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Monthly Archives: June 2010

It’s been a busy past two weeks here in Lezhe! Or – not in Lezhe….I’ve been out of site for quite a few days recently.

Last week I spent three days in Tirana being trained to be one of 9 wardens for PC Albania. This means that my house is an evacuation point for other volunteers in the region and in the event of any emergency I am responsible for getting in touch with around 10 people and helping them get to my house. In general it was nice to catch up with other volunteers and spend some time in Tirana on Peace Corps’ dime. After talking about earthquakes and political strife and the fact that taking a rowboat to Italy is actually one of our evacuation options from Lezhe (yes. really…), it kindof got to the point where whatever we were talking about is extremely funny out of context. However, if there really was a magnitude 7.1 earthquake here or in any of the neighboring countries we would all pretty much be SOL. And, in some ways the training was humbling because of the current evacuation situations in Thailand and Kyrgyzstan.

After training I returned to Lezhe briefly – On Saturday night my counterpart Yllka was married to Blerim, another member of the Bashkia staff. Leslie and I were both invited to attend the bride or nusja’s day (weddings are two-day affairs here in Albania) and it was quite swanky as Albanian weddings go. The event happened at a nice hotel out by the beach and many members of the staff from my office were there which made for fun ice-breaking. However, just like all Shqiptar dasums (weddings) the night was not without lots of circle dancing, many plates of food, countless shots of raki and krikulls of beer and sparkles galore.

the happy couple

After the festivities, I took two days to go south to visit my host family. It was nice to see them after a month, and we had a relaxing afternoon watching Germany beat England. I thought the visit might be a bit awkward, but I felt very comfortable. Jerina and Manola and I all fell asleep on the couch during the game, and we had a nice quiet dinner (with better food than usual) with just my host mom, Jerina, Manola and Antonini. They had put up some of the photos I gave them when I left, and in the morning when I headed back to Elbasan I was sent away with a bag full of eggs and a big bottle of vaj ulliri (olive oil) from their trees.

When I finally made it back to Lezhe Monday after a crazy return trip afternoon of multiple furgons, trekking across Tirana looking for a food processor and trying to translate english to shqip to a furgon driver for some German tourists wanting to get to Ohrid it was wonderful to see the cone shaped mountain and hill with the castle as we approached town. Recently it has really started to sink in just how much I feel at home here – both in Lezhe and in Albania in general. I have Albanian friends and Lezhe is small enough that I can’t go anywhere without seeing someone I know, I have started to work on a few projects in the Bashkia (a highlight of the week was someone from the development office actually approaching me about working on a design project…somehow word has gotten out that I know InDesign), and I am feeling more comfortable with the language every day.

This weekend I’ll be in Divjak beach camping for the fourth. Hope you all enjoy the festivities at home for me…I definitely miss barbecue, porch swings, good beer and being with friends on the mountain or in Wellesley this time of year…

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Just before the weekend of the 19th of June, posters began to appear around town here in Lezhe announcing Nata e Bardhe (white night), a night-long festival to celebrate the culture and arts of the Lezhe region. A few friends from other parts of the country came down/up to stay for the weekend and check out the festival.

On Saturday night as we headed down the hill to the festivities, the lightning that had been threatening for a while finally followed through with rain and the square outside the town hall and “culture palace” was full of people huddling under tents and umbrellas when we arrived. People were dispersing left and right. We were meeting friends – Albanian and American – who were manning the beer tent, so we hung out for a while in the rain and enjoyed the now-cool air and company. After a while I went inside the Pallati Kultures to see all the performers. There were instruments everywhere and many of the performers – from a punk rock band from Fier to a group of young people making up a classical ensemble to traditionally costumed dancers – were sitting and watching the end of the football match and drinking in the lokal inside the Pallati.

Back outside I mentioned to Adam, a fellow volunteer who plays the drums, that there was a drumset sitting inside. This quickly turned into Leslie (volunteer who has lived in Lezhe for two years and will be leaving in August) taking Adam and I inside to the lokal to meet Flamor, the director of the pallati and a key player in the planning of the event to ask about using the drums.

Inside Flamor stood up to greet us at his table and insisted we stay for a drink. The five of us (including Flamor’s brother or cousin?) started talking and soon it was apparent that Flamor’s brother spoke German – as do Adam and Leslie (and I have retained a pitiful few words from SPS). The conversation switched back and forth between German and Shqip and English as we discussed music and a girl behind us from the classical ensemble started to pull her violin out of the case to play for some of her friends and suddenly here in this loud café we were listening to Albanian folk songs on the violin and the din of the soccer game and Flamor (a professionally trained violinist) asks the girl for her instrument and starts to play…then the blue jean and bandanna clad long haired drummer from the rock band from Fier (whose name on his name tag was “storm”) grabs the violin and plays a version of the same song with a twist of ACDC’s thunderstruck mixed in with a flourish. Just like that it was a violin-off. In the middle of Lezhe during a thunderstorm and a dying festival with a group of german-speaking punk-rocking classical-musician Albanians. At one point Flamor gave me the fiddle and I embarrassed myself by just playing a few chords. Back to the rocker from Fier…and on around the group it went. Pretty soon the entire bar was captivated.

This random and wonderful sequence of events is an example of what I absolutely love about travel – those moments that you never expect that shake up the snow globe of the world in just the right way to let the dust settle to combine parts of your past that help you discover something new and raw about the place you are visiting, and, in turn, yourself. In a moment I met a man I will hopefully be able to work with in the future, and I saw him in his element. In turn, the drummer from Fier was willing to completely shed his stage persona and play traditional Albanian ditties for a crowd. While taking this all in around me, I remember thinking to myself that this moment was unimaginable that morning, or even an hour before. After a rain storm in search of a drumset we instead found something entirely unexpected and wonderful. This is travel, this is community entry at its best.

A few photos of façades from a recent trip to Shkodër – much more evidence of Italian and Ottoman influence there (perhaps because their whole city was not destroyed by an earthquake in the 1970s).

Here in Albania it is now officially HOT AS HELL. Each day as the sun shines in the clear Mediterranean blue sky and the humidity rises in our bregdetare (ocean side) location I think, it must have to rain soon. But, to no avail, the weather is perfect beach 95+ degree sunshine each day – great for working on my tan, but I miss my east coast evening thunderstorms to clear the air….and I miss ceiling fans at night. For the first time in my life I am actually tempted to buy a parasol.

As I walk across town to the Bashkia in the mornings sweating through my clothes, I inevitably pass several dyqan (convenience store) owners watering the ground outside their store. Yes – watering the cement. It’s as if in their Albanian obsession with cleanliness they feel that if they turn the dust on the sidewalk into mud, it won’t get up on their produce that’s sitting outside. But really, you are not going to make the world cleaner or cooler by transforming the sidewalk and the roads into muddy slip and slides. Even my landlady regularly waters the cement patio outside our front door. Not good for the environment or for breeding less mosquitoes. To add to the irony, Lezhë is a town that actually has water rationing for many of its apartments.

This conundrum of pavement watering is just one Albanian-ism of many I am now accustomed to seeing everyday. I have to keep reminding myself that I now take for granted as “normal” life is in fact quite different from the life I had before. Besides the nonsensical oddities (in the US we also have plenty of these too) like ground-watering or hanging laundry out next to a construction site or not covering man-holes, here are a few other examples of Albanian-isms that now permeate life as I know it:

1. Çun culture: living outside any semblance of the law
The word çun is one that I’m definitely bringing back to the US of A. It means “boy,” but if you refer to a çun you refer to a specific type of boy that is everywhere in Albania – a greasy haired, usually unemployed, 15-25 year old who travels in a pack and may at any time be whistling at me, driving a Mercedes too fast, sitting at a kafe staring at girls, rolling up his shirt to display his stomach if it is too hot, trying to talk to you and proposition you for a coffee at the beach as you walk by, listening to italian house music on his phone, or smoking and drinking raki while doing any of these things. Saying something like “oh, he’s such a çun” explains a lot.

Çuns in cities like Lezhë are pretty predictable (see above), but this past weekend I had the opportunity to observe some in the wild. I traveled to Peshkopi (close to the border with Macedonia) to visit a few friends and, because of the oppressive heat, we decided to spend the afternoon at the river Drini i zi outside of town. I was with all male PCVs and was pretty much the vetëm vajza (only girl) at the river…and, we were surrounded by several small groups of çuns. Pretty soon after arriving we hear a huge boom and witness the çuns up river laughing about a huge splash – yes, they were throwing small explosives in the river just për qef (for fun). This continued all around us (fishing with dynamite, but without actually collecting any fish?) for the remainder of our time at the river. Kindof amusing to watch from afar, but a bit disconcerting in general. A pack of teenage boys with explosives….what could go wrong? When we left the Drini the çuns followed us up to the road, the whole time yelling explatives in English at us because those are the only words they know. Typical çuns.

2. The kindness of strangers
On a more positive note, in the months I have been in country I have been continually impressed by the absolute hospitality and kindness of Albanians. On hiking or running excursions during training I frequently was invited into the homes of villagers I had never met and who did not speak a word of English to drink coffee and talk about the work I was doing and why I am not married (a question I get asked at least twice a day). Here in Lezhë I regularly eat lunch at a certain Albanian hole-in-the-wall restaurant with excellent pilaf owned by a woman named Victoria. She often offers me my meal for free after I spend a while talking with her in Shqip, even though I know she can’t afford to do so. In addition, the concept of hitch hiking is a non-sketchy, normal thing here (though you still have to be careful) and I have ridden almost the whole length of the country (with a few other male PCVs) with Albanians in their own cars….makes for great language practice and you learn a lot while saving money. Even when I am traveling by myself and take public transportation (furgons and busses), I inevitably get taken care of by drivers and others who insist on waiting with me on the side of the road to catch my next bus or buying me a lemon soda at the “pilaf stop” on long and windy trips. Though I may have to put up with a few questions about why I am not married to an Albanian boy or which is better, America or shqipëria?, Albanians really appreciate the conversation and become very open and welcoming when I use my shqip. This generosity is definitely something I will remember long after my peace corps service.

I could go on about the many other unique oddities to daily life here – like the irony of riding around the block 10 times in a furgon until it fills up (wastes all the gas so actually costs the driver MORE money), or the Albanians’ obsession with Italy (pretty sure the feeling is not mutual). However, in general life here in Lezhë with all it’s bizarre charm continues to be fabulous, and I find myself thankfully quite busy, which is not normal for a new volunteer during an Albanian summer. I have met the one man in the Bashkia who speaks English and seems to be actually motivated to get things done – his name is Hekuron Koka which means “iron head.” We will hopefully start to work on a tourism guide for the region of Lezhë soon. I’m also looking forward to redesigning promotional materials for the Skanderbeg memorial here (last time they were updated was 1989) and working at the kids camp set up by my counterpart that will happen in early July. In the mean time I am meeting lots of Lezhans, drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching the world cup when I can and enjoying sunset walks up to the castle with my roommate.

castle, river, mountains, city, sea

Skanderbeg...Lezha's claim to fame

When I applied for the Peace Corps, I had many thoughts, hopes and fears about what the experience would be like. Throughout the emotional rollercoaster ride of the decision and interview process I came to expect the unexpected, but could not help thinking I knew what I was getting myself into. Then, during training, I found out a bit more about Albania and everything I thought got thrown out the window. In addition, the Peace Corps staff does a very good job of breaking down any expectations you might have happened to form before coming here. “Everybody’s experience is different” is their favorite phrase.

Despite these efforts, there is no way any of us new PCVs was a blank slate of emotion coming into our sites last week. But, for me, there are some things that are now part of my daily life that I never ever thought would be the case when I clicked “send” on peacecorps.gov two years ago.

For example, I now live in a house up above Lezhe that overlooks the city and the ocean. An abandoned Illyrian castle looms on the hill above in plain sight. We (I say we because I have a PCV roommate, Jenn) have a patio and garden that is great for eating outside and watching the sunset over the Adriatic. We have had many friends come visit as they pass through town and have rarely had an empty couch so far. I live 10 minutes from the beach and can go there after work for a few hours every day for a swim, a nap or some Frisbee. The weather is amazing and vegetables of all kinds are fresh and locally grown and available in ample and inexpensive quantities. My counterpart at the Bashkia communicates well with me and I am meeting lots of community members and feel legitimately “busy” with projects already. You readers are all now no doubt questioning the fact that I am actually in the Peace Corps…and, on the PCV spectrum (well, actually on the spectrum of my life in general), I would say that life is good.

In short, the first few days here in Lezhe have been wonderful, but are a terrible indicator to what my life might be like for the rest of my service. I feel like I have started out at the top and things cannot get much better. I also want to clarify the fact that Jenn and I live together now, but this is just for the summer. Leslie and Bethany, two Group 11 volunteers, are not leaving until August and, as housing is difficult to find in this town, we are going to take over their apartments when they leave. Right now it is great to have them around to introduce us to Albanian community members and friends, but I feel like my Shqip has suffered a bit with all the English I am speaking.

Come September Jenn and I will have a shock to the system as Leslie and Bethany leave and life quiets down and we move into more “real” PCV housing. Also, around that time work will pick up a lot (summers are very very slow in Albania), which will be a good thing but an added stress for sure.

It’s easy to feel guilty now for living where I do when I don’t feel super productive yet. I have to keep reminding myself of all we were told in training – the start of work will be very very slow. While I am meeting people and feeling out the community, my counterpart Yllka is also distracted by preparing for her wedding (in 3 weeks!) and many of the people in the Bashkia are on vacation or unavailable. For now, I need to focus on meeting people, developing relationships, and working on my language skills – they speak a different dialect in Lezhe and I know none of the words associated with working in a local government office.

Most of the “work” I have been doing in the office this past week has been showing up. Breaking into a new organization as an outsider will be difficult and frustratingly slow for sure. It’s hard because no one knows who I am or why I am here. In addition to planning her wedding, Yllka is also stressed because she is responsible for an upcoming summer camp for disadvantaged children as well as for all the distribution of food stamps to the Roma community here. Since I started work on the first of the month, I came into an office full of people lined up to collect their food stamps. As I sat at Yllka’s (my counterpart) side in awkward silence, I was impressed by the fact that she knows almost everyone who came in to collect by name. Instead of just checking a name off a list and moving on, she had a conversation with each person. This is indicative of the value of relationships here….very different from the anonymity of the US. Also, I feel like in the US there would be more shame associated with collecting food stamps, while here people showed up in person to their local government office to collect.

In addition to meeting a lot of the Roma community and helping finalize the kids camp I will help with in July, I have met a lot of people outside of the office. Peter, another G11 volunteer who is about to leave in a few days, was placed with the department of agriculture here but did more work in youth development and environmental education with a PC Albania program called Outdoor Ambassadors. I have been helping him meet with a few 8th grade classes to talk about starting a new OA group here (the old one kind of fizzled out as the kids lost interest), which is definitely something I want to get involved with. I have also started to meet people who work with tourism, castle preservation, and the recycling program – all projects I could see myself devoting ample time to. Peter is moving back to Marin Co, CA on Friday, and I will miss him being around. He is a great beach Frisbee partner as well as a fellow cross country cyclist (only he did his ride solo…ridiculous!).

So – that’s a whole lot about my current situation here in Lezhe….more to come soon. I know I am very lucky to be where I am and I feel very at peace with my life here, even though each day I never know what will happen. When I think back to how almost frantic and indecisive I felt last fall, this peace of mind I feel now is the most unexpected and welcome thing I’ve found in Albania so far.

**there are a few new photos up on the photos page….

The following will give you a little taste of what albania sounds like….from furgon rides to afternoons at the host family’s house to coffee in the afternoon at a lokal, muzik populore follows your every move…