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Monthly Archives: March 2010

In my life I have lived in a red house, a grey house, a white house and a light blue house….but never a bright green (think chartreuse inside and out) house. Now I call such a place home. The PC homestay coordinator must have known that is my favorite color.

Last Saturday four other dazed and tired volunteers and myself were spirited away from the comforts of the Hotel Univers in Elbasan for the adventure of life with a host family in the village of Bishqem. We were dropped off at our respective homes knowing about 10 words of Shqip (albanian) and knowing nothing beforehand about the environment in which we will live for the next 10 weeks other than the names of our hosts. Jeff (spelled Xheff in albania), Libby, and I are all staying with families that are neighbors and I am pretty sure half the town is related. Bishqem is a town of about 1600, and we all stick out like crazy walking to and from the school each morning for language classes. Each week we’ll have about 20 hours of language instruction in bishqem and 15 or so of technical training and sessions with other volunteers about safety and albanian culture in Elbasan. Topics include how not to get diahreah and what to do when there’s an earthquake. Tomorrow all the COD (community and organizational development) volunteers will meet the mayor of Elbasan.

All other time is spent studying, sleeping or hanging out with my host family – Rasie (mama), Jerina and Antonini (16 year old twins), one cow and many many chickens.. Baba is working in Greece, and there are four older siblings who are all married or living abroad. I enjoy spending time with them and in just a few days my Shqip has progressed beyond charades and pictionary to actually forming some sentences and talking about my family and home in the states. They love the book I brought about Virginia and think it is shume bukur (beautiful) and a very very snowy place. Last night we celebrated the muslim holiday of Novruz by baking byrek with a coin hidden inside and eating a young chicken.

Some observations after a few days in Bishqem:

-Albania is truly a place of extremes. Libby’s host family lives in a small village on a dirt road, yet they drive a mercedes.
-Women lead restricted lives – us female volunteers are frequently the only women in the cafe where we eat our lunch. I went for a run yesterday and got lots of stares.
-Albanians (at least those in Bishqem) do not use any spices besides salt….and we eat mounds of rice and noodles at every meal.
– There does not appear to be any public trash disposal system at all. anywhere.

Right now my head is too full of a murky soup of vocabulary, so these are my initial observations. Hopefully some photos and other, more coherent thoughts will come later….

Downtown Elbasan

We arrived in sunny Albania around noon yesterday and immediately fell asleep on the two hour van ride from Tirane to Elbasan. Elbasan reminds me of Pokhara, Nepal in so many ways – orange trees and palms all around and then a view of snowy mountains above, trash everywhere and lots of dogs and multipurpose mechanical repair shops and restaurants. Full of juxtaposition. Except for the fact that there’s a big castle downtown, wireless internet in our hotel and a fancy italian grocery store across the street, this could be somewhere in asia.

Elbasan will be the “hub site” for our training period of 10 weeks. My group of COD (community an organizational development) volunteers who will live in the same village of Bishqem with our host families and do daily language training together will come into Elbasan twice a week to have cultural and logistical training sessions with the whole group. The weather is wonderful (for now) – sunny and dry and cold at night but warm during the day much like spring in VA. We’re all staying in a hotel in the city together where we’ve rapidly been learning the answers to all of those “I don’t know” questions – how we get paid, who our host families will be, etc. etc. etc. It’s a bit overwhelming, but in a way that’s full of nervous laughter and lots of coffee breaks – a wonderful part of Albanian culture. Saturday the camp-like fun will end and we’ll go off to our host families and begin the awkward language learning adventure.

Today was our first language crash course….and it’s not as difficult as I thought it would be (yet). Because Albanian is full of odd combinations of letters I have a lot of trouble guessing the spelling of words I hear aloud, but I can actually get the pronunciation of written words I read pretty well. Seems like Albanian would be great for scrabble – lots of q, z, k….36 letters in all (if double letters like dz and zh count as individual letters). The thing I will have a lot of trouble with is the fact that the yes/no head nod is completely opposite from the US up-down for no and side to side for yes…could be interesting. However, when in doubt, Albanians say mirë…an all-encompassing word for how nice it will be to get a full night’s sleep tonight.

Imagine you are solving a mystery with 49 other complete strangers. You all have different clues based on what you have heard on the street, and some of the information you each have been given is false or erroneous. However, you still try, through a series of patched together conversations, to make sense of what really happened.

This is remarkably similar to what going through peace corps staging is like.

I got off the plane yesterday in Philadelphia and piled into a van headed for the Crowne Plaza hotel. When I arrived, I joined the rest of Peace Corps Albania group 13 gathered around tables in a ballroom. When I sat down after introductions were made, I immediately dove in to the conversation about what each of us had heard about Albania and what our lives would be like in just a few days. This conversation and speculation continued during and after our staging scheduled events (where we talk all about what Peace corps expects from us and what we expect from the peace corps) and well into dinner at a restaurant across the street from the hotel and games of cards with a few other volunteers later in the evening. Each of us is going on what we have heard from current volunteers, wikipedia, peace corps staff and each other….all in all a very contradictory and incomplete collection of information. It will be great to finally get to Albania and see where we were right and where we were totally off base. It is so hard to imagine what life will be like in just a few days, but it is wonderful to be around a group of people that are all going through the same anxieties and anticipations….in a way it’s comforting after so many months trying to explain the unknown to family and friends. We may be acting on nothing but rumors right now (“I heard this….” “oh really? Well I heard xyz…”), but at least we all are in the same boat/plane.

Speaking of planes, I’m writing this as most people are asleep around me on the plane to Munich. It’s been a little over 12 hours since the peace corps staff who ran our staging piled us onto two buses (we needed two buses not for the amount of people, but for the amount of luggage) and sent us off for JFK to chart our own path to Albania. Our plane took off as the sun set in a gorgeous pink and orange, silhouetting manhattan’s skyline to the west – a dramatic farewell. It’s been a harried two days, but in general, so far so good. Really good. I am having a blast getting to know this amazing group from all points of the US of A. We represent states such as OK, CA, WA, GA, IL, FL, MA, OH, MI, VA, NC, TX, UT, MN, CT, ME…and those are just the ones I know about. Included in the mix are such small world connections as a good college friend of one of my good high school friends, a woman who until very recently worked for JABA in Charlottesville and knows several of my professors, a guy who went to Virginia Tech and knows a bunch of BHS kids and can reminisce about Blacksburg with me, and a guy whose family is from Nepal and has been to Pokhara. In a few hours we will be in Tirana facing this new adventure together….and it still has not hit most of us that this is really happening.

But it.is.finally.happening. As many of you know, it was a long time getting to this point. I started my Peace Corps application in September 2008 – about 1.5 years ago. However frustrating and long my application and acceptance process was, though, the others in my training class have shared some crazy stories about changed assignments and last minute cancellations. Five of our number actually showed up at staging in Philadelphia last September for an assignment in Turkmenistan. When they arrived in the ballroom, the Peace Corps staff told them all that instead of going to Turkmenistan they would in fact be sent home again due to the Turkmen government suddenly changing their mind about allowing the Peace Corps to come. I can’t imagine having to go home to all the people you said goodbye to already, the jobs you left, etc. and waiting for 6 months for a new assignment. These five are really glad they are actually on this plane….especially the married couple from CT who had sold their house and cars and had no place to go back to. Yikes. So, for now I am thankful to be where I am and am looking forward to tomorrow.

One thing I’ve thought of as I pack is the fact that I won’t have regular access to the internet or any english cookbooks for a while and yet I will probably be doing most of my own cooking. That being said, if anyone has any favorite recipes they could pass along in digital format through a response to this post or an email, I’d really appreciate it….now or any time in my next 27 months…

Thanks!

This past weekend I headed to Charlottesville to sell my car and catch up with a few friends before I leave the country. I was totally taken by surprise when one of these buddies organized a group of 15 or so other close friends from all facets of my UVA career (who now live all up and down the east coast) to gather for a last hurrah reunion afternoon at a winery in Albemarle county enjoying the wonderful (and sudden) spring weather. It’s now, after this amazingly generous and totally unexpected send off that I am home again feeling a bit sentimental and facing two empty suitcases and a week left before departing for Albania….

As I say “see you in two years” to friends and family and think about where I am going and the challenges ahead I have been meditating a lot on the notion of community. This fall in Connecticut it really hit home that being a part of an active and supportive community is something I naturally seek out (and need in order to feel sane). I am so lucky to have been/be a part of some wonderful communities – from Blacksburg to SPS to Bike & Build to Explo to Monteagle to UVA. And, it continually gives me great pleasure to be able to connect these people and places to each other. As I leave on this great adventure, I have to keep reminding myself that while it’s in some ways isolating, the PC will be another community, another cohesive set in the ever expanding venn diagram of my life. I don’t know how it will fit in with all the other circles already in play…and that’s something that’s scary and exciting and definitely won’t be clear for a while.

As I go on off to another place and a new job, I am so thankful for my wealth of loving and supportive friends and family. I will be thinking of you all often! Hopefully this site can be a way for you to follow my ideas and life abroad and let me know about your own as well. I don’t promise to post regularly, but I do guarantee photos, humorous stories of language gaffs, and not to let my sentimental self get the better of me all the time.

Enjoy!

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By way of explanation, “Blue(r) Highways” is a name inspired by a book by William Least Heat Moon that I read shortly after Bike&Build.  The book chronicles the author’s journey off the beaten path discovering Americana on the ‘blue’ or secondary highways of the US highway map. “Blue Highways” is also the name of the 10pt caption font of choice at the Cavalier Daily newspaper and thus the name will, forever, transport me back to hours spent in front of a computer screen in the Newcomb basement in the wee hours of the morning finishing up the next day’s newspaper with good friends. And so it is with this combined spirit of hard work and fun, planning for adventures, and not knowing what each day will bring on my own “blue highway” that this blog about my time in Albania is begun….or maybe that’s me carrying the metaphoric name too far. [And also, ATB, I didn’t want to be the only ex-prod editor with a blog named for a font :)]