“Each person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of all the others. His children and his good friends constitute for him the whole of the human species. As for his transactions with his fellow citizens, he may mix among them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. And if on these terms there remains in his mind a sense of family, there no longer remains a sense of society.”
–Alexis de Tocqueville, writing of Americans in his classic Democracy in America (1835)
We Aromanians in America are descendants of the great wave of immigration that swept into the United States at the turn of the century. Most of us today are not immigrants, but members of a transitional generation with one foot in the Old World and one foot in the New. We are forced to make choices between the more traditional lifestyle of our parents and grandparents, on the one hand, and lifestyles associated with modern America, on the other. We see, for example, how bonds of friendship have overtaken the bonds of kinship as a primary force in American life. But we also see the desolation and loneliness that can accompany a lack of community.
This contrast between old and new — between traditional and modern, between the Balkan Peninsula and America, between the demands of our community and our needs as individuals — is a constant theme in our lives. We’re not always conscious of it, until something makes it evident — such as the memoirs by Bill Balamaci and Barbara Shola included in this issue of the Newsletter, for example.
It’s a provocative subject — it goes to the heart of who we are, and how willing we are to cling to, or relinquish, old ways. On one side, traditionalists lament the loss of a time that was better and more pure than the present. On the other side, lovers of modern American life disdain old ways, along with the often onerous communal obligations that accompany them.
No matter which side you’re on, it’s healthy to take a step back and consider how fortunate we are to have such a choice in the first place. Though this is now changing, people in the old country have had little choice but to follow traditional ways. And those who are totally assimilated to American society have equally few alternatives to the individualized way of life so accurately described by de Tocqueville more than a century and a half ago.
This idea of a choice is something new under the sun. For most of this country’s history, outright assimilation was an ideal that few people questioned. American values were considered supreme, and not without reason — this country’s achievement in world affairs remains unique. But in the last few decades, this unquestioning assumption of the superiority of the American way of life has given way to a more subtle point of view, one that recognizes that there are good things about ways of life in both the Old World and the New World.
That is why we are lucky to have a choice. We may be able to have the best of both worlds — not by abandoning or adopting either wholesale, but by choosing the very best from each.
Vlach children learning the catechism in a church in Voskopojë, Albania
(Photo: Lala Meredith-Vula)