First – a big thank you for all the wonderful letters! I received several amazing postcards and letters on Friday – many of which had been sent before I arrived and sat in Tirana in the Peace Corps mailbox for a few weeks…but I was very glad to receive them all the same!
When I get to Lezhe I will let you know my address there and then I’ll be able to receive both packages and letters….but, the Peace Corps address will work for letters the whole two years I’m here if you want to stick to that.
We’ve also been hearing a lot about the iceland volcano on the news lately….a lot has happened in the general vicinity of eastern europe since we arrived…
Over the past few weeks I have been continually exposed to Albanian “culture” – whether through performances set up by the peace corps staff, daily language classes where we often discuss potential work or homestay issues, presentations on hub days or my own experience living with a host family. Yesterday we had a whole day of culture stations and performances arranged for us. The program was full of dancing and singing of traditional and popular Albanian music by some Elbasan school kids – including an unexpected cross-cultural performance of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in English that was, quite simply, amazing. Some highlights of the Albanian way of life I’ve already discussed on this blog – weddings, circle dancing, the omnipresent Albanian music videos featuring clarinet and drums and scantily clad female singers, the bland and oily food (Albanians put salt and oil on everything….and nothing else). But there’s another feature of life on the Ionian coast that I encounter daily that is worth mentioning here – coffee.
As we have heard so many times during training it’s become almost a joke, Albania is a “coffee culture.” Most of the social interaction in the country centers in some way around coffee. For example, when you visit someone’s house in the evening, they make you Turkish coffee. When we all leave and go to our jobs, we have been warned that we will be asked for “coffee” by our co-workers and others in the community sometimes 3-6 times a day in the beginning. When I was working in Kathmandu, the Nepalis have tea twice or three times a day like clockwork – here that holds true for going out to a bar and having a coffee. Most work in Albania is accomplished over coffee, which is indicative of the value of relationships in Albania. In order to get to know my community and get started working, I will have to build bridges over coffee first, then talk about projects later.
Most of the time the “coffee” I’m talking about is a 30 or 50 leke espresso from one of the numerous coffee bars or lokals in every city and village. You would think that the espresso would be actually pretty good considering we are close to Italy, but, like many things, the knowledge of how to pull a shot without making it taste horrendous seems to have stopped at the border. And so far, from what I’ve encountered, it appears drip coffee does not exist in Albania.
Unlike espresso, Turkish coffee is a phenomenon mostly found in the home and is a holdover from the ottoman period here in Albania. To make Turkish coffee, you use very finely ground coffee. Over a small gas stove (similar to a camping stove) you simultaneously heat a small amount of water and stir in heaps of coffee grounds and sugar. Then, without any straining process, you pour the mixture into tiny espresso cups. The first time I was given this concoction, I made the mistake of taking a sip right away. I got a mouthful of grounds that tasted like stale Nescafe. Gross. Now that I’ve been here a while, it seems the trick to drinking Turkish coffee is to wait a while, let the conversation flow and the grit settle to the bottom of your cup. Have patience, then take a sip.
Since the first experience with the drink, I’ve actually come to like Turkish coffee quite a lot…definitely more than the bitter espresso in the lokals. In a way, the art of drinking Turkish coffee is also a bit metaphorical of how my experience in Albania has been so far and how it may progress in the coming months. I am one month into my 27 month commitment, and though the weeks went by slowly at first, now they are flying by (though each day is individually long). While I am finding the pace of life here relaxing and loving the fact that my days are full of new experiences and that I am forced to not make any expectations for what tomorrow may hold, it’s hard to keep the part of me that is a planner and a thinker in check and be patient, let things settle down, and take it one day at a time.
What’s been most frustrating during the craziness of training is the fact that I have very little time to myself and yet I don’t feel very connected to anyone that I do spend time with. I can’t yet communicate with my host family beyond talking about basic needs and the occasional news story, neighborhood gossip or cooking recipe. And, I love my training class and have enjoyed getting to know everybody a little, but it’s actually pretty hard to get past the small talk when you are always in training events Monday through Saturday or we’re all in a big group over lunch or beers. And, there is the looming fact that we will be all pretty far apart from each other starting at the end of May. I know that sometime down the road I will probably be very close with some of my fellow trainees – we have a fantastic and high-energy group. However, it’s slow going making friends when you don’t have the freedom to dedicate time to it that you might in the US. And, on a day to day basis, it’s amazing how little your past life matters here. I am now, after a month of this, definitely feeling the absence of my friends and family back home who know me well, get my humor, and know what interests me without having to ask. It’s definitely true that while living and working in a foreign culture (or even a new city in the US) there’s a constant underlying guardedness that you feel that adds what one PC staff member described as an “underlying low hum of stress” to your life. It’s exhausting to be on guard all the time, even if I didn’t realize until now that I had been.
So, while all this rambling might not make sense to anyone back home, it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately. I am having a good time, but have definitely started to feel the emotional exhaustion that comes from being out of my comfort zone, so to speak. As I knew it would be, the peace corps and it’s social support network will be another exercise in patience – of not trying to expect too much too fast, of realizing that eventually Albania will be my “home” but that I will have to work to make it such.