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Monthly Archives: April 2010

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…

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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.

Making Turkish Coffee

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.

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Yesterday was one of the most exciting days so far here in Albania. In a process not dissimilar from med school match day or greek bid days (and with an equal amount of anticipation and hype), all us trainees were ceremoniously handed envelopes that we opened to reveal our hometowns for the next two years. Most of us had zero clue where – mountains, beach, city, village, etc. – we would end up. I will be moving to Lezhe and working with the Bashkia (local government office) there. Lezhe is in the north on the coast, about halfway between Tirane and Montenegro. It’s a city of about 29,00, and everything I’ve heard is positive so far. The volunteers who live there now and will be leaving soon seem to love it and do a lot of great progects. Other points of interest about Lezhe:

-Beach is 8km away (totally bikeable), but the mountains of the north are very close as well

-there is a lot going on in the city for a COD volunteer to get involved with right away….also USAID, UNDP and World Vision have pretty strong presences there in the city

-I will most likely be helping the current COD volunteer out with some summer camps with Roma kids when I first get there

– burial place of Skanderbeg, who defended albania against the turks in the 1400s. the current flag of albania is modeled after his flag.

– there’s a castle

I am excited. AND – though it means we have to split up and all go to our sites in May, I am glad to know where everyone is going so that I can plan visits!

More about Lezhe here

What to say? The past week has been packed full, and I know the remaining weeks of training will just get more and more busy as we hurtle towards June and moving to our permanent sites.

View of Mt. Tomori and Gramsch from the PCV's apartment

The trip to Gramsh last weekend was a great break from the stress of language class and host family life. Susan and I stayed with two TEFL and health volunteers who are both from group 11 (done with their 2 years in May/June). We cooked some good food and learned a lot about what life can and will be like after training, which seems pretty good to me. I had no idea what to expect from Gramsh, but it’s great. Though it’s a small city of about 8,000, it’s clean and beautiful and has lots going on. The whole city overlooks a river under the shadow of Mt. Tomori. Because Gramsh represents the small end of where I could be placed for my permanent site, the whole visit reassured my thought that I could really be happy anywhere in Albania. It is such a beautiful country and nothing is very far from anything else (though the roads are terrible so it just takes a long time to get from place to place). Highlights of the weekend include playing with Kevin’s (TEFL) dog, learning about Salep (amazing chai like drink made from orchid root and cinnamon), meeting a few other local ex-pats working on a dam project over beers, and just feeling at ease about life as a PCV. At our hub day yesterday it was nice to compare notes with everyone else about the weekend’s visits. I think most of us are now inspired to work hard on language now so that we can hit the ground running when June rolls around and we move to our sites.

Xhiro (promenade) in downtown Gramsch - very Clean. Pashket = Easter

However, what the visit to Gramsh also highlighted was the extent of corruption in Albanian culture and the lack of work ethic here. We have heard about this in so many training sessions, but its interesting to see PCVs dealing with it in the workplace. We all will deal with this every day, and as a COD volunteer working with local government it will be a daily struggle to get anything done. As I meet more and more current volunteers here and discuss their lives in Albania, it is striking how individual each PC experience truly is. It all just seems like a group study abroad trip right now.

Last night I had a great time with my two host sisters (one is home visiting for the week) making chocolate chip cookies in the outside kitchen. I wanted to make something “American” and all went well, though we had to use the round small oven usually used for byrek. After three long weeks I really feel comfortable here, and I enjoy spending time with my host sisters and mother – we can actually carry on conversations now and we laugh a lot, play a lot of uno and dominos and cook together. Two current volunteers who lived here last spring were back visiting their host families in Bishqem last night and stopped for a coffee with us current trainees after our classes. Besides being impressed with their amazing Shqip skills, I liked the fact that they both seem to stay in great touch with their host families a year later. I hope I’ll be able to maintain ties to Bishqem in the years to come.

Yesterday the five of us in Bishqem nailed down our idea for our community project during training. Because Bishqem is basically a bedroom community for nearby Pajove, we are hoping to have a poster making contest one afternoon at the Bishqem school focused on the theme of community identity – what do you like about where you live? Details to come, but this will probably happen sometime in the next few weeks.

Today is a “hub day” in Elbasan, and we have our first meet and greet with the Ambassador, John Withers. Lately a big group of us have been staying in Elbasan after training for an hour or so to relax and catch happy hour (if such a thing exists here – beer is regularly served to the male trainees for breakfast at their host families) at a small bar called Gramelis that brews its own 60 lek beer. It’s the only time all week that we aren’t with our host families or teachers or training staff and are together as a group, so it’s a fun release and something to look forward to after sitting inside all day in trainings.

So, all in all, though it is a pretty stressful time with language and job training, I am having a lot of fun here. And, after seeing a bit of the natural beauty the country has to offer, I highly encourage any and all of you to come visit if you can!

I have tried to post some photos on the “photos” page – of where I live now (Bishqem) and of a recent trip to nearby Pajove (a 10 min walk away – where I am using the internet right now). This past weekend one of the volunteers in Pajove celebrated his birthday with a picnic. We walked the 1 km from Bishqem to join in the fun. It was a beautiful spring day, and the flowers were out as we hiked up to a row of abandoned houses in “old pajove” up the hill from the main road.

This coming weekend I will be traveling to Gramsh  (1.5 hours to the south) to visit with a current volunteer there for three days. This volunteer visit is meant to be an outlet for our questions and concerns about placement and life after training. I’ll be glad to see a little more of Albania and get away from the hectic life of language and technical sessions for a bit. It’s crazy to think that in just two weeks I will know about where I will be for my permanent site placement, after PST.

On the bus, at home, in the furgon (minibus taxi-ish public transport), in restaurants, even in language class, it’s as if the techno heart of all that is flashy and culturally insane about American pop music and Italian dance tunes thumps out a rythym to daily life. Techno is everywhere. In the last two weeks I have watched and absorbed more music videos and heard more bizarre remixes of American songs simply through osmosis from my daily routine.

My host sister likes to dance while she does housework (which she does for many hours each day…the house is spotless). She will come into the kitchen in the afternoons while I am studying at the table and turn on the TV to the “Folk Plus” channel – all Albanian music videos all the time – and then promptly grab my hand and we’ll laugh and do three rounds of the Albanian wedding circle dance around the room. This is a dance the language teachers taught us the last night we stayed in the hotel during orientation, and it appears to be the one dance all Albanians know how to do.

Let me back up and just say that weddings here are a BIG deal. This is evident by the fact that at least 80% of the music videos on TV that are Albanian are set at a wedding but also in the fact that my host family talks about their older children’s recent weddings all the time (recent as in 4 years ago). I have watched the 1.5 hour wedding video of their son Bairam and have been asked multiple times why, at age 22, I am not married. Apparently the traditional Albanian wedding is a multiple day event that takes place in both the hometown of the groom and the bride. In Elbasan there are more wedding stores than seems appropriate for a city of around 100,000, and it’s doubtful that many can afford what is inside. In addition, Susan’s host sister here in Bishqem is 16 and engaged, so we get a lot of local wedding gossip in the village as well. So far, I am all weddinged out.

So – learning the wedding dance and spinning around the room with Jerina is fun, but in a way that underlines the differences between her expectations for the future and mine. Instead of focusing on the wedding itself, I would rather talk with her about the life that comes after the wedding (or before), and the way she wants to lead her life in or outside Albania in the future.