The answer is no… because our wholesaler still doesn’t carry it. I often just answer with, “I don’t know,” because I’m busy and tired and it’s an easy way to escape. But I usually regret it later because she is genuinely interested.

Of course, this question was definitely the kicker, and I forgive myself for pretending that I have never heard of a vibrating ring. But she doesn’t drop the conversation there. No, she pushes just a little farther to what I think is representative of our relationship. She asks me if I have a boyfriend at school yet. Which, following the last question, doesn’t really make me feel any more comfortable with the situation, and I reply no. She nods sympathetically and then as if to reassure me, says, “that’s okay, you have time. I wasn’t pregnant with Arvin until I was 27!”

Ida can confuse me. She’s very conservative and shakes her head disapprovingly when a girl’s top is too low. Young, single moms really concern her. But then she’ll throw a question like that at me.

Sometimes it can be kind of difficult to work with Ida; her ideas and values are a little different than mine. It’s easiest to say “I don’t know,” when she asks me why a guy didn’t call her cousin back after their date, so my go-to is laughing instead of explaining the American dating game.

However, she has also told me really interesting stories about her time in Albania. Her family was Muslim there, but now celebrates Christmas and Easter, because “that’s what people do here.” She works six days a week, ten or twelve hours a day, then makes dinner for her family. How she maintains a girly, naïve sense of humor is beyond me. I cherish my down time to sneak in the back and breathe, but when I am home this summer, I know I’ll look forward to gossiping with her, and laughing at some of the smallest silly joys in life.

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